Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Most people recognize Buddhism - at varying degrees - a part of American culture. Whether it is Buddhist symbolism, or Buddhist practices, eastern traditions and religions have successfully permeated the west. This integration is due in big part to the work of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, whose life and times are the subject of the 2011 documentary film, Crazy Wisdom. The film, directed by Johanna Demetrakas, follows Rinpoche from his birth in Chinese-occupied Tibet. At only 18 months old, Chogyam was recognized as a holy child, so when the Communist army attempted to destroy and bury the symbolism and practice of Buddhism, it was Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche who lead a group of 300 to freedom. The road to freedom was not easy. The 300 spiritual saviors traveled by foot through the mountains of Tibet at high altitudes and below freezing temperatures until they finally reached the border of India. But not all survived. Many had to eat their own shoes for nourishment. Many starved, froze, or simply disappeared. By the time the group reached India, only 13 remained.

From an early age, Rinpoche had desired to travel west and impart the teachings of Tibet. Not only would this perpetuate Tibetan tradition and faith, it would educate an entirely new group of people. Once in America, Rinpoche settled in Vermont, where he established a school. But his long-term home would be in Colorado, where he established the only Buddhist university in the United States, Naropa Institute. Rinpoche developed a cult following - diehard students who came to live with him, study with him, almost worship him. Interviews with aged former students freckle the film, who speak with fragile emotion, bursting into tears at any given moment.

But Rinpoche's teachings were unorthodox and highly criticized. Although the film only touches on his opposers, focusing on those people entirely dedicated to him, he was a man of seeming hypocrisy. He was married, but took on many lovers (most of whom where his students). He denounced the use of drugs, but was a serious alcoholic. He rejected the principles of the "hippie" movement and rock and roll, yet he dressed, spoke, and surrounded himself with hippies. He preached individualism and non conformism, but he cut his hair and wore suits when important figures visited his home. At his home, he had a wait staff in uniform, had a formal dinner every night, and listened to classical music. He even gave his students military training, contradicting on of the most basic Buddhist traditions of non-violence.  Even by the end of the film, there is little sense of who Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche really was, asking the audience to formulate personal opinions long after the theater emptied.

It is an interesting subject-matter that had huge implications during the 60s and 70s. The hippie counter-culture in opposition to Vietnam identified with many Buddhist principles, adopting them, preaching them, and (for the few in the film) zealously living by them. But the film itself relies heavily on expositional text and written quotations instead of the visualization of those teachings. The result is less emotional - in a visual form such as film, the impact comes from images, not text, unless it is absolutely necessary. The clips from Rinpoche's lectures aren't extremely moving. Sometimes they are funny, but the most moving words are written across the screen, instead of heard from the man's mouth. "Crazy" seems a highly appropriate word for the life of Rinpoche and even for some of his followers, but maybe I am too far removed from the lifestyle to make that judgement. In any case, it is an interesting subject to examine and a very educational film, if not a technically engaging documentary. Now Playing.

No comments:

Post a Comment