Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Tibetan lama, meditation master, teacher, a beloved and very much respected friend of mine, died recently at the age of forty-seven. He was the leader of one of the largest Buddhist communities in America—with thousands of disciples—and founder of the Naropa Institute, several other large monasteries and retreat centers, as well as urban centers in over eighty American and European cities. I would like these words to be a commemoration or a celebration of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. I think he would have it a celebration.
There’s a beautiful sutra in the Mahayana teachings of Buddhism called the Vimalakirti Sutra. Vimalakirti is a great bodhisattva or teacher who, rather than appearing as a monk or a priest, decides to incarnate as a layman and go among the peoples of the world to teach in the language that can be understood by every person he meets. In this sutra Vimalakirti appears in different guises. At one point he is married and has a whole flock of children; he shows the possibilities and merit of surrender and awakening in practice with one’s family. In another part of the sutra he makes himself sick to give the people around him the opportunity to learn caring and compassion through serving him. Vimalakirti is the type who could even become a bartender and teach the dharma to those who come for drinks. He would enlighten them in the process. Vimalakirti goes through all of these different guises, entering into the very thick of life with a tremendous sense of joy and ease, showing how all things are indeed workable as one’s practice. In some way, Trungpa Rinpoche was closer to Vimalakirti than anyone I’ve ever met on my travels in the dharma.
He escaped from Tibet in 1959, around the time that the Dalai Lama also escaped. In a very harrowing and well-written account called Born in Tibet he describes the whole process of escape over the mountains. He came to India, and then eventually to Oxford University in England, where, in the mid-sixties, he founded the first major Tibetan center in the West. During the time that he was developing his own sangha, he also became a tremendous supporter of the Vipassana community in America. Through the founding of Naropa Institute in 1974, he provided the opportunity for Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg and myself to begin teaching on a large scale in this country.
I met him first in the early seventies at a cocktail party in Cambridge, associated with Harvard University. Drinking cocktails, among a lot of well-dressed professors and intellectuals, he asked me in detail about my training as a monk and about the Asian monasteries where I had practiced. Then he said, “I think you should start to teach at this Buddhist university we’ll begin, Naropa Institute.” I said reluctantly, “I don’t know. I don’t think I’m ready to teach at that level.” He was actually quite pleased with that answer. He said, “Then it’s clear you should be teaching. Come on and I’ll sign you up. You’ll be one of the teachers of Theravadan Buddhism.” So I went. He’d signed Joseph up too. Joseph and I had met briefly before, but we really struck up a friendship while we were teaching at Naropa.
Trungpa was a follower of the way of the bodhisattva, the path of opening one’s heart and one’s life to all circumstances and all beings. His teaching combined openness and discipline in a quite remarkable fashion. I would like to reflect now on some of the key elements in his teachings. The first is that they had a tremendous brightness, a spirit he called brilliant sanity. Lama Govinda described him as the brightest, most full of light, of all of the young lamas to escape Tibet. In his talks, even if he came late or was in a slightly inebriated state, there was still an amazing quality of illumination and clarity to his mind. His teachings proclaimed what he called the “LION’S ROAR” which he describes in Myth of Freedom:
The LION’S ROAR is the fearless proclamation that any state of mind . . . is a workable situation, a reminder in the practice of meditation. We realize that chaotic situations must not be rejected. Nor must we regard them as regressive, as a return to confusion. We must respect whatever happens to our state of mind. Chaos should be regarded as extremely good news . . . That is the lion’s roar. Whatever occurs in the samsaric mind is regarded as the path; everything is workable.
After Living Buddhist Masters was published, I exchanged books with Trungpa. He gave me a copy of Cutting through Spiritual Materialism. In the inscription he wrote, “Dear Jack, Welcome back! (to the West) CAN YOU HOLD THE BANNER OF THE DHARMA? Let us celebrate.” This has been a very meaningful inscription to me. Can I, can all of us, hold the banner of the dharma, of the LION’S ROAR?
Trungpa Rinpoche not only taught Buddhism, he also started a secular practice of meditation called the system of Shambhala training which taught people the spirit of brightness in meditation without all the Tibetan and Buddhist framework around it. The Shambhala trainings are filled with beautiful banners picturing some of the symbols of what he called the state of mind of the Rising Sun. He said you can look at the sun on the horizon and say it is setting and be depressed because everything changes and it’s such a shame that we can’t hold onto anything, or you can see everything that arises as an opportunity. That is the spirit of Shambhala, to see all that arises as an opportunity to practice, and to celebrate what he called the “basic goodness” of the earth and of our own minds.
He had a very earthy sense of humor. He could be very funny, usually with short one-liners, rather than long stories. He described the process of meditation as “sitting on the toilet” and “working with our manure for bodhi.” He also called practice “manual labor” and added that for the ego the meditative path is “one insult after another.” When he gave out the red protection cords worn as a part of Tibetan ceremonies, he was asked what they protect us from. “Ourselves, obviously,” he replied.
