The Smiling Guru: Chogyam Trungpa’s CRAZY WISDOM
Brilliant iconoclast Chogyam Trungpa brought rich knowledge, occasional controversy, unpredictable style, and a zany approach to the study of Buddhism in America. Johanna Demetrakas’ new doc portrays, and enjoys, the ride.
The trickle of documentaries about Buddhism in recent years has reached the level where we can safely call it a sub-genre. The latest entry is Crazy Wisdom, a deeply engaging and unexpectedly entertaining portrait of the brilliant iconoclast Chogyam Trungpa. In 1959, at the age of 19, Trungpa fled Tibet and made his way to the U.K., where he studied at Oxford, took a teenage bride and relocated with her to the United States. He founded a meditation center in Colorado and traded his robes for a suit and tie, one of many “lifestyle choices” that challenged his students’ perceptions of how an enlightened Buddhist should look and act. Trungpa died in 1987 at the age of 47, his health adversely affected by chronic drinking. Veteran documentary editor and filmmaker Johanna Demetrakas was a student of Trungpa’s in the early 1970s, and a few years before his death he asked her to make a Shambhala film. It wasn’t until fairly recently that Demetrakas became clear about the shape and tone of the film, which is now being released on the 25th anniversary of Trungpa’s death. I spoke with Demetrakas in San Francisco, where the film opened July 13 at the Roxie Cinema prior to opening July 20 at the Elmwood Theatre in Berkeley.
Michael Fox: There’s been a wave of Buddhism-related documentaries in the past several years, but what’s different about Crazy Wisdom, I think, is that those films are aimed more at people who are already involved in Buddhism, and therefore aim to deliver a 90-minute sense of enlightenment, or a recharge. Your film seems more oriented toward the layperson.
Johanna Demetrakas: That is something I tried really hard to do. When you’re making a film, when things come up you go to, ‘What is my direction to myself, as a director?’ And my direction is, ‘You’re making a film for general audiences.’ Of course, there’ll be a lot of Buddhists that come, or people who meditate, people who do yoga, whatever, but when you make a final decision about a cut, or ‘Is this clear?,’ it’s going to be based on this is for general audiences. That was very important to me.
Keyframe: I didn’t know, and the viewer wouldn’t know, that you had a personal connection with Chogyam Trungpa. It’s nowhere in the film. There are clues, maybe, like a still photo late in the film of him and another person—you, perhaps—and a 16mm camera.
Demetrakas: It’s my husband.
Keyframe: But there’s nothing self-indulgent about the film, and that would reveal your history with your subject. Tell me about the choice to leave yourself out of the film.
Demetrakas: That was a big choice. That was a big question: ‘Will I be in or not?’ My voice is in occasionally—it’s only about three times, maybe four. When I feel the question that I’m asking is important and needs to be heard for the audience to get it, I leave it in. And I’m fine with that. But the challenge for me was not to make this film as a student [of Trungpa] but to make it, like I said, for a general audience. So I left myself out of it. It’s a big decision, especially with documentaries, when a filmmaker is out or in. And for me, out felt like I could shape things better, and with some objectivity.
Keyframe: Do you think coming to the material many years after Trungpa’s passing was an advantage?
Demetrakas: Oh, yeah. I started to work on the film five or eight years after he died, but I didn’t really start making a film. I just started researching and thinking, ‘Wow, it would be cool to make a film. How the hell am I going to do that?’ (Laughs.) Then three years would go by. In 2006, I said, ‘OK, this is it, I’m going to make this film,’ and he had died 20 years before, 19 years before. And my own path in life, I was at a place where I felt like I could sort of trust myself. Because in a film like this, it’s a different kind of responsibility. It took me a long time to come to the point where I actually said I could do this. Not because I didn’t think I was capable of doing it, but because I would have to face questions like this, and how do I deal with them. How do I deal with [his] drinking, or obvious problems like that. I had to somehow be confident in myself that whatever I decided—because I didn’t know yet how I was going to do it—would work, would be right, would be fair, would be honest.
I’ll tell you what I learned. I learned to trust myself. As a director, you have to trust yourself, and I had that in me before. I did TV shows, whatever I’ve done, but this was even more so because when you’re making a film about a subject like Buddhism, you have to be accurate and it has to not be an ego project. You know, not ‘I want you to be a Buddhist’ or ‘I want to sell this’ or ‘I think he’s a great man.’ It has to be devoid of all those things in order to present it right, and I finally felt I could trust myself about that.
I purposely used some of his talk when he says, ‘If you don’t want to save the world, who will? So come and join me: Let’s save the world.’ He has been quoted many times, including the liturgy in the beginning of the film about the thick black fog of materialism, as predicting the world situation exactly the way it is today—economically, environmentally, class war. Don’t forget he escapes from Tibet, and he knows even though he’s 19 years old and he was brought up in the medieval world—he jumps into the 20th century—he knows even as he’s leaving that it’s all over in Tibet. The incubator for Buddhist thinking for 1,200 years, that incubator’s gone.
