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Barbara O'Brien

Crazy Wisdom: What It Is, What It Isn't

By May 21, 2012

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"Crazy wisdom" came up a few times in recent comments, so I thought I'd elaborate on it a bit.  In its most basic definition, "crazy wisdom" refers an enlightened person behaving in socially unconventional ways. You can find "crazy wisdom" in many spiritual traditions, including Taoism and Hinduism.

The "crazy wise" person, freed from convention and self-clinging, spontaneously responds to life without inhibition. "Crazy wisdom" masters through history have broken rules, including precepts. They snubbed people in authority, took lovers, drank alcohol, dressed inappropriately (or not at all). Can this really be wisdom?

To those of us not wise enough to get away with "crazy," it might all look foolish. But I think context is important. In Chinese literature, for example, "crazy wisdom" Taoists sometimes are pitted against hyper-moralistic Confucians. The Confucians in the stories needed to loosen up.

Put another way -- crazy wisdom in the context of a rigidly authoritarian or hierarchical culture may indeed shock people into questioning their cultural assumptions, and that can be a good thing. But in a culture in which convention-breaking is winked at -- celebrated, even -- that's something else again.

American Beats who took up Zen in the gray-flannel-suit 1950s tended to romanticize the "crazy wisdom" parts of it, which is certainly understandable. But Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, who established the San Francisco Zen Center in the late 1960s during the height of the Counterculture, talked people down from craziness. Instead, he introduced his students to the discipline of traditional Zen practice. His students didn't need to be shocked out of attachment to convention.

Last year, Brad Warner wrote a blog post called "Crazy Wisdom? Or Just Plain Nuts?" He had recently watched two documentaries, one about the late Choyam Trungpa Rinpoche and the other about Shoko Asahara, the cult leader responsible for the poison gas attack on the Tokyo subway system in 1995.

I was struck by the ways in which Chogyam Trungpa resembled Shoko Asahara. There are several extremely important differences between the two men. The biggest difference is that Trungpa was trained and ordained in a legitimate Buddhist lineage. Shoko Asahara just pretty much made his credentials up. And Trungpa was wise as well as crazy whereas Asahara was just crazy and had no wisdom at all.

Still, it would be easy for someone to be fooled into believing Shoko Asahara was also an example of crazy wisdom and to excuse his weirdness for signs of deep enlightenment. Trungpa was openly a boozer. Asahara made no secret of his use of LSD. Trungpa had a legion of uniformed guards who served as a kind of Buddhist militia. Asahara had all kind of bizarre paramilitary operatives in his cult. Superficially one could site a number of points the two men had in common.

Trungpa possibly remains the single most influential teacher in western Buddhism. He wrote books and essays that are still worth reading, and some of his students are highly respected dharma teachers today. Yet it was reported he was capable of petty cruelties, especially when he'd been drinking.

To me, it's one thing if the unconventional behavior is spontaneously arising from a place of compassion and wisdom, and other thing entirely if it is self-serving and attention-seeking. And I think you are more likely to bump into the latter behavior than the former, even among teachers.

May 21, 2012 at 11:57 pm
(1) Hein says:

Amitofo to that….
Easy to be crazy, difficult to be wise and to combine them i agree takes a special person in certain specific circumstances to be ‘crazy wisdom’
fortunately most Buddhist teachers i have encountered (in life, internet and otherwise) emphasise the ‘plain common’ Buddhist precepts as well as compassion and wisdom.
It seems from the article that ‘crazy wisdom’ might only be useful – at most – in a very brief space of time and applied by a teacher for a specific non-egotistical purpose?

May 22, 2012 at 6:06 am
(2) Paul UK says:

Nice article. As for Trungpa, agreed he was & still is very influential, well educated in Dharma, but it does not take away the fact he he was an alcoholic, was quite abusive, & gave some of his disciples AIDS …Was he an enlightened crazy wisdom master ? Personally I doubt it, IMO.
Makes me think, will M. Roach be considered a crazy wisdom master when dead, I see no real difference between them & no doubt some of his disciples will become very good teachers.

