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The Mishap Lineage: Transforming Confusion into Wisdom

The Mishap Lineage: Transforming Confusion into Wisdom

by Chogyam Trungpa, Carolyn Rose Gimian

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All of us experience obstacles as part of our journey, in life and on the spiritual path. In many cases, we think of them as purely something unpleasant to overcome, or as a mistake that needs correcting. Here, Chögyam Trungpa takes a radically different approach to such obstacles, teaching that unexpected chaos, confusion, and emotional upheavals can actually be


All of us experience obstacles as part of our journey, in life and on the spiritual path. In many cases, we think of them as purely something unpleasant to overcome, or as a mistake that needs correcting. Here, Chögyam Trungpa takes a radically different approach to such obstacles, teaching that unexpected chaos, confusion, and emotional upheavals can actually be used as fuel for the journey—an energy that can transform confusion into sanity and wisdom. He illustrates this transformative principle through telling the lively history of the Trungpa tulkus (a lineage within the Kagyü tradition of Tibetan Buddhism), of which he was the eleventh incarnation. Trungpa referred to his lineage as the "Mishap Lineage" because of the ups and downs and colorful lives that were typical of his predecessors, and true of his own life as well. The stories of the Trungpas are seen as a guide for the practitioner’s journey and help us to understand how important lineage and community remain for us today.

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Shambhala Publications
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Read an Excerpt

From Chapter 1: The Practice Lineage

The subject of this book is the Trungpa lineage, or the line of the Trungpas. The author of this book belongs to this lineage. He is one of the Trungpas. In fact, I am the eleventh one of them. We are not talking about the dynasty of a kingdom, and we are not talking about a family history. But we are talking about how the lineage situation evolved through the various Trungpas over the ages, up to the present situation.

The first question is, what particular tradition is the line of the Trungpas associated with? To begin with, Buddhism, of course, and then the Buddhist tradition in Tibet. What kind of Buddhist discipline is associated with the Trungpa lineage? And what particular locality of Tibet is the lineage connected to? We are forced to consider the background story, which is connected with what is known as the “teachings of the Practicing Lineage.” All of you who are reading this book and studying these teachings are also part of that lineage. At this point, a lot of you have inherited it, a lot of you are just about to inherit it, and a lot of you are just beginning to dip into this particular tradition. That tradition, again, is called the “Practicing Lineage.”

There are four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. These are the old, or older, school; the medium, or middle, schools; and the newest one. The old school is known as the Nyingma tradition. It is continuing the tradition of Padmasambhava, the great Buddhist adept, saint, and yogi who formally, officially introduced, or instigated, the teachings of Buddha into Tibet from India. Then there are the medium, or middle, schools, which are two: the Kagyü and the Sakya. They came into the picture much later, presenting further Buddhist teachings from India. Then, the latest one, the newest one, the youngest one of all, is the Geluk tradition.

The Geluk tradition is, we could say, completely and fully a Tibetan product of Buddhism, because it did not have any direct historical relationship to Indian Buddhism. At the time that the Geluk tradition arose, Indian Buddhism was already far gone and slowly dying out, due to the Moslem invasions of India. Most of the remaining Buddhists in India were persecuted or had gone underground. A lot of the Buddhist monasteries were attacked by the Moslems, because the Moslem troops thought that people wearing uniforms must be soldiers. So monks were killed and monasteries were completely destroyed.

The Islamic tradition, particularly, doesn’t believe in making idols out of any deities. They believe that any images representing the truth shouldn’t be anthropomorphic. Consequently, the Moslems destroyed many Buddhist statues, wiping out evidence of Buddhist culture as much as they could. Still to this day, from excavations taking place in India, we are finding Buddhist
temples, stupas, and images that have received a token Moslem seal on them: either the statue is without a nose, or without ears or fingers, as a mark of disapproval of the deification of anthropomorphic images.

To get back to the main subject, the Practicing Lineage is one of the middle schools, the Kagyü, which came after the old, or ancient, schools. The Kagyü lineage developed through various Tibetan masters—scholars who visited India and received teachings there and then returned to establish their particular situation in Tibet. Namely, there was the famous translator-
saint Marpa, who visited India three times and brought the teachings he received there to Tibet. His disciple Milarepa was the greatest yogic poet of Tibet, or shall we say, singer-poet. We could call him the first Tibetan blues singer. And then there was his disciple Gampopa, and then Gampopa’s descendants established the lineage of the Karmapas. At this point, the
lineage of the Kagyü, the Practicing Lineage, consists of something like forty-five generations—up to the time of the Eleventh Trungpa, whoever he might be!

The meaning and significance of the Practicing Lineage is important for you to understand before we can consider the rest of the story, so to speak. Practicing Lineage is a term that was developed by Milarepa. Previously, the tradition was known as the “Lineage of the Sacred Word,” which is actually a phrase that we are using again these days. In the Kagyü tradition, ka
means “Logos,” “sacred word,” “command,” “truth,” and gyü means “thread” or “continuity”—which is close to the idea of lineage. In Milarepa’s time, the Kagyü tradition became known as “Drubgyü”: drub means “practice,” and gyü means “lineage” or “line.” The Practicing Lineage places a lot of importance on the necessity to practice, to sit or meditate. Without practicing, without understanding the meaning of practice, no real communication or development takes place in your understanding of Buddhism, or the buddhadharma.

