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Excerpts on Shunryu Suzuki

Introduction to The Teacup and the Skullcap

by David Schneider

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Trungpa, Chogyam, The Teacup and the Skullcup: Chögyam Trungpa on Zen and Tantra, Vajradhatu Publications, 2007.

See letter from co-editor, David Schneider.

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Chronicles Project - Talks by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche on Zen and Tantra - video and audio


On New Year’s Day of 1974, Vidyadhara Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche began teaching the first of two seminars on Zen and tantra. He was in the early phase of a North American career that would last 17 years, and would be a potent force in the spiritual constellation of the continent. Beginning very modestly, Trungpa Rinpoche would eventually give hundreds of public and private seminars, comprising thousands of individual teaching talks. The record of his published work—still far from complete—includes scores of books, among them volumes of poetry and calligraphy. (1) Despite his inveterate curiosity, his wide-ranging, multicultural education, and a seemingly boundless range of endeavor (2), Trungpa Rinpoche focused the bulk of his enormous energy on his students. In his first three years in North America (1970-73) he taught fundamental topics of the Buddhist path and view of mind, always with a strong emphasis on the practice of meditation, and on the example of the vajra masters in his lineage. His uncompromising, yet charming style attracted many students in these first years, and of these no small portion were from Zen sanghas. The talks in this volume appear, from a 30-year remove, to signal a turning point for the community. Acknowledging the strength and discipline gained from Zen influence, Trungpa Rinpoche distinguishes the two traditions, and points out the path on which he intends to take his students.

If in these first years, Trungpa Rinpoche emphasized the Tibetan vajrayana, he could scarcely have done otherwise: he’d been thoroughly trained in the system since before his second birthday, [3]  and was by nature as well as by training, a crazy-wisdom, tantric adept. He literally embodied the vajrayana. In America, he’d given many talks describing tantra. More significantly and more famously, he had in his talks and demeanor created an atmosphere that itself seemed tantric: an atmosphere at once electric and ordinary, mysterious and simple, clarifying and confusing, boring and magnetic.

By the time he gave the seminars in this book, Trungpa Rinpoche had only begun to present the full structure of the nine-yana path. During the three months prior to these talks, he had convened and taught the Vajradhatu Seminary—the first of thirteen such three-month programs—in which he detailed the Buddhist path from beginning to end. His manner of presentation was modern and sometimes shocking, but the path he described, and the texts upon which he based his exposition, were classical. Also classical, and also shocking to the new seminarians, was his introduction of a higher level of discipline and academic study. He worked in a systematic way, portraying the nine yanas almost as a surveyor or cartographer would, and he expected people to keep up. As for fully entering his students into the vajrayana with transmission and empowerment, he was on the verge of it, but had not yet done it.

Trungpa Rinpoche had, on the other hand, made profound commitments to these students, and he was about to accept them formally as tantric disciples. The tradition at this point is to warn people away from such irreversible commitment, to put up obstacles, and at the very least, to make sure they know what they are getting into. Later in the summer of 1974, he taught explicitly, extensively, and publicly on tantra, in a series of fifteen talks at the first convocation of the Naropa Institute in Boulder. (3) But in the wintry days at the beginning of the year, Trungpa Rinpoche seemed interested first in making distinctions, pointing out to his students (and other assorted listeners) how a tantric path might differ from the style and feeling and emphasis that had grown up in his community so far—a style that he cheerfully admitted owed much to Zen. “I think we are closer to Zen. We may be practicing Zen in the spirit of tantra,” is how he put it, chuckling, when questioned in the second of these lectures.

This act of distinction, subtle but definite, was carried out with utmost respect for both traditions. That he should feel respect and devotion to his own crazy-wisdom lineage and tradition is normal. That Trungpa Rinpoche should display affectionate, penetrating insight with regard to Zen is remarkable, attributable possibly to a number of close friendships he’d forged with Zen masters in North America. Through these friendships, one can feel his respect for the Zen tradition altogether, and how it led to his using certain Zen forms for his public meditation halls and rituals. Possibly one can feel as well why so many Zen students were drawn to Trungpa Rinpoche. For whichever reason they came, these practitioners had a definite effect on the emerging character of his “scene,” and he developed in return a humorous, teasing—sometimes mocking—approach in dealing with these people. He was not above puncturing a student’s arrogance by calling something they’d said or done as “very Zen,” or of lamenting—as he does in these talks—the trips American students tended to make from the most functional aspects of Zen form, turning basic routines into aesthetic contests. In 1978, Trungpa Rinpoche criticized Zen students to the great amusement of his audience, remarking that “although they might have excellent posture in the Zendo, the minute they take off their robes and go off in their apartments, they develop their own little neuroses. They …carry on hanky-panky of all kinds in their apartments—un-Zen hanky-panky!”

