First, the Bad News

Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche looks at the late Chögyam Trungpa’s unique and uncompromsing presentation of Buddhism’s basic principles.

By Traleg Rinpoche

Photo by Gaelle Marcel.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s perspective on Hinayana and Mahayana Buddhist practices is unique, and summarizing his views, ranging as they do over so many profound issues, is not an easy task. The number of his books is already quite large, with more arriving. While Trungpa Rinpoche is a very organized thinker in one respect, with a masterly command of the English language, in another respect his teachings almost defy systematization; his spontaneous outbursts of poetic expression and brilliant insights into our human folly can appear at any instant in his discourse, making it very difficult for anyone to write about his work and do his thinking justice. Here I have tried to draw the reader’s attention to certain salient features of his vast and profound teachings, selecting themes that I personally have found important and inspiring. As much as possible, I have also allowed Trungpa Rinpoche to speak for himself, by including examples from his books to illustrate my points.

In these teachings, Trungpa Rinpoche presents a direct and explicit Buddhist method for discovering our own basic sanity. His writings provide a methodical approach for prevailing over our neurotic tendencies, which he regarded as the fundamental method for realizing our basic sanity on the spiritual path. According to his understanding of the human condition, neurosis is the result of acquiescing to egoistic domination and the consequent entanglement in a variety of predictable self-deceptions. He highlights how calculating, shrewd, and resourceful the ego can be, and how willfully we thereby misuse our emotions. He also clearly elucidates Buddhist methods for cultivating compassion and wisdom—the two essential qualities for attaining enlightenment, or for realizing the basic sanity that is our natural inheritance as sentient beings.

Basic Sanity

This notion of basic sanity is one of the central and recurrent themes in Trungpa Rinpoche’s thought. Throughout his teaching career he tirelessly returned to this topic, emphasizing its significance for our times. Perhaps the best way to understand what Trungpa Rinpoche meant by “basic sanity” is that it is a particular attitude or distinctive state of mind—an unencumbered openness characterized by the absence of hope and fear. As he explains in Transcending Madness: “You could have a basic sound understanding of the logic of things as they are without ego. In fact, you can have greater sanity beyond ego; you can deal with situations without hope and fear, and you can retain your self-respect or your logical sanity in dealing with things.”

It should be acknowledged at the outset that the notion of transcending hope and fear is predominantly associated with the teachings of the KagyŸ and Nyingma schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Trungpa Rinpoche made liberal use of certain fundamental concepts from these two schools to convey the principal Buddhist teachings, even when the subject did not directly involve Tibetan Buddhism. Something of the flavor of tantric Buddhism can also be detected in all of his discourses, such as this extract from Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, which is typical of Trungpa’s teaching style: “Somehow we lost the unity of openness and what we are. Openness became a separate thing, and then we began to play games. It is obvious that we cannot say that we have lost the openness. ÔI used to have it, but I have lost it.’ We cannot say that, because that will destroy our status as an accomplished person. So the part of self-deception is to retell the stories. We would rather tell stories than actually experience openness, because stories are very vivid and enjoyable.”

Basic sanity in Trungpa Rinpoche’s thought represents the attitude of enlightenment, which is free from hope and fear. The implication here seems obvious enough: the attitude of ignorance, if it can be put that way, dominates our deluded, samsaric mind through the inveterate afflictions of hope and fear. In the idiom of Trungpa Rinpoche’s teaching style, this would be termed neurosis. Trungpa Rinpoche’s view was that in order to appreciate our basic sanity, we should not endeavor to disassociate ourselves from these afflictions or neurotic tendencies, but learn to work with them as the actual basis of our spiritual journey. As he states in Crazy Wisdom, “Developing basic sanity is a process of working on ourselves in which the path itself rather than the attainment of a goal becomes the working basis.”