Keyframe: Some people might say your responsibility is to the deceased, Chogyam Trungpa, but I think it’s to the living, such as his widow. At the same time, you want to extract something from interviews with her beyond keeper of his legacy and his reputation, because you want to produce a rounded portrait. It’s clear, from the quality of the interviews and the way people are speaking, that they’re not talking to a stranger but to someone they know and trust. That’s a way you’re in the film, incidentally.
Demetrakas: His wife, obviously, I do have a lot of respect for. No one [had] editorial [control] with me, nobody told me what to do. I did show it to her because I wanted her to be all right with it, I didn’t want to surprise her with it. And it was good. So there you go, it’s trust again.
Keyframe: You also teach documentary filmmaking. I would assert that the public has no appreciation for the craft of documentary, let alone the art. They watch documentaries as unmediated reality. So please give some examples of the craft of Crazy Wisdom.
Demetrakas: Well, thank you for that opportunity, because you’re right, the greater audience has no idea, they don’t separate it from news, they don’t separate it from punditry TV. And there are so many fantastic documentary filmmakers today who risk their lives. Someone like Laura Poitras (The Oath). Do you know her work? Fabulous work! Not just is she out there by herself, by herself with the camera and everything, in these [distant] countries but she’s doing it beautifully. It’s elegant. It’s powerful. I have a lot of respect for that.
I think this film is maybe the most artistic of films I’ve worked on for a long time. My loyalty to this film was, ‘What is the truth of the moment, and what is the emotion?’ And the emotion would come mostly with people who knew him, because it was a personal thing. ‘How do I use that emotion to energize the film, because it’s genuine, but not exploit it?’ When he’s talking—most of what I have of him, unfortunately, was not verité stuff, it was talks. I used them sparingly so they’d be little experiences my audience would have with his humor. Or little experiences they would have when he was talking about saving the planet. It’s a whole different thing from just Buddhism. So from the point of view of craft, I would zero in on what was going on at that moment and the emotion in it that was shared, the communal emotion.
Keyframe: One challenge you had was generating drama and tension from a life that, while fascinating, doesn’t have an innate story structure. How did you pull that off?
Demetrakas: I was lucky. I had a character who just keeps blowing everybody’s mind. How many characters do that? People are all bent out of shape about [his] drinking and women. What about [his use of] military [marching and discipline] and [use of] elocution? That’s really weird. I would scratch my head. ‘How the hell am I going to show elocution? I mean, how?’ Because it’s all part of the Trungpa package, it’s all him, that was the continuity. I could actually do a whole section on elocution, and enjoy it, and just whoever gets it, gets it. (Laughs.) And most people actually do. We did very well in New York, we sold out 18 out of 19 screenings, and the Laemmle [in L.A.], and festivals, of course, and what I love is that when this film is over, there’s usually one or two or three people in the audience who are looking at you like, ‘What the hell?’ And most of the audience is sitting there with sort of goofy smiles on their faces. They’re bemused. ‘What hit me? I’m not sure.’ But smiling. So this makes me feel really, really good, because you pick up on the fact that he was enormously sharp and could bury you with a sentence, but fully compassionate. The humor was always there to cut through anything. I tried to get that balance in the film.
Keyframe: Although many of the events in the film take place in the 1960s and ’70s, and I gather that’s when you connected with Trungpa—
Demetrakas: Yeah, the early ’70s.
Keyframe: —he feels so contemporary, as if he were here today he’d be able to respond to anything that’s going on without missing a beat. So, curiously, Crazy Wisdom doesn’t feel like a historical documentary.
Demetrakas: I think that’s because he’s always in the present moment. Always fully present. That’s what crazy wisdom is, actually. It’s not like it’s a method. Sometimes it’s looked at as a method of teaching. It’s not; it’s really if the person is awakened enough—in the Buddhist sense, you know—to be totally, utterly present. That’s when it comes alive, that’s when it’s real. It’s funny, I had an experience where I was just about at the end of it and I asked somebody for some footage about another teacher. They sent me some footage and everybody was wearing robes. It suddenly hit me—after four and a half years of cutting this film—‘Wow! Everybody’s wearing robes.’ I couldn’t put it in the film. It just didn’t make any sense. He put that suit on and that’s it, he changed everything. He put aside his vows, he put the suit on, he took the robes off, he got married and all that other stuff, and he spoke that incredible English that he spoke. That’s why I think so many of us that were studying early on were able to just dive into it. He was speaking in our own language, using psychological terms, using English that way, so that you could actually—the word we used was ‘grok.’ Do you remember that?
