Bringing Chogyam Trungpa’s “Crazy Wisdom” to the screen — A conversation with filmmaker Johanna Demetrakas

Journalist Adam Perry speaks to Johanna Demetrakas, director of Crazy Wisdom: A Film About the Life and Times of Chogyam Trungpa, Rinpoche.

Of all the films featured at the upcoming 2011 Boulder International Film Festival, the most Boulder-centric is Crazy Wisdom. The 90-minute documentary is Los Angeles filmmaker Johanna Demetrakas’ stunning tribute to the late Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the Tibetan Buddhist who founded Naropa University (and, the Shambhala Sun).

Demetrakas, who teaches at USC in addition to directing both dramatic and documentary films, met Trungpa in 1971 and kept in touch until his death in 1987. Subsequently, Demetrakas — through four-and-a-half years of active filmmaking and five years of research — was able to capture a truly intimate and honest picture of Trungpa’s controversial life.

Watching Crazy Wisdom in Boulder recently with a gathering of current and former Naropa students, it was obvious that Demetrakas succeeded in not only delineating Trungpa’s fascinating escape from Chinese tyranny in Tibet and the meat of his “Shambhala” vision — a peaceful, mindful community amid a dangerously chaotic world — but also what it was like to know “the bad boy of Buddhism” personally. For Naropa students, who are fed a PC version of Trungpa’s life — which included excessive drinking and extramarital sex — Demetrakas’ unflinching portrayal of her former spiritual guide is refreshing.

“The film was not so much about his teachings as it was about him,” she says. “One of the directions that I made to myself was that I wanted to make a film where my audience gets to experience his mind, even a glimpse. I feel like if you experience that, if you go through your own changes, questioning him, questioning his life, questioning where Naropa’s at right now or whatever… you go beyond that and just be there. I wanted you to experience what being around him was for me. So I hope I got that done a little bit.”

Crazy Wisdom takes viewers through the incredibly archaic Tibet of Trungpa’s youth — he escaped to India via a series of night-time mountain hikes — to his formative years in 1960s England (where a young David Bowie became one of his disciples) to Trungpa’s breakthrough as a legendary spiritual leader and cultural figure in America throughout the 70s and 80s. Recognized as a reincarnate master when he was just 18 months old, Trungpa alternately craved the psychedelic and sexually liberated America of 40 years ago and sought to rid it of what he called “spiritual pride.”

Demetrakas says Trungpa’s upbringing in Tibet paved the way for his effort to become a major force for change in the late 20th century.

“I think he was really fascinated with the West, because he grew up in a place that was like the 16th Century in a sense. He grew up in another time, and he was catapulted into the 20th century. Even in Tibet, he seemed to already have a sense that the power in the whole world was in the West, and that if he was going to save the teachings, which were being systematically destroyed in Tibet by the Chinese, he needed to go to the West. He didn’t need to stay in India or Nepal — he needed to go to the West. That’s where the teachings were most needed, because they had never been there.”

24 years after Trungpa’s death, his legacy is still alive and well, between the work of his eldest son (Shambhala heir Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche) and the worldwide Shambhala teachings of enthusiasts such as Demetrakas. She says what she learned from Trungpa has had a huge affect on her passionate work as a filmmaker.

“I think that having studied with him — and having studied Buddhism, period, not just with Trungpa — gave me a lot of confidence in staying with the truth as I see it and as I can understand it. Being better at seeing what has energy and what is drained of energy. American films are incredibly ‘in your face,’ and that’s what I mean by energy: understanding what’s going on and being able to meet that energy with a camera and bring it to life. That’s kind of what he taught me.”

Naropa — which was the first Buddhist Institute in the Western Hemisphere when Trungpa brought people like Ram Dass, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Anne Waldman together to create it — plays a key role in Crazy Wisdom, and the insider’s look at the school’s early history the film presents is captivating. A guru who scorned religion as inherently mindless, Trungpa was intent on East and West conflicting which each other — making “sparks fly” — and urging eager (and often confused) students to find themselves rather than follow him.

Grappling after spirituality is dumb, he says in the film, and at one point in the early days, Trungpa toyed with all the hippies in Boulder by inviting them to his home and asking them to bring their marijuana. “We are burning self deception,” he chanted over and over as every speck of dope was destroyed in his fireplace. Others should be so bold today. Still, the outrageous behavior Trungpa chose not to hide — becoming paralyzed in a reckless car crash, marrying a British 16-year-old, sleeping with students and teachers at Naropa and repeatedly appearing drunk in public — makes him a polarizing figure even now.

