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

Via elephant journal
on Apr 26, 2009
get elephant's newsletter


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! 


About elephant journal

elephant journal is dedicated to "bringing together those working (and playing) to create enlightened society." We're about anything that helps us to live a good life that's also good for others, and our planet. >>> Founded as a print magazine in 2002, we went national in 2005 and then (because mainstream magazine distribution is wildly inefficient from an eco-responsible point of view) transitioned online in 2009. >>> elephant's been named to 30 top new media lists, and was voted #1 in the US on twitter's Shorty Awards for #green content...two years running. >>> Get involved: > Subscribe to our free Best of the Week e-newsletter. > Follow us on Twitter Fan us on Facebook. > Write: send article or query. > Advertise. > Pay for what you read, help indie journalism survive and thrive.


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

  1. David Dailey says:

    The simple truth appears to be CTR died of acute liver failure from his many years of alcohol abuse! Crazy Wisdom is frequently offered as a catch all slogan for behavior he engendered (by himself and/or his students). Maybe, maybe not!

    Tea cup and sake glass turned over – gone!

  2. sethbrigham says:

    Yes, Rinpoche was a drunk and a womanizer.
    Most of those budding buddha's at Naropa were involved with alcohol and/or drugs.
    And, meeting the most famous writers, for example, Ginsberg and Waldman, were rather too human, as in egotists and self promoters… Though, some of their work is a contribution to society.
    I'd call it a religion of personalities at Naropa.
    Allen propositioned me even though he knew I was in the midst of a manic episode.
    I had apolgized to him for telling him to go back to "highway 61" because he was nothing more than a rolling stone gathering moss. This was 1994, at the Tribute to Allen Ginsberg.
    No wonder Kesey left in a "storm" because the politically correct students headed by Anne Waldman were offended by his play, TWISTER, which made fun of the apocolyptic times, Aids, included.

  3. sethbrigham says:

    Yes, and from what I hear is the Rinpoche that replaced, succeeded him was wholly and totally out of control, having unprotected sex while knowingly having AIDS…

    Could anyone in the know, tell the readers more?

  4. Mr. Fractal says:

    You can't just TALK about being a Buddha; you have to LIVE THE LIFE! This guy was a drunk. Get REAL! You ALL got taken in and now you defend all the bullshit. That is the REALLY absurd part. Sad really. Go read about the life of Meher Baba; this is a REAL LIFE, a REAL MASTER, not a drunk sex poser.

  5. sethbrigham says:

    "People could pretend to be enlightened, but not when drunk. "

    You are truly brain washed!

  6. sethbrigham says:

    excuses, excuses, excuses…

  7. Thank you, I've been working on washing my brain for years, and now have apparently succeeded!

    You are right, people can pretend to be enlightened when drunk, but Rinpoche was the only one I have know that could pull it off.

  8. sethbrigham says:

    pulling it off, pretending to be enlightened while drunk.

  9. Well, he often said that he wanted us to be in charge, us to lead the community ourselves…and we were pretty theistic. He often said he lived only for his students, and once he felt like they didn't need him—Vajradhatu was quite big and strong by 1987…like a tortoise, he died. That what I think, anyways.

  10. I like ALL CAPS! Oh my god! I like COFFEE! I like to yell at my LAPTOP when I'm sitting at home ALONE! I'M ENTHUSIASTIC ABOUT EVERYTHING!

    Taken in by what? It's not like you had to join some credit card signing secret cult and drink kool aid (speaking of drinking). Perhaps you oughta reread Meher Baba, sure he wouldn't go around calling hard-working hard-living big-loving teachers "drunk sex posers", probably his momma taught him some basic human manners.

  11. PS: MY Master is REALER than yours!

  12. guest says:

    waylon, what do your mother's looks have to do with anything? VCTR also liked short women, curvy women, and squishy women. subtle, yet offensive remark that seriously has nothing to do with the topic. (unless it is glorifying yourself somehow to have a lovely fit mother?) please think about what you say more.

  13. damcho raphel says:

    Let's set the record straight. Trungpa did NOT commission the investigation of the Merwin incident. Ed Sanders was brought to Naropa to teach an experimental journalism class, and he asked the students to pick a topic to investigate together. The students chose the Merwin incident. The folks at Naropa deserve some credit for allowing it to continue, but no one in authority commissioned it. The class, in fact, wanted to interview Trungpa, but he refused to speak to them.

  14. damcho raphel says:

    Let's set the record straight. Trungpa did NOT commission the investigation of the Merwin incident. Ed Sanders was brought to Naropa to teach an experimental journalism class, and he asked the students to pick a topic to investigate together. The students chose the Merwin incident. The folks at Naropa deserve some credit for allowing it to continue, but no one in authority commissioned it. The class, in fact, wanted to interview Trungpa, but he refused to speak to them.

