Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (February 28, 1939 – April 4, 1987) was a Buddhist meditation master and holder of both the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages, the eleventh Trungpa tülku, a tertön, supreme abbot of the Surmang monasteries, scholar, teacher, poet, artist, and originator of a radical representation of Shambhala vision.
Recognized both by Tibetan Buddhists and by other spiritual practitioners and scholars as a preeminent teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, he was a major, albeit controversial, figure in the dissemination of Tibetan Buddhism to the West, founding Vajradhatu and Naropa University and establishing the Shambhala Training method.
Among his contributions are the translation of a large number of Tibetan texts, the introduction of the Vajrayana teachings to the West, and a presentation of the Buddhadharma largely devoid of ethnic trappings. Regarded as a mahasiddha by many senior lamas, he is seen as having embodied the crazy wisdom (Tib. yeshe chölwa) tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Some of his teaching methods and actions were the topic of controversy during his lifetime and afterwards.
Born in the Kham region of Tibet in February 1939, Chögyam Trungpa was eleventh in the line of Trungpa tülkus, important figures in the Kagyu lineage, one of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Among his three main teachers were Jamgon Kongtrul of Sechen, HH Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, and Khenpo Gangshar.
The name Chögyam is a contraction of Chökyi Gyamtso (Tibetan: ཆོས་ཀྱི་རྒྱ་མཚོ་, Wylie: Chos-kyi Rgya-mtsho), which means "ocean of dharma". Trungpa (Tibetan: དྲུང་པ་, Wylie: Drung-pa) means "attendant". He was deeply trained in the Kagyu tradition and received his khenpo degree at the same time as Thrangu Rinpoche; they continued to be very close in later years. Chögyam Trungpa was also trained in the Nyingma tradition, the oldest of the four schools, and was an adherent of the ri-mé ("nonsectarian") ecumenical movement within Tibetan Buddhism, which aspired to bring together and make available all the valuable teachings of the different schools, free of sectarian rivalry.
Already installed as the head of the Surmang monasteries in eastern Tibet, Trungpa followed the Dalai Lama who fled Tibet during the ultimately unsuccessful 1959 Tibetan uprising against the Chinese communists. He was 20 years old, and he led his own party of monks across the Himalayas on foot and on horseback into India.
From 1959 to 1963, by appointment of the Dalai Lama, Trungpa served as the spiritual advisor for the Young Lamas Home School in Dalhousie, India.
In exile in India, Trungpa began his study of English. In 1963, with the assistance of sympathetic westerners, he received a Spalding sponsorship to study Comparative Religion at St Antony's College, Oxford, part of Oxford University, in England. In 1967, upon the departure of the western Theravadan monk Anandabodhi, Trungpa and Akong Rinpoche were invited by the Johnstone House Trust in Scotland to take over a meditation center, which then became Samye Ling, the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the West. At this monastery in Scotland, future actor and musician David Bowie was one of Trungpa's meditation pupils. In 1970, after a break with his fellow lama Akong Tulku Rinpoche, Trungpa moved to the United States at the invitation of several students.
Shortly after his move to Scotland, a variety of experiences, including a car accident that left him partially paralyzed on the left side of his body, led Trungpa to give up his monastic vows and work as a lay teacher. He made that decision principally to mitigate students' becoming distracted by exotic cultures and dress and to undercut their preconceptions of how a guru should behave. He drank, smoked, slept with students, and often kept students waiting for hours before giving teachings. Much of his behavior has been construed as deliberately provocative and sparked controversy. In one account, he encouraged students to give up smoking marijuana, claiming that the smoking was not of benefit to their spiritual progress and that it exaggerated neurosis. Students were often angered, unnerved and intimidated by him, but many remained fiercely loyal, committed, and devoted.
Upon moving to the United States in 1970, Trungpa traveled around North America, gaining renown for his ability to present the essence of the highest Buddhist teachings in a form readily understandable to Western students. During this period, he conducted 13 Vajradhatu Seminaries, three-month residential programs at which he presented a vast body of Buddhist teachings in an atmosphere of intensive meditation practice. The seminaries also had the important function of training his students to become teachers themselves.
