In 1974 while I was playing Star Trek in a cardboard box Enterprise, taking chess lessons, and watching Super Friends, a Buddhist Master Teacher was giving the opening series of lectures at the Naropa Institute (now Naropa University) which he had just founded. These teachings covered the vast ground of Buddhism from meditation to Tantra, basic compassion to Vajrayana, and cynicism to magic. I was far too young to be in the room for those lectures, but I can be there now.
It’s a bit humbling to realize the twenty-year-old self-described hippies who asked the questions in this book are now sixty-seven and have outlived their teacher by thirty-five years. No matter where their dharma journey took them, I’m willing to bet their minds frequently go back to the old bus depot in Boulder, Colorado that was the Naropa Institute and the brilliant, energetic young teacher whose presence could create a sense of ethereal peace and sparks of such brilliance all at the same time.
Cynicism and Magic is a wonderful buffet of dharma that Chogyam Trungpa set out for those students in 1974. It moves quickly, and with great ease, through the basics of Buddhist practice. Unlike other works from his lectures, this series isn’t “topic oriented” but a journey through the basics of Buddhism to that is anything but basic.
One of Trungpa’s many gifts was his ability to talk about complex ideas without “talking down” to others or “going over their heads.” In keeping with Buddhist thought, his words and illustrations seem to come from the middle ground where you can learn something no matter where you are on the journey.
Karma, meditation, impermanence, tantra, bodhisattvas, and how to wake up to who you really are, if you are at all, are explored with Trungpa’s signature sense of humor and exaggeration along with his defining, straight-to-the-core wisdom. These teachings are the lotus that bloomed from the seeds of his great work, Cutting through Spiritual Materialism (published in 1973). After that book taught you everything spirituality isn’t, these lectures appear to solidify everything Buddhism actually is.
Perhaps the greatest offering of this book isn’t what it says, or how it says it, but the living time capsule it opens before us. Here is a Chogyam Trungpa at his most alive. He was starting a new place with some of the brightest creatives at the time (Allen Ginsberg, Ram Dass, Anne Waldman, Joan Halifax, and William S. Burroughs all taught in Naropa’s opening summers) and he was thriving spiritually, intellectually and with possibility. Each chapter closes with questions from students and his answers are crisp, alert, and searingly honest. The Trungpa here is light, mentally nimble, and for just the length of the pages, forever young.
The book begins by telling us to be cynical, to think – really think- about what it is we believe and know about world, and it ends with his beautiful awareness of magic. Magic isn’t tricks or illusion, Trungpa reminds us as the book closes. “It is me being here with you and you being here with me at this time in this place.” Being in the bus depot with Trungpa, his wisdom, his urgency about awakening the world, and his unique way of sharing dharma is what it is like to read this book. That, in itself, is magic.