The guru was dead. His body had just been cremated, lain in state, preserved by salts, for fifty days. His disciples were sitting in rows in the orange-pillared shrine hall that he had designed, with its blue and gilt trim and polished hardwood floor. His throne still rested on its vividly painted dais, the seat now occupied by a photograph of the youthful guru wearing a gold-brocade robe. “When the guru dies,” he had once said, “there is still some warmth left behind.”

It was late May in the north country. In a high meadow surrounded by hills, we had just bidden him farewell as his corpse burned. All had been in accordance with traditional Tibetan ritual: a costumed procession led by stately horns and drums, prayer flags, and monks reciting liturgical incantations on a canopied platform. This Buddhist ceremony also included something Western: a smartly uniformed honor guard, standing at attention as a salute was fired from a hilltop cannon. The guru’s ashes and bones were carefully gathered together afterward and brought to the shrine hall to be blessed.

The clicking of the mala beads we used to keep track of our mantras echoed softly through the hall. We were doing a tantric purification practice, reciting a one-hundred-syllable prayer as we visualized a deity of peaceful wisdom seated in meditation above our heads, cleansing us with the milk of compassion.

A group of senior students sat in a circle near the back of the hall, on a carpet of newspaper spread out to protect the floor. They were grinding the guru’s bones in mortars with pestles, preparing to mix the powder with jewel dust. Here and there rows of little gold statues waited to be filled with small amounts of this mixture and sent to various temples and dharma centers around the world as protection against evil spirits, ill fortune, bad dealings, and disease. His skull was to be preserved as a crowning relic for the gigantic stupa under construction in Colorado. The scene struck me as outrageously funny, deeply moving, and more than a little macabre. It was all the things Chogyam Trungpa had been in life, sitting on his throne, receiving our devotional prostrations while reeking of sake, mixing bolts of lightening with dubious profundities such as, “We must learn how to sit on our potties.”

“Do not intellectualize overmuch,” warned the guru. “Just do the practices, and their cumulative wisdom will become apparent as you go along.” I had tried to follow his advice. Although never able to silence my questions, or find satisfactory answers to them, I had traveled the Buddhist path anyway, without demanding that it made sense. My questions did not die, however, but went underground, ruminating and coiling into inarticulate forms.

As the smoke from the guru’s cremates flesh perfumed the meadow that morning, I was filled with a bittersweet sense of gratitude and loss. I felt that I had not understood anything he had caught until after he was gone. In life he had been a threat, a demand that I distrusted and needed to resist. I did not want him con­trolling my mind, or taking my money. But now he was simply heat from a fire, a salt smell on the wind. His message had always been that our nature is emptiness, and death had made him truly nobody. There was nothing to resist anymore.

During the next three years I did the practices he had taught us more intensely than I ever had in the previous nine. The whole world was burning, burning all the time—shifting, changing, embers and seeds everywhere dying and being born. I was his ash and bone, ground by the mortar and pestle of practice. It was like walking around with the top of my head removed.

“Ordinary mind,” said Osel Tendzin, the guru’s American dharma heir, as we sat together in an airport bar watching a television show talk about AIDS. “Ordinary mind, that’s what it feels like.” “Ordinary mind” is the English translation of a Tibetan Buddhist term thamal gye shepa, literally “mind without ego.” The end of practice is to bring about this state, which can also be induced by the presence or death of a great teacher.

Osel Tendzin was the preceptor who had given me my Buddhist vows. Before he met Trungpa in the early 1970s, he was the yoga student Narayana, formerly Thomas Rich, an Italian from New Jersey. In 1976, Trungpa empowered Tendzin as his successor to the “crazy wisdom” tradition of Buddhist tantra. His title was “The Regent,” and within Vajradhatu, Trungpa’s church, he had his own staff, limousine, headquarters, itinerary, power base, personal attendants, and personal mystique. During the cremation, Tendzin had sat on the V.I.P. platform with the high lamas of Tibet, joining in their complex chants and gestures, accepted by them as a fellow dharma king. Our meeting in this airport bar was pure auspicious coincidence; I was flying to Europe and he was flying somewhere; we were waiting for different planes.

stephen butterfield
A squad of uniformed honor guards, composed of Trungpa Rinpoche’s students, carrying his body toward the cremation platform

A guest on the talk show was arguing that dolls should be manufactured with genital organs so that children can learn about sex and how to take precautions against AIDS. Then a commercial came on the screen. A haggard young woman said she had gotten AIDS from her bisexual husband, who was having affairs with men. “I never knew about any of them,” she said. “This program is trivial,” Osei Tendzin said. “It’s cheap.”

