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Dragon Thunder: My Life with Chögyam Trungpa

By Diana J. Mukpo with Carolyn Rose Gimian


Excuse Me, Sweetheart

Diana Pybus was sixteen years old when she married Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. Her family was strongly opposed and the marriage caused a sensation in the British press. The pairing was not only exotic—upper-class English girl and Tibetan lama—they were also the first people to wed under a new Scottish law allowing marriage at the age of sixteen.  


The press went to my mother’s house in London and said they wanted to ask her some questions about the daughter who’d just married a Tibetan gobo. They didn’t know what a guru was, so they kept calling Rinpoche my “gobo,” a meaningless word. My mother went into shock and said, “Oh my God, oh my God, Tessa [Diana’s older sister] got married. I can’t believe it.” Then they told her, “No, no, it’s not Tessa, it’s Diana.” My mother fainted.

The next morning after the marriage ceremony we got the newspapers and discovered that our marriage had made the front page of the People and the Express, as well as the back page of the Sunday Mirror, none of which are among the better English papers. The Sunday Mirror featured a picture of Rinpoche and me, with the caption “Diana, 16, Runs Away to Marry a Monk.” Seeing our picture in the tabloids must have been terribly humiliating for my mother.

However, for me, the most outrageous event occurred after all the reporters had gone away and the phone calls had ended. Late that morning, while we were lying in bed, Rinpoche decided he would call some friends to announce our marriage. His first call was to a friend in Wales, and I remember him saying, “Mary, a very exciting thing has happened to me. I’m married.” And then he said, “Yes, yes, she’s sixteen years old.” Then I could hear her talking on the other end of the line, but I couldn’t hear what she was saying. Rinpoche looked slightly quizzical, there was a pause, and then he said, “Hold on a minute.” He put his hand over the mouthpiece of the telephone, and he turned to me and said, “Excuse me, Sweetheart, but what’s your name?”

He had actually forgotten my name! Rinpoche lived his life without the conventional reference points that most of us cling to as the anchors of our sanity. I don’t know if you can possibly imagine what I felt like at this moment. It wasn’t that I felt he didn’t care about me or that fundamentally he didn’t know who I was. In fact, he knew me better than anyone else did. But on the morning after our wedding, he couldn’t remember my name. Not at all. Not Diana, not Pybus, not any of it. So I told him my name, and he happily went back to his phone conversation as though nothing had happened.

I, meanwhile, was freaking out. There was no regret on my part, but I realized that I had gotten myself into the wildest situation possible. I lay in bed thinking, “I don’t know what’s going to happen in my life. You know, I really at this point do not know at all what lies in my future. But I do know one thing: my life will never be boring. It definitely is going to be amazing and unusual.” On the whole, I was both excited and terrified at the prospect of spending my life with such a person.

That was how our marriage began. I don’t really blame my parents for the unusual path I’ve taken. They had something to do with it, but it is also the result of who I am. I chose this marriage and this life. Until I met Rinpoche, I never could connect with the world as a whole. I always felt different. I never felt like I was one of “them” at all. Meeting Rinpoche and being in his world were the first real things that happened for me in my life.

Once I entered his world, I didn’t have any objective reference points, nothing to fall back on and say, “Well, this is normal, this is civilized. This isn’t.” For me, there was absolutely no other reference point. Just him. Just us. Just our marriage. I spent a lot of years married to Rinpoche operating in that space with him.

Later, when I started my intensive dressage training, I knew that I had to acknowledge the conventional world and some sort of conventional wisdom and behavior if I was going to find a place for myself in the riding world. I tried to keep those two worlds, my marriage and my career, separate so that I would be accepted in the riding world. Rinpoche’s world was not a problem for me. It was just a bit of a balancing act.


Second Best


Leaving Scotland under difficult circumstances just two and a half months after their marriage, Diana and Chögyam Trungpa arrived in the United States to find American students open and receptive to the Buddhist teachings. Chögyam Trungpa’s rapid rise to prominence as a spiritual teacher began in a small farmhouse in Vermont then called Tail of the Tiger.


The main house at Tail was small, with a living room and kitchen on the main floor and several tiny bedrooms. Upstairs, on the third floor, a somewhat larger room was turned into a meditation hall. Rinpoche and I were given one of the rooms on the main floor as our bedroom, in the back. Our bed was a mattress on the floor. Most of the people who came around in that era, both men and women, had long hair and were sort of grungy. I continued to wear the hippie caftans I had brought from England, but I added peasant blouses, flowing skirts, and the occasional short skirt to my attire. At the beginning, Rinpoche’s dress was noticeably more conservative than his students.’ He liked to wear an ascot with a silk shirt, for example. After a little while, however, he changed his dress a bit to go along with what other people were wearing. Rinpoche bought some embroidered Mexican shirts, and he used to wear those. He also got into a flannel shirt phase for a while.

