The student-teacher relationship is always an intimate and intense one, and who could be closer to the guru than the student who is also his wife? Diana Mukpo was married to the late Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a figure of controversy whose genius surpassed convention, and undoubtedly one of the great Buddhist teachers of the twentieth century. She talks about her challenging, inspiring, and entirely surprising life married to the guru.

“Born a monk, died a king.”

That was Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s summation of the arc of his life as one of the most influential Buddhist teachers of the modern era. Now, in a tender, passionate, and frank memoir called Dragon Thunder: My Life with Chögyam Trungpa, the woman who shared the most private moments of Rinpoche’s controversial life—his widow, Diana Mukpo—finally tells her version of their story.

Diana married the former monk when she was 16, scandalizing her upper-class British family. Together they came to America , where Rinpoche founded Shambhala International and Naropa University, transplanting the most dynamic aspects of Tibetan Buddhism to American soil. “Ultimately I think that this is the essence of the Buddhist teachings: they are about how to live our lives, intimately, moment to moment,” she writes. “So I will try to share with you what it was really like to love such a person.”

To his students, Trungpa Rinpoche embodied nonconceptual mind, attending to each situation with spontaneous elegance, provocative humor, and a warrior’s grace. One of the most poignant truths that comes through the book is how Diana’s own lack of preconceptions freed Rinpoche to give himself fully to his students without hindrance. With refreshing candor, Diana also relates the struggle to define her own identity beyond being the wife of a mahasiddha, raising a family at the center of what she calls a “dharmic pressure-cooker.”

When I came to Naropa to study with the poet Allen Ginsberg in 1977, Rinpoche was on retreat. But the seeds of enlightened society he planted in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains had a profound effect on me even in his absence. Poets, artists, psychologists, musicians, and spiritual leaders from a broad range of traditions flocked to Boulder, adding their own distinctive heat to the dharmic pressure cooker. When dawn and dusk reddened the Flatirons, hundreds of orange cushions swarmed like fireflies toward the meditation hall.

Rinpoche died in 1987, but Diana is flourishing in a new life with her second husband, Dr. Mitchell Levy, a senior member of the sangha. With other members of Rinpoche’s family, she is also a leader of the Konchok Foundation, dedicated to restoring the monastery in Tibet where Rinpoche trained as a boy and aiding the people of the region who live in great poverty.

Ultimately, the unorthodox love story at the heart of Dragon Thunder offers universal lessons in the transformative power of love and devotion. As Diana puts it, Rinpoche “is no longer outside of me, so when I turn to him, I turn to my own wakefulness.”

Steve Silberman: Even before you saw Trungpa Rinpoche for the first time at a lecture at the Buddhist Society in London , you were reading and thinking about Buddhism. What drew you toward the dharma?

Diana Mukpo: I’d been raised in the Anglican tradition, and the answers I was getting at that point just didn’t make sense to me. I started to read about different world religions. The first book I read on Buddhism—I believe it was one of Christmas Humphreys’—talked about letting your ego go completely, and that horrified me. I thought that this religion was definitely not for me.

But I kept coming back to dharma because it related to my own experience. It wasn’t a question of believing in something that was unseen; it was about really looking at the quality of my mind and working with that. It felt like the most real thing I had encountered in my philosophical search.

SS: In the book, you write about having a profound experience of recognition the first time you saw Rinpoche at that lecture. You write that you felt like you were coming home. What was it about his presence that you found so powerful and so uncannily familiar?

DM: I could say a lot of different things, but honestly I don’t know. There’s no way to conceptualize it; it was overwhelming. There was an intense sense of familiarity just from seeing his physical presence. It was very, very strong and I have no rational explanation for it.

SS: Trungpa Rinpoche was still wearing his traditional robes then, but by the second time you saw him, he was no longer wearing robes. He had already been involved in the car accident that paralyzed one side of his body, and he seemed to you like a completely different person. You write, “Now he was much more heavy and solid and he had an unfathomable quality.” Did you ever talk to Rinpoche about the accident and how he felt it changed him?

