Chögyam Trungpa: His Life and Vision
Fabrice Midal
Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2004
576 pp.; $26.95 (cloth)

A short time after the death of the Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (1939—1987), Khyentse Norbu Rinpoche, put things into perspective. He said that to be able to appreciate the full vision and accomplishments of Chögyam Trungpa would take a hundred years. He said that Trungpa Rinpoche, unlike most of his Tibetan colleagues, who didn’t think much of the aptitude and sincerity of Western “dharma students,” gave openly. He didn’t hold back. He had the courage and presence of heart to actually trust that his students could go all the way.

Like the great jazz musician John Coltrane, Trungpa was regarded as a brilliant interpreter of the “standards” and an innovative explorer who quickly gained a devoted following. Both of them endured controversy and produced a body of work that continues to provoke and inspire newer generations.

In 2003, Shambhala Publications issued The Collected Works of Chögyam Trungpa in eight volumes, and now they are offering an intellectual exploration of his teachings, which attempts, in 576 pages, to sketch out the range and diversity of his vision. In the foreword by Diana Mukpo, Trungpa Rinpoche’s widow, we are told: “This is precisely the book about Trungpa Rinpoche that has been needed for a long time.” Originally published in French in 2001, the English-language version is essentially a second revised edition, incorporating corrections and some additions and clarifications not present in the original work, on the basis of the author’s extensive access to unpublished archival material and conversations with his earliest Western students.

The tone of this ambitious work is one of infectious exuberance. The author, a French professor of philosophy, tells us he attempted to elucidate the intellectual visions of his subject via a series of portraits that might serve as “entrance points into the world of Chögyam Trungpa.” And there are many such points of entry. One of the pleasures of this rather encyclopedic work is to see in a single volume the sheer range and diversity of what traditional Tibetan biographies would call Chögyam Trungpa’s “enlightened activity.” Midal’s book amply documents Trungpa’s pioneering endeavors in the fields of experimental therapies (Maitri), theater (The Mudra Group), education (Naropa University, Alaya School, Vidya School), dharma art (calligraphy, photography, film, painting, and poetry), and his visionary revelations (Shambhala teachings). Midal offers us an account of Trungpa’s inspired use of cultural practices culled from England (ties, suits, and table manners), Japan (ikebana, oryoki), and Tibet (heraldry, ceremonial processions).

For the first time, the outsider catches a glimpse into the courtly rituals, personages, and trainings that made up the inner mandala of Chögyam Trungpa’s “Court.” There are many curious gems in this section, including an account by a senior student who wondered about the seemingly ersatz and ad hoc methods of Trungpa Rinpoche regarding the organizing principles of the Court. Trungpa recommended that the student study the esoteric Mahayoga text known as the Matrix of Mystery (Guhyagarbha Tantra), in Herbert Guenther’s book of the same name, to learn more about the intricacies of the mandala principle. The student discovered, to his chagrin and surprise, that the arrangements of the Court were indeed organized precisely along the arcaneand complex principles elucidated in that work.

One of the more interesting sections is the author’s attempt to place the oeuvre of Chögyam Trungpa into European perspective. In a chapter entitled “Experience, Modernity, and Tradition,” Midal poses a question: Was Chögyam Trungpa’s presentation of the dharma merely a modern adaptation of Buddhism for the West and for our times? For Midal, “adaptation” is too simplistic a term. And no matter how “modern” his approaches may seem, Trungpa Rinpoche was no friend of modernity, if by that term one meant materialistic and individualistic.

But there is another sense of the modern—one used by artists and poets—that Midal invokes. Like Rimbaud, Baudelaire, and Hölderlin, Midal tells us, Trungpa’s approach to life and teaching was modern in the sense that it was the outward display of “a way of being that is closely related to the the truth of our epoch,” a way of being that the the philospher Martin Heidegger describes as learning to walk “without ground or leaning post.” This is not a stance of despair or nihilism. Rather, it is the fearless embrace of life as it is, beyond reference points, being altogether present, on the spot, in every situation; being in touch with what Trungpa called basic sanity, the ground of one’s inherent dignity. How to do this? The slogan issued by the master was “Practice more, experience further loss of ground, but without confusion.”

In a provocative section entitled “The Social Visionary,” Midal explores Trungpa Rinpoche’s approach to extending the principle of spiritual dignity into the realm of social politics. Key to Trungpa’s social vision is the concept of the enlightened society. Unlike European Enlightenment notions of liberal and secular rule, however, the vision here invokes the principles of sacred order. Though he applauded the many achievements of Western democracies, he was critical of the foundational principles, which seemed to him to be based on excessive individualism and the preservation of the ego. Instead, Trungpa sought inspiration in the esoteric teachings of the Kingdom of Shambhala, the Kalachakra Tantra, and spiritual warriorship. In a way reminiscent Carlos Castenada’s concept of the “impeccability” of the warrior, he encouraged his students to apply the knowledge of excellence and authentic presence in all of one’s interactions, so as to bring about the state of “The Great Eastern Sun,” which Trungpa characterized as “a way of perpetually looking ahead.”

Finally we may note that Midal’s work is not that of a critical academic. His purpose, it seems, was to celebrate and commemorate the career of Chögyam Trungpa. In the future, there may come a more conventional biography, but for now this volume stands as a remarkable achievement.

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