As a professor of Asian studies at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) in San Francisco, Steven Goodman is known for his verbal brilliance and great sense of humor. Aside from his regular classes, he conducts workshops on trauma, the “shadow,” and the trickster and creativity in relation to Tibetan Buddhism.
STEVEN GOODMAN: In my workshop at CIIS, “Tibetan Buddhist Practices and the Trickster,” I introduce the notion of “crazy wisdom,” a phrase that got on the map thanks largely to Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. In Tibetan the words are yeshe cholwa, with yeshe meaning “wisdom that’s always been there,” and cholwa meaning “wild or uncontainable.” Trungpa Rinpoche said you might as well just say “wisdom crazy.” It refers to someone who seems to be intoxicated with an unbounded, luminous, loving energy. What we call crazy is only crazy from the viewpoint of ego, custom, habit. The craziness is actually higher frequency enjoyment. Besides, the great spiritual adepts, the mahasiddhas, don’t decide to be crazy. Crazy wisdom is natural, effortless, not driven by the hope and fear machine of the ego.
INQUIRING MIND: When you teach about crazy wisdom, are you essentially drawing on the tantrika or the Vajrayana school of Buddhism?
SG: I start at the core of the Mahayana tradition, which is wisdom and compassion. Wisdom is the living energy that comes from the insight that there are no fixed points in reality, an insight that is sometimes called emptiness. We go searching for fixed reference points like a you and a me, and we don’t find anything, so it’s said that the not finding is the great finding. It’s liberating; it’s openness. And with the loss of any fixed reference point, including the loss of self, one can more easily be present with other living beings, hence empathy or compassion. So compassion is the living proof that one is in the process of embodying the wisdom insights.
Those twin energies of wisdom and compassion are the operating system or the lubricant that makes possible all of Vajrayana, which can be seen as dancing with the apparent display that arises in one’s mind. It proclaims that everything can be worked with, or even played with. So it’s sometimes called the upayayana, the vehicle of many methods, each applied according to an individual’s temperament—calm, domesticated, wild, feral, you name it.
What also makes this Vajrayana dance possible is the Mahayana insight of a basic indwelling clarity and goodness, Buddhanature. Inside of us are these already enlightened qualities that are temporarily covered over, and Vajrayana gives us many ways to unleash, rediscover and live in the light of that which has always been there.
IM: Where do all the wild-looking deities enter into the picture?
SG: In fact, all of the wild depictions that you find in Vajrayana—of devas and devis and extraordinary beings doing extraordinary things—are all tropes, sort of archetypal outtakes that represent how things can be when you’re living beyond yes and no, when you’re no longer hiding behind the barricade of hope and fear. From that space you can use contradiction, trick of the eye, double entendre, parody, ridicule and jokes all as ways of alchemically transforming the lingering resistance to waking up into pristine play.
IM: So all those stories we hear about the yogis flying through the air and appearing in two places at once are just that, stories, used to crack one’s ordinary frame of reality?
SG: Yes, on one level. But there’s this phrase in Tibetan, gangla gangdul, which means “to each according to their capacity.” So a teacher will teach dance steps according to the capacities of the disciple. For many, their whole life might be a practice of lovingkindness, or reflecting on the impermanence of all conditioned things. A whole lifetime devoted to the simplest of insights.
But if someone is sufficiently awake and not afraid, he or she may engage in a bit more of a dance. One of the things that Vajrayana emphasizes, not unlike Western therapy, is the need to provide a really safe container. This is not just a walk on the wild side. And therefore, even though the ego might say, “Crazy wisdom, great! Trickster, great!” we are actually rather delicate and sensitive beings, so it’s always good to establish a boundary, a ritual sacred space, invoking transmission and the wisdom of the elders, and then within that space, which works largely at an unconscious level, engage in these orchestral dance movements.
IM: Do the deity figures help to establish the ritual space by depicting all of our human experience as universal or archetypal?