I would have thought that warning people about AIDS fulfilled the Buddhist idea of compassionate activity. I had the urge to ask, “Why do you think so?” but pretended instead to agree with him. He was the Regent and I was the disciple. If somebody had missed something, it was probably me. I wanted to be important, like he was, and to understand the world as he understood it.

In the guru-disciple relationship, this self-conscious longing for acceptance, regarded as a form of devotion, operates to intimidate the student into deference. Here was a priceless, fragile, short-lived opportunity, filled with uncontrived symbolism. If I had asked the right questions at the moment, I would have learned a great deal about the causes of the tragedy that was about to unfold around him and around the presentation of Buddhist tantra in America. But I was paralyzed. Although I knew that I had as much power as Tendzin, I could not act from it. The meeting communicated anyway, on a level much deeper than my questions, and still does.

Perhaps he meant that AIDS is another form of cremation, one in which the self gets reduced to ash and ordinary mind is liberated. “The sad skeleton turns,” wrote Rosemary Klein. “Black rags dance the universe. . ./ To what song/ Do we owe this dance. Where does the light go/ When the light goes out.” Alongside vision like that, the talk show was indeed cheap; it was drowning the subject in the jargon of “concern,” and treating it as a Controversial Topic, always a boost for ratings.

Another commercial came on. A young woman held up a hypodermic needle and said, “I got AIDS from using this.”

I said, “In the next commercial we’ll see a guy holding up a dildo: ‘And I got AIDS from using this.”‘

Tendzin laughed. My question did not surface. I had glossed it over with a frivolous joke. He smiled and left, waving good-bye.

I later had one more opportunity to question his whole act by putting myself at risk of being a fool in front of a hundred people, but of course I didn’t take it. During a program he was giving for advanced students of tantra, he said that if you keep your commitment to the guru, “you cannot make a mistake.” I thought, You are going to get into trouble believing that, my friend; that’s hubris. All the people in the written history of the world who believed they could not make a mistake sooner or later got into trouble. Yet I kept silent, intent only on uttering sentiments that would please him.

Then I dreamed that I met Tendzin in a spaceport. I had always liked his face—it was kind but ravaged, the nose a little too thick, probably from drinking. Both he and Trungpa were alcoholics. In the dream I was waiting for a rocket to another galaxy, and so was he. I knew neither of us would ever come back, and I wanted to get out. When I woke up, I feared the dream was a warning that I would die in a plane crash, and I said protective mantras and made a will.

A year later, I learned with the rest of the world that Tendzin had had AIDS, kept it secret, and infected one of his many unknowing student lovers. He knew he had AIDS while we were sitting in the bar. The subject had surrounded us like the jaws of a crocodile, and we had sat on its teeth and laughed. Unlike him, I had not known we were sitting on real teeth.

A lot was said after this about Osel Tendzin as a Buddhist example of the cult guru who seduces his students into self-destruction. Trungpa’s entire organization was splitting apart over the issue. Almost overnight, devotion to gurus became politically incorrect. The one thing missing in all the controversy, the one thing I thought I could contribute, was how this, or any disaster, could be used as a vehicle for teaching dharma. This was the theme I had failed to explore with Tendzin in the bar. Whatever his sins, if the dharma is valid, then it should be applicable when the excrement hits the fan, even, and especially, when the fan happens to be the teacher. I wanted to honor what Tendzin had given me by applying it to him. I also wanted to detach myself from his bad example, to avoid being drawn into a vortex of meaningless recrimination and blame.