 His first and most significant encounter [2]  was with Suzuki Roshi, founding abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center. Suzuki Roshi, his wife Suzuki Sensei (mostly known simply as “Okusan”), and Trungpa Rinpoche and his wife Diana Mukpo, were all introduced in May of 1970 by Rinpoche’s publisher, Sam Bercholz. During a visit to Zen Center, an immediate affinity—what everyone who saw it called a “heart connection”—sprang up between the two teachers. Trungpa Rinpoche later confided to his wife that Suzuki Roshi was the first person he’d met in America who reminded him of his root guru in Tibet, Jamgön Kongtrül. He went on to say that in Roshi he’d found his first spiritual friend in the West.

By 1970, Suzuki Roshi had been living and teaching in North America for a dozen years, working intensively with the American students who’d joined his sitting practice, and the community that had grown up around him. With the purchase in the late 1960s of Tassajara, a monastery deep in the mountains of Los Padres National Forest and the publication of Suzuki’s first book, Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind in 1970, the Zen Center had begun to grow rapidly. Suzuki Roshi often discussed the challenge of presenting traditional Zen Buddhist dharma in a cultural vacuum, to American students who fit no category that he, a Japanese teacher, was familiar with. He struggled with this, and his struggle gave rise to innovative, powerful teachings and a vigorous community.

According to biographer David Chadwick, Suzuki Roshi was familiar with Trungpa Rinpoche’s work, as Roshi had read Meditation in Action, and had heard praise from his own students who’d met the young Tibetan. On this first visit, Trungpa Rinpoche was quite interested in how Suzuki Roshi taught the technique of counting breaths during sitting meditation, and the Tibetan also took careful note of forms and atmosphere at Zen Center. During his first years in America, Rinpoche had stressed sitting meditation for his students—distinct from other practices or pujas in the Tibetan traditions—but had not given a standardized technique. When he finally chose a uniform style of practice for his students, Rinpoche too placed emphasis on breath as the primary object of meditation, but differently from Zen. The instructions for posture also were slightly different—more relaxed—and the method of working with thoughts also varied from the Zen style. The practice was different, but as he said “not so different.” He adopted Zen sitting cushions known as zafus, but had them sewn in red and yellow instead of Zen black; he incorporated the Zen practice of alternating sitting and walking periods throughout a practice block, but instituted a variable, as opposed to predictable, schedule. As he did with many forms he encountered in the West, Trungpa Rinpoche blended aspects that seemed to be working for American students with the traditional Tibetan ways he’d inherited; he created forms that were fresh and that fit.

In their subsequent meetings and in letters, Suzuki Roshi and Trungpa Rinpoche shared ideas for furthering buddhadharma in America, among them exchanging students and teachings, founding a Buddhist university, and creating a dharmically-oriented therapeutic community. Trungpa Rinpoche did send several of his senior students for training to Tassajara, and with Suzuki Roshi’s blessing, used experienced Zen Center practitioners to lead extended sittings —day-long (nyinthün) and month-long (dathün) retreats—in his burgeoning scene in Vermont and later the Rocky Mountains.

An example of Trungpa Rinpoche’s regard for Suzuki Roshi is that during the first dathün in North America, he allowed the rule of silence to be lifted only once each day—for a reading from Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. But the most striking expression of veneration is that from their first meeting, until his death in 1987, Trungpa Rinpoche had placed on every shrine wall, in every center associated with his work, a picture of Suzuki Roshi. The other few photos [3]  on these walls were Rinpoche’s personal teachers and ancestors; that Suzuki Roshi’s Japanese face looked out from among Tibetan lineage holders was powerful poetry. It was also fitting, for Suzuki Roshi referred to Trungpa Rinpoche as being “like my son.”

It is relatively difficult to manipulate shamatha-vipashyana for personal aggrandizement, or to make a trip out of shikantaza, as Roshi called the purest form of Zen sitting. But both teachers ended up working patiently (if occasionally wrathfully) to keep their students on a goalless path. The America they found themselves in resembled a spiritual jungle: it was fertile, opulent, and rich; it was also overgrown, chaotic, and full of danger for the seeker. Suzuki Roshi and Trungpa Rinpoche shared between them the disappointments and loneliness they felt in walking through that jungle, and in leading others through it.