Spiritual Materialism

One of the fundamental ways we go astray and become engulfed in the currents of hope and fear is by succumbing to a malady that Trungpa Rinpoche famously termed “spiritual materialism.” As Trungpa saw it, the American spiritual scene was going through a major upheaval; young people were leaving Judaism and Christianity in droves, experimenting with hallucinogens, and dabbling in a plethora of Eastern religions, mysticisms, and philosophies. He regarded this as a critical moment in American history, one that was pregnant with spiritual possibilities. On the one hand, there was the ubiquitous danger of degenerating into spiritual materialism, seduced by the myriad spiritual promises that proliferated and still abound. On the other hand, there was the very real possibility of a proper and complete reception of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism in the West.

Trungpa Rinpoche set himself the task of introducing young Americans to the authentic teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. He did so in his own unique fashion, creating a completely novel, yet strictly traditional, style of presentation. He was convinced that to make any spiritual progress we have to begin with ourselves, with what he characteristically referred to as “our own neurosis.” In his inimitable style, Trungpa Rinpoche describes it this way: “If you are utterly confused, you are confused to the point of seeming to yourself to be unconfused. This is what we call Ôspiritual materialism.’ ”

Trungpa Rinpoche’s enduring message was that it is only through meditation practice that we can entertain any possibility of eradicating our neuroses. Any spiritual journey has to begin with oneself and one’s own neurotic mind, or else there is the danger of turning our spiritual yearnings into a form of materialism. He warns his students in Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism: “It is important to see that the main point of any spiritual practice is to step out of the bureaucracy of ego. This means stepping out of ego’s constant desire for a higher, more spiritual, more transcendental version of knowledge, religion, virtue, judgment, comfort, or whatever it is that the particular ego is seeking. One must step out of spiritual materialism.”


Trungpa Rinpoche presented a unique and contemporary approach to dealing with our neurotic tendencies. For him, a truly spiritual journey toward basic sanity has to begin with a sense of hopelessness—the recognition of the complete and utter hopelessness of our current situation. He assured his readers that they are required to undertake a major process of disillusionment in order to relinquish their belief in the existence of an external panacea that can eliminate their suffering and pain. We have to learn to live with our pain instead of hoping for something that will cause all of our hesitations, confusions, insanity, and suffering to disappear. This theme is elaborated upon in Illusion’s Game: “Creating this kind of hope is one of the most prominent features of spiritual materialism.…There are so many promises involved. So much hope is planted in your heart. This is playing on your weakness. It creates further confusion with regard to pain. You forget about the pain altogether and get involved in looking for something other than the pain. And that itself is pain.…That is what we will go through unless we understand that the basic requirement for treading the spiritual path is hopelessness.”

To make any advance on the spiritual path, according to Trungpa Rinpoche, we have to realize that there is no savior, no such thing as a divine hand that will reach down and lift us out of our malaise. In fact, he claimed that being hopeful is simply a form of neurotic confusion, a symptom of self-deception, of not being true to oneself. A fundamental sense of fear and dread lies at the basis of this approach, for to think that there is something other than ourselves, something to be found outside ourselves, that will rescue or save us from ourselves is completely misguided, to say the least. We are compelled to pursue this kind of intervention because of the painfulness of our existence. As Trungpa says in Dharma Art: “The experience of I, me, a personal existence, ego, self, whatever you want to call it, has a sense of immense fundamental pain. You don’t want to exist, you don’t want to be, but you can’t help it.… We are allergic to ourselves; therefore, we create all kinds of sicknesses and pains.”

Throughout his life, Trungpa Rinpoche presented the Buddhist message in a challenging and uncompromising fashion. Even the central Buddhist notions of enlightenment, buddhahood, and nirvana were not to be treated as objects to be pursued and possessed as some kind of reward for our efforts. Trusting that such transcendental realities will allay our fears of neurotic confusion and samsaric suffering is something that Trungpa Rinpoche equated with using a carrot and stick to control a donkey. As he says in Crazy Wisdom, “in spiritual materialism promises are used like a carrot held up in front of a donkey, luring him into all kinds of journeys; in transcending spiritual materialism, there is no goal.” To use another Trungpa-ism, this is equivalent to grasping the wrong end of the stick. In The Lion’s Roar, he alleges that we are driven to this kind of impulsive and humiliating behavior because “Nobody has given up hope of attaining enlightenment. Nobody has given up hope of getting out of suffering.”

