From the first seminar, called "The Battle of Ego" in Los Angeles, to filming his cremation on a cloudless but rainbow-filled day in Vermont, Chogyam Trungpa blew my mind. Being in his presence was like being suddenly aware of an oncoming truck -- it put every cell in your brain SMACK! -- into the present moment. And in that moment you could be outraged, moved to tears, or inspired ... usually all at once. It was 1971 and I had never met a Tibetan Buddhist high lama before (who had?).
He wore suits, spoke precise English and openly enjoyed women (in spite of being married). At the time, I was married with little kidlets and although I didn't practice it, open marriage wasn't such a shockingly big deal back in the 70s. To quote Pema Chodron, "Sexuality didn't bother people in those days, drinking didn't bother people, but put on a suit and tie? Forget about it." With Trungpa, nothing was hidden; it was up to each person to make their own judgments about the behavior of the teacher. So it took years of practice and study to understand that in Tibetan Buddhism, his outrageous "crazy wisdom teaching style" was just another tradition. Take it or leave it.
There was an urgency about him that was difficult to resist but exhausting to experience. In the film, I begin with phrases from a liturgy he wrote where he warned of the destructive power of the "... thick, black fog of materialism." This is set against a montage of images of contemporary wars, disease, pollution and economic frenzy. Trungpa's words from back in 1968 predicted the state of the world we're living in today. Yet he had complete confidence that humanity was basically good and could reverse the materialistic trend. He dedicated his life toward that goal.
As soon as Trungpa landed in the U.S. in 1970, he began to magnetize some of the country's prominent spiritual teachers and intellectuals -- including R.D. Laing, John Cage, Ram Dass, Anne Waldman, Gregory Bateson and Pema Chodron. Poet Allen Ginsberg considered Trungpa his guru; Catholic priest Thomas Merton wanted to write a book with him; music icon Joni Mitchell wrote a song about him called, "Refuge for the Road." Humor was always a vital part of his teaching -- "Enlightenment is better than Disneyland," he quipped, and he warned us of the dangers of the "Western spiritual supermarket."
In the five years plus of active filmmaking it's taken to make this film, the greatest challenge has been to not be seduced by putting Trungpa into the simplistic categories of sinner or saint. What inspired me was the daunting possibility of creating an experience for the audience to catch a glimpse of the unconditional brilliance of an enlightened mind, Tibetan Buddhist style.