The opening montage is a historical account of bodies ridden with disease, tanks blowing up in times of war, Wall Street traders shouting at dwindling numbers from their monitors, riots taking place in developed cities contrast the poverty stricken children in developing countries. The voiceovers comment classical wisdom has, in some sense, faded away, that sadness is always around us and hell exists on earth. Today.
Veteran documentary director and editor Johanna Demetrakas presents Chogyam Trungpa, a Tibetan lama, whom at the age of 18 was considered a reincarnated master and thus nicknamed ‘Rinpoche’ which means precious jewel. When the Chinese invaded Tibet in the late 1950s, Trungpa escaped with 12 (originally 300) Buddhist from their monastery and crossed the border into India after ten months. Earning a scholarship from Oxford University, he flew to England and absorbed everything the west had to offer. With his new English friends, he travelled to Scotland to open his first Tibetan Buddhist centre where he discarded his monastic robes and wore a suit. It was here people across the country left their lifestyle to follow this educated, well spoken, mysterious Buddhist who preached something called ‘Crazy Wisdom’. Trungpa adopted a new identity, not because he embraced change but because he wanted people to focus on his character and philosophy.
After establishing his monastery and marrying one of his young followers, Trungpa was hungry for a wider, bigger platform and the biggest platform he could find in the 60s was America, where he migrated to Vermont and established another meditation centre. His audience now included celebrities, poets, philosophers and a nation that was equally trying to discover an identity. His presentations did not always receive a warm welcome; often they were controversial and receive mixed reviews for Trungpa’s philosophy was far removed from the relaxed, meditative and controlled vision of Buddhism. Trungpa was an alcoholic, slept with a range of his students, explored many forms of society and thus created theatre groups, educational institutes and even a Buddhist military. In order to reach into the heart of the aggression, that pulsated within society, he had to create a form of Buddhism that would change the way society worked. One particular method was via fluent communication, for it created a synergy between the mind and soul; Trungpa felt the way the Americans spoke was very sloppy, reflecting their sour way of life, and educated his followers by giving them elocution lessons which he developed while studying in Oxford. Another example was Dharma art – where if you saw a painting of a river, you were drawn into thinking you were actually in the river. This required no communication or languages – just observation.
The documentary is an insightful look at a man who clearly touched hundreds during his time in England and the States. Trungpa felt traditional Buddhism was perhaps cliched; it’s soft, conventional methods were unsuitable to penetrate the heavy headed, war ridden, gluttony cultured West. So he used a language they could understand and lived a lifestyle he could integrate with but infused everything he did with the original Dharma. The documentary’s criticism however comes from it’s one sided objectiveness as Demetrakas hardly presents any critical opinions from outside of Trungpa’s circle of associates. Occasionally snippets would be thrown in from his followers who were left confused or were unsure why he had numerous sexual partners (to the bemusement of his wife), how did his way of living help the evolving economy and what would we do with the factors of life that weren’t compatible with his Crazy Wisdom. Arguably, he was almost seen as a mystical prophet but it was also true that he treated all who came his way with respect, honour and enlightenment for all those who remember him – and there are many – do so with fond memories. Tungpa’s teaching was never dictatorial or asked people to follow him but rather he was just being himself and wanted to help others be themselves too in order to discover the ‘Buddha’ in them.
Crazy Wisdom is a comprehensive and acute account of a man who didn’t want to change the world but simply encouraged others to see things differently. Trungpa’s name is rarely heard of outside of the Buddhist circle however upon his cremation in 1987 there are recording of atmospheric effects that are considered signs of enlightenment which include the appearance of a rainbow and a cloud shaped like an Ashe (chinese character). The documentary raised many questions about a Buddhist who fled his homeland and developed a way of life for western society. Often the answers came from his followers and acquaintances whom paint him with beautiful colours. However, it doesn’t stop you wondering if the answers came from an objective point of view – would you see Trungpa differently?
Crazy Wisdom will have its European Premier on Saturday, 14th April at the International Buddhist Film Festival
Reviewed by Vaskar S. Kayastha