  15. […] I saw my little bird friend again, he was moving, although kind of like he had had a few drinks. He stumbled around and tried to fly – right into the wall of the building. But he was […]

  16. […] website, Pema Chödrön explains another concept called “idiot compassion” coined by her controversial Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Idiot compassion is exactly what it sounds like—thinking you are being compassionate, but […]

  17. Manjusri says:

    This piece is absolute garbage. Chogyam Trungpa and his inner circle were a pack of scoundrels, no better than Jim Jones or David Koresh, not only for their vicious tastes, and manipulative power dynamics.

  18. Manjusri says:

    The Absolute Awareness of Enlightenment and Drunkenness DO NOT GO TOGETHER. That's why Shakyamuni forbade mind-altering substances to his disciples.

    This just proves you can't tell your ass from your elbow.

  19. Amen, Steve, and thank you for dispelling my ignorance on this subject. I knew we could get you to write something on elephant!

  20. Diane D'Angelo says:

    I agree with you, Eric. Thanks for posting.

  21. I've benefited from Naropa, and read a couple of pretty good books by Trungpa, and so think he's certainly somebody to admire. And, like every other person I admire, he clearly had his flaws. Then, one difference between him and most others, and the one thing I didn't like in his books, is the "guru thing." A previous commenter said something about the tendency to put people on a pedestal and then knock them down–and there's certainly a lot of truth in that. However, those who set themselves up–or allow religious structures like Tibetan Buddhism to set them up–as gurus, or, as Trungpa did, insist on the necessity of gurus, are far more actively involved in getting on and staying on pedestal–and, as such, are asking to be held to a far higher standard than the rest of us.

  22. The same goes for the recent argument here about the Dalai Lama. While I mostly agreed with you (Waylon), there was one point where you said something about "His Holiness" being just a person like the rest of us"–to which I say "then how come you're calling him 'His Holiness'? (or, for that matter, calling him the "Dalai Lama," thus upholding the idea that some people are born more spiritual than others?)" Personally, I find Tenzin Gyatso admirable *despite* the pedestal the hierarchical theological structure of Tibetan Buddhism has put him on–and, actually, my favorite thing about him is his questioning the validity of that pedestal–but he has yet to reject it completely.

  23. via http://www.facebook.com/elephantjournal

    what he gave us is worth much more then idle gossip, moreover i am no angel either.

    wow you can really tell what this author's geographic location is.. think you should look deeper. he was a teacher who taught crazy wisdom.. don't you think he would embody that? i've heard from several former attendants/naropa folks that he never ended an evening with out his bombay..

    was he, wasn't he…was she, wasn't she…spiritual; enlightenend but never perfect…how would any of us ever get any-where if we did not stumble…

    The issue is worshipping the person. Natalie Goldberg was ostracized by many when she disclosed the unethical behavior of her Zen teacher. I think the ethics standards developed at Spirit Rock are ones that every serious spiritual center should consider.

    I think people need to calm down from all of this spiritualization, take a breath and be…phew…thank you!

    Shouldn't we look at this imperfect being the same way we look at all imperfect beings (including ourselves)… with compassion? Trying to put my mind in his shoes… a man raised by monks in a simple environment reaches rock star status in the US – not totally surprising he has trouble controlling various desires. Just because he was brilliant at … See Moreunderstanding the teachings doesn't mean he's superhuman. This same problem has impacted the yoga world, too. It is a sad day when your teacher does not follow the path he/she preaches, but then shame on me for the attachment.

    Well said, Gayle. I especially like your last line… agreed.

    Darryl ૐ
    Maybe his drinking was a teaching…the bodhisattva will find any means necessary to hook you, so the they can plant seeds in your mind, they think in terms of eons not weeks or years…they will find ways to shake up your ego, reflect back at you how not to be, crack open your heart to compassion…in skillful ways according to the level of mind… See More & need of sentient beings…

    We don't know his mind, we tend to assume things based on our conceptual mind grasping at categorically defining his behaviour…it may just be crazy wisdom…he hooked a lot of people…his behaviour left a big imprint, good or bad in our view, thats just what it is …our view…thats why we are still talking about him…

    If he is controversial enough people may look deeper & learn something..alas!..he has hooked you…you explore the teachings due to being curious about his drinking…thats the motivation , to sacrifice oneself for others so they can learn what they need to learn to wake up…whatever means necessary to get others to wake up…even if it means destroying oneself in the process…..

    If we can't read another's mind perfectly we don't know their motivation 100%, especially a bodhisattva, we never know whos a bodhisattva…could be your boss, a homeless person, a drunk on the street, an abusive parent…anyone who shows you your own mind in a way that wakes you up, that shakes your ego, that snaps you out of your trance…look closer…read Dragon Thunder…a book about life with him by his wife…it puts things in perspective

    He was only human….


