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to Wendy Karr

Colorado University Lectures, 1971

A four-part interview with Tulku Thondup on devotion, prayer, caring, and how to move forward on the path

Lineage and Devotion, By Peter Volz

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Valentine's Day Edition

"Absolutely Suicidal"

by Acharya Larry Mermelstein

Chögyam Trungpa, in his office
in Boulder in the late 1970s.

One day in Boulder, circa 1978, Larry Mermelstein had a very interesting conversation with Trungpa Rinpoche about relationships. Here for Valentine's Day (okay, we're a day late), is his account of that conversation.

Larry is the Executive Director of the Nalanda Translation Committee and a well known figure within the Shambhala community. For information about his background and activities, please visit

Editor's note: Thank you Larry for telling this story for Valentine's Day. If any of our readers have stories regarding personal instructions from Trungpa Rinpoche on relationships, please send them to the Chronicles: . Please indicate any request for anonymity.

Trungpa Rinpoche on desolation, relationships,
and loneliness as consort

Student: I'd like to ask a question about loneliness and love. In my experience, the kind of love where two people try to be together in order to protect themselves from loneliness hasn't worked out too well. When you come in contact with loneliness, it seems to destroy a lot of things you try to pull off in trying to build up security. But can there be love between two people while they continue to try to work with the loneliness?

Trungpa Rinpoche: That's an interesting question. I don't think anybody can fall in love unless they feel lonely. People can't fall in love unless they know they are lonely and are separate individuals. If by some strange misunderstanding, you think you are the other person already, then there's no one for you to fall in love with. It doesn't work that way. The whole idea of union is that of two being together. One and one together make union. If there's just one, you can't call that union. Zero is not union, one is not union, but two is union. So I think in love it is the desolateness that inspires the warmth. The more you feel a sense of desolation, the more warmth you feel at the same time. You can't feel the warmth of the house unless it's cold outside. The colder it is outside, the cozier it is at home.

S: What would be the difference between the relationship between lovers and the general relationship you have with the sangha as a whole, which is a whole bunch of people feeling desolateness to different degrees?

TR: The two people have a similarity in their type of loneliness. One particular person reminds another more of his or her own loneliness. You feel that your partner, in seeing you, feels more lonely. Whereas with the sangha, it's more a matter of equal shares. There's all-pervasive loneliness, ubiquitous loneliness, happening all over the place.

Student: Would you say that loneliness is love?

Trungpa Rinpoche: I think we could say that.

From THE PATH IS THE GOAL by Chögyam Trungpa. (c) 1995 by Diana J. Mukpo. Published by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston.

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Student: Yesterday we were talking about love and relationships. In terms of Buddhism, what is the validity of having a relationship with one person if falling in love just comes from loneliness? Is the validity of such a relationship just another illusion?

Trungpa Rinpoche: Well, illusion is not supposed to be looked down upon. In any case, everything's illusion, so you can't say this is /just/ an illusion, therefore it does not have enough worth. When you have a very close relationship with a person such as your mate, your husband or wife, that person becomes the spokesman for the rest of the sangha. When you live with somebody long enough, there is intense irritation and intense warmth. Often you regard each other as being very cute and sweet, but sometimes as a living devil or devilette. There are a lot of unexplored areas of experience, and you only get to use your microscope with your mate. With others there's no time to use it. Nobody else will sit there and let themselves be scrutinized and take the trouble to scrutinize you. Only your mate will put up with that, which is a very generous thing, fantastic. So in that way, your mate becomes a spokesman for the rest of the world. That seems to be a very important part of one's life. You can't just shake it off or take it lightly.

From THE PATH IS THE GOAL by Chögyam Trungpa. (c) 1995 by Diana J. Mukpo. Published by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston.

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Student: What about this free passion? It is certainly going to operate with more than one person, and that leads to trouble, doesn't it? Say you're married and you are attracted to somebody else, then what?

Rinpoche: I don't think that is really free passion at all. It is a reaction against something that makes you feel attracted to someone else. Because you married, you are stuck together, and therefore you psychologically begin to feel an anarchist attitude. I don't think that is free at all. It is a kind of dissatisfaction, that the relationship is not right -- and the sooner the relationship could be reconciled the better. You see, /free/ is a very interesting word. It could be "free-free" or it could be "free-wild."

