In 1975 during a seminary in Snowmass, Colorado, respected Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, founder of Naropa University, and originator of Shambhala Buddhism, hosted a Halloween party. Two attendees, a couple named William Merwin and Dana Naone, mingled for a bit before retiring early for the night. According to witnesses, Trungpa was irritated that the couple had left early, and he ordered his followers to bring them back to the party “at any cost,” but William and Dana refused to return. According to one witness, negotiations between the guru and the couple went on for a few hours. An angry crowd of partygoers gathered outside their door, threatening them and attempting to break into their room. Tensions escalated until a chair was thrown through the glass balcony door in an attempt to force them out.
William and Dana were then escorted down to the party by Trungpa’s guards. Their guru reprimanded them, directed racially-charged remarks toward Dana, and threw a glass of sake in William’s face. Then, they were asked to remove their clothes. When they refused, Trungpa ordered the guards to do it for them. They were stripped naked as Dana screamed for help, begging for someone to call the police. No one did. When another attendee tried to intervene, witnesses say that Trungpa punched him in the face. Dana alleged that Trungpa repeatedly hit the man who was stripping her because he was taking too long.
William and Dana were not the first attendees to be stripped that night. A woman named Persis McMillen had been forced out of her costume by the guards earlier in the evening, and was left feeling violated, “sick,” and “really trashed out.” An attendee named Jack Niland had also been targeted by Trungpa. The guards removed his clothes and threw him into a pool.
Once William and Dana were fully disrobed, the couple held each other, helpless and exposed. William Merwin allegedly implored, “Why us? Why are we the only two people in this room standing here naked in front of you?” So, the other guests removed their clothing, too. At Trungpa’s behest, the dancing resumed, as if nothing had happened.
“Compassion takes many forms.”
William Merwin, Dana Naone, and several witnesses were interviewed about the Halloween stripping incident. Here are some comments from those interviews:
“[All] of a sudden [Trungpa] was a Mahakala, he was a wrathful deity…I really regretted getting so stoned, because I did realize something very powerful and potent was going on.”
Powerful and potent. Seeing two desperate people forcibly stripped naked.
“I’d never heard anyone call [Trungpa] names before. Insults. I’d never heard that—I was shocked.”
What was more shocking? Merwin’s backtalk, or Trungpa’s assault?
“Then Dana was standing there. perfectly pretty girl. no scars. everyone’s wondering, does she have scars or something?”
Of course. Why else would she resist being stripped naked, if not to hide some physical imperfection?
“The next thing after that I remember is that Merwin and Dana are standing together. facing Rinpoche, just completely huddled around each other. (They are nude.) Very beautiful. Adam and Eve…The whole thing, just visually, was very elegant somehow.”
Beautiful. Elegant. Elegant.
“[After the incident, Merwin and Naone] were talking about the invasion of their privacy. And the brutality, and the violence. And they were just appalled…I was trying to say, ‘well, vajrayana teachings were ruthless; compassion takes many forms.’ And they had some rapid fire answer to every statement, which in one way or another defended their sense of ‘self’—their sense of propriety. It was impenetrable.”
Those damn victims and their stubborn, impenetrable senses of self.
“[Merwin] was on the trip that he was perfectly correct in his behavior and Rinpoche blew it, that he was just human. He said ‘Rinpoche really made a fool of himself last night, didn’t he?’ This guy didn’t get it at all.”
I don’t get it, either. I’m sorry. I do not fucking get it.
Even more disturbing are poet Allen Ginsberg’s comments on the incident:
“In the middle of that scene, [for Dana] to yell ‘call the police’—do you realize how vulgar that was? The wisdom of the East being unveiled, and she’s going ‘call the police!’ I mean, shit! Fuck that shit! Strip ‘em naked, break down the door! Anything—symbolically”
Maybe it’s just me, but I have a bit of trouble seeing the “symbolic” spiritual value of a physical assault. I don’t want to see it. I won’t subscribe to a belief system that recontextualizes its leader’s abuse as a subversive teaching or dismisses his victims’ cries for help as ignorance or “vulgarity.” To me, this act of physical violence could only symbolize spiritual violence, in which the seekers’ self-esteem, their egos, are stripped and abused against their will. What can this sort of wrathful spiritual teaching accomplish, besides leaving scars of trauma?
Where these witnesses saw elegance, power, divine wrath, a couple of stubborn egos clashing with the wisdom of their revered leader, I see victim blaming, spiritual bypassing, and a room full of complicit people. I wonder where they are now, and whether they ever think about the incident. Whether they ever considered their own roles in the violence.
