Chögyam Trungpa & the Level/Line Fallacy

(This post is a continuation of yesterday’s post on “Chögyam Trungpa & Pragmatic, Modern Meditation.”)

Given my post yesterday about Trungpa’s shortcomings, why mention him at all today? The main reason is that despite his seeming ethical violations in some areas, it is nevertheless true that he had a particular genius for presenting traditional Buddhist teachings in a way that was accessible to a Western audience. He was a trailblazer in bringing Buddhism to the West.

One significant part of that legacy was founding Naropa University in 1974 in Boulder, Colorado. Named after an 11th-century Indian Buddhist sage, Naropa University became the first Buddhist-inspired academic institution in the United States to become accredited. It is centered on a paradigm of “contemplative education.” The school began making a name for itself immediately when, for the first summer session, Trungpa invited Beat poets—including Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, John Cage, and Diane di Prima—to lead sessions. They called themselves the “Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.” (Kerouac had died a few years earlier in 1969 at the age of 47.)

A few years after founding Naropa, another significant part of Trungpa’s legacy was founding the Shambhala Training program, named after a legendary kingdom that was said to be founded on the Enlightenment principles. One of the main goals was to teach Westerners that meditation was about far more than what happened on your meditation cushion. Trungpa taught that the practices of meditation should be integrated into all aspects of everyday life in our modern, secularized world. There are now hundreds of Shambhala centers around the globe, including one in Baltimore and one in D.C.

Trungpa’s final move was to Nova Scotia, Canada in 1986, not long before his death in 1987. Some of you may be familiar with the teachings of Pema Chödrön (1936-), who was a student of Chögyam Trungpa. Pema Chödrön, author of many beloved Buddhist books, is the director of Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia which Trungpa founded. Today, Sakyong Mipham (1962-), the eldest son of Diana Mukpo and Chögyam Trungpa, runs the Shambala organization.

SpiritualMaterialismDepending on how deeply you want to dive into this perspective, there is a ten-part Collected Works of Chögyam Trungpa, each volume of which weighs in at many hundreds of pages—totaling well over 5,000 pages.The advice I received from people much more familiar than I am with the Shambala tradition was to start with Volume 3 of his Collected Works, which skips over some of his early writings in England and starts with some of his best material when he was coming into his own in the United States and discerning how to teach at the intersection of traditional Buddhism and the modern West. Or for a much shorter version, you can start with the two most important books collected in that volume, Cutting through Spiritual Materialism (based on lectures from 1970 to 1971), and The Myth of Freedom and the Way of Meditation (based on lectures from 1971 to 1973). They are each only about 200 pages.

In reflecting on the mixed legacy of figures like Chögyam Trungpa, one of the most helpful frameworks I have found is what the philosopher Ken Wilber called the “Level/Line Fallacy.” Each of us has the potential to progress through stages of development along many different parallel lines. There are stages of kinesthetic development as babies learn to first hold their neck up, then roll over, crawl, walk, and run—and some people even reach Olympic levels of kinesthetic development that are honestly beyond either the aptitude or inclination of most of us. There are also stages of cognitive development as babies learn to differentiate their sense of self from their environment, then to talk, read, and write—leading all the way up to world-class levels of cognitive development that most of us will never reach, such as winning a Nobel Prize. There are similar stages of spiritual development, moral development, emotional development, aesthetic development, and more.

And here’s the key insight of the “Level/Line Fallacy”: though each of these lines of development are in many ways parallel to one another; they are non-intersecting. This framework helps explain how we can have, for example, an NFL football player with world-class kinesthetic development, who is arrested for domestic violence—a serious deficit in certain levels of spiritual, moral, and emotional development. Or consider how an artist might have heightened emotional and aesthetic develop, but not be the most skilled athlete. (Of course, this is not a commentary on all athletes or all artists. Please, no emails.) Rather, the point is to recognize that someone like Chögyam Trungpa might have legitimate, world-class spiritual insight, but be tragically underdeveloped in other areas. There can be a seductive temptation to think that someone who excels in one area must be great in all areas. But if we pause for a moment, we might begin to perceive that it is perhaps predictably the case that a maniacal focus upon one area—or a few areas—will leave one almost inevitably underdeveloped in other areas. The “Level/Line Fallacy” is a reminder to be more realistic about those lifted up on pedestals in one area. For each of us, this insight is an invitation to hold a mirror up to ourselves.

For me, learning more about Trungpa has been an important process of wrestling with the legacy of someone who was at the forefront of teaching meditation in a way that is pragmatic, Westernized, and deeply transformative in a positive way for many students then and now. But it is also important to be honest about the shadow sides our histories.

The Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg is a certified spiritual director, a D.Min. graduate of San Francisco Theological Seminary, and the minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland. Follow him on Facebook ( and Twitter (@carlgregg).

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