Chogyam Trungpa Was Brilliant But Needed A Warning Label

dangerI’m greatly indebted to Chogyam Trungpa.  His descriptions of the tender heart of the warrior were my introduction to the inner life of Buddhist practice.  Even though he is from the Tibetan tradition, he helped me understand (as much as I do, anyway) the states of mind the Theravada practices are aiming at.  He was very good at explaining abstract Buddhist concepts in ways that westerners can understand.

One thing that I’m not thankful to Chogyam Trungpa for was his blurring of the lines around Buddhist ethics.  He taught with what the Tibetan tradition calls “crazy wisdom”, which doesn’t necessarily follow the five precepts.  His effect on his followers was often profound and transformative, and he seemed to at least be honest and upfront about his own transgressions.  His successor, Osel Tendzin, not so much.  Tendzin’s story was rather darker, with secrets and tragic, ultimately deadly violations of the precepts.

I don’t think it’s as simple as that though.  Breaking the precepts doesn’t always lead to disaster, but it can tip a dangerous situation into tragedy.  One dangerous situation that the precepts are needed for is that of guru worship.  Chogyam Trungpa and teachers in that lineage are treated as living exemplars of Buddhist attainment.  This is a powerful but easily misused teaching situation, as the story of Osel Tendzin shows.

Shunryu Suzuki, a Zen Buddhist monk, was another teacher that inspired great devotion and was himself an ethical man.   Unfortunately his successor, Richard Baker, apparently overstepped the bounds of propriety a number of times and resigned in disgrace.  These two successors show what happens when people are handed positions of power with few rules or safeguards on their actions.  When unethical behavior is covered up and excused, or when it is allowed to operate unquestioned and unchecked, it can wreck havoc on all the good work a teacher has done.  It also smears Buddhism, which is one of many reasons that I think the creaky old Pali Canon standard of ethics should be more closely studied and followed.  Sila, Buddhist ethics, is for all Buddhists — including (supposedly) enlightened masters.

My rule about teachers is simple.  If they don’t teach the precepts and make a good faith effort to follow them themselves, they are a danger and should be avoided.

Crazy wisdom is great when it works, but when it goes astray it can break the Sangha, which is one of the most serious ethical violations described in the Pali Canon.  At least here in the west, I think whatever benefits can be derived from teachers who behave as if they are above the precepts isn’t worth the cost.  The Buddha didn’t violate the precepts after his enlightenment, so why should any other Buddhist teacher have a need to do so?