DM: Yes, we did talk about the accident. He regarded it as a message that he had been setting himself apart from people in a way, that he had been offering some sort of illusion to people because of their state of mind at that point. He felt that by wearing robes, he had created a subtle division between himself and his students, and that the car accident was a sort of cosmic message that he needed to fully plunge into absolute, direct presentation of the teachings in the West.

At the time, there was an intellectual approach to spirituality, which the English have always gravitated toward, and people tended to translate Buddhism into Christian terms to a certain extent, as opposed to connecting with the psychological component and understanding the practice lineage. This phase that Buddhism was in may have been one of the reasons why Rinpoche decided to give up his robes. He wanted to work with people more directly and to cut through this sort of conceptualization.

SS: It was on your second visit to his center in Scotland , Samye Ling, that he invited you into bed. He was 28 and you were 16, correct?

DM: I signed myself out of my boarding school—to tell you the honest truth, I don’t think I was 16 yet, I think I was still 15—and I found my way up there. He wasn’t really receiving visitors at that point but I was quite insistent that I get to see him, and that’s when we ended up having our first sexual encounter.

SS: In the eyes of a lot of people, a sexual encounter between a 28-year-old spiritual teacher and a 15-year-old potential student would be considered at the very least outrageous, and at the very worst exploitative. But you didn’t feel that way, apparently. In the book you write, “It was in fact exactly the invitation I was hoping for at that moment.”

DM: For him there was a slightly different cultural context, you know, because people in Tibet tended to get married a lot younger than they do in the West. From my perspective, I really was not attached to the conceptual norms I had grown up with; to a certain extent I’d rather radically rejected my culture. I really wasn’t looking at it from the reference point of whether it was appropriate or not. I simply had this unbelievable connection with him that felt to me very natural.

I think you can say the proof is in the pudding. I don’t feel I was exploited because this was not a casual encounter. This is something that developed into a deep, meaningful, lifelong relationship. It was not a frivolous encounter. On the other hand, one can’t emulate Rinpoche’s life. I think that would be very dangerous, and I’m certainly not saying that I would condone 28-year-olds sleeping with 15-year-olds. This was a special and unique situation with a special and unique person.

SS: Your first stopping point en route to the United States was Canada , because you had visa problems. You were living in modest circumstances but received help from some of Rinpoche’s American students.

DM: The initial couple of weeks we hadn’t connected with anyone to help us. We were very, very poor. We lived in an old studio apartment in the university district of Montreal and we basically ate only rice. After a couple of weeks, we connected with students who were able to help us. These were American students who had studied with Rinpoche at Samye Ling, and they had decided to start a practice center in the United States .

SS: This became Tail of the Tiger in Vermont . From your description, the atmosphere in the early days there was quite informal. People were dropping in and out at all hours. Rinpoche was wearing overalls and living very intimately with his students. Was this difficult for you at times?

DM: Well, at times that was difficult for me all the way through, even as the situation evolved over the years. Rinpoche was very, very patient with his students. Initially, he met people at their own level at a place where he could really communicate with them, and then gradually things evolved. One of the pivotal points was the visit of His Holiness the Karmapa in 1974, when the mandala Rinpoche created around him as a teacher changed. Rinpoche had so much devotion and respect towards His Holiness, and his students were able to observe that. They began to understand how they should express their devotion to Rinpoche, who had never asked for anything like that for himself.

SS: After you moved to Boulder , Colorado , there was a tremendous evolution of the community in a very short time, with the establishment of the Naropa Institute and the growth of Rinpoche’s sangha. What was it like to be there as all of Rinpoche’s different programs flourished and people started coming from all over the world to study?

DM: You know, I didn’t have much of a conceptual reference point at that point. You have to remember I was very young. But I trusted Rinpoche implicitly, and it was wonderful to watch the richness that was coming into our lives. I watched his world grow and develop. The brilliance of his mind tended to magnetize all sorts of situations. It was very exciting. It was a very happening time.

SS: At that point, did you consider yourself a student of Rinpoche’s or something different because you were his wife?

