‘Dharma Demagogy’ (1980)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

18 minutes

On April 19, 1980, The Nation carried an extensive review by Eliot Weinberger of The Party: A Chronological Perspective on a Confrontation at a Buddhist Seminary (1979) and The Great Naropa Poetry Wars (1980):

“The tale of the Spiritual Leader and his Organization may be the most familiar story of the last decade, but the version presented in these two books is unique and disturbing. For the Leader here is the Tibetan, Chogyam Trungpa; his chief apologist is Allen Ginsberg; his followers, and those who have taught under his auspices at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, include many of the best writers, artists, composers and academics in the land. Whereas intellectuals could shrug off Jim Jones, Sun Myung Moon and the whole crackpot pantheon ascults appealing only to dopes and the doped, the parallel tales of Trungpa and Ginsberg cannot be ignored. What may be happening in Boulder, though still in embryonic form, is an Oriental redecoration of homegrown American demagogy: the Dharma Bums playing It Can‘t Happen Here.

Trungpa, whatever his excesses, is no imposter. His lineage is that of the Kagyupa and Karmapa orders, both founded by disciples of the great Milarepa (1040-1123) to carry on the Nyingmapa tradition. (The Nyingmapa is the ‘ancient’ or ‘unreformed’ school, which emphasizes ‘action,’ principally meditation. Its complement is the Gelukpa or ‘reformed’ school, stressing scholarship, now the dominant order and headed by the Dalai Lama.)

Under the system of succession by reincarnation, Chogyam Trungpa, born (or rather reborn) in 1938, was discovered as an infant to be the eleventh incarnation of one Trungpa Tulku. From age 2 he was raised to be the Supreme Abbot of the Surmang monasteries in Eastern Tibet.

Following the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1959, Trungpa fled to India and later to England to study at Oxford. After graduation he founded in Scotland the first Tibetan Buddhist meditation center in the West, Samye-Ling. Here was his first encounter with American poetry, in the figure of Robert Bly, who came to study and helped Trungpa edit his lectures for English publication, Trungpa became the first Tibetan to obtain British citizenship (which he retains) and shortly thereafter renounced his monastic vows to marry a wealthy 16-year-old disciple. His peers and disciples were unhappy with a connubial version of the Master’s Bliss, and the newlyweds soon left Scotland for—where else?‐the United States.

In Vermontin 1970 he founded America’s first Tibetan meditation center, Tail of the Tiger, with property and buildings worth $1 million. This was quickly followed by large purchases of land in eight other states, a theater group, a ‘therapy project’ and various publishing ventures which made Trungpa’s writings best sellers on the spiritual circuit. In 1973 he inaugurated the Vajradhatu Seminary, three months of intensive retreat at resorts which featured Tibetan-style scenery and Allien Ginsberg among its first students.

Through Ginsberg, Bly and others, Trungpa had become the pet guru of many poets. (He was, after all, Oxford-trained and something of a poet himself.) In 1974, taking advantage of his literary conquests, he founded the Naropa Institute, a parochial but eclectic college whose best-known department was the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, under the leadership of Ginsberg and Anne Waldman. Their aim was a reincarnation in the lineage of Black Mountain and the Bauhaus, and Naropa attracted a galaxy of arts bigwigs—Ashbery, Burroughs, Creeley, Cage, Don Cherry, Baraka, Duncan, Merwin, Rothenberg, Joni Mitchell, among others—many of whom were Ginsberg connections rather than Trungpa disciples.

Trungpa’s relations with the superstars seemed, from the beginning, mixed: on the one hand, elation at having the all-stars on his team; on the other, what insiders would call his scorn of the artist’s self-involvement and outsiders might term jealousy or fear of eclipse. The first sign of trouble had occurred in 1972, at a benefit reading for Trungpa given by Ginsberg, Bly and Gary Snyder. Trungpa, completely drunk, trashed the event: banging on a gong, interrupting the readings, ridiculing the poets. Bly never forgave him; Snyder thereafter made himself scarce, and only Ginsberg humbly swallowed Trungpa’s explanation (Ginsberg: ‘Your drunken behavior—is this just you, or is this a traditional manner, or what?’ Trungpa: ‘I come froma long line of eccentric Buddhists’), and subsequently defended his master to all and sundry.

