Sunday, July 24, 2022

Tonpa Jon on Trungpa Rinpoche

 In the interest of preserving history I am copying Tonpa Jon’s FB post here. -  David 

Half-Full Moon in a Western Sky by Tonpa Jon

Many Americans can trace their original interest in Buddhism to Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Maybe it was one of his books with the catchy titles or one of the stories about his uncouth behavior, but he provided the spark that lit their curiosity. If he hadn’t existed, Buddhism would have a much smaller footprint in the West today. I met him in the early 70s and helped build three meditation centers for him. I took refuge, bodhisattva, and tantric vows with him, but perhaps the greatest blessing he ever gave me was to steer me away from his inner circle!

Why would I say that? Well, you had to be there to understand what it was like—Rinpoche was like a rock star; he was surrounded by roadies and sycophants. They were always keen to mimic his latest catch phrase and to ward off those who didn’t mimic. Their days were spent elbowing for prime positions in the pecking order… hoping to bask in the glow of his spotlight or maybe snuggle in his bed. For most of that crowd, the actual practice of meditation was poorly understood and only infrequently practiced. 

One of Rinpoche’s very first books was called ‘Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism’ and yet those closest to him were reveling in the celebrity of this new ‘Buddhist’ phenomenon with only minimal commitment to the actual mastery of shamatha and vipashyana. This pop star culture was allowed to flourish because Rinpoche wasn’t content to build an isolated retreat center for a few advanced yogins; he was creating a world-wide organization. To do that, he surrounded himself with the wealthiest, prettiest, most well-connected, most well-educated, most entrepreneurial, and most managerial people he could find. It wasn’t long before he was spread too thin, leaving his underlings desperate for his attention. As you can imagine, there was an abundance of back-stabbing and abuse of power.

I can still remember the shock when Rinpoche gave me the refuge name ‘Lodrö Thayé’. That was a great honor indeed, because that was the lineage name of Jamgon Kongtrul the Great. But as soon as Rinpoche’s inner circle found out about it, I was looked at with suspicion. Who was I to have such a name? I suddenly represented too great a threat to the established pecking order, so I was given the cold shoulder. Well, that suited me just fine because I considered their superficial antics to be embarrassing, both spiritually and institutionally. I was only there to discover the nature of mind; politics and empire building was not my bag. Rinpoche knew it, and I knew it.

Well, that was fifty years ago now… how times have changed! About 1978, Rinpoche upended his traditional Kagyu Lineage organization and replaced it with a non-sectarian Shambhala Kingdom of his own invention. He also replaced his Vajra Regent Osel Tendzin with his biological son Sakyong Mipham. From then on, heartbreak followed on heartbreak. In 1987, Rinpoche died of chronic liver disease due to his prolific intake of alcohol. Three years later, Osel Tendzin died of HIV/AIDS amid accusations of criminal behavior with his students. And in 2018, Sakyong Mipham fled to India to escape allegations of sexual misconduct and abuse of power. The once bright promise of Rinpoche’s world-wide dharma network is now in tatters. Students have moved on, dues have dwindled, and many properties have been sold off to pay the debts. All that remains now are a few well-meaning communities trying to pick up the pieces.

So the great question is, “What happened?” I ask that a lot. Where did it all go wrong? Recently, I took a look at Rinpoche’s book ‘Born in Tibet’ to see if it held any clues, and in retrospect I keep coming back to an obvious culprit… Culture Shock. We tend to forget that the first wave of Tibetan lamas and yogins that made their way to the West brought with them an almost medieval mindset, a brand of society more like Dark Age Europe, in which women were subservient and the abbots of monasteries wielded absolute power, both religious and secular. For almost a thousand years, the mechanism for the maintenance of that power has been the tulku system. Trungpa Rinpoche was one of those tulkus, so let’s revisit his transition from the rustic hills of Surmang to the skyscrapers of western materialism. It is one of the great stories of our generation.

At the advent of the Chinese genocide in Tibet in 1959, the three most important monasteries of the Karma Kagyu Order were Shechen, Palpung, and Karma. These were small and remote places even by Tibetan standards. Trungpa Rinpoche had never even visited Lhasa. Nonetheless, the abbot at Shechen was Jamgon Kongtrul the Second (1902-1952), a direct incarnation of Jamgon Kongtrul the Great, (aka Lodrö Thayé, 1813–1899).  Jamgon Kongtrul the Second was also the root guru of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Chogyam was the 11th Trungpa tulku, and as was common in Tibet, the 10th Trungpa Tulku had been one of Kongtrul’s main teachers. These symbiotic partnerships were a feature of monastic administration as can be seen between the Dalai Lamas and the Panchen lamas, or between the Karmapas and the Shamarpas. 

