‘Buddha-gate Revisited’ (1979)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

5 minutes

In 1979, Sam Spaed responded to Robert Woods’ exposé about Chögyam Trungpa in the Berkeley Barb with a long letter based on his own observations: ‘Buddha-gate Revisited’ (12-25 April 1979, p. 6). The full letter is available here.

“Trungpa is an intelligent, unusual man, but is surrounded by one of the most outrageous turkey farms one could imagine. It must blow his mind at times. His core-followers, the Vajradhatu and Naropa elite, are motivated by ambitions of the crassest variety. Their third eyes are constantly on the bottom lines, while mindfucking and power tripping one another relentlessly. Meanwhile, near the bottom rungs, the ordinario meditation novices grope cross-leggedly for something, amid the seductive, paint-box iconography of Tibetan Tantra, spurred on by vacuous instruction from meditation ‘teachers.’

Trungpa knows this. One of his themes is that human bullshit is the fertilizer for new growth in the field of bodhi, higher consciousness, whatever term serves. In light of this, the Community is fertilizing at max rates, gloriously spewing out all manner of trips on whomever might be in a position to take a burst. It was this strident somnambulism which made it possible for me to slide by the human wall around Trungpa. But, they can’t help it. The Community is merely a micro-section of all of us.

Consciousness-broadening ideas are like sub-nuclear particles. They are possessed of enormous energies, and are capable of exerting great effect on those who investigate them, and not just in a positive way. In certain situations, they can become harmful, radioactive, burning their devotees out without warning. They are also very short-lived as are their micro-physical counterparts, disappearing quickly after their emergence into the extra-nuclear, social environment. But even as these ideas are decaying, they can imbue one with a false sense of inner competence.

Trungpa, the man, and he must be dealt with as such, as must any guru/guide, no matter how saintly the persona, is a subtle fellow.He had to run for his life at a tender age from Mao, leaving his privileged position as abbot of a monastic district in Eastern Tibet, trading the expansiveness of Kham for the sardine-can craziness of Euro-America. In his own country, he was, essentially, a prince—a reincarnated Lama, number eleven in his line. Here, he found many who were very willing to let him carry on the role, and why not?

To his great credit, he renounced his robes and their requisite celibacy, in order to come down a notch or two toward his audience, but into his trans-adolescent mind had been shoved western culture. It made him a bit crazy, a fact that he would probably admit in the right situation to almost anyone, with a like sake lube job.

He does drink. Some people might even call him a fish, but here he is well within Tantric precedent. Some of the great saints of Tibet extolled the benefits of a dram or three as a way of shorting out the itchy demands and fears of the body for a while, and besides, it’s cold, meditating in a cave in Tibet, in the winter. Trungpa was also partially paralyzed by an auto accident which took place not too long after he escaped. It probably hurts him still. Nerve damage is a bitch. Alcohol helps.

The first time I ever put eyes on him, he was being carried into a Community meeting very snockered, three hours late (he is never on time). Drinking has to have its organic effects, as it has had on Trungpa. The sauce has not messed with his writing, which is excellent, but it has done numbers on his relationships with people, clouding his judgments of them.

I have seen the venerable one at three levels of inebriation (can this mean something?): mellow Ed McMahon bodhisattva (public lectures), fire-breathing Tantric demon, and, nasty bully. When in the mood to crack the whip, the prince does so with heavy-lidded wrath, taking minimum shit, his retainers looking on with sneering awe. I remember a night in Vermont. It got ugly.

But Trungpa does not palm himself off as a Saint. Ask him if he is enlightened, and he might answer yes now, no an hour later. Enlightenment is a peripheral concern to him, because to his followers it is a goal parsecs distant. He can’t waste time with it, and here he is right. We want enlightenment now, a Big Mac of bliss, no waiting. It can’t happen.

His roly-poly charisma and Oxford wit cover extremely well for him, but think twice before pegging him as a model, or anyone for that matter. Trungpa is a man only. He would not contest that, I assure you.

It is his people, clinging to him for whatever selfish reasons, who make him look and act strangely at times. They mirror his sporadic raggedness, which they reinforce with their own absurd behavior, and lay it back on him. It’s a heavy mandala. I would drink too.

Don’t misunderstand me. Trungpa is no fool, no lather-headed avatar sloganeering for megabucks, offering_clever nostrums for our profound problems. He is an intelligent, highly-educated man, fronting a psychology of considerable incisiveness, who has skillfully adapted it to us. Witness Allen Ginsberg, who drifted languidly into Trungpa’s scene astride fluid tones from his harmonium, to find a succinct stake driven through the heart of his paranoid demon, with which Ginsberg had achieved an almost total identification.

Read his books. Trungpa is a writer of great warmth and lucidity, but bear in mind that all ‘spiritual knowledge’ is fragmented in our age. Buddhism is but one piece of the puzzle. Unless it is crossreferenced to other fragments to make a whole, it can be a dangerous dead-end, a system, which because of the corrosion of time, mistakenly offers the beginning of self-discovery as the end. Hundreds of years passed before any of the oral teachings of Gautama Shakyamuni were written down. Pieces were lost. Trips were laid. Ever play ‘gossip’ in school? A simple phrase is scrambled after only a few retellings. The griot tradition of the recounting of facts is one thing, the accurate transmission of esoterica quite another.

It is the panic of no-exit which drives the Boulder Community Circus, the realization that there are no magic mantras. It is the frightening confrontation with bent self. The ringmaster, complete with penile handkerchief, has the whole Felliniesque production right on its crazy schedule. Believe it. Well, don’t believe it, but consider it.

The ‘Community,’ enticed into Trungpa’s fun-house, is freaking out in the hall of mirrors, beginning to see that the mirrors are not distorted, that those weird shapes reflected back at them are the genuine item. It’s all part of the plot.

The Community is us, our eccentricities geometrically amplified into incandescense by the pressure-pack quest for nirvana, or an easy lay. Both are sought, in varying order by different people.

Trungpa has gained a lot of power in the U.S. It’s his karma. He would say you were jealous if you resented his position, and he would be right, but remember, it is not necessary to deal with him or his slick machinery to get the essence of his message. You don’t even have to pay to sit in a dharmadhatu meditation hall, at least you didn’t then.

Imagine yourself as a traveler who journeys abroad, carrying gold coins, and enters a land in which cow dung is the legal tender. Gold is worthless… It might drive you to drink.”

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.