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My Teacher Reggie

Some basic facts about my teacher Reggie Ray

I’m about to head off across the Atlantic and spend three weeks in the Rockies with my teacher Reggie.

So I thought I’d jot down a few thoughts and feelings about him – since I’m constantly referring, at least obliquely, to him in so many of my podcasts and blogs.

Reginald Ray is an American scholar and teacher of Tibetan Buddhism in the tradition of his teacher, Chögyam Trungpa, who he first met in 1970. The year I was born.

I’m not going to re-cycle biographical facts that I’d have to look upon the internet here. I’d rather simply put what I know about him on the page and more importantly what he means to me as a practitioner and teacher myself.

The sketchiest of biographical sketches

From what I’ve gathered, Reggie grew up in an East Coast affluent family in Connecticut. And from what he mentions in his talks, it was an outwardly wealthy but inwardly impoverished childhood. His mother in particular was not demonstrative or loving and he has spoken of having a constant desire to run – run from the silent insanity of his family’s dysfunction.

He studied History of Religions under the famous scholar of shamanism, Mircea Eliade and became a graduate scholar in Chicago. Which is when he met Trungpa. He also speaks of a crippling depression that affected him in those years before meeting Rinpoche.

Trungpa Rinpoche had just left (or been kicked out, depending on whose story you follow) Samye Ling, the Scottish monastery that he and his fellow Tibetan refugee, Akong Rinpoche had founded in the 60s. Akong favoured a conservative path of preserving the Tibetan heritage that was being destroyed by China. Trungpa wanted to make the teaching live again by transplanting it into the modern world. The tension between the ‘crazy wisdom’ moderniser Trungpa and the enormously compassionate stabiliser Akong plays out still in the Buddhist world.

How my story touches into the Trungpa – Akong split

This is the first intersection with my Buddhist story since Samye Ling (and its meditation Holy Island) was my first exposure to Buddhism of any stripe. As you know I have a profound heart connection to the Island and, indirectly, with the sangha at Samye Ling. I took refuge there in 2000 with Akong Rinpoche’s brother, Lama Yeshe who is the Abbot.

When I first met Reggie, my mission (in my head) was to get him to come and teach Holy Island and somehow close the circle by bringing Trungpa’s teaching back into the Samye Ling mandala which he left/was kicked out of some 50 years previously. That is still a work in progress.

The early years with Trungpa in the USA

When Trungpa landed in the USA in the early 70s it was with a vision of planting Tibetan Dharma in the Wild West minds of the 1960s generation of America. He saw the season as propitious to do something new with Dharma. And Reggie was part of the raggle-taggle bunch of first students that gathered around him.

Reggie often talks about the wild energy of that time. Most people off their chops on LSD, drunk or stoned and with the sexual afterglow of the Summer of Love still manifesting. By all accounts, Reggie was the square one. He didn’t do drugs and was studying as an academic while most of his fellow cohort were beatniks or drop-outs.

Nonetheless, for the remaining 17 years of his life, Trungpa Rinpoche transmitted a vast and dazzling body of high Buddhist teaching. Mostly in the course of several three-month ‘seminaries’ where he unpacked the vast corpus of Tibetan teaching to his growing group of students.

Crazy wisdom or just crazy?

I won’t go into the controversies that surround Trungpa here. In the present climate, his behaviour would be condemned out of hand, no doubt. But despite his hard drinking, outrageous behaviour, sexual shenanigans, Reggie maintains a fierce love for this man. And although I was only a teenager when he died in Nova Scotia from alcohol-related issues, I can see how brightly his teaching shines through Reggie’s work and when I read the transcripts of Trungpa’s lectures, it’s quite dazzling how he articulates the Dharma in such a fresh and mind-boggling way.

It’s perhaps a testament to his power that he is still held in such high regard by Buddhist teachers of many different stripes. Including the late Akong Rinpoche who made peace with him and flew to his death bed. In all my years at Samye Ling, I never heard a bad word said against Trungpa. (Unfortunately, the reverse is not true. Trungpa’s American disciples are often quite rude and ignorant about Akong’s work in the world. This is sadly true of Reggie himself.)

When Trungpa died, his organisation fell into terrible disarray. But one part of his legacy flourished and that was the Buddhist university called Naropa that he set up in the Colorado town of Boulder. Reggie was the first permanent faculty member and taught at Naropa for 35 years. He built up a large following of students and published several scholarly tomes on Tibetan Buddhism.

Reggie’s unique contribution to Trungpa’s legacy

About 15 years ago – he made a split from the Shambala organisation and on the urging of his own students started teaching on his own, under the banner of Dharma Ocean.

Around this time he was also given a terminal diagnosis which – after a few months – was suddenly and mysteriously reversed. But that face-to-face encounter with death seemed to galvanise him into a white-heat of writing and teaching.

