March 23, 2011

All Craziness, No Wisdom

When crazy wisdom is used as a scam or excuse by unscrupulous teachers, it can take any of three general forms. In the first, teachers claim outright that some or all of their actions are crazy wisdom. In the second, they make no such claim, but publicly sing the praises of crazy wisdom, behave badly, and refuse to explain their actions—thus encouraging their students to connect the dots and infer that crazy wisdom is behind (and justifies) their misdeeds. In the third, teachers delude themselves into believing that a universal wisdom is acting through them, and that they can therefore do whatever they please, because that wisdom is running the show. They thus give up their own power to analyze, evaluate, test, or discern—and become puppets of their own impulses and desires. This delusion can be especially harmful to both the teacher and their students.

All crazy-wisdom scams are crazy-making to some degree. But when a teacher uses the crazy-wisdom dodge to lure a student into bed, this is his essential message: You should have sex with me. You might now want to, and you might feel it's a bad idea, but you're wrong. It's good for you. It may look like expatiation or manipulation or abuse, but it's not. I can see this, but you can't, because I'm wise and you're not, and I'm acting from a more spiritual orientation than you are. You need to trust me on this. If the teacher also accuses a reluctant student of a lack of trust, a lack of loyalty, a lack of commitment, or a lack of courage, the situation becomes more crazy-making still. And if the teacher presents the student with a stark choice between obedience or banishment—or says to them, "If you ever expect to learn anything from me, you must never question me or my actions"—then he's committing serious abuse.

From Scott Edelstein's Sex and the Spiritual Teacher. Join us at the Tricycle Book Club to discuss the book with the author.

Image: from the Flickr photostream of Jeff the Trojan

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andrewjcampbell's picture

Well since Trungpa Rinpoche is no longer here how are we going to evaluate his 'Crazy Wisdom'? From his books? We are talking here about a teacher/student experience and not a book/student experience.
I don't think mind and body are split at all. In fact I think mind is 99% body. So in that way I'm a materialist.
The 1% that's left is the unknowable. Suffering is caused by .....I have no idea what suffering is caused by. I find it strange that you seem to know about the cause of suffering.

wtompepper's picture

So you're only 1% attached to the idea of an essential self?

Why is it strange to know the causes of suffering? Buddha explained them!

andrewjcampbell's picture

Again..Where are the 'crazy wisdom' teachers these days? There's no point talking about Trungpa Rinpoche as he has passed away. Who is teaching in this style today? If there are legitimate teachers teaching in this way I have yet to come across them. There are plenty of self-deluded teachers but hasn't that always been the case?

On another note:
It's difficult to know where brain-based spiritual experiences stop and where true wisdom begins. In the case of the deluded, their spiritual lives are all about brain-based experiences and that goes for student as well as teacher. The rub is that crazy wisdom is all about the manifestation of experience - the uncontrived expression of wisdom - and does the teacher have the experience of crazy wisdom? They should not. One then wonders what is authentic crazy wisdom if it is experienced, if it is brain-based?

But then searchers after 'truth', like the Buddha before he became enlightened, often become searchers after experiences. I think that experience is what the Buddha renounced after years of aesthetic practices. And the madyamaka teachings also pinpoint clearly that there are no experiences. For them realization is a state where there are no experiences. But who would want that?
What people want are experiences. Some meet nice teachers, genuine teachers and have nice experiences. Some meet with charlatans and have confused experiences. Objectless Mind beyond the brain? I'm not sure people want that. Do you feel comfortable with enlightenment that isn't an experience?
We like bardo teachings and phowa teachings and dream yoga teachings and 10 month Zen retreats and so on. We want control over the experience - that's what many people think enlightenment is - and when we feel we are losing control we breakdown - we feel especially vulnerable and unenlightened.
If we see that these experiences are brain-based then maybe that would help. When we think these experiences are mind-based well then it gets unclear and scary - we feel limited. Why do people want to sit on clouds when they could be sitting in an airplane? Sometimes the material realities of life are very much more important than the ambiguous notions of mind-training and the false notion of an experience of enlightenment.
The spiritual book market is crowded with seriously intentioned tomes that wish to help the seeker find a way to the truth. The truth of how you have to be careful, how you can improve, be less limited and so on. But we should realize that we are the creators of 'crazy wisdom', of buddhist saints and sinners of the Buddha himself. We create enlightenment - the very notion of it - the experience of it. And that is not enlightenment. Look at what is 'real' past thoughts and experiences - what is real after we take away the brain as a factor in cognition. Take away all the buddhist terms and concepts about what mind is or is not - take away all the meditation techniques - clear the bookshelves of all the books - what is real then? My own insight is that just being a kind person is enough. Mind beyond the brain doesn't want to make itself known. So I'll leave it there.

wtompepper's picture

"There's no point talking about Trungpa Rinpoche as he has passed away."

