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‘Crazy Wisdom’ Screening Brings Out Two “Bad Boys of Buddhism”

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Robert Thurman at a Screening of the Buddism Biopic Crazy Wisdom

Robert Thurman speaks at a screening of Crazy Wisdom: The Life & Times of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche at the Rubin Museum in New York City

Some documentaries dig up answers, others leave us with questions. That’s why, from now on, I am going to insist that Robert Thurman, the well-known Buddhist scholar (and Uma’s dad), be there to accompany me to watch all future screenings of Buddhism-related films.

Thurman was invited to speak after a recent screening of the documentary, Crazy Wisdom, which, intentionally or not, lays bare the paradoxical nature of existence, leaving at least this viewer with some major head-scratching.

The film tells the remarkable story of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist lama who was a major force in introducing Tibetan Buddhism to the West. Along the way, he became a heavy drinker, slept with his students and toyed with paramilitary inclinations. Like I said: This is a movie that bathes in paradox.

The screening was at New York’s Rubin Museum, which is dedicated to the arts of the Himalayas. The documentary is also screening at select cities, and it will be returning to the Rubin in January because of high demand. (For more information about screenings, go to crazywisdomthemovie.com.)

Director Johanna Demetrakas (Editor of Calavera Highway, POV 2008) does a very good job interweaving archival video and photos with interviews of one-time followers of Rinpoche, and even some of his peers, including fellow guru Ram Dass.

The atrocity of China’s treatment of Tibet is the tragic beginning of the story. Rinpoche escaped with 300 other people, and only 13 survived the journey. His attempt to introduce Tibetan Buddhism to the West, first in Scotland, then in Vermont and Colorado, is fascinating. It seems like it could have been such a wonderful thing, the teaching of a beautiful religion and way of life to truth-seekers.

Alas, the whole thing strikes me as a boondoggle. On one side, you have a Tibetan lama who seems in over his head, uncomfortable in the West or his position as a spiritual leader — He just couldn’t manage it. He marries a 16-year-old girl, drinks and carouses with other women (and ends up crashing a car, which leaves him partially paralyzed). On the other hand, you have Westerners who go to him looking for answers, and they may have found some, but they also were clearly following their own projections of him.

And it’s Demetrakas’ task to present this story. I had this feeling that, as good as the film was, Demetrakas was letting Rinpoche off the hook. Although she shows him at his worst, there’s an overwhelming counter-narrative, which says that maybe Rinpoche was a true progenitor of the “crazy wisdom” concept — where by personifying the world’s evils he was revealing the truth of existence. It’s a term that helps rationalize anyone’s taboo-breaking behavior.

But when I saw the long shot of Rinpoche wearing aviator glasses and sparkling gold rings riding upright on a white horse, he looked a lot like Qaddafi. Maybe enlightenment is in the eye of the beholder, but I’m not buying it. One Buddhist teacher says in the film that the documentary itself “can’t frame him” and that he was more “fluid” than that, which is a good point.

But leave it to Thurman to put things back into perspective. Thurman spoke to the audience after the film, which he clearly liked, but, as he told me later, he was bothered by how it verged on being too “adulatory.” He basically called it like it was: Rinpoche fell victim to alcoholism.

When one young man took umbrage at Thurman’s critique of Rinpoche, claiming that the lama was showing us that it’s “OK to be a human being,” Thurman pulled off his gloves, giving the guy a lesson in tough teaching. He decried how Americans tend to insist that there’s a higher awareness than our own, and that we’re in danger of shutting ourselves off when we make a cult of someone like Rinpoche.

He quoted the Zen Buddhist Shunryu Suzuki, saying that “Everything is perfect, but there is a lot of room for improvement.” Thurman went on to imitate — some might say mock — Rinpoche’s stoned cadence, before admitting his own “addiction to sacrilege.”

It was a whirlwind performance of… crazy wisdom.

I’m holding back on writing more from my conversation with Thurman until 2012, when POV plans to air My Reincarnation, a documentary about a Buddhist teacher’s relationship to his son, who is considered a reincarnation of a spiritual master. It’s a film Thurman says he really enjoyed.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki