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?

8 thoughts on “Chögyam Trungpa and his Teachings

  1. I was more struck reading about Chogyam Trungpa than I was reading about Drukpa Kunley because while Chogyam wasn’t quite as absurd, he was a real person. It is easy to admire how bold he is, in refusing to cater to the wealthy and influential and intentionally angering people who pay to hear him speak. He seems like a unique religious figure, especially in his search for truth and genuine human contact above the religious establishment and the hypocrisies it presents. Still, though, I think he got a little carried away with the whole hippie movement and his desire to be a real man of the people. He has so convinced himself that it is better to go out and get drunk on a huge farm with a few impressionable young students than to talk to older and wealthier Americans that he doesn’t really seem to have the open mind he claims to prize. I kept thinking of Holden Caufield during this reading, and how the Lama came off, to me at least, as honest and well-meaning, yes, but also self-righteous and hypocritical.

  2. I found Cole’s comment that Rinpoche comes off as self-righteous and hypocritical to be very interesting. Rinpoche seems extremely genuine in his attempts to convert people to Buddhism and open their eyes about what the religion can can do for a true follower. He reprimanded those who were only interested in pseudo-Buddhist cultural aspects like antiques, and tried to reinforce the value of meditation and other actual aspects of Buddhist culture. I think that counterculture and hippies attempted to live similarly to Rinpoche, as they wanted to be as authentic as they could be and were disillusioned with the conformity and living up to meaningless social standards. Rinpoche engaged with the hippies because he was excited by their ideals and found that they resembled his own. I see how Cole was disturbed by his hypocrisy by only really reaching out to a certain type of person, yet I still that that Rinpoche did not purposely mean to be this way; he just saw potential and thought these people with whom he was drinking in fields could actually appreciate what he was trying to teach.

  3. I think it’s really great that you brought up what other Tibetans might think of Trungpa’s teachings and approach, because it is different from traditional methods. I also would like to know how samsara and merit fit into Trungpa’s teachings because I got the impression that he did not include these concepts when he introduced Buddhism to the west. I don’t know why he wouldn’t include them, and he very well might have, but that’s just the sense I got from this excerpt.

  4. For some reason I couldn’t read this without thinking of Buddhism as a product that was being advertised and sold. From the beginning, where it was mentioned that “their open-mindedness-and even their confusion-created a fertile ground for the arrival of Buddhism,” (4) and the fact that Trugnpa “used to stop people in the streets and ask them if they had heart of meditation…and give them a copy of his book,” (8) to me just painted a picture of commodifying the religion. Although I did get a sense that Trugnpa was genuine in his beliefs, his focus on making himself and the religion relatable reminded me of tactics used to get people to purchase a product.

  5. My initial reaction to this reading was very similar to yours Araceli. It did at first feel as if he were trying to “sell” his brand of Buddhism. But after reading about Trunga’s passion and love for his followers, ” ‘I’m sorry to be so crude, so emotional, but I feel I would like to make love to everybody in the community, and I feel that you can understand what I’m trying to say . . . I’m putting my trust in you’ ” (26). To me, it seems Trunga has no motive but to introduce the potential for facing one’s self to all who are willing.

  6. At first I was a bit annoyed by his eccentric acts such as not keeping time promises or being blatantly rude. While I still am skeptical about his early behavior, as I read on I could better understand the extent that he had to go in order to keep the ‘authenticity’. During a time when eastern religions were often fetishized, Trungpa’s approach was perhaps an inevitable method in order to remain true to his idea of the Buddha’s teachings. The questions you presented are very creative and I think they’ll make an interesting discussion.

  7. I was so fascinated by this reading. It answered a lot of questions about the spread of Buddhism that I’d been wondering I really like Geralyn’s point about how in order for the religion to spread successfully Trungpa had to find ways to equalize himself with the masses. I think this is highlighted really well in the text and shows how Buddhism has evolved in different regions of the world.

  8. The past couple readings have shown powerful figures in Buddhism who do not conform to societal norms and expectations (i.e. Drukpa Kunley). So, I thought that it was really interesting to read about someone who tried really hard to conform. Through Trungpa’s efforts to assimilate into the American way of life, we are presented with a figure quite unlike anyone we have read about before. However, this conformity is extremely goal driven – a goal that he does eventually reach (in converting people to Buddhism). I wonder if there is a theme throughout Buddhist stories that advocate for a some sense of conformity. Those who did not conform were called “madmen” or “crazy” and struggled to attain followers. Trungpa’s decision to not conform yielded him a few, passionate followers.

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