In 1973, Trungpa established Vajradhatu, encompassing all his North American institutions, headquartered in Boulder, Colorado. Trungpa also founded more than 100 meditation centers throughout the world. Originally known as Dharmadhatus, these centers, now more than 150 in number, are known as Shambhala Meditation Centers. He also founded retreat centers for intensive meditation practice, including Shambhala Mountain Center in Red Feather Lakes, Colorado, Karmê Chöling in Barnet, Vermont and Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia.
In 1974, Trungpa founded the Naropa Institute, which later became Naropa University, in Boulder, Colorado. Naropa was the first accredited Buddhist university in North America. Trungpa hired Allen Ginsberg to teach poetry and William Burroughs to teach literature.
Trungpa had a number of notable students, among whom were Pema Chödrön, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Anne Waldman, Diane di Prima, Peter Lieberson, José Argüelles, David Nichtern, Ken Wilber, David Deida, Francisco Varela, and Joni Mitchell, who portrayed Trungpa in the song "Refuge of the Roads" on her 1976 album Hejira. Ginsberg, Waldman, and di Prima also taught at Naropa University, and in the 1980s Marianne Faithfull taught songwriting workshops. Lesser-known students Trungpa taught in England and the US include Alf Vial, Rigdzin Shikpo (né Michael Hookham), Jigme Rinzen (né P. Howard Useche), Ezequiel Hernandez (known as Keun-Tshen Goba after setting up his first meditation center in Venezuela), Miguel Otaola (aka Dorje Khandro), Francisco Salas Roche, and Francesca Fremantle. Rigdzin Shikpo promulgated Trungpa's teachings from a primarily Nyingma rather than Kagyü point of view at the Longchen Foundation.
In 1976, Trungpa began giving a series of secular teachings, some of which were gathered and presented as the Shambhala Training, inspired by his vision (see terma) of the legendary Kingdom of Shambhala. Trungpa had actually started writing about Shambhala before his 1959 escape from Tibet to India, but most of those writings were lost during the escape.
In his view not only was individual enlightenment not mythical, but the Shambhala Kingdom, an enlightened society, could in fact be actualized. The practice of Shambhala vision is to use mindfulness/awareness meditation as a way to connect with one's basic goodness and confidence. It is presented as a path that "brings dignity, confidence, and wisdom to every facet of life." Trungpa proposed to lead the Kingdom as sakyong (Tib. earth protector) with his wife as queen-consort or sakyong wangmo.
Shambhala vision is described as a nonreligious approach rooted in meditation and accessible to individuals of any, or no, religion. In Shambhala terms, it is possible, moment by moment, for individuals to establish enlightened society. His book, Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, provides a concise collection of the Shambhala views. According to Trungpa, it was his intention to propagate the kingdom of Shambala that provided the necessary inspiration to leave his homeland and make the arduous journey to India and the West.
On September 28, 1986, Trungpa, in failing health due to the auto accident in his youth and to years of heavy alcohol use, suffered cardiac arrest, after which his condition deteriorated further, requiring intensive care at the hospital, then at his home, and finally back at the hospital in mid-March 1987, where he died on April 4. In 2006 His wife, Diana Mukpo, wrote, "Although he had many of the classic health problems that develop from heavy drinking, it was in fact more likely the diabetes and high blood pressure that led to abnormal blood sugar levels and then the cardiac arrest". But in a November 2008 interview, when asked "What was he ill with? What did he die of?," Trungpa's doctor, Mitchell Levy, replied, "He had chronic liver disease related to his alcohol intake over many years." One of Trungpa's nursing attendants reported that he suffered in his last months from classic symptoms of terminal alcoholism and cirrhosis, yet continued drinking heavily. She added, "At the same time there was a power about him and an equanimity to his presence that was phenomenal, that I don't know how to explain."
Trungpa is reported to have remained in a state of samādhi for five days after his death, his body not immediately decaying and his heart remaining warm. His body was packed in salt, laid in a wooden box, and conveyed to Karmê Chöling. A number of observers have reported that his cremation there on May 26, 1987, was accompanied by various atmospheric effects and other signs traditionally viewed as marks of enlightenment. These included the appearance of rainbows, circling eagles, and a cloud in the shape of an Ashe.