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Chögyam Trungpa

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Gurus/Spiritual Masters
Chögyam Trungpa
current suggested assessment
Tradition Tibetan Buddhist
Gurus A number of revered Tibetan Masters (see Wikipedia page for more
Category Nondual
Inspiration Tantric Buddhist
Disciples/Devotees Many, including Pema Chödrön, Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, Diane di Prima, and Ösel Tendzin.
Critics including Ex-Devotees Stephen T. Butterfield, The Double Mirror (Ex-Devotee); Georg Feuerstein, Link to Amazon com Holy MadnessAmerican Buddha website (requires sign up, I haven't joined but only because i don't like signing up at things)
Abuses Described by his critics as emotionally distant and authoritarian, but did not seem to be an abusive guru (or at most only Mild abuse?), most of his abuse was actually self-directed, especially his alcoholism, which eventually killed him.
Assesment Brilliant and immensely influential figure, lacking self-mastery; very polar opinions about him, perhaps this indicates an "Intermediate Zone" personality or realisation? On the balance, seems to have been a very positive figure, but his legacy, in popularised the meme of the "Crazy Wisdom" adept, has led to much harm in the hands of abusive gurus.

From Wikipedia:

Chögyam Trungpa (1940 - 1987) was a Buddhist meditation master, scholar, teacher, poet, artist, and a Trungpa tülku. He was a major figure in the dissemination of Tibetan Buddhism to the West, founding Vajradhatu and Naropa University and establishing the Shambhala Training method. His controversial career is characterized as "crazy wisdom" by his Western followers. He died at the age of 47 of alcohol-related liver failure.

The original "crazy wisdom" adept in the West, alcoholic, and womaniser, Trungpa was a brilliant teacher, but also a classic ambiguous / Intermediate Zone guru. Like other such gurus, he was totally lacking in self-control and was swallowed up by his own obsession for self-indulgence.

One of the chief popularises of Tibetan Buddhism to the secular world his teachings were based on a combination of Tibetan Buddhism, Zen, and Theravada, with an emphasise placed on practice, and all interpreted and presented in a language that Westerners can understand. For example he reinterprets (I think this is in Link to Amazon com Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism) the classic Buddhist cosmology as a morality story about this life; the gods are simply people are very well off in this life, beings in hell are those much more unfortunate; heaven and hell is in this world, not some non-physical realm.

Trungpa introduced a whole lexicon of new words that became influential in the alternative and integral movement - spiritual materialism, crazy wisdom, idiot compassion. Some of these words have been seriously misinterpreted and abused.

Review of The Double Mirror - an important critique by Stephen T. Butterfield
The Double Mirror: A Skeptical Journey into Buddhist Tantra - an important insight into Tibetan Buddhism and assessment of Trungpa from someone with first-hand experience

As with most Intermediate Zone gurus, Trungpa attracted a whole following of passive people who used their leader's weaknesses as justification for their own dysfunctional neuroses. So whilst Trungpa warned of the hazards of 'idiot compassion', his own followers did not know how to apply that knowledge to their leader, or (in the words of a friend who is a critic of abusive gurus "they would all have told him he was an obnoxious self indulgent drunk who compounded the problem by being ungrateful to the open immigration policies of the democracy whose principles he despised, and ungrateful for its tax exempt policies which enabled him to accumulate wealth at such a rapid rate because the rest of us unenlightened peasants subsidized him by paying our taxes on time." (see Butterfield (The Double MIrror) review for more on these claims)

It may well be that, despite his obvious flaws, Chögyam Trungpa was a genuine decent and highly spiritual man. There is a nice vibe from his photo, he obviously had something genuine about him. Like so many Eastern teachers to the West, was simply not prepared for the temptations that come with the power and prestige of being a popular guru. As with all such ambiguous figures, it is all too easy for the sceptic and critic to dismiss them out of hand, a task made easier when one considers the trial of human wreckage such people inevitably leave in their wake. To do so would be to take the easy way out, that of projection of the shadow, and thus avoid truly understanding what the Intermediate Zone is all about.

Yet, for all this, Buddhism is surely about walking the walk, not just talking the talk. So if even such a high ranking teacher as this goes astray, what does that say?

Chögyam Trungpa
A nice photo of Trungpa, as featured on the cover of Link to Amazon com Chögyam Trungpa: His Life and Vision (a hagiographic biography)

The following comments are from a 2001 external link interview with Lee Lozowick for What is Enlightenment? (WIE no.20, Fall–Winter 2001, "Enlightenment's Divine Jester Mr. Lee Lozowick - Rock 'n' Roll, Crazy Wisdom, and Slavery to the Divine", an interview with Mr. Lee Lozowick, by Hal Blacker

WIE: But when you think about people like Trungpa Rinpoche or Osho, it's a very different kind of scene. So it seems that to put yourself in the crazy-wisdom camp, so to speak, isn't completely appropriate. You seem different from most of the people who would be identified with that.

LL: That's part of my crazy-wisdom style. It's a funny thing because I hold Trungpa in absolutely the highest, highest regard. To me, Trungpa could do no wrong, even though he did some pretty heavy shit. There are other teachers who do far less than Trungpa did, who I wouldn't even consider to be teachers of any stature whatsoever, who I think are completely deluded, and who I would call charlatans. So who I respect and who I don't is purely an instinctual thing. It doesn't rest on linearity because there are certain teachers who are considered crazy-wisdom teachers because of their behavior who I think are just crazy, period—and not teachers at all. And yet Trungpa, whose behavior was really pretty much as wild as it gets, I hold in absolutely the highest regard.

WIE: There's no question, at least in many people's minds, that Trungpa had a great deal of realization. He had a tremendous effect on many people. And the kind of crazy wisdom that is as precise as a diamond cutter is, of course, what his students would claim for him. Yet the results of some of his behavior, it seems, haven't been so great. Look at the scandal involving AIDS and sex that occurred around his successor, Osel Tendzin. And Osel Tendzin and other students became alcoholics, for example. I think that one thing that happens is that students often tend to imitate their teacher and take on in many ways, perhaps unconsciously, the behaviors and attitudes of their guru. So, when you have someone like Trungpa carrying on the way he did, I think it was almost predictable that some of his students would do similar things.

LL: Well, that's a danger, and there's no way around that, I think. A really good teacher will work toward discouraging that in students, but there's no way around it. Students are going to copy the teacher, and in some cases, they'll bring integrity to it, and in most cases, they won't. So what you see are the most cases in which there's no integrity brought to it. The fact that students copy the teacher and the teacher can't stop it is not necessarily a mark against the teacher, the way I view it. Every new student coming into my school is supposed to really get a lecture, "Do as I say, not as I do." So, I highly discourage students from copying my behavior.

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page by M.Alan Kazlev. Wikipedia content licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Chögyam Trungpa". Lee Lozowick interview from What is Enlightenment? no.20, Fall–Winter 2001, external link Enlightenment's Divine Jester Mr. Lee Lozowick - Rock 'n' Roll, Crazy Wisdom, and Slavery to the Divine", an interview with Mr. Lee Lozowick, by Hal Blacker
page uploaded 16 November 2006, last modified 18 November 2008 (minor corrections 3 Mar 2011)