Crazy Wisdom


Buddhism permeates popular culture worldwide - we speak casually of good parking karma, Samsara is a perfume, and Nirvana is a rock band.  A recent survey by Germany's Der Spiegel revealed that Germans like the Dalai Lama more than their native-born Pope Benedict XVI; the biggest Buddhist monastery outside of Asia is in France, and Tibetan Buddhism is doubling its numbers faster than any other religion in Australia and the U.S.A.  How did this happen?

Crazy Wisdom explores this through the story of Chogyam Trungpa, the brilliant "bad boy of Buddhism," who was pivotal in bringing Tibetan Buddhism to the West.  Trungpa shattered our preconceived notions about how an enlightened teacher should behave.  Born in Tibet, recognized as an exceptional reincarnate lama and trained in the rigorous monastic tradition, Trungpa fled his homeland during the Chinese Communist invasion.  In Britain, realizing a cultural gap prevented his students from any deep understanding of Buddhism, he renounced his vows, eloped with a sixteen year-old, and lived as a westerner.  In the U.S., he openly drank alcohol and had intimate relations with students. Was this crazy wisdom?

Trungpa landed in the U.S. in 1970 and legend has it that he said to his students: "Take me to your poets."  Trungpa became renowned for translating ancient Buddhist concepts into language and ideas that Westerners could understand. Humor was always a part of his teaching - "Enlightenment is better than Disneyland," he quipped, and he warned of the dangers of the "Western spiritual supermarket."

Initially judged harshly by the Tibetan establishment, Trungpa's teachings are now recognized by western philosophers and spiritual leaders, including the Dalai Lama, as authentic and profound. Today, twenty years after his death,  Trungpa's name still evokes admiration and outrage.  What made him tick, and just what is crazy wisdom anyway? With unprecedented access to Trungpa's inner circle and exclusive never-before-seen archival material, Crazy Wisdom looks at the man and the myths about him, and attempts to set the record straight.


by Robert Walker

Chögyam Trungpa did not present the history of Tibet as an ideal, continuous spiritual utopia. His depictions of the Tibetan culture of the late 1950s, from which he emerged, were decidedly mixed, showing great respect and devotion for many realized teachers and practitioners, but also descriptions of some questionable situations. (Readers are encouraged to consult his autobiography, Born in Tibet, Shambhala Publications, on this.) The aggression and materialism in the West in the 1960s and 1970s was not Chögyam Trungpa’s first encounter with such obstacles. It would be misleading to imply that the dark-age problems discussed in his Sadhana of Mahamudra were solely about the invasion of Tibet or the aggression of Westerners or aspects of Western culture:


Similarly, the life-stories and poetry of other great lineage teachers in this tradition are not victory howls describing the activities of perfect teachers enlightening ideal students. Confusions and catastrophes of various kinds are included in these stories, not only externally produced ones, like having one’s country invaded or one’s family inheritance stolen, but personal obstacles, confusions, and mistakes which had to be encountered and overcome as part of their paths. 


As a young man, the yogi Milarepa (1040-1123) murdered many members of his family; he was first inspired to dharma practice largely because he feared the consequence of such actions. The farmer and translator Marpa (1012-1097) was originally encouraged towards a dharmic career by his family because of his intense aggression and bad manners as a child. Initially, it seemed to him that being a translator was a good path to fame and fortune. Naropa (1016-1100), one of the great scholars and teachers of his generation before going in search of his guru, was at first a naïve intellectual who was always trying to do the right thing. Gampopa (1079-1153), the physician and monastic who spread the Kagyü lineage teachings broadly, had a problem with arrogance before he met Milarepa. One might say that cutting through spiritual materialism is not only a prerequisite to the path, but path itself.


Chögyam Trungpa, as a Kagyü lineage teacher, did not invent the concepts “spiritual materialism” or “the three lords of materialism,” although he did coin these terms in the English language. Similar themes are pervasive in the songs of renunciation, devotion, and realization that have been sung by lineage masters over the centuries, some of which were published as the text The Rain of Wisdom: The Essence of the Ocean of True Meaning (Shambhala Publications, 1980), translated by The Nalanda Translation Committee, under the direction of Chögyam Trungpa. Students of Chögyam Trungpa, at meditation groups and dharma centers, have chanted the entire text (292 pages) annually on Milarepa Day, the first full moon of the Tibetan New Year.


From that text, this excerpt from “The Song of Chökyi Jungne” (the eighth Situ Rinpoche, 1700-1774) (pp. 67-68) is typical of many lineage songs which rail against hypocritical practitioners, pretentious monastics, charlatan gurus, and so-called teachers who are just in the teaching business for fame and fortune:


These days, the holders of the vinaya

Are like the tales of Tambak of Drepung monastery.

