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Me & Chögyam
Re-assessing my relationship with the Rinpoche, and with my past self who loved his books
In my early 20s, I devoured every bit of text from Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche I could get my hands on. I still have a copy of Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism on my shelf, and I still pretty regularly call on one of my favorite quotes from him:
The bad news is you’re falling through the air, nothing to hang on to, no parachute. The good news is, there’s no ground.
It was hard to find physical copies of his books while I was living in Korea, so I’d download pdfs and print them at work. I kept stacks of A4 Trungpa books on my desk to highlight, underline, and annotate, so my coworkers would think I was working on actual tasks while I read more Trungpa.
He approvingly referred to the early stages of meditation as “chewing stone.” He compared the process of inner work to performing surgery on yourself with no anesthetic. He called enlightenment “the ego’s ultimate disappointment,” and he kept enough of a playfully cynical tone that is gave my younger self permission to follow up on meditation and Vajrayana Buddhism without embarassment.
Years went by, and I didn’t make it back to Trungpa for awhile. I spent more time with Carl Jung, Reggie Ray, Rob Burbea, David Whyte, Martin Shaw, James Hillman, an assortment of others. I just stopped making time to come back to Trungpa.
Then, a few months ago, I picked up a new collection stitched together from his speeches, Cynicism and Magic: Intelligence and Intuition on the Buddhist Path. It sounded right up my alley, exactly what I’d loved about Trungpa—the sense of grounded cynicism that still managed to impart the magic of whatever he was talking about. I picked it up and started reading.
I barely made it past the first couple chapters.
A brief note of explanation here: I’ve changed a lot since I first read Trungpa. My early life was one long stream of depression and disillusionment, which put me at the lowest point in my life when I first found his work.
I had a relentless inner critic monologuing in my head all day and long into the night; I saw the world as a meaningless rock hurtling through cold dead space; I thought myself the only person who could see how terrible and absurd life was—but also saw myself as a coward for not having the stones to kill myself and be done with it.
So I was primed to take Buddhism quite seriously (“They’ve got four noble truths, and they’re ALL about how everything is suffering?? These guys get it.”), and especially primed to love a cynical, hard-nosed take on it all.
I’m grateful that even in the darkest, most unreachable part of my life, Chogyam Trungpa was able to find a way to make sense to me. I owe a lot to that early jumpstart, that simple permission to take seriously the idea that I could change my life without deluding myself into some pie-in-the-sky hippie joy drivel.
That said, re-encountering Trungpa in 2022 was a jarring experience.
First off, there’s this stuff:
Fairly standard “all is suffering” stuff, I’m used to seeing it, but it still doesn’t land with me anymore. “Always keep in mind that even when you’re happy, that’s suffering too.”
If it helps some Buddhists frame their practice, excellent for them; but it hasn’t felt healthy to me to keep pulling myself back to the frame “this is suffering; and this is suffering; this too is suffering” day after day.
But that alone wasn’t a dealbreaker, I kept reading Cynicism and Magic, simply glossing past those bits.
What really got me was the gaslighting.
There’s a lot going on here that makes me want to reach back and defend my younger self, shelter him from the worst of this.
It’s a dangerous braid being plaited here:
I am a highly advanced teacher
Other teachers might ask you to trust them over your own experience, but I would never
All I’m asking is for you to see the clear, present truth of things
And the clear, present truth is: everything everything everything you experience is suffering
If you can’t sense that it’s suffering, that’s because you’re not seeing clearly yet (I am totally not doing #2 right now btw, just being honest)
That is… fucked up. To say the least.
Humans are malleable, especially in the face of an authority they trust, and especially especially when they’re asked to partake in daily practices that will shape their perception of the world.
Picking a random, arbitrary “truth” out of a hat: let’s say I’m your teacher, you drive across entire states to come and listen to me speak, you read my books with a weight of trust not only in me, but in the millennium-spanning tradition I represent.
Now let’s say that in one of our chats, I tell you that at my level—once you’ve attained the insights that I have and experienced the things I have—it becomes utterly crystal clear that frogs are God’s direct presence on earth. Every frog you’ve ever met, God was there, looking out from behind its eyes. Not other animals, not other people: just frogs.