From Trungpa Rinpoche’s point of view, to be overly enthusiastic and enthralled by enlightenment is to begin our journey with the kind of subtle fallacy that guarantees bewilderment. This misconception arises because we have not confronted a genuine sense of hopelessness and we are still trying to escape our own condition for some more enchanted realm of existence. Trungpa demanded total, uncompromising honesty and authenticity with ourselves in this regard, more so than any other Buddhist teacher in the West. This requisite can be gleaned from the following assessment in his translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead: “In other words, the whole thing is based on another way of looking at the psychological picture of ourselves in terms of a practical meditative situation. Nobody is going to save us, everything is left purely to the individual, the commitment to who we are. Gurus or spiritual friends might instigate that possibility, but fundamentally they have no function.”

A transformative sense of hopelessness is an essential element of the path for two reasons: the fascination with enlightenment and nirvana has the potential to become a dangerous distraction from our present condition, while the fixation on a god or divine being that will rescue us reduces us to a puerile state of dependency. Both of these approaches encourage the kind of wishful thinking that leads to spiritual materialism. We cannot use transcendental, nirvanic concepts to safeguard ourselves from the realities of conditioned existence, nor can we draw succor from thinking that a divine being will bestow salvific favors on us and release us from our imprisoned desperation. Buddhism, being nontheistic, does not hold out any promises of divine grace or supernatural intervention, as Trungpa Rinpoche makes clear in The Lion’s Roar: “You see, Buddhism is the only nontheistic religion. It doesn’t contain any promises, or doesn’t permit any. It just suggests the basic necessity of working with ourselves, fundamentally, very simply, very ordinarily. It is very sensible. You have no complaint when you get to the other end of the trip of Buddhism. It’s a very definite journey.”

Trungpa Rinpoche felt strongly that theism has the tendency to create a sense of dependency, which renders the individual perpetually hopeful, but with no real certainty about his or her own redemption. He felt that this approach was both psychologically harmful and spiritually vacuous. The approach of nontheism, on the other hand, emphasizes a genuine sense of hopelessness that, in an ironic twist, produces real conviction in our own ability to secure liberation for ourselves and by ourselves. Trungpa Rinpoche could not stress enough that this genuine sense of hopelessness, along with trust and faith in oneself, is the real precondition for engendering authentic spiritual development.

The openness and lack of ground that this hopelessness engenders is not unworkable, but it has to be filled by faith. Trungpa did not mean faith in something external, but a trust or conviction in our own ability to liberate ourselves. In Trungpa Rinpoche’s thought, genuinely experiencing a sense of hopelessness does not lead to despair or a sense of the meaninglessness of life; it gives rise directly to this trust in oneself. This is the natural result of genuine hopelessness, because of the attendant realization that nothing we can imagine or strive for will safeguard ego’s territory. Something of our basic sanity will be allowed to surface as a result. A sense of meaning and faith will arise from this trust in ourselves and our own self-determination. Hopelessness and faith, Trungpa Rinpoche says, must coexist if we are to discover our basic sanity. As he says in The Lion’s Roar: “We have completely tired ourselves out, exhausted ourselves beyond our hopefulness. We realize that life is hopeless and that any effort we put in to gain further experience is also hopeless. Then we get into a real understanding of the space between us and our goal. That space is totally and completely full. And that fullness is what is called faith.…Faith here means dedication to and conviction in one’s own intelligence.…You have trust in the basic truth of what you are, who you are.”

In Trungpa Rinpoche’s teachings, faith consists of seeing everything about ourselves as workable and salvageable. In this context, then, faith has to be understood in a different way from traditional religious contexts, where hope and fear go together and both involve placing trust in the unknown. For Trungpa, faith is a task that we can carry out by ourselves, because in spite of our neurotic tendencies, confusions, and bewilderment, we already possess the innate intelligence and ability to extricate ourselves from our samsaric entanglements. As he says in Meditation in Action: “You see, you are your own best friend, your own closest friend, you are the best company for yourself. One knows one’s own weaknesses and inconsistency, one knows how much wrong one has done, one knows it in all detail, so it doesn’t help to try and pretend you don’t know it.”

