Cultish Devotion, by Jack Fleischer
There are two gurus I know by name: Meher Baba and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. I only know them because they inspired bands like The Beatles and The Who. Their reputation was than transferred into mainstream pop culture. The film Crazy Wisdom is about the lesser-known guru, whose teachings never quite reached the mainstream as these others did. Chogym Trungpa, a Tibetan Buddhist and refugee of the communist invasion of Tibet, he apparently hit the height of his US fame sometime around the ‘70s. I say apparently, because even though this film is billed as a documentary, it is a very incomplete look at his life and teachings. It left me with many questions about who this man was, and not in a spiritual way.
Instead of being a straight record of his life and times, this movie is an 89-minute conversation with Trungpa’s friends and relatives. It comes across as a funereal remembrance (he passed away in the late ‘80s), or maybe a “love letter” from a student. As well intentioned as this movie may be, it is only suitable for those already well aware of the profile subject.
The story of Chogyam Trungpa starts off in a fairly straightforward, with a look at how he came to the west. A Tibetan Monk who served the Dai Lama, after the failed uprising against the Chinese government in 1959 he lead a group of 300 monks on foot and horseback across the Himalayas to the India boarder. At the end of the trek only 13 of the original group remained. From there, Trungpa went to Oxford and became the first Tibetan to gain Brittish citizenship. From there he traveled to the states where he associated with the likes of Allen Ginsburg.
The film does a poor job of even communicating these facts. The audience is assaulted with information piecemeal throughout the film. The focus is confused, with random images, written quotes, spoken quotes, and interviews with people both alive and dead. In the first five minutes alone we get a quote from 1968, then we jump to images of strife from the last decade. Then we travel back to the Chinese struggle in 1959, and by the time we reach the opening title sequence we’re looking at him during the height of his teachings in the ’70s. Perhaps this is an effort to communicate the timelessness in his teachings, but unless you already know the story, it’s just confusing.
After we get the establishing information, we’re barraged with a parade of talking heads proclaiming the profundity of his teachings, and the brilliance of his words. It may be a cliché, but I want to be shown this, not told of it by vague third party witnesses. In the film’s defense, there are sprinkles of stock footage and quotes read over slow motion images, but it always suffers from a lack of context. I learned more about Trungpa from Wikipedia.
The film’s ultimate weakness is that they never actually introduce us to Chogyam Trungpa. Instead, each statement from a follower ultimately raises more questions that are never answered in the movie. Specifically, they lost me once they started interviewing his long parade of mistresses … and their husbands.
At the risk of seeming culturally insensitive, this film’s introduction of Trungpa’s heavy drinking and his proclivity for sleeping with his married female followers makes him seem more cult-leader than a Buddhist. The film mentions repeatedly that his form of Buddhism was revolutionary, but at the beginning of the film my assumption was that it was revolutionary to a Christian society, not that it was radical amongst Buddhists. We are told that this behavior was a natural extension of his teachings, but without third party verification, in the third act this film starts to feel like a bunch of people rationalizing their past life decisions.
Which brings us to the director, Johanna Demetrakas a follower of Trungpa. This shouldn’t disqualify her from making the movie, but the end of the film leaves us with the feeling that we have an unreliable narrator, and this may be the reason. It comes through in subtle ways. When one interview subject speaks about Trungpa’s frequent sex with followers she labels his group as, “your community,” referring to her interviewer.
It is not my place to question the validity of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s teachings. On the other hand, my recommendation is that you read as much as possible about the life of this man before you watch this documentary. Then, and only then, should you watch this film with the understanding that this is not a documentary but a fan letter from a devoted follower.