When the Tibetan meditation master Chögyam Trungpa died earlier this year, I asked Stephen T. Butterfield — a poet and English teacher who has written previously for The Sun — to assess Trungpa’s influence and teachings. He responded with this personal and deeply moving reminiscence.
Following Butterfield’s essay is an excerpt from one of Trungpa’s best-known books, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism.
H e was a short man with glasses and a penetrating smile, and a high, almost falsetto voice. He was enamored of Oxford English and taught elocution, after his own comical fashion. (Elocution lessons were given at one o’clock in the morning, before an audience of 400 laughing spectators.) Years ago he had crashed his car into a shop that sold jokes and novelties; since this bizarre accident he could hardly walk without assistance. Although he was often transported in a wheelchair, it never seemed appropriate to regard him as disabled. He had a string of titles Rinpoche, Vajra Master, Ocean of Dharma, the Vidyadhara, the Eleventh Trungpa Tulku. In his teens, he had been abbot of the monasteries in Surmang, a region of eastern Tibet. It was said that on the day of his birth, a rainbow was seen above his village, a pail supposed to contain water was unaccountably found full of milk, and members of his family dreamed that a lama was entering their tents.
This much is certainly true: on the night he died — April 4, 1987, in Halifax, Nova Scotia — a record-breaking rainstorm lashed the whole Northeast. Electricity went out in my Vermont town, stopping my kitchen clock at the moment of his death. Floods washed away bridges and roads. Members of my household walked around like excited ghosts in the candlelight, and our geese stood in the yard on one leg, silhouetted by flashes of lightning, gazing bewildered at the deluge from the sky.
Chögyam Trungpa taught in America for seventeen years. What he brought to us was the precious living heritage of the Buddhist Way, or as he called it, the Buddha-dharma. Trungpa’s autobiography, Born in Tibet, narrates the disruption of Buddhist culture in his homeland by the Chinese Communists, his perilous journey over the Himalayas to India with a party of 300 refugees, and his migration to England, and eventually to Canada and the United States. The major contemplative centers that he founded in Scotland, Vermont, Colorado, and Nova Scotia have blossomed into dozens of offshoots throughout the Western world. They all have the common goal of teaching, through meditation, how to transcend the obscurations of mind that cause suffering, and how to unfold the new life that results when our basic sanity and goodness are allowed to emerge. It may take centuries for us to appreciate this gift.
I was doing hatha yoga in 1977, hoping vaguely to achieve perfect health; peace of mind; a quality of wisdom in the face; the unity of the knower, the knowing, and the known; clairvoyance; telepathy; levitation; ultimate transcendence of death; and, especially, freedom from marital disputes. Yet I still found myself irritated and depressed by unromantic, daily, demanding chores — going to the store, cleaning house, taking care of children — that prevented me from transforming into the god I wanted to become. At the end of the year I discovered Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, a precise, devastating, compassionate, and witty description of how to use spiritual practices to maintain ego.
Back then I had imagined spirituality as a way of escaping an ordinary world which seemed unspeakably stupid, painful, and drab. Who was this person, I wondered, who drew such an accurate portrait of me: the spiritual collector, accumulating a junk shop of cross-cultural ideas, and hoping that someday my enlightenment would be celebrated by all my friends in a rain of flowers. Trungpa taught that “spiritual accomplishment” is a substitute for opening up. Ordinary mind was exactly what I needed to look at: I had to come all the way down, to build a friendship with boredom and fear. Wanting to jettison these mind-states without fully appreciating their different gradations and thought-forms, he said, is ignoring a potential treasure.
Buddhist meditation is in itself a great disappointment, and also a great relief. There is no goal other than the technique, which is simple and direct: you sit, in a specific, upright posture, being mindful of breath going out. You are not going anywhere. Pride has nothing to feed on. The cascade of thoughts rushing through the mind may feel like a huge nuisance, because we imagine that meditation is supposed to be peaceful, and these thoughts are not peaceful — they come and go like cursing taxi drivers in New York. But there is much to notice about them: sometimes they escalate into waves of emotion, building structures of concept around themselves, replicating in different forms. Sometimes, in their rippling motion, so much like the surface of a pond agitated by wind, they seem quite beautiful and inevitable and richly detailed, whole mood textures overlapping one another in swirls and designs, repeating themselves endlessly but never twice in exactly the same pattern. Sometimes they stop.
