KCL New York Times Article 1987


A Tibetan teacher who made Buddhism accessible to a generation of Americans, including poets, psychologists and investment bankers, was cremated today in an ancient funeral rite before more than 2,000 students and friends.

In a meadow ringed with pine and maple trees near this little town in northeastern Vermont, the body of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who died of a heart attack in Nova Scotia on April 4 at the age of 47, was set afire shortly after noon.

As a cloud of smoke rose into the blue sky, Americans in business suits and lamas in maroon robes prayed for the teacher’s reincarnation. First Such Ceremony in U.S. It was the first time such funeral rites for a high Tibetan lama were held in the United States, organizers said. Their teacher, known by his honorific Rinpoche (”the precious one”), was widely regarded as the most successful lama in making Buddhism accessible to Westerners.

‘There really has been a meeting of East and West, despite Kipling,” said the poet Allen Ginsberg, a student of the Rinpoche for 15 years.

”Nobody here is crying, ‘Oh dear Guru, don’t go away,’ ” Mr. Ginsberg said, referring to the Rinpoche. ”His teaching is part of our minds now. In a sense we look though his eyes as some look through Hemingway’s or Dostoevsky’s eyes.”

Mr. Ginsberg told how the Rinpoche made the 1950’s Buddhism of a fellow writer, Jack Kerouac, come alive for him. And he spoke of others like himself who came under the Tibetan’s influence. These included the composer John Cage, the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, the psychiatrist R. D. Laing and the novelist William Burroughs.

The celebratory mood of the daylong funeral very much reflected Buddhist teaching, which sees death as a passage to another and often better life. In each life, the objective is to become as fully enlightened as Buddah, the founder of the religion, who lived in India in the sixth century B.C. and whose name in Sanskrit means ”the awakened one.” Tanglewood, Not Woodstock

The crowd, with blankets, cushions, lunch coolers and backpacks for their toddlers, had more of the character of Tanglewood than Woodstock.

David I. Rome, who served for many years as the secretary to the Rinpoche, winced when a reporter compared the event to a ”grown-up Woodstock,” the 1969 music festival in upstate New York that became a symbol of the counterculture movement.

”People are here out of a deep sense of commitment and devotion,” Mr. Rome said, adding that the cremation was a time for students to ”purify and reaffirm their connection with the teacher, and in particular with the mind of the teacher.”

Officials also rejected the idea that they were ”followers” of the Rinpoche. ”We are followers of the Buddah,” one official said.

The Rinpoche’s students believe that he was the 11th incarnation of a Tibetan teacher who first lived 1,100 years ago. The lineage is part of the Kagyu school of Buddhism; the Dali Lama, who was both the spiritual and civic leader of Tibet, was the head of another Buddhist school, the Gelugpa.

Like the Dalai Lama, the Rinpoche fled Tibet in 1959, when Chinese troops crushed a Tibetan uprising and nearly suppressed Buddhism. After living for two years in India, the Rinpoche studied at Oxford University and founded a meditation center in Scotland. Monastic Vows Relinquished

In 1969 he relinquished his monastic vows, a move that he said could enable him to work more effectively work with Western students. His subsequent involvement in secular life, including his marriage in 1970, was criticized by some Buddhist lamas. He is survived by his wife, the former Diana Judith Pybus, and five sons.

The Rinpoche moved to the United States in 1970, where he founded the Naropa Institute, a liberal arts college in Boulder, Colo., and more than 100 meditation centers, which make up the 5,000-member Vajradhatu International Buddhist Church. One of the major centers is the 540-acre Karme-Choling here, where he was cremated today.

Early this morning, as the mist rose off the Green Mountains, the body was carried in a procession to the meadow in an upright closed wooden box. The body, embalmed in salt according to ancient custom, was arranged inside the box in a meditative sitting position.

The box was placed in a two-story-high stupa, a vase-like brick structure, surrounded by colorful banners. After three hours of meditative prayers, a cannon was fired, a bagpipe whined and the fire beneath the stupa was kindled. A Choreographed Ceremony

There was a great cacophony of Tibetan horns, cymbals, drums and bells as the flames devoured the body. Fifty visting lamas and scores of American students threw offerings of rice, wheat, barley and pure butter into the fire. Four Zen archers, carrying bows and arrows, performed a choreographed ceremony around the fire.

Mr. Rome, the former aide to the Rinpoche, said many of his students were drawn to him in the early 1970’s, when they were involved in communal living and the drug culture. ”We were told by the Rinpoche to retrieve our own culture,” said Mr. Rome, who is president of Schocken Books Inc., a New York publishing company.

Emily Wolitzky, who traveled here from her home in Tucson, Ariz., to attend today’s funeral ceremony, said that ”the whole point” of the Rinpoche’s teaching ”is not to be spaced out but to be very grounded in life.”

Many of the students who gathered here said they regarded the tribute to the Rinpoche as a vindication of their involvement with his teaching. Some told of estrangement from their families over their decision to embrace Buddhism.

”My mother had this paranoia that this was a cult thing,” said one student in her 40’s who asked not to be identified by name. ”I wish she were here. Even she could accept this.”

Original archived article can be found here:  https://www.nytimes.com/1987/05/27/us/2000-attend-buddhist-cremation-rite-in-vermont.html