Crazy wisdom (yeshe cholba) is a concept in Tibetan Buddhism asserting that a teacher may have reached a level of development whereby his/her behaviour appears highly unconventional or even immoral to others and that he/she may use such behaviour to jolt or shock their disciples into higher states of spirituality. Something like this has existed in several religions; being a fool for Christ as described in the Bible (1 Corinthians 1.18; 3,19; 4.10) and the clownish but wise figure of Chee Kong in the Chinese Buddhist/Taoist tradition would be examples of this. There are even suggestions of something approaching it in Tipitaka. Verse 501 of the Theragatha says “Let one with sight be as though blind, and one who hears be as though deaf, let one with tongue be as though dumb, let one who is strong be as though weak.” The Buddha said that if you do not retaliate to another person’s anger, those who do not appreciate the Dhamma will think you are a bala, i.e. a fool (S.I,162).
However, the individual whose innocent and simple holiness is misunderstood and mocked by the majority is one thing, the articulate worldly-wise teacher who cleverly explains and justifies his unconventional or wreakless behaviour another altogether. The most well-known exponent of crazy wisdom in recent times was Chogyam Trungpa. While Trungpa was clearly a dynamic and brilliant individual he made a terrible mess of his own life with his abusive sexual behaviour, drug taking and alcoholism, and caused a great deal of distress to others.
The idea of crazy wisdom presents several serious problems as far as Buddhism is concerned. It renders indistinct the boundary between morality and immorality. It raises the suspicion that those who indulge in it are not really wise but are just trying to rationalizing or excuse behaviour that in other context would be unacceptable, immoral or even illegal. It leads to hypocrisy in that crazy wisdom proponents such as Trungpa insist that their students should not emulate their behaviour. In Trungpa’s case, at one point, when his alcoholism became really serious, he admitted himself into a rehab clinic to dry out and recover. Significantly, he did not apply to himself all the supposedly profound meditational and psychological techniques that he had been teaching to others. Surely this alone has to raise some doubts about the legitimacy of crazy wisdom.
But for me the most serious problem with the concept of crazy wisdom is its dependence on the assumption that the teacher is ipso facto enlightened or at least highly developed. This assumption depends entirely on the acceptance of certain beliefs; e.g. in the Tibetan tradition that the teacher is supposedly the reincarnation of a great teacher of the past, in India on the traditional assertion that gurus have mystical powers and that surrender to them is the key to spiritual advancement. Like all such assumptions and assertions these ones are not open to critical examination but have to be taken on faith.