In 1971, like a lot of other people in America, I was shopping in what a certain wise man called the “spiritual supermarket.” I had been a seeker all my life, but now everybody else was “questioning authority,” especially the authority of the family religion.
In the spiritual supermarket, I listened to Krishnamurti (an Indian intellectual), Muktananda (who was into chanting and zapping people with blessings), Pir Vilayat Khan (a Sufi, whirling gloriously), Satchidananda (practitioner of meditative yoga),
and even our own Ram Dass (acid-guru-turned-Hindu).
Chanting felt good, but then what? I couldn’t get into the Sufi whirling thing, and meditation was hard.
And acid? Not a healthy lifetime practice as far as I could tell.
Enter—Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
Chogyam Trungpa continually blew my mind: from attending his first seminar in Los Angeles (titled “The Battle of Ego”) to filming his cremation on a cloudless but rainbow-filled day in Vermont. Being in his presence was like being suddenly aware of an oncoming truck—it put every cell in your brain—SMACK!— into the present moment. And in that moment you could be outraged, or moved to tears, or inspired—usually all at once.
I had never met a Tibetan Buddhist high lama before—who had?—and I didn’t believe the Shangri La stuff about Tibet, but it did have a mysterious, even magical reputation. Now, here was the real thing.
“When the iron bird flies in the sky and horses run on wheels,
the Tibetan people will be scattered across the earth,
and the Buddha dharma will spread to the land of the red-faced man.”
Notice the date? 800AD. That tells you something about these Buddhists. They take the long view. Chogyam Trungpa was no exception.
Raised in the rigorous monastic tradition of Tibet, Trungpa escaped the Chinese Communist invasion of his beloved country in 1959. He knew, as the highest level lama in his area, he would be killed on sight. He also knew, at the ripe age of 19, that Tibet—the great incubator for Buddhist thought and practice, which had produced so many brilliant teachers and such a profound canon of knowledge—was finished.
After ten-months of dodging Chinese bullets through the brutal Himalayan mountain range, with only a pair of binoculars to guide him and his 300 followers, Trungpa made it to India. He wrote a book—Born In Tibet—about the harrowing escape. As soon as he could speak English, he headed for England, then from there to the United States. And he took with him an unwavering commitment to plant the seeds of Buddhism deeply enough in the west so that—just as there were variants of Buddhism in Japan, Korea, India, and Vietnam, all built on the same non-theistic practices of meditation and compassion—Tibetan Buddhism would enter the mainstream culture and eventually develop into American Buddhism.
Right from the start, he defied categorization. He spoke English elegantly but with some Tibetan shortcuts like skipping over prepositions now and then. It took a few years before many of us realized there was a lot of drinking going on: the Colt 45s didn’t seem to affect the precise delivery or content of his talks.
Soon, I also learned he openly had relations with women (in spite of being married). That felt strange to me, but having met his wife and being impressed with her energy and self confidence, I chalked it up to the “different strokes” category. I was married with little kidlets, and although I didn’t practice it, open marriage wasn’t such a shockingly big deal back in the 70s. To quote his most well-known student, author Pema Chodron: “Sexuality didn’t bother people in those days, drinking didn’t bother people, but put on a suit and tie? Forget about it.”
We were after some kind of truth that was more basic than what our mores were at the time. We were starting from scratch. And yes, part of the experience was working with Trungpa’s challenging lifestyle. It was all completely in the open and it wasn’t easy. Was he crazy? Were we fools? Was this just an attraction to a genius who was toying with us? In the end, crazy or not didn’t really matter, there was so much to learn, and the teachings were authentic and profound.
Back at that first seminar, “The Battle of Ego,” Trungpa and I hit it off well; he loved film and I was a filmmaker. He wasn’t wearing religious robes when I met him; he was wearing an elegant business suit and tie, drinking from a long can of Colt 45 beer and occasionally smoking a cigarette. As far as I was concerned, this was heaven-sent: someone who looked you straight in the eye and talked about ego, the groundlessness in life, the sweetest of the sweet, the saddest of the sad. He was called a “genius,” a “social visionary,” “one of the greatest spiritual teachers of the 20th century,” and “the bad boy of Buddhism.”
But for me, it was his profound knowledge and his tough but limitless intellect, ironic humor and true kindness that somehow lifted my own game on the spot (and we all know how much we like to be around people who lift our game).
Being a painter-turned-filmmaker, another aspect of Trungpa that appealed to me was that he was an artist and a poet. His work, in calligraphy, art installations, ikebana, and (especially) poetry, was an expression of Buddhist principles. That may sound dry and tediously well-intentioned as an art concept, but it was the opposite.
Working on a film about flower arrangement was incredibly intense and dramatic. A basic principle as he taught it, was that everything in our world has a sacred quality. This presented immediate problems. For example, how would you write a poem about murder, war, greed, and still see what is sacred in it? How can smog be sacred? Needless to say, it took a lot of meditation to wrap our minds and hearts around that one. Watching him create a complex flower arrangement was spellbinding. Sometimes cutting back a branch would feel cruel; a poem could be painful to read. But the humor was always present. As soon as one of us started to get too serious—attached to the work—that attachment would be cut on the spot, often with a painfully hilarious observation.
When you first encounter Buddhism as an adult, it’s an intellectual high. It doesn’t feel like a religion: there’s no God to come and save you; it’s just you, the meditation cushion, and 2,500 years of hard-earned wisdom.
Then comes the big challenge: meditation. Meditation is wondrous. And science is finally beginning to discover measurable differences in the brain’s energetic mass in people who meditate. Just google “hot new frontier of neuroscience meditation” And find out about the important role the Dalai Lama is playing in these “new” discoveries.
Trungpa was always looking ahead five hundred years or so. First he put suits and ties on hippies, then he invited them to create the first Buddhist college (now university) in the western hemisphere: Naropa. Naropa University is known for its Contemplative Psychology program, as well as the Jack Kerouac School for Disembodied Poetics (where Allen Ginsberg taught along with Anne Waldman, William Burroughs, and Reed Bye, to name a few. Not surprisingly, Naropa also offers degrees in Art, Dance, Theatre, Writing, and Buddhist Studies.
But it’s Trungpa’s daring commitment to present a whole new school of thought to the west—the ancient Shambhala Teachings—that may be his greatest contribution. Based on the same principles of meditation and compassion, instead of focusing on individual liberation (which is the whole goal of Buddhism), Shambhala focuses on societal liberation. When he first introduced Shambhala to his Buddhists students around 1976, many of us weren’t interested, partly because Buddhism demands a serious commitment, and taking on another discipline seemed unmanageable and confusing. There was even a little competition between the two disciplines (this is America after all). It took a long time for us to get it.
Basically it goes like this: Shambhala is about creating an enlightened society. An entire society, a town or a state or a country, where people want to lead sane, dignified lives. Really? Come on. Individuals can aspire to such lofty aspirations, but not societies!
But it goes even further, Shambhala is based on the idea that every human being has “basic goodness,” and that this innate human wisdom and basic goodness does not belong to any one religion or doctrine. My film Crazy Wisdom begins with some words that Trungpa wrote. I use them over images of today’s devastated environment, war, and economic crisis: “Although I stumble in the slime and muck of the dark age / Although I stumble in the thick, black fog of materialism…”
He seemed to be predicting exactly the dangerous direction America was heading towards, but as foreboding as that sounds, he was not a doomsayer. He had unwavering confidence in humankind, and so worked tirelessly to present his antidote to the dark age: the teachings of Shambhala and the potential for an enlightened society.
I still wonder, can it ever be?
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