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Nov 01
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Beyond the Shower Curtain
VCTR pointing photo by Ann Spruyt from the Chronicles of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

VCTR pointing photo by Ann Spruyt from the Chronicles of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

A Memory and a Tribute to the Vidyadhara
by Acharya Bill McKeever

In 1974 Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche invited His Holiness the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa to visit his fledgling sangha and its centers in the United States. In the roughly four years Rinpoche had been in North America, he had been quite successful attracting a devoted following of students. He was equally successful in gathering spirited controversy about his behavior and methods.

As news of the impending visit of His Holiness the 16th Karmapa spread, the controversy surrounding Trungpa Rinpoche intensified. There was a network of western “tibetophiles” who had spent time in Nepal and India with Tibetan teachers, and considered themselves expert, or at least knowledgeable about who was who in Tibetan Buddhism. One camp of those critical of Trungpa Rinpoche held that he had become corrupted by the west as his dissolute lifestyle demonstrated.

HH Karmapa and VCTR with Regent, Shambhala Archives

HH Karmapa and VCTR with Regent, Shambhala Archives

Trungpa Rinpoche was a young man when he escaped Tibet, and was not acclimated to the wild freedoms of the non monastic Western culture into which he was propelled. Alcohol and sex got the better of him, and an otherwise promising young lama had hit the skids, so the thinking went. Moreover, Tibetan religious politics being what they were, no one wanted to criticize the 11th Trungpa tulku. It was the Karmapa who could do this, and some in the tibetophile community maintained that the Karmapa, after seeing Rinpoche’s corruption by the West first hand, was going to denounce him once and for all. Others were equally fervent in their belief that Trungpa Rinpoche was a genuine crazy wisdom master in the style of Padmasambhava. However, even some loyal supporters of Trungpa Rinpoche were concerned that the Karmapa, a monastic, might have difficulty with aspects of Rinpoche’s behavior. Everyone hoped that the Karmapa would confirm one view or the other during his visit.

Editor’s Note: We are currently on hiatus from publishing new articles; in the meantime, please enjoy this classic item reprinted from our back issues.

Well, how did that one turn out?

I’ll get to that in a minute….

First, closer to home: For months, Rinpoche worked tirelessly, and worked us tirelessly, transforming our familiar, furry, casual hippy culture to formality, to suits and ties and satin and gold leaf in a few short months. He said he was preparing us to meet a true dharmaraja, a dharma king.

One night shortly before His Holiness arrived, I was sitting with Rinpoche in his room at Tail of the Tiger. I asked Rinpoche what he wanted us to learn from His holiness’ visit. He was quiet for a few minutes, then, peering over his glasses, he said softly, “Well….for one thing…. you’ll see how you’ve been mistreating me all these years.”

HH Karmapa and VCTR golden handprint, Shambhala Archives

HH Karmapa and VCTR golden handprint, Shambhala Archives

I was floored, and didn’t know what to say. The next day we had an executive committee meeting of the Tail of the Tiger leadership to prepare for His Holiness’ arrival. I reported on my troubling conversation with Rinpoche the night before. We all took it quite seriously, and we discussed what he must have meant by his comment. After an extended discussion we decided to take decisive action. And what was that action? This is embarrassing, but it goes to show you what small vision we had, and how we had no idea of the preciousness of this mahasiddha teacher who was miraculously in our midst or how to treat him.

What was our considered action to show Rinpoche that we really appreciated him? It was to buy the more expensive of two shower curtains for his house at Tail that we recently renovated. We’d go for the deluxe $60 maroon shower curtain rather than the cheaper $12 plastic one.

I kid you not. A shower curtain…..that was the best we could do…

As for the Karmapa’s triumphal visit, it was a huge success, traveling to Boston, New York City, Tail of the Tiger in Vermont, Boulder and Shambhala Mountain Center, San Francisco and Los Angeles. Literally several thousand people met His Holiness at one of his Black Crown Ceremonies. And the effect on our community was profound. In many ways, this was when we started to grow up.

As for the Karmapa’s evaluation of Trungpa Rinpoche, take one guess which side of the controversy he supported?

At the conclusion of his visit he issued a statement. It was entitled: “Proclamation to all Those Who Dwell Under the Sun Upholding the Tradition of the Spiritual and Temporal Orders.”

It read as follows:

The ancient and renowned lineage of the Trungpas, since the great siddha Trungmase Chokyi Gyamtso Lodro, possessor of only holy activity, has in every generation given rise to great beings. Awakened by the vision of these predecessors in the lineage, this my present lineage holder, Chokyi Gyamtso Trungpa Rinpoche, supreme incarnate being, has magnificently carried out the vajra holders discipline in the land of America, bringing about the liberation of students and ripening them in the dharma. This wonderful truth is clearly manifest.

Accordingly, I empower Chogyam Trungpa Vajra Holder and Possessor of the Victory Banner of the Practice Lineage of the Karma Kagyu. Let this be recognized by all people of both elevated and ordinary station.

HH Karmapa and VCTR, Shambhala Archives

HH Karmapa and VCTR, Shambhala Archives

So much for the Karmapa’s denunciation of Trungpa Rinpoche and his methods. The controversy was settled – at least as far as the Kagyu lineage was concerned.