As I said above, the abbots of the monasteries were both spiritual and secular leaders in Tibet, and whatever you may think of the tulku tradition, it survived in that agrarian society for centuries. It was not a perfect system and there was corruption. In fact, one of the excuses the Chinese used to invade Tibet was to liberate the peasantry from this inbred monastic slavery. Paradoxically, there is no economic tyranny more brutal than Chinese Communism, and the hapless indigenous Tibetans have now become subservient to Han Chinese overlords. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, eh? And lest you think you are immune to such a disaster, look what is happening to American democracy and the rise of fascism in the Republican Party. Who in America does not ultimately owe his livelihood to an unelected corporate CEO?

But let’s go back to Trungpa’s situation in the 1950s. Khenpo Gangshar was the spiritual son of Jamgon Kongtrul II and he frequently managed the seminary at Shechen. Thus, when Trungpa arrived to train at Shechen, Gangshar became his primary tutor. Trungpa’s timing was fortunate because Kongtrul was just beginning the initiation (wangkur) for 'The Treasury of Precious Teachings' (Rinchen-terdzod), a collection of some 60 volumes compiled by Jamgon Kongtrul the Great. This transmission went on for six months, and although Trungpa was only twelve years old, he was enthroned as the primary disciple to carry on this particular wangkur.

Trungpa and other young tulkus then attended the seminary with 100 novices under Khenpo Gangshar. There were five kyorpöns (tutors) under Gangshar and one senior gekö. There were also two senior abbots at Sechen; Tulku Ramjam Rinpoche and Tulku Gyaltsap Rinpoche. Trungpa was in his element there and would gladly have stayed at Shechen indefinitely, but he was the abbot of some smaller monasteries at Surmang and Dudsi-til. Just as he turned fourteen years old, the sub-regent at Surmang died, and young Trungpa was summoned home. Kongtrul gave him leave to go, but cautioned that he needed to come back to complete his training. He said, 

༺ You are the moon, but you are only half-full… you have not yet completed your training. ༻   

Soon after this, the abbot of Palpung Monastery also died. He was yet another incarnation of Jamgon Kongtrul the Great, and he had also been a student of the 10th Trungpa Tulku. [Oh, the tangled webs we weave!] Chogyam Trungpa was expected to help with the funeral ceremonies, and on his way to the funeral at Drolma Lhakhang, he saw Chinese lorries for the first time. He had never seen a car before and he was dazzled by the brilliant headlights. He thought the red tail lights were little fires burning on the fenders. By this time the Chinese were building airports and roads in the region and their lorries were a menacing presence. Tibetans and their animals were often run over if they didn’t yield the right of way.

It was at Lhakhang that Trungpa met Akong Tulku for the first time. They were both the same age and struck up a teenage friendship. Across the river from Lhakhang Monastery is Mount Kulha, which the Bon religion worships as a guardian of Tibet. Mount Kulha also figures in the story of Gesar of Ling. Akong Tulku had once climbed up to a cave near the peak. The floor of that cave was covered in a layer of solid ice, and Akong told Trungpa that under that ice he had seen huge bones, some of which appeared to be human, but were so large that they could not have belonged to any modern man.

While at Lhakhang Trungpa was asked to give the wangkur for all 60 volumes of 'The Treasury of Precious Teachings'. This he did, which required him to stay for another six months. He was then asked to start giving meditation instruction as a guru, but he declined, telling them that he was not yet qualified and needed further instruction himself. He was also asked to become Akong’s guru, but again he declined saying he was not qualified. He suggested Akong go to Shechen for such training. 

In 1954, at the age of 15, Trungpa was finally able to return to Shechen to continue his education. Tibet was in turmoil now; it was overrun with Chinese merchants, building projects, and civic indoctrination committees. Trungpa’s own secretary was working for the Communists. Communist magazines and posters were being distributed to the monks. Trungpa was presented with a large picture of Mao Tse-tung and invited to visit Peking. He didn’t go, but in 1954 both the Panchen Lama and the Dalai Lama went to China to lobby with Mao. The Chinese now drove a wedge between the two most powerful leaders in Tibet. The Dalai Lama stood firm, but the Panchen Lama became the deputy chairman of the Chinese People's Consultative Conference.  