Peace happens, perhaps because we stop looking for it, stop judging and evaluating; perhaps because awareness is a deepening experience of the unbounded space within which thoughts occur. The thoughts themselves are a completely natural event — not an obstacle to meditation, but a context for it. They are as natural as our fingerprints, or the configuration of veins in our hands. Painful thoughts arise from pursuit of wealth, fame, godhood, and security; from doing intellectual harm to others; from treading cycles of attack and defense. Meditation dissolves this process by exposing it.
Bodhicitta in Buddhist teaching is “awakened heart/mind,” the seed of spontaneous generosity compared by the eighth-century Indian monk Shantideva to a rising moon which dispels the torment of the ego-centered conceptions — ignorance, aggression, and greed. When that begins to grow, it is like noticing for the very first time the endless variety, subtlety, movement, and color of the ever-changing phenomenal world: the way stunted evergreens merge into weeds in a field, the dribble and trickling swirl and steady patter of rain on a roof, the diminishing cobblestone surfaces of cloud, the enfolding of inspiration and shyness in someone’s tone of voice.
At the time I became a student of Trungpa’s, I had trapped myself in a passionate and abusive “relationship” whose longevity testifies to the dumb capacity of the human animal for enduring cognitive dissonance. It was something like trying to knock down a wall with your head because you think you need the bricks.
To be able to accept jealousy and fear, to live with loneliness, and to make friends with emotional pain meant that I could break out of that trap. Not only could I break out, but I could break, perhaps forever, the chain of impulses in myself that would lead me to recreate the trap with someone else. And I could do this without closing my heart. That was the most important result. I could love out of choice, and not out of need.
Mahayana Buddhism teaches the student to cut projections at their source. To blame someone else because I am jealous, needy, abandoned, victimized is to create enemy, to re-invent self and define it as victim. We have power over that sequence. In Mahayana, such power is cultivated by specific practices: tonglen, to reverse the projection; and lojong, to apply the new consciousness in personal interactions. There is no requirement to define myself at all.
Negative emotion can be worked on directly, without reference to object. I can always find an object — parent, wife, lover, boss, friend — but to find an object is to keep re-creating the occasion for pain. Cutting the projection means that the object, as object, is irrelevant and the “negative” emotion is a resource; it is energy appearing in a certain form which contains information about the blocked areas of my mind. Perhaps by means of this energy, those areas are coming unblocked. In that case I could be grateful to the person and the situation that occasioned such opening. Jealousy, anger, and loneliness are my benefactors. When they arrive, I want to invite them in and become one with them. Ordinarily I would regard negative emotions as enemies, and seek to avoid them by possessing whatever I imagine will keep them away, or attacking whatever brings them on. But if I become one with them, there is no need to possess or attack anything; the emotions and their object together are no more substantial than a rainbow. There is nothing to gain or lose; thoughts and events simply happen, with inexhaustible variety. They cannot be prevented, nor kept, and need not be feared.
From this one discovery, I felt the devotion to my teacher which is encouraged in Buddhist practice, and regarded with intense skepticism by many people, to whom the word “guru” is a synonym for “charlatan.” Indeed, that skepticism was always nourished by Trungpa’s own actions, and remained in my heart as a companion of the devotion itself. The two companions kept each other more poignant and alive than either could have been alone. I think this was part of his lesson.
Trungpa never taught that abuse and oppression should be ignored. There are times when it is appropriate not to sit, but to act — even to destroy. But we cannot know those times properly unless we sit. If the sense of being a victim is invoked by some genuine need deprivation — of food, meaningful work, or whatever — I can perceive that need much more clearly without laying a concept of “enemy” onto it. In an ultimate sense, reversing the projection not only liberates me from the role of victim; it confers power to change how the situation is defined, and may also free the “enemy” from the role of oppressor.