What a strange thing to say. Once a teacher is dead, we should stop talking about and evaluating his teaching? Should we stop talking about Buddha, too?

As you say, there are "plenty of self-deluded teachers" today, as always, and that is exactly the reason for discussing what it wisdom and what is just crazy.

You seem to be stuck on the Cartesian mind-body split. On my understanding of Buddhism, this duality is a source of delusion. The attachment to the idea that we have a mind free from causes and conditions is the cause of most of our suffering. Your arguments are self-contradictory and confused; try letting go of that Cartesian thought, and maybe things would be clearer.

gtirloni's picture

The path is difficult enough to grasp and practice.. no need for additional craziness on top of this steep hill.

Dominic Gomez's picture

You touch upon a key teaching of Buddhism that often gets lost in contemporary society's fascination with personalities and celebrities rather than substance. This teaching is the "middle way" that transcends extremism, and keeps Buddhist practitioners (teachers and students alike) grounded in present reality. After all, the practice of Buddhism in its quintessential state is revealed as none other than our behavior as human beings in society.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Grigori Rasputin ( 1869-1916), Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (1931-1990), Jim Jones (1931-1978), among others, come to mind while we're on the subject. Who are to blame in these cases, "crazy" teachers or "crazy" students?

rinchen_wangmo's picture

Everything you say makes a lot of sense, birchbark, in its own, entirely valid context. But the word "crazy" here is not used to denote mental health or lack thereof! The difficulty is, the syntagm "crazy wisdom" has a particular meaning. It's a completely different use that is associated to concepts beyond words, that of a wisdom which is out of commonly accepted behaviors and attitudes. (Can you tell I am a professional linguist?)
In fact we could use any synonym: loony, nuts, banana... it would still be offending to the "consumer movement", right? Yet the concept designated by this unit composed of two words, "wisdom" + "bizarre or fantastic" needs to be expressed.

wtompepper's picture

I would have to agree with rinchen wangmo. Clearly, we don't need to encourage the use of slurs, but we can get carried away. When a word has other uses that both precede and are contemporary with the derogatory meaning, we shouldn't need to give it up altogether. "Crazy" originally meant:

1. Full of cracks or flaws; damaged, impaired, unsound; liable to break or fall to pieces; frail, ‘shaky’. (Now usually of ships, buildings, etc.) [OED]

It still has very positive connotations, as when connected with "wisdom" or "love." Should nobody ever again be allowed to say "I'm crazy about her"? How about the frequent refrain on "Yo Gabba Gabba": "Let's go crazy!"-- to mean dance wildly.

I'm usually accused of being excessively liberal, but sometimes the political correctness thing turns into Orwellian newspeak. Every time somebody uses a term to insult somebody, does it have to be purged from the language?

rinchen_wangmo's picture


rinchen_wangmo's picture

This blog needs a "Like" button.

birchbark's picture

I respectfully disagree with you, rinchen wangmo. It is impossible to separate the cultural context from the word when we do speak, when we read books, when we receive teachings. I stated that I understood the author did not mean to offend anyone by using that word. It was my goal to voice the opinion of the growing "consumer movement" within the mental health community that feels the word is a slur, one that has been used to dehumanize people. Surely you couldn't argue that slurs are just arbitrary arrangements of letters and sounds, when you yourself would never call anyone a slur based on sexuality or race. We must live in the world and try to act with compassion when we speak. If you are unfamiliar with said movement, please visit :

Also, while the world has many meanings, the title of this post "All Craziness and No Wisdom," and the picture shown next to the title, clearly support the primary definition, not the secondary.

rinchen_wangmo's picture

The Webster's online website says "crazy" can also mean "bizarre or fantastic". This has nothing to do with mental illness. Plus, words have no intrinsic reality. They're just arbitrary arrangements of letters and sounds we use to communicate.

birchbark's picture

The term "crazy" is incredibly stigmatizing for people with mental illness and shows both a seeming lack of compassion and a lack of creativity in describing the problem. In the future, please try to think about the adjectives you use and the greater social context. I understand that you probably didn't mean to offend anyone by using "crazy"-- but as someone who works in the Public Mental Health System, I couldn't help but be surprised by its casual use.

Monty McKeever's picture

Hi d beardman,

I'm not specifically familiar with Riverside but I know there are many excellent Zen centers in California. My advice is to just keep reading the writings of a variety of teachers and continue to develop your personal practice. From articles to past online retreat teachings, there is a lot you can study right here on this very site! Checking out some local Zendos in your area is also a good idea.

