Chögyam Trungpa and his Teachings

“Chögyam Trungpa His Life and Vision” highlights the life of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Buddhist meditation master that had one of the highest statuses’ in the monastery and was a scholar, teacher, and artist. The reading describes his journey of leaving his origins in Tibet to move west to the United States to spread his Buddhist beliefs. He to “not present the spiritual path in terms of acquisition of some precise, external wisdom, but as the capacity to face our true selves as directly as possible, leaving aside social or moral conventions” (11).

Trungpa, in particular, had an unorthodox way of teaching his beliefs when he went to the west. Tibetan Buddhism was not very well known in the western culture so Trungpa idea for teaching stemmed from the idea of abandoning “exotic trappings of the lama and meet people on their own ground” (5). Trungpa started teaching in England, but did not find much success in his teachings because people found him “horribly hypocritical” (6) and expected him to behave as the stereotypical “Oriental Sage” (6). So he moved to the United States in hopes to spread his teachings.

In the United States, Trungpa tried as hard as possible to downplay his high Tibetan Buddhist status and tried more to assimilate with the cultural norms so he could better communicate with people he met. He “smoke and drank whiskey” (5) and tried as much as possible to become their friend. By becoming more personable and appealing to the American culture, he could be more respected and his teachings were well heard. He started the Rocky Mountain Dharma Center in Boulder, Colorado. This rural residential center acted as a place for his followers to live, meditate, and learn from Trungpa. His teachings spread and meditation centers across the country were set up. Trungpa asked very little of his students at first, but gradually with his laid-back attitude he was able to turn the students into the Buddhists. The students slowly asked to create more rules in the Rocky Mountain Dharma Center that allowed them to meditate more and focus on themselves. Trungpa showed that the “Buddha’s teachings were not aimed at a particular sort of person at a particular time, but at all of us, here and now” (16).

While his teachings emphasized the being present and in the moment one concept in particular inhibited people from doing this. The inhibitor was spiritual materialism. Trungpa characterized spiritual materialism as being “consciously centered on the material world and related preoccupations” (19). He stated that spiritual materialism had three lords. The Lord of Form consisted of the efforts to gain comfort and security. The Lord of Speech is using intellect to control the universe better and the Lord of Mind “perverts the spiritual desire to become more conscious and aware” (20). To combat the pressures of spiritual materialism, Trungpa stated that meditation was the best way to fight these feelings. He encouraged meditation because it encouraged people “not learn to be ‘right,’ but instead to be ever more open to what is” (25).

I really enjoyed this reading because it is a different approach to the religion from what we have seen from previous readings. I think it’s very intriguing that a man left the high status in Tibet to come teach in the United States. Although his approach is unorthodox, it definitely seemed to work. In order for people to understand what you are trying to teach them it is best to be on the same level as them as an equal to seem more relatable and trustworthy. While the spreading of the teachings did not come immediately, Trungpa’s approach of giving them the base of Tibetan Buddhism then letting the people run with it and develop norms on their own proved to make the transition into being a Buddhist feel more natural and less forced. In other religions such as Christianity, people attend church and read the bible in a very structured environment. Having less structure allows for more interpretation and increases the true fellowship and following that Trungpa was trying to build.

Unlike other readings, we can view this reading from our own perspective because it seems more familiar to us. I am wondering if this way of teaching Tibetan Buddhism was controversial at all in Tibet or if they would take this same stripped down and raw approach. How might the Tibetan’s view Trunga’s teachings? Do you think it is easier to gain followers in a place completely foreign to beliefs like the United States or a place with a little more familiarity of the religion? With this kind of teaching approach do you think there are gender hierarchies like the Buddhist nuns and monks? How might Trungpa and other followers view the Buddhist concepts the cycle of samsara and the idea of merit? Both samsara and merit are considered to be spiritual materialism in a way because it is a goal focused on a physical destination or qualitative goal. Are these concepts better than focusing on oneself and who one really is?

The Divine Madman

In order to get a brief summary of the texts, one may look no further than the titles of the two stories. Both titles aptly sum up the important events that occur in the stories. The first story is entitled How Drupka Kunley bound the Demons of Bhutan and directed the Aged of that Land to the Path of Liberation. This story chronicles Drupka Kunley’s adventures as he defeats various demons of Bhutan. An enlightened Lama, Kunley is visited in a dream by a goddess who tells him to travel to Bhutan to fulfill a prophecy that “foretold the conversion” (121) of the people living there. On his way to Bhutan, Kunley is faced with a variety of demons, all of which he defeats with his penis (also called his Flaming Thunderbolt of Wisdom). In addition to converting all of the demons to the way of the Buddha, Kunley also assists many elderly people out of Samsara. Using many unconventional techniques such as obscene prayers, Kunley helps many of Bhutan’s aged reach enlightenment. In this way, Kunley fulfills the prophecy initially stated in the beginning of the story – he binds many demons and sets many of the elderly on the path to liberation.