Trungpa now visited Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche who warned him, “You must guide yourself now, as in the future there will be no suitable teachers. A new era has begun in which the pure doctrine of the Lord Buddha will have to survive in the hands of individuals.  We can no longer rely on institutions and communities. It is young people like you who will have to bear the burden.” [This echoes what Rinpoche told me when I took refuge in 1974. I don’t think he saw himself as a great yogi; he was a builder. He was building an infrastructure where great yogis could emerge in the future.] The next day, Chinese Communists arrived with a propaganda film showing how they were transforming Tibet. They set up their projector in a the shrine hall and forced Khyentse Rinpoche to watch it with all his followers. This was the first time Trungpa Rinpoche had ever seen moving pictures. [Imagine that—your very first experience of a movie is a Communist propaganda film!]

Akong and Trungpa now went to Shechen for the next training session, but they soon learned that the Dalai Lama was returning from Peking. Everyone was anxious to learn what was in store for Tibet. Then they received a letter from Karmapa instructing them to come to Palpung for a Grand Kagyu Council. At this point, Communist minders and spies were following everyone. China was tightening its grip on Tibetan politics, and the monastic system was being throttled. Nonetheless, Karmapa decided to perform an enthronement for the next Tai Situ incarnation. When the Dalai Lama finally visited Derge in Eastern Tibet, the Communists did everything possible to limit his visibility. And when Trungpa returned home to Surmang, he too was now watched by Communist officials. In fact, the Chinese split off Eastern Tibet from Central Tibet and declared that Kham was not part of Tibet at all! 

Yet, even as the Chinese occupation was hardening, Trungpa planned to expand the seminary at Dudtsi til. His little brother, the nine-year-old incarnate Tamcho Temphel, was now the abbot of the small monastery of Kyere, and together they went to Shechen to find a new khenpo. While they were there, Kongtrul received a letter from Khyentse Rinpoche saying that he had been forced to leave Dzongsar Monastery for good. He intended to settle permanently in India. This was a real shock to the system. For the first time, all the Kagyupas began to contemplate the possibility of exile. Jamgon Kongtrul felt it was urgent for Trungpa to study with Khenpo Gangshar while there was still time. Trungpa suggested that Gangshar run the new seminary at Dudtsi-til, and Kongtrul agreed. During their last interview at Shechen, Kongtrul told Trungpa, 

༺ Always be aware of what you do as a teacher. If your understanding is not sufficient, there is a danger of using dharma words so carelessly that they lose their spiritual meaning. Remember that you yourself will continue to be a pupil along the way. ༻

[In the personal interview I mentioned earlier, Rinpoche said something similar to me. He said, “We are just fellow pilgrims on the path.” I think that message needs to be made clear in the West. Many western students view gurus like supernatural beings. They don’t think they can function without consulting a guru like an oracle. But the ultimate guru is your internal guru, and sooner or later self-empowerment has to take place within your own heart. Without that internal confidence, no external guru is going to wave a magic wand and make you enlightened.] In 1959, at the age of twenty-one, and with his spiritual training still incomplete, Trungpa Rinpoche joined the Tibetan exodus to India in order to escape Chinese atrocities. That part of the story is quite famous and often reported, so I’m going to skip ahead to his arrival in India. 

On Jan. 17th, 1960, the survivors of his party crossed the Brahmaputra River in yak skin boats. The once privileged Abbot of Surmang was now just another Tibetan refugee and he had no idea what the future held. It was at the refugee camp in Bir that the English woman Freda Bedi (Sister Palmo) took him under her wing. She asked him to become the spiritual advisor to the Young Lamas Home School in Dalhousie. Later, she helped him resettle in Kalimpong. This was something of a miracle. Rinpoche was introduced to Prime Minister Nehru, President Radhakrishnan, and John Driver. Then, in 1963, he received a Spalding sponsorship to attend Oxford University and Akong was chosen to assist him on the journey. 