  24. Laura
    everything and everyone is guru, perfect teacher, regardless of the storyline—true, I believe, but hard to keep that perspective at times.

    Urgyan Tenpa Rinpoche
    Full disclosure: I drank with Rinpoche, and I did so more than once. I can only tell you what I observed. Fair enough? Rinpoche was an alcoholic, but not a drunkard. While alcohol touched his body rather conclusively my direct, personal observation is that it did not touch his mind to even the slightest degree. Nor did it shape his actions in any … See Moreway. There is nothing he said or did while drinking that he could not or would not say or do when he wasn't drinking. Thus, I can say that while he used alcohol in a clinically rather well understood pattern, I never saw him drunk. Here is what he said to me once: "What is the difference between the mind that thinks its drunk and the mind that thinks its sober?" That is a very good question, you know? From my perspective, I am so sorry that it killed him, but Rinpoche's use of alcohol is otherwise absolutely unimportant. As to who he slept with or what motorcars he had, oh my goodness, please grow up.

    is there a difference between alcoholic and drunkard?

    I especially like Chogyam bc of who he was, not just his teachings. Holier than thou syndrome is exactly what is wrong with the world today, these so called "ethics" have deepened the victim mentality groove and further alienated people from connection bc so little is "appropriate" anymore….We don't need ethical guidelines to protect us, we need … See Moreself love and true human connection…The kinds of guidelines i'm seeing these days with accredited MFT's and places like spirit rock look no different than guidelines catholic priests were given and look what happened with those guys…i'm just saying.

    Thats what I LOVE about him. He was real being dealing with a classic addiction that many humans deal with. It allows, I think, more of a personal connection to the wisdom that flowed through him.

    yes and no

  25. Bob Hamil says:

    Come on people… the dude died of liver failure. Liver failure. Do you know how much alcohol someone has to consume to achieve liver failure? TONS. And many of you say he wasn't addicted to alcohol? What? Look, he might have been amazing, but it's really quite he was in pain, turning to a drug to dull his inner turmoil.

    I'm saying he didn't have many good qualities, but it's very sad and quite a downer to think that if this guy was an alcoholic,what about people who actual work for a living and have to deal with real stresses. I'm sorry, but if I need to look to someone for guidance it's not going to be a dude who wears all the right dogmatic clothes and preaches one thing, but does another.

    Think about it, if one is really enlightened, why would he/she need to drink to to the point of liver failure?

  26. Seth Brigham says:

    Desperate people will follow just about anyone.

    And, why is Elephant digging up this worthless story in the first place.

    because, it brings people to his site that sells happy smiling people consciousness… by hemp underwear and the like.

    Let Elephant die.

    it’s not enlightened in the slightest.

    it’s commercial crap for the rich, pretending to be conscious.

    End the conversation.

    Tear down this wall!

  27. Robert J. Bullock says:

    You know, I"m starting to agree with you, Seth. I'm finding very little of any worth here on Elephant, but a lot of pretentiousness, a lot of sensationalism, and very little actual dharma sharing or insight. And, of course, what we also get is a ton of ads for "lifestyle products" and yoga… Bleh!

  28. sethbrigham says:

    Tell it to Waylon… it's a magazine, website for the rich socially self-conscious…

    I forwarded him an article about sexual abuse in the Buddhist "church."

    He found it not compelling. Why?

    He sings to the converts!

  29. Deb Huntley says:

    Sensationalism will get you no-where. CTR was real, did not hide anything, and was honest.

  30. Don says:

    I love that quote. CTR certainly had a way with words.

  31. dharma friend says:

    There was simply no excuse to the harm that this man did in influencing an entire generation of young people to drink, have casual sex (no matter that is was the more accepted norm back then) and then form uptight and power driven organizations that continue to this day! So yes he was powerful and charismatic but so were a lot of misguided people. If Trungpa was about freedom for the mind the mind his organizations are enough to make you feel strangled to the core. I experienced all of this and no matter how good his books were he didn't live it himself. What a shame and a waste of a precious human life.

  32. Metronomic says:

    Making more excuses for a failed Lama who broke wide open 2 of 5 precepts. I see no reason to follow such a flawed "spiritual teacher" or to buy into his watered down pseudo Buddhism called Shambhala, who are more interested in getting your fees than teaching any real knowledge. The Kagyu lineage looks upon it as an inside joke to say the least.

  33. Kelley says:

    pretty awesome article. i like the last part. sit. sit some more. seems like in order to really understand someone that awesome and profound the best thing would be to experience the depth and profundity by engaging in a truly transformative practice like meditation. really great article. waylon always does a really good job responding to the comments as well. very constructive.

