Chogyam Trungpa — crazy wisdom guy

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In his 1973 book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, the controversial Tibetan lama Chogyam Trungpa warned Westerners of the dangers of ‘tripping out’ on Tibetan exoticism and missing the real point of dharma practice. He was also at the centre of numerous scandals that rocked nascent Western Buddhism.

No Tibetan has caused more difference of opinion in the West than Chogyam Trungpa. Raised as a Tibetan tulku (reincarnate lama) up to age 24, he left Asia for Oxford University in 1963 and founded a monastery in Scotland before moving to the U.S. He was established in the West well before any other Tibetan lama.

It’s said that he decided to teach as a layman to undermine preconceptions of how a guru should behave, and to highlight the problem of students first investing and then losing their hopes in the exoticism of Tibet.

By drawing attention to this issue, he reminded me and other Western Buddhists that just because were on the run from the hypocrisy of our own religious upbringing, there was no guarantee we wouldn’t bring it to our newfound faith. He didn’t just talk about it either; he stirred up the issue by drinking, smoking, having sex with students and keeping audiences waiting for hours. Some claim this was ‘enlightened activity;’ others, that it was nothing more than self-indulgence, bad behavior and hypocrisy on his part.

Following a life of scandals and outrage that included years of alcoholism, he succumbed to an agonizing death from cirrhosis of the liver at 47. He had already picked Ösel Tendzin, a Westerner, to succeed him as lineage holder of his tradition. Tendzin celebrated Trungpa’s legacy by knowingly carrying HIV and infecting other students, one of whom died.

Although I never met Chogyam Trungpa, I was deeply influenced by his books. I still read and value them enormously. Never having been around him in person, I’m not torn by the controversy surrounding him, and have no difficulty detaching from it all.


Chogyam Trungpa as a young monk


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