Chögyan Trungpa

Farbice Midal’s book, Chögyan Trungpa: His Life and Vision, is a great memoir about a man who had immeasurable importance to the spread of Buddhism during the 1970’s. By retelling Chögyan Trengpa’s life story, and describing different aspects of his worldview and Buddhist teachings, Midal is able to capture the life of an important Buddhist character and the connection between his teachings and the popular hippie movement of the 1970’s.

Chogyan Trungpa grew up as an ordained lama, a child who was looked up to by his entire community and treated with the utmost respect. However, after spending years studying in England, he realized that in Europe, as well as in the US, many people assumed that a Buddhist religious leader should adhere to certain conventions, however, Trungpa believed that these conventions only proved to distance followers from the truth behind the Buddha’s teachings, so he chose not to fit the mold that Western society had created for him. Instead, he knew that by downplaying his religious status he would be able to better connect with those who wished to learn about the Buddhist lifestyle and what he had learned throughout his Buddhist life. He decided to do away with every aspect of the glamorous lifestyle he lived in Tibet, since it didn’t hold any meaning once he transitioned to his American life. In essence, Midal believes Trungpa to be a man who didn’t simply talk to the talk, so to say, but actually walked the walk as well, in that he was one of the few people who displayed true renunciation.

Midal goes on to describe how the hippie movement, which brought along with it many young people in search of “a world of peace and love”, bonded well with the teachings of Buddhism. (7) He even goes as far as claiming that Chögyan Trungpa embodied the “deepest aspirations” of the hippie movement. (4) For hippies struggling to attain the “authenticity and freedom” they desired during the 1970’s, Midal insists that Trungpa offered an outlet like no other in the Western world.

Exiled from his home country of Tibet, Trungpa travelled widely throughout the United States, founding communities of hippies and other followers who studied his Buddhist teachings. One of the most important beliefs that Trungpa tried to present in his teachings was that Buddha’s teachings were timeless and applied to all beings. This challenged the way that many people studied the works of the Buddha, because they imagined that the teachings of the Buddha were directed only to certain Buddhist worshippers who lived during his time.

In the authors mind, Trungpa headed a movement that revolutionized the way in which Buddhism was taught in the Western world. Influenced largely by Zen and Theravada Buddhism, and his years spent learning different teaching strategies at Oxford, Trungpa was able to connect with many Americans and was able to help many of them realize their connection with Buddhism. Regardless if Trungpa was in the East or the West, however, he felt that his teachings were constrained by one thing: spiritual materialism. Midal presents Trungpa’s three conceptions of materialism. First, Trungpa taught of the lord of Speech, which was a metaphor for the adaption or alteration of concepts or understandings in order to form a coherent and controlled perception of the universe. The Lord of Form, on the other hand, symbolized the need for people to control their physical surroundings so that any “possible sources of irritation” are swept away. Lastly, The Lord of Mind pertains to the desire of many people during meditation to attain a state of being that matches the one that they strive for, which in turn hinders their ability to attain a genuinely spiritual state. (20) As Midal articulates, only through “being honest and realizing the reality of our suffering”, can one surmount these three forms of materialism. (11) To Trungpa, the hippies were confused by an illusion that they needed saving, and that by escaping reality, through mediation or drug use, they would in some way find a spiritual path that would lead them away from the sufferings of their human experience. By denouncing teachings by past Buddhists that permit spiritual materialism and cater to one’s ego, Trungpa was able to revolutionize how Buddhism was taught and how many people in the West understood the religion that once seemed so exotic and unusual.

I enjoyed this reading very much, as it was very easy to follow and seemed to be catered to an audience of Western students. I was intrigued by many aspects of Trungpa’s life that Midal described, but I was most interested by his decision to do away with the religious status that he grew up with, in order to more easily connect to followers of different cultures, such as hippies in the US. I had known in the past that some hippies found the teachings and traditions of Buddhism appealing, but I believe that this article helped me to better understand their connection and why many amongst the radical generation of the 70’s were naturally drawn to Buddhism during that time.

I would be curious to learn more about how Buddhism is taught now, especially in the West, and see how it has evolved since the decade of the hippies. Another thing I found myself wondering was what impact his followers have had on Buddhism in the US. Have they continued to open new communities for spiritual learning, like the Tail of the Tiger? Do aspects of our modern world change, or even hinder, the way in which they operate? Can Buddhism coexist in a society dominated by technology, or is there something inherent in the true Buddhist lifestyle, which Midal lays out, that can’t endure in our current world?