  34. Goodieb says:

    Thank you Waylon. I've been a "Buddhist" for at least 15 years. It is only recently that I have decided to take my refuge vows in the Shambhala tradition. I am proud to commit to such and Trungpa Rinpoche is a large factor in that. He was human and accessible.

  35. karma says:

    Very good attempt to erase greats works of a great teacher. The teacher says don’t do as I do but do as I say. Work of art, literature and teachings of Trungpa Rinpoche can not to neglected at all.

  36. edward says:

    I attended a lecture at the Manhatten Dharmadhatu back in '77 or '78 and recall the person talking picking up a cigaretter and taking a puff. Later, this person was sipping from a beer. This was a major contrast from the various Yoga Centers in the City at that time. Went to several lectures after that and simply could not understand the tobacco, alcohol and other stuff.
    Tried reading Trungpas books and simply never "got it". Learning the basic sitting technique the the NY Dharmadhatu and that's about it.
    Problem: i can't shake Trungpa.
    I dream of him once in awhile and it is always an interesting conversation. Thoughts of him are daily to the point where i have a picture of him in my work office. I have never taken any Shambhala courses, attended any seminaries or plan to.
    I wonder if this guy will ever leave me alone. No doubt, this is the experience of many, many others.
    Mahasiddha – Hmm, maybe….

  37. […] fortify ourselves against the openness and unknown. This is powerful post-meditation practice. As Trungpa Rinpoche said, “There are always possibilities of sabotaging the security system of central headquarters. […]

  38. elephantjournal says:

    Yes! Hai!

  39. elephantjournal says:

    I love how you hate this for being supportive and Roger dislikes this for being negative.

  40. elephantjournal says:

    I agree.

  41. elephantjournal says:

    You're saying he's evil, and we're defending him. Other comments say we're attacking. I think all you commenters should get together, hash it out, then let me know how I failed you.

  42. edward says:

    Maybe but there is nothing simple when it involves Trungpa Rinpoche.
    It is impossible for the average person, even those that imagine themselves as following Dharma,
    to fully grasp a Mind unaffected by the past, present and illusory future. More so to consider a mind that
    can be unaffected by the intoxicants and sensual stimulation that enslave most of us. Rinpoche might
    have been a prime example of "things are not what they seem". I, for one, care little about the speculation
    regarding the cause of his death or the details about his intimate affairs. I DO care about his message and intention to point out to others the self-existing awakened quality that simply is.

  43. ed_papson says:

    "The simple truth appears to be CTR died of acute liver failure from his many years of alcohol abuse!"


    Seems like CTR is more active than ever 😉

  44. jhepstein says:

    I like the subtle question that this begs, and for me it was "how could we possibly consider ourselves spiritual if we go around judging everyone else for not being spiritual?" I also love that you didn't just throw it out there like that!!!

    Very well done, thanks!

  45. karlsaliter says:

    Loved the article. I like my leaders human anyway, and as a man in recovery, I toast the Rinpoche and all the things he
    took on in bringing the Dharma to our doors. Cheers buddy: your humanity is a valuable part of the puzzle: it gives access.

    Agreed, Way, "Sit more" is the heart of it.

  46. Ryo 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.

  47. Gary says:

    This article you makes me sick, why are there always stupid people apologising for dodgy gurus. Human beings are flawed, spiritual teachers are not allowed to be, it's contradictory. GET IT RIGHT!

  48. dakpa says:

    CTR may have been from the 'warrior clan' – and his case is just the exception (susceptible – to alcohol). So don't make assumptions. Sorry that he went the way he did…….so many enablers…..

  49. dakpa says:

    Was Trungpa Rinpoche's 'mind transmission' terma authenticated by any of HIS peers?
    there was a reason Trungba did not want shambhala teachings under the bigger umbrella of Tibetan Buddhism.
    it was not meant to be taken as Buddhism – bust as a way of living life. He was honest about that.

  50. PapaGauge says:

    I only know of this man from what I saw in the biographical movie about his life, but if there is any truth behind the stories told in the film then not only was he an alcoholic and a womanizer but he was a huge hypocrite. The part of the movie where he invited his students to his room and told them to bring their marijuana with them illustrates this perfectly. After inviting his students to his room with their weed he tells them to put it all onto a plate. Then he starts throwing their baggies into a fireplace saying something to the effect of "This is self deception.". Modern science has proven time and time again how cannabis is no where near as harmful as alcohol is and is overwhelmingly beneficial to physical and mental health. I recall a clip from the film that told of a lecture he was giving where he was simply trashed on sake, giggling and making no sense. I respect the fact that he escaped communist China and made the teachings available to the rest of the world but that's where my respect for him ends. Mankind needs teachers that lead by example. The world is full of enough "do as I say not as I do" type of spiritual leaders. Sorry kids.