Taking purifying water, removing their shoes, and receiving gifts,

They pretend these rules are as dear as their life,

But they are stupefied by their wanton actions of the four defeats.

They are so stupefied, they spin others’ heads like an umbrella.

They spin so much, the others take refuge in them.

If what you say is true, O mighty lord of the Shakyas,

What will result from such deeds in the end?


These days, some bodhisattvas

Receive all exalted and common people with a smile,

And reward the wealthy and powerful with a meal,

They tame those with resistance through deception.

They proclaim their freedom from joy and sorrow, passion and aggression,

They also proclaim their unbiased generosity.


Such proclamations become so widespread

That first, they who do not know pretend to know.

Secondly, they who are unaccomplished pretend to be accomplished.

Thirdly, their innermost mind aims for wealth.

Fourthly, they con and swindle.

Fifthly, they blaze like fire with passion and agression. 


And so on. The tone of such songs range from sadness, to anger, to remorse related to the singers’ own failings, to mockery. In Indian and Tibetan Buddhism, crazy yogis have often been notorious for disrupting confused institutional Buddhists, nobility, and royalty. 


The great yogi and Kagyü lineage forefather Milarepa (1040-1123), in response to his sister Peta’s request that he serve a wealthy guru, responded by mocking that particular spiritual scene (pp. 188-190) and encouraging her to overcome the “eight worldly dharmas” of her mind. Those eight, four sets of two, include being attached to and organizing her life around: pleasure and pain, praise and blame, fame and disgrace, gain and loss: 


One, the pretty little monastery above the village.

Two, the discourses of the new little preacher.

Three, buttered tea from the portable stove.

Four, the dainty hands of young monks glad to serve.

If I wanted these four things I could get them.

But it would be better to abandon the eight worldly dharmas of the mind.

Petama, abandon the eight worldly dharmas of the mind.


One, being the master of meditating nuns.

Two, performing village rites of divination, Pön, and astrology.

Three, the ganacakra of those who want to dig into a big meal.

Four, little songs to fool maiden disciples.

If I wanted these four things, I could get them.

But it would be better to abandon the eight worldly dharmas of the mind.

Petama, abandon the eight worldly dharmas of the mind.


Among the Kagyü lineage forefathers, Chögyam Trungpa is most often compared to Marpa (1012-1097), a great translator, wealthy farmer, and remarkable teacher who was also known for his unconventional behavior and great passion. The words of Naropa in The Rain of Wisdom (p. 141), speaking of his student Marpa, are in accord with a view that many devoted students have of Chögyam Trungpa:


In general, you hold the teachings of the Buddha, both the sutras and tantras, by means of what has been told and what has been experienced. In particular, you make what has been told and what has been experienced of the mantrayana teachings shine like the sun.


....In the view of some impure ordinary men, you will appear to gratify yourself in this life with sense pleasures. Your desires will seem unchanging, like a carving in rock, so solid and so great. On the other hand, since you yourself have seen dharmata, samsara will be self-liberated, like a snake uncoiling.



by Robert Walker

As was pointed out by several senior students in the film (Chögyam Trungpa’s wife Diana Mukpo and senior teachers Pema Chödrön and Christie Cashman), it would be presumptuous to make statements about what “made him tick,” to pretend to fully assess the meaning of his behavior, or to define Chögyam Trungpa in any way. Students’ inability to pigeonhole him also made it difficult for them to use him as another feather in their caps, a further credential in their spiritual resumés. “If my teacher is not a conventional holy man, what does this say about me?”

In that context, Chögyam Trungpa’s decision to give up his monastic robes could be understood, in part, as having to do with the intention to communicate the teachings more clearly. He was not about to become, as described in the introduction to the Sadhana of Mahamudra, one of those “yogis of tantra” who “spend their whole time going through villages and performing little ceremonies for material gain.” In fact, unlike many Eastern teachers, he gave few blessing initiations, usually reserving such situations for students who had trained and were prepared to enter a further level of meditative discipline and commitment to the spiritual path.

