Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche was
born in a remote village in eastern Tibet in 1940. Recognized while still
an infant as the eleventh incarnation of the renowned Trungpa lineage of
Buddhist teachers, he was raised to take his seat as head of the Surmang
monasteries and governor of the Surmang region of eastern Tibet. His
childhood was devoted to a rigorous regime of study and training in the
care of some of Tibet's greatest living masters including his root guru,
Jamgön Kongtrül of Sechen, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (later to become a
beloved teacher and friend to the Shambhala community), and the crazy
wisdom master, Khenpo Gangshar. By 1959, when he fled the Chinese
occupation of Tibet for India, the Vidyadhara had developed into a
brilliant leader and teacher.
The next ten years of the Vidyadhara's life, first in India and later in
England, were marked by a passion to absorb everything he could about the
West and find a way to present authentic buddhadharma to Western students.
Although there was no lack of interest in Buddhism in the West, he found
that students were easily distracted by the seemingly exotic nature of the
teachings and the teacher.
In 1968, the Vidyadhara spent a significant ten days on retreat in a
sacred cave known as Taktsang in Bhutan. Looking back on this experience
in 1977, he wrote: "The message that I had received from my supplication
was that one must try to expose spiritual materialism and all its
trappings, otherwise true spirituality could not develop. I began to
realize that I would have to take daring steps in my life."
Shortly after returning to Great Britain, following a series of what he
called "smaller warnings," the Vidyadhara blacked out behind the wheel of
his car and crashed into a joke shop, sustaining injuries that left him
partially paralyzed on the left side of his body for the rest of his life.
It was a profound turning point. What he understood from the experience
was the need to open up completely in a direct and intimate way to Western
students. He saw that his robes and monastic vows formed a veil that
blocked direct communication and understood that if Westerners were to
hear the dharma, it must be stripped of Tibetan cultural trappings.
When the Vidyadhara arrived in North America in 1970, his presentation of
the dharma was simple, direct, and profound—emphasizing the need to let go
of expectations and the inherent dangers of the spiritual journey. His
early talks struck a profound chord with his mostly young American
audiences. Within a few years he was surrounded by a highly dedicated
circle of students, all of whom had been deeply moved by his earthy
presence, unexpected command of their culture and language, and the utter
power behind his words.
In the years that followed, the Vidyadhara traveled extensively in a
nonstop display of energy and brilliance, gradually and steadily
introducing new aspects of the teachings as students were ready to hear
them. Practice centers and study groups formed in his wake, as students
developed a personal connection to the teachings and the sitting practice
of meditation. In 1973, he established Vajradhatu, an umbrella
organization to oversee the needs of the growing community.
In 1974, Vajradhatu hosted His Holiness the Sixteenth Gyalwang Karmapa,
head of the Karma Kagyü lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. The community, which
had so far enjoyed a somewhat relaxed and informal relationship with the
teacher and the teachings, now found itself hosting a dharma king. The
Vidyadhara received the Karmapa with an impeccable display of devotion and
formality, while his students looked on and followed his example. The
visit marked a new phase of the community's understanding and practice of
devotion, a practice that is nowhere more vividly manifest than in The
Great Stupa of Dharmakaya. A real link and appreciation for the lineage
and world of Tibetan tradition, from which the Vidyadhara had emerged, was
indelibly forged through this powerful visit.
With a view toward the future, in 1976 the Vidyadhara empowered Thomas
Rich, one of his American students, as his Vajra Regent. He served as head
of the organizations the Vidyadhara founded until his tragic death in
1990. At that point, the Vidyadhara's eldest son, Ösel Rangdröl Mukpo (Sakyong
Mipham Rinpoche), whom he had empowered in 1979 as his successor and
Shambhala heir, assumed his responsibility as leader. Sakyong Mipham
Rinpoche carries on today as the head of the Shambhala community.
