Chogyam Trungpa & Me: An Honest Love Story.

Via Miriam Hall
on Feb 13, 2013
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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.

From Start Where You Are (A Guide to Compassionate Living):

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



About Miriam Hall

Miriam Hall teaches Nalanda Miksang Contemplative Photography, Contemplative Writing and other fun practices that combine perception and creative process as a part of the Shambhala Buddhist lineage. Natalie Goldberg (of Writing Down the Bones,) says: “Miriam Hall has the heart, hands and head of writing practice. Study with her.” She can be found at her website, Flickr, Twitter, Facebook and all over the world teaching and playing. You can also read more of her here, here and by visiting her website.


19 Responses to “Chogyam Trungpa & Me: An Honest Love Story.”

  1. Aaron says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Miriam. This article certainly highlights many of the complexities of "love", both absolute and relative.

  2. Jennifer Humphreys says:

    This is a very thoughtful exploration of a difficult subject. I find myself nodding in agreement with much of it, though I too am on an evolving journey with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. I am profoundly grateful that times have changed and the Sakyong, the leader of our lineage, is a man I can admire as a teacher, respect as a human being and offer a smile of delight and appreciation for his role as husband and father.

  3. Miriam Hall says:

    Thank you, both. I appreciate yes, Aaron, that this is true of all relationships for sure. Guru relationships we often treat as quite separate. They are and aren't, like most complicated things.

    Jennifer: thank you and I ditto your sentiments on the current Sakyong.

  4. Mr.Science says:

    Miriam, this is a nice piece. I think you answered a certain question pretty well, as far as people not wanting to talk in too much detail about things.
    Simply, I and many others have come to our own conclusions about the history involved, but they are ultimately our own conclusions and not the whole truth. So, while I am willing to talk, it almost always has to be in somewhat general
    And further, I never met the man myself, so it would be impossible to have a complete understanding. I can however see the tremendous value and brilliance of the teachings that he gave. That, at least is obvious to me.
    Thanks for sharing your personal experience.

  5. Miriam Hall says:

    Mr. Science – thank you. I appreciate your perspective on it, and, of course, I also have a great deal of respect for – the sensitivity of – being a lineage holder (eg teacher) and how one's opinion in that position carries weight.

    I am also having a really amazing conversation offline with someone about exactly what you are mentioning – the brilliance and did it come hand in hand with "his other actions." I think the very quote my original requester replied to, as well as Pema's quote, points to an absolute truth that says – yes, it all comes together. But relative experience often feels a lot messier. Almost always, in my experience, a shit-ton messier.

  6. jiggy gaton says:

    After living in Nepal now for over 12 years, the only thing that seems relative is that I sure miss feast with saki, and the only absolute that I can think of is that both VCTR and his son are great teachers re: human behavior. Happy Shambala Day!

  7. Johnny says:

    Hmmm, follow a teacher who talks the talk, but does not walk his talk, or walk the walk?

  8. Travis May says:

    Johnny to say that he didn't 'walk his talk' or 'walk the walk' is to say that he was telling people to not drink or have sex…which he never did.

  9. […] Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche requested the establishment of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, and helped present a general curriculum at Naropa University that included Tibetan Buddhist doha or spontaneous songs of realization (such as those of eighth century ACE meditation master Milarepa) along with Beat poetry and its Objectivist roots, most directly William Carlos Williams. (“Objective” meaning like a snapshot, no relation to Ayn Rand’s “rationalist” philosophy.) […]

  10. edward says:

    The activities of Trungpa might be a Teaching in the highest sense as a challenge to the things we hold as absolute, right-wrong and moral-immoral. There are certainly questions with regard to activities that harm another but do we see these so called negative actions in their entirety. Are those people that claim harm from what Trungpa did or did not do trying to blame someone for their own shortcomings? This is not necessarily a blame-the victim type excuse.
    My own view is that the vast majority of people cannot grasp the essence of what true freedom actually implies due their to own limited & conditioned frame of reference – this includes me. It seems Enlightenent to most is a Love & Light type of Brotherly-Sisterly existence where compassion is some exaggerated we-are-the-world approach to living. Unconditioned and boundless awareness is not any thing in particular. Somehow, it seems that people not only are not ready for Enlightenment but they have no idea of the actual implications of such Freedom. It certainly scares the hell of of this thing called me.

  11. Miriam Hall says:

    Sure. I'd take all that, Edward (sorry for the delayed response) – that's what I meant by it is possible I am missing something. However, we really live on the relative plane, so I like to make sure we get some relative answers, you know? I think what you say likely is true, on the Absolute level…

  12. edward says:

    "However, we really live on the relative plane, so I like to make sure we get some relative answers, you know? I think what you say likely is true, on the Absolute level…"

    Yes, we live and function in a relative world.
    We experience a wide range of emotions. Some of which make an imprint that changes us sometimes for the worst.
    Trungpas' actions of freely drinking, smoking and sex run counter to what in the Judeo-Christan world consider right living. Most people are not merely guided by their ethical-moral upbringing but chained by it. Freedom in the the sense that a person can be totally unhampered in the body, speech and mind while still embracing compassion with regard to the welfare of others is a challenging concept in theory and especially in practice. I am NOT defending Trungpa on any level. I am deeply interested in whether his actions were truly free and executed with sincere regard for others -or- whether he, like too many other teachers, took advantage of his position. Only those that interacted with him on a daily basis know this for sure. I'm also confident that Trungpa simply wore people out if they held too tightly to their upbringing.
    Chogyam Trungpa remains fascinating to me not only as an interesting person of history but as a possible example of how Awakened Mind can function in all circumstances regardless of any perceived or imaged impediment: sex, alcohol, tobacco, drugs or behavior. I recall reading that he allegedly said before his demise, "I be haunting you" – he is…