Ultimately, my recommendation is to move forward with intention and determination, but also not to get ahead of yourself.


d_beardman's picture

Thank you Monty :)

d_beardman's picture

I live in Riverside, California and I'm kind of getting into the practice of Buddhism, but only as a beginner. Should I consider a teacher? How would I go about finding a teacher? I feel the need to begin spiritual practice involving meditation, mindfullness, and Zen Buddhism interrests me the most. Any recommended books to start out with? Your help would be greatly appreciated :)

rinchen_wangmo's picture

I'm so grateful to my teachers for their pure conduct. Nobody's perfect, but they certainly gave me no reason at all to experience the kind of cognitive dissonance where the students have to contort their own perceptions and experiences to keep a pure vision of their teacher.

DougVieques's picture

BUT, Monty, while I agree with you, I think the discussion point is more a matter of discernment. For the early or beginning student with little experience in such things, how does the legitimate vs bogus crazy wisdom get sorted out? I remember stories and in fact had friends at the Boulder center of Trungpa Rimpoche. I for one wanted nothing to do with such behavior as I started up the steep learning curve of Zen practice at the time. Certainly when looking at the results from 20+ years later a lot of good came out of the lineage that includes Trungpa Rimpoche. But it is more useful to predict ahead and make an effort to prevent or preeempt the troublesome teachers before they become major scandalous sores on our collective Sangha.

Monty McKeever's picture

In retrospect, I think this excerpt is best read along with the introduction to Crazy Wisdom that precedes it in the chapter. Edelstein explains that it is indeed a legitimate tradition in many Buddhist lineages, and that there have been many great Crazy Wisdom masters throughout the ages.

For example, I am assuming that the link above is a trailer to the film "Crazy Wisdom" about Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. He is an example of someone from a legitimate crazy wisdom lineage that goes back centuries. I don't think is was a "scam" in his case.

In the discussion Edelstein writes,
"How exactly do we know that someone is a bad (or good) teacher? We observe them carefully over time; pay attention to our own mind, heart, and gut; and trust our own best judgment. We ask ourselves, Does this person's behavior consistently follow and uphold the essential principles of human connection, compassion, and service?"

I think if someone were to ask Trungpa's students this, which I'm sure people have, they would answer that he did indeed fully embody these principals.

wtompepper's picture

I agree that, when read in context, Edelstein is not denouncing all "crazy wisdom." In this passage, I think he is just trying to remind people to use their judgement--not everything crazy is wisdom.

I fear I sometimes sound judgmental and puritanical, but nonetheless, I really think there was little wisdom in Chogyam Trungpa's alcoholism, cocaine and seconal addiction, and sexual exploits. Now, I don't want to suggest he was in any way evil--I think he must have been a very unhappy man, who certainly needed a compassionate teacher. But isn't it clear that what he was doing had nothing at all to do with Buddhism? Read the Alagaddupama Sutta. I don't think active alcoholics are in any state to properly understand, never mind teach, Buddhism. They need help, not a following.

Monty McKeever's picture

Here is the situation with Trungpa as I see it: It can't be denied that he was a great teacher that did as much to establish Buddhism in the West as any of the great masters that set foot on this continent. Nevertheless, some people take issue with the way he lived and very much have that right.

However, stating that he must have been a very unhappy man seems misinformed. Those that knew Trungpa recall him as being a deeply joyful person. If he truly didn't possess wisdom, then I can't see how it is possible that so many of his students went on to become true practitioners and good teachers in their own right. To say he shouldn't have had a following is to say these people shouldn't have received the dharma as they did. Beyond the many accomplished Acharyas within the Shambhala sangha, one of the clearest examples is Pema Chodron. If you study both Trungpa and Pema's work, it is very easy to see that she is very much "her teacher's student." Yet, somehow, she is a nun that engages in none of the activities that made Trungpa controversial. It just doesn't seem plausible to me that such a great teacher could have learned the dharma from someone who didn't actually understand it.

I would also caution against judging people for alcoholism, a very tragic disease that has taken the lives of many great people, Buddhist and otherwise.

wtompepper's picture

As a teacher (of Literature, not Buddhism) I think it is absolutely possible for a student to learn more than her teacher has to offer.

But that aside, I don't think I was judging people for alcoholism. I don't think suggesting that an active alcoholic is in no state to understand things clearly and needs help is "judging" them. I also cannot believe that anyone who is in the process of drinking himself to death is a "deeply joyful person." Did you know him personally? Can somebody who did know him weigh in on this? I'm seriously interested, because I've never heard an alcoholic say that while they were drinking they were joyful. It ain't like "Arthur."