13 thoughts on “Chögyan Trungpa

  1. I agree that this reading was very interesting and easy to read. I found it intriguing that Tibetan Buddhism was virtually unknown in the west until Chögyan Trungpa moved to the US and began having lectures and seminars. In addition, I was not aware that the Hippie movement of the 70s looked to Buddhism as a religion. Lastly, Chögyan Trungpa’s willingness to abandon the luxuries he had as a Lama in order to relate more to people in the US was very compelling. I also was surprised to read that Chögyan Trungpa took on habits of the Hippie movement such as drinking whiskey and taking psychedelic drugs because this is unheard of for Lamas to do.

  2. I was very surprised that the lama took the drugs that the hippies did and I wonder how that affected his view of Buddhism. I feel like someone with his background would see very interesting images after taking a psychedelic drug. I would love to read something he himself wrote about what he experienced during those times.

  3. This discussion of spiritual authenticity raises some interesting questions. We are sometimes tempted to view Western, modernized forms of Buddhism as less authentic—and in fact this is what Chogyam Trungpa found in the United States in the 70s (see p. 25). However, I wonder if there is a sense in which the introduction and development of Buddhism in a new region may in fact lend itself to a more authentic spiritual practice, as it is not spoiled by established convention. In other words, by “starting anew,” could we avoid the danger of becoming attached to a certain way of practice, a danger that Chogyam Trungpa, Virupa, and Drukpa all cautioned and rebelled against. Any thoughts?

  4. Following along the lines of Drew’s comment, I have read that many Southeast Asian religions are influenced by various psychedelics and that for example, the Rigveda speaks of psychedelic-like substances (Supernatural Meetings With The Ancient Teachers of Mankind by Graham Hancock). If the history of drugs has been so related to different religions and their history, I couldn’t help wonder if psychedelics had not played a substantial part in Buddhism before this association to hippies in America.

  5. I liked how straightforward this reading was, and I really appreciated what he said about how the desire for material comforts is not intrinsic. The Western world always has this notion that improvement and expansion are goals and are solutions to avoid fear and insecurity. However, the passage correctly points out that this desire for improvement will only continue to increase as one gains material pleasures and achieves a certain level of stability. The Western world has largely fallen into this competitive and never-ceasing cycle of material desire, and it only continues to worsen.

  6. I agree with others that I enjoyed how straightforward and easy the reading was to read, and I was also surprised to learn that Buddhism only came to the West with Chogyam Trungpa. I am not that surprised that hippies started to adopt the ideas as well because it seems like something that they would enjoy following due to the nature of the religion. I did find it interesting that Chogyam Trungpa was affected by the amount if had changed. I think the change was slightly inevitable just because it has been transferred to an entirely new culture and I also thought it was interesting because Buddhism sometimes shows how it is lenient to change thats why there are so many forms. Overall the reading was good and I enjoyed it.

  7. I too found this reading more relatable than the others. To respond to Matt’s question about if modern society and technology can coexist with Buddhism, I do think that they clash (especially in US society). The US’s (and many other countries’) consumerist economy and culture drives people to many of the desires that Buddhists so abhor. However, the “hippie” and countercultural movements often involve deemphasizing the importance of material possession, which correlates with Buddhist thought to some degree.

  8. This is one of my favorite readings that we read for this class. Like many others pointed out, it was very relatable and easy to read. I personally found that Chögyam Trungpa’s “humanness” made the stories much more believable and the lessons he wanted his followers to realize were much clearer than those of Virupa and Drukpa Kunley. Though I truthfully still do not completely understand the stories of Virupa and Drukpa or their purposes, I found that as I read about Chögyam, I was gaining a better understanding of them. Fabrice Midal explains, Chögyam “did not present himself in a polished way; he was willing to be shocking, incredible, strange, unexpected, or disturbing” (10). I felt that these adjectives perfectly described the actions of Virupa and Drukpa in the texts we read previously and seeing a spiritual leader with more human-like characteristics (Chögyam) manifest these same qualities on a smaller scale made it easier to grasp the motives of Virupa and Drukpa. However, I do think that the way in which Chögyam leads is more effective in gaining true followers than the way in which Virupa and Drukpa lead. While they converted people through fear and force, Chögyam takes the time to really get to know his followers. He “did not want to be seen as a distant master to be placed on a pedestal, but rather as someone with whom it was possible to have a frank, direct relationship” (5). I find his devotion to being one with his followers and being completely honest with them as very respectable qualities in a leader – ones that would generate very authentic, devoted followers.

  9. This reading was so interesting to me and something that has really resonated with me. I question, is this method an efficient way of spreading a religion? Many of our readings up until now have not covered how a religion is spread, but more the details and rituals of practices in a religion. Does Trungpa present to us a successful method of reaching out to different audiences and successfully influencing and spreading religion? What worked and didn’t? How can others learn from his methods in terms of spreading beliefs?

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