Crazy Wisdom and Crazy Adepts – Georg Feuerstein


Georg Feuerstein

27 May 1947 – 25 August 2012


Part of Chapter One


In Tibet there is a tradition known as “crazy wisdom.” The phenomenon for which this term stands is found in all the major religions of the world, though it is seldom acknowledged as a valid expression of spiritual life by the religious orthodoxy or the secular establishment. Crazy wisdom is a unique mode of spiritual teaching, which avails itself of seemingly irreligious or unspiritual means in order to awaken the conventional ego-personality from its spiritual slumber.

“they know the quality of everyone who comes before them”*


The unconventional means used by adepts who teach in this risky manner seem crazy or mad in the eyes of ordinary people, who seldom look beyond appearances.


“They treat ordinary people in a way that will turn them to the perception of their own folly”*


Crazy-wisdom methods are designed to shock, but their purpose is always benign: to reflect to the ordinary worldling the “madness” of his or her existence, which, from the enlightened point of view, is an existence rooted in a profound illusion. That illusion is the ingrained presumption that the individual is an ego-identity bounded by the skin of the human body, rather than the all-pervasive Self-Identity. Crazy wisdom is a logical extension of the deep insights of spiritual life in general, and it is at the core of the relationship between adept and disciple—a relationship that has the express function of undermining the disciple’s ego-illusion.

The crazy-wisdom message and method are understandably offensive to both the secular and the conventionally religious establishments. Hence crazy adepts have generally been suppressed. This was not the case in traditional Tibet and India, however, where the “holy fool” or “divine madman” has been recognized as a legitimate figure in the compass of spiritual aspiration and realization. Thus, the “saintly madman” (Tibetan: lama myonpa) has been venerated throughout the history of Tibet. The same is true of the Indian avadhuta, who has, as the word suggests, “cast off” all concerns and conventional standards in his God-intoxication.

The equivalent to the saintly madman of Tibet and the Hindu avadhuta is found even in the Christian world, in the form of the “fool for Christ’s sake.” Yet the large conservative faction among both the Christian clergy and the laity has long driven the unorthodox figure of the “fool” (Greek: salos) into oblivion. The modern Christian knows next to nothing about such remarkable “holy idiots” as St. Simeon, St. Isaac Zatvornik, St. Basil, or St. Isadora, the last being one of the few female examples. It was the apostle Paul who first used the phrase “fool for Christ’s sake” (1 Cor. 4:10). He spoke of the wisdom of God that looks like folly to the world, whereas the world’s wisdom is founded in pride. When Mark the Mad, a desert monk of the sixth century A.D., came to the city to atone for his sins, the townspeople considered him insane. But Abba Daniel of Skete instantly recognized his great sanctity, shouting to the crowd that they were all fools for not seeing that Mark was the only reasonable man in the entire city.

St. Simeon, another sixth-century fool for Christ’s sake, was a skilled simulator of insanity. Once he found a dead dog on a dung heap. He tied his cord belt to the dog’s leg and dragged the corpse behind him through town. The people were outraged, failing to understand that the mad monk’s burden was a symbol of the excess baggage they themselves carried around with them—the ego, or conventional mind lacking love and wisdom. The very next day, St. Simeon entered the local church and threw nuts at the congregation when the Sunday liturgy began. At the end of his life, the saint confessed to his most trusted friend that his eccentric behavior had been solely an expression of his indifference (apatheia) to things of the world. Its purpose was to denounce hypocrisy and hubris.

The mad saint, who in his God-intoxication fearlessly steps beyond the mores of his era, made his appearance also in the stern religions of Islam, among the masters of Sufism, and Judaism, among the Hasidic mystics.

These holy fools represent a wide spectrum of spiritual attainment, ranging from the religious eccentric to the enlightened adept. The common denominator between them is that in their lifestyle, or at least in their occasional behavior, they invert or reverse the standards and conventions of society.


“The manner of their dealing with people is determined by an intelligence that is in reality itself”*


The most pristine manifestation of crazy wisdom is found in the myonpa and the avadhuta traditions of the Indian subcontinent. The Tibetans distinguish different kinds of madness, including what one might call religious neurosis (Tibetan: chos-myon) with sociopathic and paranoid symptoms. These are carefully held apart from saintly madness. Some of the characteristics of saintly madness are not dissimilar to the symptoms of secular and religious madness. However, their nature and causes are quite distinct. The crazy adept’s eccentric behavior is a direct expression not of any personal psychopathology, but of his spiritual status and attainment.