Monty McKeever's picture

Yes, I did know him personally, although he died when I was young. My parents were of his close students. My statements are very much informed by those that were there, and not by the second hand commentary of those that neither knew nor can comprehend the reality of the man.

wtompepper's picture

This is fascinating to me. I can certainly say that I cannot "comprehend the reality of the man." The very possibility of being a wise, joyful, active alcoholic is just incomprehensible to me. I mean this very sincerely (I'm afraid it comes off as ironic on a blog). How can one account for Wisdom being combined with such self-destructive behavior? Is it a bodhisattva practice of postponing enlightenment to save others? All I keep thinking is that those around him must have been blind to his suffering. Can you recommend a good essay or book on this subject--I mean something that isn't simply hagiography and recognizes why this may seem inexplicable to some of us.

Monty McKeever's picture

There is much to say on this topic, many ways one could go, but I also need to be frank about the fact that I am not particularly interested in going too deep into it in a public forum like this. Also, there are a lot people out there who could explain a lot better than I can.

In regards to Crazy Wisdom, or maybe in this thread I should say "Bizarre or Fantastic Wisdom," he was definitely of this tradition. Here is a passage from an interview with Steven Goodman on Crazy Wisdom that I feel is relevant, much more so that the Edelstein excerpt,

"In my workshop at CIIS, “Tibetan Buddhist Practices and the Trick-ster,” I introduce the notion of “crazy wisdom,” a phrase that got on the map thanks largely to Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. In Tibetan the words are yeshe cholwa, with yeshe meaning “wisdom that’s always been there,” and cholwa meaning “wild or uncontainable.” Trungpa Rinpoche said you might as well just say “wisdom crazy.” It refers to someone who seems to be intoxicated with an un-bounded, luminous, loving energy. What we call crazy is only crazy from the viewpoint of ego, custom, habit. The craziness is actually higher frequency enjoyment. Besides, the great spiritual adepts, the mahasiddhas, don’t decide to be crazy. Crazy wisdom is natural, effortless, not driven by the hope and fear machine of the ego."

With this in mind, I'd say that even his disease that killed him did not share many of the common characteristics that is does in others that suffer from the same affliction. In short, he was undoubtedly an alcoholic, but he was a profoundly unique alcoholic (although obviously not on a physical level). What made him unique was this "un-bounded, luminous, loving energy." This energy ran to his very core, much deeper than any affliction. It's important to remember that long before he dove head-long into Western culture and his mission of establishing the dharma here, that he was in fact a very high and extremely well trained lama. While some people may not be able to comprehend how a wildman who engaged in activities that seem contradictory to their ideas of proper "ego, custom, habit" could possess such an energy, keep in mind that these same people often wouldn't find it a stretch that a highly trained lama could. Trungpa was both, at the same time.

Is that to say he wasn't also a human being with flaws and imperfections that made mistakes? Definitely not. Mistakes were definitely made and the community he created has been earnestly trying to deal with them and learn from them ever since.

Anyway, regarding further reading, I recommend "Recalling Trungpa" by Fabrice Midal Here is a Publishers Weekly review,

"This compilation of essays and reminiscences about one of the pioneers of Tibetan Buddhism in the West is a whole lotta Trungpa. Trungpa was a far-ranging teacher, who made contributions to art, poetry, theater, translation, education, psychology and even dressage in addition to popularizing a profound spiritual tradition. At the same time, his "crazy wisdom," as the eccentricities of his life were described, went beyond the pale for some. That Trungpa was a major figure in translating Tibetan Buddhism from a little-known cultural tradition into terms Westerners could appreciate is an achievement noted by the Dalai Lama himself in a brief introduction. The essays that concentrate on explicating Trungpa as a teacher are the strongest. The enduring significance of his contributions in other fields—theater, for example—is more open to debate. The book needs tighter editing of chatty anecdotes and greater overall clarity. A biographical sketch would increase its usability, and a few essays are annoyingly turgid ("the alchemical practice of solve et coagula at the heart of speech makes this dance between the relative and the ultimate spiritually operative"). Nearly half the contributions are by those with very close ties to Trungpa, so while this isn't hagiography, it's a pretty fond book"

have a great weekend Tom,
Be well.

DougVieques's picture
SapientiaOscen's picture

I also, thankfully, do not know any teachers like this. But I do know many people who have taught me with Crazy Wisdom. I think that Crazy Wisdom is much more complex than what is stated in this excerpt. In fact, most all of the Crazy Wise people I know are truly, wonderfully, amazing.

khrystene's picture

Agreed. In a way this is an abuse of 'crazy wisdom'. :)

andrewjcampbell's picture

Who are you talking about? I don't know of any teachers like this. Is this really a problem or are you trying to sell your book?

khrystene's picture

We don't need to name names, but it happens and it happens exactly like that. Sad.