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Kunga Dawa, aka Richard Arthure, died this afternoon. (around 2 pm, June 4, 2018), after entering the hospital several days ago for emergency surgery. With his passing, a highly significant focal point of the Vidyadhara Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s dharma transmission passes also.
Kunga Dawa was a Brit, a Shakespearean actor who encountered the young Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in England quite by auspicious coincidence. When Rinpoche, after spending some time in England and Scotland, returned to Asia, and to Bhutan specifically, to conduct a retreat at the famed Guru Rinpoche sacred site of Taktsang (Tiger’s Nest), Kunga, now his student, accompanied him. The temple of Taktsang is perched high on a precipitous and massive stone cliff with a drop of hundreds of feet. It is the place where Guru Rinpoche manifested as Dorje Trollö, and subdued the obstacles to dharma entering the Tibetan region. Trungpa Rinpoche came to Taktsang as he was seeking inspiration in how to go forward in bringing dharma to the West. And he brought with him a representative of the West itself, Richard Arthure / Kunga Dawa.
As we know from later Trungpa Rinpoche accounts, while Rinpoche and Kunga were practicing in retreat, Kunga was suffering the pangs of the extremely hot pepper-based Bhutanese diet. At the same time, he was about to witness seminal events that were to shape the Vidyadhara’s entire transmission of dharma, and of course the rest of Kunga’s life.
After several days, the Vidyadhara received the Sadhana of Mahamudra as a spiritual treasure. This Sadhana, a Vajrayana practice, proved to be the bridge from Padmasambhava, the Karmapas and Trungpa Rinpche to the West. Rinpoche received it and wrote it down in Tibetan, then in short order translated it into English with Kunga Dawa. They worked closely together for a few days, going through the text line-by-line. Though the Sadhana is thoroughly couched in the language of Padmasambhava, the Karmapas and the profound teachings of Mahamudra and Ati, and transmitted through the ripened enlightened mind of Trungpa Rinpoche, the translation nonetheless carries nuances and styles of the English language, provided by the Shakespearean literary mind and eloquence of Kunga Dawa (e.g. “Hey ho, the happy yogi!”). Later, Trungpa Rinpoche acknowledged the very special character of the translation, and regarded it as part of the spiritual treasure. Thus, Kunga himself was part and parcel of this treasure.
This practice was introduced in the very early days of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s foray into the West, and indeed became the bridge of the profound and vast teachings of vajrayana to the modern West. It was a door opener on a grand scale. The Sadhana of Mahamudra has been practiced for decades hence, and continues to nourish the budding dharma of the West as well as expand to the world at large. It carries the ripened realization of centuries of Buddhist practitioners in exquisite language and verse, and is at the same time highly applicable and potent for the current state of affairs in the world. It also embodies and expresses the very character and personality of Trungpa Rinpoche. As I heard in Nepal several years ago, the great Dzogchen master Tulku Ugyen, when presented with the Tibetan text of the Sadhana and upon reading it, exclaimed, “This is all you need!”
We all owe Kunga Dawa a great deal of heart-felt thanks for his service to Trungpa Rinpoche and his instrumental role in translating the Sadhana of Mahamudra. And for his intimate connection with the Vidyadhara that proved so precious for us all.
Kunga went on to live in North America as a practitioner, a father, and a keystone member of the sangha. After the Vidyadhara’s parinirvana, he made further lineage and teacher connections, and practiced and taught extensively for many years. As witnessed by the stream of visitors that came to say goodbye to Kunga in the last several days, he had a profound effect on many people’s lives.
I had only seen Kunga very occasionally in the last several years. But more recently, when Ri-mé Society presented an in-depth class on the Sadhana of Mahamudra, in this year of the Sadhana’s fiftieth anniversary, we considered asking Kunga to present a talk. We determined, however, that his health would make it highly risky…he had recently suffered two heart attacks, and was also suffering some dementia. Instead, Marv Ross and I recently interviewed him in his apartment. He was hospitable and delighted to engage with us. We were amazed with his buoyancy and candor. We will be making this interview available to listen in the near future via the Ri-mé Society website, www.rimesociety.org, and through the Chronicles of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche website. Although we knew from speaking with Kunga that he was prepared and expecting to die in the near future, we did not know that this would be his final interview.
When I first called Kunga to ask for the interview, he was highly enthused because he was reading a book that had been sent to him anonymously. It was the book Devotion and Crazy Wisdom, which contains the two seminars that the Vidyadhara gave on the Sadhana of Mahamudra. Kunga was totally engrossed in the book, which he claimed he had never read before. He was extremely warmed and touched by the Vidyadhara’s repeated mention of him in the seminars. Whether he had seen these seminars in the past but had forgotten them due to his challenged memory, or whether this was indeed the first time he was reading them, he was enthralled and joyful. And when we spoke on the phone, we both saw it as a very positive indication that we should indeed conduct the interview. So we did.
One of Kunga’s endearing remarks during our interview was that he valued the Vidyadhara not only as his teacher, but as a genuine, close and very good friend. As indeed they were and are. When I asked at the end of the interview what he would like to say to the Vidyadhara right then and there, he responded, “I feel that the Vidyadhara and I are inseparable.”
I was in Bhutan just a few years back, staying overnight in a hotel situated at the base of the mountain on which Taktsang is perched. I was walking alone at dusk along a dirt path leading toward the mountain. It was April 4, the anniversary of the Vidyadhara’s passing into parinirvana, and I felt an immense sad longing for the Vidyadhara. I spotted far above me a lone light shining out from a room at Taktsang. I could feel vividly in that moment, as though it was 1968 again, the presence of the Vidyadhara in that retreat, in a roughly-hewn room, sitting and receiving the Sadhana of Mahamudra. Now I can also feel Kunga up there, beside the Vidyadhara.
Kunga was able to emanate a great deal of warmth and appreciation, even in his last days and hours in the hospital. Sometimes he was cogent and could talk. Other times, he was reclined and obviously already making his transition, yet could talk with his eyes and facial gestures. Even as his breathing cycles headed into his final hours, and he was sedated for his pain, he was present and responsive. He was ready to go and was going, yet readily available for many heart-felt goodbyes. One of my goodbyes was to offer him some water I had gathered from the sacred spring at Taktsang, a spring presented as a gift by a dakini to Guru Rinpoche while he was there on retreat in the 8th century. Though Kunga was barely able to function, he whispered that he wanted to drink it, and he did.
Others will provide accounts of Kunga’s life since those days with the Vidyadhara high on a cliff in a legendary temple in Bhutan, and his instrumental role in the translation of the Sadhana of Mahamudra. For me, I treasure the time in the last short while that I was able to reacquaint myself with Kunga, ask him questions that had haunted me for decades, and be around him during his final weeks and hours. May all of us with any connection, now and in the future, to Vidyadhara Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and to the Sadhana of Mahamudra, celebrate Kunga Dawa’s life, his essential role in the transmission of dharma to the West, and his unique and vibrant personality among us. And now I bid him a parting “Hey ho, the happy yogi!” May he soar like a garuda through uncontrived space and meet the Vidyadhara in an instant!
June 4, 2018