The Myth of Trungpa
by Charles Carreon
THE STORY STARTS IN OAXACA
The first time I heard about Chogyam Trungpa was from Newcomb Greenleaf, when Tara and I visited him for a couple of weeks at his home in Austin, Texas, summer of 1974. I had met Newcomb in Oaxaca the summer before, where I was travelling with my brother his last free summer between law school and starting the Air Force. We met Newcomb on the plaza in Oaxaca – he looked like a total hippie, beard, long hair, by himself, open to whatever. I was only sixteen, and my brother and I were travelling with three coeds we’d met in Mexico City. Sweet gals – I wish I could remember the name of the brunette who made out with me all the way from Mexico City to Oaxaca on the express bus. Fun ride.
My brother always liked to go where we weren’t allowed, so even though he didn’t eat mushrooms or touch anything stronger than cognac, we rented a VW bug from Hertz, packed all six of us into it, and headed off for the tiny town of Huatla de Jimenez, where Maria Sabina had lived. My brother drove for 11 hours, pushing that poor little bug up a crazy mountain road littered with very large rocks, the occasional boulder. Three times we drove through full-on creeks that just went cascading across the road. When we got to Huatla, the police told us to leave, because no visitors were allowed. My brother refused to drive back that night, insisting that it wouldn’t be safe, so the cops relented, and we got a motel room and spent the night. Five of us slept in the one room, and my brother, ever the hero, slept in the car. On the way back, we had a total blast, singing songs, all squeezed together, young and happy and having fun. Newcomb was the oldest among us, but he kept up with the energy just fine. And while my brother wasn’t looking, I scored a little bundle of moist “San Isidro” psilocybin mushrooms.
Newcomb and I ate the mushrooms a couple of days later. We took a bus ride to the pyramids at Mitla, and got a pretty good buzz on the shrooms. Since we were both experienced acid-heads, neither Newcomb nor I were bowled over by the experience, but it was fun. The little town near the pyramids was as quiet as could be. The houses were all surrounded by woven bamboo fences, and you could see into the well-swept, hardpacked bare earth patios. The only person we saw walking into the center of town was a naked little boy, who came out to look at us, and quickly disappeared back into the native environment.
WHAT HAPPENS IN AUSTIN ...
A year later, Tara and I were hitchhiking through Texas on our way to New Orleans, and we stopped in Austin to visit Newcomb. Now that I remember it, he had stayed in touch by sending me an album of Jerry Jeff Walker’s that had the song “Charlie Dunn” on it, which I still remember just about word for word. So when the time came to hitchhike through the belly of the American southland, I couldn’t think of a better place to stop than Austin.
When we got there, it was just as cool as could be. Newcomb gave us the big purple futon in the living room as a our bed, and his three sons were a hell of a lot of fun. Having a dad who is a hippie Math professor is pretty much a dream existence, as far as I could tell. But I only remember a few events from the trip. First, Newcomb made a serious attempt to seduce both Tara and myself right there on that purple futon – not that I could entirely blame him, since those were the swingin’ seventies, and keeping Tara uniquely my own was an endless task that many men tried to interfere with. Second, one night, the boys were cooking yams in the oven, and it must’ve been way too hot, because they all exploded, really loudly in a chain reaction, leaving the oven spattered with sweet-potato starch, and we had to figure out something else for dinner. Third, Newcomb told us that he was a student of Chogyam Trungpa’s in Boulder, a guru called “Rinposhay” who was into having sex with everyone’s woman, and was in this and many other ways supercool. Somehow, I didn’t actually like the faces that Newcomb made when he talked about Rinposhay, but I wasn’t into spiritual stuff, so I didn’t really care. I did care about sailing, though, and one weekend afternoon we went out to a place by a lake where we were going to go sailing, but it rained, so we didn’t, and we ended up boringly stuck in this little house wishing we could go sailing. Lightning struck real near the house, though, and someone who was touching the stove at the moment actually got a shock. Vajra blessings, I suppose. I vaguely remember Thomas Rich being there – because there was a bigwig on site, and no one was acting natural. Too quiet. No dope smoking. Dull.
So that’s how I found out that Trungpa was into screwing other people’s chicks. Like I say, I never really respected that way of getting sex, being raised Catholic and having gotten together with a Mormon girl. I mean, you can take all the acid you want – it doesn’t mean you get lost on the way to the bedroom and fuck the wrong person. Another way to think of it, from the perspective of a seventeen year old red blooded American boy, might be – Christ, how much pussy do you need, asshole? Can’t say I was all that impressed by Newcomb being okay with his girlfriend servicing his guru, either. She really seemed too nice for that sort of thing. I was left wondering WTF they thought they were accomplishing.
Just to finish up with Newcomb, he’s 82 years old now, looking quite hale and pleased with himself on the Goddard College website. Reading over his eclectic biography, I see that he has become a “Christian Buddhist,” and is claimed as a “Celtic Buddhist” by John Perks, author of The Mahasiddha and His Idiot Servant, on his CelticBuddhism.org website.