The major incident, however, the Lexington and Concord of this controversy, took place in 1975 at a Halloween party at the Vajradhatu Seminary in Snowmass, Colorado. The story has taken on an almost legendary stature, although it is possible to separate the facts from the oral embellishments by reading The Party, which devotes about 100 pages to documentation of the event. But it should be remembered that the incident is emblematic, not definitive, and the response to it far more interesting than the episode itself.

Briefly then, the story as presented in these books. In 1975, W.S. Merwin, teaching a summer course at Naropa, asked Trungpa if he and his companion, the Hawaiian poet Dana Naone, could attend the Vajradhatu Seminary in the fall. Though Merwin and Naone were beginners, and the seminary strictly for advanced and favored students (competition for admittance was keen) Trungpa consented—possibly because Merwin was, next to Ginsberg, his choicest poetry catch. At the seminary, Merwin and Naone participated in all the activities, but generally kept to themselves—a source of resentment in a community devoted to the dissolution of the self. After two-thirds of the teachings had been completed, and the ‘powerful stuff’ (Vajrayana, the Tantric teachings) was about to begin, Trungpa declared a costume party for Halloween night.

It was a wild party: Trungpa, smashed as usual, necking with a disciple and leaving teeth marks on her cheek, ordering his guards to strip a 60-year-old woman and carry her around the room, and other merriment. Merwin and Naone, in no mood for bacchanalia, had come and left. Somewhere in his haze the Leader noted the absence of the prize pupils; the guards were asked to summon them. Merwin and Naone replied that they were tired, were going to bed. Trungpa ordered them to appear. Tension escalated. Merwin and Naone, terrified, barricaded their door with furniture. Trungpa demanded the door be broken down. The goons climbed over a balcony and smashed through plateglass doors; Merwin, thougha lifelong pacifist, began slashing wildly with a broken beer bottle. But at the sight of blood (several attackers were seriously hurt) he stopped, and the pair allowed themselves to be taken to the party.

When they confronted him, Trungpa answered their objections by throwing sake in Merwin’s face and making remarks to Naone insinuating his displeasure that a fellow Asian would consort with a white man. He then ordered his guards to strip both of them. As Naone screamed for help, a hundred disciples, stood and watched in silence. Only one tried to intervene; Trungpa punched him in the face and the guards dragged him out. Finally, the poets stood, naked and huddling, before the Leader. In a pathetic moment, Naone had cried ‘Call the police!’ as if the outside world still existed. (Ginsberg was later to comment: ‘In the middle of that scene, to yell ‘call the police’—do you realize how vulgar that was? The Wisdom of the East was being unveiled, and she’s going ‘call the police!’ I mean, shit! Fuck that shit! Strip ’em naked, break down the door!’) The next morning Trungpa placed a letter in all the disciples’ mailboxes. It is a doubletalk classic of mastery and money:

“Dear friends,
In order to present comprehensive communication between the students and myself, I have come to the conclusion that we need to break the ice of our personal concealment. It is time for us all to be honest. If you want to maintain your patterns of hiding your deception, you are invited to leave the seminary before the Vajrayana teachings begin. Since your neurosis is already an open secret, you could be braver in unmasking it. Without commitment to yourself, there is no ground to present the Vajrayana teachings to you. I invite you to be yourself, without trips. I would like to encourage you to make a proper relationship to the coming Vajrayana talks. This requires of you the understanding that we are not fooling each other. Since you are all pretty involved in the teachings, your attempt at deception is a useless hesitation. In order to recognize your personal deceit, you must understand the umbilical cord between you and me. You must offer your neurosis as a feast to celebrate your entrance into the vajra teachings. Those of you who wish to leave will not be given a refund, but your karmic debt will continue as the vividness of your memory cannot be forgotten.
Chogyam Trungpa,
the Venerable Vajra,
Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche.”

