Crazy Wisdom

Is It Really Wisdom?

Two Stone Buddhas
© Kazuo Yasuoka / EyeEm / Getty Images

In its most basic definition, "crazy wisdom" refers to an enlightened person behaving in socially unconventional ways. You can find "crazy wisdom" in many spiritual traditions, including Taoismand Hinduism as well as Buddhism.

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 the Precepts.

They snubbed people in authority, took lovers, drank alcohol, dressed inappropriately (or not at all). Can this really be wisdom?

Consider the Context

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 moral of these stories usually is that the Confucians need 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.

In Japanese Zen, the quintessential crazy wisdom Zen master was Ikkyu Sojun (1394-1481), who called himself "Crazy Cloud."  For a large part of his life he avoided monasteries in favor of wandering, including into wine shops and brothels. Ikkyu was a master in the Rinzai school at a time when institutional Rinzai had become political and corrupt.

Although we can only guess at all of his motives, at least some of his "craziness" appeared to be in protest of the Rinzai status quo.

American Beats who took up Zen in the conformist, gray-flannel-suit 1950s tended to romanticize the "crazy wisdom" parts of it, which was certainly understandable. In his 1958 essay "Beat Zen, Square Zen, and Zen," Alan Watts wrote that the appeal of Zen "arises from the suspicion that our attempt to master the world from the outside is a vicious circle in which we shall be condemned to the perpetual insomnia of controlling controls and supervising supervision ad infinitum."

But the 1950s were followed by the 1960s, and the famous 1960s counterculture. In a culture in which convention-breaking is winked at -- celebrated, even -- "crazy wisdom" may be the wrong medicine. 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.

Crazy Wisdom Mystique in the West

Crazy Wisdom is the title of a 2011 documentary on the life of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche (1939-1987), a lineage holder in both the Kagyu and Nyingma schools of Tibetan Buddhism. A heavy drinker and unabashed libertine, 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 intoxicated.

Trungpa did shatter a lot of arguably unhealthy preconceptions about spiritual masters. But he may have helped implant a more insidious conception, that it's okay for enlightened beings to break the Precepts.

Since Trungpa's passing several Buddhist teachers in the West have been caught in scandals involving sex and/or money. Often others in the sangha were aware of a festering scandalous situation and said nothing. Teacher is enlightened, so he must know what he's doing!  Crazy wisdom, after all. I call this "crazy wisdom mystique."

Trungpa's own chosen dharma heir continued to have sex with students after testing positive for HIV. Apparently he believed his enlightened body would render the HIV virus harmless. He was wrong. Osel Tendzin died of AIDS in 1990, and at least one of his infected students died also. It turned out later that senior students knew what was going on for at least two years before he died, and said nothing, possibly because of of  crazy wisdom mystique.

Regarding the breaking of the Buddhist Precepts, it's often said that the Precepts describe how an enlightened being naturally lives.

Further, an enlightened being always will respond correctly, if unconventionally, to any situation.

I argue that we may be getting this backward. Instead of assuming that an "enlightened being" is automatically in harmony with the Precepts, perhaps our view should be that harmony with the Precepts is the manifestation of an enlightened being.

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.