Buddhist historian Rick Fields once wrote that Trungpa “caused more trouble, and did more good, than anyone I’ll ever know.” While it’s true that excess kills, one has to wonder what it was like to be a religious figure caught between a Western world that wanted a “pet guru” and a motherland, Tibet, that wanted Trungpa to be a robed elitist. Near the end of Crazy Wisdom, the title of which comes from the Naropa founder’s mantra that it’s perilous to have your feet too firmly planted in the material or spiritual worlds, Trungpa’s son has the final word on his father’s legacy.

“Either he was crazy or he was ‘crazy wisdom’ and there was something amazing about him.”

Demetrakas is more conclusive about the legacy of Trungpa, who died of alcohol-related causes at the early age of 48. “You know, we’re all going to die. Trungpa can’t live forever. He had to go on, to move on, and his particular extraordinary style… you can’t make that happen again. That’s who he was, and I was lucky enough to spend some time with him.”

A version of this article appeared in the 2/17/2011 issue of Boulder Weekly.

See also: Hearty Discipline: Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche on the philosophy of Naropa University.


  1. says

    This review makes it sound like Demetrakas just might have succeeded in creating a film that truly does justice to the Maha Vidyadhara. If that's the case then it will be a genuine miracle. At the very least I am relieved to read that this is not some sanitized bowdlerization. Now I can't wait to see it!

  2. BrightBlue says

    I'm curious from where Mr. Perry has derived (and announced, with such confidence) that Naropa students "are fed a PC version of Trungpa’s life". And that such students are "refreshed" by the portrayal of Trugpa Rinpoche. There is not one quote from a Naropa student to support this. As an alumnus and an instructor at Naropa, I have never felt "fed" a "PC version". Rinpoche's life is openly discussed. I have never heard him cleaned up for "PC" presentation to anyone. Further, since when does "PC" mean "clean and tidy"? "Politically correct" implies excessive care to avoid the appearance of oppression such as racism, sexism or classism. Mr Perry's outright statement that somehow, the Naropa faculty and staff "feed" students an inaccurate view and his sloppy writing are almost equally offensive.

      • BrightBlue says

        Fair enough. But, a journalist points out when something is their opinion and not derived from an objective observation. You made it appear that you spoke to many students and this is what they concluded, without exception. However, you were just talking about yourself.

        • Adam Perry says

          Sorry for the delay in reply, but I hadn't looked at the article again until now. I did speak to dozens of Naropa students in Boulder – some of whom took part in my discussion with the director of "Crazy Wisdom" – just before writing this piece, and also recalled many conversations in and out of classes during my time at Naropa, specifically a Trungpa-heavy class called "Contemplative Practice Seminar."

          • penelope says

            Contemplative Practice Seminar is a class attended by all Naropa undergraduate students usually in their first or second year. Its not "Trungpa heavy", although the main full text is Shambhala:The Sacred Path of the Warrior (by Trungpa). The class deals with the text (and many other short ones by other authors) not the person. The only class I am aware of that deals with the person was "Founder:The Life and work of CTR" taught by Reggie Ray.

            This is a comment about Prof Ray that I agree with completely: "I always found Reggie Ray to be brutally honest about VCTR too, even in his adoration."

            I dont think your experience was unusual Adam, I also met many undergraduate students who complained when they had to read Trungpa's texts "again!" and were titillated, disgusted or amused (insert other verb) by stories of his behavior. My frustration was with the way you generalized your experience, infantilized Naropa students and do not seem to have had enough contact with students who are older, or from Religious Studies, or graduate students. I was also surprised at your use of the term "PC".

            You also seem to have missed the great opportunity in your interview. If you did take the words of the filmmaker I quoted to your experience, if you did "go beyond" as the filmmaker suggested, you didn't share that in your writing.

  3. penelope says

    Adam Perry's review annoyed me when I read it in the Boulder Weekly a few days ago. I wish I had offered this feedback (like BrightBlue) before it was republished in this forum.

