In the 1970s, Johanna Demetrakas was a student of the Buddhist master Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a teacher known best for his drinking, active sex life, and adultery. Now, 40 years later, she has become the first film chronicler of her revered and unconventional teacher, who passed away in 1987. The product is Crazy Wisdom, the portrait of a surprisingly endearing man who not only got married and had children — unheard of behavior for serious Buddhists — but also became a preeminent spiritual teacher.
After being forced to flee his native Tibet in the 1950s, Trungpa (who was given the honorific of Rinpoche) made his way to India and eventually the United Kingdom, where he studied at Oxford University. For the next 25 years, Trungpa founded a monastery in Scotland and a college, Naropa University, in Boulder, Colorado. His esteem was met with equal criticism by the Buddhist world, which saw his overt shunning of the traditional ascetic lifestyle and indulgent ways as hypocritical. Even so, Trungpa could command a crowd, and his teachings continue to proliferate through Shambhala Buddhism — a branch of teaching he himself founded and which is led by his son today. Crazy Wisdom tells Trungpa’s story from the best possible angle for understanding his actions — through the eyes of someone who knew him.
What was your relationship with Trungpa?
I started studying with him in 1971. He came [to the United States] in the ‘70s, and I met him shortly after. He was kind of daunting at first, because he was so powerful. He’s got this vibe, this energy. He’s very powerful. But not powerful like this (punches air). When you were around him, it woke you up … Suddenly you were paying attention fully, and it was a great experience.
He also loved film, so when he first met my ex-husband and I — we were filmmakers — he immediately started talking film with us, and we shot film with him on several different occasions. I even filmed his cremation extensively … So I had that kind of rapport going on with him. I was also a very serious student of Buddhism. He was always so unpredictable, and astute, and kind. That was an interesting thing to film, because as a filmmaker you have to be honest … That’s what I wanted the film to do—I wanted it to be honest. I didn’t want to hide anything.
But I also wanted my audience to go through their own hesitations, their own things, like “Oh, he drank!” — behavior they found suspicious — and then in the end make up their own minds. How important was the womanizing? How important was it — really — in terms of the incredible heart he put out. What kind of judgment can we make about that?
What was the message you wanted to send about Trungpa’s life?
I start the film off with [a quote from Trungpa on] the Dark Age. We’re living in what many people would call a dark time, a time where everything is really falling apart — environmental damage, corruption is so rampant. It’s a cynical, materialistic time. Even very young people are cynical; they know that people lie, they know that people cheat. There’s this sense that that’s how life is. It’s a cynical view because it’s based on materialism. Everything is material, including your personality [which] becomes materialistic; you’re going to have such-and-such personality because that draws men or that draws women or something. Everything becomes materialistic.
So that’s what [Trungpa] was talking about. When you get materialistic, you get cynical. When you get cynical, you close things down. You only have one view, and that’s the central view … So, in a way, what Trungpa does is open it up so you’re not repressive to yourself. You’re not holding yourself down with whatever your neurosis is, whether it’s materialism or you’re frightened by everything or you’re angry at everything … When you open up, the first thing you notice is that you’re not that different from other people. So that allows some gentleness and kindness, and from there on it just keeps getting bigger.
That’s what I hope happens to my audience — that they come to it thinking, “This guy’s wild. He’s a little whacky. He’s crazy. He has girlfriends. How could he possibly be a serious Buddhist?” and that they open up a little just by watching the film and have a good time.
Why wait until now to make this film?
That’s just my personal journey. My personal journey was that the first few years after he died, there was a lot of strife in the community … It wasn’t a good time to do it. I didn’t know how to make this film for a long time. I didn’t know how to get past this thing that oh, he’s controversial. But I knew I wanted to make a film about him. At first I was going to make a film just about the cremation which, by itself, is an incredible event and about how they did that … a combination of American science and Tibetan thinking. But it never seemed enough … I didn’t want to rush it all because I had to do it right. I couldn’t just make it happen, I had to open it up for it to happen — so I could do something honest and yet not exploitative.
Do you believe Trungpa truly was enlightened or “chosen”?
As far as I can tell, he was enlightened. Editing the film, for instance, I didn’t see one frame in the film when he wasn’t completely present. He was like a rock. I was around him enough and I was also around other people like His Holiness the Karmapa and Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. I don’t know if I can be technical about it and say he was enlightened, but it felt like [Trungpa and fellow Buddhist leaders] were. They were very powerful people with huge hearts. It’s the heart that really gets you finally when you’re around people like that — the enormous kindness. They may be formal or they may be informal in their approach, or they may be hard to get to, but they emanate a kindness that affects you when you’re around him. But was he enlightened? I think so. That would be my opinion.
How was Trungpa able to reach such success while living such an unconventional lifestyle?
That’s a very interesting question. I think one of the main reasons was that he was out in the open about it. Everybody knew everything and he never hid anything, whether it was the sexual or the drinking. He’s not a target, because he’s out there. He’s completely honest. So what are you going to say? You can challenge him and say, “How could you do that?” But then if you go to challenge him, and you’re around him, he’s very, very powerful. Not powerful like mesmerizing, like he could mesmerize people in a cult way — no. Just powerful like so present, so real, so honest. People worked with it, or else they didn’t. Certainly some people were just turned off and they just never studied with him.
Crazy Wisdom screens on February 4 at 8:10 a.m. at Metro 4, February 5 at 7:10 p.m. at Metro 4, and February 6 at 2:10 p.m. at Metro 4. The schedule is subject to change, so see independent.com/sbiff for updates.