In the introduction to Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, Chögyam Trungpa states that “an interesting metaphor used in Tibetan Buddhism to describe the functioning of ego is that of the ‘three lords of materialism’: the ‘lord of form’, the ‘lord of speech,’ and ‘the lord of mind,’” which are further described as physical materialism, psychological materialism, and spiritual materialism. “In the discussion of the three lords,” he continues, “the words ‘materialism’ and ‘neurotic’ refer to the action of ego.” The lord of form, physical materialism, is described as “the neurotic pursuit of comfort, security, and pleasure;” the lord of speech, psychological materialism, in its full-blown form, is the use of “idealogies [and] systems of ideas which rationalize, justify, and sanctify our lives;” the lord of mind, spiritual materialism, is “the effort of consciousness to maintain awareness of itself.” (Shambhala Publications, Dragon edition, pp. 5-6)

His point, here, is not that one should give oneself a hard time physically, or not pursue intellectual and spiritual training, but that there is a problem with the self-confirming and protective ways we use physical comforts, ideologies, and the pursuit of pleasurable states of mind (such as meditation practice itself). The spiritual path should not be confused with marketing, whether to oneself or others. When body, speech, and mind are dedicated to the service of ego, and particularly when ideologies and spiritual practice are used as credentials, these serve only to alienate us from the reality of our own hearts, other people, and the world. There is no enlightenment in that, either societal or personal. The implication is that any spiritual path, ideology, or lifestyle could be perverted in that way, whether it be Buddhism, Christianity, yoga, existentialism, nationalism, communism, capitalism or, for that matter, fitness programs, scheduling strategies, or interior decorating. This view is exemplified by his analysis of the cultural situation in the early 1970s that he encountered in the West as found in this seminar, Buddhadharma Without Credentials (pp. 1-2, Kalapa Publications, 1973):

It seems to be the destined karmic flow that buddhism is obviously going to come to America, and America is going to become the home of buddhism. Sooner or later that is going to happen. So, if we are going to be instrumental in bringing that about, we could disregard the advertisement aspect of it. We could work on a much more fundamental, basic, and honest level. Therefore, I have been presenting the idea of spiritual materialism, which is the basic core of understanding religion and spirituality, as well as deception and charlatanism.

....the spiritual path is not divided in terms of grades, nor is it divided in terms of how smart you are, how intelligent you are. Therefore, there are no credentials. That seems to be the starting point of a spiritual path.

Even though you could create credentials, somewhat legitimately according to the buddhist tradition – it has been done in the past – in our particular situation in America, it seems that presenting any idea of credentials becomes self-destructive, rather than being a source of inspiration at all. So we have to change that attitude and also reform the traditional patterns that have already developed in the East. Such patterns were up-to-date for certain situations at certain times, but in the twentieth century in America the approach of presenting credentials is out-of-date. Acquiring credentials doesn’t make a buddha. So the only answer is buddhadharma without credentials.

Having said all that, Chögyam Trungpa did, in fact, work with his students by training them in physical and arts disciplines, related to body or “form”, as well as intellectual and spiritual disciplines, including logic and meditation practice, disciplines of “speech” and “mind.” Students were encouraged to study and attempt to understand history and politics, how both enlightened and corrupt societies have developed and functioned in the past, to join the workforce, to relate to their families of origin and their cultural inheritance, to join in with the world. Eating, dressing, wearing clothes, walking, talking, sexual expression, political activity, caring for oneself, one’s friends and one’s family – all of these are included in his Buddhist and Shambhala teachings, as well as disciplines connected with these. Having pride and confidence in one’s life, oneself, and one’s world, appreciating and enjoying human existence, are also fundamental to the way he taught and lived. This intention, together with the intention to cut through spiritual materialism, provides a context for further investigating this man and his life.

by Robert Walker

This second blog will be devoted to exploring and amplifying the notion of “crazy wisdom” itself as it was taught by Chögyam Trungpa. It’s not a slang expression, but a way of talking about the realization and activities of certain great Buddhist masters of India and Tibet, as described in their teachings and hagiographies.

The term “crazy wisdom” refers to a particular style of teaching and being, a particular way of manifesting enlightened mind. “Wisdom” is a way of talking about enlightened being, completely in harmony with and awake to the elements of reality. According to the scriptures, such beings manifest love, compassion, and skillfulness that are not strategized or conditioned by any limited reference point, but are spontaneously creative, resourceful, and realistic.

“Crazy” wisdom, or wisdom “gone wild,” has the further connotation of not being bound by conventional reference points of appearing to be sane or good, transcending both hope and fear. In particular, such wisdom transcends the “hope of attaining enlightenment and the fear of continuing to wander in samsara,” as it says in the Sadhana of Mahamudra, which is often quoted in the film. It is a way of being that is completely fearless with respect to entering and working with the world of confusion, our ordinary screwed-up world. Chögyam Trungpa wrote:

There is a story of a king in India whose court soothsayers told him that within seven days there would be a rain whose water would produce madness. The king collected and stored enormous amounts of fresh water, so that when the rain of madness fell, all of his subjects went mad except himself. But after awhile he realized that he could not communicate with his subjects because they took the mad world to be real and could smoothly function in the world created by their mutual madness. So finally the king decided to abandon his supply of fresh water and drink the water of madness.

