realized the unique nature of my childhood when I heard that my peers and I were
known as the “dharma brats.” My parents were Tibetan Buddhists, disciples of
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. So I grew up in the first generation of American
Buddhists. My childhood included Buddhist schooling, attending Buddhist summer
camps, and relating with a mostly Buddhist peer group.
But looking back into my early years has been hard because I had such a
chaotic childhood. I had experiences that were a powerful mix of light and
Through growing up in Trungpa Rinpoche’s Buddhist community, I and the
other dharma brats had been given the keys to the kingdom of the Buddha dharma
(the Buddhist teachings), and a lot of trauma to work with. And in my case,
working with the pain and confusion of my childhood has turned out to be my path
to the kingdom.
While my parents were searching for
enlightenment, they had a hard time being parents. Their absence from my life
and then their eventual divorce was partly where my darkness came from. Later,
this pain was intensified by actions of leaders of the community.
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche was born in Tibet. At the age of 13 months,
Buddhist religious leaders determined that Trungpa Rinpoche was the
reincarnation of a renowned teacher. They took him from his parents when he was
two and raised him in a monastery. He fled Tibet after the Chinese invasion.
Trungpa Rinpoche came to the west in 1963 when he received a Spalding grant to
study at Oxford. He received his degree in comparative religions.
In 1971, a small group of students invited him to Vermont to teach at a
center that is now called Karme Chöling. That’s when my parents met him. I
was born one year later, 1972. Trungpa Rinpoche and a group of students,
including my parents, soon moved to Boulder. I was raised in the midst of the
Buddhist community that Rinpoche created there.
I felt the magic of the community in which I was raised when I was three
years old. My father brought me to the Black Crown Ceremony, one of the most
powerful rituals of our Buddhist lineage. In this ceremony the Karmapa, the head
of the lineage, places the black crown upon his head and then radiates
I rode on my father’s shoulders so that I could see over the heads of
those in the huge crowd. The Karmapa sat on a stage on the most beautiful and
colorful brocade throne. Some men in the same-colored robes as the Karmapa were
chanting in a foreign language, uttering strange and deep tones that felt to me
like a wave of kindness and mystery. Occasionally these men played great long
gold and jewel-encrusted horns.
My father had told me that the crown was so powerful that if the Karmapa
didn’t hold onto it every moment it would fly away. I remember feeling filled
with joy through the whole ceremony. I watched every movement of this large,
robed man’s hands hoping he would let go of the crown so I could see it fly.
Some years later, in spite of such magical experiences, I felt terrified
to go into Shambhala centers, the meditation centers of my parents’ community.
As I have looked into my past, I have found that this fear began when I was
eight years old, when my parents divorced and my father took me away from my
mother to live for a winter in Vermont at the Buddhist community called Karme
Why I wrote this
By Jesse Govinda Thompson
I began working on this article hoping
that I could capture the beauty and magic of my youth. I fear that
my stories in their intensity might be taken in the wrong light, that I
might be seen as trying to deface and destroy the work of Trungpa
Rinpoche and the work of so many of his students. This is not my
I tell my painful stories to show that
the hardships of the path are many, exquisityly apinful and confusing,
but that the jewels of wisdom and kindness gained through the process
are worth it.
I love Buddhism, I love the
kingdom in which I grew up. I love all those in teh community who
came to my assistance and made the dark and painful times of my youth
I recently spoke with Trungpa
Rinpoche's son, Gesar, and a comment he made stuck with me. We
were talking of our lives as they are now, as young adults, and he said
all we have now are the memories of our childhoods. I don't
I think I, and all the members
of our Buddhist community, can nurture the seeds that were planted in us
by The Venerable Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and as these wisdom-seeds
grow I may be able to bring his vision of a peaceful, magical,
enlightened and cultured kingdom into reality. I hope by sharing my own
experience of how I healed my own wounds others may heal their wounds of
the past, too.
That winter was the beginning of many experiences that drove me away from
my parents’ community: these included Trungpa Rinpoche’s death from
complications of alcoholism, and, finally, the scandal involving Ösel Tendzin,
Rinpoche’s lineage heir. These events so wounded me that I no longer wanted
anything to do with the community.
However, I had learned two practices as a child that helped me through
all of this pain and confusion. One was sitting meditation. I would sit in an
upright posture and focus on my breath. When I noticed that I was thinking, I
would say to myself, “thinking,” and then I would return my attention to my
breath. We did sitting meditation to develop more awareness of what was going on
inside of us, and also around of us.
The other practice, warriorship training, took place at the Shambhala Sun
summer camp, in the mountains northwest of Boulder, which I attended from the
age of nine on. Warriorship training involved working with the military forms of
British drill, marching, and skirmish, which was a large and elaborate game of
capture the flag. The premise was that we would learn to keep our mind in any
situation. My fellow camper Noel McKlellan can describe the spirit of Sun camp
better then I can. He, like me, participated every year and now helps run the
camp for the new generation of dharma brats growing up today.
Noel says, “The Shambhala Sun summer camp was mostly for teenagers in
our community. It is based on the idea of using military discipline to bring
about gentleness and genuineness, and to experience sacredness. It’s something
that you could never really explain to someone without their experiencing it, I
don’t think. The camp takes things like military uniforms, which are usually
associated with the idea of killing and aggression, and transforms that into a
sense of smile, something that instantly wakes you up.” This is exactly how it
felt to me to be at camp.
