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On Crazy Wisdom and Other Bad Ideas

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“To ordinary people, I look completely mad. To me, ordinary people look completely mad.” – Milarepa

Viktor Frankl, the celebrated author of Man’s Search for Meaning, was addressing a congress of psychologists and psychiatrists when he read two short writings to his audience. One was written by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger; the other, by a hospitalized paranoid schizophrenic. Which, he asked, was written by one of the world’s most prominent philosophers, and which by the patient?

Of course, they were unanimous in judging Heidegger to be the madman. (1)

How do you tell the difference between craziness and genius? It’s not always so easy. Sometimes the perspective that makes sense is simply wrong.

When Thomas Jefferson heard reports from Yale that meteorites had recently fallen, for example, he is said to have replied that “it was easier to believe that two Yankee Professors could lie than to admit that stones could fall from heaven.”

Madness and genius both entail perspectives that lie outside of the ordinary range of what people accept to be true.

The Tibetan Buddhists speak of a distinction between what is true from the perspective of ordinary life, and what is really true. According to one tradition, something is conventionally true if it cannot be disproven by normal reasoning or perception. But ordinary reasoning and perception are mistaken, so there is no simple way to arrive at the ultimate truth. (2)

This distinction between the way that things appear and what’s really going on is at the heart of Buddhist teachings, which hold that our mistaken ideas about the world are the ultimate source of all suffering.

When we translate this problem into a human context, we find groups of people trying to collectively orient themselves with respect to what’s really going on. But how do you know?

Of course, you can simply not worry about it – you can settle down in your own vision of reality and say that everyone else is wrong. That’s a common approach.

But if you don’t accept the normal version of reality, and you want to figure out what’s really going on, you have to go outside of convention. Most of the venerated spiritual masters have said that the ordinary perspective is mistaken.

The problem is, whenever people come together and reinforce a shared set of beliefs, they run the danger of creating a sealed-off world and losing their moorings to the planet earth. There has to be some basis for staying grounded, or it is very easy to drift off into space.

In the west, we have a particular danger of gurus who cynically or naively capitalize on the possibilities that open up when you lead people out to sea. Many such teachers claim that their degree of understanding places them outside of the normal range of human values. Sure, they may seem like selfish assholes on the surface, but that’s just because they’ve broken through to the other side. And if that means the guru wants to sleep with your wife, like Adi Da or Richard Baker, then brace yourself for a lesson on non-attachment.

Such teachers have often appealed to the idea of “crazy wisdom,” which is supposedly of Tibetan origin, though in my 15 years of study I have yet to see the corresponding Tibetan term, or find any teacher in Tibet who advocates it as a philosophy.

There is, however, a rich tradition of folklore regarding venerated teachers who shock their disciples with unorthodox behavior, trying to wake them up by confounding their expectations. People like Tilopa, Milarepa, Drukpa Kunley, and the Sixth Dalai Lama fit the bill. It’s also a beloved and common motif in China and Japan – the itinerant Zen priest who piles contempt on the bureaucratic functionaries of the great temples.

It’s a charming motif, the mad fool. But I see no evidence that it was ever intended as a philosophy of practice or teaching. Most of the Tibetan sources I’ve read that deal with such an approach consist of scornful denunciations of self-described Tantrikas who use the Dharma as an excuse to indulge their appetites.

In the short history of the Dharma in the west, we have been blessed with an abundance of controversial teachers who, to all appearances, have acted unethically by pressuring students to sleep with them as part of their practice or by appropriating funds. And many of these teachers are defended as practitioners of crazy wisdom. Two of the many examples that come to mind are Chogyam Trungpa and Richard Baker.

Trungpa, who drank vodka like you and I drink water, according to his friend Shunryu Suzuki, is remembered as a sensitive, insightful teacher and a gifted writer. But he is also remembered for his raging alcoholism and controversial sexual tendencies, including reports that he led his followers in wild sex parties that got out of hand, with some students literally finding themselves stripped bare by hordes of others.

Having written a book by the name of Crazy Wisdom, Trungpa probably did more than any other figure to introduce and defend the concept to American culture. He spoke of crazy wisdom as though it were an established and mainstream tradition in Tibet, which it is not.

That may well be his most enduring legacy to western Dharma, which leads me to agree with Kenneth Rexroth, who said that ““Many believe Chögyam Trungpa has unquestionably done more harm to Buddhism in the United States than any man living.”

