Merton & Trungpa

November 27, 2011

Thomas MertonThomas Merton and Chögyam Trungpa: a dialogue and collaboration continued.

What Has Changed

September 26, 2008

To give your sheep or cow a large spacious meadow is the way to control him. - Ven. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi


As a meditation instructor at my Shambhala Center between 1995 and 2004, I had no choice but to be aware of the changes in the introductory presentation of sitting meditation that occurred during that time. I learned new forms and practiced them regularly in order to be able to help other people learn them. In light of that fact, the hardest to understand  of the standard “talking points” from Shambhala about these changes was the assertion that while there may be superficial differences, nothing had really changed.

There are a number of variations in terms of how this is expressed. Here is a fairly easy one:

“The Vidyadhara himself gave changing instructions in the particulars of how to practice, based on his witnessing the changing needs of his students…and because of his changing understanding of how to serve his students best.”[1]

This version does at least acknowledge that there are changes. It implies, however, that there is a continuum between the changes made by Trungpa Rinpoche and the continuing changes made by Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, that they are all closely related. In point of fact the two approaches are quite different in their fundamental view. As an MI working with students trained in one and then shifting to the other, this was very obvious to me.

I never met the Vidyadhara, so you would have to get someone else to talk about how they experienced the Vidyadhara’s famous and endless rug-pulling. But I have studied the Shambhala teachings and read most of the restricted vajrayana teachings. Throughout the shape-shifting, and from the beginning to the most advanced teachings, I see a consistency in view.

One aspect of the view is the assertion that we do not practice meditation to get rid of thoughts. I was taught meditation from the view of basic goodness, where the assumption is that the mind is primordially enlightened and the practice is to relax and allow space, first, and then to apply discipline in order to further that process.[2] I have practiced this way through my whole life as a practitioner. I cannot count how many times I have told new and not-so-new practitioners this radical assertion, which my teachers made to me and which made it possible for me to meditate. The arising of thoughts is part of the natural process of mind and the training is to “neither lead nor follow.” I cannot count how many times I have as gently as possible pointed out that a verb like “control” is not useful in relation to meditation.

Now, beginners are being taught to “tame” the mind, that the mind is a wild animal that must be controlled by the application of the practice of meditation. They are being taught that it is the goal of meditation to have no thoughts arise.[3] The Six-Class Sourcebook for Shambhala Instructors, p. 29, states categorically, “All public and open house instruction (except Level 1) will present working with the precise technique as a beginning place. The emphasis is on taming the wildness of mind.”

I do not presume to say that there is something wrong with this view, since it has a long and illustrious history. But I had never practiced that way, and would probably have never become a practitioner at all if that was what I was presented with when I started out. I found when I attempted to talk with people that I could not make the words come out of my mouth to present that view. So I retired as an M.I. That is no great loss. But I think the loss of this style of meditation, which Trungpa Rinpoche brought to the West from Tibet, at such great personal cost, would be considerable.

Trungpa Rinpoche’s metaphor, which I think he borrowed from Suzuki Roshi, for the mind in meditation was of giving a cow a large luscious meadow. At first it might run around, but after a while it settles down, relaxes, and enjoys. He said, “Meditation practice is not a matter of trying to produce a hypnotic state of mind or create a state for restfulness. Trying to achieve a restful state reflects a mentality of poverty.”

The Sakyong’s metaphor for the mind is a wild horse. He said you could put that horse in a large meadow and wait there all day, but it would never come to you. So it has to be captured and tamed. “In the beginning, you could meditate for eternity, thinking, ‘The mind will naturally come back.’ It’ll never come back. [Laughter] Just like the horse. If you lie in the meadow thinking, ‘This horse is intrinsically tame,’[laughter] you could wait and wish as much as you want, but the horse is never going to come back. It’s just going to get old and die. [Laughter]”[4]

Different methods work for different people. The cow-in-a-big-meadow style didn’t work for some people, and they felt bad about that. Unfortunately, the Sakyong’s adoption of the taming-the-wild-horse method has selected for all the people from all the various generations and subgroups who never got or liked the cow method. And that comes with a certain amount of backlash. Think about all the laughter in the previous paragraph. There is relief there, and there is also pay-back from people who felt left out.

I have felt odd being caught in the middle of this dichotomy. People assume because of things that I say that I am an “old student,” but I never met Trungpa Rinpoche. I learned from Trungpa Rinoche’s students. But the way I started out was immensely helpful to me. Since I am an ordinary person, not unique or special, I think it would help others out there as well. It is less commonly available as a beginner’s practice than the “taming” view, and I am very sad to think it may no longer be available at that level.

 “The Sakyong was raised and trained closely by the Vidyadhara.  To my thinking, he is introducing a far more systematic training process than VCTR was able to introduce in his lifetime, both in practice and study. . .  The Vidyadhara was a pioneer, he was plowing a field of solid stone.  As a result of his efforts, the Sakyong is now plowing a softer field, and he is bringing in new equipment to make the soil even finer.  He’s looking at what VCTR did, seeing what worked and what didn’t, and making changes accordingly.”[5]

Thought experiment: spend a moment imagining the area of practice and/or the Buddhist or Shambhala teachings that most inspires you, the thing you love and practice the most. Now imagine that someone directed the remarks above at that very area of the teachings, dismissing those practices you love as “what didn’t work,” and describing you and others like you as a field of stone. If you can imagine that, then maybe you have an answer to the question of why old students drop out of the lives of their centers.

From one hunk of rock to all the others,

Ngakma Zér-mé Dri’mèd



Photo by Chögyam Trungpa, from Garuda (Spring 1972), p. 29.

[1] Sangha-talk, 2004.

[2] Myth of Freedom, p. 48-49

[3] Turning the Mind into an Ally, p. 53-56; the graphic on p. 59 and the chapter about it, p. 58-75, especially p. 74-75; and the chapter on the nine stages,p. 114-126, especially p. 126 on the ninth stage.

[4] 1999 Seminary Transcripts, Book 1, p 39-40

[5] Sangha-talk, 2004