Crazy Wisdom

In Tibetan Buddhism Crazy wisdom or ‘yeshe chölwa’ (Tibetan: ‘wisdom gone wild’) refers to unconventional, outrageous, or unexpected behavior, being either a manifestation of buddha nature and spiritual teaching (enlightened activity) on the part of the guru (‘teacher’ or ‘master’), or a method of spiritual investigation undertaken by the student.

It is also held to be one of the manifestations of a siddha or a mahasiddha (the highest level gurus).

German Indologist Georg Feuerstein however, takes a broader perennialist approach in equating this originally Vajrayana (Tantric Buddhism) term with the trickster-type behavior of teachers in other Dharmic Traditions such as Zen, Tantra, and Sanatana Dharma. He claims that parallels to this may be found among other forms of spirituality as well, citing Sufism (Islamic mysticism), Bonpo (a branch of Tibetan Vajrayana), Taoism, Russian Orthodoxy (Yurodivy), and shamanism as examples. Lama Ole Nydahl taught that ancient Lamas like Drukpa Kunley would use unconventional methods to shock their students out of fixed cultural and psychological patterns. He cites examples of them forcing students to strip or publicly make fools out of themselves, in order to instill friendship or trust in a group or ‘ultimately space itself.’

In his book ‘Crazy wisdom,’ the Tibetan tülku Chögyam Trungpa describes the phenomenon as a process of spiritual discovery: ‘Instead we explore further and further and further without looking for an answer. […] We don’t make a big point or an answer out of any one thing. For example, we might think that because we have discovered one particular thing that is wrong with us, that must be it, that must be the problem, that must be the answer. No. We don’t fixate on that, we go further. ‘Why is that the case?’ We look further and further. We ask: ‘Why is this so?’ Why is there spirituality? Why is there awakening? Why is there this moment of relief? Why is there such a thing as discovering the pleasure of spirituality? Why, why, why?’ We go on deeper and deeper and deeper and deeper, until we reach the point where there is no answer. […] At that point we tend to give up hope of an answer, or of anything whatsoever, for that matter. […] This hopelessness is the essence of crazy wisdom. It is hopeless, utterly hopeless.’

From a particular Buddhadharma spiritual lexicon and perspective, Georg Feuerstein implies nonduality in his equating the essence of Samsara (rebirth) and Nirvana (union with the supreme being) as the root of crazy wisdom: ‘Crazy wisdom is the articulation in life of the realization that the phenomenal world (Sanskrit: samsara) and the transcendental Reality (Sanskrit: nirvana) share the same essence.’

Feuerstein then enters the spiritual lexicon of Advaita Vedanta (a unifying interpretation of the whole body of Upanishads) with what may in an etic (neutral outsider) Anthropological discourse be proffered as its culturally relative archetypes of ‘Atman,’ ‘Brahman,’ ‘Paramatman,’ and ‘Satcitananda’ (which Feuerstein glosses to the contraction of ‘Being-Consciousness’ with bliss implied or transcended) to identify the root of crazy wisdom: ‘Seen from the perspective of the unillumined mind, operating on the basis of a sharp separation between subject and object, perfect enlightenment is a paradoxical condition. The enlightened adept exists as the ultimate Being-Consciousness but appears to inhabit a particular body-mind. In the nondualist terms of the Indian teaching known as advaita vedanta, enlightenment is the fulfillment of the two truths: the innermost self (atman) is identical with the transcendental Self (parama-atman); and the ultimate Ground (brahman) is identical with the cosmos in all its manifestations, including the self.’

Feuerstein frames how the term ‘Avadhuta’ (‘mystic’ or ‘saint’) came to be associated with the mad or eccentric holiness or ‘crazy wisdom’ of some antinomian paramahamsa who were often ‘skyclad’ or ‘naked’ (Sanskrit: ‘digambara’): ‘The appellation ‘avadhuta,’ more than any other, came to be associated with the apparently crazy modes of behavior of some paramahamsas, who dramatize the reversal of social norms, a behavior characteristic of their spontaneous lifestyle. Their frequent nakedness is perhaps the most symbolic expression of this reversal.’

Feuerstein equates the Avadhuta with the ‘sacred fool’: ‘The crazy wisdom message and method are understandably offensive to both the secular and the conventional religious establishments. Hence crazy adepts have generally been suppressed. This was not the case in traditional Tibet and India, where the ‘holy fool’ or ‘saintly madman’ has long been recognized as a legitimate figure in the compass of spiritual aspiration and realization. In India, the avadhuta is one who, in his God-intoxication, has ”cast off’ all concerns and conventional standards.’

Feuerstein lists Zen-poet Han-shan (9th century) as one of the crazy-wise, explaining that when people would ask him about Zen, he would only laugh hysterically. He also counts Zen master Ikkyu (15th century), the Christian saint Isadora, and the Sufi storyteller Mulla Nasruddin among the crazy wise teachers. Other adepts that have attained ‘mad’ mental states, according to Feuerstein, include the masts and bauls of India, and the intoxicated Sufis associated with shath.

Theologist June McDaniel, in her work on the divine madness of the medieval bhakti saints in Bengal, mentions multiple parallels to this phenomenon in other cultures: Plato in his ‘Phaedrus,’ the Hasidic Jews, Eastern Orthodoxy, Western Christianity and the Sufi all bear witness to the phenomenon of divine madness. The bhakti divine madness may show itself in a total absorption in the divine, complete renunciation and surrender to divinity and the participation in the deity and divine pastime rather than its aping or imitation. Though the participation in the divine is generally favored in Vaishnava bhakti discourse throughout the sampradayas rather than imitation of the divine ‘play’ (Sanskrit: lila), there is the important anomaly of the Vaishnava-Sahajiya sect.

Divine madness may also be seen in the biography, hagiography and poetry of the Alvars and it has parallels in others religions, such as the ‘Fools for Christ’ in Christianity, and the Sufis (particularly Malamati) in Islam. The ninth-century Indian philosopher Adi Shankara also described that an enlightened man may act like a Jadvat (an inert thing), a Balvat (child), an Unmat (a manic) or a Pissachvat (ghost).

One Comment to “Crazy Wisdom”

  1. Thank you for this post. May enlightenment be with you . . . . .

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