Sri Ramakrishna was the greatest saint of 19th-century India―a sage who influenced luminaries like Mahatma Gandhi, Aldous Huxley, and India’s Nobel Prize-winning author Rabin-dranath Tagore. He was also a very strange man who sometimes installed himself on the altar of the temple he supervised, and once spent a considerable period of time worshiping his own genitals.
We Westerners expect Eastern masters to act a little outlandish. But what about Socrates? He was—let’s be honest—an odd little man who spent most of his time in the streets, avoiding his always-angry wife, Xanthippe, and collaring anybody who would talk to him—driven to do so, he confessed, by a daemon (spirit) who would not let him alone.
Then there’s John Nash, the schizophrenic, Nobel-winning mathematician depicted in the film A Beautiful Mind, who told his biographer, “The ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously.”
No doubt about it: Some of the heroes and heroines of human civilization have smudged, or erased, the line between great truth and craziness. As the eminently sane 17th-century poet John Dryden put it, “Great wits are sure to madness near allied.” But what if madness were not just an occasional propensity of wise people, but an integral part of wisdom itself?
That’s a conclusion you’re tempted to reach when you look at the long tradition of what could be called crazy wisdom—a rich strain of illogic, paradox, and play that erupts throughout history, in many cultures, to interrupt, mess with, and renew the ideas and faith of an era. Crazy wisdom is intuitive, boundary-busting, ever-youthful, turbulent, scandalous. Fools, clowns, jesters, tricksters, whacked-out religious reformers, God-drunk poets—they’ve shaped our world as significantly as their saner brothers and sisters, and unlike a lot of the sober-minded ones, still have the power to fascinate, delight, and dismay us.
Crazy wisdom goes deeper than humor, satire, or simple bad behavior. It puts something at risk—possibly our sanity, certainly our stake in the stabilizing effect of conventional wisdom. Often it goes after the very social and spiritual structures that allow us to make sense of the world: our trust in language, for instance, or our certainty that the boundaries we see are real. In the name of something more important than our comfort, this mad wisdom makes us uncomfortable; but it accompanies the discomfort with a laugh and an 'ah-ha!' that fill us with energy, joy, a little fear, and a renewed sense of life.
In some cultures, crazy wisdom is fundamental to community and religious life. Ancient tricksters like Coyote and Iktomi (Native American), Eshu and Anansi (African) are godlike figures: They offer important gifts to human-kind and sometimes even preside over the emergence of humans in tales of creation. But they are also outright rascals whose unbridled lust for food and sex makes them scandalous disrupters of social order. Shamans and ritual clowns take on the role of trickster in everyday tribal life, too. And together these antics, both mythic and literal, enshrine unpredictable, manic energy at the heart of life. And according to the global gospel of crazy wisdom, that’s exactly where it belongs.
After all, most of the great religions begin not with a glow of spiritual comfort or a call to good behavior, but with a moment of profound strangeness, like the opening scene of an absurdist play. God speaks to Abraham: Uproot your entire family and take them into a faraway land you’ve never seen. Okay, says Abraham, without even checking a map. A frustrated ascetic named Buddha reaches the end of his rope: He’ll sit at the foot of a tree until he attains enlightenment—however long it takes, and even though he’s not exactly sure what enlightenment is. The angel Gabriel begins dictating a book to a merchant named Muhammad, who’s stricken with fever and runs to his wife, crying, “Cover me!” She wraps his body in blankets.
Soon, of course, great religions embrace common sense, and their scripture and creed harden like a scab over that original mind-bending, life-stretching zaniness. But crazy wisdom keeps reviving to call us back to a deeper relation with the spontaneous reality of the world. While learned fourth-century bishops wrangled over fine points of Christian doctrine, Saint Anthony and his friends departed for the Egyptian desert to live in caves and come together in loving simplicity; they were hungrily seeking the almost insane openness to experience (and to God) that Christ exemplified. A rich young man named Francis, in search of that same raw vision, got naked in the piazza of Assisi and dedicated himself to a bizarre mission that included talking to animals, the moon, and Death. Around the same time, the Persian poet Rumi called for an ecstatic love affair with God that transcends the Koran. In East Asia, a branch of Buddhism grounded in meditation—Zen—evolved into a sophisticated technique for short-circuiting the rational mind so that people can "taste" all things as they are.