Richard Baker is an American Zen monk and energetic disciple of Shunryu Suzuki, the Japanese Soto Zen priest who founded of the San Francisco Zen Center. Baker was an enormously effective organizer and played a vital role at building the Zen Center into the prominent institution it is today. But he also was an egomaniac, using community funds to buy expensive vases and cars while a number of the students who worked full-time to keep the Center afloat did not even receive health care. And he slept with many of his students – a behavior that was, for whatever reasons, long tolerated and indulged, until one of his students became suicidal after his wife began sleeping with Baker. (3)

Eventually he was forced out of the institution that he helped build, but many years after that debacle he showed himself in interviews to be bizarrely heedless of the impact of his behavior. Reading an interview he gave with Tricycle magazine, I got the sense he doesn’t even understand why people were angry.

It is not so odd to me that a charismatic narcissist could set loose his unfettered appetites on a crowd of students and call it enlightenment. But it is odd to me that so many of his students didn’t seem to know how to take it.

“Perhaps it is the great teaching of Buddha,” they may have said to themselves, “when he takes the food off my plate. I should greet it with equanimity.”


I was inspired to write on this topic this morning after reading in the New York Times about the latest chapter in the dramatic saga of American teacher Michael Roach, founder of the Asian Classics Input Project, and formerly a geshe of the Tibetan Sera monastery, until he was kicked out.

I took one of his correspondence courses in 2000, and at the time I was put off by what I took to be his doctrinaire perspective. Many times in his lecture series, he exhorted his students to just “take the Buddha’s word for it.”

Now, I do not subscribe to that point of view. The Tibetan scholar Gendun Choephel said the following about “taking the Buddha’s word for it”:

One may think: ‘We concede that our decisions are unreliable, but when we follow the decisions of the Buddha, we are infallible.’ Then who decided that the Buddha is infallible? If you say ‘The great scholars and adepts like Nagarjuna decided that he is infallible,’ then who decided that Nagarjuna is infallible? If you say ‘The Foremost Lama [Tsong Khapa] decided it,’ then who knows that the Foremost Lama is infallible? If you say ‘Our kind and peerless lama, the excellent and great so and so decided,’ then infallibility, which depends on your excellent lama, is decided by your own mind. In fact, therefore, it is a tiger who vouches for the lion, it is a yak who vouches for a tiger, it is a dog who vouches for a yak, it is a mouse who vouches for a dog, it is an insect who vouches for a mouse. Thus, an insect is made the final voucher for them all. Therefore, when one analyzes in detail the final basis for any decision, apart from coming back to one’s own mind, nothing else whatsoever is perceived.” (4)

There is no way out of this circle. Ultimately, you are the judge of truth and falsity, and you are responsible for your judgment.

Michael Roach and Christie McNally

Michael Roach’s behavior has become increasingly strange in recent years. He was disowned by the Tibetan establishment after he began an unprecedented “celibate marriage” with his student Christie McNally several years ago, in which they were never to be more than fifteen feet away from one another.

That struck a lot of people as pretty weird. It’s the kind of distorted expression of sexuality, I think, that tends to come out of celibate clergies. I could not help but wonder why he didn’t do the obvious thing, give back his monastic vows and marry his cupcake? It seemed like a red flag to me.

The story just got a lot worse. Reports came out this week that McNally, who has since “divorced” Roach and married another fellow, was found delirious on the desert property run by Roach’s group.

McNally and her new husband Ian Thorson had continued living at Roach’s desert retreat center, but had a turbulent time of it. The two were apparently told to leave the retreat center after McNally stabbed Thorson during a fight.

Instead of complying, they headed for the hills and hid out on the land. Tragically, both fell ill while living in a cave, and were too weak to retrieve water. By the time the couple was found by a search party, Thorson was dead.

You know, in all of these cases, the warning signs were not subtle. We have charismatic personalities associated with devoted students. We have increasingly prominent evidence that something is wrong with the guy in charge, and the signs are ignored. Cognitive dissonance is explained away by the students as crazy wisdom.

So, students of the Dharma, a word of warning: if your teacher tells you that sex with him is part of the practice, something is probably wrong. When they’re driving a Rolls while the center is kept afloat by volunteer work, something is probably wrong. If you’re told to “just trust” the tradition or the guy in charge, something is probably wrong. When you start seeing widespread evidence of students considering unethical or criminal behavior, something is probably wrong.

I’m an advocate for Sane Wisdom.

And ninety-nine times out of a hundred, when your teacher starts talking about crazy wisdom, the sane thing to do is get up and walk away.