What Rinpoche fails to mention in ‘Born in Tibet’ is how he disgraced himself in India. On his way out of Tibet he was exposed to alcoholic beverages for the first time. This was a violation of his monastic vows, but he found the experience irresistible. At the same time he was sexually attracted to a young nun, Konchok Paldon, who was part of his escape party. This was also a violation of his vows. Despite being an ordained abbot and still wearing the robes of a celibate monk, Rinpoche had sex with her in the refugee camp at Bir. He got her pregnant, and rather than taking responsibility for his indiscretion, he allowed the authorities to paper it over. She was cast out of her order and sent off to Bodhgaya where she worked as a road laborer while she raised her illegitimate son alone and unsupported. Rinpoche, on the other hand, set sail for Oxford untainted by any hint of scandal.

This was not the first time, either! Rinpoche himself tells of having sex with a Tibetan princess in Surmang, and she too became pregnant, and she too was abandoned. And his behavior in England was no less troubling. I won’t repeat all the stories here, but you can read about them in Diana Mukpo’s book ‘Dragon Thunder’, and in books by John Perks, Stephen Butterfield, and others. But I do want to quote something troubling that Rinpoche writes in ‘Born in Tibet’ about his spiritual transformation. Under mysterious circumstances, Rinpoche was driving a sports car in Northumberland while intoxicated, and he passed out behind the wheel. This resulted in an accident that nearly killed him. It paralyzed his left side and left him in convalescence for months. And even while he was in the care of some kind Scottish friends, he decided to have sex with a sixteen year old English schoolgirl. And here is what Rinpoche writes about these events in ‘Born in Tibet’:

༺ In spite of the pain, my mind was very clear... When plunging completely and genuinely into the teachings, one is not allowed to bring along one's deceptions. I realized that I could no longer attempt to preserve any privacy for myself, any special identity or legitimacy. I should not hide behind the robes of a monk… I determined to give up my monastic vows. More than ever I felt myself given over to serving the cause of Buddhism… I decided at this time to marry a young lady of the Pybus family [Diana Mukpo], a very devoted Buddhist who inspired me in my work. ༻

Really? She was a sixteen year old aristocratic runaway, and she admits that her only interest in Buddhism at that time was her infatuation with Trungpa’s otherworldly persona. That sort of hypocrisy drove a wedge between Trungpa and Akong that would never be repaired. The rancor became so great that the 16th Karmapa had to intervene. Akong took possession of the Surmang seals and holy relics and Trungpa was banned from teaching. To complicate matters, Trungpa’s illegitimate son had just arrived at Samye Ling from India, and the boy had to be left in the care of Akong while Trungpa and his underage wife flew off to Canada! 

And yet the story was far from over; a more improbable chapter was just beginning. Trungpa made his way to the United States and in defiance of Karmapa’s ban, he began to build an international network of meditation centers! Book after book and seminar after seminar he opened western eyes to Vajrayana Buddhism. Within a few years, other Tibetan lamas began to visit Trungpa, and in 1976 Karmapa himself arrived as if nothing had ever happened. Trungpa was not only forgiven but was declared a vidyadhara!

Well, that was forty-six years ago, and to this day I have always wondered why the 16th Karmapa was so quick to forgive Trungpa for his destructive behavior in India and England. Was it a supreme act of all-encompassing compassion? Was it a political move? Did Trungpa buy his indulgences with gold? I don’t think so. I think it goes back to that medieval tulku tradition. The 10th Trungpa Tulku had been one of the 16th Karmapa’s primary teachers, and Karmapa in turn had been one of Trungpa’s teachers. That bond was an essential branch of the Karma Kagyu lineage tree. In the Tibetan mindset, the 10th and 11th Trungpas were not separate people; they were separate incarnations of one continuous consciousness, and that consciousness was none other than Vajradhara. 

And even though a tulku may incur samsaric transgressions of body, speech, and mind in one particular incarnation, he is also the embodiment of various tantric transmissions that have come down through the ages, life after life, and century after century. And the vows we make to the guru in one little life or another, and the mistakes we make in nearly all of them, have to be seen from the perspective of the long game… the timelessness of the Buddhist Path. When two tulkus touch their foreheads together in a sign of respect, it represents the union of myriad Buddha Families in a fourth time beyond the three… beyond the passage of past, present, and future. That fourth time is not discovered by sitting on an executive committee, but by sitting on a meditation cushion.

༺ You are the moon, but you are only half-full… you have not yet completed your training. ༻

~ Ŧoƞpa Ɉoƞ Lođrö Ŧhayé

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