Trungpa at Oxford University? Really?


Trungpa studied at Oxford University, did he?

Well now we know.

One of the main pillars of Trungpa’s story as told by his followers is that he was extraordinarily brilliant – "flawed but nevertheless brilliant". One of the main pillars of that notion is that he “got himself into Oxford” (see, for example, 2 minutes into the trailer for “Crazy Wisdom”, a filmic eulogy to Trungpa, watchable at ).

In the light of his background as a refugee from mysterious Tibet, this appears particularly impressive. The claim has been woven so deeply into the story told by his followers, and repeated so often, that many observers will take its truth for granted. The glamour of being “an Oxford man” was encouraged by Trungpa himself, as witness the elocution lessons he gave to his followers in “how to speak properly”, which is to say to imitate what he thought of as his Oxford accent. Yet on close examination it appears to be a fable. The truth behind it turns out to be surprisingly tiny, as we shall see below. But given its wide acceptance both amongst his followers and more broadly, we should first address the question of the truth - or otherwise - of the story current amongst his followers. There are four points to consider – is it credible in principle; does Trungpa provide evidence; do others provide evidence; and what is the true fact that has been puffed up to create this story? 

1) It is simply not credible in the first place

A twenty-four-year-old refugee with broken English, no experience of western academic life or principles, no published works and no recognized qualifications “gets himself into” one of the most prestigious universities in the world because he is so obviously brilliant. No pre-existing qualifications, no exams taken, no interview, no body of published work. Can you believe it?

I thought not. 

Even with the strings being pulled by the formidable Freda Bedi and the highly qualified academic John Driver, that’s not how it works. To his supporters, this is evidence of his overwhelming brilliance. Well, if it were true, it would indeed be quite something.

Some might argue that his qualification as “kyorpön” at the age of 18 would have been something in his favour. According to the Chronicles Project, a primary repository of Trungpa’s myth, (, retrieved 06/11/2023) this qualification is equivalent to a Doctor of Divinity. Not so. A DDiv is an advanced degree, while kyorpön is perhaps best translated as “reciting leader”, and is responsible for organizing collective debates and memorizing the prescribed texts at ritual occasions (George Dreyfus,!essay=/dreyfus/drepung/monasticed/s/b44 retrieved 06/11/2023). 

The idea is thus, in principle, not credible from the beginning. But strange things happen at sea, so it is appropriate to look at evidence for and against this fata morgana.

2) There is no internal evidence

The first place to look for the truth of this story is, of course, its beginnings in Trungpa’s own autobiography, “Born in Tibet”. Earlier editions stop at the point where he and his companions had succeeded in crossing the Himalayas, but later editions have an extended epilogue that does refer to his time in Oxford. On page 252 we read his claim that the “Spalding sponsorship”, as he calls it, probably correctly, was intended to allow him to “attend Oxford University”, which is a little more doubtful. We shall return to the Spalding connection later, but for now let us note that he admits to having difficulty following lectures, and expanded on this later at the Chronicles Project ( where he says:

I heard lectures on comparative religion, Christian contemplation, philosophy and psychology. I had to struggle to understand those lectures. I had to study the English language: I was constantly going to evening classes organized by the city for foreign students. … I might be able to pick up one or two points at each lecture.

Lectures? That could easily suggest that he was indeed a student, but as evidence it is very thin. Trungpa was, let us recall, a protégé of John Driver, who was working in an academic capacity at St Antony’s College, and he will have been able to offer suggestions to Trungpa. Sixty years ago security was not like it is today, and someone who knew the place and time where an interesting lecture was being given could easily simply turn up and take a seat.

The interest here, however, lies largely in what is not said. No college is mentioned! Neither faculty nor tutor are mentioned in his autobiography. Nothing specific is said about what courses he followed. Outsiders might well not know this, but a student’s connection to a university such as Oxford is primarily through two channels: the student’s college and their tutor, who would almost invariably be attached to the college. The University as such is a relatively remote body, constituted of the colleges. When people speak of their time at Oxford, the first thing they are likely to recall is their college – generally speaking it’s where they eat, take tutorials, sleep and live, where they hang out with friends and where the focus of their academic supervision is found. But all we have from Trungpa is a hazy assertion that he “attended the university”. Absence of evidence is famously not evidence of absence – but it does have a very hollow ring to it.

3) There is no external evidence

If Trungpa’s own writings provide no testable details, what have others said?

The body of Trungpa’s hagiography refers to his time in Oxford, but mostly in general, hazy terms.