It is a rather disappointing way of expressing the realization of enlightenment, but it is a very powerful statement. When we decide to drink the water of madness, then we have no reference point. So from that point of view, total enlightenment is total madness. But there is still a king and his subjects and they must run the world together. Running the world becomes an expression of sanity because there is no reference point against which to fight. There is something logical about the whole bodhisattva process, but there is something extraordinarily illogical about it as well. (The Myth of Freedom and the Way of Meditation, Shambhala Publications, 2002, pp. 123-124)

Crazy wisdom in relationship
Some of the qualities related to crazy wisdom were not purely meant to be unapproachable ideals to be expressed only by an enlightened teacher, but also for the students themselves to emulate. Emulate, in this case, includes being brave enough, and trusting oneself enough, to make mistakes, in the context of a good deal of study and meditative discipline. The kasung (Shambhala military) slogan, “not afraid to be a fool,” exemplifies this, as does the bravery Chögyam Trungpa encouraged from artists and poets in relating to their arts disciplines (which deserves its own blog):

Chögyam Trungpa presented the notion of crazy wisdom in some depth in the context of two seminars given in 1972 on Padmasambhava, the enlightened master who first brought the buddhadharma to Tibet. In the seminars, “crazy wisdom” is used to refer to the being and the style of Padmasambhava. According to the scriptures, Chögyam Trungpa writes, the crazy wisdom person is one who “subdues what needs to be subdued and destroys what needs to be destroyed.”

The idea here is that whatever your neurosis demands, when you relate with a crazy-wisdom person you get hit back with that. Crazy wisdom presents you with a mirror reflection. That is why Padmasambhava’s crazy wisdom is universal. Crazy wisdom knows no limitation and no logic regarding the form it takes. A mirror will not compromise with you if you are ugly. And there is no point in blaming the mirror or breaking it. The more you break the mirror the more reflections of your face come about from further pieces of the mirror. So the nature of Padmasambhava’s wisdom is that it knows no limitation and no compromise. (Crazy Wisdom, Shambhala Publications, 1991, p. 112.)

So: no limitation, no compromise, no hope that things will work out in a particular way, no fear about getting involved, no giving up on anyone, but a creative state of being that can be both playful and very honest, sometimes brutally honest. That is the particular meaning of love and compassion in this context.

On a more ordinary level, this would be the kind of friend or lover who does not idealize you or “butter you up,” but sees both your flaws and your beauty, tells you the truth, and is loyal. We should have such friends.

Speaking of friendship and compassionate communication, here are some guidelines offered by Chögyam Trungpa which appear in the “death and dying” manual prepared for his students, from a talk he gave in September 1971. Chögyam Trungpa accompanied his teachers to minister to dying people and the families of dying people in Tibet from the time he was eight years old:

It seems that actually relating with the dying person is very important, to provide the whole ground of dying. Death is no longer a myth at that point. It is actually happening: “You are dying. We are watching you dying. But we are your friends, therefore we watch your dying. We believe in your rugged quality of leaving your body and turning into a corpse. That is beautiful. That’s the finest and best example of friendship that you could demonstrate to us: that you know you are dying and we know that you are going to die. That’s really beautiful. We are really meeting together properly and beautifully, exactly at the point. It is fantastic communication.” That in itself is such a beautiful and rich quality of communication that it really presents a tremendous further inspiration, as far as the dying person is concerned.

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Johanna Demetrakas's documentary Crazy Wisdom explores the story of Chögyam Trungpa, the brilliant "bad boy of Buddhism," who was pivotal in bringing Tibetan Buddhism to the West.  Trungpa shattered any preconceived notions about how an enlightened teacher should behave.  Born in Tibet, recognized as an exceptional reincarnate lama and trained in the rigorous monastic tradition, Trungpa fled his homeland during the Chinese Communist invasion.  In Britain, realizing a cultural gap prevented his students from any deep understanding of Buddhism, he renounced his vows, eloped with a sixteen year-old, and lived as a westerner.  In the U.S., he openly drank alcohol and had intimate relations with students. Was this crazy wisdom?