Zen is probably the most sophisticated of all the crazy wisdoms, encouraging a whole range of unconventional behavior in the pursuit of an unsayable truth. Bodhidharma, who brought Zen from India to China, is said to have cut off his own eyelids in order to meditate without falling asleep. Early Chinese masters like Shih-t’ou ("Stonehead") might shout at or slap their students to shock them out of states of mind (like piety) that stood in the way of enlightenment. Tales of early Zen student-teacher encounters turned into the famous puzzles called koans. When a monk asked the master Tung-shan “Who is the Buddha?” the master replied, “Three pounds of flax.” Koans are little windows into the essence of crazy wisdom; they’re not flippant or satirical, and they’re not intended to be “solved.” Instead, they’re meant to stop the mind again and again as Zen students wrestle with them. Eventually they help toss the students out of their old way of making sense of the world into a new understanding of everything—and a new life. Crazy wisdom doesn’t just surprise and entertain; it calls us to the childlike mind of wonder that Christ insisted was the only way into the kingdom of heaven.
Is crazy wisdom still alive? A good question. Its fortunes in the modern world are a little hard to chart, because although crazy wisdom seems to upset everything, it has usually thrived inside deeply traditional societies, not modern economies. Coyote and his trickster kin emerged out of tribal life, Zen in the highly conventionalized cultures of Asia. The Russian yurodiviy (holy fools), no matter how strange their behavior, were Orthodox believers, seeking a deeper relationship with the only God they knew, not an avant-garde experience of no limits.
What makes crazy wisdom so challenging is that it is both crazy—it really unsettles us—and wise, because it unsettles for the good of something greater and (if you will) holier than itself. Of the many varieties of offbeat behavior in modern Western cultures, which ones actually represent wisdom? The answer to that seems to call for nothing less than a definition of modern wisdom, and that’s a topic that’s always been up for grabs, to say the least.
Literature and art have been a notable refuge for crazy wisdom in our time. The dadaist crazies of the early 20th century were proudly opposed to the very idea of wisdom, while surrealism strove to marry dream, delirium, and automatic writing (the crazy part) with Freudianism and Trotskyist politics, a marriage that, if not exactly wise, was certainly serious. The Beats struck a better balance between the wild and the truly spiritual, if only because Jack Kerouac insisted that Beat stood for beatitude, and there’s a sense that their jazz- and heroin-fueled riffs are in service of a ragged revelation that may be a revelation of God. The psychedelic sixties were a veritable carnival of craziness, wisdom, and—occasionally—genuine crazy wisdom, as American youth sampled the strange energies at the heart of several traditions: Native American, Tibetan Buddhist, Hindu.
On the whole, though, capitalist culture hasn’t been a great growth medium for crazy wisdom. The iconoclasm of the Beat generation and the sixties mostly has been turned into a commodity. Other, more up-to-date forms of wackiness, from underground music to Star Trek, resemble coming-of-age rituals—updated to include corporate sponsorship—more than occasions for revelation. And, of course, every imaginable kind of aberrant behavior is classified as a pathology somewhere in the DSM-IV psychology manual, making craziness itself highly suspect and detaching it definitively from wisdom.
Still, life-changing crazy wisdom does raise its wild head among us—in the energy of radical-feminist performance artists like Karen Finley, who become sacred clowns in service of the truths of the female body and mind; in the epiphanies of kids whose lives have been saved by performers like Smashing Pumpkins or Eminem because in the beat they hear, however confusedly, something like the heartbeat of a truer life; in writers like Ben Marcus (whose The Age of Wire and String creates a great crazy wisdom anti-world), poets like absurdist Russell Edson, and comedians like Andy Kaufman or Steven Wright, who use paradox and nonsense so deftly that our ordinary habits of language and thought begin to seem like the customs of extraterrestrials. And there’s all that crazy wisdom of the past, still alive, still inviting many of us to become its students.
The old crazy-wisdom masters called believers to a place of primal wisdom outside the everyday but still inside a great circle of truth that they understood. In our day, we don’t know where the center and the circumference of that circle are. Maybe searching for them, with humor and a willingness to fail, is our crazy-wisdom mission—a contemporary koan to puzzle over but never solve.
Jon Spayde is an Utne Reader contributing editor.