Demetrakas: You absorb something. You don’t just intellectually, didactically get it down. You absorb it. He did that with his fantastic English. So he was very in the moment, he was totally contemporary, even though he was very much Tibetan.
Keyframe: He was never criticized or rebuked by the—?
Demetrakas: The hierarchy? The hierarchy was appalled the first few years. Then His Holiness Karmapa—there are four sects in Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama is head of the Galupa sect, which is the governing sect. What they call the practicing lineage is the Karmapa, and that’s the one that Trungpa came from. The head of that lineage, finally, in 1974, comes over.
Keyframe: In the film, we see him arriving at Trungpa’s Boulder center in his limo, yes?
Demetrakas: The limo and everything. And he sees how brilliantly Trungpa has been teaching, how brilliantly he’s teaching all over the country, there are these centers, there are people who are practicing properly, they’re serious students. And after that, things changed [and they trusted Trungpa].
You absorb something. You don’t just intellectually, didactically get it down. You absorb it. Chogyam Trungpa did that with his fantastic English. So he was very in the moment, he was totally contemporary, even though he was very much Tibetan.
Keyframe: Twenty-five years after his death, you could argue that we are an even more materialistic society, and at the same time there are now dozens of meditation centers led by his son. Is there a relationship?
Demetrakas: Early in the film, I purposely used some of his talk when he says, ‘If you don’t want to save the world, who will? So come and join me: Let’s save the world.’ He has been quoted many times, including the liturgy in the beginning of the film about the thick black fog of materialism, as predicting the world situation exactly the way it is today—economically, environmentally, class war. Don’t forget he escapes from Tibet, and he knows even though he’s 19 years old and he was brought up in the medieval world—he jumps into the 20th century—he knows even as he’s leaving that it’s all over in Tibet. The incubator for Buddhist thinking for 1,200 years, that incubator’s gone. Now there’s some great people there; Buddhism will go on. But the incubator is gone. He didn’t know how much of it was going to be destroyed. Much of it is. His focus the entire time he was alive, in England and here, was to plant those teachings here. Not that everybody has to convert and be a Buddhist, but so that that wisdom is here and it will live on and influence people. Wherever Buddhism goes, it becomes that country. So you have Tibetan Buddhism, you have Indian Buddhism, you have Zen Buddhism in Japan, you have Cambodian, you have Vietnamese Buddhism. They’re all a little different but they’re all the same. It becomes absorbed, and changes in each country.
Keyframe: So American Buddhism wouldn’t be up to Trungpa to create. It would be up to his students.
Demetrakas: That’s right. And what we’re doing now is a lot of science, and looking at the brain, and how meditation affects the brain and so forth. That’s Western. So it’s changing in that way. In order to keep that system going that they had in Tibet, it was very much a hierarchical thing, you were born into it, you got the education. But if you weren’t born into it, it wasn’t so hot. That whole thing has changed. Still, at the center of it is meditation, egoless compassion, that’s the same.
Keyframe: Is there anything I didn’t ask you that we should touch on?
Demetrakas: I’m so grateful to you for asking me about audience. That’s important. I’m really glad when people have a good time watching the film. When Trungpa taught, one of the things that was so fabulous about it, he might be teaching a very tough—let’s say a talk on death—he doesn’t sugarcoat anything, right? It’s tough but at the same time it’ll be filled with humor, and it’ll be filled with such sweetness that when it’s over, you’re not automatically depressed. You’re more realistic than you were (laughs), but you’re not depressed. I thought that was also important to have in the film.
Keyframe: Well, even in the most desperate circumstances, people tell jokes. Humor is a part of life like anything else.
Demetrakas: What he taught me about humor was that without humor everything is solid. Humor is what breaks that solidity—‘Oh, I’m this way, I’m that way, don’t ever tell me I’m not’—and then someone makes a joke and you haven’t got a leg to stand on. That gives you perspective. It punctures it, it pops the balloon. So it’s very important in Buddhism that we have humor. It has a real function.
Keyframe: That comes through in the film, certainly, his humor as well as his, shall we say, compassionate directness.
Demetrakas: There was that human respect there. Even if someone would ask the silliest damn question, just the silliest, most obvious question based on fear. He’d be sharp with you, but he’ll do it in a way that makes you get your game up rather a way that makes you feel less.
Keyframe: Your credits include a two-hour film on Richard Gere for A&E’s “Biography.” It’s appropriate that your only assignment for that series would be a profile of a well-known Buddhist. Did you speak with him at any point about Crazy Wisdom?
Demetrakas: I did talk to him a little bit.
Keyframe: He’d never been a student of Trungpa?
Demetrakas. No, no. He’s a student of the Dalia Lama. What he did say was that when he first was looking for something he read Trungpa’s books, and Trungpa’s books were the books that turned him on and put him on the Buddhist path. And then [Gere] went where he went. But they were critical for him.