Can a Woman be a Crazy Wisdom Teacher (and get away with it)?

crazy wisdom
February 1, 2017

Horse head and socks

Crazy wisdom is at play when a spiritual teacher embodies fearless compassion and is plugged into this alive, aware reality’s over-the-top creativity. Together, these powerfully and magically transfigure the scene of teaching and help students to divest themselves of stale and limiting concepts about how everyone and everything should be.

Crazy wisdom isn’t a method. You can’t get a crazy wisdom teaching certificate. A crazy wisdom approach is not something a teacher can just adopt or imitate. Crazy wisdom flows without contrivance into a teaching circumstance as an expression of primordial compassion and its happy hijinks. Yes, all of reality has a sense of humor. ????

Some of the moves associated with crazy wisdom are rapid pivots from tenderness to fierceness to hilarity and just fierceness in general; acting in ways counter to the expectations that students have of spiritual teachers or generally provoking or shocking students; refusing to treat anything as nonspiritual, a.k.a. using every and any circumstance as a vehicle for practice; not responding when students are running their karmic patterns (being an impassive mirror); and organizing situations, including games, that engage students in the wild creativity that is fundamental to existence.

No thanks, Krishna

Crazy wisdom presents opportunities to shorten the path to waking up. But most students are on the long path, at least most of the time.

At pivotal junctures in the Mahabharata, Krishna exhorts his devotees to break with convention and respond to what is rather than to concepts and ideas about how things are or should be. No one ever listens to him. And so the story continues for hundreds and hundreds of pages while Krishna cheerfully tags along with his more cautious spiritual offspring.

Krishna pokes, prods, and chides. He orchestrates vast strategies. He sees through all contrivances and lies. He often seems to metaphorically be hiding a tender yet mocking smile in his sleeve as he watches his students run through their karmic paces.

Krishna was a crazy wisdom avatar.

Cub Scouts

Stories about crazy wisdom teachers abound in direct realization traditions such as Dzogchen, Trika Shaivism, Daoism, and some forms of Tibetan Buddhism. Even in the absence of a specific crazy wisdom teacher, these traditions embody crazy wisdom in their teaching methods to some degree. For instance, teachers might deploy specific sharp mantras to induce mild shock and clear the mind. They also favor a more playful, unpredictable, and unnervingly direct style of teaching.

This teaching style is definitely not for everyone. I heard a memorable aphorism during a retreat with the wonderful Kagyu meditation master, Lama Wangdor. “When the lion of Mahamudra roars, many are scared off. But the cubs come running for the milk.”

I’ve always been one of the cubs.

Crazy, Fakey, and Lazy

I’ve had one actual crazy wisdom teacher. His face was a moving river of spontaneous expressions. He was totally unpredictable and playful. The invitation to intimacy he offered with just a glance could be terrifying. But regardless of how he was showing up, his compassion was always palpable. The difference between this circumstance and that of the manipulation and abuse of students under the guise of crazy wisdom is not subtle.

I’m kind of a lazy crazy wisdom teacher. Or maybe I’m a soft crazy wisdom teacher in the way that someone might be a soft butch. I definitely have leanings. But full-on crazy wisdom takes a lot of energy. I can’t be bothered to play that hard. And as a woman teacher in this time and place, if I were to go full crazy wisdom mode, my life would likely turn into a living hell of firestorms and titanic pushback. Read on to find out why I’m just not down for that.

Sri Sri Sri Misogynanda

I'm a spy.

I have long wanted to write about being a female spiritual teacher, especially one who is a bit fierce, a bit gender-bendy, allergic to anything smacking of the holy-schmoly, and scariest of all: non-seducible. Yes, nearly all students try to seduce teachers, most often with praise and faux devotion, and then if that doesn’t work, arguments and disapproval.

All students come to teachers with expectations and rules in hand about how teachers are supposed to show up in their demeanor and behavior. A few of these rules are good rules, at least much of the time, such as that teachers should be open to scrutiny and questioning.

But many of the rules are expressions of students’ cultural and social limitations and psychological needs. In the direct realization traditions from Tibet and India in particular, it’s the teacher’s job to frustrate these expectations so that students have more freedom to respond compassionately and skillfully to life’s ever-changing circumstances. It’s just that it’s more acceptable for a male teacher to do his job.

I’ll state the obvious. People are more okay with the outrageousness, the fierceness, the directness, the clarity, the self-confidence, and the unpredictability—faked or authentic—of male teachers. They are also more willing to host male teachers’ ordinary personalities.

As a woman teacher, you are often expected to be motherly and conventionally encouraging. You are supposed to give credence to the expectations of students and play by a largely conventional and gendered set of “rules.” You are supposed to be available to be touched at any moment. I’ve had students throw themselves in my lap, kiss me on the lips, and expect both hello and goodbye hugs at every weekly teaching. I’ve humorously threatened to get a t-shirt that says “I am not Amma.”

When a woman teacher doesn’t play by the rules or refuses to show up in the costume of her assigned role, nastiness can sometimes ensue. And if she dares to raise the issue of students’ gendered responses to the teacher, nastiness can occasionally turn into out and out intent to harm. I’ve experienced all of this in my life as a woman spiritual teacher.

Some students are uncomfortable when confronted with a woman teacher who does not performatively express tentativeness about herself. Confidence in a woman is a trigger for a subset of students.

Students have perceived me as being angry when I was just being clear and direct and felt not a speck of anger.

I’ve also been told, wait for it, that I don’t apologize enough. The truth is worse than that: When I’m actually sorry, I apologize, but I’m just not sorry with acceptable frequency.

I have at times been criticized and gaslit by male and female students alike for insisting that our community, Jaya Kula, be a place where gender-based harm is transparently addressed and for setting boundaries with students who refuse to take responsibility for their harmful actions.

