How to Build a Caravan of Joy

Stuart Smithers

Centuries later, Trungpa still embodied the frontier-minded spirit of his lineage, conquering foreign lands, taming the untamable—in fact, Trungpa’s caravan traveled to the last frontier: the hyper-materialistic world of late capitalism. His hope was essentially the same as that of his predecessors: to transmit the teachings in a manner that would guarantee the possibility of the their realization.

Lineage is usually associated with a line of teachers or gurus, but Trungpa’s discussion of lineage broadens our understanding, reminding us that the lineage is all about practice and the possibility of profoundly embracing it. The guru is undeniably central, but the birth of community has, in some respects, a more mysterious potential in the transmission of teachings. The tree is known by its fruit, as the saying goes, and the practice community is known by the guru’s life. Someone who knew Chögyam Trungpa once observed that there is a crossroads after the death of a teacher, maybe after 25 years, at which point the life and potential of the community to evolve as a practice community becomes apparent. This contemplative and transformative work, however one defines it, takes time. Many communities and groups slip away or suffer serious distortions after the death of the founder. Trungpa was clearly aware of these challenges, and he poured his life into the teaching and his students.

The Mishap Lineage suggests that Trungpa was already thinking about the future of the community that was forming around him when he discussed himself, eleventh in the line of Trungpas. Sharing memories of his own development, Trungpa recounts how his tutors were always telling him stories about their own revered teachers: “According to these stories, the whole spiritual thing is that you have to be a completely religious person. Even if you are not, you should pretend. You pretend to be good, and you keep smiling at everybody. You say nice things to everybody, and half close your eyes all the time, as if you are pretending to meditate all the time. That was the kind of story I heard.” Trungpa was rescued from this potentially neurotic behavior when he met his root guru, Jamgön Kongtrül:

…meeting Jamgön Kongtrül, I began to see what people really meant. It was not so much that he half closed his eyes all the time or behaved in a saintly way particularly. He joked around, he was very jolly, and he was very kind and soft and insightful. Sometimes he didn’t even sit upright. I had been told to always sit upright. He lay down in his seat and he accommodated people. There was immense power coming to you from that presence.

One begins to understand more clearly that the whole structure of the practicing community and lineage is really there to support the contemplative effort, the practice of sitting, to keep us going when we stop for too long on the side of the road, or to keep us on the practice path when we run out of gas or get distracted by a side road. And of course we do get distracted, but to the extent to which we are embedded within a living and dynamic practicing community, we find our way back again. The help that Trungpa spoke about was the need for a relationship with someone who actually embodies the concept of practice, someone with presence, someone who mans the gas pumps, someone who, for whatever reason, profoundly embraces sitting and contemplative practice: “Traditionally, this is a wise person, somebody who can’t be persuaded to buy your side, your trip… somebody who buys your story with a pinch of salt, but at the same time is kind and friendly—to a certain extent. Such a person is the teacher, who then teaches you to practice a lot, to sit and meditate a lot.” In Trungpa’s discussions of teachers and student-teacher relationships, we begin to realize that he is speaking to all of us about obstacles we may have to face and possibilities that are open to everybody, and that the reality of experience, of practicing and trying to relate to a practice community, is of central importance.

Inevitably, people embrace practice at different levels of intensity, and naturally some people understand more than others. At the same time, some members of the community will have more ambition and energy for organizing. Chögyam Trungpa often spoke of the emerging responsibility of advanced practitioners in a way that related efforts to “help” to the importance of building a sane community. In some respects he seemed to de-emphasize the traditional authoritative model of the teacher.

I think the question is how much you want to be the head of family or the ringleader of your friends. You know, if that ambition is not there, but you have a genuine willingness to share, that is precisely the concept of sangha, in traditional terms. You are willing to be friends with everybody, but at the same time you are not particularly taking credit. You don’t make people depend on you. Everybody can stand on his or her own feet. The idea of helping is to make others independent of you. You help them to become more independent rather than making them addicted to you.

Of course, the irony is that this kind of gesture opens real love and devotion for the teaching and the teacher as a part of that wisdom and compassion. And in being something of an independent practitioner, not being told at each instance how to do things or how not to do things, one is forced to take chances and to make decisions—but at the same time there is the support that comes from one’s commitment to the teacher and the lineage.

Trungpa brought his caravan of joy to the West, where it could work with the speed and chaos of modernity, with mishaps and the power of lineage. He was a remarkable man, with an amazing vision. In 1968, after a few years in the U.K., Trungpa visited Bhutan, where he received and wrote the Sadhana of Mahamudra. He realized that the corruption, confusion, sectarianism, and chaos of Buddhism in Tibet was due to lack of practice, a lack of sitting, replaced by the pursuit of petty and mature materialism and to some degree the substitution of ritualism for practice. Through his vision he realized that his mission was “to exorcise the materialism which seemed to pervade spiritual disciplines in the modern world. The message that I had received from my supplication was that one must try to expose spiritual materialism and all its trappings, otherwise true spirituality could not develop. I began to realize that I would have to take daring steps in my life.”

The Mishap Lineage reads like a fresh message from reality, in the style of basic sanity. Within that message, Chögyam Trungpa provides simple, essential, and straightforward advice on how to build a sangha: Practice a lot, sit a lot.

Stuart Smithers
, a Tricycle contributing editor, is chair of the Religion Department at the University of Puget Sound. He also directs the Smoke Farm Institute, an education and culture collective in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains.

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phyllis segura's picture

Well said.