Biographies: Venerable Vajracarya Chögyam Mukpo, the XIth Trungpa Rinpoche
The Trungpa Tulku was born in Ge-je, near the celebrated mountain of Pa-go Punsum, in eastern Tibet, in 1939. He was born in a cattle manger. Soon after his birth, a Lama from Tashi Lhaphug Monastery came to Ge-je to give some public lectures. He saw the child amongst the crowd and recognized him as a special incarnation. This was the first indication that the boy was in some way unique.
A little while later His Holiness the XVIth Karmapa was visiting Pepung Monastery in Kham, when at the insistence of Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche of Sechen, he experienced a clairvoyant vision showing him the rebirth of the Trungpa Tulku. He said that the child had been born in a village five miles north of Surmang Monastery. The name of the village was composed of two syllables "Ge" and "Je", and that if Kongtrul Rinpoche went there he would find a family with two children, of whom the son was the reincarnation. "The door of the dwelling," announced His Holiness, "faces to the south. The family owns a big red dog. The father is called Yeshe and the mother Chyung and Tso." Hearing this, a party of monks set off from Surmang immediately.
In a peasant's tent, in the village of Geje, they did indeed find a family that matched the Karmapa's vision. The entrance of the tent in which they lived faced to the south. They had a big red dog. There was a boy and a sister, as predicted. But there was one problem — although the mother's name was Po-Chyung Tung-tso, the father's name was altogether different from that described by the Karmapa. This delayed the recognition, until it was discovered that the boy was the natural son of another man, named Yeshe Darjay. When this hidden fact was exposed, it became clear that the boy was exactly the child described by the Karmapa Lama, and he was accepted as the true Trungpa reincarnation.
Chögyam Trungpa was the spiritual head of Surmang Monastery. He was purportedly the eleventh reincarnation in a line of great masters and monks, beginning with a famous siddha (adept) named Trungpa Kunga Gyaltsen, who in turn was believed to have been an incarnation of the Indian saint Sri Dombi-Heruka.
Once that the Trungpa child was recognized, preparations were made for his enthronement at the Monastery. The full story of his early life and education is well recounted in Born in Tibet, now published by Shambhala (Boston & London 1995). In brief, the Trungpa Tulku was carefully brought up to become the head of the whole Surmang complex of monasteries and meditative retreat centers, existing in the Derge district of far eastern Tibet. Through the amazing guidance of his root teacher Jamyang Kongtrul Rinpoche, the Trungpa Tulku became a master of both the Mahamudra and the Dzogchen traditions of spiritual practice.1
Trungpa Rinpoche would have remained at Surmang, but for the total disruption of his formal education at the age of 19 due to the Chinese Communist invasion of his homeland. Like so many other young Lamas he had to flee south into India, where he came under the care of a 'young lama's orphanage' run by a wonderful woman named Mrs. Bedi, now deceased.
For Trungpa Tulku the loss of his homeland also meant the loss of his beloved spiritual teacher, Kongtrul Rinpoche of Sechen. This was an immense loss indeed, as Chogyam Trungpa's love for his teacher held an absolutely central position in his life. Years later, in a time of great loneliness as a refugee and foreigner in England, Trungpa Rinpoche would write of his longing for his father-guru, in a poem some lines of which ran as follows:
The Trungpa Tulku was selected along with a number of other young refugee-lamas to receive an English diplomatic training at Oxford. At that time various agencies were closely concerned with assisting certain Tibetans to become future leaders for the Tibetan people in exile, and funds were made available for their education.
It was while receiving his education at Oxford that Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche dictated his autobiography, Born in Tibet, to Esme Cramer Roberts. While this book was in production, the Venerable Namgyal Rinpoche took the young Trungpa Tulku and certain other refugee Tibetans under his wing, offering to assist them in founding the first Tibetan Monastery in the Western world (apart from Russia). This they did by converting Johnstone House, a Theravada Buddhist establishment in Scotland, into a Tibetan Buddhist centre. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche named the new centre "Samye-Ling" in commemoration of the first Buddhist Temple constructed in Tibet, which bore that name. This new establishment, formerly an old hunting lodge on the moors of Scotland, has since expanded into a full scale Tibetan-style Monastery under the name of Kagyu Samye Ling. The present head is a boyhood friend of the Trungpa Tulku, the very admirable and much loved Cho-je Akong Rinpoche.