The next important Zen connection Trungpa Rinpoche made was with the soft-spoken, powerful master Kobun Chino Otogawa. When Rinpoche had asked Suzuki Roshi about calligraphy, Roshi directed him to Kobun, as the young teacher liked to be called, living at that time about an hour’s drive south of San Francisco. Their actual meeting turned out to be almost accidental. Trungpa Rinpoche had come to Los Altos to consult with a group of psychologists. Abe Maslow, Anthony Sutich, and others, including Sonja Margulies, editor the influential Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, wanted to meet Trungpa Rinpoche because of his startling presentation of psychology as integrated into spiritual life. Margulies happened to be studying zen under Kobun, and when Rinpoche arrived, she made a point of introducing the two.

“They hit it off immediately,” Margulies recalls. “They were both young men—Asians out of their cultures—both had married young Western girls—Kobun, a red-head, Trungpa, a blond—and both had young children. They had a lot in common.” Beyond that, both men had admiring connections to Suzuki Roshi, were poets, would prove themselves master calligraphers, and both had an intuitive ability to speak the dharma to Western students, though in very different styles. On this early visit they did calligraphy together. Kobun had a variety of fine Japanese brushes, including a very large one. Rinpoche had never worked with a brush of such scale—indeed Tibetan syllables are usually written with a stylus—but he delighted in working with this one. Through the years, Trungpa Rinpoche developed a unique style of writing, blending brush calligraphy with the various scripts of formal Tibetan calligraphy.

Kobun, having trained at Eiheiji Monastery in ceremony and ritual, helped with these aspects of practice at Zen Center when he first came to America. Starting in the middle 1970s, as Trungpa Rinpoche gradually introduced more discipline and form to his community, Kobun performed this same role for Vajradhatu. He taught students the traditional approach to chanting, drumming, ritual procession, and most invasively for the students, Zen-monastery-style eating, with oryoki bowls. Kobun introduced oryoki practice with care and a certain trepidation, for it is an intimate, inner practice of the Zen tradition. Trungpa Rinpoche prized oryoki practice highly, and though it met resistance among his students, he repeatedly did his best to encourage the practice.

Another important stream of teachings flowed into Shambhala-Vajradhatu through connection to Kobun: the practice of the way of the bow, kyudo. In the mid-1970s Kobun introduced Trungpa Rinpoche to his own kyudo master and family friend, Kanjuro Shibata Sensei, twentieth in a familial succession of bowmakers to the throne of Japan. Trungpa Rinpoche invited Shibata Sensei to teach his martial art to the Shambhala sangha, and to take up residence in Colorado. Over time, Shibata Sensei acceded to both requests, moving with his wife to Boulder and propagating a form of kyudo that he felt cleaved to its spiritual roots. Sensei scorned what he termed “sports kyudo”—purely trying to hit the target and win competitions. In Shambhala, Shibata Sensei was able to pass on the profound heart of his tradition. Mrs Shibata, herself a master of several Japanese do (ways) introduced students to the profundity of kado (the way of flowers) and chanoyu (tea ceremony).

When Trungpa Rinpoche created Naropa Institute in 1974, fulfilling another part of the vision he’d shared with Suzuki Roshi, he asked Kobun to help with the place, and to look after it in the future. Kobun visited Naropa every year until his tragic death in the summer of 2001, guiding the school with his own elegant, understated presence and his serious practice. At the time of his death, Kobun held the Wisdom Chair at Naropa, and numerous of his artworks graced the campus.

The friendship between Kobun and Trungpa Rinpoche remained through the years as it had begun—gentle, loving, creative. “It was like family,” observed publisher Sam Bercholz. “There was absolutely no one-upmanship; they connected in a way that was simply like sharing food and drink. Kobun was always just there.” Indeed, early in their friendship, Kobun and Rinpoche pledged to be reborn as brothers throughout their lives.

 

In 1971, Eido Shimano Roshi hosted a visit from Trungpa Rinpoche. Eido Roshi—known then as Tai-san—was a student of the great Soen Roshi, who’d sent him to the West. Tai-san had been eager to come, and had learned a very good English; he’d first visited New York in 1963, serving as translator to Yasutani Roshi. Eido Roshi was by 1971 a dynamic, macho-tending Zen teacher of the old style: he favored things Japanese and strict. He could on the other hand create an electrifying atmosphere through dramatic use of Zen forms, as well as his intense personal presence. He was also a talented artist.

