Crazy Wisdom
Johanna Demetrakas

Crazy Wisdom

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CRAZY WISDOM: The Life and Times of Chogyam Trungpa

A documentary film by Johanna Demetrakas
86 minutes, 2011. NTSC DVD

English and Tibetan with English subtitles. USA

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. 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 profound cultural shift through the story of Chogyam Trungpa, the brilliant "bad boy of Buddhism."

Born in Tibet, trained in their rigorous monastic tradition, Trungpa fled the Communist invasion in 1959, the same year as the Dalai Lama. In Britain, seeing the cultural gap blocked 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 the "crazy wisdom" that his Tibetan colleagues recognized as an authentic way to manifest in the world? And was it "crazy wisdom" that helped him build the first Buddhist university in the western hemisphere and articulate the Buddhist path in a way that would sweep across the country in one short decade?

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 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." Initially judged harshly by the Tibetan establishment, Trungpa's teachings are now recognized by both western and eastern 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 the 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? Veteran 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.

Filmmaker Comments

From the first seminar, called "The Battle of Ego" in Los Angeles, to filming his cremation on a cloudless but rainbow-filled day in Vermont, Chogyam Trungpa blew my mind. He always created a feeling of stark reality, compassion and biting humor at the same time. Being in his presence was like being suddenly aware of an oncoming truck: it put every cell in your brain SMACK! into the present moment. And in that moment you could be outraged, moved to tears or intellectually inspired... or all at once.

This brilliant energy was difficult to resist but exhausting to experience. On top of that, he lived an unapologetic life that challenged every one of us who crossed his path with fixed ideas about how a "spiritual teacher" should behave. He wore suits, spoke precise English and lived like a bon vivant westerner, so it took years of practice and study to understand that in the rich history of Tibetan Buddhism, his outrageous "crazy wisdom teaching style" was just another tradition.

In fact it was impossible to separate his lifestyle from his teachings. He was living a life that was somehow utterly contemporary, western, controversial and totally Tibetan as well. He loved film so we worked together on several projects. He taught me how to recognize the energy of a situation both visually and emotionally, and, how to direct a scene to express that energy.

It was like unearthing ancient wisdom and somehow capturing it through a contemporary medium, film. It is my obvious prejudice that only film can come close to creating that kind of experience 23 years after Trungpa's untimely death.

Ultimately what inspired this film was far beyond the paradox of his controversial life style paired with the authentic teachings. It was the message of his life's work: to wake people up from their blind addiction to materialism, which he saw as degrading both human society and the earth at an alarming rate.


Directed by Johanna Demetrakas
Produced by Lisa Leeman and Johanna Demetrakas
  • Robert Thurman
  • Allen Ginsberg
  • Ram Dass
  • Pema Chodron


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