December 27, 2008

The Vajra Regent, Osel Tendzin: Photos of an American Buddhist Dharma Heir.

The Sun of Wisdom: Thomas Rich, the Vajra Regent Osel Tendzin

Just ran across this brief, silent photo history (click on video, below) that provides a rich opportunity for contemplation of the Vajra Regent‘s charm, vigor, prominence, teachings and tragedy. If you have photos you’d like to see on this page, just email me and I’ll post ’em for all to enjoy.

I took my refuge vow with him—it’s the vow that formally inducts one onto the Buddhist path—and his calligraphy of my ‘Refuge Name’ still hangs on my wall, beside my Bodhisattva Vow calligraphy via the Regent’s only father guru, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche.

The Regent’s enthronement as Trungpa Rinpoche’s Dharma heir was a big deal—he was I think the first American to be honored (saddled) with such a heavy responsibility. A forceful, remarkable teacher of Buddhism, I still remember sitting in a room in Karme Choling with my best Dharma Brat buddy, Noel McLellan, our jaws dropping as the Regent cut off a questioner’s obsequious, superfluous complements and cut to the heart of her question—it was simultaneously harsh, and enlightening, and kind, and a relief for questioner and witnesses alike.

Unlike Trungpa Rinpoche—who I remember as a kindly, mild, slow-talking grandfather—the Regent was wonderful with children. Why, after taking that Refuge Vow, which went until midnight or something (wayyy past my bedtime), he took me aside and made sure that I understood his lecture about compassion and such (I forget, sadly, as 22 years have passed), which of course I only half-did.

When, in 1987 I think, the Regent became (like my idol, Magic) one of the first prominent Americans in my life to fall to AIDS, I cried. When it turned out he’d passed it on to a dear friend, not fully understanding or acknowledging the nature of AIDS, I was so angry (I still vividly remember that when, in 1989?, the co-director of KCL told all of us in the Main Shrine Room, I asked her a question in public, a biggish deal for a boy, and broke down a bit mid-question). We went and visited the Regent, who gave a defensive, angry talk at the Boston Shambhala Center. He was a huge part of my childhood world—it was like seeing the Flatirons crumble—something wonderful and majestic and uncompromising suddenly falling apart.

It was only at my Seminary, in 1992—which the then-Sawang, now-Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche (Trungpa Rinpoche’s eldest son and my guru) led for the first time (he had leapt in, not quite yet prepared, on a virtual white horse to save and lead the fast-crumbling Vajradhatu/Shambhala mandala I’d so recently thought was vajra)—that I spontaneously ‘forgave’ this too-mortal hero of mine, whom I had loved so much. It was the fourth or fifth anniversary of his passing, and we’d all gathered in the Main Shrine Tent, and I wound up telling a story about how he’d signed and given me a Tintin book in the original, Buddhist-owned Boulder Bookstore, and I wound up crying (which I never do, I’m emotionally wicked retahded). 

And so his legacy is a bit like the story of Icarus—he flew above all of us American Buddhists, inspired us, and ultimately couldn’t quite handle the impossible turbulence and white heat that goes with operating at such a high altitude, so close to the Sun of Wisdom (a term used for enlightenment in the Buddhist tradition). 

Please note: This little writeup is not meant to be authoritative—it’s just a humble, feeble, personal recollection. If anything seems off, please email me and I’ll fix it prontomissimo.

For those American Buddhists who may feel that this is ‘dirty laundry hung out to dry,’ please remember that all facts have long been available to all—as well as many mistaken versions and rumors thereof, that this I hope may help to correct—it was reported at the time in The NY Times, the Boston Globe, and the full story now lives on on shambhala.org, on wikipedia, google, The Warrior King of Shambhala (click here for transcript), other books, and other sites. And here’s a great ‘open letter’ to check out. More importantly, please know that the above is offered with love and honesty, both, and that any errors in the telling are my own.


One extra, with thanks to Kate Crisp:

photo by:

photo via Satdharma.


Postscript: before posting the above recollections I asked a savvy, well-educated, non-Buddhist friend of mine who has done a few Shambhala Training Levels to read over the above and let me know if anything was confusing, offensive, etc. When I asked him to do so, he initially said, “Oh, wasn’t [the Regent] the Buddhist AIDS rapist?” No!

Years ago, when I was at Naropa, a student said, “Yeah, didn’t Trungpa give AIDS to his students?” No!

Seems people know rumors, but not always what actually happened. And, so, the above is offered in hopes of helping to clarify what happened. The non-Buddhist friend of mine, post-reading, suggested that I remind my fellow sangha members that many non-Buddhist great men have likewise fallen victim to their own charm and power, and had extramarital affairs—MLK Jr., JFK, Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson…the list is (too) long.

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