In the fall of 1970 Bob Lester, then Chairman of the Religious Studies Department at the University of Colorado (CU), invited the highly ranked Tibetan Buddhist lama Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche to teach a course on Buddhism to undergraduates. Rinpoche had arrived in the United States that spring from Scotland, establishing Tail of the Tiger (now Karmê Chöling) in Barnet, Vermont, where he gave summer seminars on the teachings of Milarepa, the Tibetan Buddhist saint, and other subjects. In August some CU professors had invited Rinpoche, then about 31 years old, to come to Boulder, and I and another student, Marvin Casper, both in our mid-twenties, had asked him if we could accompany him. So in October 1970 the three of us moved to Colorado, initially living together in a stone cabin with a potbellied stove and outhouse at 10,000 feet in Gold Hill but later moving to a modern duplex in Four Mile Canyon just outside town. Rinpoche’s wife, Diana, joined us after a few months, and the two of them stayed together in the first floor apartment, while Marvin and I inhabited the upstairs.
Rinpoche was introducing us to the most profound Buddhist description of reality as it arises in the only place and time it ever arises: here and now.
The CU course was to run in the winter semester of 1971. Rinpoche appointed Marvin and me as his teaching assistants, which meant helping him select readings, construct the syllabus, run the class, and conduct discussion groups. He, of course, determined the content and delivered the lectures.
At Tail of the Tiger, Rinpoche had given Marvin and me pointing-out instruction [the showing of the nature of mind by a teacher] and forged a bond with us stronger than any I had known in my relatively short lifetime. He had recently asked us to start teaching the students who were coming to him from the coasts and elsewhere, hippies mostly, without much money, adventurous and inspired by the dharma in general and by Rinpoche in particular. We knew very little doctrine, but Rinpoche had introduced us to the heart of the teachings. He felt it important for Westerners to connect to the essence of Buddhism first, so that they would not be dazzled and seduced by the many exotic forms that implied spectacular results, a problem he considered pandemic in America at the time.
The university had a population of about 25,000, including staff and students—this in a town whose total population was about 100,000. The town had a prominent population of Seventh-day Adventists (thus no alcohol was sold within city limits), there were no malls, and hippies were arriving from the coasts to live in the town and in the communes that constellated around it.
CU in those days had the reputation of being a second-tier school with a few standout departments, such as engineering. It was known to be popular with undergraduates who wanted proximity to Colorado’s ski areas as well as the overall opportunity to play and party. So our expectations for the class were not high, and we were not disappointed. My memory is that 40 or so students sat slumped in their chairs (the kinds with an enlarged arm for notepads), giving the impression of sleepiness and apathy. (In fact, a few of them later became devoted students of Rinpoche. You just never know.)
This article is available to subscribers only. Subscribe now for immediate access to the magazine plus video teachings, films, e-books, and more.Subscribe Now
Already a subscriber? Log in.