A tempest with many high waves has been washing back and forth over at blog Elephant Journal and to a lesser extent in BeliefNet. The storm has at times been a howler – bit.ly/10yNTB (and don’t skip the “Comments” or their Replies). I feel this pithy hurling of cream-pies and unearthing of old toxic material and semi-Buddhist repartée gives a little snapshot of our slightly ingrown dharma community, and can serve us in good stead, at least occasionally.

Olive Colon, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Karl Springer and Jeremy Hayward - Tail of the Tiger, Winter 1972-73

Olive Colon, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Karl Springer and Jeremy Hayward - Tail of the Tiger, Winter 1972-73

The topic was the private (or at least hidden from public-view) life of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and to some extent, his hand-picked protegé and successor, Thomas Rich.

Having read from top to bottom all the comments (and collapsed in helpless laughter once or twice) and reactions about Trungpa Rinpoche’s cocaine addition (or not) and sexual proclivities (or not), it felt like the welled-up anger expressed there probably is, I suspect, a very long-delayed anger… the kind no one can’t easily exhaust because it is rooted in deeply-held memory.

The distasteful early Vajradhatu events that the blog’s critic “Former Student” describes, in grim accuracy I’d guess, sound like they were likely experienced with the fist-clenched helplessness of not wanting to desert one’s sangha or denounce a loved teacher’s behaviour or cut ties with a sangha-mate who, until that time, had been a more reliable friend. We’re hearing the outcome, perhaps, of his having stayed a bit too long – and of several other folks perhaps staying silent while one’s tongue bled from biting it..

When I saw that initial rather-awful Wikipedia posting about a month ago… supposed truth about Trungpa Rinpoche… I was tempted to a least question it in print (“Huh, what’s up with that? Sounds like hearsay). To report what “you heard” isn’t the usual Wikipedia fare and fails the substantiation test. I didn’t care much for the content either, if only because it seemed chosen to be both titillating and gossip-mongering at its most extreme. There are better chosen words, certainly, to say the same thing.

Lots of people writing in eventually got upset and/or engaged about this issue, and pronouncements have been flying including the expected “gentle Buddist-y admonitions” and as seem to be the norm, also quoted words from the teacher himself.

While I’ve been (I hope) careful to read everything from the even the most starry-eyed newer students; and certainly the measured tones of those “senior students” who want to protect ‘the memory of the teacher” from ill-repute (especially if undeserved); the folks I am most interested to hear fully, and to be SURE we’ve heard… are the people who were personally witness to some aspect of icky stuff… who either experienced or witnessed very unpleasant things and still feel badly about it. NOT because of its voyeuristic spicy-ness… but because this seems to be exposure of some important unresolved hurt and anger.

We shouldn’t forget that if these men and women feel that they’ve seen abuse… well then folks… I think we always have to hear out that possibility. We should get it, that at the very least, they have suffered terribly through *not* reporting or intervening in what they felt to be abuse. These include harms perpetrated either by the momentum of the system, by individuals in the system, by a conspicuous silence, by the suppression of dissent, by a possibly-distorted “consensus of shared reality” and/or by the active threats and attempts to shut them up.

There are some people in the discussion who *did* leave the scene, obviously. I did – resigning in 1975 as director of a Vajradhatua dharma study group. Living at Tail of the Tiger regularly for pretty much two continuous years near the beginning, I also “got in a lot of trouble” for not going always with the programme. I saw what I saw, and most of the human-to-human indecency I observed was between “senior students.”

But by that time in my life I’d already been a year and a half in jail, had visited a lot of communes going wrong from group-think, and had it up to my eyeballs in code-talk of any kind… and TotT had plenty. As a clinical therapist-in-training my bullshit meter was off the scale some of the time… except when I was talking with Rinpoche. And nothing starry-eyed here… he just didn’t talk bullshit.

But I think between (at one extreme) the “know-nothings” who still extoll “go with the flow, man” and allow(ed) themselves to be “accepting” of every kind of abusive or bad form under the sun; and those who are/were by choice blissfully naive and in total-blind-awe (and insist still that every action, no matter how whacked, was “enlightened); …and (at the other extreme) those who *knew* certain actions were unacceptable, but were either scared (truly) or so nervous about the social repercussions with sangha-mates that they stayed silent about that about which they screamed silently, inside… and we’re obviously hearing from them today… I know there has always been at least one middle ground.

And I should pretty quickly that I doubt that the term “crazy wisdom” has any place in this discussion. First of all, Westerners have no idea what it is. And secondly, any attempt to mimic it by Westerners have been demonstrated to be entirely self-serving attempts at ego-gratification. And I will happily take any flack that comes with saying this.

When in doubt about a middle ground I submit that one can always have a point of reference when lacking inspiration – at least those of use who have taken Refuge and the Bodhisattva Vow. Try identifying with Shantideva’s Guide ot a Bodhissatva’s Way of Life (or Gampopa’s The Jewel Ornament of Liberation, as Rinpoche recommended to me). Try applying the paramitas. Try taking a stab at living entirely within a personally-defined ground called “impeccable.” (Don’t be fussy about it – don’t hang a placard on yourself – just quietly DO it.)

