‘American Buddhism’ (1979)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

5 minutes

In 1979, Charles Prebish published American Buddhism. The book provides a general introduction to the American reception of Buddhism, and detailed descriptions of some of the larger Buddhist communities in the United States at the time. His section on Vajradhatu and the Nalanda Foundation begins with Chögyam Trungpa’s personal history and a sketch of the origins of the institutions he founded. Prebish includes some of his personal observations of Trungpa in the mid 1970s as well:

“Several years ago I began preparing materials for a course designed to study the similarities and differences between Shamanism and Tibetan Buddhism. In trying to consider my students’ pleas for relevancy, I elected to focus on the then current counterculture hero Don Juan as the exemplification of modern Shamanism, and on Chogyam Trungpa as representative of the Tibetan situation. Being somewhat naive and ambitious, I wrote to Trungpa, informing him of my plans and requesting that he visit the class to deliver a lecture or two. Shortly thereafter, I received a letter in which Trungpa thanked me for my interest and noted that hewould come to lecture if I thought it important. Of course I immediately responded that it was indeed important, and anxiously awaited his reply regarding formalized arrangements. To be sure, no response came. Again I wrote, asking if perhaps my letter had been misplaced. Again I received no response. I have learned in the subsequent years that this is commonplace when one enters the domain of Chogyam Trungpa.

My first meeting with Chogyam Trungpa took place in mid-June 1974, shortly before the first session of Naropa Institute was scheduled to open. Like all faculty who were new to him, we were each afforded a formal introduction and a few moments of his time. and Curiously enough, each new introduction seemed to bring with it a new interpretation of some aspect of his personality. For some Foundation faculty members, finding the head of the samgha with a cocktail in his hand was disappointing, as Buddhist laymen’s vows prohibit the taking of intoxicants. For others, the sheer joy of meeting the accomplished Master was overwhelming. For all, he was impressive, although there appeared to be parity between positive and negative responses.

It takes but a few moments of careful study to reveal that Trungpa is a composite of contradictions. At once he is powerful and perceptive with his rather opaque, dark eyes that reveal very little, while at the same time he conveys a sense of pliability, of softness, hardly consonant with his role as director of this growing empire.

The contradictions that circumscribe the life of Chogyam Trungpa pervade virtually all aspects of his routine and duties. Revolving around the dual poles of his role as guru in the Buddhist sense of spiritual friend and his instrumentation of the teachings, he is impossible to predict, likely to be inconsistent, always concerned with dispelling the expectations of his students, and playful as one would expect from a teacher hailed by his followers to be a fully realized Tantric siddha (‘perfected one’). Since he represents for many of his students the embodiment of Buddha’s Dharma (and for some of them, the only contact with Buddhism that they have had), he is treated with an awesome reverence. For overly deferential students, Trungpa picks away at the underpinnings of their portly respect with a biting sense of humor. For students who take his teachings too literally, he relies on the reductio ad absurdum dialectics of the famous Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna to dismantle their misunderstanding.

My own impressions of Trungpa, in spite of rather inauspicious beginnings, nevertheless remain reasonably positive. He presents a contagious and genuine warmth, offered freely and openly. He also makes no apologies for himself or any aspect of his behavior (which is not always exemplary). He makes no promises that he cannot fulfill and does his best to promote a strong sense of equanimity in his community. The community’s self-reliance was severely tested when the master embarked ona year-long retreat beginning in March 1977. In his stead he empowered Thomas Rich (Osel Tendzin) as ‘Vajra Regent,’ to act on his behalf during his absence.

Perhaps the one single word that best describes the movement surrounding Chögyam Trungpa is growth. Trungpa and his organization realize that to make any significant impact on America, a substantial community is a prime requisite. And with the exception of the Nichiren Shōshū movement, Trungpa’s samgha has grown faster than any other in this decade. Now, in the late 1970s, the organization is just beginning to learn that unrestricted growth presents as many problems as no growth at all.

While his array of students represent a living testimonial to the efficacy of Trungpa’s teaching in America, they also distort it seriously, and along with it, one’s image of Trungpa aswell. During 1974, when I began to notice that many of his students attempted to copy his speech patterns, drinking habits, and even his sexual proclivities (which results in a boundless flow of rumors and gossip), I mentioned these problems to him and met with his usual response: ‘Well, I think some of them are working through it.’ He then referred to the old axiom applied to gurus: a guru is like a fire; if you remain too distant, there is not enough heat, while if you get too close, you get burned. This sort of response provides one with the impression that amid all the chaos, Chogyam Trungpa has, to some degree, lost touch with what is going on in his communities.

Trungpa is an acknowledged meditation master in both the bKargyud and rNying-ma traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. Like all young lamas in these traditions, Trungpa was thoroughly schooled in all aspects of Buddhism. His scholarship, however, is the most difficult aspect of his training for his students to understand. Rather than focusing on the balance between study and practice sanctioned by Buddhism in general and their teacher in particular, his students are often victims of a serious misunderstanding that results in a transparent anti-intellectualism.

Examples of the above could be cited continuously, but one significant one serves well to illustrate the point. At a recent conference on ‘The Flowering of Buddhism in America,’ held at Syracuse University on April 15-17, 1977, in response to audience questions about the nature of Trungpa’s teaching and Tibetan Buddhism, the representatives of Vajradhatu and Nalanda Foundation consistently offered only one response: it was impossible to speak about Buddhism apart from sitting meditation. In other words, serious and well-intended questions about Buddhism were answered with evasive suggestions that the questioners would only find the solutions when they actually did sitting meditation. And while the representatives of Trungpa’s samgha were impeccably dressed, spoke like mirror images of the master, and looked very insightful, they seemed to rely on what is rapidly becoming a commonplace practice among some Buddhist groups: when you do not have a satisfactory answer, plead the evils of conceptualized approaches.

Only when the students of Chögyam Trungpa begin to find a proper balance between their study and practice of Buddhism, resulting in a community of practitioners who are at home with their new religious commitment, their role in society, and themselves, will we be able to say that Trungpa’s teaching has been actualized.

In seeking to find a new cultural amalgam that represents the best of Tibetan Buddhism and American religiosity, Trungpa has sought to find the proper ‘blend’ of rigorous meditation practice and meaningful explanatory devices. For many he has done just that. Others, however, have reacted without the sympathy he evokes from his disciples. Chogyam Trungpa’s samgha hasa potentially great future in America. It offers to many a reasonable way in which to accept the expectations of our society and culture, while cultivating their own religious growth in a meaningful fashion. It also has the potential to do serious harm to the Dharma in America through its inherent shortcomings. It will take at least another decade before an accurate accounting can be given in this case.”

Prebish - American Buddhism (1979) REDUX

About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

Investigative reporter and academic researcher Rob Hogendoorn (b. 1964) began researching the reception of Buddhism in Western society and culture in the early 1990s. His modus operandi remained the same ever since: independent, inquisitive and provocative.