‘The Prowling Tiger Of Crazy Wisdom’ (1991)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

10 minutes

In the first edition of Holy Madness: The Shock-Tactic and Radical Teachings of Crazy-Wise Adepts, Holy Fools, and Rascal Gurus (1991), Georg Feuerstein presented a section about Chögyam Trungpa, ‘The Prowling Tiger of Crazy Wisdom.’ The entire book is available here.

“Chögyam Trungpa was born in Tibet in 1939 and died in the United States at the age of fifty. His extraordinary life was packed with adventure, loneliness, tragedy, fame, and notoriety. Chögyam’s birth in a tent village in rugged mountain terrain is reported to have been associated with all kinds of auspicious signs—a rainbow was seen and a water pail was found to be mysteriously filled with milk. When he was only eighteen months old, Chogyam was recognized and enthroned as the reincarnation (tulku) of the recently deceased abbot of Surmang monastery. He was to be the eleventh trungpa of the Karma Kagyupa branch of Tibetan Buddhism. Several objects had been placed before Chögyam, and he had picked up only those belonging to his predecessor, the tenth trungpa. This wasa traditional test for identifying a tulku’s reincarnation.

When he was five, his education was formalized, and he proved an exceptionally able and eager student. At the tender age of eight years, Chögyam Trungpa took his monastic vows and entered a month-long meditation retreat. Only six years later he conducted his first full initiation ceremony, stretching over a period of six months, in which he imparted secret teachings to monks who had come from far and wide. Later Trungpa described his years as a student of Buddhism as follows:

‘In my education, I was constantly criticized … Every time I did something right—or I thought I was doing something right—I was criticized even more heavily. I was cut down constantly by my tutor. He slept in the corridor outside my door, so I could not even get out. He was always there, always watching me … I had no idea what it was like to be an ordinary child playing in the dirt or playing with toys or chewing on rusted metal or whatever. Since I did not have any other reference point, I thought that was just the way the world was. I felt somewhat at home, but at the same time I felt extraordinarily hassled and claustrophobic …
Then, very interestingly, I stopped struggling with the authorities, so to speak, and began to develop. I just went on and on and on. Finally that whole world began to become my reference point rather than being a hassle—although the world was full of hassles. At that point, my tutor seemed to become afraid of me; he began to say less … My tutors and my teachers were pushed by me instead of my being pushed by them.’

Trungpa had become a ‘prowling tiger,’ ashe put it in one of his poems composed in 1969. In the poem he describes himself as a tiger with a confident smile, the smile resulting from his knowledge of having escaped the lion’s jaw, meaning the lion of spiritual ignorance and thus death. A prowling tiger is a ravenous beast in search of prey. The image suggests merciless destruction, which is reinforced by another image in the same poem where he speaks of himself as a hailstorm that cannot be confronted by anyone. This is again a somewhat unfortunate metaphor as it reminds one of Milarepa’s days as a hailstorm-invoking sorcerer rather than the compassionate activity befitting a spiritual adept. Though of indifferent literary merit, the poem provides us with valuable glimpses into its composer’s psyche. We encounter not only accomplished self-assurance but also a sense of Trungpa’s own presumed invincibility, which was to prove fatal.

In 1959, twenty-year-old Chögyam Trungpa led a group of three hundred Tibetan refugees across often treacherous mountains into India. There, in exile from the Chinese communists who were occupying and ravaging his homeland, he learned English and formed the idea to come to the West to teach. In 1963, he arrived in Oxford, England. Six years later, a tragic car accident—the car careened into a joke shop—left him paralyzed on the left side of his body. He had been feeling ambivalent about teaching in the West, but this crisis helped to make up his mind. Not only did he resolve to throw himself unreservedly into bringing the Buddhist dharma to eager Westerners, but he also decided to give up his monastic vows.

In 1970, Chégyam Trungpa and his new wife, an Englishwoman, arrived in America. The Americans were shocked by his appearance and demeanor, He had divested himself of his robes and other exotic accoutrements; he ate what he liked, consumed any quantity of alcohol, smoked, and freely joined his new friends in ingesting psychedelics. He understood his own crazy-wise conduct as a counterpoint to the widespread disease of ‘spiritual materialism,’ which is the trick of surreptitiously fortifying the ego while appearing to practice spiritual life. Trungpa wrote:

‘Ego is able to convert everything to its own use, even spirituality. For example, if you have learned of a particularly beneficial meditation technique or spiritual practice,then ego’s attitude is, first to regard it as an object of fascination and, second to examine it. Finally, since ego is seeming solid and cannot really absorb anything, it can only mimic. Thus ego tries to examine and imitate the practice of meditation and the meditative way of life … At last is created a tangible accomplishment, a confirmation of its own individuality.’

