Friday, December 09, 2011

Review - Crazy Wisdom: The Life and Times of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

I have been privileged to see a review copy of Crazy Wisdom, the new film about the life and teachings of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (XI Trungpa Tulku). Among the many people interviewed for the film are Diana Mukpo, his widow, and Sakyong Jamgon Mipham Rinpoche, Jampal Trinley Dradul (born Osel Rangdrol Mukpo in 1962), his son and now the Shambhala lineage holder.

In addition, there are interviews with Robert Thurman, Pema Chodron, Judith Lief, Anne Waldman, Ram Dass (Dr. Richard Alpert,), as well as clips of Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Bateson, and many others. 

Most importantly, there are many, many clips of Rinpoche teaching and interacting with students.

Here is a brief trailer for the film:

"Chogyam Trungpa, the brilliant ‘bad boy of Buddhism,’ fled the invasion of Tibet, studied at Oxford, and shattered Westerners’ notions of how an enlightened teacher should behave."

The following is a synopsis provided at the film's official website:

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.

With unprecedented access to Trungpa's inner circle and exclusive never-before-seen archival material, Crazy Wisdom looks at the man and the myths about him, and attempts to set the record straight.
* * * * * * 

Before getting into the ethical issues that are raised in the film around Rinpoche's use of "crazy wisdom," especially his drinking, I want to focus on the physical human being who was born in Tibet (1940), educated in the Tibetan monastic tradition (1944-1959), escaped into India as a young man (1959-1960), left India for Oxford University (1963-1967), renounced his monastic vows (1970) then came to the United States (1970).

When Rinpoche came to the West, he apparently wanted to fully experience the Western lifestyle, including smoking, drinking, and having sex. Putting aside the idea that the Vajrayana allows and even encourages the exploration of the senses as a part of the path to enlightenment, this new diet and consumption of alcohol was experienced by a body unable to cope with the new surge in simple sugars and saturated fats.

Just as the native American cultures have become ill with diabetes and heart disease with these foods and alcohol, so too did Rinpoche. He died of heart failure, technically, but this was a function of the bad food, the alcoholism, and the smoking. His wife believes it was the diabetes that killed him.

I have to wonder what he could have accomplished with his obvious enlightenment had he not short-circuited its continued evolution through addiction and early death.

That said, the issue of his teachings, the use of crazy wisdom, is a big part of the film. Although there are no strong condemnations of his lifestyle, other than perhaps Robert Thurman's piece about the way the alcohol shortened his life, there is an honest assessment of his teaching style. Many students and close friends suggest that his drinking had no impact on his teachings - their assumption is that his consciousness or awareness was not affected by the alcohol.

The other issue that is brought up often is his "womanizing," about which he was fully open and transparent. Pema Chodron offers that most teachers (Western or Eastern) who are brought down by "improper" sexual relationships with students (and this is a serious issue to me) are brought down not because of the relationships themselves, but because of the lies or secrecy - the real issue is the sense of betrayal felt by the community as a result of the lies and secrets. Rinpoche was completely open (even with his wife) that he found himself drawn to attractive women and would sleep with them.

The point is also made that at that time in history there was nothing shocking about drinking and having sex. The move that shocked his students (and some even left him over this) was when he began wearing suits.

In an old interview, Rinpoche said that when he wore his monastic robes, no one listened to him or looked him in the eye - their attention was focused on the robes. For him, putting on a suit, the antithesis of spiritual men in that era, was his most profound act of crazy wisdom.

Another area that was touched on briefly (and I would like to know more about it) was Rinpoche's interest in maintaining a Tibetan Buddhist military. Many students did not understand how a man who was so much about peace could have such an interest in the military. Rinpoche argued that if we ever hope to transform the world, we need to penetrate the heart of aggression and transform it into a heart of peace.

I could keep going for a while here. There is no simple narrative about Rinpoche - he is presented in all his complexities and paradoxes, without which he would not have been the teacher he was.

From my perspective, it is impossible to overstate his impact on Western Buddhism. A simple list of his students reveals the power of his legacy: David Bowie, Pema Chödrön, Allen Ginsberg, Anne Waldman, Diane di Prima, Peter Lieberson, José Argüelles, David Nichtern, Ken Wilber, David Deida, Francisco Varela, and Joni Mitchell.And many thousands more who try each day in simple ways to embody the tender warrior heart of Shambhala.

If this film screens near you, be sure to see it.
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