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Chogyam Trungpa: His Life and Vision

Chogyam Trungpa: His Life and Vision

by Fabrice Midal

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Chögyam Trungpa is virtually synonymous with the transmission of Tibetan Buddhism to the West. Over the course of his seventeen-year teaching career in North America, Trungpa ushered in a radically new approach to spirituality—both rooted in the ancient wisdom of the buddhadharma and thoroughly situated in the contemporary world. His teachings, grounded in


Chögyam Trungpa is virtually synonymous with the transmission of Tibetan Buddhism to the West. Over the course of his seventeen-year teaching career in North America, Trungpa ushered in a radically new approach to spirituality—both rooted in the ancient wisdom of the buddhadharma and thoroughly situated in the contemporary world. His teachings, grounded in what he called the "Shambhala vision," focused on the development of an enlightened society through the transformation of ordinary, everyday life into sacred activity.

Steering between Western biography and traditional Tibetan hagiography, Fabrice Midal takes you on a soaring journey through Trungpa’s life and teachings. Touching on all of the most momentous events, this series of glimpses into Chögyam Trungpa’s world provides a rare view on the formation of Trungpa’s thought and the remarkable body of teachings and writings that remain as his legacy. Included are accounts of:

   • Chögyam Trungpa’s education in Tibet under the tutelage of great tantric masters, like Jamgön Kongtrül of Sechen and Khenpo Gangshar
   • The founding of landmark centers for Buddhist practice and education, such as the Naropa Institute (now Naropa University), Karmê Chöling, and the Rocky Mountain Dharma Center (now the Shambhala Mountain Center)
   • Trungpa’s historic meeting with the sixteenth Gyalwa Karmapa in 1974, the first-ever visit of the Karmapa to America
   • Behind-the-scenes stories of Trungpa’s most treasured writings, including Meditation in Action, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, and Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior
   • And much more

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A wealth of anecdotes, unpublished material, and reminiscences by students help round out this fascinating portrait of one of the most unconventional and influential teachers in the West.”—Snow Lion

“An excellent introduction to the life and work of a truly remarkable teacher.”—The Middle Way

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Chapter 5

have been doing as much as I can in my presentation of the teachings so far to
make sure you understand that each one of the dharmas I have presented to you
is your personal experience. You can actually relate the dharma to what you
experience on the spot."—Chögyam Trungpa

Speak from the Heart

Trungpa is one of the most widely read Buddhist authors among the various
Western practitioners of the dharma. The quality and depth of his teachings
remain as vibrant now as they were when he was physically among us. His many
books form a genuine body of work, with its own unity. Rinpoche hoped
eventually to see the publication of 108 volumes destined for the general
public, to which would be added about 40 volumes intended for more advanced

the most part, his works are based on transcripts of oral teachings. On each
occasion, Chögyam Trungpa taught in relationship to the context in which
he found himself and the expectations of the people who had come to hear him.
But he also had in mind to present a unified group of teachings that could be
edited into works that would be of use to people in the future.

explained that he was teaching not just his own students but also future

makes his books so different from those of other spiritual teachers?

characteristic of his approach was that he did not cater to people's
expectations, especially when it came to preconceptions about spirituality.
Without adopting a mystical or subjective approach, Chögyam Trungpa broke
with both theology and metaphysics—that is, with the theoretical approach to
spirituality that has dominated the West since the days of scholasticism. He
also broke with the normative, moralistic discourse in which religion often
cloaks itself. He wore none of the conventional masks of the "sage."
His rigor was unequaled, merciless, and yet never dogmatic.

teaching style was very different from what he had seen at Oxford. Nor did he
adopt the traditional Tibetan style, which generally consists of the
line-by-line explanation of a classic text and commentaries by a great teacher
of the past.

the first few years, he taught in an extremely direct and free manner, aiming
at the heart of everyone's experience: "We are going back to the original
style of how Buddhism was practiced in the time of the Buddha, so that people
live the dharma, they live impermanence on the spot. They actually live the
whole thing, properly and fully. That seems to be the only way to make
everything real."

the deep comprehension and realization of other teachers, many of them are
stuck in a web of concepts embedded in their traditions. This makes them hard
to understand for those who were brought up outside those traditions. This is
why Chögyam Trungpa decided to speak so directly. If Buddhism is to be a
description of how we can free ourselves from conceptual thought—or, more
precisely, our set of beliefs concerning reality—Chögyam Trungpa showed
the way. He constantly cut through abstractions in order to reveal our most
concrete experiences of their ultimate depth. He invented a new language that
allowed him to provide simple explanations for complicated, advanced teachings.