The tale of Merwin, Naone and Trungpa quickly became legend, and its archetypal qualities have kept the legend not only alive in the literary community but perhaps also more vivid than ever, now, five years later. Here was the mad king, the mob beyond the barricaded door, the thugs smashing through the glass, the pacifist turned enraged protector, the triumph of the sinister, the group apathy to violence, and finally— as Robert Duncan has pointed out—the nude heterosexual couple as emblems of resistance. It was the stuff of nightmares. Trungpa calls his teachings ‘crazy wisdom’—was it crazy or was it wisdom, a method or madness?

In the literary world, repercussions were felt almost immediately. Robert Bly was telling his reading audiences a characteristically garbled version of the event, and word reached the National Endowment for the Arts, then considering a grant application from the Kerouac School. Ginsberg and Waldman scrambled to disassociate Naropa from the Vajradhatu Seminary, to have the N.E.A. talk to Merwin, Bly, anybody. The application was turned down. Trungpa’s private secretary circulated a letter warning disciples of the ‘enemies of the dharma.’

Then, in 1977, Ed Sanders was invited to teach a summer course at Naropa. His subject was ‘Investigative Poetics,’ a Sanders invention which proclaims that ‘poetry should again assume responsibility for the description of history.’ He asked his class which topic they wished to explore, and of course they chose the Merwin incident. Naropa made no attempt to stop the investigation. The twenty students interviewed some sixty people, not including Trungpa himself, who refused to cooperate.

Merwin and Naone, then in France, sent a long letter‐their only public comment to date. The final report, The Party, is 178 pages long and covers the 1972 Bly‐Ginsberg-Snyder reading, various seminary brawls, the Halloween party, Bly’s subsequent statements and the N.E.A. rhubarb. It is brilliantly edited, utterly fascinating: the same story told over and over, detail by detail, with contradictions, additions, lacunas and wonderful bits of spiritual Newspeak. It may be the most interesting narrative in years.

In 1978 The Party began circulating in samizdat, despite various attempts to suppress it. The copy I received had a Xeroxed letter on the first page which reads:

“Dear [blacked out],
… [Blacked out] has asked me to entrust this copy with you. [Paragraph blacked out.] I would also ask that you not mention from whom you received this report. It may be paranoid, but in light of the threats that Clark and Dorn have received, I would rather remain anonymous. Sincerely,
[Blacked out]”

The controversy, though three years old, was intensifying as the report found new readers. The response from the Naropa and Vajradhatu community was entrenchment, fear, petty and serious. counterattack and a kind of madness.

Evidence of the hysterical mood then prevalent comes from a source unrelated to the Merwin story. As documented in the July 1979 issue of Tibetan Review, it appears that in late November 1978, Karl G. Springer, director for external affairs of Vajradhatu, circulated a letter to all U.S. members claiming that the Dalai Lama was plotting the assassination of the Gyalwa Karmapa (the main man in Trungpa’s line) and other high Nyingmapa lamas in an attempt to effect a rapprochement with the Chinese by ‘de-emphasizing’ Buddhism. [Footnote: This probably needs some translation. Imagine,
then, a high-ranking official in the Anglican church, sending a letter to every parish in England stating that the Pope is planning to bump off the Archbishop of Canterbury in order to help the Soviet Union by weakening European Christianity.] The letter orders all of the Dharmadhatu centers (the local branches) to meet immediately to discuss the situation, and to send letters (all with an identical text, supplied by Springer) to the Indian and Sikkimese Governments demanding police protection for the lamas.

Springer was clearly not acting on bis own: such a charge could have come. only with Trungpa’s crazy blessing, if not under his direct orders. After six months of angry denunciations from various lamas, Springer finally halfheartedly apologized. A few months later, the Dalai Lama, on his first visit to the United States, canceled a scheduled stop at Boulder. It is now said that the Springer affair has seriously alienated Trungpa from the Tibetan exile community, but this is difficult to verify.

