In one of Crazy Wisdom‘s central anecdotes, the unorthodox Tibetan philosopher Chögyam Trungpa orders a small group of his spiritual students to bring their stashes of weed to the living room of their house/campus/de facto commune headquarters. Expected to pilfer some of the drug for himself, or to perhaps perform a Christ-cum-Marxist three-loaves-of-bread hat trick with the dried leaves, he instead tosses the bounty into an indoor fire, urging them to renounce the false enlightenment achieved with the narcotic. The documentary’s talking heads, many of them former disciples of Trungpa, humorously recount this idiosyncratic break between the maniacal lama and the trans-Atlantic counterculture of the 1960s, citing it as one of the many ways that he challenged the hippie lifestyle while appreciating its goals of spiritual fulfillment and humanism. What they don’t note, however, is that throwing scads of pot onto open flames in even a moderately ventilated room is a decent if not economical way to get stoned. Trungpa’s rejection of marijuana paradoxically involved the orgiastic exposure to its burnt vapors.
Whether the Eastern thinker meant this as a gag or a koan-like illustration—or both—isn’t entirely clear due to the odd distance that Crazy Wisdom maintains from its problematic subject. As an introduction to Trungpa’s indirect influence in the West after setting up his quasi-legit university in Boulder, Colorodo, the film provides vital oral history; the late-in-life footage of Allen Ginsberg discussing his relationship with Trungpa, though used all too sparingly in the film, suggests the thinker’s uncanny celebrity among the post-heyday Beats. (The not-quite-Buddhist William S. Burroughs, who isn’t even mentioned, was also once a member of Trungpa’s academic faculty.) But while director Johanna Demetrakas doesn’t entirely shy away from the nirvana-seeker’s more “human” qualities, the testimonies she assembles do attempt to consolidate them with his spiritual objectives—confusingly and poorly.
His constant imbibing of alcohol, for example, becomes both a clever, self-prescribed obstacle to overcome and a way of testing the limits of “crazy wisdom,” a Buddhist concept suggesting that startling acts of foolishness and excess can stumble toward deeper meaning in the right context. His Rasputin-like dalliances with women—the revelation of which emotionally destroyed his young spouse—are read as exercises in corporeal agitation and methods of cultivating “true” love unbridled by the hardship of extramarital temptation. (Demetrakas’s inclusion of wife Diana Mukpo’s shaky defense of this practice is particularly unsavory; we’re supposed to forgive the guy’s sexual selfishness because his widow makes peace with it through gritted teeth on camera?)
The under rug-sweeping of these eccentric flaws would be less grating if the film elucidated Trungpa’s ideas with more clarity, but every time we’re shown 16mm close-ups of his oblique riddle-spouting head, we tune it out. At other junctures where the interviewees are arguing for the man’s genius we wonder if Demetrakas isn’t putting us on. She uses hyper-generic, PBS-like footage of bald monks scribbling in Sanskrit, and after one ex-student describes Trungpa’s uncanny ability to mimic English and American dialectics, we see him speaking on a television program in a glaringly artificial Oxford accent.
Part of the issue here may be the nature of the talking heads themselves, most of whom are culled from Trungpa’s inner circle and lack the objectivity needed to properly judge his philosophy or make it accessible. (Explanation from outsider experts like Robert Thurman is unfortunately brief.) His sharpest followers, many of whom do not participate here, had a tendency to outgrow him; Joni Mitchell, obliquely invoking her time with the master in the meditative “Refuge of the Roads,” implies with subtle mockery the dead-endery of his unkempt, cavalier spirit. Her single stanza tells us more about Trungpa’s attempts to conjure Shambhala on Earth than any of Crazy Wisdom‘s heartfelt remembrances.