    Not only does Adam Perry misrepresent my experience as a student at Naropa University but I think he misses the whole point of the film that the filmmaker describes to him in the interview. "“The film was not so much about his teachings as it was about him,” whereas the University tends to focus on the teachings, not the teacher. I did however study the Life and Work of CTR in a 3-credit semester class with Dr Reggie Ray who was expertly capable of discussing both the teacher and the teachings. Ani Pema Chodron is similarly frank and sensible in her discussions of his "bad boy behavior" which inevitable come up at her public teachings at question time. She would always say that if you wanted to try to imitate CTR you should try to imitate his mind. Personal opinions on his drinking or relationships do not constitute academic examination of the subject. I'm not particularly interested in the habits of Keroac or Ginsberg either.

    Demetrakas states “One of the directions that I made to myself was that I wanted to make a film where my audience gets to experience his mind, even a glimpse. I feel like if you experience that, if you go through your own changes, questioning him, questioning his life, questioning where Naropa’s at right now or whatever … you go beyond that and just be there. I wanted you to experience what being around him was for me. So I hope I got that done a little bit.”

    She does not mean being around his drinking or sexual relationships per se (or any other behavior that was traditionally hidden in American culture, especially in the mainstream in the 1970's.) She is saying that experiencing being around him whatever he was doing, arranging flowers, dressing, or falling off his chair, was so great a teaching for her on mind, she spent many many years trying to convey that teaching on film.

    Perry seems to miss this point altogether while he tries to insinuate an argument into the piece, which is largely descriptive. I'm annoyed and disappointed that his Naropa education is only mentioned in relation to being spoon-fed some kind of dogma about Trungpa and his use of the term PC is indeed offensive. I hope he will look again at what the filmmaker said to him in person and receive what she is offering.

  4. sean says

    Mr. Perry, Your review is poorly written and poorly researched. Unfortunately this is what passes for "journalism" these days. Yawn….

  5. nimitta says

    Ouch…somebody's ox has been gored!

    No, Adam Perry's writing wasn't that bad, nor the research – it's just that his views have "annoyed and disappointed" some who identify with CTR and his legacy. But if he were here today, reading this, what do you think Trungpa himself would have to say about these kinds of attachments?

    One other irony: how some have excoriated the author's use of 'PC' in a rather politically correct manner. If used to refer to anything other than one's own paradigm of oppression, it becomes "offensive"! In fact, as is the case with all words and phrases, the usage of 'PC' has evolved over time and is now widely used (I would say overused, actually) to describe those who adhere reflexively to dogmas of all kinds and try to impose them on others. Again, attachment to views – regarded as unskillful not only by CTR but by the Buddha himself.

    Looking forward to Demetrakas' film about Trungpa…a "polarizing figure" indeed!

  6. anatman says

    Yeah if I was surrounded by people like that I would probably drink myself to death as well.

    • says

      Actually, Trungpa managed to surround himself with many of the best and the brightest. And his students have made a great many lasting contributions to the spread of the Dharma in the West.

  7. Dr Joe says

    There is always a tendancy or even need to 'idealize' ones teachers, as one ldeaizes one's parents as a child or any so-called "love object". Love is wonderful, but blind, and the ability to accept, reconcile and transcend the real (samsara) and the ideal (nirvana) is the goal of the buddhist path. In any case, Trungpa's (misbehavior), from a purely clinical point of view(I speak as an M.D., is very, very likely the result of his serious head trauma –a condition called "post-concussion syndrome", which has a long-term deteriorating effect on the victim, leading to alcoholism and behavioral degeneration. This is in no way meant ot be a reflection on Trugnpa''s (transcendant) wisdom and genius. Too bad his love for speedy sports cars derailed him. Dr. Joe (PS I may be mistaken, but his untimely demise was not from alcoholism but from another medical condition which I leave to his co-workers and students to expound.

  8. penelope says

    "The heritage of Trungpa Rinpoche is that there is no heritage. His real heritage is that our life emerges out of the immediacy of our experience, and our willingness to be open to what happens moment by moment in our lives. That's what he taught us.

    His heritage is that when you let life speak to you, when you pay attention to what …happens in your own life, in your relationships, and the things that you do, and situations that come up, your emotions; you're living in a state of chaos. You're living in a state of change. You're living in a state of groundlessness.

    In my opinion, the job of his students is to live in the very same place he lived in and to be willing to give birth to the future the way he did, moment by moment."

    – Reggie Ray from 2008 Interview on Chronicles of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche