Was Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche an alcoholic? Dispelling myths with openness.

Via elephant journal
on Apr 26, 2009
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Was Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche an alcoholic?

Did he sleep with some of his students? Was he chauffeured around in a Mercedes?

And, do bears shit in the woods?

The other day I was talking with a newer student of Buddhism, who was falling in love with Chogyam Trungpa—the late Tibetan Buddhist guru largely credited with transmitting esoteric Buddhism into terms immediately accessible to the modern West; the founder of Shambhala and Naropa and a wild and crazy rock star of a guru, particularly in his ever-growing posthumous legend.

The young student, my friend, was making her way through his extensive teachings in books, video, audio. As she cut my hair, she said, “you know, it’s too bad, most people can’t get past his lifestyle—sleeping with all his students, drinking all the time.” He was was chauffeured in a Mercedes, if you want to add anything to the list.

And I wound up my old inner ear recording of what I thought about all that, which I’ve said a thousand times, and answered her.

Basically, here’s the deal. Chogyam Trungpa didn’t sleep with all his students, of course—not even many of them. Many of the students he did sleep with were married, but this was the 70s when key parties and wife swapping were far less foreign to fun-lovin’ party animals than they are now. This was the height of the sexual liberation: post-feminism, pre-AIDS.

Trungpa Rinpoche was, like an rock star or leader, incredibly charismatic and attractive to his students. There was, however, then, little sense of power-play. Example: he asked my mom, once, who was lovely and tall and fit, if she’d like to sleep with him. She thought it over, and demurred: I think it’d get too complicated, I’d rather stay just teacher-student. They continued to be as close as close can be, she became a senior teacher and leader in his tradition, and she gets all googly-eyed to this day when you ask her about Trungpa Rinpoche.

Another point to remember: Trungpa was half-paralyzed. He couldn’t walk without assistance. Spending time in bed with Trungpa Rinpoche, one of his consorts once told a crowd (back in the day, his community was very open about all this) was like having a picnic, for the most part. You were just hanging out. It was all very sweet and quiet and meaningful.

Most importantly, however, and I think this also applies to Beat poet and Trungpa student Allen Ginsberg’s sleeping habits, which were occasionally far more out there—Trungpa Rinpoche was wide open. There was no secretive powerplay behind-the-curtain hypocrisy, secrecy or bullshiite going on. He was who he was.

As for alcohol…yes. He drank a little, much of the time. Every lecture I saw him give, there was a glass of sake. It’s true, everyone drank (and smoked) a lot more commonly back then—it was less of an event, like “Let’s go out for a drink,” than it was something you did while you did other things.

In this case, however, I do think he was susceptible to alcohol. His early administrative and entrepreneurial energy and brilliance changed, along with the color of his skin, after say 1981 or 2 or 3 or certainly by 1984. I remember old students of his regaling me with profound spiritual narratives about how they didn’t serve him the whole beer, and he knew it…some of his handlers and attendants certainly fell into the role of enablers, and he died of liver failure I’ve been told. It gives me great sadness to think that he could be with us, still only 69 years old or so, right now, instead of passing away in 1987. That said, he often told his students he wouldn’t be around for long, and that we were a non-theistic tradition, and that they’d better learn to run and direct things without him—one of the most profound lessons of all, and one my Shambhala community still struggles (often successfully) with.

As for the Mercedes, the man was a king in the Buddhist tradition. I’d be happy to drive him around myself, today, everyday. He couldn’t drive himself, due to his being partially paralyzed.

So, I hope that provides context and does away with some confusion on the whole WAS TRUNGPA A CULT FIGURE question. Now, as that young student has done, forget all the entertaining questions and get back to basics: pick up one of his books, right now…and you’ll recall how open, how knowledgeable and energetic and well-studied he was…he was no cultish dilettante. He was perhaps the greatest American Buddhist teacher we’ve run across, a man who galvanized hundreds and thousands of strong personalities with big dreams, and families with simple dreams, and young students with neurosis and sadness…and he told them all the same thing:

Sit! Sit more! 


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111 Responses to “Was Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche an alcoholic? Dispelling myths with openness.”

  1. edward says:

    This universe appears vast enough for every opinion.
    To an uninformed outsider like me, Trungpa was not a Teacher.
    He was Awakened Mind expressing Itself through every possible expression of human activity
    while never being diminished, altered or distorted in any way. This, to me, is Trungpa Rinpoche.
    All fools dream, i dreamt of him a few months back and experienced "something" quite, simple, ordinary
    and beyond words. If this is what a few crumbs are like to a distant outsider, then anyone following his Dharma must
    be living a Daily Feast. Thanks, Rinpoche. No clue why me, but Thanks.

  2. baba says:

    Trungpa was OK you know. taalk about the sad case of "AIDS spreading" regent Osel who was even giving tantric wangs while doing all sorts of evil, while pretending to be a "tantric guru". that is really sick and the sickness sticks there. Kali Yuga.