Impeccably dressed in his formal robes, Trungpa Tulku was an impressive Buddhist figure during the time he acted as abbot of Samye Ling. He was a monk who carried himself with dignity and mindfulness, attracting considerable numbers of Western students seeking guidance in meditation. Rinpoche quickly proved to be an excellent teacher.
Chogyam Trungpa also came under the considerable influence of various figures from other Buddhist meditation traditions, whom he greatly admired and was never adverse to having as visitors at his centre. Samye Ling was a place where many traditions flowed. Visitors included a Japanese Zen roshi, a number of Thai monks, Burmese sayadaws, a learned Gelugpa geshe, and several Christian contemplatives, including Thomas Merton. The writer Alan Watts was there for a time.
Trungpa Rinpoche was active at Samye Ling for a number of years. It was in that early period, in the early 70s, when on a trip to Bhutan, that he had a major visionary experience, leading to the revelation of his famous terma-text, the Mahamudra-sadhana. This occurred when he was meditating in a cave known as the Tiger's Nest. Briefly put, his vision showed His Holiness the Karmapa in the magnificent, powerful image of Dorje Drollo, ablaze with light and glory, riding on the back of a fierce tigress.3
When Rinpoche returned to Samye-Ling in Scotland there was a noticeable change. He began to shed many of the external trappings of his abbotship and, to some extent, of his Tibetan culture. He had always appeared for regular sessions of morning and evening prayers; now he remained conspicuously absent. He began to put aside the lengthy recitals that frequently occupy a great deal of traditional Tibetan spiritual practice. In place of that, he started to emphasize the importance of Calm-abiding and Mindfulness meditation for his students. He also began to demonstrate, in his teaching methods, a sharpened propensity to directly cut through the very heart of the matter. This change obviously arose from a profound awakening, or perhaps a final spiritual maturation, deep within his being, that perhaps occurred during his trip to the Tiger's Nest cave-monastery in Bhutan.
It was from that point on that Trungpa Rinpoche began to seek new ways of teaching his Western students. Apparently he could see that many students were caught up in the more exotic aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, and certainly with some, were more attracted to the culture, than with the actual path. His new approach sought ways of bringing the insight of Buddhist Dharma home, in a manner that was free of purely cultural externals.
He simultaneously moved away from the strictures of his previous monkhood towards a more open view of life. As the disparity between "wearing the robes" and being directly "true to the situation" became ever more impossible to ignore, he realized he would have to shed the vestiges of his old role. He may well have been hesitating on this very point, when a serious accident occurred which radically changed his life for ever.
While driving in Scotland he had a stroke and crashed. It is uncertain to this day whether the crash resulted in him having the stroke, or whether it was the stroke that resulted in the crash, but more probably the latter. Chogyam Trungpa said that all he could remember was that he blacked out. He was removed to hospital and the doctors gave dire warnings about the possibility of brain damage or permanent paralysis. Fortunately after the recovery there was no sign of brain damage. Unfortunately, when he came out of hospital, he was indeed paralyzed and unable to walk.
Reduced to being wheeled about in a chair, Trungpa Rinpoche began to work on himself in a most amazing way. He visibly began to heal. Little by little he resurrected the lifeless nerves of his shattered body. Entirely on his own, without any form of physiotherapy, he taught his body to walk again, first on crutches, then with a cane, and eventually more or less freely. During this period he started drinking fairly heavily, and although his imbibing of alcohol greatly disturbed some people, it would appear that his drinking was an essential element in his recovery from the paralysis inflicted upon him.
Chogyam Trungpa said that when he awoke in hospital he found himself, not (as some might imagine) in a state of depression, but rather, in a state of tremendous love. This was a most intense sensation that he felt coursing through every fiber of his being, almost like a kind of divine ambrosia.
