How to Build a Caravan of Joy

Stuart Smithers

The Mishap Lineage:
Transforming Confusion into Wisdom

Chögyam Trungpa
Edited by Carolyn Rose Gimian,
Shambhala Publications, 2009
160 pp., $21.95 paper

I almost met Chögyam Trungpa. When I arrived at the steps of the New York Historical Society, just off Central Park, there was a notice posted on the massive wooden doors: Trungpa Rinpoche’s talk had been canceled for health reasons. I was disappointed, and didn’t realize at the time that he would soon die and I would never have the chance to see him teach. I was young, studying Buddhism at Columbia University. Chögyam Trungpa wasn’t part of my academic agenda, but I was excited and touched by his reputation and early books. Fresh, maybe a little wild, unpredictable, but mostly he sounded like he was authentic, with both feet on the ground.

Through the years I have kept up with my Trungpa reading, supplementing books with conversations with his students. The video and audio recordings have given me a different sense of the man, particularly his voice and what singers might call his “phrasing.” I am delighted when new material appears, but there is also something bittersweet about the loss and the disappearance of figures like Trungpa. Looking back on these encounters and missed meetings, it now feels as though the seventies and eighties were like that: fate or luck seemed to be playing a part in all of this.

The Mishap Lineage is the edited version of a seminar Trungpa gave in December 1975 on the lineage of the Trungpa tülkus, or Trungpa reincarnations, which began in the fifteenth century. But Trungpa’s personal reflections on the lives of the Trungpas were primarily means to encourage students to practice—“to sit a lot,” as he was fond of saying—and to invite questions about fundamental principles of Kagyü teachings, and to reflect on the obstacles, challenges, and possibilities of building a community that supports practice. How to build a sangha seems to be the driving motive behind the seminar talks.

What did Trungpa ultimately feel about lineage and transmission? He transmitted his understanding of Buddhist teachings and reality to Western audiences with majestic gestures of personal style and creativity. In the opening talk of the Mishap Lineage seminar, Trungpa introduced themes that appear again and again in his writings: the idea of the “Practicing Lineage,” as the Kagyü lineage is called, and the simple and essential importance of practice; an elaboration of the guru-disciple relationship; the centrality of sangha; and the problem of “spiritual materialism”—subtle corruption in the name of the teaching—for the student, the teacher, and the community.

The term “mishap lineage” refers to a kind of subset of a practice lineage. The editor points out that there is no comparable term in Tibetan for “mishap lineage,” and as I read and reread the short chapter “Kagyü Lineage/Mishap Lineage” I felt that Trungpa was trying to communicate an idea that was far more serious, subtle, and profound, even mysterious, than might be realized at first glance. Everyone encounters accidents, unexpected challenges, and mishaps regardless of whether one practices meditation or not. Trungpa, not surprisingly, embraces the tantric approach that mishaps are a fertile ground for practice in the moment. But he goes beyond the idea that mishaps are an opportunity to practice and suggests that mishaps are actually the result of a developed practice:

The Trungpas had the same experience as the pioneering Kagyüpas. In some sense, it was on a much lesser scale than Milarepa, Marpa, and Naropa, but the Trungpas had a similar kind of experience constantly taking place. One of the Kagyü mystics once said, “Being in the Kagyü tradition, the Kagyü lineage, is like inheriting constant mishaps.” Constant mishaps. That’s true. If you are actually in contact with reality, and particularly if you are in control of reality, then you are in contact with completely constant mishaps. Because you are in contact and in control, therefore the mishaps begin to come to you rather than you bumping into them. They begin to come to you constantly. These little things are taking place all the time. Fantastic. Delightful. And it is that which makes everything very cheerful.

The word mishap can be a little misleading as Trungpa uses it here, suggesting a delightful or amusing turn of events. But the editor reminds us of Trungpa’s own mishaps: the invasion of Tibet, his motor accident, and the difficulties in England and Scotland that led to his journey through America. Trungpa relays something of the scale of the idea in recounting Milarepa’s experience: Everything was fine for Milarepa; he had become Marpa’s principal disciple, was feeling very good, and Marpa gave him permission to go back to his home. When he returned, Milarepa found his family home destroyed and his mother’s skeleton inside. When he arrived he was met by hostile relatives and was utterly without friends. It seems unlikely that Milarepa would have thought of his experience as a “mishap,” but Trungpa provides a sense of scale for the idea and forewarns us: “That kind of mishap is always apropos of the Practicing Lineage, once you begin to have any association with the lineage.”

If the concept is literally true—that if you are in contact with reality and in control of reality to some extent, mishaps will not just bump into you but you will begin to attract mishaps. Chaos, not order and continuity, seems to be the fruit of one’s serious and diligent contemplative labors. Not everyone would share the perspective that these little mishaps are “fantastic,” nor would we naturally view these events as gifts for our practice, all arranged by an unknown cosmic law that responds to increasingly developed nonentropic states of consciousness and being with apparent fits of chaos.

