There are some very dangerous notions about what samaya is that are floating around the Shambhala community. These have caused, and continue to cause, a lot of harm. For those who don’t know what this term means, it’s popularly thought of as a kind of commitment or bondage to a teacher. It is a central notion in Tibetan Buddhism. It carries with it the idea that the student should regard the teacher as a perfect buddha, a mirror for the student’s neurotic tendencies. If there’s truly an atmosphere of trust with an accomplished, living teacher in a close face-to-face relationship, it can be very helpful. Samaya is supposed to be a two-way street—involving commitment from the teacher to the student as well—in which both parties truly show up for each other. This is how the term was understood in the days of the mahasiddhas [tantric masters] of medieval India. Tibetans translated this into a larger monastic context. They took little boys (and rarely girls) out of their natural family setting and put the teacher up on a throne to be the replacement parent figure. They built monasteries with hundreds of inhabitants, to the point where one in four men in pre-invasion Tibet were monks. In modern day tech-startup language, they “scaled” the teachings.
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche was a master of “scale.” Within several years of his arrival in North America in the early 1970s, he had established dozens of local centers, two major land centers in Vermont and Colorado, and an urban community of hundreds in Boulder. Many of his early students had moments of close personal relationship with Rinpoche. Others jumped in later with both feet and got close to him. Often the best way to get close was to volunteer to serve him or stand up and ask him a question in a public forum. I did both. Whether part of the inner circle or not, many of us made samaya commitments in a big room with literally hundreds of other people.
Fast forward 30 years after the teacher’s death. We are left with memories of who the teacher was and what he said. Neuroscientists tell us that memories are actually recreated every time we recall them. That’s why we can have a vivid childhood memory that’s actually based on an old photograph or a story someone told us. The memory is a nonexistent pattern of impulses that lives only in our heads. I remember and continuously recreate fragments of stories that are based on a small fraction of what I actually experienced, let alone what others experienced—and so do all of us.
So if someone is trying to maintain samaya with a long dead teacher, what’s actually going on? What are they actually committed to? I go to events now where old-timers tell stories about a Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche that paint him as safe, lovable, and humorous, when in fact he was terrifying to be around. He had the ability to pull the rug out from under one’s self-image and assumptions about reality, on the spot. That’s why we were attracted to him, but the actual experience was so nonconceptual that it’s nearly impossible to tell an accurate story about it anymore. Now we’ve become like people in a cozy old folks’ home recounting war stories without the pants-shitting terror of the real thing.
Tibetans love to reinforce the mythology that one should not doubt their teacher. This translates into thinking everything Rinpoche did must have been an act of perfect skillful means meant only to benefit others. I’ve come to believe that this is a mistaken and harmful notion. Even now, former students are still advocating the idea that he drank so that he could ground himself, to come down to the level of his students. Isn’t it denying our own intelligence to believe that we are so dull-witted that our guru had to get drunk to communicate with us? According to multiple accounts, Trungpa actively resisted any attempts to get him to drink less. Could we now consider the possibility that he was actually an alcoholic? But some people consider it a violation of their samaya to acknowledge that Rinpoche drank himself to death, and that he may have been demented due to late stage alcoholism in the last several years of his life. And many believe that violating samaya consigns one to vajra hell—a special hell exclusively for bad Buddhists.
And it gets worse. Years later, stories are emerging about Trungpa’s strangely superstitious hatred and abuse of cats, evidently because they weren’t sufficiently grief-stricken at the death of Shakyamuni Buddha. We are also hearing about his cocaine use. For a teacher who very publicly denounced the dangers of cannabis to have had a $40,000 per year cocaine habit (according to Nancy Steinbeck’s book The Other Side of Eden: Life with John Steinbeck) is appalling. Cocaine, the most stupefying ego-enhancing drug of all. These were new stories to me just this year, over 30 years after his death. The response of many of Trungpa’s old students has been to attack the people telling these stories rather than allow them to challenge their happy memories, grown ever fuzzier with age.
One day this spring, after absorbing several of these stories, I found myself unable to focus on work and went for a walk in my neighborhood. I felt a rage that went outward, inward, every direction. The guru I had visualized on top of my head for years became a demonic presence, merging with a cat being tortured with fire. Then for reasons I don’t fully understand, the picture started alternating with the screaming orange face of President Donald Trump, the mantra of Trungpa-Trump-Trungpa-Trump pounding in my brain, every image and sound inseparable from my own mind, from my sense of me-ness.
