Chogyam Trungpa

At Vermont meditation center, there is no ‘me’

Channing Gray, Providence Journal: I arrive early that first overcast day, so I can pitch my tent before dark. Then it’s off to a quick orientation session the night before the start of a weeklong meditation retreat.

I have come to Karmê Chöling, a 700-acre Buddhist meditation center in northern Vermont, about 10 miles south of St. Johnsbury. Many of the 50 or so retreat participants (two are from Amsterdam, one is from Italy) are here for a month, but time and money have held me to seven days, just enough for some serious letting go, I hope.

There are few diversions here at Karmê Chöling. The library has DVDs, but we are discouraged from checking them out. This is a time for contemplation and study. Computers are scarce, and restricted to the dining room. My cell phone is useless in this remote spot.

Days begin at 7 a.m. with morning chants and the taking of precepts, or vows not to take life, lie, steal, engage in sex or take drugs and alcohol for that day. Long stretches of meditation fill our days, which end around 8:30 at night with more chanting.

Most of our time is spent on red-and-yellow meditation cushions in a spacious shrine room with sparkling lights dotting a deep blue ceiling. Even meals are taken sitting on cushions in the shrine room, in the highly ritualized practice known as oryoki, or “just enough,” from the Zen monastic tradition. We eat in silence, engaging in an array of elegant bows and hand gestures to indicate thanks or more food. At night, people sleep on the shrine room floor, on foam mattresses stored in a loft, although rooms are available. Tenting at Karmê Chöling is popular in the summer, but now in that first week of November I am the only one braving the elements.

I am tired that first full day of sitting. The excitement of being here and wind rustling my tent made for fitful sleep. But during a walk before breakfast, snowflakes melting on my nose wake me up to the stillness of the woods and a small river rushing in the distance.

The idea is to pay attention to what I am doing, to be mindful no matter what I’m up to. If suddenly in my head I am whisked back to the newspaper, I become aware of that and return to the shuffle of my feet on the dirt lane and the sight of clouds enveloping the hilltops.

The whole week, in fact, is an exercise in mindfulness. In formal meditation, we follow the breath and try to stay present. When thoughts arise, we notice them, say “thinking” to ourselves and return to the breath. And we don’t judge or analyze thoughts. Even the most pious insights are just “thinking.”

I make a game of this, of just trying to stay in the room, and not get swept up in fantasy. As I breathe in, I am aware of my posture, erect but relaxed. As I breathe out, I dissolve into space. I watch sunlight dance on the shrine room floor, take in the colors of the cushions, then find myself worrying about work and have to return to the room. As I continue this process, thoughts begin to lose their sense of concreteness.

I am relaxed, yet alert, and feel that I am making progress, until I meet with my meditation instructor, Allan Novick, a retired psychologist who spent his life in the New York City schools. I tell Novick that my mind seems stable, and that I am experiencing an “acceptable” amount of discursive thought, to which he replies that all thoughts are acceptable. He reminds me of a line from the morning chants: “Whatever arises is fresh, the essence of realization.”

But I want to do a good job, I say. I want progress and I want it now, I tell Novick. “Patience,” is his advice. And drop any opinions about whether my meditation is going well or not.

Later, I see a quote from the late Chogyam Trungpa, the Tibetan meditation master who founded Karmê Chöling 40 years ago, tacked to a corkboard. It seems to sum up what Novick is saying. The trick, said Trungpa, is to “develop complete acceptance and openness to all situations and emotions and to all people, experiencing everything totally without mental reservations and blockages so that one never withdraws or centralizes into oneself.”

The goal of meditation, if there is one, is to see how the mind works and to accept that. It is not to become blissed out, but as Novick says to “see the truth.” In fact, getting high from sitting is just another addiction, just another trap. But the Karmê Chöling staff makes sure we don’t get too blissful. Just when you think you’re making headway, someone taps you on the shoulder and reminds you you’ve got kitchen duty, or that it’s time for stretching exercises or a talk, all chances to take what we’ve learned on the cushion and apply it to everyday tasks. It’s a chance to look at your mind even when you’re scrubbing pots.