I remember one evening when he was talking about how the practice of meditation was to not remove oneself from experience, not to hide in caves, or inside our houses and turn on the heat and air-conditioning so it would be safe for ourselves. He said that the practice of meditation was to have no distance between ourselves and our experience. Someone raised his hand and said, “No distance?” and then went on to ask a long question. . . . “What if things were fearful or difficult, hot or cold?” Trungpa looked back, and replied very simply, “No distance.” And then he picked up his glass of sake or whatever he was drinking and he said, “Good luck, sir.” That was usually his kind of ending line after an answer. “Good luck, sir.” “Good luck, madam.”
By meditation here we mean something very basic and simple that is not tied to any one culture. We are talking about a very basic act: sitting on the ground, assuming a good posture, and developing a sense of our spot, our place on this earth. This is the means of rediscovering ourselves and our basic goodness, the means to tune ourselves into genuine reality, without any expectations or preconceptions.
From Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior
The second quality that was manifested in his life was the quality of openness, a quality of fearlessness in practice. He describes this in Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior.
If you search for awakened heart, if you put your hand through your rib cage and feel for it, there is nothing there except for tenderness. You feel sore and soft, and if you open your eyes to the rest of the world, you feel tremendous sadness. This kind of sadness doesn’t come from being mistreated. You don’t feel sad because someone has insulted you or because you feel impoverished. Rather, this experience of sadness is unconditioned. It occurs because your heart is completely exposed. There is no skin or tissue covering it; it is pure raw meat. Even if a tiny mosquito lands on it, you feel so touched . . . For the warrior, this experience of sad and tender heart is what gives birth to fearlessness . . . Real fearlessness is the product of tenderness. It comes from letting the world tickle your heart, your raw and beautiful heart . . . .
He talked often of the problem of spiritual materialism, and encouraged us to practice with vulnerability, without credentials, not getting a Ph.D. in dharma, not making oneself into a professional meditator, or armoring oneself with one’s spiritual practice. In Dharmas Without Blame he evokes the image of a child.
The child’s world has no beginning or end. It is timeless. To him or her colors are neither beautiful nor ugly. He has no preconceived notion of birth or death. The crystal moon watches over millions of stars and the child exists without preconceptions.
True practice nourishes this quality of openness, the willingness of the child to relate to whatever presents itself.
Naropa Institute has been an expression of the breadth of Trungpa Rinpoche’s vision of the dharma, as well as his sense of theater and play. Psychology, poetry, art, music, dance. It has always been colorful. The banners have been colorful. The way people dressed has been colorful. Gradually they have seemed to develop their own uniforms, with a three-piece suit, a cocktail in one hand and a cigarette in the other. Someone said once that all the Buddhists in Boulder are yuppies. One reply I heard was, “Actually, we’re yubbies, Young Urban Buddhists.” There was a great sense of theater and play through all of it. Anything Trungpa Rinpoche did had this sense of being open to life and a joy in playing with it as a part of practice.
So there was brightness in his teaching, there was openness, a willingness to engage in life and play with its elements. The next quality he represented was devotion, devotion to his teachers, devotion to the lineage, devotion to the truth. Sitting in a cave in Bhutan in 1968 he wrote a long and powerful poem, “The Full Moon Sadhana.” It starts out by saying, “These are the dark ages of the dharma. The winds of sectarian bitterness blow between the countries and the sects of the Buddhadharma.” Even though the dharma has been proclaimed by the Buddha and carried on by many great teachers and lamas over centuries, modem practitioners get lost in philosophy, in the psychology, in the sects, in the territoriality of it and the true essence is often lost. He prays that those who receive the teachings of dharma in this age of difficulty will take them and use them to the very best.
In Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior he talks about this great sense of devotion as leading to the birth of a tender heart of sadness. The opening and the devotion of practice is the devotion to the dharma, to the truth, to one’s teachers, to oneself, to one’s own being, and then, through that, to all the world.
The birth of the warrior is like the first growth of the reindeer’s horns. At first, the horns are very soft and almost rubbery. . . . When a reindeer first grows its horns, it doesn’t know what to use them for. It must feel very awkward to have those soft lumpy growths on your head. But then the reindeer begins to realize that it should have horns: that horns are a natural part of being a reindeer. In the same way, when the human being first gives birth to the tender heart of warriorship, he or she may feel extremely awkward or uncertain about how to relate to this kind of fearlessness. But then, as you experience this sadness more and more, you realize that human beings should be tender and open. So you no longer need to feel shy or embarrassed about being gentle. In fact, your softness begins to become passionate. You would like to extend yourself to others and communicate with them. When tenderness evolves in that direction, then you. . . cannot help opening yourself to what takes place all around you.
