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Ocean of Dharma

It has been twenty-five years since the death of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a seminal figure in twentieth-century Buddhism and founder of this magazine. BARRY BOYCE surveys his vast body of teachings and their lasting impact on how Buddhism is understood and practiced.

1. Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism

In the summer of 1968, a twenty-nine-year-old Tibetan monk traveled from Scotland to Bhutan to do a retreat in a small and dank cave on a high precipice—a place where Padmasambhava, who brought Buddhism to Tibet, had practiced 1,200 years earlier. He brought along with him one of his small cadre of Western students. For the student, it was an exotic journey filled with hardships, including ingesting chilies no Englishman should be asked to eat. For the monk, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, it was challenging in a different way. He felt imprisoned by his circumstances. He’d been trained since age five in a rigorous system of study and meditative practice—intended as a direct path to the Buddha’s realization. It had passed from teacher to student in an unbroken lineage for more than a thousand years. He longed to share that training and understanding but couldn’t quite see how—in his new home the buddhadharma was a foreign plaything, either intellectualized or romanticized.

In 1959, when he was nineteen, he had fled Tibet, leaving behind the teachers who had trained him, the monasteries he’d been responsible for, and a society in which his role had been clear. After a few years in India, he’d traveled to Britain to study at Oxford and eventually established a small center in the Scottish countryside. In monk’s robes in this adopted home, he often felt he was treated like a piece of Asian statuary uprooted from its sacred context and set on display in the British Museum. Few Tibetan colleagues offered support, seeming to feel Westerners were sweet but uncivilized and incapable of training in genuine dharma. Deep in his heart, he felt it must be otherwise. What to do?

In later years, Trungpa Rinpoche counseled students faced with daunting circumstances not to drive themselves into “the high wall of insanity,” pushing for answers that may not be ready to appear. Instead, he advised, allow the uncertainty of those pivotal moments to unfold completely and rely on one’s meditative discipline to keep one on the ground, just as the Buddha had done when he famously touched the earth just prior to his enlightenment. In the cave at Taktsang, Trungpa Rinpoche let the uncertainty build and build. And a breakthrough occurred.

With great clarity, he saw that the obstacle to a flowering of the Buddha’s teaching and practice in the modern world was not simply better cross-cultural communication. It was materialism. Not the focus on material wealth alone, but a subtler, deeper form of comfort: “spiritual materialism.” He coined this term to describe the desire for a spiritual path that led you to become something, to attain a state you could be proud of, instead of a path that unmasked your self-deception. The conviction dawned that if people could see spiritual materialism and cut through it, they would find the genuine spiritual path, and it would be fulfilling on the spot. The path itself would be the goal. He left retreat intent on finding students willing to make this journey with him.

As a result of this breakthrough, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche went on to become a dharma pioneer. He lived up to the name Chögyam, “Ocean of Dharma,” and left behind a voluminous and varied corpus of teachings. Right now, you can download eight volumes of his Collected Works to an iPad or Kindle, some 4,500 pages, covering all manner of Buddhist practice, history, art, education, poetry, theater, war, and politics. There are other published books waiting to form future volumes of the Collected Works and more than a hundred potential books to be created from transcripts of his teachings between his arrival in America in 1970 and his death in 1987. He is the author of a small shelf of seminal bestsellers that have shaped how the West understands dharma, such as Meditation in Action, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, The Myth of Freedom, Journey Without Goal, and Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior. His archive is a treasury of calligraphy, painting, photography, and film, as well as audio and video of many teaching events. Here we will dip our toe into this ocean.

There are many stories of Trungpa Rinpoche’s life, but focusing there can mislead. You may conclude “you had to be there.” In fact, no one can claim to have been there for more than a modest slice of the amazing amount of teaching he packed into his forty-eight years. He lived to leave a legacy, so that far into the future people could experience the dharma he taught not as an artifact of a past time and place, but always as “fresh-baked bread.”

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