Nowhere was that more evident than during the third day, when we observe total silence. We have been bound to “functional” silence so far, but now we are asked not to speak at all, leaving us only to listen to our thoughts rattling around in our heads. “Noble Silence,” as the practice is called, is like holding a mirror to yourself, watching as you react to people you don’t even know and can’t feel out with polite chitchat. I have only my empty projections and opinions to deal with, from which I learn just how judgmental, how emotionally closed-down I can be.

After a couple of days of drizzle and intermittent snow showers, the skies clear and I wake to a glistening skin of frost on the inside of my tent. I trudge down the wooded path to the main building and get ready for another day on the cushion. I realize that what is supposed to be a relaxing retreat is actually hard work.

By afternoon, my mind has slowed to a crawl. Now there are just stretches where there is nothing but the breath, no mental chatter, just naked awareness. It is at this point that adept meditators see that our interior lives are nothing more than momentary bursts of consciousness that arise uninvited and melt away just as mysteriously. They see that there is nothing behind this stream of thought, no I, no me, no mine. The notion of an inherent self is considered by Buddhists to be just an illusion that results from our strong attachment to the mind-body process.

But what about that “truth” we are all seeking? Even that must go, said retreat director John Rockwell, one of the senior teachers in the Shambhala Buddhist community. Let go of the truth, he said, or “you’ll kill it.”

On the evening of the final day, we gather in the dining room for a festive Western-style meal of salmon, rice and salad. There are toasts and songs, and bottles of wine. We are told that morning that anyone planning to drink should not take the fifth precept, which deals with abstaining from alcohol. So few people took that precept, the room was nearly silent.

After the shindig, I trudge up the hill in the rain for my final night in my tent. I am exhausted as I slip into my sleeping bag, as I prepare for reentry into the world, when I trade clarity for the path of confusion. I pray that I not forget what I’ve learned.

Karmê Chöling, which holds regular retreats and programs, is in Barnet, Vt., or visit

The cost for a weeklong retreat is $440 to sleep on the shrine room floor, and more for a private or semi-private room. Although many people in the retreat are Buddhists, you don’t have to be one to attend.

Original article no longer available

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“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

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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“Never Turn Away: The Buddhist Path Beyond Hope and Fear” by Rigdzin Shikpo

Never Turn Away, by Rigdzin Shikpo

Tejananda, Buddhist practitioner, meditation teacher, and author of The Buddhist Path to Awakening, gives an overview of a new, fresh approach to translating the wisdom of Tibetan Buddhism into a western idiom.

Rigdzin Shikpo (Michael Hookham) was one of the earliest Western students of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

Trungpa, who died in 1987, was a brilliant yet controversial figure. But whatever his flaws, he was undoubtedly one of the key figures in transmitting and translating Tibetan Buddhism for the western world: not so much translating in the linguistic sense as being prepared to take risks in creating new forms and expressions out of the 1000-year-old Kagyu tradition in which he was reared from early childhood, in “honest collision” with western culture and values.

Trungpa was also trained in the older Nyingma tradition, the heart of which is the Maha-Ati or Great Perfection (Dzogchen) teachings, and it was these in particular that he transmitted to Rigdzin Shikpo during his period in the UK between 1963 and 1970. Trungpa Rinpoche is still very much Rigdzin Shikpo’s root guru, a fact clearly reflected in Rigdzin Shikpo’s deep devotion to his teacher.

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It also is clear in the content of this book, which frequently makes reference to Trungpa’s Dharma teachings. At the same time, it’s obvious that Rigdzin Shikpo has assimilated these teachings deeply, and they come across in his own voice and manner.

The book expounds the four Truths, traditionally the Buddha’s first, and certainly his most fundamental, teaching: suffering, the cause of suffering, the cessation of suffering and the path or way (which enables the cessation of suffering). The book is more concerned with practice than with doctrinal exposition, with Rigdzin Shikpo discussing each Truth in relation to a significant area of practice.

Title: “Never Turn Away – The Buddhist Path Beyond Hope and Fear.”
Author: Rigdzin Shikpo
Publisher: Wisdom Publications, Boston (2007).
ISBN: 0-86171-488-1
Available from:

The first and the underlying theme of the whole book, is openness, in relation to the truth of suffering (duhkha). According to Rigdzin Shikpo, Trungpa Rinpoche “always emphasized direct experience and mostly had students work with the single instruction of openness.” This “provides the basis for greater awareness in meditation and everyday life … it is the combination of openness and awareness that lays the ground for seeing significance in our experience.”

