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(Credit: Asylum Records)

The song Joni Mitchell wrote about a Buddhist leader

Joni Mitchell has curiosity seeping out of every pore of her body, and this double-edged sword has, over the years, made the singer-songwriter a famous thrill seeker. However, this penchant for exploration has also led her headfirst down a dangerous cul-de-sac, and Mitchell had no choice but to quench her first for a different type of vice; Buddhism.

Throughout the early period of Mitchell’s career, she was the face of hedonism and would regularly be the last one awake at a party. In 1975, while on Bob Dylan’s Rolling Revue Tour, she used cocaine more frequently and became a self-professed addict. Mitchell knew that she needed to get clean and, as a result, looked to Buddhism to fill the void to replace her penchant for white powder.

This spiritual journey forced Mitchell to look within herself and offered a sanctuary from her mind. Her acclaimed 1976 album, Hejira, was influenced by a series of road trips she undertook around this period of self-discovery. The final track, ‘Refugee Of The Road’, is about her three-day trip to see controversial Buddhist leader Chögyam Trungpa in Colorado.

Although Buddhists didn’t dispute Trungpa’s teachings, he left a lot to be desired as a person. He was a drunk who reportedly drank gin as soon as he woke up, and he regularly engaged in improper relationships with his students. After discovering he was HIV-positive, Trungba didn’t inform one of his students with whom he had sex, and they harrowingly passed away after becoming infected.

His schooling was unconventional, but when Mitchell visited him in 1976 to rid her of her addiction to cocaine, it miraculously worked. They remained in contact after this trip, and she even visited him before his death in 1987.

“He was the bad boy of Zen,” Mitchell later said about Trungpa. “I wrote a song about a visit I made to him called ‘Refuge of the Road.’ I consider him one of my great teachers, even though I saw him only three times. Once I had a fifteen-minute audience with him in which we argued. He told me to quit analyzing. I told him I couldn’t — I’m an artist, you know. Then he induced into me a temporary state where the concept of ‘I’ was absent, which lasted for three days.”

She continued: “[Later], at the very end of Trungpa’s life I went to visit him. I wanted to thank him. He was not well. He was green and his eyes had no spirit in them at all, which sort of stunned me, because the previous times I’d seen him he was quite merry and puckish — you know, saying ‘shit’ a lot. I leaned over and looked into his eyes, and I said, ‘How is it in there? What do you see in there?’

“And this voice came, like, out of a void, and it said, ‘Nothing.’ So, I went over and whispered in his ear, ‘I just came to tell you that when I left you that time, I had three whole days without self-consciousness, and I wanted to thank you for the experience.’ And he looked up at me, and all the light came back into his face and he goes, ‘Really?’ And then he sank back into this black void again.”

Trungpa was a troubled soul like herself, and this likely played a warped part in the two sparking up their unusual bond. On the opening verse of ‘Refugee of the Road’, Mitchell reflects on his imperfections: “I met a friend of spirit, He drank and womanized, And I sat before his sanity, I was holding back from crying, He saw my complications, And he mirrored me back simplified, And we laughed how our perfection.”

Buddhism has played a role in Mitchell’s life from that day on and has completely altered her outlook on life. Despite Thungpa being an abhorrent character, who left a trail of destruction in his path, Mitchell forever remained thankful for how he snapped her out of a frightful rut that was only leading to the grave. 

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