There was group sitting meditation in the shrine room upstairs every morning. I often sat with people, although some mornings I would sleep in with Rinpoche. There were a lot of late nights. In the evenings, people would gather in the living room, and Rinpoche and I would hang out with people for hours. Sometimes he would just talk with people; sometimes he would give a short lecture in the evening. The activity would go on late into the night. Up to this point, to some extent, I had had Rinpoche to myself, and I had done everything for him—cooking his meals, washing his clothes, making appointments for him, and so forth. It was an adjustment to have so many people around all the time and to have to share him with everyone. Although I sometimes missed the time we had had alone together, I was fundamentally very happy to be there—with him and everybody else—and delighted to see him able to expand and relax so much. He was really launching his campaign on the American soil.

One time, when we were alone in bed, I was feeling romantic, and I said to him, “I love you more than anyone in the whole world!” He replied, proudly, “I really love you too. I love you second best of anything in the world.” I said, “What do you mean, ‘second best’?” Then he replied, “First I love my guru, and my guru is the buddhadharma. I’ll always love the dharma more than anything else. But you’ll always be the thing I love second best. My first commitment isn’t to being a family man, but to propagating the Buddhist teachings. This is the point of my life. Hopefully the two things can work together.” Even in matters of the heart, he was uncompromisingly honest.


Magnificent, Unstoppable

An exciting spiritual, intellectual, and artistic scene quickly developed around Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche as word spread that a hip, powerful, and provocative Buddhist teacher had established himself in the college town of Boulder, Colorado. Diana Mukpo, still a teenager and soon to be a mother, worked to balance home and marriage with her husband’s historic work.


People were arriving from the East and West Coasts, as well as from the Midwest. Some people flew in, but in those days, it was more than likely that someone would arrive in an old car with belongings strapped to the roof. Some people hitchhiked into town. Some took the bus. All of them seemed to converge on our house. There were people there morning, noon, and night.

Even though the scene was sometimes crazy and intense, I enjoyed it most of the time, especially in the two months before our child was born. In the evenings, the house would fill up with people, and I would sometimes cook dinner for everyone. There might be twenty or thirty people for dinner. I would make a big roast or a pot of stew, and we would all sit around and eat together in the kitchen.

It was a wonderful era. Anything seemed possible. It was around this time that it dawned on me that Rinpoche was going to create something magnificent. All of us, I think, began to realize that his influence was going to be enormous, on a grand scale. It seemed unstoppable. He was so much vaster than anybody else I have ever met. I began to see Rinpoche as a mahasiddha, someone who outwardly may live an ordinary, secular life but whose every action is an expression of ultimate sanity, or wakefulness, and compassion. I don’t even think it had to do with him choosing to live his life this way. The essence of his being was on a different plane than most other human beings, including most of the other Tibetan teachers. There were absolutely no boundaries to his compassion and his desire to present the teachings. His passion and his role in this lifetime was to present Buddhism in the West, and he put up no barriers between himself and others.

Rinpoche did business at the house, as he had no outside office in those early days. He was making plans to write books, make movies, open meditation centers. He was writing poetry, writing plays, taking photographs, giving a talk every other night of the week. He was planning to go back and forth from Boulder to Vermont several times a year, and there were requests from people all over the country for him to come and teach. There was endless activity, and he involved his students in every aspect of making and carrying out these plans.

When you think about the raw material that he had, it’s quite amazing that he trusted these people—all of us—to help him spread the buddhadharma in America. In fact, this was a very important way that he worked with people and trained them. I say that from my own experience. I learned so much from him, from everything he did and everything we did together. He gave me such confidence about who I was and what I could do. At the same time that he would build you up, he would also call forth the most genuine part of yourself, and he wore down the problematic parts. But he never did this by belittling you. He was very skillful that way. The only problem was that sometimes people lost track of the fact that they still had a lot of work to do on themselves. Living in his world, you sometimes felt that you had accomplished the whole thing on the spot. From some point of view, you had, but then there’s always the path. We all have that to work on.


On Bended Knee

Diana’s mother continued to oppose the marriage—there were even rumors she had put out a contract on Trungpa Rinpoche’s life—but when she came to Boulder at Christmas one year to visit Diana’s sister and her husband, Trungpa Rinpoche decided he must win her over.


Seemingly out of the blue and certainly not to my liking, Rinpoche announced on Christmas Day that he would like to invite my mother to dinner with Tessa and her husband Douglas. I was astounded. I thought that there was not a chance that she would accept. So I said, “Go ahead.”

Rinpoche asked his kasung to drive the Mercedes over to Tessa’s house, which was only about a five-minute drive from our home. He asked the attendant to deliver an invitation to Mrs. Pybus, my mother, to come for Christmas dinner. The attendant dutifully went with the invitation, but returned empty-handed. Mrs. Pybus had replied that she would only accept the invitation if Rinpoche would come himself and beg her forgiveness on bended knee for having stolen her daughter away.

