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'Crazy Wisdom' and the Madness of Enlightenment

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“Crazy wisdom” is an ancient non-sectarian teaching style within Tibetan Buddhism. A teacher of crazy wisdom challenges the stereotypical image of holiness through contradictory behavior. This contradiction removes the garb of spiritual pride that is sometimes the result of holiness. Chogyam Trungpa is world famous for his crazy wisdom.

Trungpa, a “Rinpoche” (highly respected religious teacher), fled Tibet at age 20 during the Chinese Communist takeover in 1959. Before his death in 1987, he founded more than 100 Buddhist meditation and education centers worldwide, published 14 books, created his own art movement called Dharma Art (the list goes on) and is still considered a paradox to this day. His influence remains so unforgettable that Los Angeles-based filmmaker Johanna Demetrakas, who studied with Trungpa for 17 years, worked almost five years to make a film that relates the essence of his teachings. She says, “I made it so that somebody who walks in, who’s never meditated, who obviously isn’t a Buddhist and who may not even have heard of Chogyam Trungpa would have an experience like they’d never dreamed of. Have some kind of experience that was fresh.”

Chogyam Trungpa with Allen Ginsberg

Demetrakas achieves this using a combination of personal stories told by Trungpa’s students, archival footage of his interactions with them and selected quotes from his lectures. The rhythm of Trungpa’s voice structures the tone of the film, making it feel like a meditation and creating the necessary space for his sense of humor to emerge. The result is a film that explores the evolution of consciousness outside the secular barriers of religion.

Throughout the film, Trungpa’s contradictory behavior and activities are disclosed. His alcoholism, womanizing, and generally careless disposition are described by his students. When one student asked why others weren’t coming to study with him, Trungpa responded that they were afraid of being unmasked, of becoming exposed. Christie Cashman, a senior teacher, says that nevertheless, “this was a very important principle to him. People having the courage to work with their own self deception.” This kind of training and discipline called for a teacher that was difficult to be around. Demetrakas says that many times she saw Trungpa drinking or drunk. Other students were also shocked by his behavior. Despite finding his actions absolutely crazy, they couldn’t discontinue their studies because they felt they were learning too much. Demetrakas says that in a way, for the students, accepting their teacher’s behavior was almost like an exercise. “Not imposing your values on other people and being open to what’s there, whether it’s wrapped up in the kind of package you want or not. Being open to actually what’s there.”


Trungpa’s crazy wisdom invites one to experience life beyond what meets the eye. His paradoxical behavior creates an introspective reaction. One is forced to examine one’s own capacity for self-deception. Ultimately, Trungpa’s students have stopped trying to decipher their spiritual guide as a human being. Instead they have learned to let go of their expectations of where and how wisdom can be found.

Crazy Wisdom is screening through July 19, 2012 at the Roxie in San Francisco and July 20-26 at the Elmwood Theatre in Berkeley. For more information, visit crazywisdomthemovie.com.

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