Crazy Wisdom: Derrida’s Plato’s Pharmacy and Chögyam Trungpa’s The Lion’s Roar

Hovey Brock (AP15) discusses Derrida's Plato’s Pharmacy alongside the Buddhist Tantra. 

Chögyam Trungpa: The mahamudra principle does not even need the barrier [between self and other] to express itself…1

Derrida: The pharmakon is the movement, the locus, and the play: (the production of) difference. It is the différance (sic) of différence.2

This essay runs a thought experiment that rubs two unlikely texts against each other, to discover what might precipitate. Admittedly The Lion’s Roar is less well known, but esteemed in Buddhist circles for its comprehensive introduction to a Western audience of Tibetan Buddhist Tantric teachings from the New Transmission schools. More on that follows below with the mahasiddha Tilopa and his mahamudra principle. 

The Lion’s Roar gathers a series of lectures Chögyam Trungpa – the founder of Shambhala Buddhism – delivered on the Tantra in 1973. Much of the book appears in the form of student-teacher dialogs, which resonate with the Platonic ones in Derrida’s Plato’s Pharmacy. In another striking parallel, the Buddha and Socrates, by some estimates, only died within a year of each other. More to the point, Chögyam Trungpa’s Tantric worldview shares with Derrida’s textual formulations in Plato’s Pharmacy a love of obscurity, contradiction, and concrete imagery. The two also share a similar goal: clearing away habitual thought patterns to discover new paths for the never-ending play of consciousness.

Derrida pulls on the thread of the “Pharmacy” as it runs through the Platonic corpus, now running through “pharmakon” to “pharmakeus” to “pharmakos.” He shows that the foundational corpus of Western metaphysics and epistemology is riddled with contradictions and double-meanings. Derrida’s point is not that the Platonic corpus has no final truths to offer as a starting point for philosophical speculation, but that it has an excess of truths that co-exist in a constellation of ideas where each concept finds its negation, and the negation to that negation in an endless process of slippage and substitution. The classic metaphor for understanding a philosophical argument has been architecture. We talk about “building” an argument, something with a foundation that can contain (imprison?) an idea.

Holography may provide a better alternative as a  metaphor for Derrida’s approach. Holography is more in keeping with deconstruction, where the relationship between signifiers and signifieds is not fixed but shifts according to circumstance, sometimes even reversing roles. In holography the image shifts as the gaze shifts. Just a section of a hologram carries the same information as the entire hologram, each utterance by Socrates in the Platonic dialogues implies the constellation of ideas that form the Platonic corpus.

Derrida says at the outset of Plato’s Pharmacy: “To a considerable degree, we have already said all we meant to say.3 The Platonic corpus unfolds over time what was always there, explicit or implicit, in each instance of the Platonic dialogues. So many circuits—poison/medicine, madness/reason, mneme (embodied memory)/hypomnesis (written memory)—wind their way through the text like red threads. They are already there in the series of definitions Derrida gives to κόλαφος (kolaphos) in the epigraph to Plato’s Pharmacy: “a blow to the cheek, knock, slap”4 which he extends etymologically to notching, engraving and finally writing on the bark of a tree.  This word derivation recapitulates in miniature, holograph-like, the entire arc of Derrida’s argument about the relationship between experience and the text, embodied memory and recorded memory.

The essence of Tantra is the Mandala, which weaves together opposing energies into a representation at once architectural, visual and sonic. Each deity (representation of an aspect of enlightened mind) carries its own seed syllable, or mantra, a series of vibrations—like the light waves captured in the holographic process that create the image in a hologram—which create a holograph of the universe. Each deity represents a universe of mandalas in his or her own right, and the mandala houses all the deities in a tightly bound array that unfolds in an unceasing fractal pattern:


Unknown, Mandala of the Vajravali Series, Central Tibet, Tsang (Ngor Monastery), Sakya order, Thangka, gouache on cotton, c.  1429-56.

The energetic polarities that power the Platonic corpus, poison/medicine, madness/reason, mneme/hypomnesis, can find their mirror images in the Buddhist Tantra as purity/pollution, samsara/nirvana, mantra/sutra.

 Chögyam Trungpa: Onto the disk of the autumn moon, clear and pure, you transplant a seed syllable…Then from the seed syllable you create a Buddha, Mahavairochana…with the appearance of an eight-year-old child: beautiful, innocent, and pure…5


Unknown, Kobo Daishi (Kukai) as a Boy (Chigo Daishi), ink and color on silk, 15th Century.

