The Dharma Brats; Growing up Buddhist in America by Jesse Govinda Thompson
I first realized the unique nature of my childhood when I heard that my peers and I were known as the "dharma brats." My parents were Tibetan Buddhists, disciples of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. So I grew up in the first generation of American Buddhists. My childhood included Buddhist schooling, attending Buddhist summer camps, and relating with a mostly Buddhist peer group.
But looking back into my early years has been hard because I had such a chaotic childhood. I had experiences that were a powerful mix of light and darkness.
Through growing up in Trungpa Rinpoche's Buddhist community, I and the other dharma brats had been given the keys to the kingdom of the Buddha dharma (the Buddhist teachings), and a lot of trauma to work with. And in my case, working with the pain and confusion of my childhood has turned out to be my path to the kingdom.
While my parents were searching for enlightenment, they had a hard time being parents. Their absence from my life and then their eventual divorce was partly where my darkness came from. Later, this pain was intensified by actions of leaders of the community.
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche was born in Tibet. At the age of 13 months, Buddhist religious leaders determined that Trungpa Rinpoche was the reincarnation of a renowned teacher. They took him from his parents when he was two and raised him in a monastery. He fled Tibet after the Chinese invasion. Trungpa Rinpoche came to the west in 1963 when he received a Spalding grant to study at Oxford. He received his degree in comparative religions.
In 1971, a small group of students invited him to Vermont to teach at a center that is now called Karme Chöling. That's when my parents met him. I was born one year later, 1972. Trungpa Rinpoche and a group of students, including my parents, soon moved to Boulder. I was raised in the midst of the Buddhist community that Rinpoche created there.
I felt the magic of the community in which I was raised when I was three years old. My father brought me to the Black Crown Ceremony, one of the most powerful rituals of our Buddhist lineage. In this ceremony the Karmapa, the head of the lineage, places the black crown upon his head and then radiates compassion.
I rode on my father's shoulders so that I could see over the heads of those in the huge crowd. The Karmapa sat on a stage on the most beautiful and colorful brocade throne. Some men in the same-colored robes as the Karmapa were chanting in a foreign language, uttering strange and deep tones that felt to me like a wave of kindness and mystery. Occasionally these men played great long gold and jewel-encrusted horns.
My father had told me that the crown was so powerful that if the Karmapa didn't hold onto it every moment it would fly away. I remember feeling filled with joy through the whole ceremony. I watched every movement of this large, robed man's hands hoping he would let go of the crown so I could see it fly.
Some years later, in spite of such magical experiences, I felt terrified to go into Shambhala centers, the meditation centers of my parents' community. As I have looked into my past, I have found that this fear began when I was eight years old, when my parents divorced and my father took me away from my mother to live for a winter in Vermont at the Buddhist community called Karme Chöling.
That winter was the beginning of many experiences that drove me away from my parents' community: these included Trungpa Rinpoche's death from complications of alcoholism, and, finally, the scandal involving Ösel Tendzin, Rinpoche's lineage heir. These events so wounded me that I no longer wanted anything to do with the community.
However, I had learned two practices as a child that helped me through all of this pain and confusion. One was sitting meditation. I would sit in an upright posture and focus on my breath. When I noticed that I was thinking, I would say to myself, "thinking," and then I would return my attention to my breath. We did sitting meditation to develop more awareness of what was going on inside of us, and also around of us.
The other practice, warriorship training, took place at the Shambhala Sun summer camp, in the mountains northwest of Boulder, which I attended from the age of nine on. Warriorship training involved working with the military forms of British drill, marching, and skirmish, which was a large and elaborate game of capture the flag. The premise was that we would learn to keep our mind in any situation. My fellow camper Noel McKlellan can describe the spirit of Sun camp better then I can. He, like me, participated every year and now helps run the camp for the new generation of dharma brats growing up today.
Noel says, "The Shambhala Sun summer camp was mostly for teenagers in our community. It is based on the idea of using military discipline to bring about gentleness and genuineness, and to experience sacredness. It's something that you could never really explain to someone without their experiencing it, I don't think. The camp takes things like military uniforms, which are usually associated with the idea of killing and aggression, and transforms that into a sense of smile, something that instantly wakes you up." This is exactly how it felt to me to be at camp.
Noel continues, "It's a very relaxed camp. You practice marching and cooking food, and you live in the mountains. I think part of the magic of Sun camp is you are given lots of space. Most summer camps offer constant activities. You are learning to swim, hike, and so on. At Sun camp, you just sit on the mountain. And you start to forget about everything else in the world. At first it's irritating. There is nothing going on. You just hang out with your friends and you learn to live, you learn to look after your clothing and I don't know what you do really. Hanging out is contrasted with formal practice: marching and other precise activities. So you have the contrast of discipline and relaxation."
Sun Camp truly affected who I am today. I have found that, like my peers, I am grounded and can focus easily for long periods of time on any task at hand.
