Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Big Deal about Chögyam Trungpa

Plats à Emporter

I finally got around to reading Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism by Chögyam Trungpa. I tend to get an aversion to a book if too many people recommend it to me. Go figure why. Also, Trungpa's personal history put me off—what with the affairs with students and the drinking and such, he exemplifies a lot of what went wrong with Eastern gurus that came to teach Flower Children in the West in the 1960's and '70's.

But I finally read it, and am glad I did. Because it really is one hell of a fine book. It's simple, clear, to the point, utterly unpretentious, utterly non-dogmatic, and I'm left with the overwhelming impression that he absolutely and completely gets it, whatever "it" is.

Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism is an unusual choice of title for the book, I think. It's a thoroughly Buddhist book. In fact, it's the best primer about Buddhism that I've come across. It starts out simple, lays out the fundamentals of what Buddhism is about, and what someone attempting to practice it can expect. Spiritual materialism is a point of view, not a subject. Trungpa felt that it was the trap his students were most likely to fall into: to start treating the Buddhist path as yet another consumption choice; picking stuff from it and adding it to the junk stores in their heads. Buddhism certainly provides lots of material for that kind of pack-rat activity; robes and initiations and ceremonies, titles, teachers, and gurus, koans and yidams, paths and bhumis. Not to mention actual, physical junk.

I was also struck by how unsuperstitious and universalist the book was. Everything but the last chapter was plain vanilla Buddhism, nothing particularly Tibetan about it, except that he picked scenes from the lives of the likes of Marpa, Naropa and Milarepa rather than, say, Nanchuan, Chaochou, or Layman P'ang for illustration.

Whatever has become of the institutions Chögyam Trungpa founded, and however unorthodox his lifestyle, this has got to be one of the best books about Buddhism intended for a Western readership that I've come across. If you're at all curious about what this stuff is about, you could do enormously worse than start here.

Oh, and, it's also available on the Kindle. Finally.


  1. When I was doing more reading about Buddhism, I think I spent years reading mostly Trungpa. He seems to constantly hit the nail on the head. Not that it was always pleasing to me, but it always seemed truthful, clear, straightforward.

    Other books worth reading are The Myth Of Freedom, Crazy Wisdom, Path Is The Goal and the Shambhala books, among others. I should bring some of these to HZC.

  2. On the booklist. Been looking, as you know, for something of this nature for quite awhile.

  3. So I read your article about the Leica CL. just now because I am thinking about selling mine. I quoted Chogyam Trungpas famous phrase to one student in an email today, then find him on your blog. How interesting to come to your blog and it is the first thing that greets the eye.
    "The bad news is we are falling through the air. The good news is that there is no ground."

  4. Trungpa was my first inspiration as a Buddhist teacher in the 70s (yes, I'm a flower child, but also a Finn living in Canada); I got involved with the local sangha, did a retreat, etc., etc. After 20-some years the ideas Trungpa sent out & people followed....have been transformed, rejigged. His son has proclaimed the Kingdom of Shambhala &'s not my sangha anymore. However I go back to Trungpa's books, sit shamatha on my own & say the chants he gave us. Everyone else seems to have moved on to the "Kingdom". I prefer my own simple practice, but I hope all the others are happy. I'm kinda sad that they didn't know Trungpa as I did/do. His words are still the ones I seek when I have questions or doubt (not that he had all the answers).