Bad behaviour is just that, no matter what colour the glasses we want to look through.

May 22, 2012 at 6:57 am
(3) Barbara O'Brien says:

will M. Roach be considered a crazy wisdom master when dead

Not by me. From what I’ve seen of his books, what Roach teaches is more New Age than Buddhism. I don’t consider Roach to be a Buddhist teacher at all. I respect Trungpa, in spite of his flaws.

May 23, 2012 at 5:56 am
(4) Paul UK says:

Have not read any of his books so cant comment, though I use to be a fan of M. Roach, his early teaching are very good & standard geluk teachings but unfortunately he seems to have lost the plot a bit after his so called solitary retreat, a shame really, he was a good teacher up to that point.

H.H. Dalai Lama says that errant teachers should be exposed which I agree with, thing is though Tibetans never usually criticize other Tibetans but only westerners. E.g. Sogyal Rinpoche & Tsem Tulku.

May 23, 2012 at 11:01 pm
(5) Wayne says:

“Saints and Psychopaths” by Bill Hamilton is an excellent book on this subject. The author has a lot of personal experience with spiritual seekers and gives very good advice on the tell-tale behaviors to watch out for with both teachers and students.

May 24, 2012 at 1:27 am
(6) Hein says:

My view is that if one is practicing properly (the Eightfold Path and especially mindfulness) one should be able to easily discern between saints and psychopaths.
I apply the the rule of fish; if it feels fishy, if it looks fishy and if it smells fishy then in all probability it is fishy! Ja, and I do sometimes get misled/fooled, but not for too long. Once I apply the rule fully I am usually able to extract myself from the situation. Sometimes having an overly critical or analitical mind/approach is not helpful, but just being accepting is also not part of the Buddha Way. Constant awareness as expounded in the Buddha’s Eightfold Path is the key to know which teachers to avoid.
From a Buddhist perspective the question is simply; do the teacher publicly practice Buddhist precepts?

May 24, 2012 at 1:51 am
(7) Hein says:

Have to add that it does not mean Bill Hamilton’s book is of no value.
Googled it and found that that used versions of the book (145 pages) costs a whopping $64 at Amazon! It is now out of print, but a free download is available here.

May 24, 2012 at 9:46 am
(8) Mila says:

Seems that there are two distinct “flavors” of crazy-wisdom: one that has to do with utterly unique events that have a liberating effect on the mind of a specific practitioner. The other with ritualized transcendence of mental polarities, including ideas of what is “socially appropriate” and not.

In relation to the first flavor:

The final leap / transition into Enlightenment is never the direct result of any established practice. Rather it’s a kind of phase-shift into resonance with a “dimension” transcending space/time.

Sometimes this happens for no apparent reason: an act of Grace, one could say.

At other times it is precipitated with what appears (to an outside observer) to be a “crazy” action on the part of one’s guru / spiritual-friend. It’s “crazy” in the sense that it bears no relationship to anything we might label as a “spiritual practice” or “spiritual technique.” But from within the specific context, it somehow is “perfect” for dislodging the final attachment, perhaps to the spiritual practice itself.

So for instance: The Tibetan Mahasiddha Naropa’s final awakening after being struck on the head with the muddy sandal of his guru, Tilopa. And lots of stories like this also within the Zen / Ch’an tradition. The whole koan tradition can perhaps be seen as a variation on the “crazy wisdom” theme?

May 24, 2012 at 9:48 am
(9) Mila says:

In relation to the second flavor:

The Hindu tantrika/poet Lalla writes:

Up, woman! Go make your offering.
Take wine, meat, and a cake fit for the gods.
If you know the password to the Supreme Place,
you can reach wisdom by breaking the rules.

