Tangerine; Part One
by Chhi’mèd Künzang, March 2003.
Originally published in vision magazine.
living reflection, from a dream
I was her love, she was my queen
and now a thousand years between
Led Zeppelin, `Tangerine’
I want to talk about something which is actually – for me – not entirely easy to talk about, and I hope you will be a little patient with me. I do not mean to be coy. It is just that the topic of `Rig’dzin Chenpo Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and His Mode of Expression’ is ever-so-slightly daunting. In addition, this is a subject with which I need to be a little careful. I need to be careful with exactly how I say what I want to say for reasons which will, hopefully, become clear as I go on to actually say it.
Having begun so mysteriously, I have already put the focus on myself – the narrator, the storyteller, the voice on the other end of the telephone. Generally speaking, I prefer to speak generally. I prefer not to have to address the question of my own perspective. This is probably because I was told in first grade (or was it second) that writing `I think’ is superfluous, and one might as well just express whatever it is that needs expressing. But for once, I am going to completely disregard and violate that fundamental rule.
My reason for throwing my sensible first-grade education to the wind is precisely that what I want to say goes, in this one instance, beyond my first-grade education. Frankly, most everything I want to write down does fit neatly into the framework laid out in first grade. When I actually look back at my own education, I see a fairly straightforward progression – which I think is pretty standard. First you learn the alphabet, then to pronounce the letters, to sound arbitrary words, to read picture books, storybooks, textbooks . . .
The textbooks become more complicated, and the quantity of knowledge getting pumped in becomes fairly obscene, but the general pattern remains. You just keep building more and more sophistication on top of what you have developed so far. The more sophisticated you become, the more abstract the subject matter with which you concern yourself becomes; and it almost seems as if by dissecting things further and further, you get deeper into some kind of meaningful experience of knowledge. But I am not so sure about that.
I would not argue that the average first-grader could match the average fifth-grader in long division; or that the average high-school student could hold his own in debate with the average post-doctoral philosophy student. Neither am I suggesting that the Romans could hold a candle to our technology; that Homo Erectus could hold a stimulating conversation; or that sea urchins make more interesting house pets than cats. It is just that there is something else – besides this altogether worthwhile `advancement’ – which is occasionally worth looking at. And all I actually want is a slight indulgence: a temporary license to move out along a different axis than the one defined by the line connecting first grade, seventh grade, and the mid-life crisis.
The reason I want and need to take this detour is that I want to try to talk about something bigger than progress – be it personal, societal, or even evolutionary. I want to try to talk about what it means to see reality – and for this I need to talk about Trungpa Rinpoche, and the rôle he has played in making that possible, for individuals, but also for our society, and maybe for humanity al(l)together.
It would be nice not have to involve myself in the process of expressing this; but somehow that would be a cop out. It might be biography, or tribute, or summary – but it would not get at what is, for me, the heart of the matter. Specifically, it would not quite get at the fundamental inexpressibility of what I want nevertheless to express. There is just no way for me to talk about Trungpa Rinpoche without direct reference to the effect of his mode of expression. And the only effect to which I can legitimately testify is that which it has had upon me.
The extent to which that effect is relevant may well be the extent to which it can be seen to apply beyond my personal circumstances; and that is why I have taken such a weird detour into it. It is not that I want to try to universalise my experience, but rather to contextualise it. When I encountered Trungpa Rinpoche’s teachings, I did so very much from the perspective of `Western thought and culture’, and I feel that to a large extent the foundational experiences I brought are those shared by many who hold that perspective.
I did not have an `alternative’ perspective: I believed quite happily, if violently, in the truths seemingly embedded in our social and intellectual culture; that Trungpa Rinpoche’s words infiltrated my set-up as they did is testament to their power – because I was not open to being infiltrated. It did not even occur to me that such infiltration would be possible.
It is true: my first encounter with Trungpa Rinpoche’s teachings came at a time of confusion and doubt. But it is important to realise that this confusion and doubt grew naturally out of my investigation of Western culture as it is. As magnificent as we are, we have important but unanswered questions; and because we are so theoretically open-minded, we have all kinds of useful pointers to things outside of our own system of sense-making. It is part of our arrogance as a culture that we believe we can simply take anything over and use it as a subsystem of our own overarching system.
I should back up for a moment and clarify who `we’ in the preceding paragraph refers to. I am talking about Western People, but maybe even more specifically, Modern Americans. We who define ourselves by our reason, our education, and our individuality. Taken together, these values render us immensely capable of bending the world and our circumstances to our will; and when we encounter something outside the range of our experience – we extend our range and tackle that as well; because damn it – there ain’t nothin’ gonna hold us back.
Which brings me back to what I was saying about one of our most powerful qualities. We are so arrogant about our superiority that we are actually quite unafraid of absorbing whatever seems useful from elsewhere. The English language is a good example of this. English is a huge language because it absorbs new words from everywhere, all the time. Not all languages are like this. The French, for example, are notorious for their centralised attempts to maintain the purity of their language. But when we discover something new, we are quite happy to just install it into our cultural dictionary.
This basic situation (of how we are) is what Trungpa Rinpoche walked into when he decided to try to communicate Dharma to us. If you look at our history, you will see that we do not really have a culture of investigating spiritual matters. We certainly have philosophy and religion – which is to say, intellectual and institutional approaches to the general area; but in terms of mysticism per se, we have a bit of a blind spot. I grant that some might take issue with this statement, but I think it more or less holds up. There is a general feeling that what I am calling mysticism is a `soft science’ – that while it may contain some interesting ideas, it cannot really cut the mustard in terms of being a viable means of knowing. It is vaguely regarded as being insufficiently rigorous to even warrant close inspection. At the same time though, the question is left a little bit open. We have not really gone to the trouble to thoroughly debunk the whole area. Instead we just shrug our shoulders and assume a supercilious expression, and it is in the nature of our style that, coincidentally, those who do not accept this superciliousness tend to be those who cannot hack the hardcore aspects of what makes us so powerful. So while we all acknowledge a sense of mystery and phenomenal magic, those who take it too seriously are looked down upon. I know I have always looked down on what I would call, for lack of a better term, new age lightweights. The whole idea that spiritual inquiry involves abandoning rigor is grotesque, and it has led to a fairly serious mutual misunderstanding.
The situation we have is that our philosophers and yogis are at war. The yogis think the philosophers are bullshitting, and the philosophers think the yogis are bullshitting.
Trungpa Rinpoche, `Orderly Chaos’, page 13
It is true. Think about it. We have a cultural blind spot which forbids us to extrapolate our intellectual and artistic rigor into the area of direct experiential research.
[You may have noticed that I am not being totally rigorous in my own exposition either. Sorry: I am breaking a few more grade-school rules. To quote Fermat: `I have discovered a truly remarkable proof which this margin is too small to contain.’ So I acknowledge that I am not putting forth a mathematical proof – without thereby conceding that what I am saying is in fact inaccurate – in order to actually be able to fit what I have to say into the space of this article.]
So on the basis of the new age lightweights, the whole area of spirituality is more or less written off by normal people who have neither the time nor energy to explore further. This is, after all, a rather obscure entry in our cultural dictionary. And by the same token, `we’ have been more or less written off by the majority of real spiritual practitioners. There have been too many flaky Westerners incapable of resolving their own psychological issues for it to be otherwise.
But there was a period during the last century during which this all was not true – at least not in quite the same way. Sometime during the late sixties and early seventies, we finally got around to looking into spirituality per se. We may have been childish in our general approach, but to a significant extent, otherwise solid respectable people actually clicked through the hyperlink to see what was behind some of the obscure dictionary entries. And that was okay. What many of them found was Rig’dzin Chenpo Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche.
I will not belabour the historical circumstances of Trungpa Rinpoche’s arrival and teaching in the West. There are many sources for this information, all of them surely more comprehensive and accurate than anything I might produce. There are many, many people who can talk about Trungpa Rinpoche – who actually met him in person. I never even did that. All I did was read his books, and that much later than all this happened. By that time, he had been dead for five years.
I can say this though: Trungpa Rinpoche met us on our own ground. We may not have deserved it, but he certainly did not treat us like lightweights. Not only did he take us seriously, but he became one of us – not by assuming our neuroses, but by entering into the dimension of our particular enlightened capacity. The one absolutely astonishing, and in-no-way-to-be-underestimated thing that Trungpa Rinpoche did was to authentically translate the teachings of Vajrayana into English; and by doing so, he permanently changed the face of `who we are’.
It would be utterly impossible to undo what he did because his use of language made it into our subconscious dictionaries, one way or another. He spoke in such a way as to be heard, and having heard, even if we do not agree, we cannot be entirely truthful in pretending we have not. He once referred to Tantra as a `spiritual atomic bomb’, and he certainly `dropped the bomb’ on the seeming solidity of our conceptual infrastructure. Ngak’chang Rinpoche has said:
“There is no sense in which I could have committed Dharma to writing in the way I have, without the example of the Mahasiddha Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. No other Lama had taken on the English language as the medium. All other existing expressions of Dharma were Tibetan translated into English – and fundamentally that is not actually English at all, but a codified structure which conveys Dharma using hieroglyphics comprehensible to English speaking people.”
I am going to present an extraordinarily flimsy analogy as a foot in the door to explaining what I mean. It just so happens that as a child I was not allowed to listen to popular music on the radio, and for the most part I was completely unexposed to whatever might have been happening in the `music scene’ for probably the first fifteen years of my life. (I suppose it is necessary to state here, for the sake of context, that I was born in 1972.) It is not that I never heard music at all, but all I ever heard were brief snippets which never actually coalesced into a real sense of a `music world’ existing out there. I was, however, permitted to listen to a bizarre form of recorded music constructed, apparently for the purpose of not being `rock’.
At some point, of course, I slipped outside those restrictions, and I did in fact become aware that there were different kinds of music; and although I did not have a particularly sophisticated way of appreciating anything, I enjoyed listening around to different things. I eventually heard Led Zeppelin, and the interesting point is that for some reason, I found the actual sound of their music to be just unconditionally good. I never became a `fan’ – it was too late. I never particularly knew or wanted to know anything about the actual band. I never formed an opinion or did anything about it at all. I did not even go out and buy all their records. But I had a few, and I listened to them over and over again, and to this day, anytime I hear anything they recorded, I think, “That’s good.”
Now it is up to you to supply a hypothetical analysis of the history of music, the nature of conditioning, etc., ad nauseum. Presumably there is some good set of reasons why I was predisposed to like a particular kind of music. But it does not particularly matter, why it is so. The point is that it is in fact so. Something about the whole structure of the history of the universe and the way I fit into it makes me constitutionally incapable of not enjoying certain music. And even though that era is completely over, and the face of music has changed; that electric interface between blues and berserk cannot be said not to have happened. You cannot just listen to Frank Sinatra as though you do not know what else is possible, because the whole thing that happened actually did happen.
In any case, as I said, this is a terrible analogy – but there are certain parallels. The most important parallel is that like the arrival of Rock & Roll (in whatever incarnation strikes your fancy), the arrival of Dharma in the West was an earth-shaking event. Both simply happened because the time was right, and although they seemed to present a revolution, they were actually the products of combining an older form with a new medium and a new audience – in a particular energetic style. So on some level, nothing new was introduced at all. It is more like the artificial barriers between two worlds were finally shattered, and the dynamic aliveness of one world moved into another – creating something that was both entirely new and also simply the continuation of what had been. But still, somebody had to get up onstage every night and make it happen.
By the time I was born at the end of 1972, Rock and Roll had already happened, and Trungpa Rinpoche had just given (or perhaps, was giving, or, was about to give) the seminars that would later be published as `Crazy Wisdom’. It has taken me the last thirty years to get a perspective on this. I have thought a lot about – and even written a lot about – the nature of our conditioning as a society; and I am well aware that we have our set of culturally conditioned values. But what it has taken me a long time to understand is that those have changed dramatically over time. Those of us who were born somewhat more recently have a minor advantage in one respect (never mind the disadvantages, which have been well-documented in our esteemed popular media). It is true that we missed the excitement of the revolution. But at the same time, we cut our teeth on a different set of assumptions. Our generation learned a different dialect of English than the previous – a dialect of English which had come into dramatic contact with the language of Dharma – of reality as it is. We never really knew a world before the bomb had been dropped.
When I began reading Trungpa Rinpoche, I was somewhat baffled by his existence. His use of language was so far outside the realm of `ordinary’ – but without being the `language of the extraordinary’ either. It was nothing about the exact sequence of words he used (although – somehow it also was), or even his obviously encyclopaedic knowledge of the Tibetan contemplative tradition. Rather, it was the entire dimension of how he presented his material. He spoke with a voice of complete knowledge and confidence – without either glorifying or deprecating the magnitude of his own accomplishment. He evidently spoke from a vantage I had not known existed, but I immediately knew of its existence upon hearing his words. In retrospect, I can only say that I first experienced the meaning of `transmission’ through reading Trungpa Rinpoche – but to say that might be to confuse the matter; and I would rather remain completely within the realm of what I can say straightforwardly, because really what Trungpa Rinpoche communicated was utterly straightforward.
It is so important in this that he was direct. He did not talk about the teachings – he gave teachings. He did not (in general) present translations – but rather he expressed, in fluent English, the knowledge he actually held. He did not teach as an aloof ambassador of Dharma – but as an actual immigrant to the continent of our temporarily deluded conceptuality. By actually crossing the barriers to utterly direct communication, he made the structure of our thought a part of his enlightened intentionality, and he made his enlightened intentionality a part of the structure of our thought.
Before reading Trungpa Rinpoche, I did not really have a good concept of what `enlightenment’ was actually supposed to be. I had read the dictionary entry, but it was rather vague. I knew a lot of people were interested in talking about enlightenment – and they had all kinds of ideas about who knew what and how to go about pursuing it. But I had no compelling means of comprehending what was actually being discussed – except to tentatively imagine that it might have something to do with my own sense of confusion. But confusion is a weak basis on which to conclude much. The incredible power, for me, of Trungpa Rinpoche’s presentation is that he spoke clearly and thoroughly about the nature of confusion and the nature of its dissolution – without reference to vague concepts.
If he had not been so thoroughly rigorous: accurate and precise, Trungpa Rinpoche’s expression could never have penetrated our concepts as it did – because that absolute rigor is a characteristic of our own style. It is the armour with which we guard ourselves from unwanted intrusion, and the weapon with which we conquer all we encounter. And in one deft move, Trungpa Rinpoche leaped into our path and impaled us on our own sword.
I have always found it difficult to relate to the Christian world-view – not because Jesus is glorified, but because he occupies a privileged position. Whether this flows from the teachings he gave or is a reflection of the style in which the subsequent religion evolved, I do not know; and it is none of my business. I do know, however, that it has always grated against me that there had to be an explanatory framework around `who Jesus was’. Whenever I have gone to the trouble to read his alleged words, I have found them relatively clear, sensible, and inspiring – so I have never had a problem with the idea that one would wish to live one’s life in accordance with such teachings. In fact, I would say that the willingness to subserviate their own considerations to the perceived will of Christ is a mark of great sanity in those who do so. At the same time, those who reject such an approach on the basis of the total package presented seem reasonable as well. The extraordinary thing, for me, about the words of Rig’dzin Chenpo Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche is that they do not force, or even allow, such a conflict. The heart of his message is that enlightenment is possible – for anyone. His alleged words were recorded just a few decades ago, and many of his disciples are still alive today. Although it would obviously be foolish and contradictory to glorify him as uniquely divine, Trungpa Rinpoche also left little room for doubt that he knew wherefrom he spoke. And one of the things he transmitted to us was the formula for accomplishing what he had accomplished.
I am actually highly tempted to simply directly compare Trungpa Rinpoche with Jesus Christ – because without doing something like that, I cannot really communicate the fullness of what I am trying to spit out. But doing so would end up being some sort of quadruple blasphemy. It would offend Christians, who see Jesus as singular. It would offend the non-religious, who know religion when they see it. It would offend Buddhists, who – if they are still secretly Christians, prefer Jesus more historical; and if they are not, shudder at the thought of him. And it would offend Led Zeppelin fans, who just like the music.
So what I am saying here is and has to be distinctly different from any kind of Christian apology, in which I would tell you what to conclude. I have to choose whether I want to present conclusions or evidence, but to present them as inseparable is slightly devious. Not that there is anything fundamentally wrong with this approach at all, but it does not quite accord with the over-arching rigor of `our’ general approach. The reason the absolutely prototypical Modern American sneers slightly down his nose at Christianity is that he does not like being told what to think. And the reason he fails to understand Buddhism is that he is not quite motivated to actually do all the thinking necessary to reach a real conclusion. So I will not try to foist off any conclusions which are not clearly marked as opinion.
I cannot even make an argument from my own experience – because that would be pathetic. In terms of this subject matter, any kind of argument at all would be pathetic. There is nothing here about which you could argue – any more than you could argue about whether or not you like Led Zeppelin. So if I want neither to argue nor to present conclusions, what is my point at all – and why have I gone to such excruciating lengths to edge around it?
Fortunately, this is something I can explain. I am writing because the memory of Trungpa Rinpoche seems to be fading, or perhaps changing. I am writing because I belong to the generation that was born inside the ambience of Trungpa Rinpoche’s radical dialogue, but before the next genre had quite kicked in. I say I never met Trungpa Rinpoche, but perhaps to say this is to sell short what he was. Many of the stars in the night sky have long since ceased to `exist’, but our present perception of them is undistorted by their having been `dead’ for millions of years. By the same token, Trungpa Rinpoche communicated so directly as to reach beyond the immediate sphere of his physical presence. If we are familiar with the lives of Padmasambhava, or of Jesus Christ, we should have little difficulty with this concept. And if we are familiar with the history of religion, we should have little difficulty with the concept that sometimes the brilliance of a distant star also becomes distorted by the medium through which it is viewed. The human lens of potential lineage can focus light to a brilliant point or distort it almost beyond recognition.
For a long time, I knew nothing of Trungpa Rinpoche’s life circumstances – beyond the brief paragraphs found in his earlier books. Later, as the process of wrangling his words into the reality of my life brought me into contact with more and more `Buddhists’, I began to gather there was `controversy’. At the same time, I learned more and more about the extent of his influence. I had no idea, initially, how truly pervasive he had been – nor how all-encompassing his activities. Discovering both has been gratifying. The disjointed bits and pieces of our recent cultural history become increasingly coherent, the more I discover Trungpa Rinpoche’s connection to and part in shaping it. And the more I learn about the outrageousness of his manifestation, the greater my appreciation for the authenticity of his transmission: he truly lived what he taught.
Because he was so present, he is reflected everywhere. If you focus your eye in the right place, you can see his face watching you watching him. For me there has been no choice. I have been forced by the axioms of my own internal logic to try to solve the equations Trungpa Rinpoche scribbled on the blackboard of our reality. I want to re-derive, for myself, the formula for nuclear destruction. And the more I have been able to transform and simplify his equations, the more I see that the algebra of their exposition is the native structure of `our’ vaunted thought itself. There lies, at the centre of our struggle to comprehend reality, a self-expressed method for doing so – which we resist purely for the pleasure-pain of it, and which Trungpa Rinpoche shouted from the rooftops and whispered in our ears. I cannot shake this relentless irrational logic even by mixing metaphors, because somehow he is always a half step ahead of me; breaking my own rules to catch me breaking them.
Inevitably, I now have my own Nirmanakaya teachers in Ngak’chang Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen; and meeting with them has been the most extraordinary extension of this impossible dance – because they are evidently physically present. They do ask and answer questions; wear cowboy hats; make suggestions; surprise me; and generally exist as an unmanipulable emanation of reality. And my experience of them is entirely consistent with the view of Vajrayana Trungpa Rinpoche expressed in his every word and action. I have been trapped by my own curiosity and find myself convinced beyond convincing – because I realise there has never been anything about which I needed to be convinced. Vajrayana functions according to the parameters of Vajrayana, and nothing could conceivably change that. How amazing.
I am not writing to defend Vajrayana, or to defend Trungpa Rinpoche. That would be utterly superfluous. I am writing to express my gratitude – and as an offering: a note scrawled in the margin. I am laying my own ridiculous process out for inspection, in the hopes that some reflection of the reality of the situation can shine through it. I do not feel the need to go into detail and enumerate the problems I see. Anyone with a connection to Trungpa Rinpoche who looks carefully at what is happening in the world today has already seen them – or will see them eventually. It is enough for me that the overt record of his teaching was available for me to discover; and if that ever fades or modulates, then I hope the overt record of those who protested that modulation will be available as well. My only purpose in writing is to say, “Yes, I too see changes,” as one more reflection for those who would squint their eyes and try to piece together for themselves the totality of who and what Trungpa Rinpoche was.
© 2003 Chhi’mèd Künzang