February 04, 2011

"Crazy Wisdom: The Life and Times of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche" to Premier Tomorrow

The much anticipated film Crazy Wisdom: The Life and Times of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche will be premiering tomorrow at the Santa Barbara film festival. Watch the trailer here:

Crazy Wisdom Trailer from Matthew Mecer on Vimeo.

via crazywisdomthemovie.com,

Buddhism permeates popular culture worldwide - we speak casually of good parking karma, Samsara is a perfume, and Nirvana is a rock band.  A recent survey by Germany's Der Spiegel revealed that Germans like the Dalai Lama more than their native-born Pope Benedict XVI; the biggest Buddhist monastery outside of Asia is in France, and Tibetan Buddhism is doubling its numbers faster than any other religion in Australia and the U.S.A.  How did this happen?

Crazy Wisdom explores this through the story of Chogyam Trungpa, the brilliant "bad boy of Buddhism," who was pivotal in bringing Tibetan Buddhism to the West.  Trungpa shattered our preconceived notions about how an enlightened teacher should behave.  Born in Tibet, recognized as an exceptional reincarnate lama and trained in the rigorous monastic tradition, Trungpa fled his homeland during the Chinese Communist invasion.  In Britain, realizing a cultural gap prevented his students from any deep understanding of Buddhism, he renounced his vows, eloped with a sixteen year-old, and lived as a westerner.  In the U.S., he openly drank alcohol and had intimate relations with students. Was this crazy wisdom?

Trungpa landed in the U.S. in 1970 and legend has it that he said to his students: "Take me to your poets."    He drew a following of the country's prominent avant-garde artists, spiritual teachers, and intellectuals - including R.D. Laing, John Cage, Ram Dass, and Pema Chodron.  Poet Allen Ginsberg considered Trungpa his guru; Catholic priest Thomas Merton wanted to write a book with him; music icon Joni Mitchell wrote a song about him.  Trungpa became renowned for translating ancient Buddhist concepts into language and ideas that Westerners could understand. Humor was always a part of his teaching - "Enlightenment is better than Disneyland," he quipped, and he warned of the dangers of the "Western spiritual supermarket."

Trungpa's work contributed to a radical cultural shift that brought Tibetan Buddhism to hungry Western audiences, disillusioned with the violence and materialism in their own world.  How did Americans, dedicated to the relentless pursuit of success, come to embrace the philosophy of a teacher who taught them to meditate for hours at a time without expecting anything in return?
Initially judged harshly by the Tibetan establishment, Trungpa's teachings are now recognized by western philosophers and spiritual leaders, including the Dalai Lama, as authentic and profound. Today, twenty years after his death, Trungpa's books have been translated into thirty-one languages and sell worldwide in millions.  His organization thrives in thirty countries and five continents.  Yet Trungpa's name still evokes admiration and outrage.  What made him tick, and just what is crazy wisdom anyway?

Director Johanna Demetrakas uses archival footage, animation, interviews, and original imagery to build a film that mirrors Trungpa's challenging energy and invites viewers to go beyond fixed ideas about our teachers and leaders.


Below is an interview with the film's director Johanna Demetrakas, which we were informed about by our friends at dharma/arte,

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Dominic Gomez's picture

Re: "In the U.S., he openly drank alcohol and had intimate relations with students. Was this crazy wisdom?"

From my perspective as somebody burned and raised in these good ol' Yewnited States: jus' crazy.

Tharpa Pema's picture

Have you read his work?

Dominic Gomez's picture

I'm not familiar with Mr. Trungpa's form of Buddhism. But from what I've gleaned through, he seems to have a firm theoretical undrstanding of Buddhist teachings. My off-handed comment is based on my understanding that Buddhism is none other than the day-to-day activities and common sense behavior of human beings in society. In Mr. Trungpa's and my case, that society is this modern American one.

As Mr. Trungpa writes, "According to the Buddhist tradition, the spiritual path is the process of cutting through our confusion, of uncovering the awakened state of mind. When the awakened state of mind is crowded in by ego and its attendant paranoia, it takes on the character of
an underlying instinct." Doesn't this describe "intimate relations with students" and other questionable types of behavior exhibited by Mr. Trungpa back in the day?

Buddhism befits the times, or should. Non-Buddhists can only comprehend and eventually respect the Law (the dharma) through the behavior of its practitioners.

Tharpa Pema's picture

I find it sad but true that the behavioral choices of Trungpa Rinpoche do limit the impact of his contribution to Buddhist development in the United States.

There will be many people, I suppose, who will not explore past the lurid details to learn from this brilliant person. His work is not just theoretical but highly experiential in nature. He pushed the boundaries of spiritual self-knowledge and taught others to do the same.

I, for one, have no difficulty appreciating his work because 1) I feel no compulsion to design my behavior after his; 2) I don’t fear being judged as a Buddhist for his behavior, although for a brief moment I did; and 3) I am not so much focused on defending Buddhism from outside detractors as I am on how Buddhism’s many talented teachers can help me personally to grow.

The entirety of Buddhist history stands on its own feet. I don’t feel like I have to defend it. I am secure in my Buddhist “identity,” such as it is. When I let go my fear of being judged and my own judgments of others, my mind becomes vastly more open to learning new ways of being in compassionate relationship with others.

Thank you for the thought-provoking conversation.

With maitri, Linda

britaid's picture

Thank you Linda for making this reply. I have struggled with (as I'm sure many do) this subject of the teacher's "flaws". I have experienced several profound learning moments from teachers who have entered my life; teachers who have also displayed quite negative behavior. After many years of confusion that these experiences left me with, I realized that both immense wisdom and negative behavior can and do exist together. This apparent contradiction is a reflection of our own flaw in expecting and desiring one person to embody a sort of perfection that we ourselves do not possess. This realization I now see as a profound teaching in itself, a sort of "driving all negativity into one"--because, while we require learning from external sources, we are forced back into ourselves to do the real work.

Tharpa Pema's picture

I remember vividly how shocked and betrayed I felt when I learned that Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche drank and had many sexual partners despite the fact that he was married. These behaviors did not coincide with my idea of the Buddhist precepts. I was afraid to be associated with his name and organization. What would people think of me?

Later I realized that I don't live up to the precepts either, as much as I aspire to. In fact I've never met or read about any spiritual person, even spiritual leaders, who were without human defect.Yet flawed people can have some very good ideas and insights that are helpful to share with other aspiring bodhisattvas. In fact, these flawed fellow human travellers are ALL we have.

I have learned from Rinpoche and his student Pema Chodron that I am valuable even though I have flaws; that my appreciation of their words does not mean I have to mimic their behaviors; and that I can be humble enough and loving enough to learn something important from every single person I meet or read about, regardless of what they say or do-- because we share "humanness."

As it happens, I have learned a vast appreciation of my own existence, imperfect as it is, from Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, and for that I am deeply appreciative.

I suggest "Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism" as an excellent introduction to his contribution to Buddhist literature.

With compassion, Linda

Will.Rowe's picture

Drunk, sexually promiscuous, arrogant; I do not need anyone to teach me this. There are people who keep the precepts and who have my respect. Their books I will read, but this film, according to the trailer above, holds nothing of merit or wisdom for me.

kentc33's picture

Argumentum ad hominem.

scout11's picture

Thanks for sharing this! His influence in Western culture is fascinating indeed!

and9stepahead's picture

i think its extreme wisdom