Chögyam Trungpa

Chögyam Trungpa was one of the most influential spiritual teachers of the 20th century. He is renowned for his contribution to the understanding of Buddhism in North America and the introduction of authentic Buddhist practice throughout the West. His books, which continue to be edited and published at an impressive pace, are considered classics on meditation and the Buddhist path. The Chögyam Trungpa Institute at Naropa University promotes and supports his legacy.


Birth and Early Training

The Venerable Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche was born in the province of Kham in eastern Tibet in 1939. When he was just thirteen months old, he was recognized as a major tulku, or incarnate teacher in the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. Chögyam Trungpa was the eleventh in the teaching lineage known as the Trungpa Tulkus.

Once young tulkus are recognized, they enter a period of intensive training in the theory and practice of the Buddhist teachings. Trungpa Rinpoche, after being enthroned as the abbot of Surmang Dudtsi-tel Monastery and governor of Surmang District, began a period of training that would last eighteen years, until his departure from Tibet in 1959. His training was based on the systematic practice of meditation and on refined theoretical understanding of Buddhist philosophy. One of the four great lineages of Tibet, the Kagyü is known as the practicing (or practice) lineage.

At the age of eight, Trungpa Rinpoche received ordination as a novice monk. Following this, he engaged in intensive study and practice of the traditional monastic disciplines, including traditional Tibetan poetry and monastic dance. His primary teachers were Jamgön Kongtrül of Sechen and Khenpo Gangshar—leading teachers in the Nyingma and Kagyü lineages. In 1958, at the age of eighteen, Trungpa Rinpoche completed his studies, receiving the degrees of kyorpön (doctor of divinity) and khenpo (master of studies). He also received full monastic ordination.

Escape to India

The late 1950s were a time of great upheaval in Tibet. As it became clear that the Chinese communists would take over the country, many people, both monastic and lay, fled to India. Trungpa Rinpoche spent many harrowing months trekking over the Himalayas (described in his book Born in Tibet). After narrowly escaping capture, he at last reached India in 1959. While in India, Trungpa Rinpoche was appointed to serve as spiritual adviser to the Young Lamas Home School in Delhi, India. He served in this capacity from 1959 to 1963.

England: A New Direction

Trungpa Rinpoche’s opportunity to emigrate to the West came when he received a Spalding sponsorship to attend Oxford University. At Oxford he studied comparative religion, philosophy, history, and fine arts. He also studied Japanese flower arranging, receiving a degree from the Sogetsu School. While in England, Trungpa Rinpoche began to instruct Western students in the dharma, and in 1967 he founded the Samye Ling Meditation Center in Dumfrieshire, Scotland. During this period, he also published his first two books, both in English: Born in Tibet (1966) and Meditation in Action (1969).

On the Road to Takstang

In 1968 Trungpa Rinpoche traveled to Bhutan, where he entered a solitary meditation retreat. While on retreat, Rinpoche received a pivotal terma text (prophetic teaching) for all of his teaching in the West, The Sadhana of Mahamudra, a text that documents the spiritual degeneration of modern times and provides its antidote, genuine spirituality that leads to the experience of naked and luminous mind. This retreat marked a pivotal change in his approach to teaching. Soon after returning to England, he became a layperson, putting aside his monastic robes and dressing in ordinary Western attire. In 1970 he married a young Englishwoman, Diana Pybus, and together they moved to North America. Many of his early students and his Tibetan colleagues found these changes shocking and upsetting. However, he expressed a conviction that in order for the dharma to take root in the West, it needed to be taught free from cultural trappings and religious fascination.

Early Years in America

During the seventies, America was in a period of political and cultural ferment. It was a time of fascination with the East. Almost from the moment he arrived in America, Trungpa Rinpoche drew many students to him who were seriously interested in the Buddhist teachings and the practice of meditation. However, he severely criticized the materialistic approach to spirituality that was also quite prevalent, describing it as a “spiritual supermarket.” In his lectures, and in his books Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism (1973) and The Myth of Freedom (1976), he pointed to the simplicity and directness of the practice of sitting meditation as the way to cut through such distortions of the spiritual journey. During his seventeen years of teaching in North America, Trungpa Rinpoche developed a reputation as a dynamic and controversial teacher. He was a pioneer, one of the first Tibetan Buddhist teachers in North America, preceding by some years and indeed facilitating the later visits of His Holiness the Karmapa, His Holiness Khyentse Rinpoche, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and many others. In the United States, he found a spiritual kinship with many Zen masters, who were already presenting Buddhist meditation. In the very early days, he particularly connected with Suzuki Roshi, the founder of San Francisco Zen Center. In later years he was close with Kobun Chino Roshi and Jakusho Kwong Roshi in Northern California; with Maezumi Roshi, the founder of the Los Angeles Zen Center; and with Eido Roshi, abbot of the New York Zendo Shobo-ji.

