In 1959, when Chögyam Trungpa was just 19 years old, he led a party of monks across the Himalayas from Tibet into India, to escape the invading Chinese Communist army. As they traveled by foot and on horseback, their journey was surely arduous. And yet, the stunningly young Trungpa “knows exactly what we have to do to get away,” observes Lama Yeshe Losal, Rinpoche, “Somehow I don’t know how he manage. He doesn’t have a compass. He has very nice binoculars so he can see the distance.”
At this point, Crazy Wisdom: The Life and Times of Chögyam Trungpa, Rinpoche cuts from the talking head who describes the scene to a visual evocation of that historical moment, a pair of binoculars looking into a distance off screen. It’s a simple-seeming transition, and indicative of the film’s method: as people who knew Trungpa recall his greatness, his mystery, and his effects on their lives, Johanna Demetrakas’ clever and compelling documentary illustrates and sometimes raises questions about the still swirling legends. The result is an unconventional portrait of an unconventional figure, a series of impressions and guesses and hopes, more than a straight-ahead biography.
The method seems apt for the story of Chögyam Trungpa, the eleventh in the line of Trungpa tülkus. The film presents that story like this: a meditation expert and teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, he goes on to study Comparative Religion at Oxford University, by way of a scholarship granted in 1963. In the West, as he tells followers later, Trungpa’s eyes are opened to the vast possibilities of Buddhism, that is, the ways it allows believers to embrace a range of cultures, beliefs, and practices. His openness will be notorious throughout his life, as he urges acolytes not to judge or limit, but to welcome and to share in the experiences of others.
At Oxford, as he takes courses to learn Western traditions and engages with his fellow students, Trungpa is “trying to gather the experience directly for himself, the suffering of the human condition in the West,” as his student Lyndon Antle recalls. “He would reach into our little bowl of suffering and say, ‘This is what’s happening,’ and be able to have the words that we could understand, that were accessible to us, that would allow us to say, ‘Yes!’” Trungpa’s immersion in Western language and customs becomes a hallmark of his teaching in later life, as he helps students to see themselves clearly, to break through self-deception, and absorb lessons from a variety of sources.
In 1967, Trungpa and Akong Tulku Rinpoche are invited by the Johnstone House Trust in Scotland to take over a meditation center (here they are visited by celebrities like David Bowie) and increasing numbers of students; one recalls that he only had to see a magazine photo of Trungpa on the green lawn at the center in Scotland to change his life utterly: “I’d seen it and I thought, ‘I have to be with him.’ I gave up my job and my house”). During excursions to Bhutan and India, he found more ways to reach believers and combine ideas.
In an archival speech, Trungpa urges that followers to resist the “materialistic outlook [that] dominates everywhere,” at around the same time that he decides to work through these complications of the material world in his own ways. He gives up his initially monastic goal and becomes a lay teacher. Following a “huge conflict” with Akong (this according to a secretary), Trungpa heads to the US, where he conducts some 13 Vajradhatu Seminaries, three-month residential programs of instruction in Buddhist practices and meditation.
By the time he opens Naropa University in Boulder in 1973, Colorado, and develops his Shambhala Vision into a training program, Trungpa is deeply into self-exploration, and bringing his eager students along with him. Students and followers recall his seeming indulgences, that is, his excessive tobacco smoking and drinking (which appears to be a cause of his early death in 1987) and also sex. He regularly sleeps with his female followers, which his wife Diana Mukpo says was alarming to her at first, as you see a series of cutesy photo booth images of the couple. He told that even if he’s straying physically, it’s only a matter of material and spiritual exploration. “You can always completely 100% rely on our relationship and our love for each other,” she says he said. It doesn’t matter that this relationship might be “unconventional.”
Crazy Wisdom appears to follow Trungpa’s philosophical lead, in the sense that it doesn’t criticize his behaviors, though it does remind you repeatedly of the era, the decades (‘60s and ‘70s) and Western locations that may have shaped his thinking. He is presented here as a rather consummate product of his “times.” As such, he’s sometimes provocative, often representative, and also troubling. More odd and unresolved is the specter of his devoted followers, still seeing him through the very filters—their own needs and desires—that the teacher describes as self-deceptive.