Eido Roshi and Trungpa Rinpoche met together a number of times in Eido’s home in New York, at least once together with Soen Roshi himself. On this occasion, Eido Roshi warned Trungpa Rinpoche—famous for making his students wait hours for a talk—that if he were to come to meet Soen, he would have to be on time. Rinpoche arrived a very correct ten minutes early. The masters all did calligraphy together and were served sake by a devoted student who’d bizarrely kept the bottle against her body for three days. She’d been told that sake tasted best at “human body temperature.”

Eido Roshi was in equal measure suspicious of and fascinated by Trungpa Rinpoche. “Who is this guy?” he asked a student who knew them both. What Roshi seemed to want to know was how Trungpa Rinpoche could be an acknowledged lineage master, and scholar with a devoted following, and at the same time have habits like smoking cigarettes, drinking alcohol, and conducting extramarital affairs with his students. Every time Eido Roshi had ventured into these behaviors—and it seems he ventured fairly often—he suffered unpleasant consequences. The student explained that Rinpoche hid neither his drinking nor his philandering, that deceit and shame played no role in his approach, and that he genuinely seemed to love all his students, not only the female ones with whom the intimacy developed to a point of physical love.

Eido Roshi came to Karmê Chöling after Rinpoche’s death in 1987, where Trungpa Rinpoche was to be cremated. Unable to stay for the ceremony because of prior commitments, Roshi meditated with Rinpoche’s body, met with his wife and eldest son (the present Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche) and performed private rituals. He also left as a gift a box of priceless incense that was subsequently used at the cremation. Roshi felt so touched at Karmê Chöling that he stayed until the last minute before his flight, soaking up the atmosphere of devotion, and of the mindful, cheerful, indefatigable preparation that had been going on for many weeks. As his car finally raced at illegal speeds toward the airport, he proclaimed to his attendant over and again that he’d at last seen the greatness of Trungpa Rinpoche; he’d seen Rinpoche’s greatness in the environment of Karmê Chöling and in the comportment of his students. Roshi announced to his stressed driver that Trungpa Rinpoche was in fact kami. This nomination from Shinto tradition would have pleased Trungpa Rinpoche very much, as it refers to a larger-than-human energy usually associated with environments—rivers, valleys, mountains, springs, and so on; such energy could also be found associated with noble clans, nation-states, and genuine spiritual practice, and is many ways equivalent to the Tibetan term drala. Invoking and manifesting drala had filled the last ten years of Trungpa Rinpoche’s life and teaching.

It was at the 1976 ceremony installing Eido Roshi as abbot of Dai Bosatsu Monastery in upstate New York that Trungpa Rinpoche met Maezumi Roshi. This complex and important friendship post-dates the talks in this book and is thus beyond its scope, but perhaps one story might be included, to show how Trungpa Rinpoche had begun to assume a “care-taking,” advisory role toward the Zen teachers around him.

Dennis Genpo Merzel (now Roshi,) acted as Maezumi Roshi’s attendant at the Dai Bosatsu ceremony, and in this capacity, he scurried around between events, inviting people to come to Maezumi Roshi’s rooms for tea and refreshments. Trungpa Rinpoche accepted the invitation, and sat next to Genpo during the palaver. At one point Rinpoche leaned over and quietly asked, “Are you Roshi’s attendant?”

Until this time, Genpo had only thought of himself as Maezumi Roshi’s student, so he replied, “Sort of.” “Then you should never leave his side!” Rinpoche told him sharply. Genpo felt this direct address as a wake-up call—for himself personally, and for the entire Zen Center of Los Angeles community—on how to attend their teacher.

The fatherly approach Trungpa Rinpoche took toward young Zen teachers went quite a bit further in the case of Jakusho Bill Kwong Roshi. Bill Kwong had been a close and important disciple of Suzuki Roshi’s, and had, with the help of Zen Center and Richard Baker, gotten an excellent piece of land in the Sonoma Valley on which to establish a Zen practice place after Suzuki Roshi’s death. Trungpa Rinpoche visited him often at what came to be called Sonoma Mountain Zen Center; he made sure as well that Kwong was invited to any of his appearances in the San Francisco Bay area, and given a good seat in the front row.

But there were demands as well. Kwong was asked to come help with the first dathün in Colorado, and Trungpa Rinpoche heightened the communication between them, not allowing empty forms to suffice. When Kwong replied once in an automatic way to Rinpoche’s inquiry, saying he was “fine,” Trungpa Rinpoche fixed him with a stare, and a vigorous “What!?” that left the young Kwong feeling he’d been “crushed to pieces,” with the fragments falling into Trungpa Rinpoche’s palm. On another occasion, Trungpa Rinpoche sat rolling a vajra in his hand—a symbolic thunderbolt/weapon/scepter used in tantric practice—and Kwong asked somewhat idly what it was. Trungpa Rinpoche simply handed it to him, as a gift.