This was not the way I expected the merging of my mind with the guru to feel.
I had allowed myself to imagine my root guru being completely and needlessly cruel, and to make matters worse I was confounding him with Trump in my mind. Was this insanity? A violation of samaya? Would I trust this disturbing experience or try to make it go away somehow?
I walked for a long time, until I was reminded of the Zen saying, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!” As if all my memories and concepts about who this Trungpa was, this figure who had haunted my imagination for 45 years, were thrown into the fire and burned to smoke, and I was left with my raw, naked, inexplicable experience.
In the beginning, Trungpa had emphasized simplicity and discipline, leaning into the sharp points of experience, not trying to escape it. That was the teaching I signed up for. Negativity was not something to be avoided—to try to cover up negativity in order to feel better was what he termed “double negativity.”
As Trungpa played out the arc of his teaching life in the West, though, his teaching got more fantastical. Shambhala was originally presented as a parallel, supposedly secular path that was a framework for living mindfully, elegantly, and decently in everyday life. It was supposed to be the societal container in which the teachings of Buddhism could thrive. As one progressed through the levels, though, it became infused with all kinds of strange mythology that belied the secular label. With a new title, Sakyong, Trungpa claimed descent from Gesar of Ling, a great king of Tibet, and proclaimed his vision of enlightened society, with himself as monarch. His notions of politics and governance were inherently medieval, shaped by the assumptions of his rural Tibetan upbringing as a tulku more than any real appreciation of how and why Western civilization evolved democracy, which he found overly messy.
Trungpa died in 1987. Trungpa’s son, Osel Mukpo—who was raised in exile, without the kind of traditional Buddhist monastic education and training his father had—was abruptly put on the throne in 1990 (after the death of Osel Tendzin, Trungpa’s original chosen successor). In 1995, he was enthroned as the new Sakyong in an elaborate multi-day ceremony. He was also declared the reincarnation of Mipham the Great, a surprise to everyone who’d been involved in planning the event.
In the years since, Osel Mukpo, now known as Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, has taken “scale” to a whole new level, claiming to have 14,000 students. Yet he is an introverted person by nature. He doesn’t take questions or engage in unscripted public dialogue. How is someone supposed to get close to him in a way that could facilitate the two-way samaya envisioned by the mahasiddhas? Back in 2004, I remember meeting a dharma brat (the term in Shambhala circles for a kid who grew up in the community) who professed her great love for the Sakyong and commitment to his world. I asked her if she’d had many conversations with him. “Never,” she said, “but I’ve served him twice.”
Shortly after that encounter, I left the Shambhala sangha. I couldn’t maintain the cognitive dissonance between the teachings I’d signed up for in 1974 and what the organization had become 30 years later. I imagined that my ancestors, who had fought in the American revolution, were rolling in their graves knowing that I’d become a latter-day monarchist. It was as if I was trying to live someone else’s life, not my own, and it felt like that would surely kill me sooner or later.
The Sakyong went on to create a propaganda machine, enabled by senior students who I would have thought knew better. In the new mythology, the Sakyong was presented as a divinely appointed king, the sole source of precious teachings, revealed only to him, that would save the world from darkness. Older students who didn’t go along with this charade were pushed out.
What does samaya become in these circumstances? Is it belief in the perfection of a guy on a throne whom you rarely speak with, who gets transmissions from other realms? What happens to your faith in these teachings when inevitably the teacher turns out to have feet of clay, and now pleads his humanity in a half-hearted apology? If no human being is perfect, isn’t this notion of samaya just a really dumb idea?
For me, the journey out of Shambhala began with realizing that Osel Mukpo was not a teacher for me. Many of my friends and I convinced ourselves he was perverting his father’s teachings, which were unassailable. But with recent revelations, the time has come to peel even more layers from the onion and to question Trungpa himself. While I clearly learned a lot from Trungpa Rinpoche, those insights are not bound by what I might think of Trungpa the human being. The words he spoke, the way he looked and behaved, the forms he created, are the proverbial buddha on the road. The cute stories that get told by the old-timers are irrelevant. The only realization that survives lives in our hearts, and doesn’t require reference to my first teacher’s personality.
For me, samaya must be a loyal and enduring commitment to one’s own experience, felt in the mind, heart, gut, and body. The teacher’s role is not to demand loyalty and play god, but to point us back to our own experiences. A teacher may point the way for a time, but the path, and every step we take, is preciously and uniquely ours. Our real commitment must be to our own awakening.
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