from the brilliance of his teaching, there was another, even more touching
factor: Chögyam Trungpa spoke directly about his own experience, sharing
his heart with his entire audience. He thus removed the distance that Tibetan
tradition maintains between teacher and disciple. In this way, as explained in
the preceding chapter, Chögyam Trungpa leaped into modernity: "So I
thought I shouldn't be too methodical or scholarly in expounding the vajrayana
to you, and that I should speak from my heart."

did not mean "from my heart" in the sentimental sense, but in a
spirit of complete openness and involvement. Over and above being a guru, he
was a human being entering into a relationship of friendship with another human

quality is particularly noticeable in the inimitable way he answered questions.
The typical Tibetan teacher gives a scholarly, often very long, precise, and
technical answer to each question, taking the opportunity to reiterate some
doctrinal point.

Trungpa answered the person directly. When you read these answers later, they
often seem to be off the point. But if you watch the videotape of the
question-and-answer session, then everything becomes clear. The visual image
reveals the special atmosphere of an encounter between two people. Chögyam
Trungpa replied not just to the meaning of the words in the question, but to
what the person was really trying to ask and had concealed behind the words. He
did not try to give the "right" answer according to Buddhist
doctrine; instead, he pointed to the space out of which the question came, in
order to open his student's mind further.

teaching had nothing technical or philosophical about it. Chögyam Trungpa
liked to surprise and touch his audience. When listening to him, or when
reading his words today, there is always a moment when a flash of his intense
brilliance suddenly hooks you. To take one example, while he was presenting a
seminar on the life of Naropa, one of the greatest teachers of the Kagyu
lineage, he began by explaining: "It seems that in relation to the whole
thing we are talking about, Naropa's attainment of enlightenment is not that
important. It is Naropa's confusion that is important for us as ordinary

to this turnabout, he cut through the usual logic in order to show what had
previously been hidden but which is of vital importance: while everyone was
expecting to find in Naropa a primary example of spiritual accomplishment,
Chögyam Trungpa emphasized that it was the way Naropa coped with his
confusion that is truly edifying. Thus we follow the path not by imitating an
external model but by establishing authentic contact with who we really are. It
is while we are listening that we are suddenly disarmed and opened out to an
even vaster dimension than the one we had perceived initially—and there is
nothing conceptual about such an experience.

never appeared to teach out of a sense of duty. This was surely the secret of
the freedom he manifested. He wanted to enter into a relationship with students
that was as direct as possible. At the end of a talk, he often would devote
some time to meeting those who had come to listen to him. A line of people
formed, everyone waiting to exchange a few words with him personally. Even
though it was just for a few minutes, he was so available and concerned about
who you were that people were profoundly moved by just a short contact. He thus
radically changed the lives of those he encountered. Susan G., one of his
students, remembers the moment when she was introduced to him: "I was
stunned, as if I had received an electric shock. He held out his hand to me,
and when I took it I felt the most unbelievable feeling of gentleness I had
ever known. In contrast, my own energy felt painfully aggressive. Then I looked
into his eyes. There was a softness and kindness exuding from him which I had
never experienced before and, beyond that, a depth I could not fathom. I
couldn't find the person beyond those eyes. The effect on me was tremendously
powerful. It was as if this man could see through to my deepest core, and yet
he accepted me. I felt I had been penetrated by loving but X-ray eyes—my mask
unraveled in the light of his being so real."

university professors, many scholars, and some religious personalities adopt a
particular tone of voice and look when they speak, as if they are playing a
part. So nothing was more moving than to listen to someone speak without this
layer of protection distorting his humanity. Chögyam Trungpa, with his
high voice,

with love for all of us, was there before us, naked and cosmic

Meet the Author

Fabrice Midal is a professor of philosophy at the University of Paris. He holds a doctorate in philosophy from the University of Paris, Sorbonne, and teaches the dharma in France and elsewhere in Europe. A practicing Buddhist in the tradition of Chögyam Trungpa, he is well known in Buddhist circles in France and has published books on religious topics with major French publishers, among them several titles on Tibetan Buddhism.

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