The Vajra Regent, Osel Tendzin: Photos of an American Buddhist Dharma Heir.

Via Waylon Lewis
on Dec 26, 2008
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The Sun of Wisdom: Thomas Rich, the Vajra Regent Osel Tendzin

Just ran across this brief, silent photo history (click on video, below) that provides a rich opportunity for contemplation of the Vajra Regent‘s charm, vigor, prominence, teachings and tragedy. If you have photos you’d like to see on this page, just email me and I’ll post ’em for all to enjoy.

I took my refuge vow with him—it’s the vow that formally inducts one onto the Buddhist path—and his calligraphy of my ‘Refuge Name’ still hangs on my wall, beside my Bodhisattva Vow calligraphy via the Regent’s only father guru, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

The Regent’s enthronement as Trungpa Rinpoche’s Dharma heir was a big deal—he was I think the first American to be honored (saddled) with such a heavy responsibility. A forceful, remarkable teacher of Buddhism, I still remember sitting in a room in Karme Choling with my best Dharma Brat buddy, Noel McLellan, our jaws dropping as the Regent cut off a questioner’s obsequious, superfluous complements and cut to the heart of her question—it was simultaneously harsh, and enlightening, and kind, and a relief for questioner and witnesses alike.

Unlike Trungpa Rinpoche—who I remember as a kindly, mild, slow-talking grandfather—the Regent was wonderful with children. Why, after taking that Refuge Vow, which went until midnight or something (wayyy past my bedtime), he took me aside and made sure that I understood his lecture about compassion and such (I forget, sadly, as 22 years have passed), which of course I only half-did.

When, in 1987 I think, the Regent became (like my idol, Magic) one of the first prominent Americans in my life to fall to AIDS, I cried. When it turned out he’d passed it on to a dear friend, not fully understanding or acknowledging the nature of AIDS, I was so angry (I still vividly remember that when, in 1989?, the co-director of KCL told all of us in the Main Shrine Room, I asked her a question in public, a biggish deal for a boy, and broke down a bit mid-question). We went and visited the Regent, who gave a defensive, angry talk at the Boston Shambhala Center. He was a huge part of my childhood world—it was like seeing the Flatirons crumble—something wonderful and majestic and uncompromising suddenly falling apart.

It was only at my Seminary, in 1992—which the then-Sawang, now-Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche (Trungpa Rinpoche’s eldest son and my guru) led for the first time (he had leapt in, not quite yet prepared, on a virtual white horse to save and lead the fast-crumbling Vajradhatu/Shambhala mandala I’d so recently thought was vajra)—that I spontaneously ‘forgave’ this too-mortal hero of mine, whom I had loved so much. It was the fourth or fifth anniversary of his passing, and we’d all gathered in the Main Shrine Tent, and I wound up telling a story about how he’d signed and given me a Tintin book in the original, Buddhist-owned Boulder Bookstore, and I wound up crying (which I never do, I’m emotionally wicked retahded). 

And so his legacy is a bit like the story of Icarus—he flew above all of us American Buddhists, inspired us, and ultimately couldn’t quite handle the impossible turbulence and white heat that goes with operating at such a high altitude, so close to the Sun of Wisdom (a term used for enlightenment in the Buddhist tradition). 

Please note: This little writeup is not meant to be authoritative—it’s just a humble, feeble, personal recollection. If anything seems off, please email me and I’ll fix it prontomissimo.

For those American Buddhists who may feel that this is ‘dirty laundry hung out to dry,’ please remember that all facts have long been available to all—as well as many mistaken versions and rumors thereof, that this I hope may help to correct—it was reported at the time in The NY Times, the Boston Globe, and the full story now lives on on, on wikipedia, google, The Warrior King of Shambhala (click here for transcript), other books, and other sites. And here’s a great ‘open letter’ to check out. More importantly, please know that the above is offered with love and honesty, both, and that any errors in the telling are my own.


One extra, with thanks to Kate Crisp:

photo by:

photo via Satdharma.


Postscript: before posting the above recollections I asked a savvy, well-educated, non-Buddhist friend of mine who has done a few Shambhala Training Levels to read over the above and let me know if anything was confusing, offensive, etc. When I asked him to do so, he initially said, “Oh, wasn’t [the Regent] the Buddhist AIDS rapist?” No!

Years ago, when I was at Naropa, a student said, “Yeah, didn’t Trungpa give AIDS to his students?” No!

