By Daniel Scharpenburg
Crazy Wisdom was a term coined by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, one of the major figures in bringing Buddhism to the west.
He described it as an innocent state of awareness that is wild and free, completely awake and fresh. It’s a spiritual worldview that represents thinking outside the box—moving against the stream.
Crazy wisdom is about having a free mind, one that is not held down by preconceived notions or cultural conventions. Crazy Wisdom is about living in this moment, rather than having all of our perceptions colored by what we think about the past, the future, or the ideas we have about things.
The idea behind Crazy Wisdom is that sometimes those of us that aren’t Enlightened don’t really understand those that are, very well. Enlightenment is the realization that Samsara and Nirvana—normal reality and transcendent reality—are actually the same, that there is no separation between self and other.
As the Heart Sutra says: “Form is no different from Emptiness, Emptiness is no different from Form.” This is a paradox and when we think about it too much with our rational minds, we can’t really grasp it. It takes our intuitive minds, which he called Crazy Wisdom.
He coined this term, but it’s certainly existed throughout the history of Buddhism. There has always been an undercurrent of stories about renegades throughout Buddhist history. Unlike most other religions, when things get off track in Buddhism, there are always renegades that show up to change things.
How do things get off track?
It happens sometimes that people get distracted after they’ve been practicing for a while. They become distracted by the ritual forms or the devotion to their teacher or even studying sutras. These things are good, of course. But Buddhism is about practicing. It’s about striving diligently for Awakening. Getting attached to specific forms of practice can be a distraction.
That’s where the spiritual renegade comes in, to remind us what we are doing and why.
The Buddha was one of these spiritual renegades.
He saw the spiritual teachers of his time and thought that they were close, but they didn’t have the real truth.
There is a dark side to Crazy Wisdom, of course. It can be used an excuse for things.
Chogyam Trungpa famously had sex with many of his students and he was a heavy drinker. There are some that thought that a Buddhist teacher shouldn’t behave in this way, but others that said, “It’s just part of his Crazy Wisdom.” (I’ll go on record here as saying I don’t think there’s anything wrong with free love. That might be controversial, so maybe I have Crazy Wisdom too).
There have been several sex scandals throughout the history of Buddhism in America. Very few Buddhist lineages that have come to America are free of such things, although that’s probably not unique to Buddhism.
And it’s evident in Buddhist history too.
Drukpa Kinley was a Buddhist teacher from Bhutan who gave teachings to women in exchange for beer.
Han Shan was a Zen poet who ran off to live in a cave and just laughed hysterically whenever people approached him for teachings.
Ikkyu was a Zen monk who walked away from living in Buddhist temples and went to give teachings in brothels and bars instead.
Without spiritual renegades, without people who are willing to challenge the status quo and try to change things, spirituality can become very rigid and dry. Crazy Wisdom can prevent that.
But we do have to exercise caution. There has to be a balance there. But we do have to remember one thing: spiritual teachers only have as much authority as we give them.
I feel more connected to the lineage of spiritual renegades; those who have Crazy Wisdom, the ones who challenge the way things are and are willing to think outside the box.
Those are my people.
They have flaws, of course. They are human. But I love them anyway.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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