Paleo Retiree writes:
Doc about Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the Tibetan monk who was mostly responsible for bringing Tibetan Buddhism to the west. He was a big figure in the counterculture from the ’60s through the ’80s (he died in 1987 at the age of 47). He established study and meditation centers in Scotland, Canada and the U.S.; he helped create Naropa Institute, the Boulder, CO school devoted to Buddhism and the arts; he attracted thousands of followers; and when he died, big deals from around the world attended his cremation. But he was famous almost as much for his epic drinking, his thoughtless-seeming behavior and his sexual adventures with female followers as for his expositions of the dharma. Was there some cosmic point he was making with his often outlandish behavior? Or was he an egomaniacal con artist run amok, living high on the hog and abusing the trust of gullible followers?
Though it’s very frank about Trungpa’s drinking and fornicating, and though it certainly leaves room for a variety of responses, the movie takes quite a reverent point of view: it makes the case that Trungpa not only talked but lived his brand of wisdom. If he was unpredictable, if he began the day with large tumblers of gin, if he staggered and slurred because he was so drunk, if at one point he even formed a small militia and enjoyed making them march in formation, it wasn’t because he was a Jim Jones-like nut; it was because he was selflessly determined to shake people’s assumptions up. Who really knows what the case was? He was quite a character, in any event. His English wife, whom he married when she was 16, both expresses no regrets and confides that she never really knew who or what he was. And a handful of women who talk openly about having had affairs with him don’t report feeling abused or assaulted. Quite le contraire, in fact.
The film basically alternates between telling Trungpa’s story via archival footage and present-day memories and testimony from people who interacted with him, mostly followers who are still keeping the flame alive. The music is very emotional, and the imagery often very rich.
It seemed to me that the film could have done a better job of conveying the impact of Trungpa’s insights. We’re given a lot of attractive, intelligent people telling us about Trungpa’s effect on them. (Tibetan Buddhism in the west doesn’t attract idiots.) But the footage of Trungpa’s talks that the filmmakers include didn’t impress me much. As far as I could tell, the filmmakers hoped that invoking a bit of mysticism with their filmmaking would help convey the feelings of transport and enlightenment that people in the film discuss. Me, I’d have preferred a harder-edged style. The film is a little genteel and conventional — a little goopy in ways that’ll be familiar to anyone who has spent five minutes in western Buddhist circles — for something that wants to to convey the magic of a harsh and bewildering figure who used a lot of absurd behavior to make his points.
To my mind, the film could also have done a better job of conveying two things: what a really incredible life this guy led (seriously, imagine: from a small village in Tibet to celebrity-guru status in the west!), and what a phenom, whether of a positive or a negative sort, Trungpa was as a person. We’re presented with both of these things, we just don’t experience them as vividly as I felt we might have. As someone who’s a little susceptible to gurus and who spent many years in the orbit of one particular guru-esque figure, I know that there’s a lot that can be said about these people. They really aren’t like the rest of us; and as a consequence there really are times when the normal rules don’t seem to apply to them. At one point someone in the doc, musing about Trungpa’s uniqueness, says that he has known monks and gurus who have tried to live at Trungpa’s always “on” intensity-level, and they found they couldn’t sustain it for more than a year or two. These guru figures aren’t everyday intelligent and/or talented people with something to contribute. Instead, they arrive on the scene with an overwhelming feeling of having something to give to the world, and they burn very bright until they just can’t burn any longer. Is it simply personal charisma we’re experiencing when we’re around them, or are we really connecting through them with Ultimate Reality? (Fwiw, I take this question quite seriously.) But the film, while it makes many of these points, makes them in ways that I don’t think are likely to help anyone not already sympathetic see what was magnetic or even remarkable about Trungpa.
But these are all very minor misgivings. It’s a very interesting, very informative, well-researched, attractively-made movie that marvels at a fascinating character, supplies a lot of amazin’ social history, and triggers off a lot of fun-to-wrestle-with thoughts. Warmly recommended. If you’re intrigued by gurus or by the era, why not give it a look?
We watched the film on Netflix Instant; you can buy a DVD of the film from Amazon, where the viewer-reviews of the film are very interesting.
- The film’s website.
- An interview with Johanna Demetrakas, the film’s director.
- A mini-memoir by Chogyam Trungpa’s wife, Diana Mukpo. Here’s her book, which I haven’t read but which has got to be fascinating.
- There’s a lot of footage on YouTube of Trungpa.
- Wikipedia on the concept of “crazy wisdom.“
- I really did get a lot out of this book of Trungpa’s, as well as this one.