DM: I always considered myself—and I still do—primarily a student to Rinpoche. My relationship with Rinpoche was initially a spiritual connection, which evolved into a love relationship as well. But first and primarily I always felt that I was his student.

SS: In a personal sense, what was it that made you fall in love with him?

DM: He was the kindest person I ever met. Sometimes I hear people talk about being afraid of him because he could be rough. Of course there were times he could be rough, and he had so much insight into people’s minds. You always felt he could read you like an open book, but he never misused his power. What he did was always based on empathy. He was an unbelievably kind, insightful, and intelligent person.

SS: In a poem that Rinpoche wrote to you in 1982, he said, “You never hesitate to tell me the truth when you see the falsity.” What was it like to be in the position of standing up to someone like that, whom other people saw as close to infallible?

DM: First, Rinpoche always wanted feedback. He very, very much encouraged his students’ critical intelligence. One of the reasons that people were in his circle was that they were willing to be honest and direct with him. He definitely was not one of those teachers who asked for obedience and wanted their students not to think for themselves. He thrived, he lived, on the intelligence of his students. That is how he built his entire teaching situation.

From my perspective, I could always be pretty direct with him. Maybe I was not hesitant to do that because I really trusted the unconditional nature of our relationship. I felt there was really nothing to lose by being absolutely direct with him, and he appreciated that.

SS: One of the things that people who knew Rinpoche often said about him was that he was not ordinary—that he lacked ego in the usual sense and that the habitual patterns of human personality were simply not present in him. What do you think about that? Did you relate to him as an ordinary human being as well as a great tantric guru?

DM: Actually, no, to be honest, not at all. Rinpoche wasn’t ordinary. There was nothing about him that was ordinary. I remember looking at him and thinking, I can never really predict how you are going to react to something. Generally, you know how people you are close to will react to things, but you could never predict Rinpoche’s reactions. On that level he was unfathomable.

Rinpoche didn’t have two personas, one out there with the public and one at home. He was always the same person. He was absolutely extraordinary, and I think I’m a good judge of that, having lived with him all those years. So no, there was no occasion in my entire marriage to him that I thought he was an ordinary person [laughs]. Sometimes I craved that. I’d say to him, “Come on, just be normal for one evening, take me to the movies,” and he would say to me, “I am going to stay at home because it is the best movie of all.” [laughs]

SS: Did you ever go to the movies with him?

DM: I think we went to a couple of movies, which was pretty notable. I remember we went to Chitty Chitty Bang Bang after we got married. We went to Love Story and we almost got thrown out.

SS: Why?

DM: [laughs] Because he was making loud comments because he didn’t like the sort of… [laughs]. He was going “Yuck!” when she was dying. He was misbehaving in the movie theater and they told us that if he wasn’t quiet we’d have to leave.

SS: Do you recall ever getting angry with him?

DM: Sometimes we would fight. We would have a really angry fight, and then the air would clear right away—we never hung on to our fights. We would get very mad at each other, and then an hour later everything would be fine. I think the only times I had some depth of anger with Rinpoche was when I felt he wasn’t taking care of his health. I knew that his primary commitment was to his students and to teaching, but it was painful for me to see him lose his health. Sometimes I was so angry that he wasn’t taking better care of himself.

SS: By the time I got to Naropa in 1977, there was a lot of talk about Rinpoche’s drinking, and students had different explanations for it. In 1972 Rinpoche wrote, “Whether alcohol is to be a poison or medicine depends on one’s awareness while drinking. Conscious drinking, remaining aware of one’s state of mind, transmutes the effect of alcohol,” and I remember people quoting that quite a lot. I have two questions: why do you think Rinpoche drank so much, and do you feel it ever became a poison for him?

DM: Well, this is a complex question. I should probably start by saying that not everybody will agree with what I have to say about this, and that’s OK, because Rinpoche by nature brought about controversy.

I think that Rinpoche probably drank because he felt it facilitated his ability to teach in the West. I think he drank because he felt that he was able to harness more energy to teach. If you look at what a task it was for him to bring the Buddhist teachings over here, and what he did in such a short period of time, I think he felt that alcohol facilitated that for him.