Over the course of several years of summer and winter ‘intensives’ where he teaches at the beautiful Burning Mountain Retreat Centre in Crestone in the Rockies, Reggie put forward a startling re-articulation of the Tibetan teachings. Just as Trungpa before him had transplanted ancient and feudal teaching into the soil of 1970s America, Reggie found a way for people around the world to engage with these teachings in the middle of the hyper-connected but somatically-impoverished world of the 21st century.

Putting the Body back into Buddhism

In my mind, the revolutionary factor that Reggie (and then latterly his wife Caroline Pfohl who runs Dharma Ocean) added to the mix was: the body.

We have become so disembodied with the Internet and the working practices of consumer capitalism, that almost all Dharma these days is digested as a thing for the mind. It becomes another (slightly more refined) set of thoughts layered on top of more thoughts.

Reggie’s constant refrain is that the mind cannot free itself. We need to step down into the interconnected experience of the body in order to free ourselves. And in order to facilitate this he and Caroline have developed a really impressive path of practices that begin with what they call the ‘ground yana’ (or vehicle). This is an array of 20+ practices, inspired by Tibetan Yoga, which allow people to get back into their bodies and start to wake up to their own aliveness.

‘Touching Enlightenment’ touches my life

When I encountered his book “Touching Enlightenment” back in 2012, it was like a lightbulb went off in my life. I had been practising very assiduously for more than a decade but my meditation was very heady. Although I paid lipservice to the body, like many mindfulness practitioners my practice was full of mind. Those practices from ‘Meditating with the Body’ (now taught online as “The Awakening Body”) completely changed my life.

In some ways, Reggie’s ‘somatic’ teaching linked me back to the insights I had won in working with the Brazilian Shamanic plant medicine, Ayahuasca. My ten years of practice in that tradition completely cut through my dry, habitual ego thinking. But I could not maintain that freedom consistently over time. The Dharma Ocean path has given me a way to translate that brilliant vision into something more lasting. 

My Ayahuasca vision of teacher prostrating to teacher

Ironically, though, my very last Ayahuasca journey in 2013 gave me a key. In one of the spectacular visions that I received, I saw myself prostrating to Reggie and he, in turn, prostrating to Trungpa, and Trungpa in turn, prostrating to his teacher. The message came through with thunderous clarity. If you want to be a teacher, you need to have a Teacher.

This sense of finding working with a Teacher (with a capital T) is very central to Buddhism. Particularly, Tibetan Buddhism.

I had always viewed it with ambivalence. On the one hand, I longed for that sort of personal connection and surrender to someone wiser and further along the Path. On the other, my suspicious and cautious self, panicked about losing my independence or being duped by a fraud.

So when, aged 47, I finally took the plunge and – after 4 years of study – formally signed-up as a student of Reggie and acknowledged him as my Teacher, it was a big step.

True to the Ayahuasca vision, I do think that it has made me a MUCH better teacher in Mindsprings. And many of my long-term students reflect that back to me. But I would be completely lying if I said it has been as joyous or simple as the ecstatic prostrating in Brazil.

The messy reality of having a living teacher in front of you

Having a real, flesh and blood, still-alive white man as your teacher is really challenging. Somehow the ‘Orientalism’ of a dead Tibetan in robes is much easier to swallow. But the actual presence of Reggie in the same room is rather ruinous. It proves impossible to romanticise him or overlook his real idiosyncrasies. But at the same time, the unashamed realness of him – and Caroline – pushes my face into the weird and endless projections I lay onto the role of a “Teacher”.

It’s interesting in the light of all the terrible abuse cases being brought against Tibetan teachers like Sogyal Rinpoche or Trungpa’s son, the so-called Sakyong, to be dealing with rather ‘square’ married, academic, white septuagenarian who still manages to push all my buttons and drive me crazy. The practices and connection I have with him, bring all my most critical and resistant traits to the floor.

Deflating my ego and inspiring my teaching

And yet, again and again, I have to acknowledge that without meeting Reggie I would not have really understood the Buddhist dharma. I would not have experienced the uplift the sangha he’s collected around him. The whole shamanic and sacred vision of Tibetan Buddhism would have remained purely academic for me. And most importantly, I would not have had any direct experience of my ‘unborn mind’. That’s quite a gift.

So it makes me chuckle when I find myself – over and over – thinking to myself ‘He’s not so special. I can do what he does. Maybe I’m smarter than him. Maybe he hasn’t taught me anything.’

That sort of daft sense of specialness is a karmic knot that I have to live with and that Reggie and the sangha around Reggie has allowed me to see. And it’s in this act of holding up a vast Dharmic mirror that I am most beholden to my teacher.

To be seen clearly by the eyes of a teacher with less dust in their eyes is the greatest gift. And it’s that which – further along the line – will help me teach more safely, more powerfully and with equal love.

I’d love to know your thoughts about teaching. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

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