At first, everything was rather informal, but gradually Chögyam Trungpa introduced a tighter regimen. He gave his students a taste of the discipline that hehad had to endure during his own pupilage. He was preparing his students for the higher-teachings of Vajrayana. All the while, his behavior remained completely unpredictable and incorrigible. He was regularly late, by an hour or more, for his lectures and often arrived inebriated. Even while lecturing, he would frequently down some beers. During meditation, he was occasionally seen to nod off, but on other occasions he would sneak up on unsuspecting meditators to squirt water at them with a toy pistol (a prank that Da Love‐Ananda also acted out around the same time).

‘Boisterous parties often followed long meditation sessions, and students with purist attitudes found themselves swept like so many autumn leaves into the chaos. But the parties and social life were mixed with agrowing sitting practice and close intellectual study of basic Buddhist principles. No matter how outrageously some nights might end; the next morning everyone woke to the sound of the conch, and it was back to the meditation hall, back to ‘square one,’ as Trungpa put it, ‘the place where you actually were the morning after, and not where you thought or imagined you ought to be.’

Then there were Trungpa’s sexual relationships, apparently with students of either sex. In this respect, he was something of a modern Drukpa Kunley. Allen Ginsberg, who was both a student and Trungpa’s ‘poetry guru,’ once offered to sleép with his teacher; Trungpa is reported to have replied, ‘I think that would be interesting if there’s ever time—and space—to explore those feelings.’

Despite his crazy-wise capriciousness, Trungpa was deeply conservative, which was borne out by his formal and deferential treatment of the Karmapa, the spiritual head of the Kagyupa school of Vajrayana. His conservatism was also evident in the organizations he created. Later, this was poignantly criticized by Peter Marin:

‘The Naropa Institute embodies a feudal, priestly tradition transplanted to a capitalistic setting. The attraction it has for its adherents is oddly reminiscent of the attraction the aristocracy had for the rising middle class in the early days of capitalistic expansion. These middle-class children seem drawn irresistibly not only to the discipline involved but also to the trappings of hierarchy …
If there is a compassion at work here, as some insist, it is so distant, so diminished, so divorced from concrete changes in social structure, that it makes no difference at all. … Behind the public face lies the intrigue and attitude of a medieval court.’

Marin went on to condemn Trungpa’s ‘implicit conservatism,’ which, he felt, was damaging not only to his students but to those less fortunate than the middle class—the poor and disenfranichised—whose well-being depends on social change and on the exercise of compassion rather than the pursuit of élitist, goals. ‘Sometimes the entire institute seems like an immense joke played by Trungpa on the world,’ Marin wrote, ‘the attempt of a grown child to reconstruct for himself a simple world.’

In 1973, Chögyam Trungpa finally began to initiate disciples into the esoteric practices of Vajrayana (Tantric) Buddhism. He warned his disciples that ‘working with the energy of Vajrayana is like dealing witha live electric wire.’ He might have added, and probably did, that working with a Tantric adept is actually touching that live wire with one’s bare hands. The predictable result is a terrific jolt that can wreck a person for life, or at the very least cause emotional trauma. This was to be the experience of poet W. S. Merwin.

Merwin participated in a three-month intensive seminar in 1975, which covered the three principal traditions of Buddhism—Hinayana, Mahayana, and Tibetan Vajrayana. Although Merwin lacked the necessary preparation and was not even one of Trungpa’s students, the crazy-wisdom adept yielded to the poet’s insistent request to be admitted. At the beginning of the course on Vajrayana, Trungpa interrupted the seminar with a Halloween party. He himselfarrived drunk late that evening when the party was in full swing. He stepped up the excitement by asking people to undress, explaining that this was to be understood as ‘a general demasking. He divested himself of his own clothes, and two students paraded him around the room on their shoulders. Those.who were reluctant to follow suit were ‘assisted’ by Trungpa’s guards.