Hangovers from the party continued through 1979. In February, Harper’s published ‘Spiritual Obedience‘ (the title tells it all) by Peter Marin, a diary of a summer at Naropa, and the first national account of the Merwin story, though without any names. In March, Boulder Monthly published an excerpt from the Sanders report, accompanied by Tom Clark’s interview with Allen Ginsberg on the incident. (The Naropans formed squads and bought up every copy.) This was followed by a petition, circulated by Bob Callahan of Turtle Island Press, calling for a boycott of Naropa. The petition was a flop: even those who loathed Trungpa refused to attack Ginsberg’s baby. According to Callahan, ‘It was a case of party lines, party loyalty, of not losing gigs or giving up a station.’

Flak flew throughout the year, culminating in the publication of the Clark book under review here. The first published history of the controversy, the book is essentially a long magazine article (some thirty pages) followed by forty pages of appendixes: letters, documents, newspaper editorials, and, most important of all, the Ginsberg interview. Unfortunately, Clark writes in wise-guy style, and litters an already sensational story with transparent innuendoes. Alas, it will be all too easy for Naropans to catch Clark on a hundred details, thereby diverting discussion from the serious questions raised by the events and statements chronicled in the book.

Because we don’t know, because we like to imagine another civilization as wiser than this pale and plastic swamp, we have invented a spiritual paradise in the Himalayas: a Shangri-La of otherworldliness, of chanting, meditation, telepathy, astral projection. But the true history of Tibet is as violent and depressing as anywhere else: the continual rise and fall of warring monasteries and sects, each connected to a noble family; the forging and breaking of alliances; endless vendettas; holy squanderers supported by a miserable majority of landless serfs—and a few great teachers, struggling against the worldly excesses of their contemporaries.

Tibet until 1959 is the mirror of Medieval Europe, its Buddhism a rigid and hierarchical institution whose relation to the teachings of the Gautama corresponds to that between the Medieval papacy and the guru from Nazareth. Tibetan Buddhism and the Medieval Church: both are defined by the magnificence of their scholarship and art, and the contrast of their legends of exemplary men and the local anecdotes of sex, greed, exploitation and alcoholism. In both cultures, the lusty monk is a stock comic figure among the common people. In both, the advocates of reform are swallowed by the institution. This is the tradition Trungpa comes from. If we ignore the exoticism of his Eastern trappings, we might imagine him as a bishop who walked out of a time warp, discoursing brilliantly on Aquinas and Augustine while peddling papal indulgences.

Furthermore, Trungpa comes from a tradition where the teachings are largely transmitted orally. The heart of the religion then, especially in the ‘active’ Nyingmapa tradition, becomes the relation between master and disciple. The typical Christian tale is of miracles and torture; in Tibet, the stories of the saints usually concern the ordeals imposed by the teacher on his student: impossible and useless tasks, senseless beatings—a kind of physical version of the Zen koan, designed to stop the flow of discursive thought in the disciple’s mind, allowing him to project outside of the self. Even debates between lamas of equal rank become a physical combat: early travelers to Tibet were startled by these formal contests where points are made with menacing gestures, footstamping, clapping, and where the victor humiliates the loser, sometimes by riding around the room on the loser’s back. Tsongkhapa, founder of the Gelukpa order in the fourteenth century, characterized these debates as ‘contemptuous contradiction’: the Merwin-Trungpa confrontation, seen with Tibetan eyes, is merely tradition.

But Trungpa is not a wise man in the Rockies with a few students. He has
taken an ancient tradition and—having swiftly mastered the Way of America— mass-marketed it. It is at this point that the possibility of using the word fascism arises. Merwin, in his letter to the Sanders team, writes eloquently on the topic. It is worth reproducing at length:

