The Beer-Sodden Mystery of Chogyam Trungpa

Mindfulness in Action by Chogyam Trungpa. Shambhala. 196 pp. $21.95.

Twenty-seven years ago, on my first trip to Mexico, I was sitting in the back seat of a bus on the outskirts of Oaxaca. My wife and I weren’t on a tour; we had joined a group that was studying Spanish at a school in Cuernavaca, and had come to Oaxaca for the Guelaguetza. The woman I was talking to was a school teacher in Los Angeles, studying Spanish because many of her students were Hispanic; she’d been up late the night before and looked weary and washed out, slightly hungover.

Still, she was an interesting and sympathetic person, fun to talk to. I’m not quite sure what I’d said, but I think it was something to the effect that I’d recently read The Way of Zen and was really struck by it, had been reading Krishnamurti but had trouble getting a handle on him, didn’t know where to go from there. I often mentioned those things to people at the time, seeing what they would say. Most didn’t say much.

She closed her eyes for a moment, as if pondering this matter, then opened them and gazed at me. “There are two books you should read. One is Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. The other is Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior. They’re both by the same man, a Tibetan named Choygyam Trungpa.”

She spoke with authority, and was the first person to give such specific advice. On the other hand, I’d barely stuck my toe into Eastern waters, was still wary of what I was finding, and there was a little voice inside me saying, This woman’s a California weirdo. There’s no way I’m ever going to read a book called, Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior.

My wife—though we weren’t married at the time—began attending Divinity School in Cambridge that year, but I didn’t join her because my son was starting his senior year in high school. By the following year, she was more settled, had transferred to Harvard from the Jesuit school where she’d begun, and had decided that, if I was going to join her in Cambridge, we needed a spiritual practice in common. I felt no need either to have or share a spiritual practice. But I was in a new place, had nothing better to do, and figured I’d pick my battles. It wasn’t worth arguing about.

Thus I began the single most important activity of my life.

I didn’t realize that right away. For a while I just did it because it was the homework in this class I was taking. I was also searching Boston at that time for a good masseuse—I’d discovered massage a few years before and really valued it—and at one house I tried, the masseuse was finishing up with a client on the second floor while I was down on the first, looking over her books. I stumbled into a copy of Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, with a dedication in the front that said, “He may have been a drunk and a womanizer, but he wrote a great book.”

Actually, he didn’t write it. Like many authors of famous Buddhist books, Chogyam Trungpa wasn’t a writer, but a speaker, and Cutting Through Spiritual Materialismperhaps his most famous book—was a series of talks he gave in 1970 and ’71. It was indeed a great and important book, as I found when I read it several years later, and it spoke to a particular American tendency: turning spirituality into an entity that we want to possess and get something out of. Ask not what you can do for religion; ask what religion can do for you. That wasn’t the intention behind the great traditions. People were surrendering to something larger, not tying it up in a neat package and trying to own it.

But Trungpa’s greatest book, to my mind—and I speak now as someone who has read much of his work, who in fact owns the seven hardback volumes of the Collected Works (though more has come out since)—is Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior. The book which I once thought sounded New Agey is not that way at all, though it references an ancient mythical kingdom where people devoted themselves to meditation. It is the most practical down-to-earth advice on how to live a meditative life I’ve ever encountered. I don’t know how many times I’ve now read it all the way through, but I would guess at least ten. The most recent time was a month ago. Not only did it hold up to a tenth reading, it seemed more powerful and profound than ever.

Trungpa was a drunk and womanizer. He apparently slept with any number of his students, and not only drank excessively, he often drank while giving a talk, and died of liver disease at the age of 471. He never, however, hid his behavior. He was completely open about both activities.

I understand the sex better than the drinking. Trungpa was a loving man, was surrounded by good-looking hippie women who were into sex. Who can blame him? But this man whom many people describe as the most open and clear mind they’ve ever encountered: how could he sit there guzzling malt liquor while he gave a talk? The thought boggles the mind.

But I have long since given up wanting my teachers to be perfect. Teaching Buddhism is a creative activity, and I see no reason that teachers should be less crazy than other creative people. There have been times, I admit, when I’ve turned against Trungpa in disgust, hearing that his dharma heir—a chip off the old block—knowingly transmitted HIV to students without telling them, or hearing about the abominable way Trungpa abused the great poet W.S. Merwin, but I’ve always come back to the teaching. It is so clear and elegant, so aesthetically beautiful, that sometimes nothing else will do.

Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior is Trungpa’s attempt to secularize Buddhist teachings. He created a way of living for people who were turned off by all religions, even Buddhism. (In a way I think the Buddha did the same thing. All of his teaching is about how to live a good life and avoid unnecessary suffering. If you compare him to the Hindu milieu that he emerged from, he doesn’t seem particularly religious.) But someone with even a mild understanding of Buddhist teaching can see that the Shambhala teachings are really just Buddhism. Call it Buddha Nature or Basic Goodness: it’s the same concept. Trungpa created a Buddhism for people who wanted not to retire to a monastery, but to live out in the world. He created a way of life for everyone.2

A glance at a few of the chapter titles alone is inspiring. “Discovering Basic Goodness” refers to that foundation of clear seeing that we all have, but that is covered over by our preoccupation with personal concerns. “The Genuine Heart of Sadness” is the tenderness and compassion that we find when we look into ourselves. “Synchronizing Body and Mind” is just the process of meditation for Trungpa; he uses that phrase numerous times in his talks. “The Cocoon” is the self-absorbed way that most of us live, shielding ourselves from any concern with others.

“Nowness” is what we gradually discover as we meditate. “Discovering Magic” is what we find in that present moment, when body and mind come together and we’re present with what is happening. “Overcoming Arrogance” is the task of living compassionately for others. “Sacred World” is what we discover when we live this other way.

This isn’t a Buddhism focused on becoming some kind of spiritual superstar. It says the practice makes you more vulnerable, in some ways sadder, more sensitive, certainly more devoted to others. The goal is to bring about an ideal society. Above all, it has a firm basis in the practice of meditation. Everything comes out of that.

Carolyn Gimian, who put that and a number of other books together, has just brought out what is to my mind the most successful of the more recent ones, Mindfulness in Action (not to be confused with the much earlier and seminal Meditation in Action). I’ve always felt the earlier books were the better ones. There actually was a sequel to Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, entitled Great Eastern Sun: The Wisdom of Shambhala, but I would say that Mindfulness in Action is the true sequel to Shambhala, probably because Gimian went back to the early talks to create it. It is the one book of the recent titles that I wouldn’t miss.

Mindfulness has become a buzzword in recent years—there’s even a magazine by that name—and people use the term who have no connection to Buddhism. I was therefore glad to see that everything Trungpa says about it is firmly based in meditation; for him, mindfulness is just taking meditation off the cushion and out into your life.

Trungpa was always skilled in discussing the two basic aspects of Buddhism, samatha and vipassana, or concentration and open awareness. There is the object of meditation, the breathing in most traditions (Trungpa puts particular emphasis on the outbreath, on continually coming back), and then there is what is happening all around it, thoughts, bodily sensations, the sights and sounds of the world. Trungpa teaches meditators to go back and forth (he refers to this practice as Touch and Go): you touch into the object of meditation, then let it go, so you’re constantly dissolving into the space around it. When you take that practice into daily life, there’s the thing you’re doing—driving a car, taking a shower, eating a meal—and the space all around. Mindfulness in action involves being on the spot, as he says, being one with what you’re doing, and also aware of the space around you. You’re constantly going back and forth between both things (in contrast to most human beings, who are up in their heads in fantasy land or plugged into some electronic device and know neither what they’re doing nor what is going on around them).

There’s nothing new about what Trungpa teaches; he’s a part of the centuries-long tradition of Buddhism, even when he’s giving Shambhala teachings. Yet I know of no teacher who is as eloquent, or elegant, or inspiring. So many foreign teachers, even the greatest ones, have only a limited knowledge of English, so their teachings are in a kind of charming pidgin, but Trungpa studied Comparative Religion at Oxford, and his English is British and quite refined, to the point where he gave Americans lessons in elocution. His speech was an odd mixture of British locution and seventies lingo. It’s obvious that, in addition to having great spiritual depth, the man had a massive intellect. He was as intelligent as he was spiritually advanced.

There is also something beautiful and inspiring about his vision. So much of Buddhism wants to set up a special class of people, monks who give their lives to meditation and know something the rest of us don’t. Trungpa’s vision is of a larger society of people who practice meditation for itself, not for any goal. Here, for instance, is the ending to his most famous piece of meditation instruction, the Dathun Letter (included in this book as the chapter, “Touch and Go”): “In sum, the practice of meditation is not so much about a hypothetical attainment of enlightenment as it is about leading a good life. In order to learn how to lead a good life, a spotless life, we need continual awareness that relates directly and simply with life.”

What greater explanation for mindfulness could there be? To learn how to lead a good life, pay attention to life.

We want something easy; we want something final; we want something guaranteed, but Trungpa gives us none of those things, grounding his teaching in reality. The practice of meditation and mindfulness is vast and open-ended, no smaller or simpler than life itself.

1# One of the most haunting things about Trungpa is that, had he taken care of himself, he could easily still be with us. He would only be 75 years old.

2# People who want to excuse Trungpa’s behavior often say he was taking on the habits and excesses of the culture he’d adopted. After his exile from Tibet—detailed in Born in Tibet—Trungpa taught in robes for a while before finally deciding that the robes came between him and his students. So he began living like a lay person, and took on all the vices of his adopted culture, smoking, drinking, and promiscuous sex. He became one of us.