‘On The Road to Sham Bala’ (1978)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

After the Village Voice published ‘Dharma Mater‘ (November 20, 1978)—a long, unquestioning article by Robert Coe about Chögyam Trungpa and his Naropa Institute—Al Santoli submitted a letter to the editor: ‘On The Road to Sham Bala‘.

Santoli’s letter was printed in the November 27, 1978 issue of the Village Voice, and said:

“I was very disappointed in Robert Coe’s article on Naropa Institute and its founder, Chogyam Trungpa (“Dharma Mater, Voice, November 20). It seems Naropa really chewed up whatever subjective and objective notions Coe may have had when he started working on the article. The Naropa I experienced and what Coe experienced are very different places.

I don’t believe that the puckish Mr. Trungpa is the soft-hearted eccentric that Coe envisioned, but a power-hungry ex-monarch whose practice involves something beyond ‘crazy wisdom.’ For example, if Coe spent any time around the Kerouac School of Poets, he had to have heard of, or read, the investigative report available in the Naropa Library compiled by a poetry clas from eye-witness accounts of an incident that happened a couple of years ago at Trungpa’s annual seminary (not an official Naropa event but run by his umbrella organization) where a Trungpa-commanded brawl occurred, when Trungpa in a drunken rage ordered his guards forcibly to strip naked a prominent poet and his woman friend in front of a crowd of terrified onlookers, because they refused to pay homage to him. In the report, the abused woman states that Trungpa stood over the man who was stripping her, punching him to do it faster, while she was pinned to the ground screaming for help.

Since its conception, Naropa has slid from what seems to have been a truly experimental and vital environment to a more stringent institution permeated by Trungpa emulation. This summer at a party celebrating Naropa’s conditional accreditation, Trungpa arrived in British grenadier’s uniform, complete with riding crop, as a group of his guards sang the anthem of his Shambhala kingdom (which includes the U.S.).

It’s easy for a man to giggle about suffering when he is chauffeured in a Mercedes, protected by guards in three-piece suits who hold him when sake has wobbled his balance, and at home is waited on hand-and-foot by students working as butlers and maids, in black formal English servant outfits, who call him and his wife Your Highness and work for no pay, but rather pay monetary dues to the organization for the honor of servitude.

Though Naropa is running at adeficit, the umbrela organization, Vajradatu, owns large amounts of land tax-free in Colorado, New York, Connecticut, and Vermont.

Coe calls Naropa “the freshest thing happening in American education today.” In the PR letter which Naropa mailed nation-wide last spring, there was a front page article on arts and education stating, ‘arts are making a comeback with the release this past year of a report entitle Coming to Our Senses issued by the American Council for the Arts and Education, chaired by David Rockefeller.’

Is this how Naropa ‘sucks egg’?” (p. 4)

The same issue of the Village Voice carried a letter by Allen Ginsberg as well, who provided some additional information underlining the involvement of well-known American poets with the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.

Ginsberg referred rather obliquely to the scandal that was the subject of Al Santoli’s letter, by saying that Robert Bly and William S. Merwin ‘had differences with Vajrayana community and might not be happy to be listed so prominently as teachers.’

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.