“… There was then, in the Vajradhatu, and no doubt there still is, a jargon peculiar to the sect, in constant use. It began to flow in at once to accommodate what had happened. ‘Student-teacher relationship,’ ‘teaching device.’ ‘Neurosis’ and ‘aggression,’ and ‘arrogance,’ used in special parochial senses. Force directed from on top, for instance, is a teaching device, a sort of divine sanction; infallible. Resistance to it, or any questioning of its aptness is neurosis, and probably aggressive, because it’s a ‘defense of one’s territory.’ Arrogance, despite its dictionary meaning and etymology, apparently can apply to anyone except the master, whatever he does. If everything is to be explained away, or swept behind a veil as part of an esoteric ‘student‐teacher relationship,’ then a great deal depends on how much one can trust the teacher, and the teacher’s attitude to power, as it manifests itself. Personally, I think that it makes a great difference whether ‘surrender’ and ‘devotion’ to another human being is an individual matter, or is made part of the functioning of a group. I think that’s been one of the repeated teachings of political history. Trungpa—then, at least—was surrounded by people who were scared to death of him, and he seemed to encourage their feelings of dread, as part of their ‘surrender’ and ‘devotion’ to him. …
Anyway, I wasn’t using the word ‘fascism’ loosely. An autocratic setup using organized force, group pressures, fear and informants to bring about conformity of attitude and induce ‘devotion’ to an individual seems to me to be fascism, even at a classroom level, or in a street gang. And those who surrender their own judgments, in a group situation (Naropa and Tilopa, by contrast, were on their own) to someone they’re afraid of, aren’t to betrusted, in my opinion.”

A line should be drawn here between Trungpa and Buddhism: to discuss Buddhist fascism is to explore Trungpa’s exploitation of the teachings, rather than the teachings themselves. It is because of this confusion that Kenneth Rexroth, America’s greatest Buddhist poet, has remarked that ‘Trungpa has unquestionably done more harm to Buddhism in the United States than any man living.’ (He goes on to advise immediate deportation: ‘One Aleister Crowley was enough for the twentieth century.’) The question then remains: why, of the hundreds of Buddhist masters now in the United States, has Trungpa alone so successfully captured some of the best minds of the generation?

One answer is surely apocalyptic yearning: a willful submission to a personal apocalypse as the only response possible to the involuntary submission to global destruction. Many of Trungpa’s disciples happily describe him as a monster. Ginsberg, in the interview, typically carries it further: ‘Anything might happen. We might get taken over and eaten by the Tibetan monsters. All the monsters of the Tibetan Book of the Dead might come out and get everybody to take LSD! Actually that’s what’s happening. … The Pandora’s Box of the Bardo Thodol has been opened by the arrival in America of one of the masters of the secrets of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.’ It is a return to Nietzsche and Spengler: violence as the only catalyst for the restoration of proper order. You can’t make a Dharma omelette without cracking an egghead.

It is the open secret of modern American literature that much of our best writing has been written by fascists and anti-Semites and a few outsiders (Jews, blacks, women, homosexuals). But the ‘postwar’ generations could always dismiss the politics of our immediate literary ancestors as misguided and naive—we of course knew better. And of course we didn’t: some of the outward trappings are different, but the old models have held. All of the old nightmares are back in the Ginsberg interview.

For twenty-five years Allen Ginsberg has been the best-known poet in the country, a national emblem, our representative. As Bob Callahan found out from his petition, though many will disagree on specifics with Ginsberg, almost no poet is willing to discredit him. He has stood for the bardic tradition, for vision, for song and for resistance to authority. If Pound and Eliot and the rest are our shameful past, Ginsberg stood for an exemplary and enlightened present. In retrospect, however, he may be seen to be carrying on the aristocratic tradition, for Ginsberg’s main activity has been the creation and promotion of elite groups and the condemnation of the masses. ‘Beat’ vs. ‘square’; ‘heads’ vs. ‘straights’; ‘peaceniks’ vs. ‘hard hats’ and, to a certain extent, ‘gay’ vs. ‘straight’—all of these groups, no matter how worthy the cause, depended on a code of behavior and a system of beliefs as rigid as that of their despised counterparts. Now Ginsberg’s enemy has become what he calls ‘the barbarous Western mind,’ and his need for a ruling elite has found its object in Tibetan theocracy: ‘So all of a sudden poets are now confronted by the guys who’ve got the secrets of the Himalayas! … This kind of wisdom was always supposed to be secret. Nobody was supposed to know about it except the gurus and masters of the world, who were ruling everything from the top of the Himalayas … And now it’s all right here.’

