Friday, October 21, 2011

Chögyam Trungpa's "Work, Sex, Money": Book Review

Rather than stick to a notion that escaping the city, fleeing from making a living, and eluding the relationships to pursue and bills to pay that make up ordinary responsibility, Chögyam Trungpa urges the listener to embrace the everyday, for there lies the challenge to find balance between the demands of the spirit and the necessities of the body, and in overcoming the dualism that we falsely view as keeping these two apart. In these talks, mostly from the early 1970s, the newly arrived Trungpa tells his American audiences that the spiritual journey takes in the real world. While not really for a beginner to the dharma, the Shambhala (or somewhat secularized) content of some chapters and the down-to-earth advice seems accessible to everyone, even if intended for American Buddhists in the Age of Aquarius.

He often criticizes “spiritual materialism,” the solidifying of the ego into some mystic flight that only traps the self rather than liberating it into a rarified realm. For, the compassionate approach makes us look at the mundane, to find in it our destiny: to seek inspiration in the irritating surroundings in which we were raised, as our “true scripture.” Speaking at a time when many sought “back to nature” as a panacea, he sharply corrects his listeners and connects their misconceptions, for the familiar must be confronted, and compassion must arise in the offices, cities, suburbs, and homes of a less romantic life.

Learning to admire without possessing what one marries, sleeps with, works for, and accumulates means not to grasp at a spouse, a job, a product, or a lifestyle. This is where the title of the book matters. While the sexual aspect is secondary to that of the primal “tummo” energy, free of karmic debt, that can be unleashed in one who does not try to hold on to what one sees, the usefulness of this talks for those striving not to strive so much at work and with money may come in very handy.

He relates the “upaya” masculine principle of skillful means to the “prajna” feminine one of wisdom cleverly. The chaotic and seductive freer potential, he explains, balances the skillful aspects in interpersonal and business communication. Business ethics, in fact, gets its own chapter here as he applies nihilism and eternalism, two extremes that Buddhism tries to avoid, with how colleagues in business must be sought while not relied upon as if always there; similarly, despair that one has nobody to help when problems arise also needs to be defeated.

Trungpa excels at conveying the difficulty of running a spiritually oriented enterprise that always needs to ask for money from those whom it offers a chance to get away from materialism! He tells how money has a “green energy,” and how we inherit a connection for better or worse with money that usually endures for generations in our families and how we are raised.

The ideal marriage, he muses, treats our partner as a best friend and our child as an honored guest. He taps into the energy that allows a playful, responsive, flexible openness that heightens fundamental awareness of what can be done with work, sex, and money. Rather than control, one must learn to simplify life. He notes the Sanskrit “kusulu” tradition of “eating, sleeping, defecating” as the essentials: the rest can be cut back. Not that poverty itself is praised, so much as renunciation of what’s unnecessary.

Money’s compared to a mother’s milk, given freely as more can be produced. It’s a basic form of nourishment, rather than to be feared, in his intriguing presentation. Emanating non-aggression, kindness, and gentleness, Trungpa as a recent arrival to the West hopes that money can be cleansed of its historical taint, its alliances with cheats and colonialism, and that new business ventures by those of his audience may serve as harbingers of a less fraught tension associated with money as greed or shame.

He retells, if very briefly, the basic Four Noble Truths of the Buddha as a guide to find inspiration in avoiding suffering. Not by revelation from a divine message or flight to a forest paradise can the personal journey succeed for a Buddhist, but by taking on work, sex, and money as the challenges where fulfillment may be hard won. In this karmic-free energy, he hopes that his listeners can find freedom from grasping. With wakefulness, the “panoramic” perspective can be opened, and the positive force of a compassion that enjoys the adventure rather than seeking to pin it down to an experience or thing or person can transform the practitioner in the world.

The glossary, notes on Trungpa’s life and books (I have also reviewed his "Born in Tibet," "The Heart of the Buddha," "The Essential Chögyam Trungpa," and his wife Diana Mukpo's biography "Dragon Thunder") and the context of these transcribed talks all enrich this volume. The editors provide helpful footnotes, as when they remind us of the relevance of Trungpa’s warnings about a too-easy superiority of the counterculture rebel’s aggressive stance towards ripping off the system, as they relate this to a contemporary era of corporate greed and rapacious consumerism.

So, decades later, these talks remain helpful reminders of the tasks ahead for anyone who may be tempted to rush away to a quiet retreat, and what happens when the bills must be paid for the stay. Trungpa’s practical concentration, while here and there erratic in its mood and sometimes wandering with its casual tone, remains a thoughtful corrective to those who teach that enlightenment comes easily, or only far away from work, sex, and money. They read as they were spoken, and that simple profundity connects them to the tradition of transmission, one guru to another, over the long centuries down to us. (Posted to Amazon US, 2-21-11.)

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