1) Frankl V. The Will to Meaning. Plume. 1988. pg. 4.
2) See, for example: Newland G. The Two Truths. Snow Lion. 1992.
3) Downing M. Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco Zen Center. Counterpoint. 2002.
4) From Choephel’s Ornament of Nagarjuna’s Thought, translated in: Lopez Jr, DS. The Madman’s Middle Way. The University of Chicago Press. 2006. pp. 49-50.


Written by Mesocosm

June 7, 2012 at 10:12 am

11 Responses

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  1. A thoughtful, necessary post. The term in Tibetan I was taught is yeshe chölwa, though you could then quite reasonably ask where it’s found, in what texts/oral traditions; and that I do not know (I’m just a recovering Zen person).

    I do know that it’s easier to ignore or rationalize such cognitive dissonance when you’re in hierarchical situations: when victims (e.g. students) are disempowered and often also isolated, then they lose that ability to reality-check what their teacher is saying (there being not a lot of external reality against which to check it). The teacher becomes, usually at his/her insistence, the primary or only source of validation; at which point, of course, it’s the student who feels craziest. Really strikingly similar to an unhealthy romantic relationship. The only real refuge is in the precepts (and in finding a really good psychotherapist). Thank you for writing this—

    JSA Lowe

    June 7, 2012 at 2:25 pm

    • Thank you for taking the time to reading my post, and for sharing your thoughts, J.

      Thank you also for pointing me to yeshe chölwa – I am not surprised to learn that a term exists, but I’ve not run into it in my own reading, for what it’s worth.

      The crucial point is that it’s a good narrative device, but a very poor model for practice.

      I think you’re quite right. The asymmetry of the student-teacher relationship, as well as the role of transference – particularly in traditions that actively cultivate transference, like the bhakti or guru yoga tradtions – are precisely why a responsible teacher will place strict limits on sexual involvement with students. It’s a situation that is fraught with peril, and many lives have been damaged.


      June 7, 2012 at 2:39 pm

      • Agreed—although I sometimes feel there’s so much attention paid to sexual abuse (understandably: it’s horrifying, plus calling it out looks more dramatic on e.g. a helpful chart), that not enough notice is taken of psychological and emotional injuries—often severe, and of the type that can set a practitioner back for decades. And this I find to be unfortunately much more common; systemic, even. In other words people don’t have to perish in caves for their spiritual communities to be truly sick. (Now I’m just writing my own post on your blog, lazy creature that I am, so please excuse.)

        JSA Lowe

        June 7, 2012 at 3:06 pm

  2. We’re always keeping an eye out for guest bloggers here at Mesocosm, so if you actually want to write your own post, let me know! 🙂


    June 7, 2012 at 3:21 pm

  3. The Great Jamgön Kongtrul recommends student and teacher each to examine the other for 12 years before taking on the bonds of samaya (at which point, all bets are off). If anyone in the West bothered to do this, it would forestall many of these issues, either because of the attention span of the problem student, or the unrequited libido of the problem teacher.

    FWIW, I am a hypocrite: I have old samaya bonds with teachers whom I still have not known for 12 years. OTOH, has I attempted to wait that long for Penor Rinpoche, he would have been dead before the time elapsed. On the plus side, now that he has “attained parinirvana,” he is that much more unlikely to become abusive.

    Geoff Capp

    June 7, 2012 at 4:07 pm

    • I take that as indicative of the level of commitment that one should have rather than a literal requirement – I don’t believe many people actually wait twelve years.


      June 7, 2012 at 4:43 pm

  4. very nice post. Just one thought: you speak of an “abundance” of examples of teachers gone wrong. I know this is endlessly repeated, but I wonder how accurate it is. If you stop and think carefully, can you come up with more than 15, 20, or even 30 teachers who have acted in outrageous (or even moderately irresponsible) ways?

    I first heard someone say that “most” of the Eastern teachers had acted out in some way. This was back in 1987. I did a little thinking – given my off the cuff knowledge of Vedanta centers, Zen, mindfulness, Tibetan, and many other Eastern teachings, I estimated that there had to be at the very least 1000 teachers in the US (that’s an average of 20 per state). I suspect it’s possible there were as many as 100 people per US state from Japan, China, India and other Asian countries teaching some form of spiritual practice even as far back as the 1980s.

    So if that’s even remotely accurate (1000 to 5000 teachers) that means that at most, 30 did outrageous things. But maybe 5 times as many did “bad” things – that would be 150.