Seems people know rumors, but not always what actually happened. And, so, the above is offered in hopes of helping to clarify what happened. The non-Buddhist friend of mine, post-reading, suggested that I remind my fellow sangha members that many non-Buddhist great men have likewise fallen victim to their own charm and power, and had extramarital affairs—MLK Jr., JFK, Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson…the list is (too) long.


About Waylon Lewis

Waylon Lewis, founder of elephant magazine, now & host of Walk the Talk Show with Waylon Lewis, is a 1st generation American Buddhist “Dharma Brat." Voted #1 in U.S. on twitter for #green two years running, Changemaker & Eco Ambassador by Treehugger, Green Hero by Discovery’s Planet Green, Best (!) Shameless Self-Promoter at Westword's Web Awards, Prominent Buddhist by Shambhala Sun, & 100 Most Influential People in Health & Fitness 2011 by "Greatist", Waylon is a mediocre climber, lazy yogi, 365-day bicycle commuter & best friend to Redford (his rescue hound). His aim: to bring the good news re: "the mindful life" beyond the choir & to all those who didn't know they gave a care. | His first book, Things I would like to do with You, is now available.


16 Responses to “The Vajra Regent, Osel Tendzin: Photos of an American Buddhist Dharma Heir.”

  1. Muffie Noble says:

    Waylon, thanks for this! I loved the Regent too — and like you, took Refuge vow with him, and Bodhisattva vow with the Vidyadhara. It was the Regent who gave me the first glimpse of the nature of mind, though at the time (1979, in Chicago) I couldn’t have said that’s what it was.

    Your comparison to Icarus is so apt. At the same time, being gay myself, I have often explained his fall to myself in terms of his being unable to embrace his homosexuality. Just ordinary attraction to his own sex, nothing special. And oh what a price he — and others! — paid for that.

    All my best, and again, thanks!

    Muffie Noble

  2. Lindsey says:

    Waylon, I really appreciate this post as someone new to Buddhism and still exploring. What you wrote about those outside of your community is exactly true. I went on Wikipedia when I first heard of Shambhala and read its brief entry of Tendzin which didn’t provide a flattering picture. So I appreciate your personal tale of your childhood to receive more of the story. It sounds like this man gave you many gifts in your youth (and I love how I now understand the Tintin connection!). And what you summarized about men and power is so true, this is of course not unique to the Buddhist community and a good reminder of that. Thanks also for the many links, another good (and better!) way to learn than Wikipedia. With gratitude to you for sharing your honesty, humble, loving story.

  3. admin says:

    The below discussion caused me to edit my above mention of JFK etc and make it a bit more accurate.

    Hi Waylon,

    Yes, you can use my points. I’m too tired to edit them right now (it’s 3:40 AM here), but you can use them if you really think you want to open this can of worms on elephant at this point. I still have my doubts about whether it is worth it. I would appreciate your not publishing my name in association with these comments.

    If your mother went to the 1976 seminary (I think she did, but can’t remember), and you accompanied her, then that’s where you and I probably first met. In any case, I don’t particularly want to get into another row with the die-hard Regent supporters. I simply wanted to point out that I don’t think the Regent is in the same category as MLK, Jr, and JFK.

    Dear Waylon,

    No. I still think you are comparing apples and oranges. ‘Illicit affairs’ are a conventional Christian notion associated with extramarital affairs. That is not a Tibetan Buddhist notion. Tibetans don’t observe that kind of morality, from what I’ve heard. However, there IS a prohibition against ‘sexual misconduct,’ particularly against Buddhist teachers taking sexual advantage of their students. Sexual misconduct is one of the prohibited activities in the basic Buddhist precepts.

    Now, one could argue that Trungpa Rinpoche committed sexual misconduct, and so why shouldn’t the Regent? However, there was a difference between VCTR’s sexual liaisons and VROT’s. The former had no sense of compulsion, whereas the latter did. VROT took heterosexual males and seduced them, compelling them to cross the gender line against their will and inclination, and causing them confusion and shame. I observed this closely among my friends. The girls who fell into Rinpoche’s bed did it very willingly. They were lined up to be consorts. That was not the case with the boys that VROT took advantage of.

    So, Waylon, do you really want to open up this can of worms by making a comparison between VROT and MLK and JFK? I doubt that it is worth it. It will not excuse VROT in the eyes of many who were close to the situation.