  3. Andy Anderson says:

    I could not agree more with you – I have lived in five spiritual centers and no longer want anything to do with them. Thanks for your wonderful post

  4. ed papson says:

    "A true teacher is known by how he lives, not by any sort of title. Moral principles and proper conduct is the foundation, the very kindergarten, of spiritual life. "

    I respectfully disagree. Total Freedom is exactly that. For me, Trungpa expressed Awakened Mind in every possible physical, mental and physiological situation. His life showed that Awakened Mind "simply is" regardless of the apparent situation. The criticism arises more from the attitudes, views and experience of outsiders looking in and insiders not looking close enough. Trungpa caused the same type of pain a coach does when training a new athlete and when pushing an average one to superior performance. Letting-go of fixed concepts, notions and behaviors is painful. Growing up is difficult but not impossible.

  5. Garuda says:

    Certainly by the Buddha's standards I doubt one who could not even keep the five precepts was fit to guide others(Vimamsaka Sutta, Canki Sutta). But others may prefer different standards than the Buddha's, so let's leave it at that.

  6. Brad says:

    I am by no means claiming any authority but I would like to ask: Are you sure that "Buddhism isn't about saving anyone." What about the aspiration of the Bodhisattva to single handedly save (liberate) all beings from suffering? Or am I just harping about semantics?

    I have read some of his books, and been quite enthralled. I've enjoyed the publications of Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, and Pema Chodron. I have seriously considered going to a Shambhala meditation center. But now I have some more doubts and fears about it. I believe in inherent goodness of human beings, and I don't consider myself morally superior or anything like that, to CTR…but, I am somewhat alarmed about this incident of forcible stripping in particular….

  7. notgonneputithere says:

    He was addicted to booze, alcohol, coke and sex. Read up. Any tradition that claims spiritual practice in the world, is threatened when the king, the leader, reincarnated so and so, is out of control in abusive, addictive practice. Once upon a tie there wasn't such thing as a program of recovery, but since the 40s there has been. But it takes humility for a king to say 'I'm fucked, I'm preaching hypocrisy as long as I'm in my addiction'. This happens across all sectors of humanity. It's built in to us. Doesn't matter the faith, business, etc. – although untrammeled access to power + the drug, in substance or human form (e.g. groupies, money, acolytes, vulnerable children) and the lack of accountability = an addictive stronghold noone can get out. You could be Michael Jackson, Jackson Pollock, Trungpa, Jim Jones, Ginsberg, Shlomo Carlebach… whoever. MLK. Different degrees but still, there's this incongruity.

    Jim Jones, I can see. But booze n blow and flings in a tradition that posits no substances, no romantic entanglements, detachment from sensory addictions… come on. It just says that meditation and ritual and religion are no cure from addiction, when it's a true, serious addiction. And that leaders are human—and should be elected more wisely than they often are.

  8. TerJoh says:

    As a long time student of Tibetan Buddhism, I must say that stating that Trungpa didn't sleep with ALL of his students, didn't drink or do drugs ALL the time, etc. does not excuse him from abusing his position as a spiritual teacher/advisor. Using the excuse that drugs and alcohol were "more common" in those days (which I find laughable) is not acceptable. He was NOT an appropriate teacher for the vast majority of human beings on this planet. He propagated a system of "dharma" that is inconsistent with the traditional teachings. The average new student of Buddhism does not have the ability to distinguish valid dharma from what is merely invented by someone claiming to be a spiritual teacher. I have had the good fortune throughout my spiritual progress to have had legitimate teachers who struggle to keep their vows in a culture that makes that extremely difficult. Crazy wisdom? Nonsense. Just crazy, no wisdom.

  9. Dharma Brat says:

    I have to agree with you here. I am a dharma brat and my father always warned me against Trungpa, the Regent Osel Tendzin and the whole "mob". They sound like spiritual gangsters to me. Being a drunk, sleeping with students and harming others. How can you claim to be a teacher when you can't even keep some of the most basic vows of a Buddhist? Then appointing a Regent who lied about not having AIDS and spread it to his students? I can't quite believe any self respecting or inquiring Buddhist could agree with that or defend those teachers. Trungpa had to leave Samye Ling in Scotland because of his behaviour and he made it into a celebrity in the States. My Godfather stopped being a monk after 3 years of being his attendant because of his drinking problem. Yes, just crazy, no wisdom.

  10. Yessir says:

    Simple and direct is the way of the Buddha. Hence, instead of all the smoke and mirrors, the answer would have been YES, he was an alcoholic.

  11. Sven says:

    Guru or not, an alcoholic is an alcoholic. No need to put anyone on a pedestal. I think what happens too much is that "gurus" are deemed to be free of defects of character. If never met a person who is perfect.