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Spiritual Gurus: Chögyam Trungpa

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche was a beacon of spiritual brilliance that shone through a fog of controversy. His life was a paradoxical blend of complexity; enlightenment and excess, wisdom and folly, spirituality and worldliness. And yet despite his human frailties and seemingly contradicting versions of self, there is no denying the fact that the now immortalized spiritual teacher did more to popularize Buddhism in the Western world than perhaps any other individual.

An image shows the iconic Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa sitting in a chair at his kitcken table dressed nicely with a smile on his face.Chögyam Trungpa Profile:

Birth: March 5, 1939
Death: April 4, 1987 (aged 48)
Profession: Buddhist Spiritual Teacher
Key Teachings: Spiritual Materialism & Shambhala Training

The Life of Chögyam Trungpa:

Born in a small Tibetan village in 1939, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche was recognized as a reincarnation of an important Buddhist lama, known as the Trungpa Tulku, at just 13 months old. He dedicated his younger years to a rigorous regime of study and training under the tutelage of some of Tibet’s greatest masters, including his root guru, Jamgön Kongtrül of Sechen, and the crazy wisdom master, Khenpo Gangshar. Although he was initially destined to play an important role in the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, by heading the Surmang monastery as the eleventh incarnation of Trungpa Tulku, Chögyam’s journey would veer from the traditional path laid before him.

Trungpa’s life first took a dramatic turn in 1959 when the Chinese invasion forced him to flee Tibet. His perilous nine-month journey to India, which is recounted in his first book “Born in Tibet”, was fraught with danger and hardship. Trungpa and his party traversed roaring rivers, scaled mountain faces, and endured freezing temperatures, starvation, and the constant threat of capture. Despite these adversities, Trungpa and his contingency arrived at the Indian border on January 17th, 1960. Of this arrival, he wrote:

There was a big noticeboard facing us painted in the colors of the India flag, with large letters in Hindi saying ‘Bharat’ and English letters saying ‘India’. Below we saw a newly built stupa made of concrete and whitewashed; its presence was encouraging. The two men on guard showed their welcome as they shook hands with us though we could not speak each other’s languages. We felt intensely happy at this moment and particularly so in seeing the stupa, symbol of Buddhism, on Indian soil.”

Trungpa’s journey continued West in 1963 when he won a scholarship to study comparative religion, philosophy, and fine arts at Oxford University in England. In 1967, he co-founded the Samye Ling Monastery in Scotland, which became the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the Western world. While these early years away from home seemed fairly ordinary, his life would drastically change two years later as the now iconic spiritual teacher renounced his monastic vows and brought an intimate relationship with a young British girl named Diana Pybus into the public sphere. It was also in 1969 when Trungpa was left partially paralyzed from a devastating car accident. In 1970, Trungpa and Pybus married before moving to the United States. This series of events, both controversial and transformative, marked a pivotal moment in his life and teachings.

Chögyam Trungpa would accomplish much over the course of 15 years living in the U.S. For example, he founded several Buddhist meditation retreat centers and Naropa University, established the Vajradhatu organization, and created the curriculum for the Shambhala Training program. He was also considered to be a pioneering figure in the American Mindfulness Movement, thanks to his ability to mold Eastern wisdom for the Western mind. His teachings emphasized the importance of direct experience, meditation, mindfulness, and the potential for enlightenment in everyday life. Because his contributions were so immense, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama would later write of the iconic teacher:

Exceptional as one of the first Tibetan lamas to become fully assimilated into Western culture, he made a powerful contribution to revealing the Tibetan approach to inner peace in the West.”

For all of his successes though, this isn’t to say that Trungpa’s life in the United States was free from controversy. In fact, quite the opposite was true as sexual relationships with students, chronic alcohol abuse, and allegations of cult-like behavior cast a shadow over his spiritual teachings. The infamous 1975 Snowmass Halloween party incident, where he drunkenly ordered poet W.S. Merwin and his girlfriend to strip naked in front of an audience, was a particularly dark moment in his history. Merwin later talked about Trungpa’s complex nature by saying:

My feelings about Trungpa have been mixed from the start. Admiration, throughout, for his remarkable gifts; and reservations, which developed into profound misgivings, concerning some of his uses of them. I imagine, at least, that I’ve learned some things from him (though maybe not all of them were the things I was “supposed” to learn) and some through him, and I’m grateful to him for those. I wouldn’t encourage anyone to become a student of his. I wish him well.”

Despite the numerous controversies caused by his misdeeds, Trungpa and his followers attributed his unconventional, if not inappropriate, behavior to an ancient non-sectarian teaching style within Buddhism known as ‘crazy wisdom.’ This approach, also known as ‘divine madness’, manifests when an enlightened being acts in outrageous, unexpected, and unpredictable ways for the purpose of spiritual practice or teaching others. It represents thinking outside the box and challenges the stereotypical image of holiness through contradictory behavior.

In 1986, Chögyam Trungpa’s years of heavy alcohol abuse finally caught up to him and his health took a drastic downward turn. Yet, despite his deteriorating condition, he managed to deliver his last public teaching in Boulder that year, before moving to Nova Scotia, Canada, in 1987. He envisioned this place as the foundation grounds for an enlightened society, a testament to his unwavering commitment to his spiritual vision. However, his dream was cut short when he passed away on April 4th, 1987, at just 48 years old.

