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.”