Buddhist Teacher Orders His Students to Remove Their Clothes Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Vajrayana Buddhist teacher Chögyam Trungpa, founder of the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, was a controversial leader whose life and practices came to a head at a three-month educational retreat. Trungpa instructed his students to strip their egos, which included stripping their clothes, at a Halloween party, but two students, poets W. S. Merwin and Dana Naone, refused. The resulting scandal symbolized for some the behavioral extremes of the counterculture movement in the United States during the 1960’s and 1970’s. For others, Trungpa’s methods reflected a different form of Buddhism.

Summary of Event

Chögyam Trungpa was born in Tibet and trained as a Buddhist monk. Displaced from his homeland at the time of the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, he spent time in India, England, and Scotland before coming to the United States in 1970. By this time he had gained considerable renown as a teacher and religious leader. In 1974, he founded the Naropa Institute (now Naropa University) in Boulder, Colorado, the first Buddhist school of its type in the United States. He was also a focus of controversy for his behavioral extremes, which included heavy drinking, womanizing, and the heavy-handed treatment of his followers. [kw]Buddhist Teacher Orders His Students to Remove Their Clothes (Oct. 31, 1975) Trungpa, Chögyam Buddhism;and Chögyam Trungpa[Trungpa] Naropa Institute Poetry Trungpa, Chögyam Buddhism;and Chögyam Trungpa[Trungpa] Naropa Institute Poetry [g]United States;Oct. 31, 1975: Buddhist Teacher Orders His Students to Remove Their Clothes[01550] [c]Public morals;Oct. 31, 1975: Buddhist Teacher Orders His Students to Remove Their Clothes[01550] [c]Religion;Oct. 31, 1975: Buddhist Teacher Orders His Students to Remove Their Clothes[01550] [c]Cultural and intellectual history;Oct. 31, 1975: Buddhist Teacher Orders His Students to Remove Their Clothes[01550] Merwin, W. S. Naone, Dana

In the fall of 1975, Trungpa began a three-month intensive-training program for advanced students in Vajrayana Buddhism at the Eldorado Lodge in Snowmass, Colorado. In contrast to other forms of Buddhism, Vajrayana practice focuses on a direct approach to achieving enlightenment, an approach often involving a complete surrender of adherents to the influence of their teacher. Among the participants were poets W. S. Merwin and Dana Naone.

Merwin at this time was well established in his career. He had published his first collection of poems, A Mask for Janus, in 1952 and won a Pulitzer Prize for The Carrier of Ladders in 1971. He had came to Naropa in the summer of 1975 to study Buddhism under Trungpa and to teach poetry. With close to one dozen years separating Merwin and Trungpa in age, however, and coming from very different cultural backgrounds, the older Merwin’s scholarly, intellectual propensities from the outset seem to have run counter to Trungpa’s so-called crazy-wisdom approach to imparting Buddhist teachings. Nonetheless, Merwin was eager to participate in the three-month program, and Trungpa, who was impressed with Merwin’s poetry, allowed him and Naone to attend.

An area of difference between Trungpa and Merwin soon surfaced when Merwin refused to take part in the violent and angry chanting that was a part of Vajrayana training. Other conflicts arose as well, and involving not only Merwin. Trungpa’s Vajrayana security guards were armed with peashooters that they used to attack recalcitrant participants. Some participants initiated violent counterattacks against the guards and Trungpa. At one point a pitched battle broke out between the opposing groups using ice snowballs. On another occasion, Trungpa’s room was ransacked and his liquor stolen when he failed to appear for a scheduled lecture.

The climactic incident involving Merwin and Trungpa took place at a Halloween party that participants were required to attend. The event, for Trungpa, offered an opportunity for individuals to strip themselves of their superficial egos, and as the party progressed, this involved stripping their clothes as well. Several people either had their clothes pulled off or voluntarily stripped and were carried around naked by Vajrayana guards. Trungpa himself had stripped earlier in the evening but temporarily left the party. When he returned—intoxicated—and discovered that Merwin and Naone were not present, he ordered the Vajrayana guards to find them.

Finding the door to Merwin and Naone’s room locked, the guards attempted to break in. A number of other people joined the guards outside the room as well. Some of the guards tried to get in the room through a glass door on the balcony. Merwin, who was known for his strong pacifist beliefs, nevertheless called out from inside the room that if anyone broke through either of the doors he would attack them. A lengthy period of negotiation followed, with those outside relaying messages from Trungpa that attendance at the party was required. Merwin shouted back that he considered the party to be beyond the limits of the seminar he was attending.

Eventually, at about midnight, the guards broke through the glass door and entered the room. Merwin defended himself and Naone by attacking and cutting several guards with a broken beer bottle. He was overpowered and with Naone was forced downstairs to the party. A loud verbal altercation took place between Trungpa and Merwin and Naone. The argument between Trungpa and Naone was particularly vicious. During the course of the exchange he accused her of being a slave to a white man (she was of Hawaiian background) and she called him names such as “fascist,” “bastard,” “Hitler,” and “cop.”

Trungpa once again ordered them to remove their clothes, and when they refused, he ordered the guards to strip them. After they had been forcibly stripped, the rest of those present undressed as well, and the whole assemblage danced. The next day, Merwin and Trungpa met and discussed the incident. Trungpa informed Merwin that he was free to leave the seminar if he wished. Merwin, however, elected to stay. He continued to attend Trungpa’s lectures but refused to participate in any of the other activities. Another party was announced two days before the end of the program. Slides taken at the Halloween party were set to be shown. It was at this time that Merwin and Naone left Snowmass.

While the scandalous incident at Naropa was well known within Buddhist and literary circles, the story became much more widely known a few years later with its retelling in a 1979 Harper’s magazine article by Peter Marin (“Spiritual Obedience: The Transcendental Game of Follow the Leader”). Two small-press publications—The Party: A Chronological Perspective On a Confrontation . . . (1977) and The Great Naropa Poetry Wars (1980)—also documented the incident.

Impact

The Naropa scandal added to the growing controversy surrounding Trungpa’s lifestyle and religious practices. His detractors saw the scandal as further evidence of wild and uncontrolled behavior that was at odds with the messages of self-control and compassion that lay at the heart of Buddhist teachings. Others saw his actions falling within the tradition of highly eccentric Tibetan Buddhist saints from centuries before—for example, the eleventh century saint Marpa Lotsawa or the fifteenth century saint Drukpa Kunley. These saints engaged in brutal domination of their disciples and practiced a kind of “crazy wisdom” in their own lives to bring themselves and others to enlightenment.

For others the incident stood as an example of the final stages of the 1960’s and early 1970’s counterculture, during which the idealistic dreams of the early phase of the movement came to an end in a tragic mix of self-indulgence and disillusionment. Sadly, of course, Trungpa’s behavioral extremes, and especially his drinking, contributed to his relatively early death twelve years later at the age of forty-seven. Trungpa, Chögyam Buddhism;and Chögyam Trungpa[Trungpa] Naropa Institute Poetry

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Butler, Katy. “Encountering the Shadow in Buddhist America.” In Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature, edited by Jeremiah Abrams and Connie Zweig. Los Angeles: Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1991. Offers a Jungian perspective on Trungpa’s message and other outrageous aspects of American Buddhism during the period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Feuerstein, Georg. Holy Madness: The Shock Tactics and Radical Teachings of Crazy-Wise Adepts, Holy Fools, and Rascal Gurus. New York: Paragon House, 1991. Places Trungpa within the so-called crazy wisdom tradition, both in Tibetan Buddhism and in the broader dimensions of spiritual practice.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marin, Peter. “Spiritual Obedience: The Transcendental Game of Follow the Leader.” Harper’s, February, 1979. A retelling of the Naropa scandal in which the writer uses letters to stand for Merwin and Naone. Their real identities quickly became known to knowledgeable readers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mukpo, Diane J., with Carolyn Rose Gimian. Dragon Thunder: My Life with Chögyam Trungpa. Boston: Shambhala, 2006. The autobiography of Trungpa’s Western-born wife, whom he married in 1970 and who remained with him until his death in 1987. Provides useful, if sometimes biased, insights into the complexities of the person as well as his life at the time of the Naropa scandal.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paine, Jeffery. Re-enchantment: Tibetan Buddhism Comes to the West. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004. A popular history of Tibetan Buddhism in the United States that discusses Trungpa’s place within its development and offers a brief discussion of the Naropa scandal.

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