As an artist and poet, Trungpa addressed also the problems of creativity. The principal one, for me, has always been the idea that I should live up to some image: to get good reviews, be invited as a guest on a talk show, produce three “important” books by age forty, have my name in the directories of this and that. They are all ego problems, and they have made tragedy and farce out of the Western art world for at least a century. Some poets write well and put their heads into gas ovens; others posture at readings and parties; many are never heard from, because they lack the ability to sell their name. Trungpa, in Dharma Art Sourcebooks, showed that the insight and beauty of art does not come from ego; it comes from awareness, which is egoless, and is present everywhere. The most ordinary situations — washing dishes, digging in the garden — present inexhaustible opportunities for art. Trungpa would show his students a photograph of bulldozers, lined up as if to keep something out; yet they were rusting in the rain — impermanence was creeping in. One simple image, which anybody could discover, conveys our whole struggle to hang on and to ignore; the same image reveals the beauty of what is actually there, including the struggle itself.
The aesthetic expressed by the slogan, “first thought, best thought,” suggests that creation does not always have to be accompanied by agony and ecstasy, as if we had to make poems by eating our shoes. What happens in the mind is pure. The commentary that follows, the effort to transform it into something important, is the me getting in there chewing the leather and trying to be great.
At one time I carried a notebook all day long, so that if I had a worthwhile thought I could capture it quickly before it disappeared. I kept that notebook beside my bed so that I could write down my dreams. The nagging suspicion haunted me that I would not have all that many interesting images and thoughts; they were like birds landing for a moment on the rim of my open boat, and, like some hapless castaway, I had to grab them by the feet and suck their blood quickly before they could escape. Behind this approach to art is a gulf of poverty mentality: others are rich and I am poor; I am a beggar at the feast of the universe and must clutch every crumb.
But in sitting practice we are inundated by good ideas, and startled repeatedly by flashes of brilliance. Trungpa taught me to see art everywhere, to appreciate weeds, to trust the mind, to let go of the need to clutch. What could I give my teacher of equal value to that rescue, except the realization that I can be like him?
I felt the devotion to my teacher which is encouraged in Buddhist practice, and regarded with intense skepticism by many people, to whom the word “guru” is a synonym for “charlatan.” Indeed, that skepticism was always nourished by Trungpa’s own actions, and remained in my heart as a companion of the devotion itself.
Trungpa’s students loved him dearly, in a way that sometimes leads non-Buddhists to suspect we must all be zombies, our critical intelligence destroyed by the techniques of the cult. An anxious friend once gave me a book titled The Great Naropa Poetry Wars, written by Tom Clark and others about Trungpa’s outrageous behavior in Boulder. He was alleged to have presided over drunken orgies and taught his students to prostrate themselves at his feet. Kenneth Rexroth called him “the anti-Buddha.” Ram Dass refers to him as a “rascal.” In other accounts he is supposed to have shot barroom toughs in the chest with a water pistol, fathered a child by a Buddhist nun, maintained bevies of official “consorts,” masturbated publicly to mirror the attitudes of overly friendly admirers, and consumed liquor in amounts that would make Ernest Hemingway look like a wimp. He also threw himself down a flight of stairs in order to wake up the student standing at the bottom. People love to tell stories, and he gave us plenty to tell.
Some of these allegations are based on a misunderstanding of Tibetan Buddhist teaching: every action has a context; without awareness of the context, we cannot know if the action is good or bad. To select examples of Trungpa’s unconventional behavior and report them apart from their environment is to miss the point that he often became the environment in order to reflect it to his audience. Trungpa was a Buddhist Vajra Master; such a person responds to a total situation, not merely a single event. That response is intended to mirror something to the person receiving it — something that will be of benefit in the long run by waking up the Buddha Mind. The Vajra Master is quite willing to flout ordinary conventions, even to expose himself (literally) to public ridicule, or death, if that is what the students need.
Trungpa made no secret of the fact that he was a heavy-drinking ex-monk who had fathered a child with a nun. He took complete responsibility for the support and education of the boy, which is a great deal more than some men are willing to do even for the children they father in a marriage. Many of us prefer to ignore the unwanted consequences of our passion, or try to sterilize the act so that no visible consequences ensue. Bodhisattvas, such as Trungpa was, not only accept their own children but regard all sentient beings as members of their family.