  13. Travis hill says:

    He was walking the walk by being troubled by the same thing his students were. That in my mind makes him more genuine and real. Being open about his drinking and sexual proclivities,understanding the suffering,being okay with who u r,being non judge mental.i have my own issues with taking his inventory but that happens to someone who is in a position of being well known

  14. Teresa says:

    i love this article! i go to naropa and i've been struggling to integrate my feminist orientation with the stories about the founder's sexual liaisons with young female students. you really articulated the complexity, impropriety, and beauty of relationship, love, & spiritual mentorship in the context of human fallibility. thank you for your perspective!

  15. edward says:

    It is now 2014 and many famous/infamous Tibetan, Japanese and Chinese teachers of the 70-90's are now dead – physically. Many students have opened up about facets of the teacher-student relationship that might have been somewhere between mentally unhealthy and criminal. This should also lead to an informed discussion by students that not only experienced these teachers directly but have practiced diligently for decades. It is not humble to say that sitting leads profound vastness and an deep sense of openness but this is not a cure-all for all of life's emotional challenges, problems and obstacles. Sometimes, vast openness leads to indifference and an unwillingness to get knee deep in the muck of life. I have not been exempt from teacher-student situations where the unenlightened are expected to relinquish their personal control to the Enlightened Mind of the teacher. Sometimes, the greatest Sadhana or Discipline is to call bull***t, bull***t. A significant amount of bull***t is molded into "special teachings" and "personal guidance". I have no doubt that many people have benefitted directly from Dharma practice. I also do not doubt that many people found it a profound waste of time but did gain the knowledge that they AGREED to follow the teacher & the teachings. My point is this: choose wisely. Also consider this, maybe. just maybe, the only important thing we as humans need learn is something so simple, so obvious that i will not insult any reader by simply stating what we all know. Maybe too, the another important lesson is knowing when to walk away from the teacher and be responsible for ourselves and fully accept the consequences of our actions.

  16. Jonathan Michaels says:

    The difficulty that people have, as far as I can tell, is this:if a teacher is not enlightened, then alcohol dependence and sex with students is just ordinary confusion, hurtful to themselves and to others, and that "teacher" should be avoided. However, if the teacher is enilightened, then everything he or she does is reflective of that enlightenment–and everything means everything. There is no middle ground, much as we would like there to be; otherwise Tilopa must be regarded as an extraordinary sadist in his treatment of Naropa, Marpa must be regarded as a somewhat more ordinary sadist in his treatment of Milarepa, and Drukpa Kunlek, the Mad Yogi of Bhutan, must simply be regarded as a drunk and an exploitative philanderer. So must Guru Rinpoche for that matter..
    How do you tell the enlightened from the unenlightened teacher? That, of course, is where we all run into problems. It took me about 11 years to make up my mind about Trungpa Rinpoche, and that was only after leaving the Vajradhatu sangha and discovering that no other teacher "spoke" to me the way Rinpoche did. Then I realized that it was not a matter of choice, that there was a karmic connection that I could not avoid. Once I realized that, I also realized that any genuine practice of the vajrayana would require that I accept the teacher completely, not picking and choosing the parts I liked and didn't like or approve of. I'm still struggling with that, though perhaps less than I used to.
    One of the very few things I think that I can say with confidence about Rinpoche is that he was committed to (and very skilled at) making his students uncomfortable. If you were looking for a guru who would make everything okay and make you feel safe and comfortable in the conviction that you were on the right path and doing the right thing, well, you'd come to the wrong man. He would not allow us to turn him into prop for our desire for attain a samsaric version of spiritual certainty and comfort, but always threw us back on ourselves as the only place where we would ever discover enlightenment and the real meaning of the guru and devotion. And since enlightenment requires absolute non-clinging to anything, any kind of guarantee or solid ground, he kept throwing us out of the airplane without a parachute, calling after us, "Good luck! You can do it!"

  17. elephantjournal says:

    Jonathan this is so eloquently expressed!! Would you consider submitting this as an article? We would love to share your perspective with more of our Readers!

  18. Jonathan Michaels says:

    That would be fine. Would you like it to be filled out a little bit or just reprint as is?

  19. Teresa says:

    I just rediscovered this article and my comment from 89 weeks ago. So as a followup, I went to Naropa for a time and felt a connection to Trungpa's work, but ultimately couldn't reconcile that philosophic attraction with stories of his personal life. The line in this article about "if my mother had had sex with Trungpa and experienced it as assault or abusive, I'd have a different answer" bothers me, because why should I have to feel a familial connection to another woman in order to deem her perception of her own experience valid? I can't disassociate from my feminist ethics system in order to suit the legacy of a spiritual leader. I don't doubt that Trungpa had incredible charisma and insight, but I realized that Naropa/Boulder pushed a spirituality-driven ethos that downplayed the significance of social inequality. It's a troubling legacy to unfurl.