Now other Tibetan teachers would refer to Rinpoche as a mahasiddha, that he was not an ordinary person, and he would have been the first to say that people should not imitate his behavior. Knowing Rinpoche as I did, he was not a traditional alcoholic. You never felt that he just lost it when he got drunk. I never experienced him that way. On the other hand I do think it became a poison because I think it was one of the contributing factors to his physical decline and death. So I think it was both a medicine and poison for him.

SS: Did you ever ask him to stop drinking?

DM: Yes, many times. Sometimes he did for a little while, but it didn’t last.

SS: One of the most impressive things about Rinpoche was how he practiced and promoted what he called dharma art in many different forms: poetry, calligraphy, flower arrangement, music, even graphic design. When I first sent away for the Naropa catalog in 1977, I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was and what a unified design sense it had. What was it in Rinpoche’s background that prepared him to became a creator of dharma forms that went far beyond those of traditional Buddhist practice?

DM: That’s very much tied in to the total picture of what occurred for Rinpoche in bringing the dharma to the West. It’s an extension of that. As the buddhadharma spreads, it has taken on the flavor of each different culture where it manifests, and this was happening for the first time in the West. Now, in order to bring the dharma to the West, Rinpoche faced quite a few challenges. In Tibet , dharma had been practiced largely in a monastic setting. Particularly as Rinpoche started to introduce the Shambhala teachings, his view was that the dharma could only work in the West if it was applicable to householders, to people who had careers and families and children. So he worked to bring the concept of dharmic society into people’s homes and into their lives all the way through.

I think an offshoot of this was that he appreciated all of these different disciplines and saw the potential for wakefulness and beauty within the different Western traditions. I think one of the unique things about Rinpoche was that he appreciated many different cultures, traditions, and religions and was able to see the potential for human wakefulness within them.

SS: You make it clear in your book that Rinpoche was very supportive of your own independent identity and, in particular, your practice of dressage.

DM: I had enjoyed riding throughout my entire childhood and during my teenage years. I started riding again after we moved to Colorado, and at some point I realized that my dressage component was very weak. I took a year off to study dressage and completely fell in love with the art and the discipline. Then I realized that I couldn’t get the proper training in Colorado if I were to really become good at it. So I told Rinpoche that I wanted to go to California to study dressage. He said, “You’re not going to be at home, I am going to miss you,” and I said, “That’s fine, but if I don’t go I’m going to give it up, because I’m not really interested in pursuing something if I can’t really be good at it.” He thought about it for a little while, and from there on he encouraged me all the way through.

In fact, he was quite delighted when I wanted to go to Europe to study there. We took a trip to Vienna together to see the Spanish Riding School, and he was overcome with the beauty of the school. He cried, in fact, when he saw it, because he had a real feeling that the genuine Shambhala tradition was being manifested there. He thought it was absolutely fantastic.

Later, before I went to the Spanish Riding School, he said something very interesting to me: “Sometimes people who really achieve the pinnacle of their discipline—not only in their riding but in other arts—these people who are great artists, they have a lot of problems in their personal life.” I said to him, “Why is that the case?” and he said, “Because they really have such a profound experience of wakefulness when they’re performing their art but they don’t have the tools to bring it into their life. So they’re always missing that in their day-to-day life.” And I did observe that to be true.

SS: As your home situation became more formal and elaborate, as it evolved into the “ Kalapa Court ,” how was that for you? Did it seem like a natural progression of your role in the community or did it feel odd to suddenly have these people serving you dinner and that sort of thing?

DM: Well, I had grown up in a relatively formal British household, so some of it was familiar. But Rinpoche was not imitating the English; he was using some of their forms. Obviously, he wouldn’t have wanted to adopt the entire English tradition, but there were certain aspects of English culture—the table manners, the way you might furnish your house, the way service can be manifested—that he appreciated as expressions of mindfulness. He had the same feelings toward Japanese culture; he really appreciated the aesthetics.