    Best wishes, XX

    Thanks! The point I was clumsily trying to make was that they all had illicit affairs, not that they were assassinated…does that change your mind if I amend what I was trying to point out? – Waylon

    Dear Waylon,

    I appreciate what you are doing at elephant very much and want to thank you. I also appreciate your heartfelt memories and tribute to the Vajra Regent. Nothing seemed off until the very end. I’m sure others have pointed out that it seems inappropriate to compare the Regent to MLK, Jr. and JFK. They were assassinated – probably with the involvement of the CIA. They did not do something stupid out of arrogance and contract the HIV virus, and then defy their guru’s orders and continue to have unprotected sex with students. (I happen to have heard the story about how he contracted AIDS. I heard it from the kasung who was driving his limo at the time.)

    In any case, I think you should retract MLK and JFK from your post. If they “fell victim to their own power,” which I do not think is accurate, it was because they had the courage of their convictions and were done in by the corrupt cowards they were threatening. So they are in another category – their deaths did not have the signature of shame to themselves. They fell victim because of the power of their integrity. The same goes for Gandhi and Robt Kennedy.

    But that cannot be said of the Regent. He blew it. Yes, we can forgive him, but please don’t put him in the same category as the moral giants who were assassinated in our dark age. Bill Clinton is more like it.

    In the Dharma, XX

  4. Melissa says:

    *two of my male friends, that is… sorry for the typo

  5. Good points, Patrick.

  6. EvanRavitz says:

    Thanks for this Waylon. I suggested you tackle this a few yrs ago. I wanted to add this quote from a book by Stephen Butterfield, which you can "look inside" at:

    "In response to close questioning by students, he (Osel Tendzin) first swore us to secrecy (family secrets again), and then said that Trungpa had requested him to be tested for HIV in the early 1980s and told him to keep quiet about the positive result. Tendzin had asked Trungpa what he should do if students wanted to have sex with him, and Trungpa’s reply was that as long as he did his Vajrayana purification practices, it did not matter, because they would not get the disease."

    While a famous Rabbi said that a wise person learns from everyone, this is pretty good evidence that nobody is infallible to learn from. As Bob Dylan said "Don't follow leaders." As Sir Laurens van der Post, statesman, military leader, author and close friend of Carl Jung, who kept Boulderites spellbound at the Boulder Theater in the '90s said: "The age of the leaders has come and gone. Every person must be their own leader now. You must remove your projection, and contain the spirit of our time in your own life and your own nature because to go the old way and follow your leader is a form of psychological imprisonment." and "There is a very profound reason why there are no great leaders any more. It is because they are no longer needed."

  7. Michael Rich says:

    Greetings. Waylon, thank you for your friendship over the years as well as your heartfelt remembrance of my father the Vajra Regent Osel Tendzin, Thomas Fredrick Rich. It is troubling to me that after 19 yrs. (on Tuesday) after his passing that people are still so solid and have such hard hearts around their feelings about him. It is equally as troubling to be confronted by overwhelming nostalgia and gushing praise. I write this comment tonight because I have for far too long sat idly by while various people spit venom with no concern for the effect that they may have. I am not a learned person nor do I have very much of consequence to say, but I feel compelled to respond to "XX" because it is obviously not clear to him/her that there may be family members who may read what he/she writes. I understand that "XX" didn't intend to have their comments posted publicly, but here they are none the less. I would like to say to "XX" and to all those who have posted on this thread and to those who may in the future, please, please be kind. Even if you feel that he was not kind, it is no reason to pollute this world with any more hurtful words or deeds. I would also like to add that these things that you may read on this web site are different peoples feelings about this man, my father, which can only be just that, and are not nearly a complete representation of who he was. If anyone is interested in knowing more about him and meeting one of the children that this so called "bad person" or "amazing person" spawned, I would be more than willing. I am also more than willing to write this in public, and sign my name to it, which for what ever reason "XX" is not. I do however share his/her reservation for even opening this up, but I know you Waylon and I do appreciate your devotion to candor. After 19 yrs. there is still no proven "good way" to go about processing this issue, and the majority of it degrades rather quickly into a fury of entrenched opinions and emotional reactivity. I am close to the family of the young man that my father is thought to have passed the HIV virus to and who died due to complications of that virus. We talk with open hearts and minds and come from a mutual understanding of loss. Some people who were not directly effected in the same way that we were by this tragedy, speak with no compassion and cause more confusion. I can understand such callousness from people who have no training in the practice of the Buddha Dharma, but for those who have I can not. Please, please remember your vows and understand that whatever you do in this world will have it's effect. The same thing that your are demonizing him for.

