‘The Great Naropa Poetry Wars’ (1980)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

5 minutes

A year after the Boulder Monthly published excerpts of The Party: A Chronological Perspective on a Confrontation at a Buddhist Seminary, its editor Tom Clark published his own account of the violent bacchanal led by Chögyam Trungpa in 1975.

Using the pseudonym Robert Woods, Clark himself had previously written a brief article on the violent confrontation between Trungpa’s devotees and the American poet William S. Merwin and his girlfriend Dana Naone for the Berkeley Barb.

With The Great Naropa Poetry Wars (1980) Clark provides a comprehensive discussion of the scandal and its aftermath and a large collection of historical documents. Clark includes reprints of articles that had been published on the matter in both mainstream and Tibetan news media, as well as contemporaneous correspondence by numerous witnesses and Naropa Institute stakeholders—previously published and unpublished.

Clark teases the subject of his book to the reader as follows:

“Why did the Dalai Lama, touring America for the first time, cancel from his itinerary avisit to the acknowledged capital of Tibetan Buddhist religion in America, Boulder, Colorado?

The local lama, Chogyam Trungpa, had extended the invitation through his Vajradhatu organization. A Boulder stop on October 5 appeared in the Dalai Lama’s early tour schedule. Then in mid-tour the schedule was changed without explanation. Extra days in Seattle were added, followed bya direct trip to Ann Arbor, leaving out Boulder.
Would a Frenchman tour Canada and leave out Montreal?
What were the Dalai Lama’s reasons?

The word from the Buddhist community here is that there’s bad blood between the big lamas. Karl Springer, an officer in Chogyam Trungpa’s organization, last year charged the Dalai Lama with conspiring to assassinate the Karmapa, another exiled high lama, originator of Trungpa’s power. Assassination talk is common in the Trungpa camp. The Boulder guru keeps a household protection squad, known as the Vajra Guard. They are the Beefeaters of Buddhism. When the guru goes out in public, so do they. (In between times, they meditate.) The rumor is, they’re armed with M-16’s. Others say it’s submachine guns.

Last year the Karmapa, Trungpa’s old benefactor, started an American organization of his own, which now has a dozen or so local branches, challenging Trungpa’s chain of 50 pay-as-you-go spiritual outlets. Trungpa’s is the most recent Oriental sect to capture the Yankee carriage trade. What he doesn’t need is competition from back home.

This summer, when Trungpa attended a show of Japanese floral arrangement at a university art gallery in Denver, he was attended by six guards.
You never know whose hit men are liable to behiding out in the Ikebana.

Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama, is in his early 40’s, as is Trungpa. He’s got a nice life provided by his followers in India and Switzerland. No wonder the Dalai Lama is steering clear of the Rockies. Trungpa’s army carries guns that shoot poems. To a Tibetan paraphysician, those are more dangerous than bullets.

As recently as 1960, the year after a mass exodus from Tibet of that country’s religious moguls—including the Dalai Lama and Vajracarya the Venerable Chogyam Trungpa—there were still 2,400 Buddhist monasteries and 106,000 practicing clergy in the Chinese-occupied mountain kingdom. Today only ten monasteries remain physically intact and open to the faithful. The total of Buddhist priests has dwindled to about 2000.

Under Chinese rule, the religious life of Tibet has been severely diminished but by no means extinguished. A recent visitor to one of Lhasa’s remaining monasteries, reporting in the Manchester Guardian, told of flocks of pilgrims and penitents—many of them in modern Chinese-style proletarian clothing flinging themselves to the ground in deep prostrations, mumbling fervent prayers, kissing the hands of statues, rubbing their faces in the cloth drapes behind holy images, and gluing offerings of coins and cash to the walls with gobs of yak butter.

The people of this remote, mysterious, and primitive land still take their religion seriously, despite two decades of active attempts by the Chinese colonial government to discourage, if not extirpate it.

Literacy in both Tibetan and Chinese languages is on the rise in Tibet. Public health standards, which previously did not exist, are improving rapidly. The population is increasing. There is now a guest house in Lhasa for foreign tourists. And there is even that trademark of the contemporary, inflation: a shared single room in the guest house will set you back $136.

The Chinese have shown an interest in improving living conditions in Tibet. The Tibetan people, however, seem to prefer their old religion to their new living conditions, if we can believe reports like the one in the Guardian. The Chinese governors would be glad to oblige them, except for one thing: religion in Tibet is very closely related to politics.

This year the Chinese made the news wires by saying Come on home to the Dalai Lama, his 20,000 followers in India, and the rest of the 85,000 religious refugees who fled Tibet in 1959.

‘We welcome them and will receive them cordially,’ Peking says.
‘Nice words are not sufficient,’ replies the Dalai Lama, and leaves for a summer vacation in Switzerland, where he has 1200 followers, to be followed by a fall tour of the U.S., where he now has several times that many.
Who wants to leave a nice quiet contemplative life in Switzerland or America to take a chance on getting thrown off a Himalaya by a bunch of goons from the Red Guard?
The Chinese Parliament recently approved n e w laws guaranteeing religious freedom in Tibet.
‘Let’s wait and see,’ says the Dalai Lama from his Alp, as he plans his coast-to-coast U.S. itinerary.

The Chinese are inviting the monks back, but nobody’s promising them a return to the days when they got to makeup the laws, act as the national police force, and run the country. Still-fresh memories of life during the Chinese invasion in the fifties have convinced Tibet’s emigré clergy to stay put in exile for the time being.

Remnants of their spiritualistic hegemony over the homeland drew the eye of Alain Jacob, the Guardian‘s Peking correspondent. Visiting the Lhasa Museum, he saw ‘dried and tanned children’s skins, various amputated human limbs, either dried or preserved, and numerous instruments of torture that were in use until a few decades ago…’

These were the souvenirs and instruments of the vanished lamas, proof, Jacob notes, that under the Buddhist religious rule in Tibet ‘there survived into the middle of the 20th century feudal practices which, while serving a well-established purpose, were nonetheless chillingly cruel.’

The ‘well-established purpose’? Maintaining social order in a church-state.

Old habits die hard. The dream of a harmonious religious kingdom under the rule of a stern but compassionate guru-monarch survives in Tibetan Buddhism to this day—but not in Lhasa. Nor elsewhere in Tibet. The kingdom is something in the minds of the exiled clergy, who are working in the “outside world”—for in their hearts none of them can ever really leave the homeland—to obtain it.
Of them, the Chinese unconvincingly claim to know nothing. Even the Tibetan tour guide Alain Jacob met in Lhasa professed to be ‘unable to say whether any of the spiritual leaders of Tibet had ever gone to a country other than China.’ Jacob points out the guide was Chinese-trained. Peking doesn’t wish to publicly acknowledge what its recent behavior so clearly shows: the exiled religious government, as long as it thrives in exile, remains a threat to Chinese rule in Tibet.”

The Great Naropa Poetry Wars was published in 1980. Its erstwhile publisher, Cadmus Editions, now lists the book with the notice ‘rights reverted.’ Tom Clark was struck and killed by a passing vehicle in 2018.  Original copies of his book are very hard to find. I will bequeath my copy to the Dutch Buddhist Archive, an independent foundation in the Netherlands. A scanned copy is available on 14 day loan at Archive.org.

Clark - The Great Naropa Poetry Wars (1980)

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.