Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche shattered Westerners' notions about how an enlightened teacher should behave, yet he is recognised as being the pivotal person to bring Buddhism to the West.Yet even his critics agree that Trungpa's unhidden, outrageous lifestyle has never hindered his ability to translate and transplant ancient teachings that would forever penetrate our modern western culture.
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1 Jan 2009 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 1 Jan 2009 - 12:00 AM
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Doco on controversial Buddhist stays within the circle of love.
BYRON BAY INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche is one of the most influential and controversial practitioners of Buddhism culture ever to impact Western society. As such, he deserves a more rigorous examination of his biography than the wide-eyed hagiography that is veteran documentarian Johanna Demetrakas’ Crazy Wisdom. So named after the philosopher’s belief that random acts of foolishness or devil-may-care derring-do can lead to accidental insight, this well-made but rather stiff collection of talking heads should have practised what he preached.

There can be no doubting the inherent drama of Trungpa’s early days: his flight from marauding Chinese forces across desolate mountain terrain with fellow monks, many of whom did not survive; a car accident that left him partially paralysed (which may or may have been the liberal drinker’s own fault). Demetrakas captures the bravery and heartache of his early life with a precise eye and dab hand. But these sequences amount to little more than a brief history lesson interspersed with his poetry to personalise the journey, a necessary back-story on the road to his own conquest – that of the hearts and minds of America’s 1960s counterculture.

For those craving self-fulfilment and enlightened harmony, Trungpa’s soothing voice and wise spirituality was a Gideon’s trumpet of sorts. He counted amongst his followers Beat poet Alan Ginsberg, author Thomas Merton and songstress Joni Mitchell, as well as hordes of free-spirited types (many of which beam happily for Demetrakas’ camera) who were right into his theories of singular spirituality, emotional openness, and the whole free-love ethos.

Crazy Wisdom suffers from an artificiality that one can’t help think stems from the man himself. Though anointed by exalted monks at 18 months of age as the reincarnation of spiritual greatness, Trungpa’s relocation to America seems to have compromised the man and his views. His teachings were not steeped in traditional Buddhist philosophy, but rather tweaked and occasionally twisted to suit both his new followers and his chosen lifestyle. Even by his disciple’s on-camera admission, he was a heavy drinker and a womaniser; his teenage bride was shattered when he strayed so soon after their marriage, but she reconciles painfully that it was part of who he was and therefore integral to his teachings.

There is not enough balanced coverage of Chogyam Trungpa’s personal life to afford Crazy Wisdom anything other than a perfunctory nod; it unfolds like a fan letter to a rock star, forgiving of the debauched lifestyle the star leads because they have a beautiful voice. The film never reaches beyond Trungpa’s inner circle and die-hard followers to convince that the man impacted larger society in any meaningful way. Colourful flourishes that clutch at the belief that he was a heavenly spirit incarnate fall flat, especially a rousingly silly wrap-up that recalls the rainbow-trail that follows E.T’s spaceship as it speeds home at the end of Spielberg’s weepie. A man who obviously touched the lives of thousands warrants a far more honest appraisal of his soulful existence and all its flaws.

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1 hour 26 min

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