Saturday, November 22, 2008

Movie Review: Thus I Have Heard: Teachings of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, 2001

In even the most cursory account of Tibetan Buddhism's journey to the West, one name sure to be included is that of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. One of the first wave of refugees from the 1959 Chinese invasion of Tibet, Chogyam studied at Oxford before making his mark in America. He remains a controversial character for having so thoroughly westernized himself, including taking a sixteen year old British wife, disrobing and practicing as a lay teacher, and developing a huge appetite for food, alcohol and women. Some called him a crazy sage, some called him just plain crazy. His legacy, though, makes him difficult to dismiss. His presence as he toured led to the appearance of hundreds of Buddhist centers in cities and towns across North America, his publishing outfit is now one the West's biggest, and Colorado's Naropa University was the first accredited Buddhist university in the United States.

Thus I Have Heard is a 60-minute collection of video clips - one television interview and four speeches - given to North American audiences in the 70's and 80's. It was issued in conjunction with an 8-volume set of his Collected Works, plus a 9-volume video set, published in 2001. The five selections in sequence are:
  • Practicing the Lineage 1980 – an interview in which Chogyam discusses his early life and training
  • Mediation Instruction 1974 – instructions for an introductory meditation course
  • Sitting Practice is Your Breakfast 1976 – meditation as food to nourish the mind
  • Surrendering Your Aggression 1975 – learning to let go of ego
  • Creating an Enlightened Society 1982 – a call to work not only for personal enlightenment, but also for building enlightened societies
Having never seen video of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, this collection was a revelation. There are moments when his humor shines through, most often in his playfulness with language, or in a clever conceptualization, such as clinging to self as a kind of aggression. But he makes you work to get to those moments. His speech is slow and deliberate and his enunciation not always clear. And in at least one of these clips ("Sitting Practice is Your Breakfast") he appears inebriated. By the 1980's, when his lifestyle was having visible effects on body and mind, his “Creating an Enlightened Society” speech is almost embarrassing for its long, searching pauses.

From these clips it's hard to see today what made Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche so appealing. Certainly so throughly adopting the manners of his students and presenting his teachings in their own idiom won over large numbers. It also didn't hurt being one of the first generation of teachers. Having no one against which he could be compared put him in a league all his own.

For anyone wanting to sample the voice and manner of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche at various points in his career, there probably isn't a better place to start than Thus I Have Heard.



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