Diana Mukpo was a rebellious teenager when she first began studying with Chögyam Trungpa, a Buddhist Rinpoche who had escaped Tibet in 1959 and began teaching in England several years later. She was just sixteen when they defied both her family and his community to marry.
Dragon Thunder is Diana’s memoir about her 17 years as the wife of one of the most influential Buddhist teachers in America. The book is written in straight narrative that lacks the literary flourishes common to modern memoirs, but the events of her life are interesting enough that I did find her story engaging.
Though Diana does discuss Trungpa’s teachings in the sense of describing how he worked to integrate Tibetan wisdom in to American culture, there is no detailed outline of the finer points of Tibetan Buddhism. The story is told from her perspective and as such spends a fair amount of time relating tales of things like the time their two year old son bit the head off of a scared Buddha and her attempts to live a life independent of the sangha by developing her own career in dressage.
As Trungpa’s wife, lover, friend and student, Diana offers a fascinating perspective on him that no one else can provide. But I found myself disturbed by her extremely detached discussion of some of his more controversial behaviors. Although she acknowledges that Trungpa slept many of his female students and talks about how upsetting that was for her at first, her justification of his actions seemed forced to me. I found it worrisome that she never addressed the problems inherent in a teacher encouraging his students to practice guru devotion while having sex with those same students.
Many people consider Trungpa to be a prime example of a “crazy wisdom” teacher, a being so enlightened and compassionate that this sort of unconventional behavior is acceptable because it is solely for the benefits of his students. Despite Diana’s perspective on the matter, I remained unconvinced that the heavy drinking that killed him at 48 was anything more than alcoholism, and his physical mistreatment of some students was anything more than abuse.
The book did make it very clear, however, that Trungpa was an enormously powerful teacher who left an enduring stamp on Buddhist culture in America. Though I never studied Trungpa’s teachings in depth, I am a graduate of the university he founded in an attempt to integrate the best of Eastern wisdom with Western scholarship. My Naropa education was enormously valuable to me, and though the school has grown well beyond its controversial founder, it remains guided by his vision. So I suppose this makes it a classic example of the fact that spiritual teachers, no matter how controversial, rarely leave a legacy that can be judged in black and white.