Vicki McKenzie, for example, in her Revolutionary Life of Freda Bedi (2017, 978-1-61180-425-6, page 123), tells us that:

Freda set about getting a Spalding Scholarship for Trungpa and succeeded. In early 1963 Trungpa set sail for England accompanied by Akong Rinpoche, to enter into the arcane, privileged, and hallowed halls of Oxford University.

Colourful, isn’t it? But no concrete detail. “Scholarship” is probably not the right word, as it suggests the scholarships sometimes given by Oxford colleges to students considered particularly promising. It may bring certain privileges, such as a higher priority in the allocation of rooms in college, and requires the student to wear the long academic gown rather than the short one worn by most undergraduates. It is not, however, the term used by Trungpa himself in Born in Tibet (p.252), where he simply calls it a “sponsorship”.

Judith Simmer-Brown, “Distinguished Professor of Contemplative and Religious Studies Emerita at Naropa University,” offers slightly more concrete details. On p. 92 of “Recalling Chogyam Trungpa” (Fabrice Midal, Shambhala 2011) she writes:

“… when Rinpoche attended Oxford University as a Spalding Visiting Fellow in Comparative Religion, he was assigned a Belgian Jesuit priest as a tutor. Father DeGives (sic)…”

The number of ways in which this is wrong is remarkable for such a short sentence. There has indeed been such a thing as a Spalding Visiting Fellow in Comparative Religion, but not at Oxford and not at that time. It was established at Clare Hall, Cambridge in about 1994, and has no connection to St Antony’s. Bernard de Give, to spell his name correctly, did spend one year in Oxford, but did not, as far as can be seen, hold any sort of academic position – he himself was taking courses during what is said on his French Wikipedia page to have been his one year (1963-1964) in Oxford. It was de Give’s entry in this French version of Wikipedia that until recently stated that Trungpa had been studying theology at Christ Church, a story particularly amusing to this author, who did study at that very college (with a scholarship, as it happens) immediately after Trungpa's time in Oxford. More likely than not, de Give did meet Trungpa, and they may well have found each other interesting. But Simmer-Brown’s report is evidently not at all reliable.

More recently, Ann Hunter wrote in “The Legacy of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche at Naropa University” (2008, Naropa University, p.6) that:

In 1963, Trungpa Rinpoche received a Spaulding Fellowship to study at Oxford University. He spent the next four years at Oxford, where he studied comparative religion and Western philosophy as well as oil painting, drawing, art history, poetry and flower arranging.

Not only has the sponsorship now been inflated from scholarship to fellowship, but the range of subjects he is purported to have studied has also blossomed to include a wider assortment of humanities. But there is yet again an absence of specifics that could be checked. The fact that Spalding is again mis-spelt suggests that this passage has been drawn from Trungpa’s accepted lore, but that facts have not been checked.

In contrast with Simmer-Brown’s talk of a “Spalding Visiting Fellow in Comparative Religion”, we have a description from someone who was there at the time. John Maxwell, in his contribution to “Only the Impossible is Worth Doing” (Dzalendra Publishing, Rokpa Trust, 2020, ISBN 978-0-906181-26-3, pp. 34-35), writes:

The Spalding Trust agreed to finance the passage of the two lamas to England and to provide some financial support for one year… it was hoped that the money would be sufficient to finance both lamas.

… It soon became apparent that the grant from the Spalding Trust was insufficient to finance accommodation in Queen Elizabeth House and they moved to a cheaper flat at 104 Banbury Road.

Also pointing out that

Akong Rinpoche took a job as a hospital porter at the Radcliffe Hospital to supplement their slender finances.

All somewhat less grand than Simmer-Brown’s flight of fantasy, is it not?

Other colleges, such as, laughably enough, Christ Church, and other tutors such as Robert Charles Zaehner and, laughably enough again, Sir Edward Evans-Pritchard, have also been suggested. An informant assured me that “Trungpa’s own biography “Born in Tibet” mentions their relationship in several places”. The truth is that the said book does the not allude to Evans-Pritchard, nor indeed to any other tutor, not even once. It has not yet proved possible to find a shred of evidence for any of these speculations, even though they are passed off as fact between Trungpa’s mythologisers. If anyone has such a shred, it would be fascinating to hear it.