2001 EL CAMINO
Tara and I got married when I turned eighteen, and we lived in a house at 2001 El Camino, in Tempe, Arizona, that my parents very kindly made available for us to live in. I should have done a lot more with that gift, but I was a disrespectful, unappreciative, spoiled son, and couldn’t accurately perceive the sacrifices other people made to benefit me. The first person to show me a Trungpa book was a 3HO yogi whose name I can’t recall, but it began with an “M.” He was visiting our house on El Camino, and brought a copy of “Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.” He also read us a poem entitled that he himself had written, inspired by the book, entitled, “At Yama’s Door, In Waiting,” in which he used the line, “a victim of subconscious gossip,” that he’d cribbed out of Trungpa’s vocabulary. That was the first time I heard someone launching their own spiritual trip off Trungpa’s diction. I tried to read Cutting Through, but it seemed weird. It wasn’t respectful of the spiritual scene that was going on already, and I was finally beginning to turn on to what that was all about. I wasn’t ready to hear Trungpa blow it all up, but it was clear that the intellectual heavies were getting into him.
ON THE HIPPIE TRAIL
When I was nineteen, and Tara was twenty, we decided to go to India. We had both read Autobiography of A Yogi, and there was this thing called the Spiritual Communities Guide, and it claimed that the grandson of Yogananda’s guru was still teaching “strong Kriya Yoga lessons” in Benares, aka Varanasi. So we sold our car in Oregon, hitchhiked to New York, flew to Luxembourg, hitchhiked to Munich, took a train to Istanbul, and rode buses through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan to arrive in Varanasi. We met the grandson of Yogananda’s guru on our second day there, and he told us to forget it – he didn’t teach foreigners. So there we were, 15,000 miles from home and the guru just said “No.”
We fell in with the Vipassana crowd at that point. We met dozens of people who had studied with the famous Burmese teachers, Munindra and Goenka, and an English monk, Luong Pi (pronounced “Lumpy”). We took a 10 day sitting retreat in Bodhgaya with Luong Pi, and while I didn’t do much sitting, I did read some of the Diamond Sutra and had an epiphany by the temple fountain. We also ate pancakes at Amala’s yurt as many times as we could. And I decided that the Tibetans had a cool approach to the Dharma – they’d just circumambulate the Mahabodhi temple with their hands folded. No big deal, they’d just integrate it into their walk to the market or wherever, walk about the temple three times, and on their way they went. I gave it a try and found it quite pleasant. Circumambulation is really an easy practice. But I also saw Tibetans doing prostrations – very athletic with their polished boards and sliding-rags. Wanted nothing of that.
THE HELL OF PARENTHOOD
When we got back to Arizona from India about eight months after we left, we were totally disoriented. We’d enjoyed being unplugged from Western reality, but Tara was pregnant, and it was time for our enslavement to the earth to begin in earnest. About a month after our return to the States, our first child Joshua was born really sick, and at twenty years of age I learned about the fear of death, severe poverty, and low-wage employment. Josh’s health was put in danger by the dry air in Arizona, so we moved to California, then up to Oregon, where the moist air was better for him.
JOINING THE VAJRAYANA FAMILY
In Oregon in 1978, we became students of Gyatrul Rinpoche, and become absorbed in the entire Vajrayana trip. Trungpa then became part of the family. We saw him as the wild uncle. Our guru was not straightlaced, but he didn’t need to get high to blow minds. He was a strong man, intellectually and emotionally, who never hid what he was thinking, and always seemed to be thinking something meaningful.
Back in the late seventies, early eighties, Trungpa was one of the very few Tibetan teachers putting out books. There was basically a duopoly in Tibetan Buddhist books – you had Tarthang Tulku’s Dharma Publishing books, with their characteristic padma-style line drawings and pastel covers, and you had Trungpa’s Shambhala Publishing books, with their Glenn Eddy line drawings, printed on excellent paper, bound in saffron-colored covers, hard-edged and bullshit-free. The presentation was compelling, and the writing was brilliant.
Now people have said that Trungpa was very gifted linguistically, and I have no clue as to whether that was true or not. I have listened to some audio of him, and he just talks too slow for me to stay in synch, so he might be reading Shakespeare, and I’d miss that it was in iambic pentameter. But that’s the advantage of a book. All of the pregnant pauses have been edited out, and you can read it as fast as you want.
This is where the myth started to grow. I really thought that Trungpa must be brilliant, because his books were so compelling. But now I ask myself why they were so compelling. And the answer is because I was looking for a way to make myself look cool, and think myself smarter than other people. That’s what I plugged into about Trungpa’s style. When I listened to him flicking everybody shit, I got a contact high. I felt like an enlightened asshole, flicking everybody shit. I felt like a lineage-holder with a superior view of reality. Other people didn’t get it. I did.
