Meeting the Teacher

Today, April 4th, marks the 26th anniversary of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s paranirvana, the event in which the body of someone who has attained complete awakening dies. David Dubin, one of his early student, shares the moment he realized that Chögyam Trungpa was his teacher.  

I was scrolling through Netflix when I saw there was a documentary on Buddhism in America. A third of the way through, some well-known Western Buddhist teachers were describing how they met their teachers. Their experiences were all pretty similar: feeling a powerful presence or sense of love from the teacher or simply being “home”. And each experience was ecstatic, like falling in love for the first time. But that wasn’t my experience meeting my guru, Chögyam Trungpa. My experience was one of extreme awkwardness and embarrassment.

I was in my late 20’s and finishing up my training as an emergency room physician in Ohio when I read that Chögyam Trungpa, was giving a weekend program at Karmê Chöling, our center in Vermont. I was very curious. I read some of his books, which I thought were brilliant, but he drank and smoked and slept with women. Appalled and jealous at the same time, these were activities I didn’t associate with Buddhism. But I arranged my on-call schedule, flew to Boston and took a bus up to Karmê Chöling. That night I slept using meditation cushions as mattresses on the shrine room floor. I was surrounded with strangers, and I’m never comfortable around people I don’t know.

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Photo by Ann Spruyt from the Chronicles of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

The next night I was in the main shrine room with about 200 other practitioners waiting for Chögyam Trungpa to arrive. An hour and a half past the scheduled talk time, a gong rang and Chögyam Trungpa came in limping and leaning on the arm of his attendant. I had heard that a few years before Chögyam Trungpa had been in a car accident. He had been drinking and driving and he was partially paralyzed from crashing into a joke shop.

Chögyam Trungpa spoke for only twenty minutes. The parts I remember two questions. One student raised his hand and asked, “What does the Ashe mean?” Rinpoche smiled, lifted a finger, and said “Number one”. There was a silence.

Then someone else asked what a Shambhala Warrior was like. “Cheerful,” said CTR, and he paused for a moment, “But strange”. And then it was over.

The talk, if you could call even call it that, left me scratching my head, but along with everyone else I walked down the hall. There was a reception in the living room where a massive boulder takes up a third of the room. The people who lived at Karmê Chöling tried to decorate it with plants and candles and lights, but it’s hard not to notice a huge boulder in the room. A banquet table with white linen was standing in front of the boulder. There were bottles of Champagne and Champagne glasses, and Handel’s Water Music was playing in the background. I was in the hallway above the living room still feeling confused but also awkward not knowing anyone.

One of Chögyam Trungpa’s students was an opera singer, and he asked her to sing the Shambhala anthem, which she did, and beautifully. Then Chögyam Trungpa began to sing. A terrible, off key sound came out. My body went rigid with amazement not only at the sound but how embarrassed Chögyam Trungpa must be.

It was a high, screeching sound, like a barrel of monkeys being run over by a Mack truck.

At first I thought Chögyam Trungpa was playing a joke on his students, but I looked around and no one was laughing. This just made me more nervous. As a small kid, when a character on TV was making a fool of himself, I became so self-conscious and embarrassed that I would have to leave the room. This was one of those times. I was cringing, and here was Chögyam Trungpa not just singing but no-holds-barred singing, with a whirlwind gusto and such a complete and utter lack of self-consciousness that I was stunned. But that’s when it hit me. That’s when I knew he was my teacher.


David Dubin, MDDavid Dubin, MD was an emergency room physician for 10 years. He currently has a practice in Santa Monica and Beverly Hills specializing in LENS neurofeedback, an emerging brain technology. Dr. Dubin read about Buddhism for 10 years, starting in high school. During that time he managed to progress no further than to give himself headaches. He finally found his teacher, Chögyam Trungpa, and has been part of the Shambhala tradition for more than 30 years. During that time he has taught many Shambhala Buddhist programs at all levels and for 2 years taught a course in meditation at Reed College in Portland.


2 thoughts on “Meeting the Teacher

  1. That’s it! An excellent story, I feel, describing what is meant in Shambhala by Fearlessness. Sing out! Regardless of the monkeys and Mack trucks. Sing out!