A Short Biography of Chögyam Trungpa

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Trungpa Rinpoche

Chögyam Trungpa was a pioneer in bringing mindfulness meditation and the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism to North America. He taught extensively in the United States and Canada from early 1970 until his death in 1987.

He was born on March 5, 1939, in a remote area of Tibet, where he became the head of an important monastery and the governor of his district of Tibet. He was educated in the great meditative, scholarly, and contemplative traditions of Tibetan Buddhism.

The name Chögyam is a contraction of Chökyi Gyamtso, which means “ocean of dharma“. Trungpa means “attendant”. Chögyam Trungpa was eleventh in the line of Trungpa tülkus, important figures in the Kagyu lineage, one of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Trungpa was also trained in the Nyingma tradition, the oldest of the four schools, and was an adherent of the ri-mé (“nonsectarian”) ecumenical movement within Tibetan Buddhism.

At the age of twenty, like many teachers from his generation, he left the country when the Communist Chinese took over the government. His journey to India, on foot, lasted more than ten months.

Even as a young man in Tibet, Chögyam Trungpa was quite drawn to the West, and after spending a few years in India, he was one of the first Tibetan teachers to travel to Europe. He studied for several years at Oxford University and then in 1967, Trungpa established his first meditation center in Scotland. After an extensive study of English language, history, and philosophy at Oxford, he became one of the earliest Asian teachers to present meditation and the Buddhist teachings in English in the West.

In early 1970, Chögyam Trungpa married and moved to North America. There, he connected with thousands of students who were interested in meditation. He crisscrossed the continent giving public talks and weekend seminars in both the United States and Canada. His command of the English language and his understanding of the Western mind made him one of the most important influences on the development of Buddhism in the West. Trungpa was renown for his ability to present the essence of the highest Buddhist teachings in a form readily understandable to Western students.

Within a few short years, he and his students established centers for the practice of meditation throughout major North American cities as well as rural retreat centers in Vermont and Colorado. Boulder, Colorado, and Halifax, Nova Scotia, became the headquarters for Chögyam Trungpa’s work in North America. In 1974 he joined with others to establish Naropa University, which for more than forty years has offered a contemplative approach to higher education, offering certificate and degree programs in meditation, psychology, Buddhism and other spiritual traditions, art, philosophy, and other subject areas. Naropa was the first accredited Buddhist university in North America.

He also continued to travel and teach in Europe, where he established a European headquarters in Marburg, Germany, which later moved to Koln.

In 1977, Chögyam Trungpa established Shambhala Training, a program to present meditation and the Shambhala tradition of Warriorship to a broad audience. The practice of Shambhala vision is to use mindfulness/awareness meditation as a way to connect with one’s basic goodness and confidence. It is presented as a path that “brings dignity, confidence, and wisdom to every facet of life.” Shambhala vision was described as a nonreligious approach rooted in meditation and accessible to individuals of any, or no, religion.

The author of more than two dozen popular books on meditation and Buddhism, he was an ecumenical teacher who sought out the wisdom in other schools of Buddhism and in other religions. He also studied and promoted a contemplative awareness of the visual arts, design, poetry, theater, and other aspects of Western art and culture. Many of his books on meditation, Buddhism, and the role of meditative awareness in everyday life are classics that are still widely read.

In the last ten years of his life, Chögyam Trungpa taught extensively on the problems in society and the need to address them through the development of mindfulness and awareness. He also spoke extensively about creating an enlightened society, a theme that he was passionate about.

He died April 4, 1097, aged 48, in Halifax, U.S due to severe health problems. One of Trungpa’s nursing attendants reported that he suffered in his last months from classic symptoms of terminal alcoholism and cirrhosis.

Trungpa is reported to have remained in a state of samadhi for five days after his death, his body not immediately decaying and his heart remaining warm. His body was packed in salt, laid in a wooden box, and conveyed to Karmê Chöling. A number of observers have reported that his cremation there on May 26, 1987, was accompanied by various atmospheric effects and other signs traditionally viewed as marks of enlightenment. These included the appearance of rainbows, circling eagles, and a cloud in the shape of an Ashe. (wikipedia)

Suzuki Roshi said about him:

”…That is why I respect Trungpa Rinpoche. He is supporting us. You may criticize him because he drinks alcohol like I drink water, but that is a minor problem. He trusts you completely. He knows that if he is always supporting you in a true sense you will not criticize him, whatever he does. And he doesn’t mind whatever you say. That is not the point, you know. This kind of big spirit, without clinging to some special religion or form of practice, is necessary for human beings.”

One day, Suzuki Roshi asked Trungpa to give a talk to the students in the zendo the next night. Trungpa walked in tipsy and sat on the edge of the altar platform with his feet dangling. But he delivered a crystal-clear talk, which some felt had a quality – like Suzuki’s talks – of not only being about the dharma but being itself the dharma. – David Chadwick

In 1989, is born in Derge, Chokyi Sengay, the child recognized as his reincarnation.

photo credit: arcturiantools

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