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  • Trungpa's Barbarians and Merton's Titan:Resuming a Dialogue on Spiritual Egotism
  • Steven R. Shippee

A Dialogue Begun: The Meeting of Chögyam Trungpa and Thomas Merton

Much of the dialogue on the spiritual life between Buddhists and Christians has centered on two locations in the United States. The first is Naropa Institute (now University) in Boulder, Colorado. This institution was founded in 1974 by Chögyam Trungpa, a Tibetan master and lineage holder of both the Nyingma and Kagyü traditions, two of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Under Trungpa's guidance, Naropa hosted an important series of Buddhist-Christian contemplative dialogues in the 1980s.1 A second significant place is Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, the Trappist monastery that became home to Thomas Merton in 1941. Since 1996, and through the efforts of several of the same people who had worked on the Naropa dialogues, the abbey has hosted three interreligious "encounters" sponsored by the Monastic Interreligious Dialogue.2

An important link between these dialogues, as well as the initial inspiration for the first of them,3 is the meeting of the two men most famously associated with each of the hosting institutions, Trungpa and Merton. As many of their respective readers know, the two men met in Calcutta on 19 October 1968, and spent several days together.4 This contact was very stimulating to them both and seemed the beginning of a deep friendship. Merton was so impressed with Trungpa that he immediately determined to visit Trungpa's new monastery in Scotland. Trungpa later said, "Meeting Thomas Merton was wonderful,"5 and that he felt he "was meeting an old friend, a genuine friend."6 Despite the brevity of their relationship, during his last talk on 10 December, Merton said he likewise considered Trungpa "a good friend."7 Later that same day, their friendship and dialogue were terminated by Merton's death. Not two months had passed since the meeting in Calcutta. Trungpa called Merton's death "a tremendous loss, to me personally and to the world of genuine spirituality."8

Judith Simmer-Brown has provided the fullest picture thus far of the relationship between Trungpa and Merton.9 One of the facts that most intrigues Trungpa's [End Page 109] followers is his own recollection, shared with participants at the third Naropa dialogue, that the two discussed what he called "spiritual materialism" (his most common phrase for spirituality co-opted by ego) at some length over dinner and drinks.10 This article picks up where that recollection leaves off. While we do not know more about the specific content of that discussion, we do have a body of writings from each man on topics relating to the quest and pitfalls of authentic spirituality. A comparative analysis of these proves worthwhile, as further elucidation of what made possible their meeting of the minds and the immediate affection they felt for each other, and certainly as wisdom that still has the power to deepen our spiritual experience today by exposing the manipulations and deceptions to which ego11 subjects even our noblest spiritual aspirations.

The challenges to authentic spiritual life were major concerns for both Trungpa and Merton, a leitmotif that characterized almost all of their respective teachings and written works.12 As an extensive examination of these is not possible here, I have set side by side one symbol from each: Trungpa's modification of the traditional Tibetan teachings on the Lalos (kla.klo, literally "barbarians"), which he translated as the "Three Lords of Materialism," and Merton's reflections on the tragic Titan Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods. These two symbols, while certainly not exhaustive of their insights, nonetheless effectively crystallize their respective thoughts on the matter, and thereby allow us to see that Trungpa and Merton shared very striking insights both about the malady of spiritual egotism and about its necessary antidotes.

Chögyam Trungpa on Spiritual Materialism

In talks given from 1970 to 1973, Trungpa gave teachings to his students on "the Three Lords of Materialism," symbolic personifications of the trap to which he referred as spiritual materialism.13 Believing that most of his students were sincere about the spiritual path, he...


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