S: Could you talk a little more about what you mean by "free-free" and "free-wild"?

R: Well, "free-free" is that you are free not because you have been freed by somebody else, but because you discover that you can do what you like -- you discover that you have the space to move about. "Free-wild" is that you begin to feel you have managed to snatch freedom from somewhere else; it is reacting against imprisonment.

Then, instead of creating space, you automatically tend to fill up the space by all sorts of other things. It becomes wild because it is like an echo -- once you shout more, the sound will come back to you more as well. It is that kind of continual creation of your own spider's web. It becomes wild at the end: it has to be wild because it is frantic. It is wild in the sense of neurotic. Immediately when you realize you've got freedom in the "free-wild" sense, you begin to shout, you begin to fill the whole of space. And the sound comes back to you. You shout more and more until finally the whole thing becomes complete chaos. You are creating your own imprisonment under the pretense of freedom. So it is a question of space or not.

From the SHAMBHALA SUN, as reprinted in THE COLLECTED WORKS OF Chögyam TRUNGPA Vol 2. (c) 1995 by Diana J. Mukpo. Published by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston.

* * *

Student: Could you say something about celibacy and the emphasis on the practice of celibacy in so many traditions?

R: As I said in the beginning of the talk, celibacy is one way of dealing with desire. In the case of celibacy, you don't try to suppress desire at all, but you try to examine the mental aspect of passion and you try to see the chaotic quality of its physical application.

I don't know about Christianity, but certainly in the Buddhist tradition you are not trying to suppress any kind of desire that comes into your mind. Instead you are supposed to look at it, become familiar with it. Then it automatically wears out. When you realize the physical application purely as an extension of that desire, you see the childish quality of it. But you still have to make communication; the communicative quality has to continue. You have to channel your energy into the communication process, which automatically simplifies life.

The basic monastic tradition, as a whole, is not based purely on suppression or ascetic practice at all. It is based on simplification, simplicity, the simplicity of life, the simplicity of non-involvement, the simplicity of being alone. There's a great deal of emphasis made on the physical, geographical relationship with situations, which is a basic kind of thing. Therefore, when any mental desire or passion comes up, you have to work with it. You have to become familiar with it first, then you begin to see the simplicity of the aloneness, the loneliness. That quality of loneliness provides a kind of consort, or company. The loneliness is company, and it begins to inspire as the feminine principle your active desires, whatever you have in mind. Therefore, in the Buddhist tradition, people who are in the celibate or monastic life must continue to practice the discipline of yoga. Mentally, they must go through it.

From the SHAMBHALA SUN, as reprinted in THE COLLECTED WORKS OF Chögyam TRUNGPA Vol 2. (c) 1995 by Diana J. Mukpo. Published by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., Boston.

Often when I was in Rinpoche's presence, it was as a member of the Translation Committee, and there were almost always several other people in the room, including translators, consorts, board members, attendants, etc. So it was not as common for me to be alone with him. On this particular occasion, I was meeting with Rinpoche in his office, and it was just the two of us. I don't remember what we were meeting about, but as we were finishing up our business, he turned to me and said, "So how's your love life?"

I had recently broken up with my girlfriend. So as a matter of fact, my love life was not going very well at all, but I wasn't particularly overwrought or distraught about it. I told him that my girlfriend and I were not seeing each other any more, and that seemed to be okay. I really had nothing further to say about my love life, but he seemed to want me to continue talking. So we chatted for awhile, and at some point early on in this little conversation, I said something like, "Sir, we often look to you as a reference point for our lives in general, but in this particular area, in terms of our relationships, I don't really know how much we should do that." I said this in a slightly tongue-in-cheek way, but I meant it as well. His relationships with women were very unusual, to say the least.