My little hippie detour ended up coming around full circle and depositing me back into the stream of ordinary life. When my third child was born, everything changed. There was no more time for self-indulgence. I needed a fucking career to pay the bills. And I’d learned enough about Buddhism to know that it wasn't going to pay the bills. Gyatrul Rinpoche wasn’t a greedy guy, but it was obvious that our Sangha was just pathetically piss-poor. Tara and I had built a yurt out in Colestine Valley, and then Gyatrul Rinpoche bought the land and we were living on it, and all of these officious Buddhists would show up and express opinions about the appearance of our yurt on what had become the Temple land, and I decided it was time to go to law school.
CITY OF THE FALLEN ANGELS
The law school we decided I would attend was UCLA, in LA. That was a bit of a change. From peaceful Ashland, Oregon, to noisy, aggressive Los Angeles. This was as traumatic and disconcerting as you might imagine. I had a hard time adjusting. A very hard time, psychologically, accepting the fact that I was not going to get to be a hippie anymore. I was being turned into an office drone, a guy who would have a short haircut, a cheap suit, a white shirt, a silk tie, shiny shoes, and a salary that I would collect for doing … what? I had no fucking clue.
In my last year of law school, I picked up Shambhala: The Way of the Warrior, and I really liked it. This was comforting. I knew that Trungpa had gotten his students to wear suits and join the working world, but I hadn’t ever wanted to be like them. Although I met a good number of Shambhala students in LA, because Gyatrul Rinpoche was very popular with Trungpa people, I didn’t want to join their group. I went to a Shambhala center once in Hollywood when Gyatrul Rinpoche gave a talk. I saw the list of “Shambhala Levels” up on the wall and was totally turned off. Lawyers are the masters of “levels,” and I didn’t need another training system for my spiritual life.
But the Shambhala book was another thing – it was calm, bracing, energizing. As I sat reading it on the bus to work, the sun rising in the East, I got a bit of inspiration from that “Great Eastern Sun.” I picked up on some of my “Setting Sun” tendencies. I got a glimpse of what was bringing me down, and what was setting me up solid.
The Shambhala book taught me to value what I was doing for a living. And not just “for a living,” but “as a life.” I began to appreciate that I could live a dignified life, if I took the time to examine the elements from which my life was composed, consider what it required of me, and made the effort to turn it into a smooth-running machine.
Tara and I were really excited to see Trungpa at Crestwood Park in LA, where the local Shambhala people brought him for a very hush-hush visit to which we were invited only because of Gyatrul Rinpoche’s connections with the LA Shambhala students. We took all three kids, but we especially wanted him to bless Joshua, who was suffering severe health problems, a paralysis resulting from pesticide poisoning. He had gotten blessings from Yeshe Dorje (the Khampa Chodpa, not Dudjom Rinpoche) at a series of exorcisms, and his health was improving, but we really felt that he could get a blessing from Trungpa, the Great Mahasiddha. So it was a real bummer to see that the man I’d been worshipping from afar was in worse shape than my son. He was paralyzed, nearly comatose, and did not appear to see anyone who appeared before him. He didn’t know Josh was there. He couldn’t bless him. He couldn’t bless anyone. He needed help to pee, or he would have just pissed his pants.
I couldn’t understand what we’d seen. I was seriously disappointed, but I didn’t revise my view of him as a Wisdom Master. I couldn’t do that. Gyatrul Rinpoche always spoke highly of him, so there was no way to resolve that dissonance. I just tucked it away and forgot about it. In 1999, our relationship with our Yeshe Nyingpo sangha dissolved, for reasons amply discussed elsewhere. I got involved with making money and chasing status, and forgot all about the Dharma.
EXILE ON MAIN STREET
About five years ago, I experienced some serious regret about where my head had gotten me. I felt very scattered and frustrated. I started reading Buddhist books again, and read some of Trungpa’s early talks as transcribed in Illusion’s Game, Crazy Wisdom, Lion’s Roar, and Orderly Chaos. It was very enjoyable. I felt like I was understanding these teachings quite well, and that was satisfying. I was trying to learn to meditate, which is to say, how to establish a sense of order and harmony in myself, and Trungpa’s books seemed to help.
About six months ago, I read Leslie Hays’ story about Trungpa torturing the cat, being strung out on cocaine, having seven wives, and dying hooked up to machines in a hospital. Forty years of mystery evaporated in twenty minutes.
I still have a fair number of Trungpa books, but I have no desire to read them. I’m not nostalgic about what I experienced when I read them previously. I don’t need to try and keep the ideas alive in my mind. The Shambhala ideal of warriorship isn’t something I need to inspire me now. My fondness for unraveling the obscure significance of Tilopa’s words or Naropa’s behavior became groundless. It was like I had been looking in a mirror, and it fogged over so I couldn’t see a reflection. It was like I was driving a car that ran out of gas. I didn’t even have a gas can. There are no gas stations around here. I just had to walk.