That golden vajra sits today on the main altar at Sonoma Mountain, and in the middle of an open grassy hill a few hundred yards away, a portion of Trungpa Rinpoche’s bones lie in a beautiful, copper-and cedar Japanese-style reliquary hut. Another hundred yards further on, down a winding path to a shady grove of oak and laurel, some of Suzuki Roshi’s ashes are buried beneath the kind of stupa he preferred—a large, shapely granite boulder. Thus the two teachers are in a kind of characteristic posthumous proximity. Both Kwong Roshi and Kobun observed that while zen is full of shadow, indirect allusion, hiddeness, mystery and moonlight, the vajrayana taught by Trungpa Rinpoche radiated with sunlight and brilliant color and clarity and openness.

In the talks in this book, Trungpa Rinpoche uses exactly this kind of aesthetic contrast to tease out the differences in the two paths. Where Zen aesthetic, based in the yogacharin tradition of “mind-only,” leads to statements of refined simplicity and elegance, tantra needs no statement at all, opting for the naked bluntness of things as they are. Where Zen leads to a clear, open, lofty mind, tantra points to ordinary mind, the lowest of the low. Trungpa Rinpoche pictured such differences for his hirsute audiences as being comparable to a beautifully dressed noble person (Zen), as opposed to an unemployed, unshaven samurai (tantra), or like the teacup and skullcup of this book’s title. That tantric aesthetic was rougher stemmed not from its lack of sophistication or practice, but rather from the notion that refinement or self-conscious artistic statement were no longer necessary for the tantric yogi.

These varied approaches to art and aesthetic expression, Trungpa Rinpoche says, derive from the philosophical roots underpinning the two traditions. Scholars and surveyors of Buddhism have long been fond of placing zen in categories, associating it with this or that textual tradition. (The great Edward Conze’s “mahayana Buddhism plus Chinese jokes” is not atypical.) When Trungpa Rinpoche places Zen at the highest development of the mahayana, he does so not based on sutra allusion or historical accident alone. He recognizes Zen as an insider, with the sure feeling of one whose entire life had been devoted to learning and (more so) to practicing the paths of Buddhism; he recognizes Zen as one who himself had grown up in a monastery, and knew intimately how the training felt and worked on a student; he recognizes Zen as one who had studied devotedly at the feet of his teachers, and knew the crucial function of “warm hand to warm hand” lineage transmission in Zen.

In these seminars Trungpa Rinpoche praises Zen as an “extraordinary development of precision;” he calls it fantastic, he points out how with its sharp black-and-white distinctions, and exhausting monastic schedule, Zen leads to a full realization of prajna (wisdom). Then he goes on to say that tantra was a further step. And yet there is no sense of hierarchy imposed—or at least no clear one. While Zen stands as the fruition of mahayana, Trungpa Rinpoche posits, crazy wisdom reaches the fruition of vajrayana, the third great aspect of the Buddhist path.

It is startling that Trungpa Rinpoche could posit tantra as an evolution of Zen, a step beyond it, while conveying absolutely no sense of belittlement. But that is exactly what he manages in the seminars, through sympathetic insight and admiration. The matter of their relative status for him is not clear-cut in any case. In other talks on Zen, Rinpoche acknowledged that it would definitely be possible for Zen practitioners to attain tantric realization, and he mentions Suzuki Roshi as an example of someone who had done it. He further allowed, in the commentary on the Zen “ox-herding” pictures included in this volume, that the latter illustrations portray tantric understanding. He wrote, “…the final realization of Zen leads to the wisdom of maha ati” (the highest level of tantra). According to Rinpoche’s commentary, this is portrayed in the seventh drawing of the sequence. The eighth, ninth, and tenth pictures —all further steps on the Zen path—show different aspects of tantric enlightenment. Thus on the one hand Zen leads to tantra, but on the other hand, the Zen path, seen through its art, accurately describes tantric fruition—how could this be? Perhaps Zen and tantra are not what one thinks.

 

Notes

[1] He was a vigorous artist as well, mounting several full-scale environmental installations, writing pieces for theatre and film, and— – despite working mindfully and utterly without hurry—, producing an astonishing number of original calligraphs, drawings, photographs, and lithographs.

[2] As a teacher and meditation master, he met with and counseled professionals from the fields of psychology, medicine, business, and education, founding in this latter branch a collegial institute for learning in 1974 that developed into the fully accredited Naropa University.

[3] Later edited and published as Journey Without Goal, Prajna Publications, 1981.

 



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