My little comment really got his attention, and he wanted me to fill in all the details, to describe to him what I saw as his unconventional behavior. This wasn't difficult. Everyone knew that he was married, and yet he had relationships with many women, over time. There was certainly no hiding of that on his part, and no embarrassment. I think for most of us, his relationships with women were just an aspect of who he was. So our conversation went on, and I continued to describe his unconventional behavior. Eventually I (of all people) ran out of things to say. Meanwhile, in characteristic fashion, he had not said very much at all. After a short silence, I asked, "So, should we follow your example in terms of our relationships? Do you mean for us to do that?"

He said, "No. Absolutely not!"

I asked if he really meant that, and he said, "Oh yes. It would be suicidal for you to do what I do."

I asked if this applied to all of his students, and he said, yes. So I said, "What about the Regent--from the Regent on down?" And he said, "Yes. Absolutely suicidal. People should not try to copy me."

I was overwhelmed and moved by his clarity. "Why don't you tell people this? Why don't you say something?"

He looked over his glasses at me and said, "Why don't you?" So I've told this story to many people over the years. But this may be the first time it is being presented in a public forum.

Personally, I felt great and quite relieved after this exchange. I was relieved to know that I was not expected to follow or imitate his behavior in this regard, though I had never presumed that to be the case. For me, this conversation summed up something about his relationship with the phenomenal world that had always been hard for me to understand. Certainly, it was wonderful to be in his presence, and for the women who were his consorts, this was another aspect of their relationship with their teacher. From my own experience, as someone who was often around when he was with a consort, I always felt that his relationships with women were quite wonderful. He was always very respectful and caring. So I never had a problem with his actions or his behavior from an ethical point of view. But still, I think many of us wondered on some level what he was doing in this regard. He didn't really explain that, but he certainly put to rest any confusion on my part that we were expected to imitate his behavior.

Some years later, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche delivered a very similar message to our vajra sangha. He was perhaps the first Tibetan lama (other than the Vidyadhara) to actually talk to us directly in a somewhat critical fashion--kind but critical. Up to that point, the Tibetan teachers we had contact with, including His Holiness Karmapa and His Holiness Khyentse Rinpoche, gave wonderful teachings and blessings, and they greatly inspired our connection to dharma and a sense of lineage. But Jamgon Rinpoche spoke to us very directly, and his message was hard hitting. On this particular occasion, he was admonishing us for attempting to imitate Trungpa Rinpoche's behavior. It was a powerful talk, an audience for sadhakas, I believe, and I think many of us were very inspired by what he had to say. He wasn't criticizing Trungpa Rinpoche in any way. He was criticizing us for trying to copy Rinpoche, particularly with respect to drinking.

Several years after the Vidyadhara passed away, we received a wonderful teaching from Gyatrul Rinpoche on Vajrakilaya. I think some of his introductory comments [included below] are pertinent to this discussion. He was talking about what Trungpa Rinpoche had accomplished in the West.

Copyright 2007 by Larry Mermestein

Gyatrul Rinpoche on what Trungpa Rinpoche gave up

Ven. Gyatrul Rinpoche

It really is Trungpa Rinpoche who brought the Kagyu doctrine to this country, and it is through his kindness that we now have the presence of this lineage in this country. . . .

Especially you older students of Trungpa Rinpoche got caught by his fishhook. Those of you who like to smoke were attracted; those of you who like to drink were attracted; those of you who are party goers were very attracted. And he gave up a lot for you. What did he give up? His own reputation. He willingly accepted the criticism he received from his own people-and from other Americans, and from people in other countries-but he did all this so as to establish you on the path to liberation, which is where you are now. Would you be sitting here this evening if he hadn't done that?

It is your responsibility to repay his kindness, which is not something he needs; it is something you need. You need to fulfill your connection-to connect with him, a being who works only for others. Now you have that same opportunity to maintain the dharma centers for the sole purpose of benefiting sentient beings. That is the gift that you've been given. [Rinpoche speaks in English:] But I'm not saying, "Keep the pot!"

Excerpted from "The Four Kilas of Vajrakilaya," a talk by the Ven. Gyatrul Rinpoche at the Ngedon School, Karma Dzong, Boulder, Colorado, September 24, 1991, translated by Sangye Khandro. Published in The Vajrakilaya Sadhana Practice Manual, compiled by the Vajravairochana Translation Committee.

