Chogyam Trungpa Parinirvana

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche (1939-1987)

Chogyam Trungpa‘s Parinirvana today

A guest posting from our friend Marc Olmsted, poet and author of Don’t Hesitate: Knowing Allen Ginsberg 1972-1997 – Letters and Recollections (2017).
For more on Marc Olmsted – see here

On the Occasion of Chogyam Trungpa’s Parinirvana

At the end of 1968, Allen Ginsberg was hospitalized after a car crash.  

It was the beginning of realizing that his own “spiritual materialism” before he’d even heard the term from Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. (“Rinpoche” is a term of respect, not a giant Tibetan family)

Ginsberg then gave a 1969 East Village Other interview where he asked rhetorically what happens if “you get carcrashes instead of cocksucks?”“I gotta get a new metaphysics. Body’s too unreliable.” Ginsberg wrote Ferlinghetti at the time of his accident. Likewise, to Charles Olson “…- nausea hip to rib for a day and night realizing the body’s a collapsible pain trap & couldn’t get past that.  How’d I get into this body-stump?…”

This car crash was bracketed by Neal Cassady’s death on February 4, 1968 and Kerouac’s October 21, 1969 death. Buddha’s First & Second Noble Truths, that suffering is ever present to a grasping self, were now more than ever stark realities for Allen.

An earlier signpost, Ginsberg’s 1963 poem “The Change: Kyoto-Tokyo Express” was written after leaving India. In  Allen’s Iron Curtain “Cuban” journals:

“I explained my Indian Mystery version of “get back in your skin” or return to the body, that Death was only a threat only if life is lived solely in the mental worlds but life opened to infinity like in Blake if lived in the feeling body – which means acceptance of this body that must die–“

But easier said than done.

Ginsberg’s poem and the mantra “Guru Om” get quite a bit of coverage in Allen’s journals in 1970, which according to his 1994 essay “Vomit of a Mad Tyger,” came from Swami Muktananda whom he met through Ram Dass. Unlike his previous spiritual practice, which involved singing mantras, he now learned to meditate and became serious about it. He had never learned in India or from his Buddhist pals! “I was too dumb to ask that.”

Also in 1970, he literally bumped into Chogyam Trungpa on the streets of New York City and “stole” his cab.Allen needed it for his cancer-sick father Louis, and asked Trungpa if he could “borrow his vehicle.”

What Allen didn’t remember was that he’d met the lama in 1962 India at the Young Lama’s Home School in New Delhi.  But now on NYC city streets, an American assistant to Trungpa recognized Allen and numbers were exchanged.

Though Allen was now already mediating seriously under the direction of Swami Muktananda, he would begin vacillating between Muktananda and Trungpa.

This is spelled out specifically in The Fall of America Journals.. “Hindu Gurukripa Kundalin(i) personalist yoga or Tibetan Zog Chan [Dzogchen] No Mind meditation?” is written January 8, 1971. “Personalist” is a philosophical label that includes the belief in a soul or atman. Buddha, even in his basic teachings, said there was no such fixed reference point, even divine, summed up as “anatta.”  No atman. Ordinary rebirth is just a continuation of a belief in a separate self that survives body death.

Trungpa would later suggest that Ginsberg’s chanting was giving the audience a buzz and nowhere to go with it.  Just another trip, another bliss-out to fall from. He suggested replacing OM with AH, because it was less exotic, more familiar, as in a sigh or an audible moment of comprehension. It was also more grounding, in Trungpa’s view. “”Ah!  shall be my mantra – America’s gasp of Awe –” first mentioned in These States: to Miami Presidential Convention July 1972. Allen even had Walter Cronkite repeating it on national news. Gordon Ball also quotes Ginsberg’s personal shift in 1972, “My guru, Tibetan Lama Chogyam Trungpa, suggested I try a different one…‘Ah!’ which is appreciation of the spaciousness around us. Chanting Om so aggressively didn’t intrigue people to enter that space, but probably just mystified them.” Ginsberg said in his lecture ‘What the East Means to Me,’ given at Kyoto Seika University in 1988 that Trungpa also added about his mantra chanting: “You can get them high, but you cannot ground it in any practice.” Also, again from Allen’s ‘Vomit of a Mad Tyger’:  AH was just a good old American Fourth of July sound, like ‘Ah, fireworks.’“