Trungpa landed in the U.S. in 1970 and legend has it that he said to his students: "Take me to your poets." He drew a following of the country's prominent avant-garde artists, spiritual teachers, and intellectuals - including R.D. LaingJohn CageRam Dass, and Pema Chodron.  Poet Allen Ginsbergconsidered Trungpa his guru; Catholic priest Thomas Merton wanted to write a book with him; music icon Joni Mitchell wrote a song about him.  Trungpa became renowned for translating ancient Buddhist concepts into language and ideas that Westerners could understand. Humor was always a part of his teaching - "Enlightenment is better than Disneyland," he quipped, and he warned of the dangers of the "Western spiritual supermarket."



by Robert Walker

A great power of this film, Crazy Wisdom: The Life and Times of Chögyam Trungpa, is the way it introduces or re-introduces Chögyam Trungpa as a human being, as a person in relationship with others. It shows how the heart of his teachings was transmitted -- not merely as information, but as an intimate gift of love that could be taken to heart, and which could be transformative. The journey and experiences of the early students, many of whom had personal time with him, is so useful in showing this, and I am grateful that so many of them express themselves in this film. This film is largely about relationships and how those who were close to Chögyam Trungpa were changed -- not just from instructions and information, but by how they were touched by him.

Such relationships were marked by love, appreciation, and a certain amount of fear and trepidation on the part of the students. It could be intimidating to be faced with such unconditional passion -- someone who both knew you and could see through you at the same time, who was willing to tell the painful and pleasurable truth, and who appreciated both one's faults and one's deepest inspiration. He was also willing to train students in awareness practices, without embarrassment, in many challenging, inspiring, and boring ways.

However, the notion that such a journey with his teachings is not available now is an error, in my opinion. Even near the beginning of his teaching career in the United States, students complained about not having enough direct contact with him. This became more and more an "issue" as the community of students increased in size. His response was often to encourage students to take the teachings more to heart and to practice more, especially on the meditation cushion. Such instruction does not seem to be outdated.

Speaking of Johanna Demetrakas and crew, I cannot emphasize enough what a brave and generous act making this film is. For all the artfulness -- the willingness to not preach but to let the various narrators, reliable or unreliable, tell this story -- she does not give in to the pretense and hypocrisy of being objective, and I applaud her for that. This is an intimate work, not particularly one that was produced from some peanut gallery. And with respect to Johanna's generosity - I have to think that there must be less stressful and more lucrative ways to make a living than making this film. So, thanks, Johanna. This is an invaluable piece of work, and a wonderful access to Chögyam Trungpa, both for those who met him and for those who did not.

Many of the people in this film, students of his, are excellent teachers themselves. For every one of them you see in this film, there are dozens more teaching at Shambhala Centers and in other Buddhist groups, mostly Tibetan and Zen groups. The filmmaker, Ms. Demetrakas, has also been known to teach meditation from time to time, as have I. He was a teacher of teachers, including teachers who trained other teachers, and who also encouraged and supported a number of Western teachers from other Buddhist lineages in their formative years.

I am a little dharma brother of many of the student-teachers of Chögyam Trungpa who appear in this film. I went to talks by many of them and people like them as a student of Chögyam Trungpa from 1979 on, roughly nine years after he first began teaching in the United States. As sort of a minor practice and study nerd, I have also transcribed many of his talks, some of which he gave while consuming a great deal of alcohol. I was a student and staff person at what was then The Naropa Institute, and was also on the psychology faculty for a number of years.

One of the challenges of making a film about Chögyam Trungpa is the scope of his activities. In his English-language teaching career, he gave well over 2000 talks to a variety of audiences, from devoted students to indifferent spiritual seekers, and during almost all of which he was mostly paralyzed over half of his body. There were (and are) artists, health professionals, political activists, people in business, people connected to other Buddhist lineages and other spiritual traditions - all sorts of people - who claim to be influenced by him, who take his teachings to heart in various ways and to different degrees. This does not include the many people who don't like him but were also influenced by him and his work. It would be an error to talk about him purely in the past tense; he is a living force in many people's lives.
One film can't tell that whole story of how much he accomplished in the 47 years of his life.

So, this is the first of a series of blogs about the Crazy Wisdom film, addressing a number of themes, most of which are highlighted by the film. My bias is that all of these subjects can best be understood when seen through the lens of his teaching relationship with people, students and nonstudents alike, and his aspiration to benefit this world. In any case, these blog subjects could, and probably will, include craziness, wisdom, more about student teacher relationships, sexuality and intimacy in human relationships, spiritual materialism, meditation practice and boredom, different aspects of the dharma art teachings, language and elocution, the Shambhala military (kasung and kusung), other awareness practices, alcohol and the question of alcoholism, how he let the "sparks fly" and trained people intellectually, his appreciation for monasticism, his decision not to be a monastic, and probably other topics that have not come to mind yet.

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