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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.