Crazy Wisdom

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.


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