It might seem non-obvious, even a little ridiculous, but… I am an extremely wise avatar of an extremely wise tradition, so, you’re willing to entertain the idea. And to help you grasp it, I am now going to ask you to do daily practice and study. You will learn about all the different types of frogs and their qualities. You will use images of frogs as meditation objects. You will read divine texts while visualizing every manifestation of the divine as a frog. You will chant deep, bellowing ribbit over and over again as you meditate. Etc etc.
It’s not going to take long for you to start thinking “wow, yeah, I think I can see where this is going; I’m definitely sensing the presence of God in frogs now.”
And once that level of experiential trust is in place, things will move faster as you zoom past ever deeper realizations of both The Essential Godness of Frogs, and The Essential Frogness of God.
It’s one thing to use trust and malleability to convince a bunch of people that frogs are the eyes of God. You’ll get some weird folks and some weird cultural stuff out of it, but that’s essentially trickster territory. It’s not harmless, but it’s a damn good prank.
Using the same tools to convince people that every moment of their life is suffering—that’s something else.
The gaslighting tone and content of the Trungpa text above is really troubling. He specifically calls out this idea that “you have been cheated if a doctrine tells you to suppress your direct experience.” He places value on direct experience, on not allowing yourself to be clouded or shaped by someone else’s doctrine. But he then immediately turns that around and tells you what your direct experience actually is. “Our being consists of all-encompassing pain,” he says. You won’t move forward spiritually until you understand this, he says.
It’s one thing to actually help people see clearly. To help them bring into their field of vision things that they often ignore or don’t have the sensitivity to notice. Even in our dearest moments, there are often subtle conflicting emotions woven into the background. During a delicious lunch, you may notice that you’re subtly tensing yourself against the inevitability of lunch ending, and the return to the office. While petting your cat, there’s a subtle background texture of worry about something terrible being found at your wife’s routine check-up. Raking leaves with your son on a cool autumn day, you don’t even notice that some part of you is trying to tense your shoulders in order to freeze time in this moment, already grieving that it won’t last forever.
Cultivating awareness and sensitivity to these unfelt aspects of experience is good and noble and worthwhile.
Telling people “everything is suffering; you won’t get anywhere until you recognize that truth; other people might try to suppress your experience, but not me, I just want you to see clearly what is obviously ontologically true; all the good and wise people have already recognized it so you just need to get on our level” and then giving them exercises that have been passed down through millennia with the sole purpose of getting them to see the world through the lens of suffering—that’s not great.
Speaking from personal experience, that message definitely played a part keeping me stuck in a hopeless worldview where the main thing worth focusing on is suffering suffering suffering. Luckily for me, other parts of Trungpa’s message helped lead me towards teachers and practices that would get me unstuck—but not everyone is so lucky.
It definitely took me extra time to learn to trust myself and trust my experience because of his message.1 After being told again and again that This Is Reality (and that if I wasn’t directly experiencing that reality it’s because I’m still deluded), it was difficult to get my feet under me again, to trust that my own nature knew where to lead me.2
Anyways, I’m still very grateful that Trungpa was there at a time in my life when he was one of the only people I would let myself listen to. I very well might not be here today if I hadn’t found his writings when I did—their authoritative cynicism and magic were what allowed me to find a way forward when I was more stuck than I’ve ever been.
But I probably won’t be recommending him anymore, especially not to young people.
Even if it is true that suffering is all there is (to whatever extent an empty/fabricated statement like that can be “true”) there are more helpful ways to work with that reality than through fixation on suffering-as-ultimate; and there are better methods of transmission than highjacking someone’s ability to trust their direct experience and discernment, telling them they can’t trust their own experience until it matches what you tell them.
Disclaimer: I very specifically wrote this as an account of my personal experience with a handful of books from a particular teacher. I am not interested in direct messages from reactively incensed Buddhists quoting sutras at me or telling me that I need to shut up and swallow what my betters give me. I have had more than enough of that, and you can trust me: anything you’d want to say to me has already shown up in my inbox a half dozen times.
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To be perfectly fair, this isn’t all on him: I ran into quite a few other teachers adjacent to him who instilled this message pretty hard as well.
As a general tip for young people reading this: if you don’t resonate with the words of traumatized refugees from the last century, or with the filtered teachings of a traumatized rich guy from 2500 years ago, I’m here to give you permission to maybe stop trying to force yourself to resonate with them. Maybe go find things that help you get a handle on your emotional and material situations, that let you restore coherence and the ability to trust yourself, and then come back to those teachings later, see if anything has changed.