During seventeen years of tireless activity in North America, the
Vidyadhara accomplished a miraculous transplanting of buddhadharma into a
culture where it had been largely unknown or misunderstood. He gave over
five thousand talks, established more than a hundred Buddhist meditation
centers, and profoundly touched the lives of thousands of students. The
English words and phrases he applied to Buddhist concepts can now be found
in the speech and writings of almost all Buddhist teachers and translators
in the English-speaking world. His own books have sold over a million
The Vidyadhara's life was dedicated to planting buddhadharma in the West
in such a way that it would take root and flourish for many generations.
Historically Buddhism has drawn on the innate cultural strength of the
many diverse societies in which it has thrived, each culture providing a
setting for the dharma in the same way that a gold ring provides a setting
for a diamond. The Vidyadhara encouraged his students to seek out what is
valuable in Western culture—that which fosters an appreciation of human
dignity, courage, and inherent richness—and to avoid the tendency toward
nihilism, cynicism, and malaise so prevalent in contemporary society.
Much of the Vidyadhara's work, especially in the last ten years of his
life, was dedicated to propagating what he called "enlightened society,"
which would help the world in many ways and, at the same time, provide a
home for buddhadharma in the West. As a model, he pointed to the Kingdom
of Shambhala, an ancient (some say mythical, some say real) kingdom of
Central Asia ruled by a lineage of enlightened monarchs.
Putting his vision into practice, the Vidyadhara created a whirlwind of
activity as he shaped the Vajradhatu community into a rich, multifaceted
society. He established a host of organizations and training programs both
large and small, including a mediation council, a credit union, an
association of health professionals, a translation committee, a theater
group, a preschool, an elementary school, and organizations for the study
and practice of tea ceremony, Japanese archery, flower arranging, and
dressage. He formed the Dorje Kasung, a service organization entrusted
with the protection of the Buddhist teachings and the welfare of the
community. He also reached beyond the Buddhist community by establishing
the Naropa Institute, a fully accredited liberal arts university, and the
Shambhala Training program, which offers a secular approach to meditation
practice based on an appreciation of innate human goodness.
Working closely with poets, artists, businessmen, educators, medical
professionals, gardeners, cooks, and administrators, the Vidyadhara
encouraged them to connect deeply with their own traditions and take an
uplifted approach to their disciplines. The diverse community was bound
together by a common loyalty and love for their teacher, who in turn
relinquished personal privacy and gave himself totally to working with
others, the consummate enlightened monarch.
Much of this activity, particularly in the later years of his life, took
place in his home in Boulder, Colorado, which he fashioned into a court or
cultural center, and where he lived with his wife, Diana, and five sons.
As a further step toward establishing an enlightened society, he moved his
court and the international headquarters of Vajradhatu to the province of
Nova Scotia in eastern Canada, a beautiful, rugged, and elemental place
with a gentle culture, which he felt had the potential to embrace the
Shambhala vision in the years to come.
Trungpa Rinpoche, the man at the center of this activity, never seemed to
be in a hurry, spending much of his time quietly—a paradox of seemingly
effortless, all-accomplishing action. As an artist, he is best known for
his devastatingly beautiful poetry, calligraphy, and flower arrangements.
But he was also a highly accomplished painter, playwright, and
photographer. There was a quality of impeccable precision and playfulness
in the way he conducted his life. From the mundane to the monumental, his
actions were carried out with careful attention to detail and a tireless
sense of humor, yet, when the need arose, he could be fierce and
uncompromising. He never gave up on anyone or anything that entered his
sphere of activity.
When the Vidyadhara was young he was playing with a precious jewel that
had been handed down through the Trungpa lineage, a symbol of spiritual
transmission. Carelessly, he lost it by the banks of a river near his
monastery, and no one could find it. Years later, after receiving
transmission on the nature of mind from his teacher, the Vidyadhara once
again went to the banks of the river, and there he found the jewel.
Thrangu Rinpoche, a good friend of the Vidyadhara, told this story several
years ago to members of the Shambhala community. He ended by saying: "And
so along with rediscovering the mind's true nature, he found this jewel
that had been lost for so many years. He was able to recover this jewel,
and having it back in his hand, he was able to come to North America and
give it to you. This is an extremely fortunate situation."
May all the aspirations of the Vidyadhara be realized, and may the jewel
of his teachings never be lost.
from the Chronicles Project.