And the rest as they say, is history…



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12 responses to “ Beyond the Shower Curtain ”
  1. Thanks so much for the reminiscence of that ‘what were we thinking” moment. I have one comment in that you call Karme-Choling ,Tail of the Tiger, but you call Rocky Mountain Dharma Center the Shambhala Mountain Center. This brings us either into the past or halfway to the present. Or some place inbetween.

  2. Arthur Ramsay
    Jun 19, 2013

    Hi Bill.
    You were my M.I. at Seminary 1992. (You were spot- on by the way!)
    Really enjoyed reading this one. As you may remember I met VCTR in Samye Ling in 1968-9 and in Dumfries, from whence I came ( 25 miles away) and where I returned to in 1999. I immediately loved him then and when I returned in 1970 he had gone (it took me years to find out this had not been entirely voluntary!).
    So I have loved and do love to hear all the thing he got up to. It always feels great beyond words to hear that there were people who became his new culture and fills me with real joy. Well done to all of you!( I met him again in London 1986).
    Hope you are feeling OK. saw about your health issues and wish you the very best.
    Thanks for this again.

  3. Arthur Damm
    Jun 18, 2013

    Mistreating as in, treating as a friend and relative equal one who is a veritable lord of men.

    Mistreating as in, not developing and maintaining sufficient mindfulness and insight around the noble ones, not showing sufficient cultivation of consciousness resulting in the release of desire, aversion, and ignorance.

    Mistreating as in, maturing only a little, when one had the opportunity to ripen most of the way.

  4. Abbie Halpern
    Jun 17, 2013

    Thank you Bill, I loved reading it. It amazes me how many “new” stories there are. And each one truly brings Rinpoche to life all over again.

  5. Bill Prince
    Jun 17, 2013

    39 years later. How do you understand him saying you’d been mistreating him?

  6. Andy Weiner
    Jun 17, 2013

    Thank you Bill. That’s a wonderful memory.

    I believe that His Holiness delivered the proclamation to Rinpoche in Boulder. He (Rinpoche) left his office at 1111 Pearl Street weeping uncontrollably. It was the only time I ever saw him cry.

  7. Judith Smith
    Jun 17, 2013

    This is such a great story, Bill! It’s wonderful to see it “in print”, and many of us fevently hope you continue to write about your experiences with the Vidyadhara (and other lineage holders). You have very much to share!!

  8. Bill,
    Thank you so much for this recollection of the master warrior
    whose armor of patience was without bounds.

  9. Don Milani
    Jun 17, 2013

    VROT liked to tell this story: VROT said that VCTR called a meeting with some Karma Dzong Boulder sangha members before H.H. Karmapa arrived in 1974 and VCTR said (summarized): “there is this guy coming to visit and we have to treat him a certain way because he’s the head of our Kagyu lineage.”
    VCTR said he’d be traveling to the East coast to greet H.H. Karmapa, and that H.H. Karmapa would be visiting Boulder.

    VROT said that VCTR wanted to down-play the visit because VCTR didn’t think H.H. Karmapa was fully enlightened.

    VROT said when VCTR returned from greeting H.H. Karmapa when he first arrived in USA that VCTR said that H.H. Karmapa was now completely enlightened and they would give him the full royal treatment….

  10. Don Milani
    Jun 17, 2013

    FYI, I saw Sam Bercholz in April 2013 and he said that during the 1974 visit H.H. Karmapa told VCTR that he was the holder of the Kagyu householder yogi tradition. Sam brought this up in the context that we need to remember to continue to practice and realize this tradition.

  11. Linda V. Lewis
    Jun 17, 2013

    Thank you Bill for sharing this wonderful memory!

  12. In the late autumn of 1973, I lived at New York Dhamadhatu, in a brownstone on W. 20th st. In the Chelsea, along with Helen Berliner, Douglas Penick, David Sable, Jack Niland, Sarah Capp, and various others. I’m not making this up. Rinpoche was there and one day during a visit my the Vidyadhara, ister Palmo showed up. They shared a very familial relationship from the time when the Vidyadhara was a refugee in India and stayed at the Young Lamas Home School. Sister Palmo, an Englishwoman who became a nun after marrying an Indian film star. I think. To the Vidyadhara she was “mummy.”

    And so with great deference, Rinpoche received her in the downstairs small kitchen. For some reason I was asked to be there with Rinpoche through the entire discussion. The point of the meeting was Sister Palmo announcing to the Vidyadhara that the 16th Karmapa intended to visit the West, and Rinpoche would be the host. After a while Sister Palmo left — Rinpoche handed me a photo of HH Karmapa and said: “see that all the centers get copies of this photo. They should know what is coming their way.”

    I had some issues with the kind of gushing religiosity Sister Palmo exhibited. When I brought this up, Rinpoche said, “she doesn’t practice the same kind of Buddhism we do.”

    In a short time I was asked to cook at ’74 Seminary, the second seminary, along with Jane Koleeny, to be held at the Snowmass Resort near Vail. At that event we experienced rainbows only twice. Once on the first day of seminary and on the day that HH Karmapa arrived.

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