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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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by Brad Warner

A guy named Brian who posts on my blog (hardcorezen.blogspot.com) asked:

“I’m wondering how you feel about stories of Zen masters who endured what would normally be insane levels of pain through the discipline of zazen? No doubt some of the stories are fanciful, but we have on video the monk who set himself on fire and didn’t flinch until he was dead.

“Do you think you could do that after so many years of sitting or is something missing? Or is that really not the point of zazen, just a type of parlor trick that’s cool to know can be done but isn’t the primary purpose of meditation?”

Around the same time I got a message from one of my Facebook friends mentioning this video by Ken Wilber:

In case you can’t view it, this is a video of the uber-spiritual wonderman Ken Wilber hooking himself up to a machine that supposedly demonstrates how he can voluntarily stop his brainwaves.

This stuff kind of reminds me of juggling.

When I lived in Santa Monica, I used to walk down to Venice Beach on weekends. There would always be lots of talented people on the boardwalk doing various tricks for chump change from tourists. One of these guys was a juggler. He was absolutely amazing. He had this trick where he’d climb up on a balance board on top of a top of a rickety wooden ladder and juggle like five butcher’s knives, all while making clever jokes at his own expense. It was astounding. Take a look:

Like most people on the boardwalk, I’d watch his act, be amazed and then put a dollar or two in the bucket he passed around at the end. I was a local, and hence a cheapskate. Maybe the tourists slipped him fives and tens. Or maybe some of them were cheaper than me and just threw in quarters.

I’ve done twenty plus years of daily zazen meditation, plus more intensive retreats than I care to remember. Having been through some interesting scenes during practice I can understand how one could use meditation practice to learn to do some pretty impressive tricks. I personally could not sit still while I was on fire and I doubt I could wire myself up to an EEG and make the indicators do whatever I wanted. But I can see clearly how that could be done.

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by Brad Warner

A few people have responded to my blog by comparing me to this or that teacher and saying those guys are much better because they encourage their followers to help others. One reader advised me to get over myself and, “learn to live for others.” It’s good advice, to be sure. But what exactly does it mean?

One of the complaints often lodged against Zen is that it’s a selfish philosophy and practice. Spiritual teachers of other schools are always talking about how we should give to others, help those in need, lend a hand to our brothers and so on. But when you take a look at Zen literature there’s not a whole lot of that. Oh, Dogen Zenji talks a bit about compassion and sometimes you hear the Metta Sutra, the Buddha’s words on kindness, chanted at Zen temples in America. Although elsewhere in the world this chant is more associated with the Theravada school than with Zen.

Zen, on the other hand, tends to seem self-centered. Rather that hearing a lot about how we should be of service to others, the standard canonical texts of Zen appear to focus on what we need to do to improve our own situation and state of mind. They do sometimes make reference to helping others and saving all beings. But these references are almost always a bit abstract. They say we need to help others, but don’t go very deeply into how that might be done. This focus on the self is ironic considering that Zen is often portrayed as a practice aimed at eradicating the self.

But have you ever glanced up randomly when you’re on an airplane ignoring the flight attendants safety instructions? When they tell you how to use those oxygen masks they say that you should first secure your own mask before helping others. There’s a good reason for this. If the plane is losing oxygen you’re going to be too woozy to be of service to anyone else until you first get your own stuff together. This is the way it is in life as well.

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by Brad Warner

About a week ago I saw a posting on Facebook regarding a big Buddhist gathering in upstate New York. The post read as follows, “Next week, New York’s Garrison Institute will be hosting some 230 Buddhist teachers for a conference on a range of topics concerning the future of Buddhist practice in North America, including legacy, succession, lineage, ethics, and ‘how to preserve and adapt the Dharma in new conditions without losing depth.’ The conference, known as the Maha Teacher Council, is by invitation only.”

I reposted this link on my own Facebook page with the following comments, “Oh nice. A self-selected group of important Buddhists get together to decide what’s best for the rest of us. Gatherings like this worry me a lot. The intent is to create a unified sense of what Buddhism ought to be. It’s like trying to create a unified sense of what art ought to be. Very Soviet sounding to me.” This generated a lot of commentary and crosstalk that’s still going on even as I type this.

One of the initial comments asked if I was “butt hurt” at not being invited. I’m not sure if “butt hurt” is how I would describe my feelings. But the commenter was correct in assuming I was not invited. And he was on the right track in thinking that my not having been invited was part of my problem with the event. But it wasn’t because I was “butt hurt.”

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by Brad Warner

That’s right! Here’s your chance to win a date with Brad Warner! You know he’s a dreamboat! You know he’s a famous author! Now here’s your golden opportunity to actually go on a real live date with Brad Warner! Where will you go on your date with Brad? Will he take you to his favorite Thai restaurant? Or perhaps you’ll go on a shopping spree to the comic book store! Who knows?

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by Brad Warner

My friend John Graves sent me a photo of a billboard that’s been appearing all over Los Angeles. The one he took a picture of was right near The Grove, in one of the highest rent districts in one of the highest rent cities in the whole world. The billboard says: “The Bible Guarantees Judgment Day May 21, 2011, …Cry mightily unto God – Jonah 3:8, Mon-Fri 5:30 – 7PM, 1280 AM Radio FamilyRadio.” Next to these words is a photo of a guy who is either kneeling to pray or in the throes of a painful bout of constipation.

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by Brad Warner

I just moved into a new apartment in beautiful Akron, Ohio. Don’t be sad. It’s OK. I like it! Anyway, the previous tenant apparently subscribed to Psychology Today magazine and neglected to either cancel or forward her subscription. So I got the latest issue, dated April 2011, and on the cover an article inside is advertised with the rather lurid headline, “Smashing a Taboo: Does Porn Protect Kids?”

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