SG: Exactly. The deities are like a standing wave: visual and aural representations of our own primal energies. The presence of these deity energies allows for a radical revisioning of how playful this game of life can be. For instance, the deity Tara, “She Who Saves,” functions as a support for our very human work of overcoming resistance (“saving us”), showing us how to work with obstacles of every sort—attack by wild animals, health issues, tax and legal problems, and so forth.
IM: Give us one of your favorite stories of a tantric master pulling the rug out from under a seeker.
SG: The Buddha himself was a great trickster and a master of methods, and always worked with people according to their capabilities. For instance, there’s the famous story of Angulimala, a killer who was making a rosary (mala) out of his victims fingers (anguli). Having killed 999 victims, he thought, “Oh, only one last finger. Then I will get power, fame, happiness.” As he was about to slay his own mother, he became distracted by the presence of the Buddha, who tricked him by walking very slowly and yet eluding Angulimala’s hot pursuit. Intrigued, Angulimala wondered, “Who is this being?” Already his consciousness was changing, and eventually he became a disciple of the Buddha. The Buddha worked with Angulimala by using his desire for power. The Buddha didn’t say, “Power is not the way.” He said, in essence, “You want to be powerful? I’ll show you how to be powerful. Know your own mind.”
Another great trickster story concerns Padmasambhava, sometimes called the “second Buddha,” who was invited to visit Tibet from India in the eighth century. When he arrived, the king who invited him, Tson Deutsen, waited for this mere religious man to bow down before him, and there was a kind of king-versus-yogi standoff. The king was wearing royal silk garb, and finally Padmasambhava sent a shot of energy toward the king that shredded his garment, or, you might say, shredded his royal defenses. In that moment the king recognized the real locus of power in the room and took a fragment of his shredded white silken garment, bowed down, and offered it to Padmasambhava. That’s said to be the origin of the Tibetan custom of offering a white silk scarf whenever you meet another being. You are acknowledging their Buddhanature, their inherent greatness.
IM: You’ve led several trips to Bhutan, a nation that pays homage to a rascal figure, Drugpa Kunley, who is considered to have been enlightened. Yet he drank and fornicated a lot and seems to have paid no attention at all to the moral precepts. Explain how Kunley fits into Bhutanese Buddhism.
SG: There are many stories, both of Drukpa Kunley and Akhu Tonpa, or Uncle Tonpa, who are archetypal trickster figures. They teach liberation, usually by challenging holiness as a form of spiritual pride. If people are holding on too tightly to chastity, then they need a little prodding, they need some tickling, some humor. Remember, if a teaching is not threatening to the ego, the armored archetype within us, then it’s not doing its job. So if people are fixated on chastity, a display of licentiousness will be useful. If someone thinks licentiousness is the path, then emphasize chastity. Sobriety, drunkenness. Logical thought, crazy thought.
The mixture of the sacred and profane is common in Himalayan Buddhism. At festival time in Bhutan, people perform these sacred dances of enlightenment, and shadowing these very wonderful dances are trickster figures called atsaras. They’re slightly dangerous, untrustworthy jokers, and their role is to ape and mock the sacred dances at the same time the dances are going on. Often they will go into the audience and do rude things, such as dance around with a wooden phallus with a ceremonial scarf draped over it. The lesson is that it’s healthy to invite all of us into the dance, and every part of us as well. And it’s very healthy to laugh. The holy comes with a sense of humor.
IM: Can you give us a story of a modern crazy wisdom master at work?
SG: I was recently at a teaching in San Rafael with Lama Tharchin Rinpoche, and after everyone was settled he said, “You know that we all have Buddhanature. And that means that at some point we’ll all become fully awakened.” There was a big pause, and then he said, “Are you ready? Maybe in the middle of the talk tonight, you will become fully enlightened. Are you ready? It could be very inconvenient. What about all of the plans that you’ve made about where you’ll go after the teaching? You’re depending on not waking up, aren’t you? Maybe you shouldn’t have made so many plans.”