The second story is called How Drupka Kunley instructed his Consorts in the Southern Valley. In this story, Kunley teaches the people of the Southern Valley about sexual practices, worship, and other tenants by which one should live. Kunley mostly uses his sexual advances as ways to instruct the people about his various truths. This is exemplified by many of the situations Kunley finds himself in, specifically in the sex that Kunley has with many maidens. Kunely eventually instructs all the people of the Southern Valley about ethics, sex, and worship.

While reading these texts, it is important to remember the title of the work where these stories come from: The Divine Madman. Through this title, one can see that there is acknowledgement of Kunley’s madness despite his divinity. These stories might have been told in order to highlight that the divine manifest themselves in a variety of ways; although one may seem insane, they could harbor some spiritual qualities. Additionally, these stories may have instructed people about various teaching of the Buddha in a clear, easy to understand fashion. By using the most basic human drive – sex – the stories can be relatable to everyone, thus making them easier to understand.

I did have a few questions while reading the stories. Obviously, sexuality is a huge part of both texts and the images used to describe male and female sex organs differed greatly. Kunley’s penis is constantly described as a mighty and powerful object that can fell demons, whereas the few descriptions of female vaginas describe them as gaping and weak. I wonder if these kind of descriptions contributed to the idea that women are beneath men. Additionally, Kunley describes women as constantly wanting sex and they always lust after a man. I thought this seemed pretty contradictory, since Kunley himself states that he “never tires of girls” (140). Throughout the stories, it seemed as if women’s lust for sex was a negative thing, whereas Kunley’s carnal desires were used as instructive tools. Where did this idea come from? Are stories such as these powerful enough to dilute the thinking of a whole community?

Questioning the Intention of ‘The Divine Madman’

In Keith Dowman’s “The Divine Madman: The Sublime life and Songs of Drukpa Kunley,” he re-tells the legend and subsequent teachings of Lama, Drukpa Kunley, also referred to as the “Master of Truth, Lord of Beings, Drukpa Kunga Legpa,” (Dowman, 119). A multitude of legends are depicted in this particular excerpt of Dowman’s book ranging from how Kunley began his mythic journey as well as how he displayed his powers. Though there were too many stories to summarize in full here, I will do my best to describe a few to give the best sense of Kunley’s character. His spiritual path began when he had a dream while staying at “Lady Semzanngmo’s house in Nangkaste,” (119). In his dream he saw “a woman dressed in a yellow skirt, and holding a flaming sword,” (119). She spoke to him:

‘Drukpa Kunley, it is time that you fulfilled the prophecy that foretold the               conversion of the people of Bhutan, and the magical purification of that land. In            Bhutan you will establish a family which will serve the Drukpa Tradition to great advantage in the future. You must shoot an arrow to the south early in the morning as a harbinger of your coming.’ So saying, she disappeared, and Kunley awoke. (119)

Kunley discerns this dream as a divine message from the “Smoky Goddess” and thus follows the goddess’s instructions (119). The arrow travels far making a sound that the people think is a “dragon roaring,” but the children discern as Kunley’s arrow (119). The arrow lands in the home of a young couple whom become important much later in Kunley’s legend. The stories that follow all detail exactly what the chapter-head foretells. Essentially, they are all tales of how Kunley defeats demons that terrorize the lands as well as how he helps elderly women in their stages of death. The powers of which Kunley utilizes to defeat the demons derive from his erect penis, also referred to as his “flaming thunderbolt of wisdom.” (120) He uses his “thunderbolt” to hit the demons in the mouth and smash their teeth. In another interaction with a demoness, he unrolls his penis’ foreskin and covers the demoness with it, “render[ing] her completely helpless” (121). In yet another, a demoness, becomes “petrified,” unable to bear the sight of his “magical tower” (128). All the demons of which he interacts with either become bound to Kunley to do his biddings or become imprisoned in some natural formation.