These practices made it possible for me to walk through the last great fire of my childhood: the death of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and soon afterward the scandal surrounding Ösel Tenzin, the Vajra Regent, as Rinpoche's chosen heir was called.
When I heard that Rinpoche had died, I was 13 years old. I had just sat down with a group of friends from middle school to get stoned when the phone rang. It was my mother. She told me that Rinpoche had passed away. In my teens I had very little contact with my childhood community. I was rebelling and pushing against my mother and her belief system, so it was a great surprise to me to feel such strong feelings. I remember feeling a clear and deep pain in my chest as I heard her words. The fun of smoking pot was washed away, and I felt like a dull knife had entered my sternum and was being dragged downward to the pit of my stomach. I felt as though I had lost something so precious that I wanted to give up and die. Until this moment, I didn't know how deeply I loved Trungpa Rinpoche.
Soon after Trungpa Rinpoche's death community leaders publicly announced that the Regent, Osel Tendzin, was HIV positive, and that he had been keeping it secret even from his lovers. Later we learned that he had infected a young man who had in turn unknowingly transmitted the virus to his girlfriend, both of whom were members of the community. All three died of AIDS.
The Regent had been the first westerner ever to become a lineage heir. This was a very big deal both for the community and for Tibetan Buddhism in the west. A westerner as a lineage holder held the promise of taking away the cultural gap between east and west. He could have taught Buddhist wisdom in a way that Americans could better understand and take in fully, we thought. But the scandal made this impossible.
Right up until his death, he chose not to apologize for his actions. And this, I think, ripped the community asunder. I had no opinion of how forgivable or unforgivable were the Regent's actions. So I didn't take a side. But the destruction of the community that ensued made the pain I felt about Trungpa Rinpoche's death worse because all of a sudden I had no community to rely on. Everyone was fighting with each other. A civil war had erupted out of the scandal and the community in Boulder was destroyed.
In my early 20s, my search for the truth and meaning of my childhood took me to Samye Ling, a retreat center in Scotland started by Trungpa Rinpoche and Akong Tulku Rinpoche in the late 60s, before Trungpa Rinpoche came to America. I discovered that the residents with whom I spoke who had known Trungpa Rinpoche became very nervous and cold at the mention of his name. They seemed afraid of something. Their fear, if that was what it was, came out of the early days of Samye Ling when Trungpa Rinpoche had been driven out of the community he had helped start.
The little I could learn of this time from the people I met at the monastery was that in a short period of time Trungpa Rinpoche dropped his monks robes, married a sixteen year old student (his wife until he died), and started drinking and smoking cigarettes. To them the holy man in robes disappeared and all they saw was someone who had gone crazy. They shared stories with me about how he would be found on the bathroom floor, face down, arms outstretched in the position of the cross, saying mantras. And another story told of how he had planted trees in a circle so that he could work with the surrounding spirits; and how the house they sent him to live in when he was asked to leave Samye Ling is still haunted by many ghosts because he was said to have invited all of the neighboring spirits to come and live with him.
The community pushed him out. Akong Rinpoche, his childhood friend and co-founder of the community, spearheaded the movement. This is what drove him out of Scotland. He moved to America with his new young wife, where he started to teach my parents. Trungpa Rinpoche retained his unconventional style of teaching and living until he died.
But I saw that without this painful time in Scotland, which pushed Trungpa Rinpoche out into the world, he never would have come to America, and so never would have affected my life and many others in the way that he did. My visit to Samye Ling showed me that all of my pain and all of the joy I felt as a child growing up in Trungpa Rinpoche's community have been essential to my path of becoming an adult.
From the magical Karmapa and the strange bejeweled horns to the end of my family and then the death of my teacher, my journey has been hard. But there was always just enough goodness and kindness to keep me from falling into insanity and enough hardship to keep me motivated to grow and to practice a spiritual path of my own, and so to directly discover the nature of my mind.
My teacher and friend, Trungpa Rinpoche's son, Gesar Mukpo, described a central truth of my path vividly during a conversation I had with him. Gesar was recognized as the reincarnation of his father's main teacher, and he was one of my close boyhood friends. He gave me permission to share his words here. In this part of our discussion Gesar was speaking of his father's drinking.
"If you become jaded and if you become solid into your self, how are you going to get out of there? You need someone (to help free you), and whatever their thing is, that's their style. Don't cramp their style! Don't cramp my dad's style. He was a drinking madman! How much of a madman are you? How brave are you to really do things? He was a warrior. A warrior with the pen. A warrior with the word. A warrior with the drinking. If you don't like his drinking, he was a fool, he's dead. If you don't mind the drinking thing and think he may have had incredible enlightened wisdom, then you are an eligible candidate for his teachings."
My journey has been challenging and painful but the rewards and jewels of wisdom that were given to me by this madman are so precious that I would never have had it any other way. I am glad to have been one of the dharma brats. Growing up Buddhist in America has taught me how to feel my pain, take responsibility for my actions and be a good human being. And I hope that like my teacher and community leader before me I may become such a wise and crazy madman.