The fundamental attitude of Dharma practice is always “turning toward” whatever life presents to us…

But significance can’t be learned from words, even words about Dharma. Its the qualities they “point” to that have to “affect our guts … hit us in the deepest part of what we are.” This is the import of the book’s title: “Never Turn Away.” In other words, the fundamental attitude of Dharma practice is always “turning towards” whatever life presents to us. Not going into denial, not blanking out with intoxication –- any kind of intoxication –- but simply being open to life, just as it is.

Of course, what we want to “blank out” is pain and suffering. Bearing with pleasure is not a problem for most of us! But always to be shying away from pain and attempting to prolong pleasure amounts to our manufacturing a “reality” which is itself painful and unsatisfactory. This “seeming reality” in which most of us live “is fundamentally false.”

The first step towards seeing through this delusion is — never turn away. “Openness is a way of learning about the world that enables us to relate to things properly and act skilfully.”

In practice, learning the “skill” of openness is best served by meditation. What kind of meditation? Rigdzin Shikpo notes that “meditation, by itself, is not necessarily helpful” and can even be harmful, because it “can powerfully reinforce our world view.” So, it’s vital that meditation is done on the basis of right view.

The practice of openness is a natural gateway into the area of wisdom…

“View, in this sense, is a way of seeing that leads to a deeper understanding of the nature of experience, rather than holding a particular dogma or set of beliefs.” This view is nothing other than “an attitude of complete openness to whatever arises in our minds and daily lives.”

Much more than “calm” or “peace of mind” (a common motivation for taking up meditation), the practice of openness is a natural gateway into the area of prajna or wisdom, and helps us to “develop a robustness of mind that can work with any circumstances that arise” and “to develop as truly human beings.” In the next several chapters, Rigdzin Shikpo goes into a lot of useful detail on the basics of this approach to meditation practice.

The second Truth, the cause of suffering, is expounded in the context of “mandala principle.” Mandalas are often identified with colorful Tibetan thangka paintings of elaborate circular diagrams. But the mandala principle on which they are based is universal: “every aspect of our experience, both internal and external, can be understood in terms of mandala … everything in the universe expresses itself in terms of mandala and interlocking mandalas within mandalas.”

Every mandala has a center and a periphery, and “at the center is the basic organizing principle, which is something active and powerful.” Emanating from this “are various related subprinciples” forming the body of the mandala. These are often depicted as a sphere, with a boundary. “Whenever mandalas have to do with people and their concerns, the boundary is a very emotional place.”

What has this got to do with the second Truth, the origin of suffering? The answer lies in ego, or self-view, “which narrows our world and creates a closed and sometimes crushing mandala.” This “ego mandala” gives rise to suffering because of our “continually projecting expectations onto our experience,” especially in the relation between the conceptual structures we create, and our emotions. Consequently, exploration of and penetration into the significance of this relation is a vitally important element of meditation practice.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, Trungpa Rinpoche taught that negative emotions like anger or desire were not themselves really a problem: “Emotions arise in our bodies, but they don’t have to be expressed in external activity.” The problem lies not in the basic emotion but in the “negativity of the negativity” which refers “to the ideas we have about our emotions, the reasons we give to justify their presence and continuance.”

Ego, or self-view, narrows our world and creates a closed and sometimes crushing mandala.

So, it’s important to recognize the conceptual link between emotion and response. “Negative” emotions only grow because we dwell on them with thoughts. “We use concepts to narrow our vision and drive our hatred and desire toward some ego-centred goal.” To open and expand our vision through meditation, Rigdzin Shikpo recommends “treating thoughts, feelings and emotions as guests.” That is, you “greet” them by allowing yourself to experience them as clearly as possible, then “let them go and return to the breath.”

Importantly, “you never need to think of them as interruptions. They are all part of the meditation practice, part of the dance of your mind.” This advice seems particularly apposite to those developing a meditation practice, as it’s often assumed that “thoughts are the enemy” and somehow have to be got rid of.

There is a good deal of further meditation advice in this section of the book. What is particularly useful is the emphasis on principles and views informing meditation practice, more than details of technique. This is true of much of the book, which means that it will probably be of more relevance to those who have been meditating for some time than those who are just setting up their practice.

