One of the most important as well as controversial figures in bringing Buddhist precepts to the West is profiled in “Crazy Wisdom.” The late Chogyam Trungpa’s very colorful life makes for a most engaging narrative here, even if broadcast docu veteran Johanna Demetrakas and her collaborators take an acolyte’s viewpoint that won’t be as fully explanatory for lay viewers as a more detached perspective might have been. Fest, smallscreen and possible niche theatrical exposure are likely.
Recognized as a reincarnated master while still an infant, Trungpa was already the head of eastern Tibet’s Surmang monasteries when he was forced at age 20, in 1960, to flee Chinese government forces along with 300 other monks — many of whom didn’t survive the long Himalayan trek. After a stint in India, he got a grant to study in England, a few years later, creating the West’s first Buddhist center in Scotland.
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Already, Trungpa’s larger-than-life charisma and behaviors were making waves. Practicing what he preached in terms of “secular enlightenment” as opposed to the strictly religious kind, he married 16-year-old upper-class schoolgirl Diana Mukpo (who says here that even after decades together, “Fundamentally, I didn’t know what made him tick”). He was partially paralyzed after driving a car into a shop window.
This was just a warm-up, however, for his adventures in the U.S. Moving there in 1970 at the height of Vietnam War protests and countercultural questing, he absorbed American culture as eagerly as he had British, fast attracting supporters ranging from multicreed fellow religious leaders to stellar artists in various media. He invited many of them to teach at the Western Hemisphere’s first Buddhist university, Boulder Colorado’s Naropa Institute.
But there and in seminars elsewhere, his antics continued to flummox the faithful. He carried on affairs with numerous female students and was often publicly drunk; seemingly incongruously, he decried all “spiritual materialism,” frowning upon rock music and marijuana, among other things.
Some followers considered these to be deliberate provocations in the Tibetan Buddhist “crazy wisdom” tradition. But such arguments here come off as convoluted and unconvincing, while the depiction of Trungpa as the “bad boy of Buddhism” skims over or omits some of the deeper schisms he triggered with many onetime allies.
What the docu can’t quite convey is the apparently extraordinary magnetism and insight Trungpa manifested in person. His humor and elegant command of English come across in archival footage, but not the more profoundly impactful presence to which one interviewee after another testifies.
Assembly is solid.