My personal struggle with Chogyam Trungpa, sharing my truth about his taboo behavior.
On my Facebook wall recently, an acquaintance of mine “liked” a quote from Ocean of Dharma:
Protecting the Mind:
Mind consists of wise, confused, or neutral discursive thoughts. It includes anything that moves, flips, interprets, or goes into a deeper world. Mind appreciates and has tremendous understanding; it has passions. It also has incredible aggression; it can destroy you and others in great depth, boundlessly. Mind also has incredible generosity, which allows it to let go and appreciate nonduality and emptiness. The vajrayana or tantric teachings protect all of those faculties and possibilities, so that you could use them all.
~ Chögyam Trungpa, The Tantric Path of Indestructible Wakefulness
After liking the quote, this acquaintance bravely posted the following question:
“Love this. And so much of his teachings. Tho’, I wonder—have you written anywhere about the (possible) difficulty of reconciling/not reconciling his life with his work?”
Gulp. Oh. That Question.
I admitted to her that while I posted an article on human teachers on elephant journal recently, I have never addressed this issue directly in my blogs or public writings.
A lot of folks haven’t.
Often, when teachers in the Shambhala Lineage do—this is my experience of the answers I have received in response to me asking them this same question—they stick to the Absolute. Abstract.
I always hunger for their personal struggle, their very relative human outlook.
I rarely get it.
If you don’t know what all this hullabaloo is alluding to, there are myriad sources where you can find out more. Here’s one on elephant journal to start, which refers to the film Crazy Wisdom, where you can find out lots about him. The Wikipedia article she links to is particularly juicy, for better or for worse.
This week, my local Shambhala Center celebrates Shambhala Day. Plus it’s Valentine’s Day week. So today feels like the right time to finally write this—write about my love affair with Chogyam Trungpa and how complex it is, just like any love affair. Especially if you never met that someone in person.
So here I go.
Chogyam Trungpa did some things in his life that many consider taboo for a lama.
He drank, sometimes to excess. He had sex—not just with his wife, but purportedly with consorts (students). He swore. He wore Western clothes. He did not live in or run a (traditionally monastic) monastery. He made his terma teachings into Shambhala, a semi-secular form of Buddhism.
I don’t mind having a root guru who is secular: married, in daily dress, has sex with his wife and they have kids. I was raised atheist, so that helped me a bit, to have an “ordinary view” of a teacher. I like that Chogyam Trungpa’s son, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, who wears quite a bit more traditional-looking clothing than Trungpa did, has a wife and one daughter, with another kid coming. Maybe that bothers you. I won’t address that because it doesn’t bother me.
However, when I came to this tradition, it did bother me that he drank. And it did bother me that he had sex with students. These two are still issues for me. These two topics, in my experience, are the ones teachers tend to avoid. They say things like: “He knew something more about alcohol/sex than we do.” Meaning: he had an absolute, omniscient-type relationship to both.
Tantra. It’s wild stuff. We don’t get it like he did.
Now, I will accept that answer, though I did not, at first.
At first, any answer like that sounded like a cop-out. Now, I have come to believe, for better or for worse, that a lot of the people around him still struggle to communicate what an incredibly complex being he was. The more I study his texts, his transcripts, his teachings, the more I feel that yes, it is possible, on some absolute level that I can sense but not understand, that he did have a different relationship with all aspects of “relative life”—some blessed, and some Crazy Wisdom controversial.
However, I didn’t accept it at first because it did not answer my question, the same question my Facebook interlocutor is asking me:
How do you, as a teacher in this lineage, feel about it?
So, how do I feel about it?
This is how I feel about it: my mother was an alcoholic, my dad a workaholic, and I see alcohol affecting my life negatively every single day, though I personally rarely drink it anymore (because it was directly affecting my life for too long in a negative way).
Alcohol makes me nervous.
I am anxious when we serve alcohol at Shambhala events, which we do, sometimes. Like at Shambhala Day. It makes me nervous when some of my teachers drink and I suspect they have lost some control.
I wonder: I know I have self-deception: surely, they do? Even if Trungpa didn’t, the rest of us do? And maybe he did have self-deception?
The sex is harder.
I was sexually abused when I was a kid. Like many other survivors, and like many other everyone elses, I’m still nervous about sex, even at 35. Power and sex come hand-in-hand for me. I often wonder that even if Trungpa had an absolute relationship with sex, and alcohol, maybe what he didn’t realize is that not all his students did. Maybe he was exerting power even he didn’t understand or appreciate. A lot of the people he had sex with or drank with are okay with it, actually. But quite a few are not.
Natalie Goldberg, my “writing teacher” (she’s a dharma teacher to me, but ostensibly a writing teacher) deals with Trunpga and makes her negative views, especially about him and sex, known in her book The Great Failure. After her teacher Katagiri Roshi, died, she found out that he, too, drank alcohol and had (seemingly non-damaging and also damaging) sex with some. Quite a few first generation “Eastern” teachers did, not just Trungpa.
Goldberg’s main issue is how people only discuss Trungpa in the Absolute, or abstract, and will not state out loud that they have a problem with the things he did.
So here you go.
I have a problem with some of the things Chogyam Trungpa did.
I am also devoted to him. I love him.
That’s what it means, to me, to be devoted to a teacher.
It does not mean I accept all actions without doubt.
It does not mean I approve.
It means I accept.
If Trungpa were alive, I’d very likely have a different answer. If my mother had had sex with him and experienced it as assault or abusive, I’d have a different answer for you.
This is my answer. It’s not yours. It’s no one else’s.
It has changed over time.
It shouldn’t be taken as “Therefore, this is how you should feel.” Perhaps that is why people can be evasive in answering—afraid that their view will be taken as fact.
For the last couple of years, ever since I stepped down as director of my local Shambhala Center and no longer appear to be speaking for anyone but myself, this is my answer. I don’t really see it changing. I read just about all there is out there and spoke with hundreds of folks. I accept his drinking and having sex with some students, but I don’t approve.
That sounds a bit silly, patronizing. But some of the things he did, even in reading about them decades later, trigger me now. Maybe that’s my own shit, not his. Doesn’t matter. I’m not happy about them, and also, I accept them.
I don’t excuse them, I accept them.
I encourage you to explore these kinds of relationships in your own life. Instead of hoping that someone will tell you what to feel, ask yourself, “What do I really feel about this?” Ask others so you can really hear what it is they have to express. If they stick to absolutes and won’t get personal, ask someone who will. Use that kind of vulnerability, when your teachers and gurus and guides give it, not as a weapon against them, in gossip: “You’ll never believe what X said,” or “I believe this because Y said it is so.” Use that kind of vulnerability instead as a guide for remembering how human we all are, our teachers included.
I am super grateful to Trungpa for all he did in his life time. The controversial stuff, too.
I think of one of his most famous students, Pema Chodron. The quote that comes to mind is not about Trungpa Rinpoche. But it applies nonetheless.
Meditation is nothing holy. Therefore there’s nothing that you think or feel that somehow gets put in the category of “sin.” There’s nothing that you can think or feel that gets put in the category of “bad.” There’s nothing that you can think or feel that gets put in the category of “wrong.” It’s all good juicy stuff—the manure of waking up, the manure of achieving enlightenment, the art of living in the present moment.
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Asst. Ed.: Edith Lazenby/Ed: Kate Bartolotta