The third section, The Collapse of Confusion, corresponds to the Truth of the cessation of suffering. Confusion, the deluded view of the “ego mandala,” collapses when we see “the falseness of our old vision of the world” through meditative investigation. For example, all our basic assumptions about time, space and “objects” –- including “self” or “me here” and “other” or “things out there” -– can be investigated in direct experience and discovered to be just that -– assumptions that don’t stand up to investigation.

Rigdzin Shikpo stresses that when our assumptions do actually collapse, this can be “emotionally shocking” and even feel like “death.” But what “dies” is only the confused ego-mandala, or at least some aspect of clinging to the notion of “self,” and its collapse means liberation from suffering. However, this is unlikely to happen until our basic wrong assumptions are investigated, and this section offers some simple yet potentially far-reaching meditative investigations.

Most of us might well prefer a familiar pain to an unfamiliar kind of bliss…

As Rigdzin Shikpo writes, these can lead to “a real sense of emptiness, a state beyond concepts” which may sound “high and wonderful and difficult to accomplish,” but in fact, given dedicated application, confidence, is “difficult but not that difficult.” Encouraging words.

The final section examines the fourth Truth, the Path, as “The Pursuit of Truth.” Of course, the previous sections have been concerned with elements of the path too; this one is largely about deepening these insights. “Our biggest job … is to work with that fundamental emotional grasping itself: that grasping at things as real, and grasping at some solid ground to stand on.” This is why, for example “most of us might well prefer a familiar pain to an unfamiliar kind of bliss.”

From the point of view of the delusional ego, the unsatisfactory world that nevertheless confirms its “reality” is preferable to freedom. Hence, although freedom is directly available, we really, really don’t want to go there. One take on the path, then, is that it’s whatever is necessary to get us to the point of embracing this always-available freedom.

There’s a very useful discussion here around “form” and “formless” practice. In terms of the “inner tantras,” there is a “generation” or “form” stage (kye-rim) and “completion” or “formless” stage (dzog-rim) to any system of practice. Practice with form helps us “establish the sense of the presence of awakening and a strong sense of going for refuge, taking the Bodhisattva vow, or making offerings.” Formless practice allows “a vivid sense of formlessness which is not vagueness, but a kind of clarity beyond appearances.”

Eventually, as he points out, form practice can reach a point where “it seems to be getting in the way” of the actual experiences that it initially enabled us to contact. When this point is reached, we can “link directly into those experiences in a completely formless way,” and here they are “even more powerful, not less so” than they had been in the form stage of practice. However, he cautions “…we can’t approach this powerful level of genuine formlessness without first working extensively with form.”

I found it interesting to note the parallel with Sangharakshita’s system of meditation here, in which “practice” (e.g. mindfulness of breathing, metta bhavana, etc.) is always followed by “non-practice” (just sitting) – clearly the same underlying principle is reflected. It’s noticeable that many people working within this system of practice tend to find increasing “formlessness” tending to emerge spontaneously, over the years and decades of practice.

Every section of the book goes into far more areas of practice than could be mentioned here, all very interesting and useful. Though clearly written to be suitable for those relatively new to meditation and Buddhism, the subtleties of what’s being discussed would probably, as mentioned above, be more helpful to more experienced practitioners. So, while the book can be warmly recommended to anyone who is interested in this approach to practice, if you are new to Rigdzin Shikpo’s writings, it would be better to start with his previous book “Openness, Clarity, Sensitivity.”

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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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Chogyam Trungpa: “Meditation practice brings our neuroses to the surface”

Chogyam Trungpa

Trungpa said, “In the practice of sitting meditation you relate to your daily life all the time. Meditation practice brings our neuroses to the surface rather than hiding them at the bottom of our minds. It enables us to relate to our lives as something workable.”

Meditation is not escapism. In fact one could argue that burying ourselves in daily activities with no time set aside for reflection is a classic escapist activity. When we meditate we’re thrust into an awareness — often a very challenging awareness — of exactly what’s going on in our lives. There’s no escaping who we are: as we sit, thought after thought, emotion after emotion, wells up inside of us.