Feedback from readers

Rinpoche loved his students and said so. How many times did you hear him say "I love you" in a talk, or in passing. It always penetrated to the heart. Once he suddenly said to me "I think I love you." and I asked him what that meant--what was love . He became quiet for a moment and then said ..."Mutual Sympathy" and then he was quiet again. This is for us all. (anonymous 1976)

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The most priceless answer I think we received was from HH Karmapa regarding imitating Rinpoche. HHK was giving an audience to students and was answering most questions at length in a grandfatherly way. The translator was being very attentive and one-pointed in his translation. When someone asked about Rinpoche's drinking and if it was OK for us to imitate him HHK gave a curt brief statement that cracked up the translator. When the translator regained his composure, he said, "His Holiness says, 'Dogs shouldn't imitate lions.'"

Jack Elias

* * *

Once Tai Situ Rinpoche was giving an audience at Marpa House. I think it was 81 or 82. Someone asked him what is the best way to realize the Buddhist teachings, to become enlightened. Rinpoche said, .go on retreat and stay there until you are accomplished..

Taken somewhat aback one student raised his hand and said, .Your Eminence, in our lineage there are two ways, the monastic and the yogic. In the yogic, as is taught and manifested by the Vidyadhara, we can drink and smoke and even have lovers. This is a different path to enlightenment, isn't it?.

Rinpoche answered, .when Trungpa Rinpoche drinks, smokes and has sex, he does it out of non-attachment. When you do it, you do it out of attachment..

Lee Weingrad

* * *

I just read Larry Mermelstein's account of his candid conversation with the Vidyadhara about relationships. Larry mentions the audience Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche gave to sadhakas in Boulder in summer 1984. I will never forget that audience. Jamgon Rinpoche challenged our arrogance (and stupidity) saying "You people try and imitate his actions, but you don't understand his mind!"

H.H. Karmapa XVI was gentler when he told us during his last visit in 1980 that we were too caught up in forms and needed to understand emptiness.

It's too bad that many of the Vidyadhara's students sought to imitate his actions with respect to relationships and ended up causing other people a lot of needless suffering. Thanks for your wonderful exertion in keeping our root guru's transmission alive in cyberspace!

Best wishes,
Chris Keyser

* * *

Dear Chronicles,

Thanks so much for your valuable work -- I did just want to raise a point concerning Larry's letter about the Vidyadhara the way that he used drinking and sexuality and what we, as his students, take from his example. I think we need to remember that when the Vidyadhara replied to questions from his students he was meeting them on their own ground and giving them what they needed. We should be careful and Mr. Mermelstein should be careful in drawing larger images here. As they say, "hindsight is always 20/20." It is comforting to think that we knew the answer to all our adversity way beforehand but we should be very careful. Specifically, students of this lineage should review the Vidyadhara's own comments and articals concerning the use of alcohol found in the "Heart of the Buddha" – Alcohol as Poison.. and in the "Drinking Lesson" found in the Vajrayogini Manual. These talks by the Vidyadhara point to his actual views of alcohol and how it should be understood within the context of our practice. Also, the vidyadhara's comments on "relationships" found in "The Heart of the Buddha" are also quite informative and lead us to larger understanding of the Vidyadhara's teachings on these subjects. We should be very careful about developing some type of retroactive moral view here. At all times it should be important to review what the Vidyadhara actually taught and not simply what one person perceived to be the truth of the matter.

All the best,
Tashi Armstrong

* * *

In 1983 I visited Seminary and was able to have a private interview with Trungpa Rinpoche. I told him my husband and I had an unsolvable conflict about where to live. (He wanted to live overseas and I wanted to stay in the U.S. close to the Sangha.

After I told him my background, Rinpoche asked me, "How's your love-life?" My idiotic response was, "Well, I'm not as unfaithful to my husband as I used to be." Rinpoche then asked, "Do you play?" I said, "Some." Then he concluded the interview by saying, "Play more."

(Result? I met my present husband 3 months later at Level 5.)


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© 2007 The Chronicles of CTR