Under Review: ‘Crazy Wisdom’


Forty-one years ago, a friend of mine said that a true IQ test would be on how well we can hide our insanity. For Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, whom this film is all about, the potential paradox of crazy wisdom and his embrace of it may cause the viewer no small amount of confusion.

The Buddhist term, Crazy Wisdom, has been used in association with the teachings of Shambhala, developed by Trungpa. Traditionally, Shambhala had been associated with a mythical location of happiness – a Shangri-la.

“Crazy Wisdom” begins with these words: “In a cave, carved out of a Himalayan mountainside, a young Tibetan abbot wrote a meditation for what he saw as the state of the world and what could come of it. The year was 1968.”

Trungpa ends up escaping China’s increasingly destructive aggression against Tibetan Buddhist culture through a long and harrowing journey through the Himalayas. Eventually he ends up at Oxford to study and in the US to set up many centers devoted to his development of Shambhala principles.

Using the idyllic notion of Shambhala, Trungpa developed a form of Buddhist study and practice rooted in the belief that humans are fundamentally good. Through meditation, the arts and practices in daily life, Trungpa taught that this basic goodness could radiate out to the family and community and thereby transform a culture.

So far, this sounds reminiscent of traditional Buddhist teaching.

What’s different about Trungpa from the Dalai Llama and other Buddhist reincarnations of spiritual leaders is that upon encountering the West Trungpa adapted and acculturated – perhaps a little too much.

The first obvious difference is that Trungpa wore western clothes instead of the traditional Tibetan robes of a monk. He also smoked, got married and had many romantic partners. He died in 1987 from cirrhosis of the liver due to alcohol abuse. However, when his students talk of him it’s not unusual for fresh tears of love and loss to stream while speaking with great love and reverence about their spiritual guide and mentor.

Apparently Trungpa’s personal charisma was so great that people, male or female, fell immediately in love with him. One devotee, the husband of a lovely woman, reports in an interview that he was jealous of his wife’s affair with Trungpa – jealous that he could not have the same kind of relationship with their teacher that she did.

Trungpa’s wife, Diana Mukpo, and others involved in the Shambhala movement state that one of the reasons Trungpa was not dismissed or discredited by them was because he did not hide his activities.

So how do we make sense of Trungpa’s life and his teaching? Many equate Buddhism with a renunciation of the material world and a transcendence of the ego. From Trungpa we see an embrace of the material world with a celebrated participation and gratefulness for sensory experience.

Is Trungpa a secular angel for a fallen modern millennium or a pragmatic guide towards acceptance of our conflicted human nature?

Two quotes from Trungpa:

    “In order to develop love ~ universal love, cosmic love, whatever you would like to call it ~ one must accept the whole situation of life as it is, both the light and the dark, the good and the bad. One must open oneself to life, communicate with it.”

    “The basic wisdom of Shambhala is that in this world, as it is, we can find a good and meaningful human life that will also serve others. That is our true richness.”

Going back to the film’s title, “Crazy Wisdom,” there is still this confusion about what it means. However ironic, the young prodigy who proposed a new IQ test based on sanity 41 years ago became Britney Spears’s lawyer in 2007.


A brilliant Tibetan monk escapes the Communist invasion of Tibet, and breaks all the rules

in order to bring Buddhism to the West

Opens in NYC at the Rubin Museum on Nov. 25, 2011

Opens in LA at Laemmle Monica 4-Plex on Dec. 2, 2011

Crazy Wisdom Trailer from Kate Trumbull on Vimeo.

Production Notes
Producer: Lisa Leeman (director of “One Lucky Elephant”)
Director: Johanna Demetrakas
Featured: Pema Chodron, Ram Dass and Allen Ginsberg
Runtime: 86 minutes
Language: English and Tibetan
Country: USA

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