    Let’s assume my lower number of teachers i accurate: that’s 15%.

    I remember from at least the late 80s that the percentage of psychotherapists acting out in bad ways might be as high as 20%. And considering that there has always been not much money and very little fame for being a therapist, whereas in the 60s and since then, there has been – if not instant wealth – tremendous temptation for people from much poorer countries to have followers, readily available sex partners worshipping their teachers, and the possibility of modest if not immense fame – considering all this, it’s most likely that the kinds of teachers that have come to the US were especially drawn from people who were perhaps not so enlightened (or even moral) to begin with.

    To use this as a way of saying there’s something inherently missing in Eastern traditions (I know you didn’t say this but a lot of people do) is baffling to me – except if the motivation was to denounce Eastern traditions to begin with. I suspect that has a lot to do with it, particularly among materialist types who think,” Oh well all those quaint naive superstitious Buddhists and Vedantists and Taoists had silly, primitive ideas about energy centers, and “primordial consciousness” but now that we have science to tell us that consciousness is produced by the brain and the universe is largely dumb and dead, we can weed out all that religious stuff and use mindfulness and the rest to lower our blood pressure and increase our self actualization.



    June 11, 2014 at 11:56 am

    • I know of enough scandals that have rocked enough high-profile Dharma centers that I’m comfortable anecdotally saying it happens a lot – enough so that students should not second-guess their moral intuitions, and if something seems totally inappropriate, it probably is.

      Certainly I don’t mean to imply in any way that this speaks poorly of the traditions in question, although in fairness, many of them lack a self-critical posture with respect to gender and power asymmetries. Rather, I would say we are witnessing a unique collision of Asian and European ideas – I wouldn’t say “new” because it has happened many times before.

      I do actually believe that the guru model is in some ways at odds with the European style of individuation, and that as a consequence it either attracts or reinforces self-infantalizing behavior by its western adherents, and this is part of what we’re seeing. It’s a serious problem.


      June 11, 2014 at 12:27 pm

      • I understand and largely agree with your sentiments, and I don’t mean to be overly argumentative, but this still baffles me. Do you know of 100 scandals? Do you think it’s possible there are several thousand Asian teachers in this country (and I’m not talking about high profile centers, since ego-driven persons are more likely to be drawn to those anyway).

        If my numbers are remotely correctly (100 vs several thousand teachers) then you’re talking about maybe 5% or even less. If this is correct, why make such a big deal of it? One could easily take the opposite view, and say how amazing it is, given the temptations, and what a sign of the excellence and cross cultural power of the traditions, that only a tiny fraction of the thousands of teachers who have come here have been involved in scandals.

        Just now, off the top of my head, thinking of Asian teachers I’ve known about in NYC over the 30 years or so I lived there, I would bet there could have been as many as 500 or more during that period. Add to that maybe 10 or so large metropolitan centers and we have the possibility of a lot more than 5000 Asian teachers. Then we’re talking about less than 1% involved in scandals, unless when you say you “know of enough” that you personally know of 500 or more scandals.

        Sorry, again, I don’t want to belabor the point, but it didn’t make sense to me when I heard it back in 1987 and doesn’t make sense to me now.

        And by the way, I’d prefer the whole religion thing – East as well as West – went away altogether. I have no particular attachment to tradition (possibly somewhat less than you?) and think that ‘religions’ per se won’t be around by the beginning of next century (but then again, I don’t think anything resembling materialist science will be around after 100 years either:>) – and actually, our whole sense of what “100 years” means will change too!


        June 11, 2014 at 12:40 pm

      • Let’s say for the sake of argument that I’ve had significant involvement with ten Dharma centers and seen this kind of problem in four. That satisfies me – you can take or leave it. : )

        It’s worth responding to in part because it’s extremely destructive when it occurs, and in part because it’s founded in a high-profile doctrine of “crazy wisdom” that I believe represents a new and fairly destructive trend in these traditions. When someone starts going on about it, I put my hand over my wallet.

        I’m not concerned with drawing general comparisons between East and West in terms of value, though I do think the process of psychological development of European and Asian countries has differed substantially for many centuries, and I don’t anticipate those differences will go away any time soon – certainly not within a hundred years. Again, YMMV $.02 FWIW etc.


        June 11, 2014 at 12:55 pm

      • agree hundred percent about hand over the wallet:>))

        for the rest, be twice as wary of therapists (I know, I’ve been one in the past and spent a lot of time with others)


        June 11, 2014 at 12:58 pm

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