by Larry Mermelstein
article originally published on the Chronicles of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche
One day in Boulder, circa 1978, Larry Mermelstein had a very interesting conversation with Trungpa Rinpoche about relationships. Here for Valentine’s Day, is his account of that conversation.
Often when I was in Rinpoche’s presence, it was as a member of the Translation Committee, and there were almost always several other people in the room, including translators, consorts, board members, attendants, etc. So it was not as common for me to be alone with him. On this particular occasion, I was meeting with Rinpoche in his office, and it was just the two of us. I don’t remember what we were meeting about, but as we were finishing up our business, he turned to me and said, “So how’s your love life?”
I had recently broken up with my girlfriend. So as a matter of fact, my love life was not going very well at all, but I wasn’t particularly overwrought or distraught about it. I told him that my girlfriend and I were not seeing each other any more, and that seemed to be okay. I really had nothing further to say about my love life, but he seemed to want me to continue talking. So we chatted for awhile, and at some point early on in this little conversation, I said something like, “Sir, we often look to you as a reference point for our lives in general, but in this particular area, in terms of our relationships, I don’t really know how much we should do that.” I said this in a slightly tongue-in-cheek way, but I meant it as well. His relationships with women were very unusual, to say the least.
My little comment really got his attention, and he wanted me to fill in all the details, to describe to him what I saw as his unconventional behavior. This wasn’t difficult. Everyone knew that he was married, and yet he had relationships with many women, over time. There was certainly no hiding of that on his part, and no embarrassment. I think for most of us, his relationships with women were just an aspect of who he was. So our conversation went on, and I continued to describe his unconventional behavior. Eventually I (of all people) ran out of things to say. Meanwhile, in characteristic fashion, he had not said very much at all. After a short silence, I asked, “So, should we follow your example in terms of our relationships? Do you mean for us to do that?”
He said, “No. Absolutely not!”
I asked if he really meant that, and he said, “Oh yes. It would be suicidal for you to do what I do.”
I asked if this applied to all of his students, and he said, yes. So I said, “What about the Regent – from the Regent on down?” And he said, “Yes. Absolutely suicidal. People should not try to copy me.”
I was overwhelmed and moved by his clarity. “Why don’t you tell people this? Why don’t you say something?”
He looked over his glasses at me and said, “Why don’t you?” So I’ve told this story to many people over the years. But this may be the first time it is being presented in a public forum.
Personally, I felt great and quite relieved after this exchange. I was relieved to know that I was not expected to follow or imitate his behavior in this regard, though I had never presumed that to be the case. For me, this conversation summed up something about his relationship with the phenomenal world that had always been hard for me to understand. Certainly, it was wonderful to be in his presence, and for the women who were his consorts, this was another aspect of their relationship with their teacher.
From my own experience, as someone who was often around when he was with a consort, I always felt that his relationships with women were quite wonderful. He was always very respectful and caring. So I never had a problem with his actions or his behavior from an ethical point of view. But still, I think many of us wondered on some level what he was doing in this regard. He didn’t really explain that, but he certainly put to rest any confusion on my part that we were expected to imitate his behavior.
Some years later, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche delivered a very similar message to our vajra sangha. He was perhaps the first Tibetan lama (other than the Vidyadhara) to actually talk to us directly in a somewhat critical fashion – kind but critical. Up to that point, the Tibetan teachers we had contact with, including His Holiness Karmapa and His Holiness Khyentse Rinpoche, gave wonderful teachings and blessings, and they greatly inspired our connection to dharma and a sense of lineage. But Jamgon Rinpoche spoke to us very directly, and his message was hard hitting.
On this particular occasion, he was admonishing us for attempting to imitate Trungpa Rinpoche’s behavior. It was a powerful talk, an audience for sadhakas, I believe, and I think many of us were very inspired by what he had to say. He wasn’t criticizing Trungpa Rinpoche in any way. He was criticizing us for trying to copy Rinpoche, particularly with respect to drinking.
Several years after the Vidyadhara passed away, we received a wonderful teaching from Gyatrul Rinpoche on Vajrakilaya. I think some of his introductory comments [click here to read this] are pertinent to this discussion. He was talking about what Trungpa Rinpoche had accomplished in the West.
Larry Mermelstein is the Executive Director of the Nalanda Translation Committee and a well known figure within the Shambhala community. For information about his background and activities, please visit Shambhala.org.
Editor’s note: Thank you Larry for telling this story for Valentine’s Day. If any of our readers have stories regarding personal instructions from Trungpa Rinpoche on relationships, please send them to the Chronicles: [email protected]. Please indicate any request for anonymity.