I was completely struck when the first story of Kunley heavily involved his erect penis began because I found it so utterly jarring in comparison to other Buddhist texts we have read. I also found it quite a comment on the importance of being a male in society. To me, it almost seemed to edge on propaganda for how having a penis (or being male) is what matters in society. Kunley is essentially teaching how one can use masculinity to ward off evil as a weapon, as he does in the story. There is also a portion of the legend where after Kunley has smashed in a demon’s teeth, the demon runs to a nun sitting in deep meditation to ask for her advice (126). The nun explains that the demon has been hit by a “magical device” and that the kind of wound never heals. She opens her legs and reveals that the “wound” between her legs was made by the same weapon, and that it will never heal (126). The demon touches her “wound” or vagina, and smells his finger, complaining of its “putrid” smell. He exclaims, “I suppose mine will go the same way,” (127). Here, a clear comment on being a woman in Buddhist culture is being made. Essentially that as a woman one is wounded from the beginning. Unlike the penis, or as is described in the story as a “thunderbolt of wisdom,” one should be ashamed and wary of the vagina as it is a wound that cannot be healed. That like a wound, it is rotted and that is why the smell is so “putrid.” (127) This is in great contrast to the wisdom and great power of Kunley’s sexual organ which is to practically be worshipped.

The other portion of the first half of the text is about his dealings with old women near death. In the first story, in his travels Kunley passes a woman who is praying to him to receive his blessing (121). He reveals his identity to her, and she invites him to stay with her for food and ‘chung’ (a kind of alcohol) (122). She invites some of her friends, who are also older women to “pay their respects.” (122) To prove her faith to Kunley, she explains that she would give him her life (122). Kunley, fully intoxicated with chung, as well as knowing that she was to die that night anyways, shoots her with his bow and arrow. Due to this action, all the people in the town think he is a fraud, and are greatly angered. Kunley takes the old woman’s corpse to a storeroom and locks it inside. He promises to return in seven days, and for no one to open the storeroom before his return. However, on the sixth day, the old woman’s son returns home and hears what has happened. He is completely appalled by what he’s heard, and breaks open the storeroom. To the son’s great surprise he finds a pleaseant odor wafting out of the storeroom and the corpse transformed into a rainbow of light except for the “big toe on the right foot.” (123) Kunley returns at this moment and bites the ear of the woman’s son because he had opened the door too early. The son praised to Lama with “thanksgiving and devotion,” (123). The Lama explains that the son’s ‘thanks’ is not important but the fact that his mother was living in a “pure Buddha Land” now was what truly mattered (123). These kinds of stories continue all along the same theme of helping the elderly find peace in death. In one story he releases a dead person from the cycle of Samsara after bringing her back to life (124).

Leading up to the second half of the text, the reader gets the first look at Kunley’s escapades with girls. At one point when he finally reaches the home where his arrow landed, he becomes infatuated with the wife of the man of the house and wants to take her for his own (129). The man of the house tries to stab Kunley but fails as Kunley uses his powers to block his aim. The man of the house realizes Kunley is a Lama of great power and immediately offers the Lama his wife as well as his house to stay (129). The second part of the text is titled, “How Drukpa Kunley Instructed his Consorts in the Southern Valleys” (137). This part of the text describes Kunley’s ability to seduce many young virgins all of whom he promises to return to at different moments in time.

There is also a major moment in the text where the consorts and patrons of Bhutan ask him to give a “discourse upon the Buddhas’ Teaching,” (138). They ask him to make it understandable to common people but also for the teaching to have a “profound inner meaning.” (138) It is in these teachings that for me, raised the most questions as well as the most comments. Kunley presents himself as a highly powerful, highly sexualized being. His most powerful weapon is his penis and he uses it to both seduce virgins as well as to enslave demons. He makes comments on gender in his teachings that I found quite interesting in light of what we have learned previously about Buddhism. Sex is not something that I thought was forefront in Buddhist teachings, but in Kunley’s tales it is a huge part of his identity. Each teaching is riddled with gender binaries. What we’ve read about the subordination of nuns in Buddhist tradition was suddenly much clearer. One line is as follows: “Kunely never tires of girls, Monks never tire of wealth, Girls never tire of sex,” (140). The meaning here is clear: Kunley values sex, and “never tires” of his sexual escapades. He also dictates that Monks value wealth, which is interesting because much of Buddhist teaching is avoiding greed, and yet he explicitly notes that Monks value this. Additionally, he stereotypes and categorizes girls as to be used for sex by explaining that they “never tire,” (140). He also describes how “The sign of a rich man is a tight fist, The sign of an old man is a tight mind, The sign of a nun is a tight vagina” (139) His comment on gender here seems to allude to the fact that a nun’s virginity is her value and her power, and that is why she is a nun. I was extremely bothered by his attitude throughout the story. Other than his heroic dealings with demons, his demeanor was rude and arrogant. To me he came across as a figure I would be turned off by in worship, not one to glorify. In many of his dealings he is entitled as well as often highly intoxicated with chung, which seems to be used as an excuse for his behavior at times. I found Kunley’s teachings highly problematic. On the one hand I found it beautiful that he released the elderly women from the cycle from Samsara and the imagery of rainbows as well as the story of giving life to a corpse were truly engaging. However, they were in great contrast to his teachings on sex as well as a man and woman’s place in society which to me represented a facet of Buddhist tradition that is not well known or publicized.