This kind of conviction in oneself represents a tremendous act of courage. Being hopeful, on the other hand, only indicates a cowardice that is intimately associated with feeling helpless. By establishing trust in ourselves, we also simultaneously develop the ability to trust others, particularly our teacher, spiritual friend, guru, and so on. Not having faith in ourselves or trusting our own innate basic goodness only leads to a sense of desperation that is veiled in a thin layer of hopefulness and an obvious mistrust of others. All that we have is hope.

For Trungpa Rinpoche, this kind of hope is simply wishful thinking and should be rejected as useless and demeaning. Many readers may find this provocative, but it is worth pursuing Trungpa Rinpoche’s explanations of how this lack of courage and trust in ourselves can manifest as arrogance and egoism, ensuring the interminable neurotic habits that conceal our vulnerability, meekness, and ultimate lack of faith. As Trungpa says, “Our problem all along is that we have been too smart, too proud.” We do not want to relate with anybody else because we have become completely fixated on enlightenment. In fact, we may eventually find any kind of trust exceedingly hard to generate.

These attitudes ensure that we remain in a state of perpetual immaturity. As Trungpa was fond of saying, we must take stock of ourselves and pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. Nothing external is going to come along and change things for us. While Trungpa was aware that this message might initially seem bleak, he knew it was ultimately uplifting. Realizing that we can turn our lives around by accepting our utter hopelessness will bring joy rather than despondency and desperation. Once we have given up hope, we can really traverse the spiritual path instead of constructing fantasies or recoiling from doubts. As he makes clear in The Myth of Freedom, joy “transcends both hope and fear, pain and pleasure. Joy here is not pleasurable in the ordinary sense, but it is the ultimate and fundamental sense of freedom, a sense of humor, the ability to see the ironical aspect of the game of ego, the playing of polarities.”

A genuine experience of hopelessness, Trungpa assures us, is an unfailing defense against the dangers of spiritual materialism because it brings about fearlessness. Fearlessness is another essential element of Trungpa’s vision, for both hope and fear must be confronted on the spiritual journey. The lure of spiritual materialism lies in its empty promises of an eternal, paradisiacal existence or of selection by a divine being for special favors. In the end, however, these ideas only create the conditions for a perpetual state of infantile dependency.

Cool Boredom

Trungpa Rinpoche warns that while sitting meditation is rewarding in itself, we should not become too excited about our meditation experiences. Instead, we should concentrate on becoming aware of a less celebrated state of mind, which he terms cool boredom. This boredom is a sign that our meditation experience is developing and is something we should embrace with enthusiasm, rather than grow dejected about a perceived lack of progress.

This seems to me a very helpful instruction, because many meditators understandably expect their meditative efforts to bring new experiences—if not continually, then at least intermittently. When we have the experience of cool boredom, we may interpret this as a symptom of reaching an impasse in our spiritual progress, because it has none of the characteristics of a good meditation experience. According to Trungpa Rinpoche, however, it is necessary for us to go through this kind of boredom. This experience is unique to meditation, and it is described as cool because it is actually quite refreshing and has many beneficial aspects. He explains in The Myth of Freedom: “Boredom has many aspects: there is the sense that nothing is happening, that something might happen, or even that what we would like to happen might replace that which is not happening. Or, one might appreciate boredom as a delight. The practice of meditation could be described as relating with cool boredom, refreshing boredom, boredom like a mountain stream. It refreshes because we do not have to do anything or expect anything.…As we realize that nothing is happening, strangely we begin to realize that something dignified is happening. There is no room for frivolity, no room for speed. We just breathe and are there.”