Brightness. Openness. Devotion. Another quality he communicated was an uncompromising sense of discipline. He wrote in his introduction to my book:
Meditation begins by slowing the speed of our culture and neurotic mind. Meditation presents itself as an especially important discipline to the twentieth century. The age of technology would also like to produce a new and improved spiritual gadgetry guaranteed to bring quick results. Charlatans manufacture their versions of the dharma, advertising miraculous and easy ways rather than the steady and demanding personal journey that has always been the hallmark of spiritual practice.
He really knew the importance of a steady discipline, and somehow, over the years he inculcated a sense of the importance of discipline in the people of his community. At first he attracted many artists and unconventional types. Over the course of ten years, in a very skillful way, he got several thousand people, who were happy to sit around talking about dharma, to begin disciplined sitting practice. Then he insisted that they undertake a series of retreats, and finally he guided them to undertake the full training in the Tibetan path of practice—one hundred thousand prostrations and on from there. This was based on a quite uncompromising discipline. At one talk in Berkeley, many people had come to hear Rinpoche and he was late. He said, “If you want your money back, just go to the door and ask for it back. It’s quite fine. In fact, if you haven’t started the spiritual path, it’s best not to begin. It’s terribly difficult. Quite seriously, if you don’t even start, you’ll probably be better off. Best not begin. But if you do start, then best to finish!”
His practice was grounded in this great sense of discipline. In the first year of Naropa Institute, on alternating nights, Ram Dass and Trungpa offered classes. On Monday night two thousand people gathered with Ram Dass to sing, to chant and get high, to talk about the dharma in sweet and devotional ways and to open the heart. Then, on Tuesday night, Trungpa would be a little late and would just sit there quietly for a long time. Then he would give a very simple talk about how practice really meant being where you are, not getting lost in all the hoopla, or looking for cosmic experiences and song and dance. He would sort of make fun of all the things we did in Ram Dass’s class. And then, on Wednesday, Ram Dass would come back. We would all sing and get high together. Then, Thursday, Trungpa would come teach about impermanence, suffering, the fact of death. This was going back and forth and people were going crazy. One night someone asked Trungpa, “Ram Dass talks about the power of surrender to the guru, of opening to the grace of God. Is there anything in Buddhism that corresponds to the sense of God’s grace?” Trungpa sat there quietly for a minute, then he looked up and said, “Yes,” which surprised everyone, “Patience.” That was all he said. He was direct and unswerving in his teaching of the dharma, and in conveying a clear sense of discipline, of the necessity for a systematic path of practice.
The last quality that characterized him was a kind of mystery. He was one of the most enigmatic people I have ever met. In his own tradition he was known as a crazy wisdom master. He was clearly a genius. He was a beautiful calligrapher, a playwright, a psychologist, a poet, a photographer. He started a university. He started an enormous church. He even started a kind of feudal kingdom, with a court and lords and ladies. He also drank and was a womanizer. And yet, he was very open. He wasn’t one of those gurus who you read about in the paper, who was supposed to be celibate and then was exposed as something else. There was nothing hidden about him. That was what was so mysterious.
While having recreated a Tibetan kingdom in America, he also gave himself as fully to the West as any Buddhist teacher that has come here from the East. He absorbed our culture, our language, our customs. Then he said, “Let’s play. Let’s take the seed of the dharma and really make it sparkle and alive in the West.” And he did it with heart and body. He gave himself in a remarkable way. There was something mysterious about that, how a person who grew up as the head of some monastery in the corner of Tibet could come to America and be able to do so well.
The Naropa Institute banners have a drawing on them which is called the “Knot of Eternity.” It’s a linking of loops that go around and around and reconnect with one another. The Knot of Eternity is the eternal and timeless dharma, the dharma of the liberation of the heart. Even as he died, Trungpa encouraged us to practice deeply and participate in this timeless and liberating understanding.
Through the LION’S ROAR Trungpa inspired openness, discipline, devotion and an uncompromising belief in our own nature. By his teaching and example he invites each of us directly to keep this practice alive on out earth, to CARRY THE BANNER OF THE DHARMA, and bids us jolly good luck!
Trungpa Rinpoche composed a message to be read at the time of his death. Here are some excerpts:
Birth and death are expressions of life. I have fulfilled my work and conducted my duties as much as the situation allowed, and now I have passed away quite happily. It might cause you grief, sadness; nonetheless you should carry on with what I have created and continue my vision. On the whole, discipline and practice are essential, whether I am there or not. Whether you are young or old, you should learn the lesson of impermanence from my death.
Born a monk,
Died a king—
Such a thunderstorm does not stop.
We will be haunting you, along with the dralas.
Jolly good luck!