Another piece of supposed evidence adduced by Trungpa’s mythologizers is this “class photo”, allegedly showing Trungpa with his fellow students:

Screen grab from Crazy Wisdom

(Screen grab 13m 38s from “Crazy Wisdom”)

The presence of such a high proportion of people who are not white males could be consistent with St Antony’s. However, a wider crop shows this:

Wider crop of unknown source photo

Second row, second from the right – Trungpa. Second row, second from the left – Akong Rinpoche. Never has it been claimed that Akong studied at Oxford. So we can speculate freely about what this gathering of interesting people represents, who they were and what the occasion was – one thing that it clearly is not, however, is Trungpa’s class photo.

Most significantly, Charles Carreon has dug into the records where Trungpa’s presence at Oxford University should be found. He informs us that the Information Office at the University of Oxford replied to his inquiries with the plain words:

Our degree conferrals team has informed us that they cannot find any record of Chogyam Trungpa having attended the University over that time.

Having inquired of the Registry Administrator, Academic Records Office and Academic Registrar’s Office at St. Antony’s College, Carreon was simply informed that:

We hold no information on this matter.

Charles Carreon’s research, to which this article owes much, can be consulted at and at The correspondence can be seen in the Exhibits he provides there, of which I have also of course made a copy.

One more example of the disingenuous nature of the material provided by Trungpa's followers is provided by Judy Lief in, where she writes that:

He also studied Japanese flower arranging, receiving a degree from the Sogetsu School.

Quite apart from the slippery language, suggesting to the skim-reader without actually quite making the claim that Trungpa received a degree from Oxford, the fact is that the Sogetsu School, however good it may well be, is not an accredited university. It cannot, would not and surely did not give accredited degrees to anyone. The claim is plain false.

4) We now know what does in fact underlie the story

For all that, we are still facing the inherent difficulty of proving a negative. Perhaps it was a different college? Or he was using another name, not the one on his passport? Or the tutor was some other figure? And why, for all the absence of evidence, does the absurdly inappropriate suggestion of St Antony’s, a graduate college specialising in social sciences and international politics, keep rearing its head?

That was the case until relatively recently, although the little gem of a fact concerned has been “out there” for more than 20 years.

John Driver has been mentioned a couple of times above. There is no reason to doubt that he, along with Freda Bedi, played some part in arranging Trungpa and Akong’s move to England and convincing the Spalding Trust to provide the two of them with a subsistence grant for their first year. He was associated with St Antony’s, and presumably helped find the accommodation they rented in the city. It had long been a reasonable conjecture that Driver would have helped his protégé Trungpa to make contacts and to engage with the richness of Oxford’s intellectual life. Perhaps, it seems reasonable, he might well have brought Trungpa to eat the occasional dinner at the college’s high table, or opened other doors for him.

The key was included not long ago as a reference by a contributor to Wikipedia. It is to be found in Nicholls, C., 2000, The History of St Antony’s College, Oxford, 1950–2000, p.83, which states, in its sole mention of Trungpa:

“Driver’s presence brought tbe exotic figure of Chogyam Trungpa, a refugee Tibetan master, to the college as a member of Common Room."

Nicholls can be assumed to be a reliable witness: he is evidently uniquely informed about the history of St Antony's, but has no axe to grind, and no interest in Trungpa other than the curious fact of his presence there. Here it is:

Page from "History of St Antony’s College, Oxford"

But just what is a "member of Common Room"?

Nothing can currently be found on St Antony’s site about the status of "member of Common Room", and it may not exist at St Antony's these days, but the assertion is not unbelievable. We can look, for example, at, or for this status at other colleges at present. Privileges at the second one (Wolfson) are: use of the library, sports facilities, college punts, dining facilities, use of the common room including tea and coffee, to ride on the college minibus and to apply for college accommodation including guest rooms. In brief, it is an official but entirely non-academic friendly association with the college on a largely social level used, as one example, for spouses and partners (SAPs, I suppose, though at the time WAGs might have fitted) of actual college members.

5) And so...

I have tried here to be light on judgement – there is plenty of that out on the net, such as at, as is coverage of other elements of Trungpa’s lore and legacy that are less than rigorous with the truth. My intention has rather been to focus on the small yet central, factual question of whether Trungpa “studied at Oxford University” or merely spent an entertaining, and quite possibly educative, time in that city. There can no longer be serious doubt, and the story of "studied at St Antony's" (or any other improbabilities such as at Christ Church) can therefore finally be put to bed:

Trungpa did indeed have a real, peripheral and non-academic association with St Antony's. But he was never enrolled at the university, he never matriculated, he gained no qualification, let alone a degree, he did not “study at St Antony’s”, nor did he “study at Oxford University”. His hagiographers are just wrong

(Updated March 2024)


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