During this time of change, Trungpa Rinpoche's transformation from traditional abbot to a loving "crazy yogi", caused considerable consternation amongst the board of directors of Samye Ling. He was too controversial and everyone dropped him like a hot potato. He was forced out of Samye Ling and found himself without means of support.
Once more it was the Canadian Buddhist teacher Namgyal Rinpoche who stepped in and gave assistance. The Canadian diplomat Mr. George also helped, receiving Trungpa Rinpoche at his house in Canada. From Canada, Rinpoche was then able to migrate to the United States, which had very much been his wish for some time. In fact, in the very early days when he was at Samye Ling, he seems to have known that his destiny lay in America. It was in the United States where he gradually acquired a large following and immense popularity.
The great Siddha Trungpa Rinpoche has been one of the most significant figures in the introduction of Tibetan Buddhism to the West. He has had—and will continue to have—the greatest impact, because he more than any other Tibetan Lama at the time, was aware of the need to adapt the Dharma to the West, rather than try to turn Westerners into Tibetans.
Unfortunately, from the time of his accident in Scotland his health was never quite the same again. He died in 1987 at the age of 47, but he left behind a lasting legacy in the form of some wonderful teachings, and an international organization to continue his work.
Trungpa Rinpoche, throughout his life, lived fully, without hesitation or inhibition, in the style of an enlightened Yogi and Mahasiddha. He is the author of many books and was a poet. His accomplishments in planting Vajrayana and Shambhala Dharma in the West were enormous. These include not only complete teachings on these lineages in English, but also founding of organizations (Vajradhatu/Shambhala International), retreat centers (for example, Karme Choling in Vermont, Shambhala Mountain Center in Colorado, and Gampo Abbey in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia), besides establishing a Buddhist-inspired University (Nalanda Institute in Boulder, Colorado). He brought many thousands of American, Europeans, and other students around the world to the Dharma. He has been one of the greatest Tibetan spiritual teachers to grace the West with his presence.
Chokyi Sengge, the "Lion of the Dharma," is the 12th Trungpa Rinpoche. He was born in 1989 in Derge to a nomadic family. His family herds yak and other animals, and has ties to the royal family of Derge (his grandmother’s father was a minister to the King). In 1991, during a tour of Tibet, His Eminence Tai Situ Rinpoche met his parents and asked them to bring their son to him. Soon after, they brought the young boy to him and Situ Rinpoche announced "this is the 12th Trungpa Tulku." Chokyi Sengge was enthroned a year later at Surmang Dudtsi-Til Monastery; Damkar Rinpoche, a high Kagyu lama who is also Chokyi Sengay's uncle, presided over the enthronement.
Chokyi Sengge Rinpoche resides at Surmang Dusti Til Monastery. He lives a simple life and is supported mainly by local Tibetans and the generosity of Friends of Surmang. He has a full time tutor, and his affairs are overseen by his Regent, Ven. Karma Sengge Rinpoche, nephew of the late Vidyadhara, Trungpa Tulku XI. He has yet to visit the West.
1 Mahamudra is the classic system of meditation taught by the Kagyu school. Its equivalent in the Nyingma school is known as Dzogchen. Trungpa Rinpoche was a master of both these systems.
2 The full poem may be found in Mudra, by Chogyam Trungpa, published by Shambhala 1987. Pema Tri-me was the personal name of Jamyang Kongtrul Rinpoche of Sechen.
3 Dorje Drollo is an aspect of the Master Padmasambhava embodying the wisdom-form of Sri Vajrakilaya. This image is closely related to that of the Master Dombi-Heruka riding on the back of the tigress, which was especially meaningful for Trungpa Rinpoche since he was recognized as a reincarnation of Dombi-Heruka. The conceptual image of Dorje Drollo came together for Trungpa in a single vision of the Karmapa Lama, which became a transformative vision for him; a unitive vision born out of the Kagyu & Nyingma lineages, Mahamudra and Maha Ati.
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