Crazy Wisdom

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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