When we’re busy rushing from one task to the next there simply isn’t time to process our thoughts and emotions, to put things into perspective, to think things through. Our hopes and fears end up being, as Trungpa puts it, hidden at the bottom of our minds. And so we need time out: time to re-collect ourselves, time to let the hidden parts of ourselves begin to show themselves. These experiences that we have in meditation are aspects of what’s been going on in our daily lives: the fears, hopes, annoyances, dreams, and desires to which we’ve given rise but to which we all too often pay little attention.

Some of those hidden parts do start to reveal themselves very quickly indeed, although others can — because we’ve become well-practiced in keeping them hidden — take much longer to emerge. But as, in their own time, they emerge we begin to give them our attention and respond to them appropriately.

Sometimes all we have to do is acknowledge them as we watch them pass by (perhaps just a stray thought about something we forgot to do). Sometimes we need to meet them head on, as when a major volley of ill-will arrives and we respond with a counter-blast of lovingkindness. Other times we need simply to sit and explore our experiences in a kind and patient way, giving them space to reveal their stories, reminding ourselves that it’s alright to experience discomfort.

So in these kinds of ways we deal with our “stuff,” working with each thought and emotion as it arrives, and in an appropriate way. And in so doing we start to notice that the quality of our lives has improved: there are fewer conflicts with others, we’re kinder, we’re quicker to let go of grievances and less prone to take offense, and we’re more relaxed.

Often the best way to work with our lives is to take a step back and sort out what’s inside of us first. One we’ve started doing that, life seems to take care of itself.

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Awareness in every sip (Beliefnet)

When I want a convenient break from Shambhala Mountain Center, the Buddhist retreat where I live and work, I head to a dark, smoky bar called the Red Feather Café. The Café isn’t the only dive bar in western Larimer County, Colorado, but it is the only one with two pool tables, good service, and great pub food. Half of the regulars are the local ranchers while the other half are fellow Buddhists from Shambhala Mountain. Almost any night of the week, I can find both ranchers and Buddhists shooting pool at one of the two tables or sitting at the bar, matching each other drink for drink.

Check your Sutras and you’ll see that the basic Buddhist teachings on alcohol consumption are quite clear. Alcohol, the Buddha taught more than 2,000 years ago, is a poison that clouds the inherent clarity of the mind. That timeless logic would explain why, if you visit a typical American Buddhist community or meditation center, you are likely to be entering an alcohol-free zone.

Yet there is no prohibition on frequenting the Café or even on drinking alcohol here at Shambhala Mountain. While public consumption of hard liquor is verboten, wine and beer are regularly offered at private parties, public events and special dinners–most of the places you might see alcohol in regular American life. It wasn’t long before I started wondering: Why isn’t my Buddhist retreat center on the wagon?

The answer, like most involving Buddhist practices, lies in the particular lineage of teachings represented here at Shambhala Mountain. Acharya Bill McKeever, Shambhala Mountain’s resident teacher, explained how drinking alcohol in certain contexts is considered one of the many advanced practices offered in Shambhala’s Tibetan Vajrayana tradition. It is called “mindful drinking.”…

Here’s the basic idea: Once a meditator has developed basic Buddhist discipline (known as Hinayana training) and adopted the intention to dedicate his or her life to benefit others (the Mahayana view) the practitioner is ready to incorporate Vajrayana teachings, where the simple prohibitions outlined in the Sutras are re-evaluated. When a meditator reaches this point, which often takes a number years in the Shambhala tradition, a dangerous substance like alcohol is viewed as a potential aide for the practitioner. Within the context of strong discipline and clear intention, alcohol holds the possibility of no longer acting as a conventional escape, but instead being a tool for loosening the subtle clinging of ego.

“Imagine you are enjoying a picnic in a beautiful spot with your lover,” says McKeever. “You want for nothing in this situation.” If you choose to drink at this moment, theoretically, you have no reason to overdo it. You’ll drink just enough to relax, to appreciate your situation and, as McKeever puts it, “to help your ego go to sleep.”

That is why for centuries in the Kagyü monasteries scattered across the high plains of Tibet, monks incorporated alcohol into their esoteric Vajrayana practices. (These Tantric rituals have historically been viewed skeptically by more straitlaced Buddhists around the world.) When one of those Vajrayana lamas, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, fled Tibet during the Chinese invasion of the country, he brought his teachings, including those on the use of alcohol, to the West.

