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Married to the Guru
The student-teacher relationship is always an intimate and intense one, and who could be closer to the guru than the student who is also his wife? Diana Mukpo was married to the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a figure of controversy whose genius surpassed convention, and undoubtedly one of the great Buddhist teachers of the twentieth century. She talks about her challenging, inspiring, and entirely surprising life married to the guru.
“Born a monk, died a king.”
That was Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s summation of the arc of his life as one of the most influential Buddhist teachers of the modern era. Now, in a tender, passionate, and frank memoir called Dragon Thunder: My Life with Chögyam Trungpa, the woman who shared the most private moments of Rinpoche’s controversial life—his widow, Diana Mukpo—finally tells her version of their story.
Diana married the former monk when she was 16, scandalizing her upper-class British family. Together they came to America, where Rinpoche founded Shambhala International and Naropa University, transplanting the most dynamic aspects of Tibetan Buddhism to American soil. “Ultimately I think that this is the essence of the Buddhist teachings: they are about how to live our lives, intimately, moment to moment,” she writes. “So I will try to share with you what it was really like to love such a person.”
To his students, Trungpa Rinpoche embodied nonconceptual mind, attending to each situation with spontaneous elegance, provocative humor, and a warrior’s grace. One of the most poignant truths that comes through the book is how Diana’s own lack of preconceptions freed Rinpoche to give himself fully to his students without hindrance. With refreshing candor, Diana also relates the struggle to define her own identity beyond being the wife of a mahasiddha, raising a family at the center of what she calls a “dharmic pressure-cooker.”
When I came to Naropa to study with the poet Allen Ginsberg in 1977, Rinpoche was on retreat. But the seeds of enlightened society he planted in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains had a profound effect on me even in his absence. Poets, artists, psychologists, musicians, and spiritual leaders from a broad range of traditions flocked to Boulder, adding their own distinctive heat to the dharmic pressure cooker. When dawn and dusk reddened the Flatirons, hundreds of orange cushions swarmed like fireflies toward the meditation hall.
Rinpoche died in 1987, but Diana is flourishing in a new life with her second husband, Dr. Mitchell Levy, a senior member of the sangha. With other members of Rinpoche’s family, she is also a leader of the Konchok Foundation, dedicated to restoring the monastery in Tibet where Rinpoche trained as a boy and aiding the people of the region who live in great poverty.
Ultimately, the unorthodox love story at the heart of Dragon Thunder offers universal lessons in the transformative power of love and devotion. As Diana puts it, Rinpoche “is no longer outside of me, so when I turn to him, I turn to my own wakefulness.”
Steve Silberman: Even before you saw Trungpa Rinpoche for the first time at a lecture at the Buddhist Society in London, you were reading and thinking about Buddhism. What drew you toward the dharma?
Diana Mukpo: I’d been raised in the Anglican tradition, and the answers I was getting at that point just didn’t make sense to me. I started to read about different world religions. The first book I read on Buddhism—I believe it was one of Christmas Humphreys’—talked about letting your ego go completely, and that horrified me. I thought that this religion was definitely not for me.
But I kept coming back to dharma because it related to my own experience. It wasn’t a question of believing in something that was unseen; it was about really looking at the quality of my mind and working with that. It felt like the most real thing I had encountered in my philosophical search.
Steve Silberman: In the book, you write about having a profound experience of recognition the first time you saw Rinpoche at that lecture. You write that you felt like you were coming home. What was it about his presence that you found so powerful and so uncannily familiar?
Diana Mukpo: I could say a lot of different things, but honestly I don’t know. There’s no way to conceptualize it; it was overwhelming. There was an intense sense of familiarity just from seeing his physical presence. It was very, very strong and I have no rational explanation for it.
Steve Silberman: Trungpa Rinpoche was still wearing his traditional robes then, but by the second time you saw him, he was no longer wearing robes. He had already been involved in the car accident that paralyzed one side of his body, and he seemed to you like a completely different person. You write, “Now he was much more heavy and solid and he had an unfathomable quality.” Did you ever talk to Rinpoche about the accident and how he felt it changed him?
Diana Mukpo: Yes, we did talk about the accident. He regarded it as a message that he had been setting himself apart from people in a way, that he had been offering some sort of illusion to people because of their state of mind at that point. He felt that by wearing robes, he had created a subtle division between himself and his students, and that the car accident was a sort of cosmic message that he needed to fully plunge into absolute, direct presentation of the teachings in the West.
At the time, there was an intellectual approach to spirituality, which the English have always gravitated toward, and people tended to translate Buddhism into Christian terms to a certain extent, as opposed to connecting with the psychological component and understanding the practice lineage. This phase that Buddhism was in may have been one of the reasons why Rinpoche decided to give up his robes. He wanted to work with people more directly and to cut through this sort of conceptualization.
Steve Silberman: It was on your second visit to his center in Scotland, Samye Ling, that he invited you into bed. He was 28 and you were 16, correct?
Diana Mukpo: I signed myself out of my boarding school—to tell you the honest truth, I don’t think I was 16 yet, I think I was still 15—and I found my way up there. He wasn’t really receiving visitors at that point but I was quite insistent that I get to see him, and that’s when we ended up having our first sexual encounter.
Steve Silberman: In the eyes of a lot of people, a sexual encounter between a 28-year-old spiritual teacher and a 15-year-old potential student would be considered at the very least outrageous, and at the very worst exploitative. But you didn’t feel that way, apparently. In the book you write, “It was in fact exactly the invitation I was hoping for at that moment.”
Diana Mukpo: For him there was a slightly different cultural context, you know, because people in Tibet tended to get married a lot younger than they do in the West. From my perspective, I really was not attached to the conceptual norms I had grown up with; to a certain extent I’d rather radically rejected my culture. I really wasn’t looking at it from the reference point of whether it was appropriate or not. I simply had this unbelievable connection with him that felt to me very natural.