I saw Trungpa deliver talks drunk and sober; the message was the same either way. Alcohol slowed down the rate of his words; they floated from his lips like gracious bubbles surrounded by space, but they were never incoherent, uncaring, or unwise. When he talked about sadness and loneliness, he was the saddest, loneliest man in the world. When he talked about the awakening of compassion, his warmth embraced everyone in the room. When he talked about transcending ordinary limits to dance in the Buddha fields of All That Is, he seemed almost weightless, like a colorful mirage. When he talked about the danger of entering Tantric Buddhism without taming the ego, he inspired genuine terror. He could seem like a demon, a potential Hitler, and sometimes he made me want to jump in my car and drive away at top speed.
The effect of his drinking on the students was to focus our attention on how we drink — when, where, why, and with what results. Most of the time we drink to run away: from boredom, emptiness, anxiety, fear of death. It makes little sense to banish alcohol if the basic impulse to run away is never examined. He gave us a term for that escapist mentality: “setting sun” — the sinking into darkness, succumbing to addiction and fear, turning aside from the world. You can be entirely sober and still live your life as if going down with the setting sun. Then he gave us a courageous alternative, the “great eastern sun” of awakened mind.
For recovering alcoholics, he encouraged participation in Alcoholics Anonymous. He wrote a parallel Buddhist “twelve steps” and founded an organization for drink and drug abusers which omits the heavy-handed “God” approach but makes use of the valuable work already accomplished by AA.
In any case, I would not have wanted a teacher who was a goody two-shoes; a “holy joe” who would either have an incomplete knowledge of life, or turn out to be like Jim Bakker, manufacturing a white-robed image for public consumption and doing something else behind closed doors. There is not much I could learn from such a person; I already know how to lie.
Discovering that Trungpa had many lovers gave me the courage to trust what I am. What created my emotional carnage was not the legitimate choice of loving more than one person, but failing to listen, to be direct, and to let go of hope and fear; that is, failing to love. Guilt was aggression directed at myself for not living up to an image of so-called “commitment.” The manner and result of Trungpa’s lifestyle brought that issue into focus for me. I do not know of anyone whom he hurt or devastated and cast aside, or any suffering that he belittled or ignored. He made it difficult, certainly, to hold onto any fixed conception of the way people should behave; and letting go of conceptions, especially our self-conception, can be very painful. But a good teacher requires us to feel and see, not to stay wrapped up in a blanket of moral (or immoral) ideas.
He may or may not have been unconventional solely in order to teach — perhaps he often did it for fun — but the fact that he was open, that he had no personal territory to preserve, that he did not excuse or explain away his behavior, and that he was endlessly, delightfully funny — all that made his actions available to us so that we could learn, even when his motive was to enjoy.
Trungpa knew exactly what he was doing. He paid attention to every detail of the learning environment, in ways that professional educators generally do not even begin to imagine. The fact that he was outrageous did not mean that he encouraged frivolity, or lack of discipline. It took weeks to prepare the accommodations for Seminary. Seminary was Trungpa’s three-month annual special, the chance to move into serious practice and to hear the voice of the Master. Until 1984, Seminary was held in rambling old ghost-ridden hotels during the off-season, and it began with fifteen days of straight meditation; just to get in, you had to have already completed a dathun, a month-long sit. Appropriate garb for public talks was a suit and tie. He presented Buddha-dharma in a three-stage sequence: hinayana, the focus on personal discipline, cleaning up your own act so that you stop polluting your mental back yard; mahayana, relating to others from a standpoint of non-dual compassion; and vajrayana, entry into the dancing floor of the Tantric Master.
The attitude toward morality differs radically from the first stage to the last: during hinayana, the fruits of ego — grasping, aggression, and ignorance — are regarded as poisons, to be exposed by meditation and avoided by the traditional five Buddhist precepts against lying, killing, intoxication, stealing, and irresponsible sex. Formal structures like bowing, chanting, and oryoki meals (a monastic eating ritual) were taught with precision to the minutest gesture. Total respect for the teacher was a cultural imperative, and it was demonstrated by such signs as prostration and supplication to teach — delivered with hands placed palm to palm, beneath the chin. Without this respect — which is the taming of arrogance — the higher teachings could not even be heard.