In relation to such Tantrik rituals, Ranjit Hoskote (translator of the above poem) writes:

“These rites were designed to incite the sadhaka or spiritual aspirant’s consciousness into transcending the binaries governing acceptable social behavior and the prevailing system of cultural assumptions. This was achieved by striking repeatedly at injunction and inhibition with transgression; by dramatising the dissolution of all differences between the sanctified and the unholy, the pure and the impure, the appropriate and the inappropriate, the permitted and the forbidden, under carefully regulated conditions presided over by an adept.”

It’s the last phrase, which I’ve highlighted, that seems key: rarely are such transgressing rituals/behaviors actually publicly displayed. There’s no real reason for this, since the purpose is not to upset people who have no connection to the practice, but rather to transform the consciousness of the practitioners themselves. In other words, it’s an inside job, and it’s considered very bad form — and pretty much missing the point — to be in blatant visible disregard of cultural norms (unless, of course, those “norms” are seen to be harmful or unjust).

May 24, 2012 at 6:00 pm
(10) Chris White says:

You see this stuff a lot on social networking sites like FaceBook; those who think that any kind of eccentric or weird behaviour translates as “crazy wisdom” – there are any number of self-titled Buddhist “masters” who pass themselves off as enlightened beings, and unfortunately plenty of people who are inclined to believe them.

I think this is where observable lineage can be a guide for those looking for genuine teachers; someone who has gone through an “official” training and ordination is more likely to be the genuine article, though this is no absolute guarantee – any more than a lack of such lineage is a guarantee that they are not good teachers.

I think all we can do when faced with someone who is claiming “crazy wisdom” but who is obviously a just few cents short of a dollar is to point out the obvious holes in their arguments and let their followers judge for themselves. Trying to get in to serious discussions with them merely “feeds the troll”.

May 24, 2012 at 7:03 pm
(11) Lee says:

It may be wise to run from anyone proclaiming enlightenment (or any other word they want to use to set themselves above others. If they are beating their own drum there may be some unresolved greed, anger and delusion running rampant. and anyone saying your shouldn’t criticize or question them …. RUN!
As for the precept regarding sexual misconduct my understanding is that nothing is wrong with a relationship as long as greed is not part of the equation and you are not breaking other precepts in the process (like lying to your wife about where you were unless she’s perfectly OK with it). It’s a great training ground if you want to watch your mind justify and rationalize your behavior and it can cause lots of suffering and it’s probably really really hard to have a sexual relationship within which some greed is not present. The mind is a wily critter.

May 24, 2012 at 7:46 pm
(12) TFitz says:

Someone said trungpa gave people aids. This is not true. It was one of his disciples who later started a cult that went very wrong. This guy said that trungpa said that it was OK for him to have sex while he had this disease. Credit to trungpas ex, Diana for keeping on top of them and eventually the problem has dissipated. This is my understanding of that.

Trungpa was a genius with some serious problems. His ‘Shambala’ is a work of genius, certainly. Dharma stripped of religion. Perfect though? Probably not.

May 27, 2012 at 12:06 pm
(13) mickey says:

I equate a Crazy Wisdom Person with a Sacred Clown Healer, a Heyoka, a Koshare. They heal the community by shaking others out of spiritual complacency, and so sometimes do obscene things. Or how about the Fool, the Wise Jester who has permission to do anything, the Clown, the Stand-up Comedienne?

I’m sorry, but Ven. Chogyam Trunpa’s book, Crazy Wisdom, doesn’t come near to the actual experience or thinking. In fact I don’t have the faintest idea of what he wrote. That’s just because it doesn’t resonate with me, which is to say, many others legitimately feel otherwise.

Padampa Sangye seems to be the pinnacle of Crazy Wisdom, and Machig Labdron was one of his students. She went on to solidify the famous practice called Chod, which is still practiced today.
mickey morgan

May 28, 2012 at 6:15 pm
(14) Paul UK says:


Could not have put it better.

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