The court was sort of a dharmic pressure cooker. There was tremendous energy there. I think it was a kind of formula he developed to work with his students on a very intimate level. As people would serve him, they were genuinely able to connect with his mind.

For me, one of the hardest things in the court was the complete and total lack of privacy. Rinpoche was always, always inviting people into our life, constantly. He had no sense of personal privacy or space, and sometimes that was difficult. Combined with this feeling of isolation and the situation of being his wife, sometimes it was difficult for me to form genuine relationships with people.

SS: Throughout the book, you describe the difficult job of balancing a marriage, a family, and your own life against Rinpoche’s historic work. I imagine that a lot of people who are married to important figures find themselves in this situation. Did you ever feel you were being taken advantage of as a woman by ceding first place to his work as a spiritual teacher?

DM: Not at all. Had I not had a commitment to the dharma myself, I might not have been able to understand it. But all the way along I realized that what Rinpoche was doing was going to enrich the lives of thousands and thousands of people, so had I tried to claim him for myself I think it would have been tremendously selfish. I think that I was able to understand that completely. At the same time, I always knew unconditionally that if I needed him, he would be there. He was fiercely loyal to the family in that way. So, that was not a problem for me.

SS: Another thing for which he was known, and which is a source of controversy, is having many lovers among his students. You address this very straightforwardly and honestly in the book. That’s something that most spouses would find difficult to live with. How were you able to?

DM: Well, I know the whole thing was very unconventional, yet at the same time I felt completely, totally loved and adored by Rinpoche. So I never questioned the root, the fundamental aspects of our relationship. Yes, the first time he slept with somebody I had a very difficult time with it, but generally after that I understood he was much more than just my husband. Rinpoche had intimate relationships in many different ways with many of his students, and the fact that he slept with different women was an expression of the intimacy that he had with people. Another thing that was important was that Rinpoche never attempted to hide anything about his behavior. He was always forthright and there were no secrets. I didn’t really have any difficulty with it because I think that people were never exploited. The hallmark of Rinpoche’s life, the way I saw him, was that he never did harm to others, and people came out of those experiences feeling good. So, within the nonconceptual, unconventional aspects of the whole thing, it all worked out fine.

SS: Perhaps because of those kinds of controversies, do you think he has been misunderstood by the culture at large, or even by his own students?

DM: That’s interesting. Rinpoche was never free from controversy, but I think he has been more misunderstood after his death than when he was alive, which was one of the motivating factors for writing this book. Because he had such a powerful presence and his actions were so appropriate, they made sense to people when they were in a particular situation with him. But when you tell the story out of context, it’s easy to misunderstand it. People develop various lines of thought because they don’t have the total picture, and I think there’s been a little bit of that since his death. When he was alive and people had direct experience of him, that wasn’t so much the case, because he had such a powerful, electric presence and he connected with people so strongly.

SS: Did you have to go through any blocks in yourself or fears in order to write the book?

DM: No. I think that because of my relationship with Rinpoche I’ve always felt comfortable plunging headlong into things. I know that Rinpoche’s life was full of controversy, and that we didn’t particularly take a comfortable road. I’m sure some of the responses to my book will not be free of controversy either, but I’m ready for that. It was not an ordinary life. It’s not an ordinary book.

SS: What lessons did you learn from Rinpoche’s death?

DM: I think the same lessons that many of his close students learned. There was a tremendous feeling of protection when he was alive. Then when he was no longer with us, we had to figure things out for ourselves. On an ongoing basis Rinpoche’s close students have had to internalize the teachings and really understand them. They’ve had to take the responsibility to implement the teachings in their lives. It’s been a continual growth process and I think his close students have developed into quite remarkable people. As difficult as it was, it almost took Rinpoche’s death for people to gain a better grasp of his teachings.


[Steve Silberman writes about science, creativity, technology, and the brain for Wired magazine. He fondly remembers Allen Ginsberg telling a class at Naropa in 1977 that the students who hadn’t yet taken meditation instruction were “amateurs in a professional universe.” Silberman and his husband live in San Francisco. Used by permission of the author.]