The masters of the world, ruling everything, knew that all along there has been a secret political order to the world. Those of us who had hoped that the romance of fascism and poetry was over had believed, perhaps rightly, that intellectuals would be skeptical of any proclamation of a New Order, of the kind of bizarre utopianism Pound and the others found in Mussolini and Hitler. Instead, fascism has come from the other direction: not the future but the past. An Ancient Order to the world that we never knew existed, and now it’s ours!

Ginsberg speaks today of Naropa and Vajradhatu as an ‘experiment in monarchy.’ He believes that Trungpa is infallible, that the Merwin incident was not a mistake but a lesson, the meaning of which he has not deciphered. The Ginsberg interview, along with the recently published Pound radio speeches, is surely the most depressing transcript in American letters:

‘… The poets have a right to shit on anybody: they want to. You know, the poets have got the divine right of poetry. They go around, you know, commit suicide. Burroughs commits murder, Gregory Corso borrows money from everybody and shoots up drugs for twenty years, but he’s ‘divine Gregory.’ But poor old Trungpa, who’s been suffering since he was 2 years old to teach the dharma, isn’t allowed to wave his frankfurter! And if he does, the poets get real mad that their territory is being invaded!
And then I’m supposed to be likethe diplomat poet, defending poetry against those horrible alien gooks with their weird Himalayan practices. And American culture! “How dare you criticize American culture!” Everybody’s been criticizing it for twenty years, prophesying the doom of America, how rotten America is. And Burroughs is talking about “democracy, shit! What we need is a new Hitler.” Democracy, nothing! They exploded the atom bomb without asking us. Everybody’s defending American democracy. American democracy’s this thing, this Oothoon. The last civilized refuge of the world—after twenty years of denouncing it as the pits! You know, so now it’s the 1970s, everyone wants to go back and say, ‘Oh no, we’ve got it comfortable. Here are these people invading us with their mind control. … So, yes, it is true that Trungpa is questioning the very foundations of American democracy. Absolutely! … The whole foundation of American democracy is … as full of holes as Swiss Cheese.’

Swiss cheese or yak butter, it’s unfortunately impossible to leave Trungpa, Ginsberg and the rest fiddling the dials of the planetary spiritual control center, for the Naropa Institute is still with us, now more than ever. It has become the leading arts center in the country; every sensitive college student talks of going there, and the faculty is as impressive as ever. The question, then; is Naropa secular, and should those who doubt Trungpa’s infallibility teach there?

Disciples claim that Naropa is not parochial, and is completely separate from the Vajradhatu organization. Naropa is a division of the Nalanda Foundation, and is indeed legally separate from Vajradhatu—a common bureaucratic arrangement for tax and grant purposes. However, Trungpa is the president (with veto power) of both organizations and, at the time of the Sanders report, all six directors of Vajradhatu were directors of Nalanda, and all six officers of Nalanda were officers of Vajradhatu. There is no question that Naropa is a Buddhist institution: it is plain in all their brochures and catalogues, and from all reports from students and teachers. Meditation is ‘highly encouraged’ and may soon be required in their new degree program; the administration consists largely of Trungpa disciples, and Trungpa himself has stated that ‘the purpose of Naropa is, first of all, to provide a vessel for the development of Bodhisattva activity.’ Naropa therefore may not technically be Vajradhatu, but Naropa is unquestionably Chogyam Trungpa, and to teach there is to demonstrate implicit approval of the Leader. More important, the presence of well-known writers and artists has legitimized Trungpa’s activities in the eyes of the world and is a further justification of his experiment in monarchy.

As for Ginsberg, let George Orwell say it: ‘A writer’s political and religious beliefs are not excrescences to be laughed away, but something that will leave their mark even on the smallest detail of his work.’ As for Trungpa, let Merwin have the last word: ‘I wouldn’t encourage anyone to becomea student of his. I wish him well.’ (pp. 470-476, links added.)

Weinberger - Dharma Demagogy (The Nation 19-04-1980 pp. 470-476)

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.