Posts by Suriyavamsa

heart of the buddhaTrungpa Rinpoche was a deeply flawed man, but an inspiring teacher. A new book gives Suriyavamsa a chance to reflect on Trungpa’s genius, and on the visceral and striking teaching it gave rise to.

I remember studying with my teacher Sangharakshita in a group of Triratna Buddhist centre teachers a couple of years ago. He expressed his admiration for Chogyam Trungpa and, using Gurdjieff’s distinction between the narrow saint and the broad genius, considered Trungpa to be a flawed genius of intelligence, flair and imagination. Sangharakshita went on to encourage us all to become ‘geniuses’ – to be broad and other regarding, and to develop the many diverse talents necessary to spread the Buddha’s teachings.

“The Heart of the Buddha,” by Chogyam Trungpa

heart of the buddha trungpa

Trungpa Rinpoche was a deeply flawed man, but an inspiring teacher. A new book gives Suriyavamsa a chance to reflect on Trungpa’s genius, and on the visceral and striking teaching it gave rise to.

I remember studying with my teacher Sangharakshita in a group of Triratna Buddhist centre teachers a couple of years ago. He expressed his admiration for Chogyam Trungpa and, using Gurdjieff’s distinction between the narrow saint and the broad genius, considered Trungpa to be a flawed genius of intelligence, flair and imagination. Sangharakshita went on to encourage us all to become ‘geniuses’ – to be broad and other regarding, and to develop the many diverse talents necessary to spread the Buddha’s teachings.

Title: The Heart of the Buddha
Author: Chogyam Trungpa
Publisher: Shambhala
ISBN: 978-0-87773-592-2
Available from: Shambhala and Amazon.com.

This memory returns to me on reading The Heart of the Buddha, a recently re-released collection of Chogyam Trungpa’s articles. Trungpa was certainly broad. He had the genius, the flair and talent necessary to inspire many people to take up the Buddha’s teachings and he has had an enormous impact on Buddhism in the modern world. Many of the famous Buddhists teaching today such as Pema Chodron, Sherab Chodzin Kohn, Judith Zimmer Brown and Reginald Ray owe their foundation in the Dharma to Trungpa Rinpoche.

Trungpa has had an enormous impact on Buddhism in the modern world.

It pays to watch some of the YouTube videos of his lectures and get a sense of the author before reading this book. On these we see him sitting calmly, holding court before hundreds of people. He is immaculately dressed in a suit and tie and is carefully emphasizing each sentence with an impeccable elocution acquired during his stay at Oxford University in England. This is not a traditional Tibetan teacher fresh out of the Himalayas with trumpets and robes but someone deeply immersing himself in Western expressions. Someone out alone in a foreign culture determined to communicate the heart of the Buddhas teachings in a language accessible to the people before him. Trungpa’s presentations combined a thorough training in traditional Tibetan Buddhism with a radical re-visioning of what it means to practice the Dharma today. He tapped into a broad range of sources from Erich Fromm and psychology to Zen flower arranging and military discipline, and was keen to avoid the distracting allure of exotic Tibetan cultural trappings.

The articles in The Heart of the Buddha were chosen to represent “as complete a range of Rinpoche’s teachings as possible,” according to the introduction. There are edited introductory talks with questions and answers as well as more scholarly essays. In the first section we have a more experiential evocation of what is involved in meditation practice, in devotion and in the integration of intellect and intuition. Here is a taster from the article on mindfulness:

‘It (mindfulness) is a worldwide approach that relates to all experience, it is tuning into life. We do not tune in as part of trying to live further […] Rather we just see the sense of survival as it is taking place in us already. You are here, you are living: let it be that way – that is mindfulness. Your heart pulsates and you breathe. Let mindfulness work with that, let that be mindfulness, let every beat of your heart, every breath, be mindfulness itself. You do not have to breathe specially; your breath is an expression of mindfulness. If you approach meditation in this way, it becomes very personal and very direct.’

I’ve never found a clear overview in a Chogyam Trungpa book. He never wrote a 101 of Buddhism. I have thoroughly enjoyed my wanderings through these articles, but have been glad of my studies in my own tradition for an underlying framework to help hang it all together. For this reason I wouldn’t recommend even this broad compendium as an introduction to Buddhism. What you do get with Trungpa Rinpoche is something at least as important – vivid evocations of spiritual experience and a living sense of the scale and detail of the Buddhist perspective. He uses unexpected and surprising imagery which is often visceral and always striking. Reading his books is like making out the Buddha’s Dharma by flashes of lightning – you are left with memorable impressions and a stack of vivid quotes. Here are a few:

‘People have difficulty beginning a spiritual practice because they put a lot of energy into finding the best and easiest way to get into it. We might have to change our attitude and give up looking for the best and easiest way. Actually, there is no choice. Whatever approach we take, we will have to deal with what we are already.’

