Wrathful teaching

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche riding in uniform

The Vidyadhara, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, riding in military uniform

The student of Tantra should be in a constant state of panic. That panic is electric and should be regarded as worthwhile . . . . Panic is the source of open heart and open ground. Sudden panic creates an enormous sense of fresh air, and that quality of openness is exactly what Tantra should create. —Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Several of Ngak’chang Rinpoche’s lamas were known particularly for their “wrathful” teaching style. Understanding this is helpful in making sense of some contradictory claims about their relationships with Ngak’chang Rinpoche. (Rinpoche himself is not a wrathful lama.)

Wrathful teaching is the style that is most useful for students doing wrathful practice. If you have not already read my page on wrathful practice, it would be good to do that now—the rest of this page will not make sense without that background. Briefly, in wrathful practice, a student, who must be totally committed, deliberately produces negative emotions in order to transform them. This is the fastest method in Buddhist Tantra—and the most difficult and dangerous.

The term “wrathful” is somewhat misleading. A “wrathful” teacher is not typically angry. Rather, it is the style of teaching that gets the fastest results by any means necessary. The teacher often deliberately provokes negative emotions in students. This gives the student material to work with, gives the teacher an opportunity to demonstrate or explain how to transform the emotion, or tests the student’s transformative ability.

The most obvious method is to display anger at a student. This is properly seen as a form of “personality display,” rather than ordinary anger—an emotion a qualified lama will have fully transformed. Another common technique is to lie to the student, telling them something they would naturally have a strong emotional reaction to. Or, the lama may put a student “on the spot,” by telling them to do something frightening, asking a pointed question, or insulting them, in public. Wrathful lamas exert enormous pressure on their students to carry out difficult real-world tasks. They may deliberately inflate a student’s ego—and then suddenly pop it.

Students commonly experience freak-outs, hurt feelings, panic, confusion, and emotional roller-coaster rides when working with a wrathful teacher. The sangha of a wrathful lama may resemble an institution for the violently insane. This is part of what you sign up for if you choose a wrathful lama. It has to be seen as non-problematic.

Wrathful teaching is only useful to a tiny minority of students. A student must have total trust that the lama is acting for the student’s benefit—or these methods are experienced simply as abuse. The student must be completely committed to the teacher and the practice, or they will just drive the student away. The student must have sufficient preparation and skill in transformation, or the strong negative emotions will only reinforce neuroses.

Students who are qualified for wrathful teaching are rare and remarkable. Wrathful lamas place immense trust in such committed students. Lamas give such talented students extraordinary responsibilities.

Wrathful display

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche was famous for his wrathful teaching methods. To better understand Ngak’chang Rinpoche’s relationships with his teachers, it would be useful to read any of the recent Trungpa Rinpoche biographies. (There are similar accounts of the teaching methods of other wrathful lamas, but Trungpa Rinpoche is the one I know most about.) I will quote mainly Jeremy Hayward’s Warrior-King of Shambhala: Remembering Chögyam Trungpa.

As well as warm and benevolent, however, Rinpoche could also become overpoweringly wrathful, berating us suddenly and unexpectedly, cutting through our arrogance and hesitation with piercing accuracy. He overflowed with stark compassion that was uncompromising with conventional niceness, often creating friction and feistiness among us that ignited a flame of great power and energy—all so that we could have the chance to leap to another level of genuine understanding. (p. 12)

Rinpoche had a sharp sense of humor that often cut through the petty uptightness and self-importance of all of us. And he used to find fault with our petty narrow-mindedness. (p. 56)

The push-pull pattern of the way Rinpoche related to his students comes across so clearly in these incidents. There were times when Rinpoche would be so cutting, so ferocious, that you would feel crushed; and then there were the other times where he would say something simple, like “Hold the fort,” and fill you with warmth and confidence . . . It was not a matter of artificial manipulation of people, but rather of allowing the natural situations of push and pull to become teaching opportunities. In this way, we were kept off balance—expecting the unexpected. Some students felt manipulated and angry. Others were more willing to go along with the roller-coaster ride—seeing it as an opportunity to learn. Actually, all of us probably felt both ways at various times. (pp. 82-83)

Hayward describes a time when someone asked Rinpoche if he could turn water into wine. He asked that a bucket of water be brought, and he handed out glasses to everyone, who seemed to get high. Then he went into a rage and screamed “Fuck off! Do you think I'm Jesus Christ? Get out of here!” (Apparently the idea that he could perform such miracles was idiotic, and everyone who went along with it was being an idiot.) The person who suggested it tried to apologize, but Rinpoche punched him so hard he flew across the room. (Hayward, p. 52)

Outrageous statements and actions

A wrathful lama often makes outrageous statements. These are not statements of fact or fixed opinion. They are often outright lies. They function to provoke emotions in students—either to test them or so the lama can work with the upset.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s wife tells a story about this. She was bothered that their son was not upset at the death of a pet bird.

Rinpoche said, “He's a Tibetan. We aren't sentimental.”  . . . We had a little dog at this time . . . who was absolutely devoted to Rinpoche and went everywhere with him. I said, “Well, come on. How would you feel if [the dog] died?” And he said, “That would be OK.” . . . Then I thought of Rinpoche's horse and said, “All right then. How would you feel if Drala died?” He replied, “Well, that would be expensive.” Then, very foolishly, I upped the ante, and I said, “Well, how would you feel if your wife died?” He said, “Oh well, that would be cheaper.” Then he broke into a wide grin. (Dragon Thunder, p. 334)

In this case, he let her in on the joke almost immediately, but there must have been a moment of shock.

