Crazy Wisdom: Johanna Demetrakas’s Bio Docu of guru Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Johanna Demetrakas’s biographical documentary Crazy Wisdom covers the freewheeling life of guru Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who made a splash in the US in the 1970s and founded Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado.

Anyone who has read Sam Kashner’s “When I Was Cool,” an entertaining account of Naropa circa 1976, knows that Rinpoche was a strange, colorful, yet lovable presence, who perhaps could only have existed and thrived at that unique moment in time.

Rinpoche threw off the traditional robes, married a 16-year-old, and conveyed Buddhism as something like a party—a celebration.

Demetrakas deserves credit for making an unabashedly humanist, religious, and sometimes awestruck film—one that is certainly not going to excise the rainbows that suddenly appeared at Rinpoche’s 1987 cremation.

But this film is not truly investigative, never asking where the money came from to fuel all of Rinpoche’s projects or why he focused on the recruitment of what appears to be white youth only.

While the director hardly shies away from Rinpoche’s well-documented weaknesses for women and wine, she does not achieve the level of objectivity we expect from documentaries at their best.

Can the guru really sleep with this many women, many of them married, and no one ever gets hurt? The many interviewees, most of whom Demetrakas portrays as both eager youngsters from the archives and aging practitioners of today, remain devout more than two decades after the master’s death—seemingly not one of them with a scar they wish to reveal.

Is it really that they have no scars or that Demetrakas has decided to look the other way? Or that the director did not interview any of the formerly faithful that now express some regrets? Curious viewers will need to look elsewhere for most of these and other hard questions.

That said, this is a most lively movie, stocked with plenty of hilarious Rinpoche anecdotes: the time he threw all the kids’ marijuana bags in the fireplace while chanting “We are burning self-deception”; the time he tried to teach American youth how to speak the Queen’s English; the time he formed his own Buddhist militia, etc.

“Crazy Wisdom” is a professional production that captures Rinpoche’s extremely playful yet profound spirit, especially through the many short excerpts of his lectures that Demetrakas and editor Kate Amend do a fine job of selecting. Rinpoche in a business suit, fan in hand, giving poetic and humorous answers to the students’ random questions is a sight to see.

To-the-point interviews with notables like Allen Ginsberg, Pema Chodron, and Ram Dass also add much. A clip of Ginsberg asking Rinpoche to evaluate the enlightening potential of jazz, blues, and rock and roll, respectively, is alone worth the price of admission.

 

Credits

A Crazy Wisdom Productions release.

Directed by Johanna Demetrakas.

Produced by Lisa Leeman.

Cinematography, Pablo Bryant.

Editing, Kate Amend.

Original Music, Sean Callery.

Running time: 89 minutes.

Written by Jeff Farr