From the journal Material For Thought, issue number 2

© 1990 Far West Editions



By Chogyam Trungpa Harcourt, Brace & World, 1968



In 1950 the Chinese Communists began the take­over of Tibet, forcing the dispersal of an ancient theocratic nation such as the world had not seen since Pharaonic Egypt. Born in Tibet is the auto­biography of a high Tibetan lama whose young life already spans both an intensive spiritual train­ing in traditional Buddhist forms, and a perilous escape to India and the West. He is in our midst today, still a young man, still studying and teaching.

Chogyam Trungpa is a tulku.

... the forces which produce his (a tulku’s) existence are of a different order. A “some­thing” or a “someone”, that has no “indi­viduality” or personality in the ordinary sense, decides to work on this earth for the sake of all beings.

After the death of the previous Trungpa Tulku, a party of monks traveled five days northward from Surmang, heeding the details of a vision and searching out the house which it pictured. There they found a mother and her infant.

... they looked closely at the baby, for as soon as he had seen them in the distance he waved his little hand and broke into smiles as they came in. So the monks felt that this must be the child and gave him the gifts ... ; the sacred protective cord and the traditional scarf; this latter the baby took and hung around the monk’s neck in the prescribed way, as if he had already been taught what was the right thing to do; delighted, the monks picked me up. for that baby was myself, and I tried to talk. (p. 26)

Several days later the child was put through more tests which revealed his ability to select from many articles those which belonged to his earlier in­carnation.

His training began at once, with an intensity and calculation that is not the least of the miracles described in this book.

When I was eight I had to learn how to perform various rites, how to intone and how to improve my reading, and I was taught the practice and history of Buddhism and about the life of the Buddha.... I read the life of Milarepa many times over.... Guru Padmasambhava’s story was my favorite, for I loved to read about the way he brought Bud­dhism to Tibet (and) ... above all about his great loving kindness to all our people. (p. 48)

When, however, Chogyam tells us:

I was deeply affected by all this: living in this place, studying these teachings and constantly meditating, I began to develop greater depths of understanding, as a preparation for the way of life that lay ahead of me. (p. 57)

he could not have known that what, in fact, lay ahead would put this understanding to the severest of tests.

Not that his teachers had failed to forewarn him. He had been told by one of his masters,

“It is no use just having theories, you must reflect about the meaning; you must not ac­cept anything just because it is given as the teaching of the Buddha, but always examine it for yourself.... Knowledge must be tested in the same way as gold, first refined, then beaten and made smooth till it becomes the right color and shows that it is pure gold.” (p. 98)

In one sense, of course, Trungpa’s test begins well in advance of the eventual decision to leave Tibet. He had to be able to see the situation as it unfolded, to sense the implications of what was gradually taking place, namely: the barely per­ceptible yet inexorable infiltration of Tibet by the Chinese Communists, and the inevitable destruc­tion of the old order which was to follow.

Thus, in place of a traditional and serene life amid established religious ritual, Chogyam’s spir­itual life was destined to continue in the midst of prolonged upheaval. He soon found himself torn between his wish to carry on with preparations for his office as head of the Surmang group of monas­teries and the need to escape.

Although he consults with his monks and his teachers, they refer the final decision back to him. To remain meant risking capture or death from the Communists; escape was equally forbidding. For Chogyam was far more apprehensive about the spiritual consequences of leaving Tibet than of what could happen if he stayed.

It may be trying for the occidental mind to ap­preciate the inner and outer upheaval brought about by this forced movement, this going-out. Tibet, the geographic place in time and space, was, in effect, a monastery. Comparable to leaving the country, as Chogyam found himself impelled to do, would be the going out from his cell by an early desert father or a monk at Mount Athos—a fearful thing. And still, as Kenpo Gangshar re­marks, it may be possible to stay in one’s inner cell in spite of everything. “Study what you are—don’t lose yourself.”

When necessity for escape does become obvious, it transcends all personal considerations. His teacher says to him:

“…a tulku like myself who has received such deep spiritual instruction has a duty to pass it on to others, so that I might have to con­sider escaping, not to save my own life, but to save the spiritual teaching of which I had become the repository.” (pp. 139-140)

The place of the Bursar, Tsethar, now assumes a great importance. This high administrative func­tionary acts again and again in the role of cautious maintainer of established form. Despite the grow­ing danger—even as the Communists began wide­spread pillaging and murder, and still later, during the exodus through the mountains—Tsethar al­ways offers equal and opposite resistance to Chogyam’s initiative to take decisive action.

No matter that Chogyam clearly saw the future: that they were near the time “when our world as we had known it would come to an end.” It was still the Bursar he had to deal with and his reas­surance: “All would go on as before.”

Yet the Bursar’s role appears to serve a vital function—a kind of resisting principle which obliged Chogyam again and again to re-examine the total situation. And this was never the same from one day to the next. Thus he provided an indispensable link in the chain of influences that helped to strengthen Chogyam’s spiritual resolve, bringing him an inner certainty as to the meaning and purpose of the proposed escape.

“Our journey to India must be thought of as a pilgrimage; something that in the past few Tibetans have been able to make.... We should not be thinking only of the enemies from without. Each moment we should be aware of ourselves and of the forces of de­struction that threaten each man from within. If we fail in this, we are indeed putting the spiritual object of our journey in jeopardy: each step along the way should be holy and precious to us.” (p. 208)

There follow weeks of unbelievably difficult struggle on foot over harsh, wintry mountain ter­rain where the enemy was not just extreme cold, fatigue and starvation, but also the Communists who at any moment might discover and capture the entire party. From time to time even the guide lost his way. Often the party crosses a mountain in the hope of finding their way only to see another and another range lying before them.

They remained cheerful.

My attendant suggested that it was now time to practice the yoga of `Inner Heat’ (known as tummo in Tibetan), but Yag Tulku retorted that sitting down on the crackling holly leaves in order to take the cross-legged posi­tion required for this yoga would make too much noise, not to mention the sound of ac­companying breathing exercises. I had to laugh and Tsepa whispered “Hush! you must all keep quiet, someone is coming.” I whis­pered back “perhaps this time, it is the spirits who are coming to protect us.” This banter­ing helped us to relax. (p. 232)

The winter storms began, and it took even longer to climb the mountains. The food shortage be­came critical. Some of the party died, others re­mained behind in the small villages. Lost now, they travelled only at night in order to avoid de­tection in the bare scrubby landscape. Yet:

… no-one ever attempted to kill any of the wild animals that we came across in our wan­dering; this compassionate self-control dis­played by a whole band of desperately hungry people moved me greatly at the time, and it remains a treasured memory of those heart-searching days. (p. 222)

In the next days they finally made contact with villagers who helped them with food and information. After a month they reached the town of Tut­ing, still free of Communist control. There they boarded a plane for India.

How shall the West understand the destruction of this ancient traditional culture and the killing or dispersion of its holy men? Moreover, if they are continuing their spiritual work, if they are teach­ing here in the West, what is it they are teaching? If the old forms are no longer useful, it may be that the inner spirit of the teaching will have to attract new forms that, in new circumstances, in­carnate the ancient teaching.

The question we are left with is: Can Tibetan tradition, which is indescribable, continue to exist apart from the monasteries, the background? Some flavor of the mechanical and psychic forces opposing the tradition can be sensed from Chog­yam’s account of his first contact with modern transport.

We had never travelled by motor transport before. ... Khenpo noticed how excited I was. … He turned to me and said, “You know how strong material forces are: now you are having one of your first direct encounters with them. Study what you are; don’t lose yourself.” (p. 125)

Is this tradition finished or will there eventually be a return to Tibet in ten years or fifty years? Meanwhile, what is there to learn from these up­rooted traditional teachers now in the West? Is there a way of relating ourselves to them so that we shall not waste this moment in naive curiosity or in the assumption that we are their equals?