Crazy wisdom is the articulation in life of the realization that the phenomenal world (samsara) and the transcendental Reality (nirvana) are coessential. 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 spaceless, timeless Being-Consciousness but appears to animate a particular body-mind in space-time—a body-mind that, moreover, inheres in that all-encompassing Reality that he is. In the nondualist terms of Advaita Vedanta, enlightenment is the fulfillment of the two axioms that the innermost self (atman) is identical with the transcendental Self (pararna-atman), and that the ultimate Ground (brahman) is identical with the cosmos in all its levels of manifestation, including the self.

Thus, the enlightened adept lives as the Totality of existence, which, from the narrow perspective of the finite personality, is a veritable chaos. While this is the immediate “experience” of all enlightened masters who live consummately spontaneous (sahaja) lives, there are those whose appearance and behavior reflect more directly their divine madness. These are the crazy adepts who do not care to make sense and who, for the sake of instructing others, disregard conventional expectations, norms, and obligations.

They feel free to reject customary behavior and to be subversive, criticizing and poking fun at the worldly and religious establishment, dressing in bizarre ways or even going about naked, ignoring the niceties of social contact, ridiculing the narrow concerns of scholars and scholastics, cursing and using obscene language, employing song and dance, consuming stimulants and intoxicants (like alcohol), and engaging in sexuality. They incarnate the esoteric principle of Tantrism that liberation (mukti) is coessential with enjoyment (bhukti); that Reality transcends the categories of transcendence and immanence; that the spiritual is not inherently separate from the world.

In their wild and eccentric behavior, the crazy adepts constantly challenge the limitations that unenlightened individuals presume and thus confront them with the naked truth of existence: that life is mad and unpredictable, except for the inescapable fact that man is thrown into the chaos of manifestation for only a brief span of time. They are a perpetual reminder that our whole human civilization is an attempt to deny the inevitability of death, which makes nonsense out of even the noblest efforts to create a symbolic order out of the infinite plastic that is life.

Unlike conventional wisdom, which is meant to create a higher order or harmony, crazy wisdom has the primary function of disrupting humankind’s model-making enthusiasm, its impulse to create order, structure, and meaning. Crazy wisdom is enlightened iconoclasm. What it smashes, in the last analysis, is the egocentric universe and its creator, the subjective sense of being a separate entity—the ego. Thus, crazy wisdom is spiritual shock therapy.

The crazy adept’s “naturalness” must be carefully distinguished from the mere impulsiveness of the child or the emotionally labile adult, just as it must be differentiated from the kind of spontaneity that is pursued in various humanistic therapies. Spontaneity (sahaja) implies more than enhanced awareness or integration of the body-mind, as part of a comprehensive psychohygiene. The realized adept is not just a particularly successful ego. He is an ego-transcender, and his spontaneity is not an acquired skill. His spontaneity is absolutely pure. It coincides with the world-process itself. He acts out of the Whole, as the Whole.

The best-known crazy adept of the Tibetan tradition is undoubtedly Tibet’s folk hero Milarepa (a.d. 1040-1123), yogin and poet extraordinaire. His hard years of pupilage under Marpa “the translator” exemplify the ego-grinding tribulations of all authentic spiritual discipleship. Who would not be touched by the traditional Tibetan biography of Milarepa in which we see him rebuild the same tower again and again, fighting physical pain, anger at the futility of it all, doubt about his guru, and spiritual despair? Already an accomplished magician and miracle worker by the time he met his guru, Milarepa became an adept-teacher in his own right through Marpa’s guidance and grace. Clad only in a white cotton robe, he traversed the borderland between Tibet and Nepal, teaching by way of his poems and songs. Occasionally Milarepa would be found naked, and in one of his songs he observes that he knows no shame, since his genitals are natural enough. His disposition of crazy wisdom is indicated by the fact that, though living the life of a wandering renunciate, he is known to have initiated several of his female devotees into esoteric sexuality. To the common mind, sex and spirituality do not mix. Tantrism, as we will see in Chapter 12, contradicts this popular assumption.

Marpa (A.D. 1012-1097) himself, the founder of the Kagyupa school of Vajrayana Buddhism (Tibetan Tantrism), was a crazy-wisdom master. A generous and humorous personage, he would often animate an angry disposition toward Milarepa to provoke in his beloved devotee the spiritual crisis that alone could lead to Milarepa’s liberation. In addition to his chief wife, Marpa also associated with eight Tantric consorts.

The most exaggerated and outrageous crazy adept of Tibet was undoubtedly Drukpa Kunley (a.d. 1455-1570). Like many other saintly madmen, he started out as a monk but upon Realization adopted the life of a mendicant. His Tibetan biography, which contains much symbolic and legendary material, claims that he initiated no fewer than 5000 women into the sexual secrets of Tantrism. Portrayed as a fond consumer of chung, the Tibetan beer, and an accomplished raconteur, Drukpa Kunley’s humorous but pointed commentary on his monastic contemporaries and his fearless confrontations with authority are still related today in Himalayan roadside taverns.

