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?

Thomas Coburn’s Encountering the Goddess

Thomas B. Coburn’s article, “Encountering Goddess” focuses on the Devī-Māhātmya- a source which he claims “has been one of the major verbal artifacts that has been left in the Indian subcontinent.” (1) Coburn attempts to make the Devī-Māhātmya available to western scholars, by translating it into English, and strives to present it in a fashion that would approximate the its sense from the time it was first created. He believes that since the Devī-Māhātmya has “functioned as a relatively autonomous phenomenon”, therefore, “it is necessary to take account of its fixed, reified quality.” (9)

In writing this article, Coburn is interested in two “revolutions”, which he discusses in his introduction. The first is the feminist movement, which he supports since it has pushed people across the globe to question how societies function around the lines of gender. His writing is inspired by a desire to contribute to this movement by giving western scholars access to the story where a female character, a goddess, plays the main role.

The other revolution that Coburn addresses in his introduction is one that deals with how people consider the role of books in relation to religious life. As Coburn points out, it has become increasingly common for religions across the globe to attach themselves to written texts, which they deem as the literal word of god. He is weary of the fact that many people may overestimate the authority that written sources should have in religious life, since he believes people are too easily convinced that written text is inherently more authentic and true than other sources.(10) Although it may seem quite taboo to some readers, Coburn explains that in the Hindu tradition, the actual meaning of a source like the Devī-Māhātmya isn’t as important as its recitation and form. He wants his reader to know that their ability to appreciate a translated source, like the Devī-Māhātmya, is inherently limited.

Following his introduction, Coburn presents his translated version of the Devī-Māhātmya. I found this portion of his text to be extremely hard to follow, through little fault of his own. The translation comes in the form of a discussion, in which stories of warring gods and goddesses are narrated. The story of how Mahamaya was born and how the goddess was able to reign, as the supreme being over all the other gods, is also told. It is unfair to comment too harshly on Coburn’s ability to help the reader understand his translation of the Devī-Māhātmya, since this reading only comprises of his introduction, however, it is definitely not easy to follow.

This reading connects to readings we have had already done in this class, specifically this week’s earlier assignment on Nepal’s cow procession. In both sources, the writers are focused on groups that have been excluded or reduced in Indian life. In the same manner in which people have begun to take advantage of the forged celebration of the cow procession in order to push the mandalic limits in attempt to become included in the religious tradition, Coburn attempts to display the greatness and virtues of female characters in Hindu traditions in order to stress the role that women can, and should, play in the religion.

For our class discussion on this reading, I would be interested to know what other students felt was the most significant idea they took away from reading Coburn’s translation. Did his introduction and translation make you ponder the role of gender and how it functions? I would also be interested in knowing if other students have ideas on how Coburn’s writing could be improved, especially in regards to the somewhat overwhelming nature of the Devī-Māhātmya itself. How could Coburn help his reader follow along with the meandering narrative in the source? Would short explanations placed throughout the translation have helped you while reading it?