‘True admiration has clarity and bite. It is like breathing mountain air in winter which is so cold and clear that we are afraid that it may freeze our lungs. Between breaths we may want to run into the cabin and throw a blanket over our heads lest we catch cold – but in true admiration we do not do that.’

‘Spiritual shoppers are looking for entertainment from spiritual teachings. In such a project devotion is nonexistent. Of course if such shoppers visit a store where the salesman has a tremendous personality and his merchandise is also fantastically good, they might momentarily feel overwhelming trust of some kind. But their basic attitude is not desperate enough. Their desperation has been concealed or patched over, so they make no real connection with the teaching.’

The second section of the book contains three articles chosen to represent the three phases of the Tibetan Buddhist path –  taking refuge, the self transcendence of compassion, and the tantric path of ‘Sacred Outlook’.

The chapter on “Sacred Outlook” is the longest article at just under forty pages. Originally written for the catalog of an exhibition of ancient Buddhist Silk Route art, it is one of the best introductions to Tantric Buddhist practice I have come across, both in the thoroughness of its description and in its simplicity.

I found reading these articles induced an experience not unlike that of digging out old rock music and being struck by its fresh energy and imagination…

The final section is a bit of a mixture with articles on relationships, death, poetry, money, Buddhist/Christian dialogue and a piece on drinking alcohol. This is where Trungpa’s dangerous side comes out. He writes on the limitations of a moralistic attitude to pleasure and on the difference between alcohol being poison or medicine lying in the level of one’s awareness. A meditator undertakes ‘conscious drinking’ as a means to keep connected to others. It is difficult to read this as anything but naive in the light of his early demise at forty seven from cirrhosis of the liver and the chaos of his community after his death.

Nevertheless, I found reading these articles induced an experience not unlike that of digging out old rock music and being struck by its fresh energy and imagination in contrast to the formulaic, safe and commercial nature of so much of today’s music. These articles come from a time when Buddhism in America was more radically alive. Their vitality, originality and indeed danger, as well as their deep rootedness in the Buddhist tradition contrast strongly with so much of what passes for Dharma today. Amidst the mountain of secular Buddhism, domestic Buddhism for couples, therapeutic Buddhism for stress management and a strange fixation on our everyday, commonplace laundry, this book stands out for its ability to inspire and stir us from our complacency. Cold, clear mountain air indeed.

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“Warrior King of Shambhala: Remembering Chogyam Trungpa,” by Jeremy Hayward

warrior king of shambhalaChogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was a charismatic, brilliant teacher whose drinking and sexual dalliances left a problematic legacy. Suriyavamsa reviews a new book that appreciates Trungpa’s monumental contribution to western Buddhism but doesn’t shy away from describing his shortcomings.

The Tibetan teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche stands out among the pioneers of Western Buddhism as a colorful and dangerous force making a huge impact on the Buddhism we find here today.

His short life was characterized by a tension between his thorough engagement with traditional Buddhist practice and his breaking with this traditional form in an often outrageous way. Both facets were part of his traditional Tibetan upbringing — a meticulous monastic training in Buddhist practice and theory and an inheritance of the spirit of the crazy yogi.

The encounter between his Tibetan “crazy wisdom” approach and the wild world of early seventies post-hippy America resembles the serious car crash he survived in the late sixties when he ran his powerful vehicle into, of all things, a joke shop.

 We get an insight into the tenderness and depth of Hayward’s personal relationship with his teacher  

Despite his notoriety — his drinking which eventually killed him, his promiscuity, the outrageous way he sometimes treated people and the acrimonious chaos, after his death, of the movement he founded — he left a formidable legacy. He trained many of today’s eminent Buddhists such as Pema Chodron, Reginald Ray, Judith Simmer Brown, Francesca Freemantle and Sherab Chodzin Kohn. Due to Trungpa there exist Shambhala Books, the Shambhala Meditation and Retreat Centers and an accredited university in Boulder, Colorado.

How many of us reading this had our interest in the Dharma kick-started with the thrills of one of his many books? Meditation in Action and Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism in particular have been an introduction to Buddhism for thousands of people.

There are now a number of books appearing that allow us a fresh re-appraisal of Trungpa. We have his wife Diana Mukpo’s Dragon Thunder and Fabrice Midal’s two works, Chogyam Trungpa, His Life and Vision and Recalling Chogyam Trungpa. All go much deeper than either sordid exposure or the fawning lama worship so often found with Western presentations of Tibetan Buddhism. Added to these is the book I am reviewing here — Jeremy Hayward’s Warrior King of Shambala, Remembering Chogyam Trungpa.

 Trungpa was trying to establish the Kingdom of Shambhala, a society with traditional values of etiquette and respect  

Jeremy Hayward is an Oxford trained physicist who first met Trungpa shortly after the Rinpoche arrived in the United States in 1970. Hayward writes from personal experience, giving an account of the years he spent practicing and working with Trungpa. It is good reading; you feel for him as he describes his own awkwardness and English reserve amongst the antics of Trungpa and his followers.

