RELIGION

A troubled church

A Buddhist group recovers from controversy

D’ARCY JENISH October 29 1990
RELIGION

A troubled church

A Buddhist group recovers from controversy

D’ARCY JENISH October 29 1990

A troubled church

RELIGION

A Buddhist group recovers from controversy

In 1980, Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa visited Halifax and was impressed by the hospitable reception he received. According to his followers, Trungpa decided after the visit to move the world headquarters of his Vajradhatu International Buddhist Church to Halifax from Boulder, Colo. The Vajradhatu Church, which is spiritually based on two of the four main branches of Tibetan Buddhism, has about 3,500 members in North America. About 500 members and their families followed Trungpa to Halifax when he moved in 1986. Since then,

the church leadership has been plagued by turmoil. A few months after arriving in Halifax, Trungpa died of heart failure at 47. Despite the image of moral probity cultivated by most Buddhist priests, Trungpa was known as a heavy smoker and drinker. Then, in August this year, his successor, Osel Tendzin, 47, died in a San Francisco hospital of AIDS-related pneumonia, amid allegations that he had infected other church members. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Tendzin's death made him “the focus of the most damaging scandal ever to strike American Buddhism.” Tendzin's death plunged the Vajradhatu Church into a deep crisis of doubt and selfexamination. Constance Moffit, a 38-year-old public relations consultant and church member who lives in Halifax, described Tendzin as “a

brilliant teacher, who was capable of making mistakes.” His successor, 27-year-old Sawang Osel Rangdrol Mukpo, the eldest of Trungpa’s five children, visited the Halifax congregation in September and October. David Sanford, director of the church’s U.S. headquarters in Boulder, said that Mukpo was attempting to heal wounds and ensure the church’s survival. Said Sanford: “It’s been a slow healing process.”

But the church, like its ’late founder Trungpa, has survived both adversity and change in the past. In the late 1950s, Trungpa

was a young Buddhist abbot in Tibet when he fled from the Chinese invasion of his homeland. After studying in Europe, he moved to Boulder in 1970 to lecture on Buddhism at the University of Colorado. Three years later, he founded the Vajradhatu Church. According to a Toronto Buddhist teacher known as Zazep Rinpoche, Trungpa was skilled at explaining complex Buddhist principles to Western followers.

For many members of the congregation, however, the move to Halifax meant personal sacrifice. Said David Wimberly, a flute-maker and church member who lives just outside Halifax: “We could live in Boulder with less effort. It’s easier to make a living there. The economy is better. And let’s face it, the summers are longer.” Yet Tom Sinclair-Faulkner, a Dalhousie University professor of compara-

tive religion, said that Trungpa’s followers have helped to enrich Halifax’s cultural and religious fabric. Some church members have been* active in launching local recycling programs and operating food banks.

Still, many members of the church say that they are still recovering from the disruption caused by the loss of successive leaders. Since Trungpa’s death in a Halifax hospital on April 4, 1987, members of the Vajradhatu Church have been reluctant to comment on Trungpa’s drinking habits. But other Buddhists claim that he violated a basic tenet of some branches of Buddhism, which forbid the use of intoxicants.

Controversy was compounded by Trungpa’s successor. Tendzin, an American who adopted a Tibetan name, had been chosen by Trungpa to succeed him as leader as far back as 1976. Tendzin, originally named Thomas Rich, was the son of a Roman Catholic factory worker from Passaic, NJ., and converted to Tibetan Buddhism in 1971 after listening to the teachings of Trungpa. Although members of the Vajradhatu Church may have regarded Tendzin as a capable teacher, some Tibetan-born Buddhists questioned his qualifications. Said Zazep Rinpoche: “To be a good teacher, you have to study for 25 to 30 years in a monastery. This guy studied three or four years.”

Then, in February, 1989, The New York Times reported that Tendzin had contracted AIDS and published excerpts from a transcript of a tape-recorded meeting between Tendzin and a group of Tibetan Buddhists in California. In the excerpts, Tendzin did not deny that he may have infected others. Said Moffit: “There was doubt and terrible confusion in the church. There was discussion and disagreement. We have tried to take things step by step and to stay sane and be gentle.”

In the months before Tendzin’s death, other church leaders moved swiftly in attempting to minimize the damage caused by the publicity about his infection. Earlier this year, church leaders confirmed Mukpo as the church’s new international leader. The son of Trungpa and a Tibetan-born woman, Mukpo lived briefly in Halifax with his father. He has spent the past g two years studying under Buddhist masters in z Nepal and India. Church members said that Q Mukpo would probably travel between Asia and North America for several years, to complete his training before settling in Halifax.

Despite the controversies that have swept the church, many members insist that their faith has not been shaken. Typically, Jordan Scott, a 19-year-old Torontonian who recently completed three months of training at the church’s seminary in Boulder, said that he planned to study political science at Halifax’s Dalhousie University in order to be near church headquarters. Scott said that he was shaken by Tendzin’s death. But, he added, “that doesn’t detract from the power of his teachings. I felt very close to him.” For a troubled church, growth and survival itself may well depend on such unwavering faith among its members.

D’ARCY JENISH with correspondents’ reports