Chögyam Trungpa: Crazy Wisdom or Just Plain Crazy?

An excerpt from A Heart Blown Open. 

Later that year Kelly returned to Boston to serve as the Tenzo, or cook, for Trungpa and the 16th Karmapa, Rangjung Rigpei Dorjé. The position was an honorable one, and Kelly spent a month preparing, learning the finest Japanese preparation for the six-pound red snapper he was going to cook. The day he was to serve food to Trungpa and the Karmapa, the two men were sequestered with a number of attendants and senior students in a closed room not far from the kitchen. Dinner was scheduled for 9, and Kelly made all the necessary preparations. Having remembered Trungpa's penchant for lateness, Kelly planned the dinner to be served at 11 p.m., a safe delay, he figured. At 10:30 he approached the wooden doors where Trungpa and the Karmapa were sequestered. An attendant stood in front of the doors, his arms folded neatly in front of him and his gaze off in the distance.

"Dinner's ready,” Kelly said to the man, who nodded politely.

"One moment.” He slipped as quickly as he could through the door, but drunken laughter and a slew of moving bodies were divulged. A few seconds passed and the attendant again quickly opened and closed the door. He resumed his position, back to the door and hands folded neatly in front.

"Rinpoche is not ready for dinner yet.”

"It's fish,” Kelly reminded him, a little sharply. "Prepared to be served hot. If it cools, the whole thing will cave in on itself.” The attendant nodded and politely smiled, but did not move.

Kelly went back to the kitchen and cleaned the dishes. He put away his spices and the dishes, cleaned the counters, and folded all the towels. At midnight he took his apron off and hung it up. On the kitchen's main table his snapper sat in its pan, the red skin caved into the sides, cold and ruined. The side dishes, garlic mashed potatoes with horseradish and handmade gravy, a green bean dish infused with honey and tarragon, and handpicked mushrooms sautéed in red wine and fresh spices, were cold, their sauces opaque.

Kelly walked into the hallway and toward the attendant, and halfway there could hear the raucous laughter and giggling coming from behind the doors. Kelly was deeply resentful of having his time and his talents taken so for granted.

Fuming, Kelly moved toward the doors like a projectile.

"You “” Kelly shot at the man. "I've got a message for that Tibetan cocksucker: he can go fuck himself.” The attendant, who was one of Trungpa's inner circle had seen many strange things in his day, had never heard his teacher referred to quite like that. Kelly spun on his heel to leave as the doors to the room opened with a flourish. Trungpa emerged with a huge smile on his face.

"Charrless,” he slurred, using Kelly's alias, "where's our food?” He clapped Kelly on the back. "Come! I am sure you have prepared something incredibly delish-delicious for us, no?”

Kelly went to the kitchen and brought the food in, serving it onto dishes for the 9 people in the room. It was devoured amid heaps of lavishing praise about Kelly's cooking prowess. He stood silently with folded hands, listening to their compliments and watching them eat. As he cleared their plates afterward and brought the last of the dishes to the kitchen, the stoic attendant pulled him aside.

"Did you hear how much they enjoyed your food? You must be quite a chef!”

"I could have served them dog shit, and they wouldn't have known the difference,” observed Kelly. "I fixed you up a plate if you're hungry. It's in the fridge, third shelf down.”

"Are you okay?” the man asked, genuinely concerned.

"Yeah,” Kelly said, "I'm fine.” He smiled. "I'm better than fine, actually. I'm great.”

"He teaches through Crazy Wisdom, you know,” the attendant, whose job was often to manage the shock Trungpa created, noted apologetically.

Kelly paused for a moment. "In my experience, there's nothing crazy about wisdom.”

Back in his room, Kelly slept soundly with the knowledge he would leave in the morning and never return to study under Trungpa. He had finally gotten the man, finally understood his teaching methods and how effective they were at breaking people apart. Kelly even saw how well he had been played, with Trungpa taking the joke as far as he could, pushing Kelly's buttons for maximum effect. It was, he had to admit, clever from start to finish.

"See the perfection” was one of Trungpa's favorite expressions, by which he meant from the non-dual, Enlightened mind, from satori, everything was perfect. Your master was drunk? So what? He tried to sleep with your wife? So what? See the perfection! From the Absolute, there was no valuation, there was no ego, there was nothing that wasn't utterly perfect as it was. Despite what religion taught, the truth was that God didn't take sides or share our morality or our valuations. Everything that arose was Perfection, just as it was. Kelly had no doubt that Trungpa was, like Swami Gauribala, a fully Enlightened character. He suspected Trungpa's Crazy Wisdom was a smokescreen for self-indulgent behavior and an excuse to not do psychological work on his small, relative ego. The man was unquestionably an alcoholic and a sex addict, but Kelly also knew nothing Trungpa did mattered if one truly ‘saw the perfection'.

As he zipped his bag shut and headed out the door into the coolness of the Boston morning, a critical truth had taken shape for him: he saw how Trungpa's brand of crazy wisdom worked in retreats and weekend workshops and lectures, worked for the suburban middle-class Americans drawn to him who needed to learn to break the stubborn drudgery of their lives. Kelly, though, was trying to get back to sane. He was done with crazy.

His upbringing was crazy. A fourteen-year-old boy bringing a loaded shotgun into his parent's bedroom was crazy. His fleeing from his wife and daughter, working for the mob, and living on the streets for weeks on end was crazy. He had somehow along the way become one of the biggest LSD manufacturers of the 1970s and there were half a dozen DEA agents combing the country for him at that very moment. Crazy. Jesse had been lost to heroin and was doing hard time, Cheryl was lost to PMA and alcohol (as were a good many of their friends). Crazy was killing him, and killing those he loved. Crazy was Kandinsky whispering to him on the army base about necklaces of ears, crazy was the Kali worshipper covered in blood with topless women behind him, crazy was Swami Gauribala making a hut and an old woman and four ancient swamis vanish into thin air in defiance of everything that was possible. Crazy was Kelly's life. He had enough of crazy to last a lifetime.

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