Chögyam Trungpa at Naropa

Fluent in the English language, Chögyam Trungpa was one of the first Tibetan Buddhist teachers who could speak to Western students directly, without the aid of a translator. Traveling extensively throughout North America and Europe, he gave thousands of talks and hundreds of seminars. He established major centers in Vermont, Colorado, and Nova Scotia, as well as many smaller meditation and study centers in cities throughout North America and Europe. In 1974 Trungpa Rinpoche founded the Naropa Institute (now Naropa University), which became the first and only accredited Buddhist inspired university in North America. He lectured extensively at the institute, and his books  Journey without Goal (1981) and Cynicism and Magic: Intelligence and Intuition on the Buddhist Path are based on courses he taught during the first summer of Naropa.

Shambhala training and translation

In 1976 Trungpa Rinpoche established the Shambhala Training program, a series of seminars presenting a non-sectarian path of spiritual warriorship grounded in the practice of sitting meditation. His book Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior (1984) gives an overview of the Shambhala teachings. After his death, two other volumes of teachings on the Shambhala path of warriorship were published: Great Eastern Sun: The Wisdom of Shambhala and Smile at Fear: Awakening the True Heart of Bravery.   Trungpa Rinpoche was also active in the field of translation. Working with Francesca Fremantle, he rendered a new English translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which was published in 1975. Later he formed the Nālandā Translation Committee in order to translate texts and liturgies from Tibetan to English for his own students as well as to make important texts available publicly.

Dharma art

Trungpa Rinpoche was also known for his interest in the arts and particularly for his insights into the relationship between contemplative discipline and the artistic process. Two books published since his death—The Art of Calligraphy (1994) and True Perception: The Path of Dharma Art (1996)—present this aspect of his work. His own artwork included calligraphy, painting, flower arranging, poetry, playwriting, and environmental installations. In addition, he created an educational atmosphere that attracted many leading artists and poets to the Naropa Institute. The exploration of the creative process in light of contemplative training continues there as a provocative dialogue. Trungpa Rinpoche also published two books of poetry: Mudra (1972) and First Thought Best Thought(1983). In 1998 a retrospective compilation of his poetry, Timely Rain, was published.

A pivotal figure

Trungpa Rinpoche’s published books represent only a fraction of the rich legacy of his teachings. During his seventeen years of teaching in North America, he crafted the structures necessary to provide his students with thorough, systematic training in the dharma. From introductory talks and courses to advanced group retreat practices, these programs emphasized a balance of study and practice, of intellect and intuition. Trungpa by Fabrice Midal, a French biography ( in English translation under the title Chögyam Trungpa: His Life and Vision), details the many forms of training that he developed. Senior students of Trungpa Rinpoche continue to be involved in both teaching and meditation instruction in many programs and organizations throughout North America. Chögyam Trungpa died in 1987, at the age of forty-seven.

For the benefit of all beings

Trungpa Rinpoche is widely acknowledged as a pivotal figure in introducing the buddhadharma to the Western world. He joined his great appreciation for Western culture with his deep understanding of his own tradition. This led to a revolutionary approach to teaching the dharma, in which the most ancient and profound teachings were presented in a thoroughly contemporary way. Trungpa Rinpoche was known for his fearless proclamation of the dharma: free from hesitation, true to the purity of the tradition, and utterly fresh. The Chogyam Trungpa Institute joins in the aspirations that these teachings may take root and flourish for the benefit of all sentient beings.

An Ocean of Publications

Since his death in 1987, more than two-dozen volumes of his teachings have been published, among them the ten-volume Collected Works of Chogyam Trungpa. There are plans for up to fifty additional books by Chögyam Trungpa to be published over the next few decades.

The profound treasury

In December, 2012, as part of the events for the 25th anniversary of his death, The Profound Treasury of the Ocean of Dharma was published. This three-volume work is a compilation of the more than 400 talks given by Trungpa Rinpoche at the Vajradhatu Seminaries, over a thirteen year period. The publication of the Profound Treasury represents the fulfillment of the Vidyadhara’s wish that these teachings be edited and made available to all students of Buddhism and practitioners of meditation and the Buddhist path.

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Chögyam Trungpa

Chögyam Trungpa

Who Was Chogyam Trungpa?

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche was a master genuinely confident of his mission and realization. He demonstrated a sharpness of intellect that cut through all delusion and doubt, a calmness of mind unmoved by neurotic chaos, and a total fearlessness of all threat of egocentricity. Meeting such a master makes your dualistic head spin and go beyond time and space—you may not know where, or with whom, you actually are—perhaps you are in the company of an ancient Indian Buddhist saint, or a modern, avant-garde Japanese-type saint, or just a completely crazy Tibetan man!

The Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche in “Genuine Water: The Legacy of Chogyam Trungpa,” in Recalling Chogyam Trungpa, compiled and edited by Fabrice Midal, page 12.

Selected in honor of the 35th Anniversary of the Parinirvana (Death) of Chogyam Trungpa, April 4, 2022.