In the Practicing Lineage, it is equally important to have a great deal of devotion to your teacher, who actually embodies the symbolism or the concept of practice. The guru himself or herself has already achieved a high degree of enlightenment through practice. Moreover, the guru is the only person who can actually push you and who can be a heavy-handed friend,
who can actually make you sit a lot and go beyond your slothfulness and laziness. If you want to boycott anything, only the guru can push you and make you sit a lot, practice a lot.

Theoretically, a cosmic guru could send you blessings and encouragements through your psychic antenna, and he might tell you all kinds of stories and send you all kinds of messages. Such things are regarded as very fishy according to the Practicing Lineage. We can always reinterpret such messages according to our own desires. To begin with, our own interpretations,
received through our antennae, are not so substantial. But on top of that, we can actually reinterpret things according to our liking.

So it is necessary that the guru be an earthly person, born and raised on this planet earth, to begin with. You need someone who regards himself or herself as a human being, who would like to share the love and hate, sweet and sour, and hot and cold of this particular world. It must be someone who can speak to you on a person-to-person basis, who acts as a mirror reflection, in some sense, and also provides real, genuine communication, independent of politicking or over-indulgence in either charitable kindness or obsession with masochistic trips. The guru-student relationship must be free from all those things. It requires someone who is somewhat sensible, reasonable, but at the same time unyielding. Traditionally, this is a wise person, somebody who can’t be persuaded to buy your side, or your trip. It must be somebody who can actually be clear about the whole thing, somebody who buys your story with a pinch of salt, but at the same time is kind and friendly—to a certain extent. Such a person is the teacher, who then teaches you to practice a lot, to sit and meditate a lot.

The basic teachings of Buddha are about understanding what we are, who we are, why we are. When we begin to realize what we are, who we are, why we are, then we begin to realize what we are not, who we are not, why we are not. We begin to realize that we don’t have basic, substantial, solid, fundamental ground that we can exert anymore. We begin to realize
that our ideas of security and our concept of freedom have been purely phantom experiences.

We would like to use spiritual discipline and traditional wisdom to fit into our own particular pigeonholes, our own desires. We usually want to glorify ourselves by collecting stories and wisdom from every worthy person. We would like to meet lots of people who are seemingly worthy people according to our own judgment, and we constantly collect all of those stories and re-edit them according to what we want. When we begin to do that, we develop our own version of freedom, which is, “I would like to become a greater version of myself, spiritually uplifted, and so forth. I might even have a special place in social situations, be known as an important wise person, so that people will come to me and consult me.” We have those kinds of desires. We are not really interested in developing spiritually; we are more interested in evolving politically in the name of spirituality. Such a situation is known as “spiritual materialism.” I actually wrote a book about it, called Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. The Practicing Lineage teaches us that we have to get rid of those ego-centered conceptualized notions of the grandiosity of our own development. If we are truly involved with spirituality, we are willing to let go of trying to witness our own enlightenment, the celebration of our enlightenment. One can’t watch one’s own burial, in other words. We have to learn to be willing to die, to subside. This particular “me” that wanted to attain enlightenment has to go away. When that happens, then you actually attain enlightenment.

In order to shed the ego, in order to understand the principle of egolessness, we have to practice a lot, sit a lot. We have to experience a lot. We might have some intellectual, analytical understanding, but even that understanding has to be based on an intuitive experience of the practice situation. Without that, we can’t develop at all. We are simply creating and expanding
further schemes related to our own grand plans for a spiritual ego trip, spiritual materialism, and so forth.

Everyone in the lineage of the practicing tradition has been extremely sarcastic and critical of the current scenes taking place around them. They were extremely critical of the subtle corruption taking place in the name of the dharma. We could say that the Practicing Lineage is the guardian of the buddhadharma, not only in Tibet alone but in the rest of the world. Someone should at least have a critical view of how things should happen, how things shouldn’t happen. That particular sharp vision, traditionally known as “prajna vision,” is very important. And that is a very lively situation, a living situation, which still is up-to-date. In fact, that is why we are here.

The Practicing Lineage is the most pure, and is unhampered by any kind of spiritual materialism. Instead of just viewing this lineage from a purely historical point of view, we should realize that this experience of lineage can take place in ourselves.

How we have come to be, how we have come to practice—our particular basic, general background—is that we would like to become richer and more conscious people, highly evolved people. That is why we are interested in spiritual practice. That is our “trip,” and those trips are known as real trips. Those trips are questionable, and such trips require a very heavy critical dosage of the Practicing Lineage message, so that we can be woken up from our naïveté, our confused attitude about spirituality, and our attempts to pollute the spiritual world of the current century.

Meet the Author

Chögyam Trungpa (1940–1987)—meditation master, teacher, and artist—founded Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, the first Buddhist-inspired university in North America; the Shambhala Training program; and an international association of meditation centers known as Shambhala International. He is the author of numerous books including Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, and The Myth of Freedom.

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