During vajrayana, the poisons are regarded as food; ego itself is a feast. What prevents this approach from degenerating into a demonic self-indulgence is precisely the awareness cultivated by hinayana discipline. Trungpa said that we were not worthy of vajrayana if we scorned the first two stages, or ever imagined that we had graduated from them. Hinayana is the foundation for everything else in the Buddhist Way. Only from such a disciplinary base would he begin to offer glimpses of the full panoply of Buddhist tradition — the dance with the phenomenal world. Mere self-indulgence was ruthfully exposed. I reflected many times on the irony of a passionate drunk asking us to accept precepts against intoxication and sex, but the teachings work together as a system. Immersing myself in passion later on to the point of utter misery, I had much less trouble appreciating the wisdom of this careful preparation.
In his method of presenting the dharma, Trungpa was thoroughly responsible. An adult uses fire but does not give matches to a child. When he came to America, Trungpa found a whole zoo full of monkeys who already had matches, and were using them to burn each other’s hair. The first things he taught us to do were to put out the fire and set the matches down. Later he would show us the beauty of the flames.
With vajrayana it becomes possible to transcend conceptual structures altogether. This ability unleashes real power. The world is made out of concepts. To transcend them is to create and dissolve worlds. The ego returns, in the robes of a sorcerer’s flunky. Without proper respect for this power, the broom which I use to clean up my act could multiply into an army of rampaging troops, and my old bucket into a fleet of Rolls Royces. It has all been done before — first the transcendence of conventional morality, then the seduction and destruction of disciples and gurus alike, the co-emergence of madness with awakening, Rudra’s impulsive sword. Rudra was a vajra student in ancient India who decided that, since the essence of morality was emptiness, he could organize brothels and criminal gangs and do whatever he liked. His teacher told him he was wrong; infuriated, he killed the teacher on the spot with a sword and went to vajra hell — a state of mind described by Trungpa as a subtle, continuous pain much worse than divorce. That comparison was enough to frighten me.
When he talked about sadness and loneliness, he was the saddest, loneliest man in the world. When he talked about the awakening of compassion, his warmth embraced everyone in the room.
How do you learn the balancing act between transcendence and vajra hell? Bind yourself to the teacher as guru. The teacher is the mirror of Buddha Mind. The binding is done by means of samaya vows, and by guru yoga, a practice in which the guru, the disciple, and the universe become one — or, more accurately, zero. Between the external guru and the Buddha Mind within, who are bound together in this reality sandwich, the ego is going to be squashed, and consumed. Devotion to the guru is the safeguard. For the guru to chicken out of that commitment, or abuse it, is to risk hell for himself.
At this point in Seminary, I became totally suspicious of Trungpa and scrutinized him carefully; I made sure that I ate plenty of cashews in case his staff were not putting enough protein in the food. It seemed to me that he was inviting us to participate in a deadly and destructive game — to become one with his mind, to graft ourselves onto him, as though he were Christ. But he seemed to make fun of the game, too, and of himself and his students playing it. He pronounced the word “garoooo,” he insulted his worshippers, he kept them up until four in the morning so they could sing his poems in mass falsetto, he came into formal oryoki (eating) services dressed as a Latin revolutionary and, from his wheelchair, grinning like a little boy, shot the communicants with popcorn guns.
On the eve of formal transmission into vajrayana, he kept us sitting from ten o’clock at night until seven the next morning, waiting, dozing, wandering in and out to the kitchen and the john, listening to his long-winded explanation that transmission had nothing to do with motor cars. He had already told us that the path was like a Polish tank, with nine forward gears, no reverse, no steering, and no brakes. From time to time he shouted “Phat!” into the microphone to jolt us off the floor. After the transmission (which had nothing to do with gears either) I stumbled to my room and collapsed on the bed, terrified that he would give us an elocution lesson.