Throughout his life, Chögyam Trungpa was a prolific writer, authoring 14 books, and his literary legacy continued posthumously with numerous collections of speeches and writings being published in his name. The great spiritual teacher was also an accomplished artist, with interests in painting, calligraphy, photography, and floral arrangements. Perhaps this is why his teachings influenced a diverse collection of creative minds, including the likes of John Steinbeck IV, Allen Ginsberg, Pema Chödrön, Ram Dass, Reginald Ray, and Ken Wilber. Trungpa’s life and teachings were the subject of a documentary released in 2011 called “Crazy Wisdom.”

3 of Chögyam Trungpa’s Most Important Teachings:

An image shows Chögyam Trungpa teaching meditation while sitting in a meditative posture.Although it may be hard to find appreciation for many of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s misgivings, or the idea that he was teaching with ‘crazy wisdom’, there’s no denying the fact that he possessed a spiritual brilliance matched by few individuals. Over the course of his life, he left an indelible mark on the landscape of the Western world by continuously expounding profound mystical insights. While his wisdom certainly wasn’t limited to teachings on spiritual materialism, the warrior’s sacred path, and meditation, they are undoubtedly some of his most important.

Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism:

Chögyam Trungpa used the term ‘Spiritual Materialism’ to illuminate the pitfalls often encountered by spiritual seekers on the path. Whereas physical materialism refers to the belief that possessions can bring release from suffering and psychological materialism alludes to the belief that a particular philosophy or belief system will end our agony, the iconic Buddhist master told us that spiritual materialism generally relates to the belief that certain temporary state of minds can give us refuge from the inevitable agony we will face. For example, he pointed to the act of allowing one’s ego to become reinforced and strengthened through spiritual growth and development as one of the most common challenges faced by practitioners. To move beyond this limiting way of being, Trungpa told us:

It is important to see that the main point of any spiritual practice is to step out of the bureaucracy of ego. This means stepping out of ego’s constant desire for a higher, more spiritual, more transcendental version of knowledge, religion, virtue, judgment, comfort, or whatever it is that a particular ego is seeking.  One must step out of spiritual materialism.”

To step out of spiritual materialism, Chögyam Trungpa recommended several important strategies that included the actions of avoiding ego reinforcement, understanding the impermanent nature of all things, cultivating compassion, and embracing uncertainty. He also emphasized the importance of developing a critical attitude to cut through deception and questioning everything at an experiential level. As you’ll discover by listening to Trungpa in the following lecture, combating spiritual materialism is absolutely vital for fostering genuine enlightenment:

The Warrior’s Sacred Path:

One of Chögyam Trungpa’s most impactful life undertakings was to develop the Shambhala Training curriculum that emphasizes teaching a variety of traditional Buddhist concepts and ideas in a secular way. The training is divided into five levels, with each representing a stage of the journey toward spiritual awakening, yet one prevailing message presented throughout the framework is the idea that, by cultivating a warrior’s mindset, we can face all of life’s challenges with genuine fearlessness and vulnerability while still remaining compassionate and kind to others. Trungpa told us:

Warriorship is so tender, without skin, without tissue, naked and raw. It is soft and gentle. You have renounced putting on a new suit of armor. You have renounced growing a thick, hard skin. You are willing to expose naked flesh, bone, and marrow to the world.”

While the Shambhala Training is an intimate journey of personal growth and understanding, Trungpa’s teachings pointed to the universal aim of creating an enlightened society as the primary motivation for walking the warrior’s sacred path. He told us that to manifest the Shambhala vision of an enlightened society, in which individuals are fully present and engaged, where there is mutual respect and understanding, and where the principles of kindness, generosity, and courage are upheld, individuals must inwardly cultivate compassion and generosity while outwardly partaking in social engagement and community service activities. Trungpa expanded upon the idea of an enlightened society in this talk from 1984:

The Transformational Power of Meditation:

Chögyam Trungpa emphasized the importance of developing a regular meditation practice as one of the key undertakings of walking the warrior’s sacred path while cautioning against using it as a means to promote spiritual materialism. To help practitioners gain a clear understanding of the true purpose of meditation, which is to cultivate awareness and compassion while gaining clarity to view ourselves and our lives with complete honesty, Trungpa presented it as a simple daily practice without metaphysical or philosophical overlays. He told us:

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.

Throughout his life, Chögyam Trungpa taught two main forms of meditation: Shamata and Vipassana. Whereas Shamatha helps to calm the mind, Vipassana is used to develop insight into the true nature of reality. Additionally, he encouraged his students to develop a foundation for compassion, awareness, and creativity by bringing the practice of mindfulness into their everyday activities. In the following lecture from 1974, Chögyam Trungpa gives an overview of meditation and offers some basic instructions for practicing:

Inspirational Chögyam Trungpa Quotes:

Real fearlessness is the product of tenderness. It comes from letting the world tickle your heart, your raw and beautiful heart. You are willing to open up, without resistance or shyness, and face the world. You are willing to share your heart with others.”

Meditation practice is a way of making friends with ourselves. Whether we are worthy or unworthy, that’s not the point. It’s developing a friendly attitude to ourselves, accepting the hidden neurosis coming through.”

The basic wisdom of Shambhala is that in this world, as it is, we can find a good and meaningful life that will also serve others. That is our true richness.”

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