The system of practices I had entered led me inexorably toward Vajrayana, the most intense and controversial vehicle in Buddhism. From a Vajrayana point of view, passion, aggression, and ignorance—the sources of human suffering—are also the wellsprings of enlightenment. Afflictions like AIDS are not merely disasters but accelerations toward wisdom and opportunities to wake up. They can be transformed into Buddha mind.

Trungpa was a Vajra master who had empowered Tendzin to guide students on this path. Since Tendzin had been my preceptor in the two previous initiations, I had always assumed he would be the one to give me abhisheka, the gateway into the Vajrayana, which includes a ritual of blessings, empowerments, and further teachings. But he was too sick to perform the ceremony, and Trungpa’s Tibetan teacher, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, instructed Tendzin, in any case, to go into retreat. So I was initiated by Jamgon Kongtrul, a Tibetan.

The abhisheka took place in a huge outdoor tent. The initiates lined up like passengers entering a spaceship. On the night of the ceremony, Tendzin lay dying in a hospital thousands of miles away. When the ceremony was finished, so was he. Kalu Rinpoche and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, senior masters of Tibetan Buddhism, died around the same time. Two of the last living representatives of Tibet’s ancient culture had passed away. My sense of loss was compounded. I was bereft of my guides. Both had given initiations, Vajrayana transmissions, and empowerments that I had attended, and both were also my teachers, though I had no direct personal contact with them.

Jamgon Kongtrul died soon afterward as well, in a bizarre automobile accident. The official story said his chauffeur had slipped on a wet road while swerving to avoid a flock of birds. The unofficial gossip, which I picked up from sources outside the Vajradhatu network, said that Kongtrul’s death was not an accident, but was connected to a power struggle going on around the installation of the Seventeenth Karmapa. The Karmapas represent an unbroken line of oral Tibetan Buddhist transmission going back to tenth-century India. Within that tradition, they were thought to be continuously reincarnated, each one leaving instructions to selected disciples at the time of his death as to where and when he would take his next rebirth. The Sixteenth Karmapa, Trungpa’s teacher, had died of cancer in America in 1981. His principal disciples, Kongtrul among them, were responsible for finding and installing the young Tibetan child who became his successor.

The Indian press reported on a conflict between two groups within the Sixteenth Karmapa’s line of succession. One group accepted the Tibetan child, Ugyen Thinley, as the authentic rebirth of the Karmapa, and the other rejected him. A rivalry existed between Tai Situ and the Shamarpa, two of his regents, and Kongtrul had tried to mediate between them. Tai Situ produced a second letter fairly late in the controversy, much more spe­cific than the first, which he claimed had originated with the Karmapa and which supported Ugyen Thinley, Situ’s candidate. The Shamarpa did not accept the authenticity of the second letter. On one occasion, matters almost came to blows. The stakes included control of the Karmapa’s multi-million-dollar estate.

The story was covered by various publications, but the fundamental questions remained: To what extent had the quarrel been fueled by competition for control of the estate and the power and privilege of belonging to the Karmapa’s court? Did even masters of the dharma contend for such prizes? If so, what did this indicate about the effects of Buddhist training on behavior? What exactly had happened to Jamgon Kongtrul? If his accident had been somehow arranged, and if even Buddhist masters were capable of foul play in power struggles, then why serve and fund them and practice what they taught? How were they any different from the Catholic Church, the Mafia, or the Chinese Communist Party?

I no longer knew how to reconcile my inner experience of the dharma, which had been nothing less than life-giving, with my distrust of its outer organizational forms. “I don’t matter,” said Osel Tendzin at one of his talks. “What mat­ters is the message.” This was good advice on the level at which he gave it, but in Vajrayana, the teacher, the message, and the organizational form are held to be one and the same.

I stopped practicing.

Then all my questions came back—the ones I had ignored, the ones without answers, the ones I had stepped over carefully so they would not block my forward movement, and the same questions that had inspired the journey by refusing to die. Many were so elementary you never asked them of any teacher for fear it would seem as if you had made no progress at all and still did not know what you were doing. Some revealed pride and resistance. Why was I doing these practices, anyway? Why should I continue doing them, and what did they have to do with enlightenment? Is Buddhism a vehicle, or a crutch? Or perhaps a shell, useful only until you hatch from it? Does it even exist, apart from the activity of minds using its frame of reference? Would I be happier if I quit?