What was it all for? I don’t know that yet, but I know something about what it all was. I had to give up any expectations of him and trust myself. At any moment, if the whole thing was too crazy, I could get up and walk out. How would I know when it was too crazy? Only my own sanity would tell me for sure, and that’s what I had to trust. No guards would try to hold me back. I often did walk out, but then, with nothing to do but wander the halls eating cashews and peanut butter cups, I became terribly curious about what might happen next, and went back to watch.
From all that waiting, I learned to wait with equanimity. I could wait for a week in a bureaucrat’s office, if need be; or sleep on the floors of train stations, and doze in a sitting posture with my eyes open; or expect nothing, and let go of a judgement or a grudge on the spot.
“I waited for you all night,” said a student, “and my anger is biting my insides like a rat. What can I do about this?”
He said, slowly, “If you . . . wait . . . long enough . . . you will attain . . . longevity.” Then he sang: “Hap-py birthday . . . to you. . . .” In the pandemonium of laughter that followed, I shook my head against the wall and laughed myself to tears. So did the angry student: the indefatigable guru had cracked his shell.
Finally it occurred to me that samsara — the ordinary habit of ego-mind — is the deadly and destructive game, and that everything he did kept nudging, shocking, tickling, annoying, and angering us out of that nightmare. Few teachers can work successfully with such methods. I like that aspect of myself which he brought out: unobstructed by fixations and lunatic demands for consistency; supple and responsive and full of clarity and humor, like him.
Students at Seminary sometimes were given the opportunity to serve the guru — wait on him, bring him food. My response to this invitation was, “No way, what is he, a king? I thought we got rid of kings in 1776.” With the same cynicism, I might have told Christ, “Forget it, dude, wash your own feet, what are you trying to do, set yourself up as a god?”
Trungpa could not get around, physically, without attendants, but he gave that work away, as he gave away everything else, for the benefit of the student; he could transform even this necessity into a teaching situation. Christ, of course, washed the feet of his disciples first; somehow, by giving his entire life as the embodiment of dharma, Trungpa washed my feet, and changed my diapers, too. Refusing to wait on him was my loss, not his. Ironically, I am waiting on him now.
More than any other Asian Buddhist teacher, Trungpa learned how to enter the mind of the West: he learned our language, our jokes, our assumptions, our peculiar illusions and strengths; with unfathomable patience, he began to push our limits and communicate with our gun-toting, brass-knuckle, don’t-tell-me-what-to-do aggressive style. He taught us the meaning of sangha — a community of practitioners committed to the process of waking up. He discovered that a genuinely inspired poetry sangha already existed on American turf, and from that he created Naropa Institute, which is now an important center of arts and humanities, and perhaps the only college in the country using nontheistic contemplation as a learning base. He made the ancient wisdom of Buddhist psychology available to Western therapists, establishing in New York a therapeutic facility based on encountering the energies of neurosis rather than analyzing them or suppressing their symptoms with drugs. He wrote and talked voluminously, wisely, respectfully, on many subjects, attracting not only poets and psychologists, but experts on artificial intelligence, physicists, and politicians. He created Vajradhatu, a nonprofit Buddhist organization, and left it on firm financial ground, with teachers and scholars to carry on his work. He developed a whole secular method of presenting the dharma, called by him Shambhala training, which evokes our ancient dream of a golden age.
He taught us the loveliest mantras, the most inspiring chants. We prayed every night, “May all the activities of exposition, debate, and composition, learning, contemplating, and meditating flourish,” and, “May there be auspicious peace throughout the world,” invoking by the magic of speech the kind of life we wanted to create. He taught us to pay attention to words, not only what they mean but how they feel in the mouth, how they ring in the ear. As we speak, so shall we do.
Toward the end of his life, Trungpa taught with silence. Like the Buddha of the Heart Sutra, he simply provided the space within which others spoke. He seemed to be telling his students that he had passed on to us everything we need. The teachings are here. The environment for practice has been established. “Now,” he seemed to say, “go on, ripen what you have done.” In death, as in life, he provided us with the occasion to celebrate, to blossom, to practice, and to express our joy.
