Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

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Trungpa Rinpoche, Chogyam (1940-1987)

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, teachers of the occult have portrayed Tibet as an outpost of the highest occult wisdom. However, it was not until after the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959 that Tibetan teachers arrived in the West, making firsthand encounters with Tibetan Buddhism available to more than a few adventurous explorers. Among the first to arrive was Chogyam Trungpa, the eleventh Trungpa Tulku. He was born in February 1929 in Geje, Tibet. Designated the reincarnation of a famous lama as an infant, he was raised in a monastery and trained in Tibetan Buddhism. He fled Tibet at the time of the invasion, and in 1963 received a Spaulding grant to attend Oxford University. While in England he wrote his autobiography, Born in Tibet (1966), and established a center in Scotland.

In 1970 Trungpa renounced his monastic vows to marry. He moved to the United States that same year and founded Karme Choling, a seed center of what would grow into Vajradhatu, an international fellowship of his students. He presented his version of Tibetan Buddhism in a number of books, including Mudra (1972); Cutting through Spiritual Materialism (1973); Visual Dharma, the Buddhist Art of Tibet (1975); The Dawn of Tantra (1975), with Herbert Gunther; and The Myth of Freedom (1976). He found ready acceptance among one segment of people who appreciated his total dedication to his spiritual teachings and his simultaneous ability to enjoy life, manifested through his love of alcohol and women. He was also a patron of the arts, especially poetry, and founded a school, Naropa Institute, which offers an alternative curriculum with college-level instruction. The institute has taught the likes of Allen Ginsberg and Ram Dass.

Trungpa possibly became best known for his denunciation of "spiritual materialism," manifest in the spiritual seekers of alternative religions who seemed preoccupied with collecting as many varied spiritual experiences as possible. Such seekers never settle down long enough to have their search rewarded with real insight, he said.

In 1981 Trungpa expanded his teachings to Canada, where he established a community in Halifax. He died at these Canadian headquarters April 4, 1987 of cardiac arrest and respiratory failure. He was succeeded by Osel Tendzin, his chief disciple.


Clark, Tom. The Great Naropa Poetry Wars. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Cadmus Editions, 1980.

Fields, Rick. How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America. Boulder, Colo.: Shambhala, 1981.

Queen, Edward L., Stephen R Prothero, and Gardiner H Shattuck. "Chogyam Trungpa," Encyclopedia of American Religious History. 2 vols. New York: Facts on File, 1996.

The Tibetan Book of the Dead. Translated and with a commentary by Francesca Fremantle and Chogyam Trungpa. Berkeley, Calif.: Shambhala, 1973.

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Rinpoche (Tib., Rin po che, ‘Precious One’). A title of respect given to all lamas in Tibetan Buddhism. A monk who becomes a lama for the first time (i.e. in this incarnation) will be accorded the title equally with a ‘reincarnate lama’ (tulku). The Dalai Lama, for example, may also be called ‘Gyalwa Rinpoche’ (Precious Eminence).

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An honorific used in Tibetan Buddhism meaning "precious master," now commonly encountered among Tibetan groups operating in the West.