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5. Art in Everyday Life

Early in his time in America, Trungpa Rinpoche was hailing a cab in New York City. The Beat poet Allen Ginsberg was trying to hail the same cab. They were introduced, and Trungpa Rinpoche, his wife Diana, Ginsberg, and his ailing father shared the cab. After dropping off Ginsberg’s father, they continued to Ginsberg’s apartment, where they stayed up long into the night talking and writing poetry. In the introduction to Volume Seven of the Collected Works (devoted to poetry, art, and theater), editor Carolyn Gimian notes that this chance meeting started a long and fruitful friendship: “On the Buddhist front, Rinpoche was the teacher, Ginsberg the student; on the poetry front, Rinpoche acknowledged how much he had learned from Ginsberg, and Ginsberg also credited Trungpa Rinpoche with considerable influence on his poetry.”

Rinpoche had received training in Tibetan poetics, where the metrical forms were well established and the topics restricted to the spiritual. Ginsberg was a worldly poet, composing in a freeform style. Yet he shared Rinpoche’s deep appreciation of classical forms, believing that learning strict meter allows one to have good rules to break. Poetry became an arena in which Rinpoche could play, and display a sense of humor. For him, humor meant not jokiness, but seeing the dichotomies and the totality at once, which allowed one to play—with one’s communication, with one’s perceptions, with one’s gestures. It evinced real freedom.



In the jungles of flaming ego,

May there be cool iceberg of bodhichitta.


On the racetrack of bureaucracy,

May there be the walk of an elephant.


May the sumptuous castle of arrogance

Be destroyed by vajra confidence.


In the garden of gentle sanity,

May you be bombarded by coconuts of wakefulness.


Trungpa Rinpoche saw art and the arts not as diversions to give one relief from the serious side of life, nor as something for an elite who could afford the time and money. He spoke of “art in everyday life,” that life could be lived artfully. Our speech, our movements, our gestures, our craftsmanship, can be carried out with grace, not self-consciously as a performance, but intrinsically as part of our being—and as an outgrowth of meditation. In fact, he felt that art and artistry emerged from the space of meditation:

Beethoven, El Greco, or my most favorite person in music, Mozart—I think they all sat. They actually sat in the sense that their minds became blank before they did what they were doing. Otherwise, they couldn’t possibly do it.

From early on, he played in many realms: film, theater, song, photography, painting, calligraphy, flower arranging. In 1974, he founded the Naropa Institute (now Naropa University) as a place where an artistic sensibility could be an integral part of higher education. Education at Naropa, he said, would marry intellect and intuition. As Gimian points out, in the Japanese notion of do, or way—as in chado, the way of tea, or kado, the way of flowers— he saw a model for how secular activities of all kinds could become paths to awakening.

Drawing on formal training in flower arranging, he used it as a means to convey certain principles, such as heaven, earth, and human—with heaven representing open space, earth the ground, and human that which joins the dichotomy. In theater, he created exercises that helped actors engage the space around them, coming to know relaxation by knowing tension. In visual arts, he explored the process of perception, the interplay between the investigating mind that looks and the big mind that sees. These teachings formed the basis for a program called dharma art, which used simple exercises like arranging objects to help students go beyond the limits of perception based on ego’s small reference points. He and a team of students created art installations containing outsized arrangements of natural and constructed objects that could bring on a blanking of the mind. (These can be seen in the film Discovering Elegance.) In the path of dharma art, the worldly and the spiritual completely intermingled, and became in his words “an atomic bomb you carry in your mind.”

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