Allen Ginsberg, Boulder Colorado, June 1994. photo c. Steve Miles.  AH Mantra Calligraphy (for Allen Ginsberg), Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. ca 1980

The Muktananda habit of meditation would also serve Allen well, though he now began to switch from closed-eye silent mantra style to open-eyed attention to breath, which, like AH, he found more grounding, less tripped out.

By 1974, Ginsberg would be including chanting AH and Trungpa’s meditation instruction as part of his own public performances. As mentioned, the 1970s show a poetic transformation from Allen’s psychedelic syntax to the more direct objectivism of his old mentor William Carlos Williams – simple journalistic imagery that most can understand, perhaps even a hundred years from when they were written.  This is also the profound influence of Chogyam Trungpa. The objectivism is coupled with a haiku-like appreciation without grasping, which also echoes Jack Kerouac’s haiku and sketches from his own discovery of Buddhism in late 1953.  Kerouac had been practicing “First Thought, Best Thought” years before Ginsberg and Trungpa coined the term.    

Ed Sanders’ 1977 investigative poetic collective student project at Naropa, The Party, chronicles a maelstrom of a drunken 1975 ski lodge Halloween party with Trungpa and advanced students while in three-month retreat.  Newbies W.S. Merwin and his girlfriend Dana Naone, begging to be included, were the exception. “I don’t think he (Merwin) knew what he was getting into.” said Anne Waldman. (Ginsberg was not present, nor was Waldman) The Party is astoundingly even-handed, given Sanders’ general cult suspicions. One is allowed to evaluate all the opinions (Trungpa from drunken Zen master to Col. Kurtz) and decide for oneself. To Naropa’s (and Trungpa’s credit), one could read it in their own library.

This all blows up with Tom Clark’s distorted rip-off of The Party, The Great Naropa Poetry Wars, now post-Jonestown Massacre.  Its publication included this blurb of outrage from Kenneth Rexroth, “One Aleister Crowley was enough for the Twentieth Century.” (Speak for yourself, Kenny!).

 The fallout – a lot of grief for Allen and the loss of an NEA grant for Naropa.  Still, Naropa eventually became accredited and a university.

By the 1980s, Allen was as a mature student of Buddhism, professorial in trimmed beard, suit and tie, the culmination of his search and arrival as a poet and mystic. This appearance was also suggested by Trungpa, so that Allen would be less scary to the public, no longer a seemingly drug-addled fruitcake that could be easily dismissed by Time magazine. It worked.

Trungpa passed on in 1987, and in 1989, Allen would continue his Buddhist studies with Gelek Rimpoche, whom he met through composer Philip Glass. Ironically, both his Tibetan gurus had gone to the Young Lama’s Home School and learned English from the same teacher, and the similarities of their speech were striking to him. Ginsberg would remain Gelek Rinpoche’s student until his own death in 1997.

Allen Ginsberg and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche – Photograph © Naropa Archives

My own relationship with Allen Ginsberg and Trungpa is as follows.

I had studied with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (yes, of Beatles fame) and become  “Initiator” or ceremonial giver of mantras at age 19,  Nearly two years later, frustrated by Transcendental Mediation’s quick promises of solving all my problems by spiritual Xanax, I literally stumbled on a Berkeley campus lecture of Trungpa in 1974.  ” There I met Allen Ginsberg, who later taught me Trungpa’s sitting meditation, samatha, literally “calm abiding.” 
I asked Allen about Trungpa’s apparent drunkenness on stage and he told me “I don’t think it interferes with his teaching.  I “accidentally” saw Trungpa again in 1977 San Francisco, where he suddenly appeared unannounced to the 16th Karmapa’s Black Crown ceremony and giving an impromptu introduction.  In 1978, Allen invited me to Naropa where I took Buddhist Refuge with Trungpa and saw him lecture.  After my Refuge ceremony, Ginsberg joked “Now he’s inoculated you with his virus!” – a remark worthy of William S. Burroughs,to be sure.  It turned out to be true.   It was the last time I saw Trungpa, but I remain an avid reader of his work to this day, as well as his premise of “art in everyday life is key.”