But the climax of his career, and, for me, the event that finally cleared away the obstacle of cynicism, was the cremation itself. Although he died on April 4, the cremation was delayed until May 26. In order to attend it, I had to postpone a vacation in Europe, planned since March. It figures, I thought, that even his funeral would disrupt my precious plans.
During the intervening period, his organization took on gigantic new tasks. A hotel in Barnet, Vermont, was bought and renovated to house the lamas, monks, nuns, and other important figures arriving from around the world. A platform and a concrete and steel purkhang, the structure that housed the flames, had to be built in the high meadow above Karme-Choling, the meditation center in Vermont where Trungpa first lived and taught on American soil. Parking lots, shuttles, emergency medical facilities, and accommodations had to be arranged for a crowd of about four thousand people.
It had rained for days in Vermont, and the sky that morning was heavily overcast. Long lines of spectators hiked up the trail to the upper meadow, carrying food, water, and extra sweaters in their packs. We spread out on the hill and sat down to socialize and wait.
The body was borne in procession from the shrine room below, preceded by monks, nuns, dignitaries, and family members. The slow march was announced first by Scottish bagpipes, and then by a chorus of long, reedy Tibetan horns, their haunting, calming tones floating across the fields like a call from another world. Installing the remains in the purkhang, the monks and nuns took their seats and began to chant. The chanting rose and fell across the stream, and the flags were raised. A ceremonial cannon behind us fired a salute.
At Seminary, Trungpa’s appearance was always preceded by ritual and show: drum, clack, bell, chanting, bowing, slow procession to the shrine. I thought on one of these occasions, What a supersalesman you are — this is all theater to impress us with your magical powers. He had looked me right in the eye as I bowed, and I heard the thought, Yes, you’re right. And suddenly it was a magnificent show; not only was it entertaining and beautiful, it conveyed flashes of the infinite expansiveness of the human mind. It was like a circus, but had the sacred dignity and respect of a high mass. Now he was giving us Guru Barbecue, the most magnificent show of all.
As the flames rose, and the smoke permeated the air, I felt as if I had breathed the essence of the guru into my soul. We could smell the salt that had preserved his body for more than fifty days. Flakes of ash floated on the wind; the bright yellow and red cloth over the chimney caught fire; the chanting rolled softly through the air.
At the cremation of Trungpa’s teacher, His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa, a rainbow had appeared. I did not expect any miracles here. Even if I had put my fingers in the wounds of Christ, I would probably have accused him of tricking me with some sort of hibernation drug. But the sky was doing strange things: when the lamas came on the scene, the clouds cleared away, and from one line of trees to the other, everything turned bright blue. Several people were pointing up. Within an hour, new clouds crept above the horizon — long streaks, cobbled textures, mares’ tails. Then we saw it: a bright, circular rainbow around the sun. The crowd cheered and clapped. Then we saw another: a long stairway rainbow, on the edge of a violet smear of mist. The crowd cheered once more.
In the most spectacular display, an ordinary-looking streak of cloud elongated and shone brilliant turquoise, and rose, and purple, and pink. There was no natural reason for this to happen; the sun was still overhead, it was nowhere near sunset, there was no pollution around, and there are no chemical plants in the area. Although Time magazine would later imply that the phenomenon was caused by chemicals which the lamas had slyly inserted into the cremation flames, few who actually witnessed the event could take this explanation seriously. When the streak grew fingers, changed colors, and took the shape of a dragon’s tail, then a beckoning hand, a gasp went over the field before the next wave of applause. I would not have believed this account had I not seen it with my own eyes. Then I remembered the Shambhala anthem, one of the songs he used to make us sing in falsetto at four in the morning: in heaven a turquoise dragon. . . . And I remembered his jokes, and smiles, the irrepressible laughter that broke out again and again in every group he addressed. And I was his. I was sold. The whole universe seemed ripe with possibilities of magic.
In my yard that night, tree frogs, crickets, and creatures of all kinds wove a trembling texture of music, like Tibetan horns and bells. The Master has me in the palm of his hand. Or maybe it is the other way around. To achieve that result for my stubborn mind, he simply died, and waved.