When Merwin and his wife arrived, they quickly decided that the party had gotten out of control and went to their rooms to pack their suitcases, Trungpa sent a message for them to join him and the others, which the couple refused. Displeased, Trungpa sent an ultimatum. When the couple switched off their lights and locked themselves in, a crowd of inebriated disciples unleashed their anger, kicking in the door and breaking the window.

In a state of panic, Merwin broke bottles on several attackers, injuring them. But when he saw that he had wounded a friend, he gave up the struggle. Both he and his wife were dragged, none too gently, before the Tantric master. An argument ensued, during which Trungpa insulted Merwin’s Oriental wife with racist remarks and threw a glass of sake in the poet’s face. Trungpa next asked the Merwins to take off their clothes and join the celebration. When they refused, he had them forcibly stripped in front of everyone. One student was courageous enough to oppose the mob mentality, but his pleading was rewarded by a punch in the face from the master. The assault continued until the poet and his wife stood in the middle of the room, stripped of their clothes and their dignity.

That incident more than any other greatly damaged Trungpa’s reputation, and some feel that it also damaged the cause of Buddhism in the West. It certainly disadvantaged Trungpa’s promising organization, which was subsequently refused grants and support and started to decline. Four years later, after the Boulder Monthly published a belated exposé, the outrage felt by the poet’s friends and admirers’ caused a surge of paranoia and suspicion in the wider public, which was still stunned by the horrible massacre in Jonestown, Guyana, toward the end of 1978.

Strangely enough, the morning after the humiliation, Merwin and his wife elected to continue to participate in the seminar, perhaps because they were too traumatized to think clearly. Trungpa apparently never apologized for his and his students’ behavior, which was widely condemned even in Buddhist quarters and not least among his own students. From Trungpa’s perspective, Merwin had insisted on venturing into the lion’s den, and he got what he deserved. Years before, the adept had once been asked the question ‘What if you feel the necessity for a violent act in order ultimately to do good for a person?’ Trungpa’s answer had been self-assured and clipped, ‘You just do it.’ Perhaps if Merwin—a convinced pacifist—had known of this response and thought about it for a moment, he might not have allowed his thirst for knowledge to get the better of him.

Another infelicitous move on Trungpa’s part was the appointment, in 1976, of his favorite American disciple, Thomas Rich (Ösel Tendzin), as his successor. Ösel, a former disciple of Swami Satchidananda, once explained that the only reason for his appointment was his singular lack of ambition. If true, this trait was matched only by Trungpa’s lack of judgment. The tragedy of Trungpa’s decision came to light only recently when Osel, who had allegedly continued his teacher’s practice of having sexual relations with many male and female students of his order, was diagnosed with AIDS.

There can be no question in anyone’s mind that Chögyam Trungpa abandoned himself to the stream of life with a daredevil attitude characteristic of crazy-wisdom adepts. Most of those who knew him personally would even concede that he remained true to his bodhisattva vow to the end: to help suffering humanity and guide his fellow beings to the Clear Light. The questions and criticisms that continue to trouble former students and interested observers concern his ability to combine wisdom (prajna) with skillful means (upaya). The doubts surrounding this issue are especially nagging when one knows that Trungpa apparently died from complications resulting from his alcohol addiction.

In his curious book Waiting for the Martian Express, Richard Grossinger reminds us that ‘the gods have chosen to be tricksters first, authorities never.’ Then he notes:

‘Many Buddhist masters, Da Free John and Chögyam Trungpa included, have been assailed for their so-called crazy wisdom. Trungpa had disciples carry him around naked at a party; broke antennas off cars on a city street and handed them to a student; spent days speaking in spoonerisms. Assuming that the ego, the programmed mind, will subvert any material it is given—even the most shocking prophecies and pronouncements—these masters attempt to wake people through extreme behavior which challenges the basis of daily reality. While the New Age guru imposes a narrative on our lives and offers change through dramatic cosmic events, the ‘crazy wisdom’ teacher interrupts the mindflow of self-image and social role; even a visit from the Martians would be less radical and disruptive.’

Grossinger appears less troubled by crazy wisdom than he is by the escapades of a Jimmy Swaggart, whom he roundly denounces on the same page. A possible explanation for his naive acceptance of crazy wisdom may be that he has recently become a student of a crazy-wisdom teacher. But this may be either cause or symptom of an apparent disinterest in inspecting the moral issues involved in crazy-wise behavior, which, after all, could be merely aberrated. A questioning attitude is healthy. So is keeping an open mind.” (pp. 70-75, links added).

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.