Trungpa Rinpoche and Alan Watts

Here is Sam's account of Trungpa Rinpoche's friendship with Alan Watts.



Thank you and Sam Bercholz very much for providing the story about the Vidyadhara’s connection with Alan Watts. It means a lot to me because Alan had a strong influence on my spiritual aspirations, as he did with many young people of my generation in San Francisco and Berkeley during the 1960’s. I listened to his weekly radio program with delight and enthusiasm. He provided the spiritual ballast for college students caught up in the ’60’s and was widely loved for helping us ask the right questions and break out of the cultural conditioning we’d received during the 1950’s. I even attended at least one social gathering with him while I was in college, thanks to some of his devotees who were friends of mine. I think I can safely say that if I hadn’t had Alan Watts in my educational and social milieu, I may not have had the sense to fixate on Buddhism during the ‘spiritual supermarket’ period in the SF Bay Area. But fixate I did, as soon as I met Chögyam Trungpa in 1972. (Sam Bercholtz and Jerry Granelli were his attendants!)

Based on my own experience, I think that Alan Watts helped to prepare the ground for Trungpa Rinpoche, at least in California. Alan was erudite, had a great sense of humor and irony, and a beautiful British accent, so that when Trungpa Rinpoche appeared on the scene, it was almost as if Alan had laid the ground and cleared the way for him. Then Rinpoche did for his students what Alan couldn’t.

I had no idea that Rinpoche knew Alan, much less admired him, but it makes complete sense to me because there was a ‘crazy wisdom’ quality about Alan. He was as brutally honest about death and insecurity as Rinpoche was, and he was also, apparently, very lonely ~ kind of a misfit in American culture, so therefore raw.

The story of Alan spending his last hours with Rinpoche, and of Rinppoche looking to free his spirit so that he could move on, is very touching. I really appreciate knowing about that.

Thank you also, Walter and Joanne, for the biography of the Vidyadhara on the Home page. Today is the first I’ve seen and read it. It is the best biography of Rinpoche that I have seen of that length. Who wrote it? My guess: Douglas Penick.

Many thanks,
Suzanne Duarte


Thank you Suzanne. That bio was written by one of the Duke’s fictional characters. -WF


An example of how Alan Watts drew in a friend so Trungpa Rinpoche could hook her.

I met Alan Watts in 1972. We spent time together, and he introduced me to his friends Ruth and Henry Denison and Josephine Chuey. One day in November of 1973 a friend ask me to go to Los Angeles to shop for furniture. I lived in Santa Barbara and the thought of furniture shopping wasn’t high on my list of things to do, but I said yes. Driving to Los Angeles I thought of Josephine Chuey so strongly that I finally asked my friend to stop at a pay telephone so I could call her. Immediately she told me, “Trungpa’s in town.” Even though I had given up on the spiritual search, I was interested to see Trungpa, Rinpoche as Alan had spoken of him. So I talked my friend into forgetting the furniture and going to see Rinpoche. I signed up for his week-end workshop which was held in a free school. I remember a big room with a picture window, green grass and a tree with bare branches. There were about 30 people there for the workshop and we were told to sit, that we would sit all morning and that Rinpoche would be coming in the afternoon to give a talk. I sat any old way on some kind of cushion. To entertain myself and pass the time, I watched a blue bird flitting around on the limbs of the tree and sometimes seemed to peer into the big room where we all sat. I thought to myself irreverently, “That’s Alan laughing at me for sitting on my butt.” During the lunch break, Josephine came into the room and took me aside. “I have bad news,” she told me. “Alan died last night.”

Later after the talk, I stood in line to talk to Rinpoche. I bowed before him, and told him that I had been a friend of Alan’s and that I was feeling sad. He told me, “Yes, I have been thinking of him all day. I just had dinner with him,” and he lifted up a necklace that he was wearing.” This is the necklace that he gave me. I felt so touched that he had shared this with me. Later, as I milled about with the other workshop participants, Rinpoche came over to me and asked, “Do you have a picture of Alan Watts? I would like to put it on the shrine.” My mind raced around. Josephine had a picture, but I had to get back to Santa Barbara, and couldn’t stay for the second day of the workshop. So I told him that I had to leave but that Josephine would bring him the picture. The next day I phoned Josephine to see if he liked it. She told me he didn’t take it. “It’s nice,” he said, but I wouldn’t want to have to cut it.” (It was a picture of me with Alan) I was haunted by the idea that Rinpoche had asked me for something, and I hadn’t been able to give it. So haunted that when I read Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism a short time later I thought it was written for me. And before long without hesitation, I left California, and moved to Boulder for the first summer of Naropa. -Ann Cason, Circles of Care, Portland, Oregon

*** A great little interview about Alan Watts last days and his relationship with Chogyam Trungpa. Alan Watts has always been a rubric for me, both inspiring and slightly disappointing, too. I’ve always felt his legacy in the air around Mount Tamalpais (along with Gary Snyder, who is still alive, I think). So interesting to learn about his death and Chogyam Trungpa’s belief that he got stuck there. Additionally interesting (to me) is the reflection I have often had when walking Mount Tamalpais – and subsequently posted on Facebook several times – that I could feel the presence of the Karma Kagyu. I love the concept that Watts was relieved of his worldly tethers with a sukhavati consisting entirely of the Kagyu Lineage supplication. – Jonathan McKeever


I’m pretty sure that not too long after the events Sam describes, Alan’s books were collected by a posse of Zen students, and taken to the nearby Green Gulch Farm. As I understand it—I wasn’t personally involved in it—there was also a kind of cleaning party sent to the house-boat.

A bit earlier, Alan had come out to inspect Zen Center’s new farm, and stayed for a period of zazen. I ended up sitting next to him, without knowing who he was. Whoever he was smelled strongly of drink, was fairly far into his cups and swirled and slept some through the period; but he sat it out.

As for Jonathan McKeever’s commnet about having strong feelings on Mt Tam, they might be due not only to Alan Watts, but to the burial on there of various terma texts, by Trungpa Rinpoche himself, and small party of attendants. Aha, I see that Sam recounts this in another of his reports. As for the party with Rinpoche, I understand it included Alan Schwartz (from whom I heard the story) and possibly Marty Janowitz.

-David Schneider


Theme music: Balinese Monkey Chants. Chogyam Trungpa very much enjoyed these traditional Balinese chants. They were sometimes used to wake up participants at Magyal Pomra Encampment. Originally posted October 1, 2013 .
Sam Bercholz, creator of Shambhala Publications, worked closely with Trungpa Rinpoche during his lifetime as his publisher and as a member of the Vajradhatu Board of Directors. Sam continues to practice and teach the dharma.