This month, more than 100 people have gathered at Shambhala Mountain Center to become full-fledged Vajrayana practitioners. In the seventies and eighties, long before the Dalai Lama visited Central Park, Chögyam Trungpa taught Vajrayana Buddhism in North America, establishing hundreds of Shambhala meditation centers including this rustic retreat in the Rockies. For many people, this Vajrayana Seminary is the culminating event after years of study and practice. The Vajrayana students meet every morning in a large white tent in the center of campus, spending their days mixing meditation, talks, and study groups. At some point, they will be given a lesson in mindful drinking.

As a relatively new student who has not yet attended Vajrayana seminary, I’ve never experienced this lesson, but I’ve been told that it is much different than a normal night at the bar. Imagine people seated in lotus position with cups of sake (rice wine) in front of them. McKeever recalled the lessons Trungpa Rinpoche offered him decades ago. “He had us take three sips and then look at the effect on our mind. ‘Have you relaxed?’ he’d ask. ‘Is your mind extending into space?’ If so, stop there.” The goal of drinking mindfully is to bring full awareness to every sip.

Once instructed in this setting, Vajrayana students begin incorporating the practice into regular ritual feasts, which are not unlike Jewish Passover seders, where alcohol is served. “If you’re really paying attention to alcohol’s effect on your mind, those feasts can be very illuminating,” one Vajrayana student told me. “Literally, everything is brighter.” The practice acknowledges an intuitive truth: a little alcohol can be a useful thing.

The problem out in the real world is that it is hard to know where the line between utility and abuse lies. It turns out that, despite their mindful drinking lessons, it is hard for the people in Shambhala, too.

“When the formal feasts work, they can be great, but sometimes people drink too much and it can be a disaster,” says John Ohm, a resident at Shambhala Mountain center, a Vajrayana practitioner and a recovering alcoholic.

That’s in a formal setting. The issue gets even muddier in plain old social contexts. While few fellow Buddhists claim to be practicing “mindful drinking” when I see them out at the Café, the community is remarkably tolerant of alcohol. Drunkenness is about as prevalent up here as it was when I lived in New York. When a visitor or a new arrival inevitably questions all the drinking, it is common for an old hand to justify the excessive behavior by explaining that Shambhala Mountain is a “Vajrayana practice community.”

People sometimes invoke the personal example of Chögyam Trungpa, who was by all accounts a prolific drinker who died in 1987. McKeever says that Trungpa Rinpoche implored his students to follow his teachings, not his personal embodiment of them, but it was a distinction that many of his students missed. “We just didn’t get it,” he says. “Because we’re Buddhists we think we’re special, but drunkenness is drunkenness.”

Ohm points out that mindful drinking should be seen as one valid tool for practice within a tradition remarkable for its wide variety of effective tools. And a dangerous one for people with an alcohol problem. “It is suicide for some people,” he says. ” ‘Mindful drinking’ can be such an easy excuse.”

Vajrayana practitioners need only remember the context of the mindful drinking lesson in order to use it correctly. Ohm recalls a comment made by a fellow recovering alcoholic Buddhist: “When I get to the point where I can walk through fire or fly through the air, then I’m ready to try drinking again.”

Without the formal Vajrayana lessons, most of us are left to get the gist on our own. But the heart of this teaching, like so many of the Buddhist instructions, is easily accessible for any individual willing to maintain an open, honest perspective.

So I’ve turned a few visits to the Café into my own mindful drinking laboratory. On the nights when I order one or two beers, I’ve noticed that I feel relaxed and open. If I pick up a pool cue on those nights, I can even hang in a game with the local ranchers. Then there are nights when I order that third beer. When that happens, my mood gets a little more erratic. I become either giddy or sullen. And my pool game? Don’t ask.

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Dalai Lama, 300 leaders to meet

Private session of top Buddhists to cap his U.S. tour

Deseret News: The 14th Dalai Lama is simultaneously the exiled monarch of Tibet, a Nobel Peace Prize-winning statesman and Buddhism’s most renowned world leader — aspects that are all evident during his current U.S. tour.