Discussion Questions:

In scrutinizing his teachings, I would love to know how the rest of the class felt about the emphasis of Kunley’s “Thunderbolt of Wisdom” as such a main part of his legend. Specifically what role this statement would have on the followers of the religion and what impact it may have had on nuns as well as women in Buddhist culture.

Another question I would pose would be to discuss the significance of the people of whom he released from samsara being elderly women?

Lastly, I wanted to pose the question of why these legends were written? Who do you believe they were written for and what purpose would they serve?

“Freeing the Heart and Mind” — Strange Behavior

(Note: Although the title page on the E-Reserve PDF shows “Part 1: Introduction to the Buddhist Path,” this is a selection from “Part 2: Developing Compassion.” Also, there appear to be at least three different authors, editors, or compilers.)

This selection from His Holiness Sakya Trizin’s Freeing the Heart and Mind, which is focused on the development of compassion and the bodhisattva ideal, is broken into three sections. In the first section, entitled “The Life Story of Mahasiddha Virupa,” Jetsun Dragpa Gyaltsen provides a biographical account of Virupa, a mahasiddha of the Sakya lineage. Then, in “Training the Mind in Matchless Compassion,” we are presented with a meditation on compassion, originally delivered by Virupa himself. Finally, His Holiness the Forty-First Sakya Trizin, the current head of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism, explains the significance of Virupa’s meditation and guides us on how to properly perform it. This reading was rife with unfamiliar Buddhist concepts and terminology, and when necessary I consulted outside sources to get a better handle on the text.

In Virupa’s biography, we learn that he was a very unusual monk, both in his superb mastery of Buddhist doctrine and in his peculiar, and at times improper, behavior. Virupa, who was born between the seventh and eighth centuries CE, renounced the worldly pleasures of Indian royalty to join the monastic community. Though initially dissatisfied with his meditation practice, he eventually attained full enlightenment after encountering Vajra Nairatmya and other goddesses in a dream. The goddesses “bestowed upon him profound and complete initiation, empowering him into their mandala” (22). In Vajrayana, this empowerment is part of an initiation ritual in which the practitioner is instructed in tantric practice. As a mahasiddha, or tantric practitioner, Virupa gained liberation (moksha) and supernatural powers (siddhis) once he completed his instruction.

Once enlightened, Virupa continued to meditate in the monastery. Soon the other monks began noticing Virupa engaging in strange and inappropriate behavior, such as frequenting bars and brothels. They declared him to be improper and expelled him from the monastery; however they later forgave him once they recognized his power. Virupa began traveling around India, performing miraculous feats—e.g., reanimating dead insects, controlling the Ganges River, controlling the sun, destroying Vedic statues with his mind—and converting “heretical” yogis who were astonished and terrified by his powers. Eventually, the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara appeared and advised him to stop using terror and violence to achieve compassionate ends—e.g., to stop the slaughter of animals. After using his powers one last time to “tame” the Hindu deity Shiva, Virupa heeds this advice. His legacy: “through his spiritual power, the lord of mahasiddhas Virupa spread the Buddha’s doctrine and tamed heretics” (31).

In the next two sections, we see Virupa’s “Matchless Compassion” meditation and His Holiness Sakya Trizin’s explanation of it. We are shown the importance of developing compassion and the Awakening Mind (bodhicitta). The Bodhisattva Ideal is fundamentally important to Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, and the path of the bodhisattva requires us to be motivated by a sense of compassion for all sentient beings. To do this, Mahayana and Tantric meditations help us cultivate compassion for all people, even our enemies. We are told that those people who harm us in this lifetime were friends and family in other lifetimes, a reminder that we must transcend the animosity we feel toward those who cause us harm, for the superficial and karmically-conditioned aspects of personality that cause people to harm others conceal the deeper common bond of personhood. His Holiness explains that the way to cultivate widespread compassion is by expanding our compassion, starting with those closest to us and gradually directing it toward larger and larger groups, until we are directing compassion toward all. Other techniques His Holiness offers include contemplating on the fact that those who cause us harm are not in control of their mind, and pitying them for the great torment they risk facing in the hell realms.