As for that Aleister Crowley reference of Rexroth’s, the same year I took Refuge I also joined the magical lodge Crowley inherited, the O.T.O.  I am still an “inactive member in good standing.”  It is the same group that Harry Smith was a part of,  who died as “Resident Shaman” of Naropa U.  

I went on to get clean and sober, get a lot of therapy and eventually do a Nyingma three-year retreat under the guidance of my root teacher, Lama Tharchin Rinpoche, who has now passed.  Lama Tharchin called Trungpa a “mahasiddha,” a master of highest accomplishment.   I  remained “haunted” by Trungpa’s “virus,” and, during the lockdown of that other virus COVID, wound up practicing regularly with the Ocean Chronicles Project and am  currently finishing the Graduate Courses of Shambhala Training with Vancouver Shambhala Centre.  I had become insatiably curious about Trungpa’s terma, or “revealed texts.”  The Shambhala root texts were authenticated by H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche.  This may mean nothing outside of so-called Tibetan Buddhism, but within that “container” it is an endorsement difficult to dispute.  It also eliminates argument that Shambhala has nothing to do with Buddhism.  

Shambhala scandals have continued to abound.  Some are even more outrageous than the infamous 1975 “Party.”  Not all of it is acceptable to me.  Shambhala has splintered into pieces.  I stick with the old guard like Ocean Chronicles.  I  read whatever Pema Chodron writes.  Trungpa has enriched me tremendously, from start to finish and beyond.  Any scandals that have surfaced about him since his passing – they pale with those associated with our Mr. Crowley.   Continuing the practices I learned from Tharchin Rinpoche, my devotion to Trungpa Rinpoche remains unscathed.  A number of my more secular Naropa friends feel very differently.  Whether you want to regard Trungpa Rinpoche as inspired, deeply flawed or both, it is hard to doubt that his impact on what we can know call American Buddhism, specifically his vocabulary is evident in its influence and staying power. 

But as Christopher Walken says in the film Suicide Kings, “Have it your way.”

3 comments

  1. RE “The Shambhala root texts were authenticated by H.H. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. This … is an endorsement difficult to dispute. It also eliminates argument that Shambhala has nothing to do with Buddhism.” Not really. Authentication of root terma texts by HH Dilgo Khyentse matters to those for whom imprimaturs by buddhists matters, but not to others. For many of us this was a nice adornment, but hardly essential. Trungpa’s “Shambhala Vision” owes much to his own history and realization of Tibetan Buddhism, Bön, and others, but, as he himself said of a key Shambhala sadhana, ““From one way of thinking, the sadhana has been influenced by the traditional buddhist style, but on the other hand it is quite different. It is a self-contained practice. It is not particularly borrowed from buddhism, but it is simply self-existent in the Shambhala style”. Such understanding has been a leap difficult to make for many buddhists.

    Interestingly enough, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche was able to make that leap. When asked by Michael Chender at an audience if Shambhala Vision could stand independently of Buddhism, DKR responded that “it has View, Practice, and Action: it is a complete path”.

  2. Well done. There are many disputed territories in this panorama. For those who studied with or were influenced by Trungpa, there is reflection, but the transmission is sealed. It happened in a deep and complete teaching.
    As a restless student of Islam and other paths, being introduced to Bon traditions recently held a flavor that brought back the impact of Trungpa when he taught. I find the written consideration here light and even, wondrous, yet down to earth enough to balance the personal & larger context. It bears a second reading.
    Grateful for the piece being published.

  3. Thanks, Marc. It is a delight to read your eye-witness account to matters embodied and metaphysical. I really enjoyed this. JWB

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