Rinpoche was so excited. He was already dressed to the nines for dinner, and he immediately asked for his coat and hat and went off with the driver. He went to Tessa’s house, where he went down on his knees and apologized for taking her daughter and invited her back to Christmas dinner. She was, I think, completely disarmed by his willingness to humble himself in this manner. She accepted the invitation.

They arrived back at the house together, with Tessa and Douglas in tow as well. I was somewhat in shock. Rinpoche, however, was beaming. As you can imagine, my mother was thoroughly impressed with the house, the dinner, the service—the whole thing. It was quite different from our lifestyle a few years earlier. In addition to our family, the Regent and Lila and their family joined us for dinner, and I believe there were several other guests, nicely dressed and on their very best behavior. My mother made charming chitchat with people, and she herself was clearly charmed. She and Rinpoche had a long conversation about the history of European architecture over drinks. By the end of the evening, she was completely won over. Rinpoche sent his car to take her home, the perfect crowning touch.

Rinpoche was enormously pleased with himself for having won her over. After she went home from Christmas dinner, we sat up for awhile in the living room talking about what had happened. At one point, he turned to me with a huge smile on his face and said, “If I can conquer your mother, I can conquer the whole world!”


Queen-Consort

By the late seventies, having established himself as the leading Buddhist teacher in the United States, Chögyam Trungpa began his presentation of the Shambhala teachings, a non-religious meditative path bringing dignity, confidence, and wisdom to every facet of life. He and his Sakyong Wangmo, his queen-consort, would lead the establishment of this enlightened society.

Rinpoche felt that the teacher in this situation has to set the example for the students, as is true throughout the Buddhist teachings. In presenting the Shambhala teachings of enlightened society, he felt that his own life should be an example, his life should be an open book, or an open court, I guess. In some way, this had always been true, but clearly this was moving to another level.

In Tibet, Rinpoche’s teacher Jamgon Kongtrul had talked to him about how a monk might have to become a king for the teachings of the Buddha to survive in the modern world. At first, Rinpoche seemed to think that this mainly meant that the presentation of Buddhism in the West would need to be more secular, less monastic. Beginning in this era, however, he began to see this as more literal advice. I think he felt that he was to be a messenger for the Rigden kings as well as their servant; he felt that he had to embody the enlightened energy of Shambhala as best as he could. And the model for that, in terms of everyday life, was the court of the king and queen. Voilà the Kalapa Court. Voilà its occupants: Rinpoche and me.

[Later, when I became uncomfortable in this role] he explained to me that the future of the dharma in the West would inevitably involve pain and chaos. That made sense to me because I could see that the way he was working with people was preparing them to take on more responsibility, either within Vajradhatu or the larger society. You could see that people were becoming much more tamed and much more commanding at the same time. At that point, I was more able to relax and accept the situation.

After we talked, things seemed better to me. I decided that we weren’t really nuts, although we were decidedly eccentric. What we were doing had a purpose that was founded in truth. Rinpoche also said that he was trying to provide an example for people, a structure for them to learn how to be, in ways that would be helpful to them. He talked about the importance of manifesting Shambhala society within our day-to-day lives. He was always thinking about how he could bring more people in and how he could work with people in an intimate way.

While I could accept this intellectually, it was extremely difficult for me to accept a total lack of freedom in my everyday life, which my role implied. Whenever I was living in Rinpoche’s world, there was absolutely no break, no time off, so to speak. For so many years, even my bedroom wasn’t my own. My attendants would come in and out of the bedroom all the time, and I was expected to be kind to them. There were constantly other people in the house. If I went into my kitchen, there were always other people there, even at three a.m. Although people were polite to me, there were people serving at the Court, especially men, who didn’t understand what I needed for my children and myself. Rinpoche was asking me to do what he had done, which was to accept having no privacy.

I gained some insight into how Rinpoche lived his whole life when I went to Tibet after his death. I saw that many of the teachers there live this way. They are completely accessible. People just come into a teacher’s room unannounced all the time. I realized that this was how Rinpoche grew up—without any understanding of what privacy meant. He belonged to the people. Maybe it’s easier if you’ve grown up in that environment.

It was, however, a big jump for me. Rinpoche wasn’t any longer just the Buddhist teacher going into his office and giving talks. He was essentially asking me and his whole family to join him in this new teaching adventure. He was asking me to also take on a role and to train people as well as train myself. Now it wasn’t just that he wanted me to put up with students being around all the time. He also wanted me to think of myself as a teacher or a role model in the Court. It was intense and challenging. At the same time, it was remarkable, given his upbringing and his culture, that he wanted to offer such respect and responsibility to a woman. He had developed tremendous respect for women, and proclaiming my role as the Sakyong Wangmo was a way of expressing that.


These excepts are from Dragon Thunder: My Life with Chögyam Trungpa by Diana J. Mukpo with Carolyn Rose Gimian. © 2006 by Diana J. Mukpo, Carolyn R. Gimian. Published in September by Shambhala Publications.

Dragon Thunder, Diana J. Mukpo with Carolyn Rose Gimian, Shambhala Sun, November 2006.

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