Having standards of ethics is not a betrayal of one’s community or one’s sangha.

There is value in saying, “I’m sorry for interrupting the party, but I’m not going to put up with this silently – I think this behaviour is harmful.” Looking back and saying “I believe what I observed was harmful – and I regret not having spoken out openly against it” (if true) is valid to do now, is it not? Some of the anger may have been about feeling compelled to say nothing.

The Vidyadhara’s actions, his teachings/empowerments and his personal outcomes are not each the same thing. One can talk about the merits of one and the harmful outcomes from another, and love him unreservedly as a teacher, friend and guide.

No one “embodies” enlightenment. Whatever life and body we’re handed to live through at this birth becomes a second-by-second gamble with fun, distasteful, indifferent, tricky and, rarely and sometimes, “enlightening” outcomes… if we are paying very close attention to life as it passes, as few of us are. That is perhaps why one of the nicknames for the Kagyu is the “mishap lineage,” is it not?

I personally feel that Rinpoche was a bit disappointed in us. We could have given him more of a fight.

He told me once that he wasn’t interested in having students just do everything he suggested. More often than not, I suspect, he was just playing with ideas and never expected people to take them very seriously… but he learned awful things about us when we did anyway. A problem with a certain sense of humour gone wrong with the wrong audience, perhaps.

I think he would have enjoyed a little bit more resistance, a considerable more testing back… and not so much willingness to be little donkeys bouncing after carrots dangled near noses.

Kalu Rinpoche made the observation (quite angrily, it was reported to me, by someone who was there at the time and shared this story) to someone who was dissing Trungpa Rinpoche as “not a good teacher” because of his womanising, smoking, drinking, etc. He tartly said that “Trungpa was willing to constantly adapt himself to whatever level he needed to go, in order to reach the students he chose to burden himself with… and he became one of you in order to teach you skillfully.”

It was helpful for me to hear that another Tibetan senior teacher did not reject my own much-loved heart-guru. I have encountered lamas fresh from Tibet who were hit with awe that I had Trungpa Rinpoche as a personal teacher. That does not (to me) absolve us from any day-to-day intuition – for responses that any one person of us might have felt we should make… to call him up short or to call OURSELVES up short, if and when things got dicey. I applaud Waylon’s mother for holding her boundaries… and perhaps also, so too, did Rinpoche.

Not everyone (back then at Tail of the Tiger) seemed to appreciate that self-differentiation is an essential part of being human… that melding with the group or with the master is not enlightment when it’s simply group-think or hedonism. And in-group hedonism, pure and simple, is just another way to have a good time (which Rinpoche definitely knew how to do) and not some sign that one was closer to godliness.

Holding one’s boundaries and developing one’s ethics are all part of figuring out where to put oneself in this human universe… making use of this precious lifetime. We all mess up as we muddle along, to be sure. It’s quite another thing to make elaborate excuses for messing up, or to remake history when having the power to do so.

It does take us all time to learn the glaringly-obvious “stuff.” The blunt hammer of experience… often bad experiences… helps make that abundantly clear. True – some people will do anything and ignore anything to become an “insider” (and once there, to stay there)… on top of Mt. Meru with all the rest of the special boys and girls. It wears thin if, as some people have been quoted to say, one begins to believe one’s shit tastes better than chocolate. Learning in such a rarified atmosphere may be tricky.

Michael Billingsley (K. Jigme Tonpa) - TotT Summer '73

Michael Billingsley (K. Jigme Tonpa) - TotT Summer '73

Some in those in the discussion in Elephant Journal tried to hold Trungpa Rinpoche responsible for the behaviour of his one-time Regent Thomas Rich, aka Ösel Tendzin.

Lest we forget, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche fathered at least one child while in robes and long before he came to the West, so he was hardly the one to have been telling Thomas Rich to keep his penis inside his pants.

I have no personal love for Thomas Rich and sometimes got into dreadful fights with him. From day one (and not as a result of his “office” going to his head) he was a cracker-jack public speaker, a voracious learner and was able to seemingly charm himself out of any kind of trouble, and mostly have his way. But I also feel continued sadness for the pain that must have swirled around him and became attached to those who cared about him, and for whatever confusion that must have awakened in him.

Chögyam Trungpa’s sangha (us) had a responsibility to keep track of our own bodies as well. The people having consensual unprotected sex with Thomas Rich were responsible for their own actions unless they were raped (as has been reputed recently) – in which case I hope such persons come forward and say so.

If Rich lied to himself or to others about what it meant to have AIDS or believed some idiocy that he could not possibly transmit it to others (and here I can only rely upon hearsay) then he is responsible for his own additional misdeeds in that regard. Causing death to another human being, I understand, has some fairly stiff repercussions (some of which are still apparently being felt by members of his family).

Whoever was in contact with Trungpa Rinpoche and Thomas Rich had to decide for himself or herself… when presented with a questionable situation… what labels and ultimately what rationalisation would make their own participation possible. It is our own participation (or not) for which we have to take ownership… at that time, and ever since. We can speak directly to that also.

Further references: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chögyam_Trungpa