Lack of Credentials

It is a testament to Trungpa Rinpoche’s integrity as a meditation practitioner and teacher that he emphasized the importance of eschewing credentials of any kind as an integral part of the spiritual path. He spoke of this as “buddhadharma without credentials,” and no teacher before or after him has underscored this point so forcefully. Trungpa brings this issue back to meditation practice, explaining that it is the experience of cool boredom that will assist us in overcoming this hankering after credentials: “Boredom is important because boredom is anti-credential. Credentials are entertaining, always bringing you something new, something lively, something fantastic, all kinds of solutions. When you take away the idea of credentials, then there is boredom.”

This seems to be an extremely important attitude, in light of the fact that most of the world’s great spiritual traditions speak of levels of attainment, gradations of consciousness, and so forth. They distinguish between superficiality and depth, ascending or descending, and different paths and stages of development. One could therefore be forgiven for wondering, What stage of development have I reached? What level of meditative concentration have I developed? How close am I to attaining a particular level of spiritual realization? This is not to deny the importance or reality of some of these stages of spiritual attainment, but the obsession with credentials is an attitude we must relinquish for our own benefit, because it actually inhibits our spiritual growth. As Trungpa Rinpoche says, the search for credentials is a sickness we have to eliminate from our meditation experience, while still fully experiencing our neuroses. In The Myth of Freedom, he likens this process to having an operation without an anesthetic: “We begin meditation practice by dealing with thoughts, the fringe of ego. The practice of meditation is an undoing process.…So the practitioner who is involved with credentials begins with an operation. Credentials are an illness, and you need an operation to remove them.…They prove that you are sick so that you can have attention from your friends. We have to operate on this person to eliminate the credential sickness. But if we give this person an anesthetic, he will not realize how much he has to give up. So we should not use anesthetics at all.”

This idea of no credentials figures significantly in Trungpa Rinpoche’s thinking. He continually points out that we should always remember the importance of engaging in spiritual practice without the desire for any form of recognition or acknowledgment, because such desire only reinforces the deluded tendency to define our territory, solidify our existence, and prove our worth to ourselves and others. It therefore limits and corrupts any spiritual insight we might attain in ego’s claustrophobic domain. The temptation to pervert our experiences with credentials arises from the fact that ego has no real solidity, as Trungpa Rinpoche emphasizes in the following passage: “In order to cut through the ambition of ego, we must understand how we set up me and my territory, how we use our projections as credentials to prove our existence. The source of the effort to confirm our solidity is an uncertainty as to whether or not we exist. Driven by this uncertainty, we seek to prove our own existence by finding a reference point outside ourselves, something with which to have a relationship, something solid to feel separate from” (from The Myth of Freedom).


Trungpa Rinpoche’s instructions in Buddhist practice are designed to help us realize the reality of our innate capacity for awakening, or sanity, without succumbing to any illusions, unrealizable expectations, or bogus spiritual promises. By simply allowing ourselves to feel our pain and continue to work with our discomfort, embarrassment, resentment, emotional conflicts, fear of existence, and so forth, we will assuredly transform ourselves over time. That seems to be Trungpa Rinpoche’s fundamental message of basic sanity.

Trungpa called this approach “buddhadharma without credentials” because it enables us to be genuinely ourselves, without needing to fear our own pain or to hope for salvation from outside ourselves. We no longer require patches to conceal our insufficiencies or avoid challenging situations. If we acknowledge everything in our world as it is, without labeling something as good or bad, we can work with our immediate experiences simply and directly. We will have no need to aggrandize ourselves with credentials or bolster our failing spirits with unrealistic expectations. Thus everything goes toward enlightenment, according to Trungpa Rinpoche; nothing can obstruct it. Even our own neuroses hasten the dawning of basic sanity if we know how to regard all psychological and emotional states as workable. It is for this reason that the fearlessness of the lion’s roar can be proclaimed.


From Recalling Chögyam Trungpa, compiled and edited by Fabrice Midal; © 2005. Published by Shambhala Publications.

Traleg Rinpoche

Traleg Rinpoche

The Venerable Traleg Kyabgon Rinpoche (1955–2012) was president and director of the Kagyu E-Vam Buddhist Institute in Melbourne, Australia and established the E-Vam Institute in upstate New York. He is the author of The Essence of Buddhism: An Introduction to Its Philosophy and Practice.