DRAGON THUNDER: MY LIFE WITH CHÖGYAM TRUNGPA
DIANA J. MUKPO WITH CAROLYN ROSE GIMIAN
Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2006
432 pp.; $24.95 (cloth)
“Being married to Rinpoche was sometimes like being married to a cosmic force rather than a human being,” writes Diana Mukpo of her late husband, Chögyam Trungpa, modern father of the Shambhala tradition and pioneering teacher of Buddhism in the West. In her memoir, Dragon Thunder, Mukpo (née Pybus) not only produces a candid and detailed biography of Trungpa Rinpoche, but also incorporates her own unique experience to paint a portrait of life in a role that very few of us will ever experience: what it is like to be married to a guru. What happens when a sixteen-year-old aristocratic English boarding-school student runs off and gets hitched to a Tibetan ex-monk refugee nearly twice her age? The greater portion of the book unpacks this puzzle, while simultaneously constructing a first-person narrative history of Tibetan Buddhism in the West. As the ultimate insider, Mukpo’s daily life served as the epicenter for Chögyam Trungpa’s lifelong project of Buddhist inculturation and its subsequent fall- out. She manages to condense a tremendous amount of material into her testimonial, while maintaining the severe commitment to transparency that characterized much of her husband’s own life.
An enigmatic and enduringly controversial figure, Trungpa Rinpoche’s legacy can be witnessed in the flourishing Shambhala community that currently boasts more than 150 centers worldwide, as well as in his corpus of writing, particularly his book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, a seminal text of Western Buddhism. Born in 1940 in eastern Tibet, Trungpa was recognized as the eleventh incarnation of fourteenth-century Kagyü lineage master Kunga Gyaltsen and began his training at a very young age. He fled his homeland following the 1959 Chinese invasion of Tibet, and in 1964 was awarded a Spaulding scholarship by Oxford University. Thus began his life- long mission of propagating the Buddhist dharma in the West.
Perhaps the most salient feature of Dragon Thunder is its persistent openness, its trust in the reader, with whom Mukpo candidly discusses the fullness of her experience in the Shambhala family, warts and all. While the book is certainly not styled as an exposé, much of its contents are likely to startle those previously unfamiliar with Trungpa’s life and style. What Mukpo does aim at, however, is an honest presentation of her role in this historic period of convergence, which had dynamic, if sometimes bizarre, results. She holds nothing back from the reader, matter-of-factly discussing her feelings of isolation within the community and the struggle she experienced vying along with hundreds of students for attention from her own husband, as well as the many difficulties relating to Trungpa himself. She does not shy away from discussing the more divisive aspects of Trungpa’s behavior (which included massive alcohol consumption, extramarital sex, and questionable judgment regarding certain members of the community). While many of these stories remain jarring more than twenty years after the fact, similar accounts can be found in other biographical narratives of Trungpa. Mukpo’s is unique in its confessional posture, which to a large extent adopts her husband’s own mission, demanding that readers reevaluate assumptions about conventional religion and what we expect from our teachers.
In her afterword, co-author and longtime Trungpa editor Carolyn Rose Gimian notes that this is truly one of those occasions when “truth is stranger than fiction.” At times it is difficult to imagine how any person could have endured the seemingly endless barrage of mayhem that is reflected in much of Mukpo’s account. Even those familiar with Trungpa’s persistently enigmatic character and the origins of what would develop into the Shambhala community will likely experience some degree of vertigo as she invites readers to step into her world during this pregnant and uncharted period. Dragon Thunder is an intimate and holistic portrait of Trungpa as a teacher as well as a soul-mate. Along with his more peculiar idiosyncrasies, Mukpo shows Trungpa in all his creative brilliance: his careful, scientific analysis of Western culture, his craft at distilling the pith essence of the dharma and translating it into accessible idioms stripped of aesthetic obstacles. Having endured successive challenges to his innovation, Trungpa was ultimately vindicated through the public support of more conventional Tibetan icons such as the Sixteenth Karmapa and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. Mukpo reveals the precision of method behind Trungpa’s teaching style and his expansive vision of developing an indigenous grassroots approach to the dharma.
“He was an extreme human being, and he lived his life with extreme and immaculate concern for others.” With the aid of nearly two decades of reflection, Mukpo is able to take stock of this extraordinary and routinely abnormal relationship. With a sense of equanimity that she admits was difficult to maintain in the heat of the moment, she reflects back on a fundamental truth about the teacher-student relationship and our natural tendencies toward spiritual possessiveness. Many students understandably see their lives to a large extent as defined by their teacher. Mukpo, however, was in the rare position of actually having been married to hers, and comments on their individual lives by noting that “the two things are quite intertwined for me.” Certainly, she had a substantially greater reason for expecting preferential treatment than the average practitioner, but the hard lesson learned remains the same. Trungpa’s powerful character, which made him so magnetic, was also inherently frustrating because, as Mukpo notes, she could never possess him in the conventional sense. As Trungpa himself alerted her early on in their marriage: “My first commitment isn’t to being a family man, but to propagating the Buddhist teachings. This is the point of my life. Hopefully the two things can work together.”
That said, her marriage afforded Mukpo a degree of access and sensitivity to the inner life of a Buddhist master that remains elusive to most practitioners. Mukpo herself concedes that “it was not always easy to be the guru’s wife. But I must say, it was rarely boring.” Trungpa’s life was so unusual that it’s often hard to imagine that it actually happened at all, let alone just decades ago. Mukpo was perfectly situated to appreciate her husband’s complex character—overpowering, gentle, brilliant, confounding, and intensely human. Now, through her memoir, Mukpo extends her husband’s own project of disrupting the exotic specter of Buddhism in the West and replacing it with a more lucid, exacting approach to its practical application.
Trungpa repeatedly claimed that he was willing to “do anything to wake people up.” His lifestyle was not the sort to inspire ambivalence, and it is difficult not to form strong opinions about him based on partial evidence or hearsay. As the person who knew him best, Mukpo takes stock of his life and penetrates through his external behavior into his mind. Although she herself recognizes that even she “did not know at all what to expect from Rinpoche,” Diana Mukpo is able to eloquently share her own insight into his logic and vision as it was revealed to her. No one can ever claim ownership over Trungpa; yet this memoir goes far in affording us a more complete understanding of him and the fullness of his character. Rather than insulating Trungpa behind an idealized hagiographical veneer, Mukpo invites a candid look inside their life together. In doing so, she endows the reader with a sense of familiarity that refreshes and challenges our conception of diversity within tradition as well as the criteria by which we evaluate authentic realization.