Thursday, April 7, 2011

Diana Mukpo's "Dragon Thunder": Book Review

Chogyam Trungpa's wife's biography inevitably's intimate and reticent. It tells nearly all, yet I felt it held back. The sheer oddness of the marriage between a 16-year old boarding school runaway from an upper-class English family and a refugee lama from Tibet nearly twice her age, soon to become famous for his controversial lifestyle, makes for natural drama. The narrative Mukpo tells (with a co-author who was there for the later period) fills with moments of emotion and commotion. Her life tangles with her Rinpoche; they immerse themselves in a countercultural movement that they then surpass with their own homegrown Shambhala court amidst all the sartorial flair, protocol, and equine trappings of a Gilbert & Sullivan musical.

She tells her life's story clearly if doggedly. Background, as on her family's history, slows the pace down, and those like me who may not be as enthralled by the art of dressage might find the long stretches among horses slow going. Still, her interest in riding as she studies at the Spanish Riding School intersects finally with the Rinpoche's elaboration of his Colorado court; she does her best to explain why he sought to tame the martial showmanship of the court to transform it into a signature method to use aggression to overcome dangerous temptations of the ego.

His life before he fled the invading Chinese as a young man in 1959, his Oxonian education, his tense years in Scotland, his New England and Boulder sojourns, his encounter with Shenryu Suzuki's Zen followers in San Francisco--Diana Mukpo relates these episodes neatly. The book bogs down in daily detail and squabbles among his retinue and between her and family members. However, she hilariously recounts her uncle's rigidity towards her new groom and her mother's concerted opposition that melts in time under his charm. And, the texture of the tension between being the wife of a reincarnated lama, a tulku, and the public persona she must then take on contributes to the varied storyline that her unpredictable life comprises.

Her own years with her husband fill with luxury (a Mercedes, trips to Nice, the Bahamas, a stay at the Ritz among the jetsetting the couple enjoys, although the raising of finances and how they enrich her family in the heyday of his acclaim seem oddly absent from her often warts-and-all recounting), and despair. One of her sons suffers a malady that draws him down; two of her sons are fathered with a man to whom she is not married in an open relationship, if only one to balance the many her husband enjoys in certainly an unconventional marriage in so many ways.

She does sum up the message of her husband: to break down the "spiritual materialism" of Westerners clinging to exotic notions of Buddhism and gurus. Even as Chogyam played up his own celebrity in his invented retinue, he sought to shatter stereotypes, destroy defences, and undermine expectations of how a Tibetan transmitted the dharma to coddled, complacent, yet often sincere and yearning Americans. In this, his wife sees his greatest achievement: giving Westerners the antidote they need in a time of "pain and chaos" that demands honesty and courage. He did this by confronting people and forced them to capitulate, for their own good. His means to this end involved much dodgy behavior, but his "crazy wisdom" at least to his defenders puts him in a venerable lineage of Tibetan teachers of this style.

She may despite revealing much to us not tell us all, and as with his alcoholism that did him in at an early age, it seems she underplays the impact his self-destructive behavior had. But, she strives to be charitable to all involved in this saga. So, she judges him kindly, and readers finishing this thorough presentation (perhaps overly so for those not intimate with her subject, perhaps necessarily elaborated for one so utterly different than the world to which he fled) will understand his impact, his reputation, and his legacy more fully than before. (Posted 3-21-10 to Amazon US)

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