But a private event, carrying out his religious role, may be the most significant moment in the India-based lama’s visit — a conference in the upstate New York community of Garrison for 300 leaders of local Buddhist centers in the Western Hemisphere.

This is apparently the biggest gathering of Buddhist teachers ever held in the United States. Only followers of the Dalai Lama’s own Tibetan form of the faith are invited, although some speakers will come from other traditions. The lama has previously encouraged smaller meetings for teachers representing all Buddhist branches, most recently in 2001.

Such get-togethers are rare because North American Buddhism is highly individualistic and decentralized, with less unity and nationwide cooperation than is found in Christianity, Judaism or Islam…

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The Dalai Lama is asking the teachers to take stock after a period of notable New World expansion for all of Buddhism. The 1998 “Complete Guide to Buddhist America” listed over 1,000 dharma (“teaching”) centers in North America, more than double the total a decade earlier.

One survey puts U.S. Buddhists at 3 million to 4 million. Most are immigrants, their numbers swelled by the 1965 liberalization of U.S. immigration laws.

But an estimated 800,000 are native-born converts or “new Buddhists,” including such celebrities as movie actor Richard Gere, who helped plan the Sept. 22-23 Garrison meeting.

Such progress owes much to the magnetism of the 68-year-old Dalai Lama, who by Tibetan tradition was recognized at age 2 as an incarnation of Avalokiteshvar, the Buddha of Compassion, and the reincarnation of his deceased predecessor.

Tibetan Buddhism, known as Tantrism or Vajrayana (“the Diamond Vehicle,” denoting clarity of experience) is one of Buddhism’s three main branches. The others are Theravada (“the Way of the Elders”) and Mahayana (“the Greater Vehicle,” which includes Zen).

All three, and their many subgroups and spinoffs, are active in contemporary North America. In fact, this is “the first time in history you have all these diverse traditions in one place,” says historian Jan Willis, a Baptist-turned-Buddhist who will speak at Garrison. She tells her Wesleyan University students to speak of “Buddhisms,” plural, underscoring these varieties.

Though many branches live side by side, they mostly live apart, with the line between immigrants and “new Buddhists” particularly obvious. In the Tibetan branch, “new Buddhist” converts far outnumber ethnic immigrants, yet teachers imported from Asia overshadow U.S.-born leaders.

Among the topics on the Garrison agenda: challenges in teaching Tibetan Buddhism in the West; preserving the tradition; interfaith relations; responsibilities to society; and, promoting collaboration among Buddhists. The last topic is crucial for Western Buddhism and especially for the Tibetans, says Helen Tworkov, editor of the independent Buddhist magazine Tricycle.

Tibet’s strong sectarian divisions naturally spill over to the West, Tworkov says, and “if they do not acknowledge it’s here, it will be hard to get beyond it.”

The Dalai Lama doesn’t hold the power of, say, the pope, and he actually leads only one of Tibet’s four major separate schools. But Tworkov says he enjoys a respect among almost all Buddhists that puts him in a unique position to foster unity.

She also says that, because the traditional Tibetan Buddhist culture is under threat of extinction from the Chinese occupation that led to the Dalai Lama’s exile, Tibetan teachers tend to be conservative.

The faith faces major adjustments in North America. The heritage of authoritative, male teachers clashes with feminism and democracy, for example, and liberals are rankled that the Dalai Lama teaches against homosexual activity, in keeping with Buddhist tradition.

Years ago, the Tibetan branch was rocked by scandals involving such prominent leaders as Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, founder of Colorado’s Naropa University, who was accused of having sex with women students.

In a dramatic (and still disputed) exercise of unified action, 21 Western Buddhist teachers met the Dalai Lama in India in 1993 and issued an open letter that lamented various teachers’ “sexual misconduct with their students, abuse of alcohol and drugs, misappropriation of funds and misuse of power.” The group urged believers to confront teachers and publicize behavior that violates Buddhist teachings.

“People have come through the scandal period,” says historian Willis, and now it’s time to contemplate long-term challenges that could be raised at Garrison.

She’s particularly concerned about two of them, that westerners attracted by meditation both neglect the faith’s devotional and ritual aspects and have little interest in joining monasteries, which have always supplied Buddhism’s teachers.

Without these elements, she’s concerned the faith may grow only shallow roots in the West.

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