 Meditating on Mahavairochana is the first step on the Tantric path of visualizing enlightened mind. It is a cooling process, moving from the heat of direct experience to the reflection of experience in pure awareness, a doubling and a negation of direct experience. Mahavairochana brings the practitioner into his or her first direct contact with enlightened mind, where discursive modes of thinking no longer hold sway.

Derrida: Now, it is precisely by pointing out, as we shall see, that the pharmakon of writing is good for hypomnesis (re-memoration, recollection, consignation) and not for the mneme (living, knowing memory) that Thamus, in the Phaedrus, condemns it as being of little worth.6

Thoth, the god of writing, the Moon god, is the servant of Ra, the Sun god. Writing is but a supplement to, and a substitute for, the Logos of living memory, the sun of embodied experience and yet:

Derrida: This process of substitution, which thus functions as a pure play of traces or supplements or, again, operates within the order of the pure signifier which no reality, no absolutely external reference, no transcendental signified, can come to limit, bound, or control; this substitution, which could be judged “mad” since it can go on infinitely in the element of the linguistic permutation of substitutes, of substitutes for substitutes; this unleashed chain is nevertheless not lacking in violence.7

In Thoth’s realm of hypomnesis, the boundaries of embodied memory fall away as traces and substitutes of that experience become detached from their context and create a chain of pure signifiers without fixed meanings. Yet, the pharmakon of writing carries its own perils. Its purity is its violence, its potential to poison the mind with an ecstasy of infinite possibility:

Derrida: The Socratic pharmakon also acts like venom, like the bite of a poisonous snake (217-18). And Socrates’ bite is worse than a snake’s since its traces invade the soul. What Socrates’ words and the viper’s venom have in common, in any case, is their ability to penetrate and make off with the most concealed interiority of the body or soul. The demonic speech of this thaumaturge (en)trains the listener in dionysian frenzy and philosophic mania (2 18b). And when they don’t act like the venom of a snake, Socrates’ pharmaceutical charms provoke a kind of narcosis, benumbing and paralyzing into aporia, like the touch of a sting ray (narki).8

In the Platonic corpus, Socrates, in his poisonous aspect appears as snake, or a stingray, but there are other animals as well, which come together in Footnote 52:

Derrida: Alternately and/or all at once, the Socratic pharmakon petrifies and vivifies anesthetizes and sensitizes, appeases and anguishes. Socrates is a benumbing stingray but also an animal that needles: we recall the bee in the Phaedo (9 1c); later we will open the Apology at the point where Socrates compares himself precisely to a gadfly. This whole Socratic configuration thus composes a bestiary. Is it surprising that the demonic inscribes itself in a bestiary? It is on the basis of this zoopharmaceutical ambivalence and of that other Socratic analogy that the contours of the anthropos are determined.9

This ambivalence about the teachings that can bring enlightenment or soul-death, couched in zoological terms, appears in the Tantra as well:

Chögyam Trungpa: One Nyingma [one of the four “schools” of Tibetan Buddhism] teacher said that relating with Tantric visualization [which connects the practitioner with the infinitude of enlightened Mind] is like going to bed with a pregnant tigress. She might be hungry in the middle of the night and decide to eat you up. Or she might begin to nurse you and create a warm, furry space. The kriya yoga Tantric text, the Vajramala, speaks of those who have mistaken views of visualization. Instead of attaining Vajrasattvahood [the deity of primordial purity], for example, they attain Rudrahood, the highest attainment of egohood, (sic) they attain the level of the cosmic ape, the cosmic monster.10

In Plato’s Pharmacy, Socrates not only embodies the polarities of the pharmakon (poison and remedy), but the pharmakeuspharmakos (wizard and outcast). Plato refers numerous times to Socrates’ ability as a pharmakeus (wizard) to bewitch others with his arguments. Yet, according to Derrida, nowhere does he use the word pharmakos in reference to Socrates. It is not surprising perhaps that Plato would refrain from referring to his beloved teacher in this way, but the absence is telling.

Derrida: The word in question is pharmakos (wizard, magician, poisoner), a synonym of pharmakeus (which Plato uses), but with the unique feature of having been overdetermined, overlaid by Greek culture with another function. Another role, and a formidable one…The character of the pharmakos has been compared to a scapegoat.11

Wasn’t this precisely the service Socrates rendered the good people of Athens? He refused to speak in his defense, and willingly drank the hemlock for corrupting the Athenian youth.