We get an insight into the tenderness and depth of his personal relationship with his teacher — a strong emotional bond akin to a love affair, with all the joy and pain this brings. Trungpa spoke of devotion to one’s guru as being one of longing, an unrequited love. There is valuable personal testimony here to be added to the debate around the matter of teachers, hierarchy and boundaries that has been raging in Western Buddhism over the past two decades.

Hayward writes about the struggles of managing a rapidly growing sangha as it moved from being a commune living in one house to a complex network of institutions holding seminars for up to 1,500 people and conducting courses across the US in everything from meditation and Buddhism to the social experiment of the Shambala program to flower arranging. There are tales of rivalry and resolution and of egos restrained and unrestrained. As someone involved on a humbler scale in another Buddhist institution I found valuable lessons in this shop-talk. I particularly cherish the advice given by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (a teacher of both Trungpa and my own teacher, Sangharakshita) to the staff of the early Naropa Institute as it struggled with low enrollments, canceled classes and missed payrolls. His response was, “If you let the roots go deep enough, the tree will blossom abundantly.”

 Trungpa’s drinking and multiple partners are described in an unsensational, matter of fact way.  

Then there’s the “crazy” stuff. The book contains pictures of men in suits marching with flags, Trungpa in military uniform looking like a banana republic dictator on horseback and with uniformed bodyguards, and holding court on a throne in tails and sash and with his wife in a ball-gown, both bedecked with insignia. Senior members of the sangha were made sirs, lords and ladies and formal dinners were laid on with detailed rules of how to hold a fork. Trungpa was trying to establish the Kingdom of Shambhala, a society with traditional values of etiquette and respect for oneself, others and the natural world and a way of life leading to egoless behavior; the result appears a little bizarre.

Hayward points to something completely “other” in Trungpa’s behavior. He meets with Nova Scotia’s agricultural department officials, holds an informed and detailed discussion on farming methods and impresses the experts; yet all the time he is wearing an admiral’s uniform, having been introduced as a Prince of Tibet, a country with no coastline. Hayward also tells of Trungpa’s ability to see and describe ghosts and other denizens of a world beyond the sight of most of us, and also his ability to really see the people he met, time and time again penetrating to the deeper situation of the person and responding with just what was required.

 Hayward invokes the challenge, the danger and complexity of living with Trungpa and his vision  

Trungpa’s drinking and multiple partners are described in an unsensational, matter of fact way. All the same I couldn’t square the ideals these people were establishing with this man at the center of it all, killing himself with alcohol. People are complex.

The strangest part of the book is Hayward’s time as an “attaché” caring for Trungpa on a retreat he termed “Fortress Free From Concept.” This was solitary apart from an entourage of attendants and consorts, and as it progressed Trungpa’s behavior became increasingly bizarre, free of convention if not concepts. He would be awake for days on end, not want to begin a meal until Shantarakshita (an 8th century teacher) turned up, battle an unseen green woman sent by some anti-dharmic lama and go on “journeys” back to India and England where his attendants had to act as if they were in Bengal or London. All this time Hayward was being constantly stretched mentally and physically and yet when Trungpa slept… “Then my mind could rest in a brilliant space that was extremely peaceful… The whole atmosphere of the house seemed to be filled with luminous warmth and peaceful radiation.”

Most importantly, this book gives us a window into what Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was trying to do and how he went about doing it. He attempted a more radical reappraisal of the Dharma for the West than almost all other teachers before or since, whether Asian or Western born. He was trying to create a Buddhist practice for Western culture unencumbered by the historical and cultural adornments of Tibetan Buddhism without betraying the profundity and authenticity of the Dharma he was taught. He was also attempting to build the sane society he had read of in Erich Fromm’s book of that title in the form of his Kingdom of Shambhala. By doing so he was stressing the importance of thinking in a cultural and social perspective bigger than one’s own isolated experience. It is too early yet to know if he succeeded — that will take a century or two!

This book and those by Diane Mukpo and Fabrice Midal help counter Trungpa’s message being simplified and reduced to a comfortable therapy or palliative consumable. Trungpa strongly argued against this acquisitive approach to the Dharma in his Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. Hayward invokes the challenge, the danger and complexity of living with Trungpa and his vision in a detailed and personal way and in that he is to be congratulated.

Warrior King of Shambala: Remembering Chogyam Trungpa
by Jeremy Hayward
Wisdom Publications
ISBN 0-86171-546-2


Suriyavamsa Suriyavamsa lives in Glasgow, Scotland, and works as a Dharma teacher and class coordinator at the Glasgow Buddhist Centre. He was ordained into the Western Buddhist Order in 1993, on the same four month retreat as Bodhipaksa. He has developed a love of traveling in India, and likes books, curries, heavy metal and matters esoteric.

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