Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen: Crazy Wisdom – The Story Of A Drunken Sex Pervert Who Revolutionized Buddhism
Dec 2011 05

Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen: Crazy Wisdom – The Story Of A Drunken Sex Pervert Who Revolutionized Buddhism

Posted In Blog,Entertainment,Movies,Relationships,Society

by Brad Warner

Crazy Wisdom Trailer from Kate Trumbull on Vimeo.

Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche was a lot of things. When he was just 18 months old he was recognized as the reincarnation of a high Tibetan lama. He escaped Tibet’s Chinese rulers when he was 20 years old, fleeing through the icy mountains on foot with a group of 300, only 13 of whom made it across the border to India. He went to England and started the first Tibetan Buddhist center in the Western world. A short while later he came to America where he set up the Shambhala foundation. Then he proceeded to fuck dozens of his students before drinking himself to death at age 48.

Now someone’s made a movie about Trungpa, called Crazy Wisdom. It’s pretty good.

I never met Trungpa myself. But my first Zen teacher worked for him for a while as an instructor at Naropa Institute, the Buddhist university Trungpa founded in Boulder, Colorado. It was the first Buddhist university in the West. He used to tell me wild stories about Trungpa’s excesses. One time Trungpa threatened my teacher saying that demons would fly through his window at night and tear him to bits. One guy I talked to watched Trungpa down two 40 ouncers of beer during a public dharma talk. Then there’s the story I’ve heard from about half a dozen people about the time Trungpa forced a couple to participate in an orgy by ordering his uniformed guards to strip them naked against their will.

And yet for all his scandalous activities, Chogyam Trungpa is still revered 24 years after his death as one of the great Buddhist masters. Johanna Demetrakas’ new film Crazy Wisdom seeks to understand this contradictory figure. Was he merely a madman who conned thousands into thinking he was a guru? Or was his crazy wisdom really more wise than crazy after all?

I’ve never been quite sure just what to make of Trungpa. His book Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism is still one of my favorites on the subject of pursuing the dharma authentically. And yet he was a drunk and a sex fiend. Even his closest students admit that. He never hid any of this, though. And that’s what made him different. While poor old Richard Baker Roshi, head of the San Francsico Zen Center was getting flayed alive for having a brief affair with one student, Trungpa was out there screwing his followers like there was no tomorrow. And nobody seemed too fussed about it.

It turns out that perhaps sex isn’t the real problem. The real problem may be spiritual teachers who present themselves as one thing and then act completely contrary to that image. This is something Chogyam Trungpa never did.

Crazy Wisdom is a wonderfully entertaining film about this amazing contradictory man. Although the filmmakers are followers of Trungpa and naturally seek to present him in a positive light, they don’t gloss over his faults either. Trungpa never attempted to define himself according to the categories others created. Neither do the filmmakers attempt to do so. It’s left to the viewer to decide if Trungpa was insane or saintly.

Documentaries about spiritual masters aren’t usually my thing. They tend to be dry, boring and exceedingly reverent. But Crazy Wisdom isn’t your run of the mill fluff piece put together by people who want to show you why their guru is better than yours. It’s a serious film, but it has some truly laugh out loud moments. The cast is a who’s who of luminaries associated with Eastern spirituality in the West including Allan Ginsberg, Ram Dass, Stephen Batchelor, and Trungpa’s student Pema Chodron.

My only complaint is that the filmmakers chose to ignore the darker side of Trungpa’s legacy, his followers who understood their teacher’s crazy wisdom as a license to do anything at all regardless of the potential consequences. In particular I’m thinking of the story of Osel Tendzin. Tendzin was Trungpa’s successor who liked to suck and fuck just as much as his teacher. The problem was that when Tendzin was diagnosed with HIV he continued having unprotected sex without informing his partners of his condition. Stephen Butterfield, a former student, said (though this is not in the film), “In response to close questioning by students, he first swore us to secrecy and then said that Trungpa had requested him to be tested for HIV in the early 1980s and told him to keep quiet about the positive result. Tendzin had asked Trungpa what he should do if students wanted to have sex with him, and Trungpa’s reply was that as long as he did his Vajrayana purification practices, it did not matter, because they would not get the disease. Tendzin’s answer, in short, was that he had obeyed the guru.” Trungpa was wrong.

I’ll grant you that even addressing this subject at all may have pulled the film in a whole different direction. It’s a movie about Trungpa, not Tendzin. Still, to completely ignore this very significant effect of Trungpa’s teaching style seems a little like keeping something hidden. And Trungpa never hid anything.

In spite of this shortcoming I still highly recommend the film. It isn’t the kind of snore fest these sorts of documentaries usually are. In fact it’s highly engaging and entertaining as well as informative. It presents a (mostly) honest portrait of a Buddhist master who doesn’t fit the stereotypical mold.

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Brad is on tour right now and may be in your area. To see where Brad will be speaking next take a look here.

Brad Warner is the author of Sex, Sin and Zen: A Buddhist Exploration of Sex from Celibacy to Polyamory and Everything in Between as well as Hardcore Zen, Sit Down and Shut Up! and Zen Wrapped in Karma Dipped in Chocolate. He maintains a blog about Buddhist stuff that you can click here to see.

You can also buy T-shirts and hoodies based on his books, and the new CD by his band Zero Defex now!

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Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen: Win A Date With Brad Warner!!!
Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen: The End of the World As We Know It
Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen: Meditation, Depression and the Sense of Self
Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen: How To Make A Zen Monster
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5 comments
oddeofun
oddeofun

Honestly not sure what to take from this. "I want to talk about the hostility in this room" seems brilliant. Completely agree with misrepresentation to get one's rocks off. More shocking to me is that it's so easy to fall for it.

Brad Warner
Brad Warner

The quotation I attributed to Stephen Batchelor is actually from Stephen Butterfield. However, Batchelor is in the movie. This is why I made the mistake. Sorry Mr. Batchelor!

Jim Infantino
Jim Infantino

in the west, everybody wants the enlightenment, but nobody wants to be stripped naked & totally fucked. we want that cool dark enlightment where we get to keep our armour on and everyone just loves and admires us. I liked this film. I think it was a bit slow in the middle - needed more editing there, and leaving out his Regent felt like a gash, but it was good at showing how CTrungpa needed to punch a hole in the western notion of eastern teachings in order to get anything real to stick. In my experience, the dharma has indeed stuck in the west now. Say what you will.

Anonymous
Anonymous

Just want to point out the affair that brought down Baker Roshi was the culmination of years of sleeping with students and misapropriating Zen Center funds for his own benefit.  This particular incident was "the straw that broke the camel's back", perhaps because it was with the wife of a Zen Center board member who disclosed the affair to the board along with his own thoughts of suicide brought on by the affair.  I think Trungpa did misrepresent himself, dismissing behavior that was harmful to himself and others under the banner of "Crazy Wisdom".  Lineages that haven't addressed the misbehavior of past teachers often end up repeating it:  Trungpa's line is no exception.  However, lineages that deal with teacher misbehavior with accountability  and public disclosure (like San Francisco Zen Center finally did with Baker Roshi after many years of such behavior being justified or having a blind eye turned to it) usually end up with an environment which helps guard against future abuse of power by teachers.

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