The robed and suited people on thrones to whom I had bowed and prostrated, those I had helped to support year after year—were they any more enlightened than anyone else, or were they just skillful at putting on a good show? And if they were not enlightened, then who was?

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The elevated square canopy where Trungpa Rinpoche’s body was cremated

I wanted to write about my whole relationship with this path, to take stock of what it had done for me, and to me. But a strange, creeping guile froze my intention repeatedly before it could flower. As Vajrayana students, we had always been discouraged from trying to evaluate our personal jour­ney. This was looked on as a form of egotism, an attempt to make a big deal out of our practice, to use the teachings as a cosmetic for the self.

“Your journey is not important,” said a senior advisor who reviewed one of my manuscripts. “You should write about Trungpa’s journey, not yours.”

Trungpa, in one of his homely metaphors, told us that we needed to boil in the pot of practice like vegetables, until we looked like any other veg­etable and could no longer stick our heads up and say, I’m a carrot, see how orange I am?” The master’s job was to say, “Too orange—keep boil­ing,” and push you back down into the pot. Trungpa’s sense of humor always made me want to stay there and boil, because suddenly the whole world seemed to be a stupid, repetitive circus of arrogant carrots, bumping and shoving and trampling and backstabbing one another to proclaim their colors. And we all have the same colors: passion, aggression, ignorance, envy, and pride.

In the Vajrayana, our choices were narrowed to two: accept the path as given, or fry in hell. Entering the Vajrayana is like a snake crawling into a bamboo tube, said the lamas: there is only one way out—straight ahead. If you don’t go through the tube, you suffocate. We were admonished as well not to talk about our practice. “May I shrivel up instantly and rot,” we vowed, “if I ever discuss these teachings with anyone who has not been initiated into them by a qualified master.” As if this were not enough, Trungpa told us that if we ever tried to leave the Vajrayana, we would suf­fer unbearable, subtle, continuous anguish, and disasters would pursue us like furies. Heresy had real meaning in this religion, and real consequences. Doubting the dharma or the guru and associating with heretics were causes for downfall. In Tibetan literature, break­ing faith with the guru must be atoned by such drastic measures as cutting off your arm and offering it at the door of his cave in hopes that he might take you back.

If this was the consequence of merely leaving the organization, what supernal wrath might be visited upon me for pub­licly questioning or discussing my experi­ence in it? Yet I needed to see the path again from the outside, so that I could ask and think through the unthinkable kinds of questions I had felt too intimidated to raise with Tendzin, or Trungpa, or any high lama, the questions that senior discussion leaders and officials ignored or politely squelched.

It was possible that I had been programmed by a powerful and highly sophisticated cult, one which is no less a cult for being sanctioned by revered tradition and great antiquity. If my questions were coming back as a result of not practicing, then maybe practice had simply repressed them.

Can one make a Buddhist journey and yet stand outside the experience and study it? Who is studying, who is commenting, and why? The object of the journey is to achieve ego death. “Oh, really?” says the ego. “Ego death? Apotheosis? Let’s go for it; I’m getting bored anyway—this will give me something new to put in my diary. I always wanted to attend my own funeral.” Examining the journey may thus become a way of defeating its purpose.

But this does not ultimately matter. The journey cannot even occur unless we examine it, and the purpose is already accomplished from the beginning. Otherwise, Buddhist meditation itself would be impossible. The speaker is always Buddha mind, broadcasting with degrees of clarity according to how well the equipment is tuned. The ego is not there anyway; it is just static in a jumble of signals. You can attend your own funeral, and join the festivities, like Finnegan at his wake.

This essay was adapted for Tricycle from The Double Mirror: A Skeptical Journey into Buddhist Tantra, forthcoming from North Atlantic Books, Berkeley, California, 1994. Photographs by the author.