Virupa is an intriguing figure and his peculiar behavior raises interesting questions. After attaining enlightenment, we are told he was “equal to that of a perfectly and fully enlightened Buddha” (22). And in Monday’s reading we learned that a Buddhist “must turn from worldly activities to religion by taking refuge in the Three Precious Jewels [i.e., the Sangha, the Buddha, and the Dharma]” (Kapstein, 216). So why is Virupa engaging in behavior indicating attachment to worldly things (e.g., prostitution, intoxicants)? Virupa’s aggressive terrorizing of “heretics” was also a strange thing for a master of compassion to be engaged in, even if it was done in the name of ending suffering—e.g., of animals. Do we expect the enlightened to act differently?

As always, I am also interested in the symbolic or allegorical significance of these biographical stories. If we doubt, as most of us would, that Virupa literally held the sun in one place with his mind, what purpose does such a tale serve? Is it simply an exaggeration of the less dubious claim that Virupa had mastered spiritual meditation and had attained a level of control over his mental faculties that most others do not ever attain? Yet, tantric practice is believed by many to give the practitioner supernatural powers (siddhis), so presumably Tibetans do actually believe Virupa was capable of such miraculous feats. Where does myth diverge from reality?

Finally, it would be interesting to discuss the differences between monks and nuns with respect to tantric practice. Are nuns able to receive the same type of “empowerment”?

Buddhism: Calm Peace or Violet Compassion?

In an excerpt from “The Life Story of Mahasiddha Virupa,” a chapter in His Holiness Sakya Trizin’s book Freeing the Heart and Mind, he describes the life story of Virupa, a master of the Buddhist text and practice. Virupa had a similar background to Siddhartha Gautama; he began as an upper class member of a royal family, but gave up his riches to become a monk and study at Nalanda University. He studied hard, excelled, and rose to the top. However, he never quite managed to achieve highly in meditation. He got frustrated and nearly gave up, but a goddess came to him in his sleep, instructing him how to reach enlightenment. Over time, “his realization was equal to that of a perfectly and fully enlightened Buddha (22).”

From there, he meditated constantly in his room, and other people claimed to see women, liquor, and oil lamps inside his room. Because of this, he decided to leave the university and he began to frequent bars and see prostitutes. The other monks decided to expel him from their community. After Virupa left the university, he set out on a journey and performed many miracles (similar to Jesus’s role in Christianity). He began by parting the waters of the Ganges to walk across it. Then, he escaped from heavy chains that people bound him with to drown him. He reversed the flow of the Ganges (causing a flood), he held back the sun (in order to drink up all the beer in a store without paying), he broke a shrine to Shiva to demonstrate his power, he mobilized a statue, and he destroyed a shrine run by heretics.

Through his actions, he gathered many followers and several people converted to Buddhism. However, he received warnings to stop wreaking havoc everywhere he went in the name of Buddhism. Despite these warnings, he challenged the Hindu god Shiva himself, and successfully gets him to follow his orders.

In another chapter of the book, “Training the Mind in Matchless Compassion: Pith Instructions of the Glorious Virupa,” His Holiness Sakya Trizin details meditative processes for how to feel compassion for everyone in the world. He tries to teach everyone how to embrace people that they hate by meditating and reflecting upon their enemies.

The two chapters struck me as an odd contrast to each other. In the first story, Virupa succeeds and gains power by obstructing people who challenge him with magic. Even when Virupa is warned to stop being so destructive, he carries out his original plans and receives positive reinforcement for his actions. The author clearly venerates Virupa and holds him in high esteem, regardless of what he left in ruins on his trajectory. This chapter seems to validate and accept the use of violence for the sake of Buddhism. However, the next chapter conveys quite an opposite message: it seems to be saying that if problems exist between two people, they should both just meditate and learn to accept the other person. A dichotomy exists between these forms of Buddhism: fierce propagation of Buddhism versus an introspective and individualistic search for inner compassion. Overall, I was surprised by the amount of brutality found in the reading. My question is: how accepted should violence be in the context of Buddhism? Is it appropriate for Buddhists to fight for their religion (as people have done in other religions) or does that go against the fundamental values of Buddhism?