By Don Simpson | November 29, 2011
Director: Johanna Demetrakas
Crazy Wisdom: The Life & Times of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche contemplates the teachings of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a pivotal figure in the dissemination of Tibetan Buddhism to Western society. Trungpa was a Buddhist meditation master and holder of both the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages, the eleventh Trungpa tülku, a tertön, and supreme abbot of the Surmang monasteries; he was also an adherent of the ri-mé ecumenical movement within Tibetan Buddhism, which aspired to bring together the teachings of different Buddhist lineages, free of sectarian rivalry.
Trungpa’s journey to the West began during the 1959 Tibetan uprising against the Chinese communists when he escaped Tibet with his own party of monks across the Himalayas into India. In 1963 Trungpa received a scholarship to study Comparative Religion at Oxford University; then, in 1967, Trungpa and Akong Rinpoche were invited by the Johnstone House Trust in Scotland to take over a meditation center, from which they cultivated Samye Ling, the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery in the West. (David Bowie was one of Trungpa’s meditation pupils at Samye Ling.) While in Scotland, Trungpa married a wealthy 16-year old girl; he became paralyzed after crashing his car into a joke shop; and chose to give up his monastic vows in favor of working as a lay teacher.
Trungpa relocated to the United States in 1970 and dove headfirst into the vibrant and youthful counterculture. He established Tail of the Tiger, a Buddhist meditation and study center in Vermont (now known as Karmê Chöling) and Karma Dzong, a Buddhist community in Boulder, Colorado. In 1974, Trungpa founded the Naropa Institute — which later became Naropa University (the first accredited Buddhist university in North America) — in Boulder; he hired infamous Beats such as Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Diane di Prima to teach at Naropa University.
Despite his success in delivering Tibetan Buddhism to the Western world — establishing more than 100 meditation centers — Trungpa is best remembered for his non-traditional behavior. He was a purported alcoholic (there are also some allegations of an expensive cocaine habit), smoked cigarettes and had sex with his female students.
Twenty years after Trungpa’s death, Johanna Demetrakas’s Crazy Wisdom seems to approach his life with kid gloves. Yes, Demetrakas’s access and use of exclusive archival material is impressive; but the documentary’s talking heads are comprised mostly of former disciples of Trungpa, many of whom are culled straight from Trungpa’s inner circle. They seem to lack the objectivity needed to discuss Trungpa without bias; in fact, their statements seem eerily cultish. The talking heads write off Trungpa’s alcoholism as his own unique way of testing the limits of “crazy wisdom” — a Buddhist concept suggesting that acts of foolishness and excess can lead to deeper meaning in the right context; and his promiscuity is interpreted as an exercise in corporeal agitation and a method of cultivating “true” love unbridled by extramarital temptation. Some of the interviewees willingly became Trungpa’s faux-British house servants in Boulder — they dressed as British servants and were taught by Trungpa to speak only in Queen’s English — and do not seem to have any reservations about having done so.
Admittedly, this interpretation of Crazy Wisdom is due to my own personal bias toward organized religion. I approach any spiritual leader with a healthy dose of apprehension, no matter what it is that they are preaching. If I were to align myself with any one religion, it would be Tibetan Buddhism; so I actually agree with much of Trungpa’s teachings, I just would never choose to follow a man like him. The fact that I am able to form this interpretation speaks to Demetrakas’s approach to filmmaking. Demetrakas does not force feed her opinions to us; she provides us with the opinions of various interviewees and allows us to walk away with our own conclusions. Crazy Wisdom is a documentary that is destined to affect different viewers in varying ways.