Trungpa elaborates on the idea of the Mishap Lineage and discusses how practitioners develop in such conditions through the story of Trung Ma-se and the three idiots, the origin of the Trungpa line in the fifteenth century. According to Trungpa, good motivations for questioning often turn into head trips because there are so many preconceptions behind the thinking. In that situation, he says, it is necessary to “cultivate the students’ simplemindedness,” to un-educate the students and bring them back down to earth. Trung Ma-se studied with the fifth Karmapa for seven years and was sent back to Eastern Tibet to establish himself. He practiced and taught from his reed hut “for a long time,” attracting prominent students. He was said to have been surrounded by 360 “close” students, including eight “mystics” and three “idiots” who were the closest of all. Trungpa explains that they were known as “idiots” because they were “so stubborn and so earthy that they didn’t flinch at anything at all. They simply set their minds to one thing at a time. When the teacher told them to do something, they just did it. They became known as idiots for their stubbornness. The eight mystics were quite good in their idiotness, but they didn’t quite qualify to be known as idiots. They were somewhat good students and nice people.” The situation evolved naturally around Trung Ma-se, whose teachings were “extraordinarily simple and straightforward.”

“Devoting yourself to the caves” was the euphemism of the time for the discipline of serious simple-minded sitting practice. Besides just sitting, Trung Ma-se felt that it was important to have a sense of celebration, and a tradition of frequent feasting took root in the teachings of the tulkus of Surmang, the spiritual home of the Trungpas. Toward the end of his life, Trung Ma-se traveled the province in a huge caravan known as the “caravan of joyousness,” setting up camps with hundreds of students, including the three idiots and the eight mystics. It would seem that his approach to teaching was always changing form, straightforward from the point of view of the essential practice of sitting, but allowing clear vision to develop by taking hold of whatever situation offered itself—the mishap that would inevitably appear in the midst of all the complicated demands and coordination necessary to live together in a caravan of students.

And of course, living together is not always harmonious and sweet. Without much structure or administrative hierarchy, interactions and encounters were direct and very human—“students began to erupt into emotionality, complaints, and uncertainties of all kinds.” But the warm and messy emotions of ordinary life were mostly understood as part of the mishaps and conditions of the caravan culture and the sangha that Trung Ma-se was slowly developing. It was very personal and very powerful, so long as you didn’t freak out and abandon the caravan for a quiet walk around the countryside.

The First Trungpa (one of the idiots, according to Chögyam Trungpa) shared Trung Ma-se’s ambivalence toward establishing settled institutions. At that time everything was adapted for groups that would travel in caravans and set up encampments along the way; there were very few permanent monastic establishments. “He wanted to stay loose; at the same time, he wanted to create something permanent.” The tent culture embraced by the Trungpas was no doubt a product of the times and was shared by others, including the Fifth Karmapa. Trungpa recounts stories of an enormous drum that the Karmapa and his party hauled around for ceremonies. The drum was taken apart, loaded on a mule and then reassembled wherever they camped, stretching the skin the night before the ceremonies were to be conducted. In the age of encampments, villagers would wake up and take their herds out for grazing, to discover that a complete monastery encampment had appeared overnight with magnificent assembly tents, kitchens, hundreds of people, and horses and mules to transport the camp. The Karmapa is said to have had a main assembly hall tent that was composed of 75 parts, each part carried by a mule. The assembly tent was outfitted with carpets, thrones, seats, thangkas—everything that was necessary for practice and ritual. The sudden appearance of the encampment complex must have been an awesome sight for the villagers. But the morning they woke up and discovered that the camp had vanished, that the caravan had moved on in the night, leaving only a few dying fires and piles of mule dung, must have been equally shocking and inspiring.

It is clear from Trungpa’s comments that he admired this nomadic approach and the sense of display and spectacle it produced. And there are elements of the caravan approach that his own life reflected: “a very heroic and very Buddhist approach: nothing is particularly permanent, but you keep on moving all the time.” A caravan might sound like a fun adventure, but Trungpa stresses the difficult physical work that the vision requires. The “age of encampments” provided little possibility for domestic bliss and pleasures— one was constantly at work, assembling, disassembling, cooking, conducting rituals, tending livestock. Trungpa calls this physical work “manual” work and distinguishes it from “mechanical,”

In those days, people did not have the automation of machines and drugs of all kinds—downers and uppers. In those days, people felt that they could still take their time going through things. But these days, particularly in the United States and in North America in general, there are lots of drugs, lots of machines, and lots of quick promises. Charlatans are available to keep you away from any hard way of working with situations.

In those days people had less time to use tricks. Everything was manual. If you had to put up a tent, it took a lot of time to do that. If you wanted to move camp, that involved a journey. Everything was very manual, all the time. Nothing was automated. If you were tired or sick, you couldn’t reach anybody by calling them up on the telephone, saying “Save me!” You couldn’t take a taxi. Everything had to be done manually. Unavailability of that kind is very, very powerful. The manual world saves sanity.

The manual world saves sanity, and group sanity saves the sangha. With Chöygam Trungpa one has the feeling that the age of encampments has encountered the mishap of modernity and materialism.

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phyllis segura's picture

Well said.