I was a student at Naropa University. Unsurprisingly, this story was left out of all my class discussions about Trungpa’s wild behavior. That he drank excessively, that he married a sixteen-year-old female student at age thirty, and that he had consensual sexual relations with students, I knew. And in hindsight, I’m embarrassed that I overlooked the troubling power dynamics of those intimate relationships. But as far as I can recall, it was never let on that Trungpa had ever displayed violent or overtly abusive behavior, which made his outrageous ways seem benign. As students, we respected his unconventional life and teaching style. After all, Trungpa was widely recognized as a great teacher, one of the primary figures to popularize Tibetan Buddhism in the West. Not only that, but he hailed from a tradition that embraces “crazy wisdom” and sees symptoms of madness as possible signs of spiritual attainment. The Tantric siddhas of ancient Tibet and India behaved in transgressive ways because they had transcended the dualism of worldly values, of right and wrong. They were perceived as mad by the world because the world was truly insane. And Chogyam Trungpa was following in their footsteps.
When I first learned about the concept of crazy wisdom, I was still a follower of Teal Swan. I immediately noticed that she resembled a Tantric siddha in some ways—she exhibited controversial behavior, contradicted herself, and transgressed spiritual norms by addressing taboo subjects and embracing the darker, messier aspects of life. That was what drew me to her, and my learned tolerance to her “quirks”—her grandiosity, her victim mentality, and a hundred other red flags I overlooked—clouded my judgement. Behaviors that would normally have been considered warning signs earned her praise for her authenticity and transparency, or were reframed as signs of wisdom. She said that she was a “spiritual revolutionary” and I believed her. She was different. Unlike other gurus, she refused to conceal her own flaws, her humanity. So, sometimes, she was confusing. That was all part of the teaching. Chogyam Trungpa’s followers rationalized his actions at the Halloween party in ways that closely mirrored some of my own excuses for Teal Swan’s imperfections.
Contemplating Trungpa’s violent behavior within the context of the “crazy wisdom” tradition, I find myself in the same position I was in last year, facing the unsettling realization that Teal Swan’s “authenticity movement” was, ironically, nothing more than a “get out of jail free” card for her dishonesty. I can see how my faith in crazy wisdom (or, at least, some warped version of it) once impaired my decision making and made me susceptible to cult-like manipulation tactics. Now, since learning about the incident in Snowmass, I find myself wondering how crazy wisdom could be compatible with discernment and rational, critical thought at all.
When the goal is to break through the conditioned mind, moral codes and socially enforced concepts of acceptable behavior are seen as attachments to be released. They may even be reduced to obstacles on the spiritual path. Naturally, this is reflected in the behavior of crazy wisdom gurus, which traditionally appears erratic, amoral, even vulgar, to outsiders. But how can we distinguish wisdom from nonsense and tough love from abuse within this framework? We surrender our preconceptions of right and wrong, and only the guru has the authority to correct our understanding. And that is an enormous amount of trust to place in a fallible, human being. The very definition of “right” expands to include everything the guru does.
When Tilopa slapped Naropa in the face with his shoe, the disciple’s mind was liberated. One Zen story tells of a master who slammed the door on an aspiring monk’s leg, breaking his bone and bringing him to enlightenment simultaneously. In another tale, the legendary 500 year old saint Mahavatar Babaji demanded that an aspiring disciple prove his commitment by jumping off of a cliff. He jumped, and the saint brought him back to life and accepted him as his student.
I don’t know what to make of these stories anymore.
“He was being so physically brutal…”
A part of me wants to find a way to distinguish Trungpa’s actions from true spiritual abuse. I want this to be different. Of course I do. I got my degree at his school, and it was a wonderful experience. Becoming disillusioned with a respected teacher can be earth-shattering, and I would hate write anything that might hurt any of my friends, teachers, or fellow community members. I feel the need to say that, judging by my short time at Naropa, I’m confident that the amount of people Chogyam Trungpa has uplifted and inspired far outnumbers the people he has hurt. Though I never felt a deep resonance with his teachings, I know that they have changed many, many lives for the better.
That doesn’t change my deep discomfort with Trungpa’s conduct. Personally, if it ever came to my attention that someone in my life had forcibly stripped off an innocent person’s clothes in front of a crowd, verbally abused and humiliated them, and punched anyone who got in the way, I would sever ties with them immediately. I wouldn’t be able to trust this person as a friend, let alone as a leader. Maybe it’s just me.
When I first learned of this incident, I was reminded of David Miscavige’s physical assaults on his staff and Sogyal Rinpoche’s violent tendencies, the only saving grace being that the Halloween party stripping debacle seemed to be an isolated incident. But one former follower, quoted in Stripping the Gurus by Geoffrey D. Falk, says, ”It is a typical incident, it is not an isolated example. At every seminary, as far as I know, there was a confrontation involving violence.”