The lama might not correct the misunderstanding for a long time, or ever. John Riley Perks tells several stories about this. Rinpoche once told him that they were going to invade Nova Scotia. Perks was to lead a commando unit that would attack various military bases. Perks was surprised but enthusiastic. “You might have to kill,” Rinpoche said. “But I thought we are not supposed to kill,” Perks replied, somewhat alarmed. “Just a few resisters,” said Rinpoche. Perks thought about it and agreed. Rinpoche explained that Perks would need to steal all of the military equipment for the assault. Perks got really excited about this “covert operation.” Rinpoche kept him going for several weeks. (The Mahasiddha and His Idiot Servant, pp. 111-112)

Rinpoche loved to play practical jokes on his students. On one occasion, he told the guests at a dinner party that he and Perks had developed ESP from working so closely together. They demonstrated this for the initially-skeptical guests, using a simple trick. The guests were very impressed and left the party believing that Rinpoche was telepathic. Rinpoche’s purpose seems not to have been impressing them with his (fake) powers, but to provide a gap in their complacent world-view (and probably to amuse himself and Perks). He doesn’t seem to have ever bothered to tell the guests that they had been suckered. (Perks, pp. 84-86.)

Wrathful teaching and humor

Rinpoche enjoyed provoking strong emotions. He found them entertaining, and he found it fun to shock, confuse, and upset students. That is because, from the viewpoint of enlightenment, negative emotions are funny, and samsara is a game.

Perhaps that sounds abstract, inconceivable, or unlikely. It is not so mysterious, though. Everyone has had the experience of getting all worked up about something, suddenly realizing that it is trivial, dropping the emotion, and then finding the whole episode funny. The more you meditate, the more often this happens.

Laughing at students in distress might seem cruel. But, according to Buddhist Tantra, wrathful teaching is the most powerful catalyst to enlightenment. It is the most compassionate possible action. The moment of realizing an emotion is empty, and can be dropped, is a leap forward on the path. The lama’s laughter is a reminder to open up and stop taking emotions seriously.

Creating panic

Hayward describe an incident at the first Vajrayana Seminary. This was a three-month full-time program Trungpa Rinpoche created to introduce students to Tantric practice. The night before he was scheduled to give the first Vajrayana transmission, Rinpoche talked until very late, far past dinner time. Hayward spoke up and suggested postponing the remainder of the talk to next day. Rinpoche “stormed out in a black cloud.”

Hayward went to find him and apologized. “He put his arm around me and hugged me. ‘It wasn't your fault,’ he whispered, ‘I was setting up a [wrathful] mandala.’” Apparently, Rinpoche deliberately ran late, in order to provoke a student into challenging him, with the intention that he would then manifest wrathfully. He then disappeared for three days, leaving the students uncertain whether he would teach Vajrayana at all. (pp. 97-98)

On other occasions:

[Rinpoche stormed around at four in the morning] banging on pots with a stick, shouting, “Why doesn't anybody want to wake UP!” . . . As he raged around I felt, or perhaps projected, his tremendous frustration and disappointment at his students, so stuck in our little domestic comfort worlds. (pp. 333-334)

When he spoke sharply to me . . . each time it was a little shock, as if I had been asleep and he had thrown cold water in my face to wake me up. It helped me to let go and open. (p. 334)

He loved to push things to the edge and make everyone extremely nervous. (p. 342)

Exerting pressure

According to Hayward,

He was very charming and kind to new students, but behind the scenes . . . [he showed] a lot of fierce impatience toward the older students. (p. 347)

Page 376 describes “tremendous pressure”; “he had constantly driven us,” with frequent major changes of direction. His students were constantly exhausted.

Ego inflation

The main danger with wrathful practice is that the student will go off on an ego trip, becoming hideously arrogant. A wrathful lama may deliberately arrange circumstances to produce this effect in a student, as a demonstration for all of what not to do. The lama then publicly destroys the student’s inflated ego.

In his view, the role of the teacher was to blow up the pimples of his students' egos until they finally popped. He couldn't necessarily do this personally with every one of his students, but he would create the environment for this to happen. And such an environment it was! It was as if he created a hall of many mirrors in which we could see ourselves, with all our negativities and brilliance, in whatever direction we looked. All of our passions, jealousies, doubts, competitiveness, speed, and laziness seemed to come forth in abundance around Rinpoche, and he seemed to delight in it all. He would say, "I eat my students' shit.” (Hayward, p. 60)

He made a point of saying over and over again, “When students get fat like big ticks you have to pop them out into space.” (Perks, p. 195)

There is a classic story about this method. Unfortunately I do not remember which lama it is about, and I don’t have a printed reference.

The lama put a senior student in charge of a retreat center. The student thought that made him special. He became increasingly arrogant, abusive, and obnoxious. Other students went to the lama to complain—but he did nothing. This went on for what seemed far too long. Then the lama called a meeting. He had the senior student stand silently at the front of the room. He had each of the other students in turn say how he felt about the bully—who now suddenly was the victim.

This sort of lesson you could never forget. Some students might feel permanently crushed, or might be filled with long-term resentment or rage. For the right student, it could be powerfully transformative. They would learn that a position of power and responsibility makes it more important, not less, to be kind, considerate, and respectful to everyone.

Trust and responsibility

Rinpoche seemed to have immense trust in his students and to see the very best possibilities in us along with our arrogance, self-doubts, and hesitations. He would put us in positions that he felt could bring out that best . . . He would push and squeeze us . . . He was willing to take tremendous risks with his students, putting us in positions of responsibility and then leaving us to it, letting us make our own decisions and mistakes . . . And no matter what mistakes we made, he never gave up on his students. (Hayward, p. 230)

Trungpa Rinpoche gave his senior students jobs that went far beyond what they thought they were capable of. Many rose to the occasion and found strengths they did not know they possessed. Others failed—but then he found them other, surprising positions.