The crazy-wisdom tradition of India revolves largely around the figure of the avadhuta. This Sanskrit word means literally “cast off,” referring to him who has abandoned all the cares and concerns that burden the ordinary mortal. He is an extreme type of renouncer (samnyasin), a “supreme swan” (parama-hamsa) who, as the title indicates, drifts freely from place to place like a great swan, depending on nothing but the Divine. The designation avadhuta came into vogue during the post-Christian period, which saw the rise of Tantrism.

Possibly one of the earliest references to the avadhuta is found in the Mahanirvana-Tantra (VIII. 11). This work states that the “crazy” lifestyle of the avadhuta is to the kali-yuga—the present “dark age”—what the lifestyle of the renouncer was to the preceding epoch, where the moral fiber was still strong. In the kali-yuga, more drastic means of awakening people are required because of their general insensitivity to the sacred order. The “shock therapy” of crazy wisdom is thus preferable to the quiet example of the worldrenouncing ascetic.

The Mahanirvana-Tantra distinctly associates the avadhuta with Shaivism, the religiospiritual tradition that has God Shiva as its focus. This scripture (XIV.140ff.) speaks of four classes of avadhutas. The shaiva-avadhuta has received full Tantric initiation, while the brahma-avadhuta employs the brahma-mantra “Om, the One Existence-Consciousness, the Absolute” (om sac-cid-ekam brahma). Both categories are subdivided into those who are as yet imperfect—“wanderers” (parivraj)—and those who have attained perfection—“supreme swans” (parama-hamsa). – The expression parivraj is curious here, because this type of avadhuta, also known as yati (“ascetic”),  is charged with living he life of a householder.  Only the parama-hamsa, or hamsa, wanders about unfettered by any restrictions.

One of the earliest Hatha-Yoga scriptures, the Siddha-Siddhanta-Paddhati, contains many verses that describe the avadhuta. One stanza (VI.20) in particular refers to his chameleon-like capacity to animate any character or role. Thus, he is said to behave at times like a worldling or even like a king and at other times like an ascetic or naked renunciant.

The appellation avadhuta, more than any other, came to be associated with the apparently crazy modes of behavior of some parama-hamsas 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. In the Avadhuta-Gita, a medieval work celebrating the crazy adept, the avadhuta is depicted as a spiritual hero who is beyond good and evil, beyond praise and blame, indeed beyond any of the categories that the mind can construct. One stanza speaks of his transcendental status:

As a yogin devoid of “union” (yoga) and “separation” (viyoga) and as an “enjoyer” (bhogin) devoid of enjoyment and nonenjoyment—thus he wanders about at leisure, filled with spontaneous Bliss [innate in his own] mind.

The same scripture explains the designation avadhuta as follows:

The significance of the letter a is that [the avadhuta] abides eternally in Bliss (ananda), freed from the fetters of hope and pure in the beginning, middle, and end. (VIII.6)

The significance of the syllable va is that he dwells [always] in the present and that his speech is blameless, [and it applies to him] who has conquered desire (vasana). (VIII.7)

The significance of the syllable dhu is that he is relieved of [the practice of] concentration and meditation, that his limbs are grey with dust, that his mind is pure and he is free from disease. (VIII.8)

The significance of the syllable ta is that he is freed from [spiritual] darkness (tamas) and the I-sense (ahamkara) and that he is devoid of thought and purpose, with his mind steadfast on Reality (tattva). (VIII.9)

(This esoteric etymology, which divides the word avadhua into its constituent syllables, is developed on the basis of a word play; i.e., many of the key descriptive terms in each verse begin with the syllable that is being explained.  Thus in stanza 8, which expounds the significance of the syllable dhu, the melodious phrases dhuli-dhusara-gatrani (“limbs grey from dust”) and dharana-dhyana-nirmuktah (“relieved of concentration and meditation”) are found, and so on.

The whole text, which belongs perhaps to the fifteenth century A.D., is written from a lofty nondualist point of view. It is similar to the Ashtavakra-Gita (“Ashtavakra’s Song”) which, significantly, is also known as Avadhuta-Anubhuti (“Realization of the Crazy Adept”) and which has been placed in the late fifteenth century A.D.21 Both scriptures are ecstatic outpourings, and both celebrate the highest form of nondualist realization.

The Avadhuta-Gita is ascribed to Dattatreya, which may be the name of a real person but more likely refers to the semilegendary spiritual master by that name who later came to be elevated to the status of a deity.22 Sage Dattatreya’s story is told in the Markandeya-Purana (XVI), in a section that belongs perhaps to the fourth century A.D. It describes the miraculous birth of one of the great crazy-wisdom adepts of India.