    Yours in the Vision of Awakened Heart and Mind,
    Michael Rigden Rich

  8. Tashi Armstrong says:

    Dear Madeleina,

    Gee I don't think we knew what we were involved in. I took Bodhisattva vows with the Regent at Karme Choling in 1985. Tsultrim Lamkhin (Discipline Highway) not a sexy name for sure.
    I was a cute 21 year old guy in a nice suit. I remember my interview very clearly. The regent was my Kaliyanamitra no question. Completely naked in the spiritual sense ( I have since found that this might be a mutual situation).

    I sat with the regent in an interview period afterwards. I had just seen him chat with the fellow before like they were best of friends but when I sat there he totally ignored me. It was so painful..

    Then he turned and said, " If you want to be my friend, remember your mind is unborn and unfabricated like the sky."
    Then he turned away.

    He was my root guru — inseperable from Trungpa Rinpoche. Look at appearance and reality. Don't just jump.

    All my love,
    Tashi Wangchuk, Richard Armstrong

  9. Wow. I'm just now coming back to this post, and hadn't seen your comment previously (we don't get notifications of daily comments on our site, since there are many, many articles and many daily comments). Thank you so much for your bravery in posting this here, and even more for what you have to say.

    Buddhist is non-theistic. Our blind hero-worshop and our blind judgment are two knee-jerk, and unnecessary stides to the same sad, joyful, human coin that is this confusing, magical, ultimately sane life.

    I love you, Michael, and as your father calligraphed above, Hoooo! Vajra Joy!

  10. Karma Chophel Zangpo says:

    Hi Melissa,

    I am a Kagyu practicioner who is alone, afloat on the stormy sea of Samara. I have always been attracted to the teachings and life of Chogyam Trungpa, and I can, even after much reading and pondering, accept the belief the Trungpa Rinpoche was a Mahasiddha.
    As for the Regent, why would such a powerful and important person even feel the need to seduce a 19 year old like that? What is awakened about that? Where is the bodhisattva activity in that?

    Even though I was 10 and living on another continent when Trungpa Rinpoche died, I really wish I could get to the bottom of this…

    Yours in the Dharma

    Karma Chophel

  11. Karma Chophel Zangpo says:

    Dear Michael,

    I am a Buddhist practicioner from England who never heard about Trungpa Rinpoche untill I was 22, about 11 years ago. I have always been drawn by the story of VCTR, his teachings, and of course his Mandala.

    I am always hungry for insight into this turbulent piece of Western Buddhist history, and I am grateful to read what you have written.

    Upon reading all the various memoirs of students and others from the then Vajradhatu mandala, I feel sadness, devotion, aching, longing and a sense of vivid memory. I have no explanation for these feelings.

    You offered to meet in person anyone who was interested in your father. I really wish I could take that opportunity. I believe that Trungpa Rinpoche was a Mahasiddha as has been proposed by many, but arising with those strong feelings is a sense of confusion as to what happened and as to the life-styles of both men. There is just a simple hunger for understanding.

    I hope my response to your post is not in-sensitive in any way. I hope I don't seem an intruder.

    Chogyam Trungpa is always haunting me.

    Yours in the Dharma

    Karma Chophel Zangpo

  12. integralhack says:

    More evidence of Americans either getting the guru thing wrong or being taken advantage of by spiritual leaders (both?). It is likely that Osel Tendzin was both kind and terrible as many people are.

    For a guru, however, I would look for someone greater than one who engages in magical thinking (purifying one's karma as a means of halting HIV), especially when the health of others is being risked. I don't know if this is a rumor, but it is well publicized in the New York Times and I don't see it being disputed except by the faithful.

  13. Kelley Lynch says:

    A true son of the Vajra Regent. This aggression towards the Vajra Regent is unconscionable. I am close to the family of the young man who also had AIDs. Everyone suffered terribly over this situation – while many in the alleged sangha engaged in aggressive and unconscionable conduct. Long live the Vajra Regent. As he once said to me – we won't see an individual like this again too often in this lifetime. I apologize to the Rich family for the aggression they've suffered.

  14. Kelley Lynch says:

    More evidence of cult victims who rely on transitory and illusory wrong speech on the part of the media and others.

  15. integralhack says:

    Reading my comment years later in response to your reply, Kelley, while I find my initial comment may have been a bit harsh, it is at least somewhat balanced–leaving room for not only the media being inaccurate but also room for the reports of the faithful as also being inaccurate.

    A stronger argument, if you wish to provide one, would be to provide some evidence or at least some source that counters some of the reports by some of the more reputable media, like the NY Times.

    Nonetheless, thanks for participating in this "transitory and illusory" comment thread!

  16. curious says:

    Does anyone have a copy of the "open letter" that was here: ?