The mahasiddha, a practitioner of great supernatural powers who disdains societal norms, is central to the Tantric tradition. Tilopa, the 11th Century CE mahasiddha, developed the mahamudra – the  body of teachings referred to above that Tibetan Buddhist practitioners of the “New Transmission” schools follow to this day. He abandoned his Brahmin upbringing to become a wandering monk. One of his gurus directed him to go work for a prostitute at a Bengali brothel, where he performed the functions of bouncer and procurer by night. By day he ground sesame seeds, a lowly occupation.

While Tilopa was not a scapegoat, perhaps, he lived on society’s margins. He was the guru to Naropa, who was the guru to Marpa, who founded the Kagyu lineage, to which Chögyam Trungpa belonged. Wizard and outcast are twin features found in all the Kagyu mahasiddhas, especially Marpa’s disciple Milarepa, who, before he became enlightened, practiced black magic to murder someone.

Tilopa had something to say about the free play of signification in his “six words of advice” (each phrase reads as one word in Tibetan) as follows:

Don’t recall. Don’t imagine. Don’t think. Don’t examine. Don’t control. Rest.12

Avital Ronell, a disciple of Derrida, recently held a seminar about her book The telephone book, at the Deutsche Haus at NYU. During the closing remarks, she summed up her work in a phrase of equal, if not greater, pithiness, than Tilopa’s “six words of advice”: “Stop making sense.”

Her point? The true nature of thought never follows a straight path but instead a never-ending pattern of doubling, substitution, and negation. In fact, what it projects, or describes, requires a meta-dimensional context, as is the case with holography. What appears a contradiction in one context becomes meaningful when considered from multiple contexts. Socrates as a poisoner, scapegoat and sophist may not make sense from the standpoint of one dialog, but working with multiple dialogs at once brings this contradiction to light as an insight into Socrates’ methods. In Tantra, enlightened mind takes the constant friction between the pairs of opposites and both everts and inverts the process by considering all perspectives at once. 

Chögyam Trungpa takes this to its logical, if that is the right word, conclusion in his reflections on the ultimate goal of the Tantric path:

One of the basic projects, if you can call it a project, on the maha ati [final teachings in the Tatra] level, and the point of all the practices that go on there, is to destroy the notion and the experience of enlightenment. So there’s no goal, no search at all. That is what is called wearing out dharmata [ultimate reality]. And at that point there is a sense of being unleashed infinitely. There is a sense of craziness, the ultimate craziness, which does not believe in trying to accomplish anything at all.13

In this frame of mind, there are no opposites. Samsara is nirvana, nirvana is samsara. Any question of an ontological ground simply dissolves. This wisdom, to the conventional view of the world, is madness.

New modes of thought are necessary to encompass the way consciousness actually unfolds, without prejudice, over time. Derrida proposed one method, which frees up the signifying chains found in text/memory/language. Tantra proposes another form of freedom from the chain of causation through visualization/meditation/mantra, which connects the practitioner directly with enlightened mind. Consider this from Derrida at the end of Plato’s Pharmacy:

The disappearance of truth as presence, the withdrawal of the present origin of presence, is the condition of all (manifestation of) truth. Nontruth is the truth. Nonpresence is presence. Différance (sic), the disappearance of any originary presence, is at once the condition of possibility and the condition of impossibility of truth. At once. “At once” means that the being-present (on) in its truth, in the presence of its identity and in the identity of its presence, is doubled as soon as it appears, as soon as it presents itself. It appears, in its essence, as the possibility of its own most proper non-truth, of its pseudo-truth reflected in the icon, the phantasm, or the simulacrum.14

Derrida says here that the appearance of truth generates its own reflection, which doubles as its negation – tautology and contradiction within the same truth-act. The field for the mind’s play opens to infinity. Chögyam Trungpa would have approved.

[1] Chögyam Trungpa and Sherab Chödzin, eds., The Lion’s Roar: An Introduction to Tantra (Boston; London: Shambhala, 2001), 192.

[2] Jacques Derrida, Dissemination. trans. Barbara Johnson (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), 127.

[3] Ibid., 65.

[4] Ibid., 63.

[5] Trungpa and Chödzin, The Lion’s Roar.

[6] Derrida, Dissemination, 91.

[7] Ibid., 89.

[8] Ibid., 118.

[9] Ibid., 119.

[10] Trungpa and Chödzin, The Lion’s Roar, 145.

[11] Derrida, Dissemination, 130.

[13] Trungpa and Chödzin, The Lion’s Roar, 203.

[14] Derrida, Dissemination, 168.