Noel continues, “It’s a very relaxed camp. You practice marching and
cooking food, and you live in the mountains. I think part of the magic of Sun
camp is you are given lots of space. Most summer camps offer constant
activities. You are learning to swim, hike, and so on. At Sun camp, you just sit
on the mountain. And you start to forget about everything else in the world. At
first it’s irritating. There is nothing going on. You just hang out with your
friends and you learn to live, you learn to look after your clothing and I
don’t know what you do really. Hanging out is contrasted with formal practice:
marching and other precise activities. So you have the contrast of discipline
Sun Camp truly affected who I am today. I have found that, like my peers,
I am grounded and can focus easily for long periods of time on any task at hand.
These practices made it possible for me to walk through the last great
fire of my childhood: the death of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and soon afterward
the scandal surrounding Ösel Tenzin, the Vajra Regent, as Rinpoche’s chosen
heir was called.
When I heard that Rinpoche had died, I was 13 years old. I had just sat
down with a group of friends from middle school to get stoned when the phone
rang. It was my mother. She told me that Rinpoche had passed away. In my teens I
had very little contact with my childhood community. I was rebelling and pushing
against my mother and her belief system, so it was a great surprise to me to
feel such strong feelings. I remember feeling a clear and deep pain in my chest
as I heard her words. The fun of smoking pot was washed away, and I felt like a
dull knife had entered my sternum and was being dragged downward to the pit of
my stomach. I felt as though I had lost something so precious that I wanted to
give up and die. Until this moment, I didn’t know how deeply I loved Trungpa
Soon after Trungpa Rinpoche’s death community leaders publicly
announced that the Regent, Osel Tendzin, was HIV positive, and that he had been
keeping it secret even from his lovers. Later we learned that he had infected a
young man who had in turn unknowingly transmitted the virus to his girlfriend,
both of whom were members of the community. All three died of AIDS.
The Regent had been the first westerner ever to become a lineage heir.
This was a very big deal both for the community and for Tibetan Buddhism
in the west. A westerner as a lineage holder held the promise of taking away the
cultural gap between east and west. He could have taught Buddhist wisdom in a way that Americans could better understand and take
in fully, we thought. But the scandal made this impossible.
Right up until his death, he chose not to apologize for his actions. And
this, I think, ripped the community asunder. I had no opinion of how forgivable
or unforgivable were the Regent’s actions. So I didn’t take a side. But the
destruction of the community that ensued made the pain I felt about Trungpa
Rinpoche’s death worse because all of a sudden I had no community to rely on.
Everyone was fighting with each other. A civil war had erupted out of the
scandal and the community in Boulder was destroyed.
In my early 20s, my search for the truth and meaning of my childhood took
me to Samye Ling, a retreat center in Scotland started by Trungpa Rinpoche and
Akong Tulku Rinpoche in the late 60s, before Trungpa Rinpoche came to America. I
discovered that the residents with whom I spoke who had known Trungpa Rinpoche
became very nervous and cold at the mention of his name. They seemed afraid of
something. Their fear, if that was what it was, came out of the early days of
Samye Ling when Trungpa Rinpoche had been driven out of the community he had
The little I could learn of this time from the people I met at the
monastery was that in a short period of time Trungpa Rinpoche dropped his monks
robes, married a sixteen year old student (his wife until he died), and started
drinking and smoking cigarettes. To them the holy man in robes disappeared and
all they saw was someone who had gone crazy. They shared stories with me about
how he would be found on the bathroom floor, face down, arms outstretched in the
position of the cross, saying mantras. And another story told of how he had
planted trees in a circle so that he could work with the surrounding spirits;
and how the house they sent him to live in when he was asked to leave Samye Ling
is still haunted by many ghosts because he was said to have invited all of the
neighboring spirits to come and live with him.
The community pushed him out. Akong Rinpoche, his childhood friend and
co-founder of the community, spearheaded the movement. This is what drove him
out of Scotland. He moved to America with his new young wife, where he started
to teach my parents. Trungpa Rinpoche retained his unconventional style of
teaching and living until he died.
But I saw that without this painful time in Scotland, which pushed
Trungpa Rinpoche out into the world, he never would have come to America, and so
never would have affected my life and many others in the way that he did. My
visit to Samye Ling showed me that all of my pain and all of the joy I felt as a
child growing up in Trungpa Rinpoche’s community have been essential to my
path of becoming an adult.
From the magical Karmapa and the strange bejeweled horns to the end of my
family and then the death of my teacher, my journey has been hard. But there was
always just enough goodness and kindness to keep me from falling into insanity
and enough hardship to keep me motivated to grow and to practice a spiritual
path of my own, and so to directly discover the nature of my mind.
My teacher and friend, Trungpa Rinpoche’s son, Gesar Mukpo, described a
central truth of my path vividly during a conversation I had with him. Gesar was
recognized as the reincarnation of his father’s main teacher, and he was one
of my close boyhood friends. He gave me permission to share his words here. In
this part of our discussion Gesar was speaking of his father’s drinking.
“If you become jaded and if you become solid into your self, how are
you going to get out of there? You need someone (to help free you), and whatever
their thing is, that’s their style. Don’t cramp their style! Don’t cramp
my dad’s style. He was a drinking madman! How much of a madman are you? How
brave are you to really do things? He was a warrior. A warrior with the pen. A
warrior with the word. A warrior with the drinking. If you don’t like his
drinking, he was a fool, he’s dead. If you don’t mind the drinking thing and
think he may have had incredible enlightened wisdom, then you are an eligible
candidate for his teachings.”
My journey has been challenging and painful but the rewards and jewels of
wisdom that were given to me by this madman are so precious that I would never
have had it any other way. I am glad to have been one of the dharma brats.
Growing up Buddhist in America has taught me how to feel my pain, take
responsibility for my actions and be a good human being. And I hope that like my
teacher and community leader before me I may become such a wise and crazy