On the lighter side: a student informed me that it bothered them that I didn’t push my chair in after leaving the dinner table.

Another went into a paroxysm of righteous anger and said they questioned my integrity because a few hours elapsed before I relayed to them some information about a clerical task.

Ditto the student who demanded that I like more of their posts on Facebook.

Even a woman teacher’s playful self-enjoyment can sometimes garner a negative response, especially if it freely displays too much cultural capital. One of the forms of “feedback” I’ve heard multiple times is that I am too critical of food in restaurants. I love cooking. I’ve worked as a pastry chef, sous chef, and cook. I like digging down into the chemistry and tech of cooking. I enjoy talking about food, including critically. For some students, this kind of commentary from a woman is not okay.

Shambhavi goofing

I can’t imagine any of the male teachers I’ve known being treated to this sort of policing and pushback. As one student observed, the behaviors I sometimes get criticized for are the very behaviors that would be praised in a male teacher: clarity, confidence, being knowledgeable about a wide range of subjects, and what I consider to be a very modest quantity of fierceness, at least in comparison to my own teachers.

Fundamentally, the conventional role of “woman” is directly at odds with the job description of spiritual teachers in the direct realization traditions. What would happen if I stepped all the way out of line?

Mother, daughter, crazy wisdom guide

My Guru Anandamayi Ma famously said on many occasions, “I am whoever you think I am,” or “I am whoever you need me to be.”

She meant that whoever she appeared to be to a particular person was what that person needed. To some, she was mother, To others, a child to be cared for. For some, she was Devi. And yet to others, such as myself, a compassionately fierce Guru.

I’m not in her condition, and I do not have the capacity to be whatever anyone needs me to be. But I do want people to benefit from teachings and keep practicing. The only way this can happen is if they stick around for a spell.

My teachers have always been quite fierce with me, and I’ve sought that out. But over the years, I’ve learned that this is not what most people want or can benefit from. What would happen if I even more aggressively challenged students’ expectations and got a whole lot more outrageous, unpredictable, and fierce? It would not be a learning circumstance that most of my students could tolerate. And what I most deeply desire is that students should have the opportunity to discover the magic and majesty of life and to live immersed in that.

So I’ve adjusted. Many students have remarked that I am softer than I used to be and that the teachings are now delivered at a much slower pace. Sometimes this observation conveys the belief that being more “comfortable” for students is what I should have been doing all along.

In one sense, this is true. If what will keep a student practicing and learning is a degree of comfortableness, I’m going to try to provide that up to a point. I’ve been practicing now for nearly forty years and teaching for fifteen. I’m more skillful and less attached to one teaching method or another. I also no longer feel any sense of urgency or mission as I once did.

But, as I tell students, this is still direct realization tradition, and I am a practitioner and a teacher in this kind of tradition because it suits me. I have a personality. My deep resonance with the method and the madness built into the method are still there, just toned down for the majority of students.

Does a spoonful of sexism make the medicine go down?

restaurant shiva

Weirdly, I’ve considered that a little bit of sexism may be a good thing when it comes to female spiritual teachers and their students.

From what I’ve seen, all a male teacher has to do is advertise some actual or fictional spiritual provenance, don some spiritual clothing, and/or talk and move in some recognized “spiritual” fashion in order to be presumed accomplished and deserving of respect, if not adulation. A certain layer of fantasy or automagical benefit of the doubt accrues to even minimally kitted out male teachers.

And how well has that turned out for us?

But as Abhinavagupta, a siddha of Trika Shaivism taught, only students who doubt are teachable.1 Doubt is an open, curious, questioning approach to learning. When doubt is suppressed, learning is delayed. Students are more likely to doubt and to express their doubts to a female teacher.

This is especially true in a crazy wisdom situation, even a lazy one, which tends to encourage more openness from students. Students are far less likely to project non-existent spiritual accomplishment onto a woman teacher. This makes room for a process to take place in which the real richness of the relationship can be discovered by students. In the end, they can have more confidence because they traveled through doubt.

At other times, gender karmas are so strong that skepticism can ruin or greatly detour a student’s ability to learn from a woman teacher who doesn’t fulfill their conventional expectations. I have encountered a student or two who just cannot engage fully when the chase after male approval is not at play or who can only tolerate an idealized mother-as-teacher.

At the end of the day, I feel grateful to be privy to the gendered ravings, and ravings about gender, of my students. We get to look in the messy, dark, hurting places together. We get to work with what, in most teaching situations, is hidden and unapproachable. This has been of great benefit both to myself and to my students, many of whom find it hugely relieving to be able to acknowledge these feelings and experiences.

As I’ve told students: I’m just going to keep on being myself. And this means that my students and I will continue working together to answer the question “Can a woman be a [lazy] crazy wisdom teacher (and get away with it)?”

For most of my students, the answer is already “yes.” For others, the jury of ordinary karma is still in closed session and deliberating.
so what

I’ll leave you with one lazy crazy wisdom story.

A fellow came to satsang in Portland, Maine. Afterward, he approached me. “I’m looking for a real Tantric teacher,” he said quite earnestly. “Do you know of any?”

I smiled encouragingly and answered, “Sorry, no, but feel free to keep coming to satsang as a stop gap until you find him.”

P.S. I’ve quite been told by a couple of students not to publicize the photos of me included in this article because they might make some people feel uncomfortable. We wouldn’t want that now would we?

1. Abhinavagupta, Abhinavagupta’s Commentary on the Bhagavad Gita: Gitartha Samgraha, Trans. and Ed. Boris Marjanovic, Indica Books, Varanasi, 2002: 27