According to this account, a certain brahmin named Kaushika lived a profligate life, losing both wealth and health as a result of his infatuation with a courtesan. His wife, Shandili, however, was utterly faithful to him. One night she even carried her sick husband to the courtesan’s house. On the way, with her husband riding on her shoulders, Shandili accidentally stepped on Sage Mandavya, who was feared for his potent curses. Mandavya promptly condemned the pair to die at sunrise. The chaste woman prayed with all her might, appealing to the sun not to rise at all so that her husband might live. Her pure-hearted prayer was answered. Now all the deities were in uproar, and they enlisted the help of Anushuya, wife of the famous Sage Atri, to convince Shandili to allow the universal order to be restored. Anushuya, herself a paragon of womanly virtue, won Shandili over, on the condition that Kaushika’s life would be spared when the sun rose.

In appreciation of her timely intercession, the gods granted Anushuya a boon. She asked for her husband’s and her own liberation and then for the principal deities—Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva—to be born as sons to her. After a period of time, while Anushuya was bowing to her husband, a light shone forth from Sage Atri’s eyes and served as the seed for the three divine sons Soma, Durvasa, and Datta—partial incarnations of Brahma, Shiva, and Vishnu, respectively.

Other Puranas (popular encyclopedias) contain different narratives, but all involve the figure of Atri—hence the name Dattatreya, “Datta, son of Atri.” It is clear from some of the incidents in Dattatreya’s life that he was a rather unconventional figure. For instance, he is said to have immersed himself in a lake, from which he emerged after many years in the company of a maiden. Knowing of Dattatreya’s perfect nonattachment, his disciples thought nothing of it. In order to test their faith in him, he began to consume wine with the maiden, but his devotees were not disturbed even by this.

Then again, various Puranas, including the Markandeya-Purana (XXX-XL), say that Dattatreya taught the eight-limbed Yoga of Patanjali, which favors an ascetic lifestyle. Thus, Dattatreya is associated both with ascetic motifs and with situations involving sexuality and alcohol—the two great ingredients of Tantric ritual. (Curiously, the Avadhuta-Gita attributed to Dattatreya contains a whole chapter (VIII) that has a decidely misogynous tone, for which reason it has often been regarded as a later interpolation.)

Dattatreya is the archetypal crazy adept. It is not clear how, from a quasi-Tantric sage, he was made into a full-blown deity. Nevertheless, both sage and deity are intimately connected with the avadhuta tradition. Even though mythology remembers Sage Dattatreya as an incarnation of God Vishnu, the preserver of the universe, his name is as closely associated with the cultural sphere of Shiva, the Lord of yogins. It would appear that this great spiritual hero was claimed by both Vishnu and Shiva worshippers. Sage Atri’s illustrious son served both traditions as a symbol of the God-realizer whose state transcends all beliefs and customs. Hence it is not surprising that Dattatreya should also be credited with the authorship of the Jivanmukta-Gita (“Song of Living Liberation”), a short tract of twenty-three stanzas that extols the jivan-mukta, the adept who is liberated while still in the embodied condition. Likewise the Tripura-Rahasya (“Tripura’s Secret Teaching”) is traditionally credited to Dattatreya; considering the focus of this scripture on the supreme mind-transcending disposition of enlightened spontaneity sahaja), this attribution seems singularly appropriate.


“The mood of reality is neither indulgent nor fierce, but a blissful power, a brilliant, and absolute fire.”*


Crazy wisdom is found to varying degrees in most schools of Yoga, because the guru’s prescribed task is to undermine the disciple’s illusion of being an island unto himself. Most teachers, especially if they are fully enlightened, will on occasion resort to unconventional behavior to penetrate the disciple’s protective armor. Few teachers, however, tend to teach in the full-fledged mode of crazy wisdom as did, for instance, Marpa and Drukpa Kunley. Today individuals maintain more carefully defined ego-boundaries than in the past, and so crazy-wisdom methods tend to be experienced as interfering with the personal integrity of the disciple. Hence few teachers are willing to adopt a crazy-wisdom style of teaching. There also remains the broader question of whether this ancient way of teaching is still useful and morally justifiable today. (This problem is discussed in depth in my book Crazy Wisdom, published by Paragon House Publishers (New York)

This brief review of the crazy-wisdom dimension of Hindu and Buddhist spirituality completes this introductory chapter, which explains the fundamental categories involved in the spiritual process of Yoga. The next chapter outlines the major approaches or schools within the yogic tradition.

*Beezone’s additions.  It should also be noted that many teachers believe their ‘realization’ allows them to use this ‘fire of reality’ without proper preparation and sufficient wisdom.  They may ‘have’ the ‘shakti’ on their side but the full force and intelligence of reality is NOT activated.  So, not only does the ‘guru’ in this case ‘fail to meet the mark’ his or her actions cause karmas and do not fully illuminate the disciple – and in many cases causes more damage than good. – Beezone