Falk also quotes Stephen Butterfield, former student of Trungpa and author of The Double Mirror: A Skeptical Journey into Buddhist Tantra:
We were admonished … not to talk about our practice. “May I shrivel up instantly and rot,” we vowed, “if I ever discuss these teachings with anyone who has not been initiated into them by a qualified master.” As if this were not enough, Trungpa told us that if we ever tried to leave the Vajrayana, we would suffer unbearable, subtle, continuous anguish, and disasters would pursue us like furies….
To be part of Trungpa’s inner circle, you had to take a vow never to reveal or even discuss some of the things he did. This personal secrecy is common with gurus, especially in Vajrayana Buddhism. It is also common in the dysfunctional family systems of alcoholics and sexual abusers. This inner circle secrecy puts up an almost insurmountable barrier to a healthy skeptical mind….
[T]he vow of silence means that you cannot get near him until you have already given up your own perception of enlightenment and committed yourself to his.
Reading this, I can’t help but wonder how many similar incidents have been swept under the rug. Frighteningly, the dynamic Butterfield describes here is straight out of Rick Ross’s cult warning signs. This passage also strikes at the root of my confusion as a once-passionate but now deeply disillusioned spiritual seeker. The sort of extreme secrecy demanded by Trungpa is common in his tradition. And it could be used to protect the most sacred spiritual secrets, or to conceal the worst misconduct. At best, submission to the wisdom and authority of a spiritual teacher is the key to self-realization. At worst, it’s the beginning of years of abuse. How can seekers safely navigate such risky terrain?
There’s another troubling quote from the Halloween party witness accounts that leads me to suspect that the stripping of Merwin and Naone wasn’t just an isolated boundary violation. Here, party attendee Barbara Meier describes an encounter she had with Trungpa at the party before the stripping incident took place:
I had a whole interchange with Rinpoche. I can’t remember the order. I think it must have happened before…he called me up to him. He saw me, and…we got into this whole thing. He was picking up on my costume. The whole aggression. (She was in costume as a biker.) We started sort of like making out. I mean it was very lavish, and all these people were dancing, and sitting around (laughs), and we just started doing this whole thing. And he was being so brutal. He was being so physically brutal, and like, clawing my arm, and just, biting my lip, just so vicious. And then he did this whole thing with my check (bit into the skin, leaving tooth marks), and I was in this state of mind—well, if that’s what he wants, that’s what I’ll give him too. And I just came back with it. And we’re in this intense, you know very tense….somebody else came up or something and I managed to get away. But it was very nonverbal, direct, powerful, intense brutal communication. I didn’t know what to make of it all.
That Trungpa had a sexual encounter with a student in the middle of a crowded room isn’t particularly surprising. What really strikes me about this quote is the violence that Trungpa allegedly inflicted on her, and the cognitive dissonance I can sense in her words. She describes the encounter as consensual and says that she willingly reciprocated his intensity. But when she says that she “managed to get away,” and that she “didn’t know what to make of it all,” it’s clear that she also felt some confusion and discomfort. Given Trungpa’s power over her, would she have had the freedom to stop him? If she had had a choice, would she have let him leave toothmarks on her cheek? This was just an afterthought to the stripping scandal, only mentioned once. Does that mean this sort of conduct was considered normal?
Wisdom Does not Manifest as Abuse
Eschewing conventional moral standards, I nodded in agreement as I watched Teal bully her followers, partners, and friends. I continued to support her without a thought, the same way millions of people voted enthusiastically for Donald Trump after watching him mock a disabled reporter, insult prisoners of war and families of fallen soldiers, brag about sexual assault, hurl racist attacks at immigrants, etc., etc., etc. We abandon our normal sense of right and wrong when, in our desperate search for meaning, we feel that we have finally stumbled upon something better, something more pure and more right than society’s concept of morality. Seeing the pain and dysfunction and hypocrisy that permeates the dominant culture, we reject the norms that were prescribed to us, looking instead to some charismatic leader with the confidence and power to assign us a new truth. When controversy arises, it merely reinforces our faith in the beloved guru—They’re different, they’re ahead of their time, and most people just don’t understand them yet. We praise them for their fearless authenticity.
But here’s the thing. By turning a blind eye to the abuses of these leaders (or worse, reframing their abuses as virtues) we are allowing the patterns of oppression and subjugation that plague society as a whole—most likely, the very patterns that caused our disillusionment in the first place—to replicate within the spiritual world.
I don’t know how to feel about Chogyam Trungpa anymore. I don’t know whether I will ever feel comfortable looking up to anyone as a personal guru or spiritual leader again. But it’s okay that I don’t have all the answers right now. I just hope that, through my mistakes, and through these experiences of disappointment and disillusionment, I’ve gained the wisdom to recognize abuse when I see it, and to use my voice to uplift victims who need support in the face of spiritual bypassing, gaslighting, and denial.
As an unenlightened human entrapped by the so-called illusions of separation and dualism, my moral compass is all I have to help me determine what is good and true in this world. So, I reject the idea that greatness ever disguises itself as abuse.