Questioning the Intention of ‘The Divine Madman’

In Keith Dowman’s “The Divine Madman: The Sublime life and Songs of Drukpa Kunley,” he re-tells the legend and subsequent teachings of Lama, Drukpa Kunley, also referred to as the “Master of Truth, Lord of Beings, Drukpa Kunga Legpa,” (Dowman, 119). A multitude of legends are depicted in this particular excerpt of Dowman’s book ranging from how Kunley began his mythic journey as well as how he displayed his powers. Though there were too many stories to summarize in full here, I will do my best to describe a few to give the best sense of Kunley’s character. His spiritual path began when he had a dream while staying at “Lady Semzanngmo’s house in Nangkaste,” (119). In his dream he saw “a woman dressed in a yellow skirt, and holding a flaming sword,” (119). She spoke to him:

‘Drukpa Kunley, it is time that you fulfilled the prophecy that foretold the               conversion of the people of Bhutan, and the magical purification of that land. In            Bhutan you will establish a family which will serve the Drukpa Tradition to great advantage in the future. You must shoot an arrow to the south early in the morning as a harbinger of your coming.’ So saying, she disappeared, and Kunley awoke. (119)

Kunley discerns this dream as a divine message from the “Smoky Goddess” and thus follows the goddess’s instructions (119). The arrow travels far making a sound that the people think is a “dragon roaring,” but the children discern as Kunley’s arrow (119). The arrow lands in the home of a young couple whom become important much later in Kunley’s legend. The stories that follow all detail exactly what the chapter-head foretells. Essentially, they are all tales of how Kunley defeats demons that terrorize the lands as well as how he helps elderly women in their stages of death. The powers of which Kunley utilizes to defeat the demons derive from his erect penis, also referred to as his “flaming thunderbolt of wisdom.” (120) He uses his “thunderbolt” to hit the demons in the mouth and smash their teeth. In another interaction with a demoness, he unrolls his penis’ foreskin and covers the demoness with it, “render[ing] her completely helpless” (121). In yet another, a demoness, becomes “petrified,” unable to bear the sight of his “magical tower” (128). All the demons of which he interacts with either become bound to Kunley to do his biddings or become imprisoned in some natural formation.

I was completely struck when the first story of Kunley heavily involved his erect penis began because I found it so utterly jarring in comparison to other Buddhist texts we have read. I also found it quite a comment on the importance of being a male in society. To me, it almost seemed to edge on propaganda for how having a penis (or being male) is what matters in society. Kunley is essentially teaching how one can use masculinity to ward off evil as a weapon, as he does in the story. There is also a portion of the legend where after Kunley has smashed in a demon’s teeth, the demon runs to a nun sitting in deep meditation to ask for her advice (126). The nun explains that the demon has been hit by a “magical device” and that the kind of wound never heals. She opens her legs and reveals that the “wound” between her legs was made by the same weapon, and that it will never heal (126). The demon touches her “wound” or vagina, and smells his finger, complaining of its “putrid” smell. He exclaims, “I suppose mine will go the same way,” (127). Here, a clear comment on being a woman in Buddhist culture is being made. Essentially that as a woman one is wounded from the beginning. Unlike the penis, or as is described in the story as a “thunderbolt of wisdom,” one should be ashamed and wary of the vagina as it is a wound that cannot be healed. That like a wound, it is rotted and that is why the smell is so “putrid.” (127) This is in great contrast to the wisdom and great power of Kunley’s sexual organ which is to practically be worshipped.

The other portion of the first half of the text is about his dealings with old women near death. In the first story, in his travels Kunley passes a woman who is praying to him to receive his blessing (121). He reveals his identity to her, and she invites him to stay with her for food and ‘chung’ (a kind of alcohol) (122). She invites some of her friends, who are also older women to “pay their respects.” (122) To prove her faith to Kunley, she explains that she would give him her life (122). Kunley, fully intoxicated with chung, as well as knowing that she was to die that night anyways, shoots her with his bow and arrow. Due to this action, all the people in the town think he is a fraud, and are greatly angered. Kunley takes the old woman’s corpse to a storeroom and locks it inside. He promises to return in seven days, and for no one to open the storeroom before his return. However, on the sixth day, the old woman’s son returns home and hears what has happened. He is completely appalled by what he’s heard, and breaks open the storeroom. To the son’s great surprise he finds a pleaseant odor wafting out of the storeroom and the corpse transformed into a rainbow of light except for the “big toe on the right foot.” (123) Kunley returns at this moment and bites the ear of the woman’s son because he had opened the door too early. The son praised to Lama with “thanksgiving and devotion,” (123). The Lama explains that the son’s ‘thanks’ is not important but the fact that his mother was living in a “pure Buddha Land” now was what truly mattered (123). These kinds of stories continue all along the same theme of helping the elderly find peace in death. In one story he releases a dead person from the cycle of Samsara after bringing her back to life (124).

Leading up to the second half of the text, the reader gets the first look at Kunley’s escapades with girls. At one point when he finally reaches the home where his arrow landed, he becomes infatuated with the wife of the man of the house and wants to take her for his own (129). The man of the house tries to stab Kunley but fails as Kunley uses his powers to block his aim. The man of the house realizes Kunley is a Lama of great power and immediately offers the Lama his wife as well as his house to stay (129). The second part of the text is titled, “How Drukpa Kunley Instructed his Consorts in the Southern Valleys” (137). This part of the text describes Kunley’s ability to seduce many young virgins all of whom he promises to return to at different moments in time.

There is also a major moment in the text where the consorts and patrons of Bhutan ask him to give a “discourse upon the Buddhas’ Teaching,” (138). They ask him to make it understandable to common people but also for the teaching to have a “profound inner meaning.” (138) It is in these teachings that for me, raised the most questions as well as the most comments. Kunley presents himself as a highly powerful, highly sexualized being. His most powerful weapon is his penis and he uses it to both seduce virgins as well as to enslave demons. He makes comments on gender in his teachings that I found quite interesting in light of what we have learned previously about Buddhism. Sex is not something that I thought was forefront in Buddhist teachings, but in Kunley’s tales it is a huge part of his identity. Each teaching is riddled with gender binaries. What we’ve read about the subordination of nuns in Buddhist tradition was suddenly much clearer. One line is as follows: “Kunely never tires of girls, Monks never tire of wealth, Girls never tire of sex,” (140). The meaning here is clear: Kunley values sex, and “never tires” of his sexual escapades. He also dictates that Monks value wealth, which is interesting because much of Buddhist teaching is avoiding greed, and yet he explicitly notes that Monks value this. Additionally, he stereotypes and categorizes girls as to be used for sex by explaining that they “never tire,” (140). He also describes how “The sign of a rich man is a tight fist, The sign of an old man is a tight mind, The sign of a nun is a tight vagina” (139) His comment on gender here seems to allude to the fact that a nun’s virginity is her value and her power, and that is why she is a nun. I was extremely bothered by his attitude throughout the story. Other than his heroic dealings with demons, his demeanor was rude and arrogant. To me he came across as a figure I would be turned off by in worship, not one to glorify. In many of his dealings he is entitled as well as often highly intoxicated with chung, which seems to be used as an excuse for his behavior at times. I found Kunley’s teachings highly problematic. On the one hand I found it beautiful that he released the elderly women from the cycle from Samsara and the imagery of rainbows as well as the story of giving life to a corpse were truly engaging. However, they were in great contrast to his teachings on sex as well as a man and woman’s place in society which to me represented a facet of Buddhist tradition that is not well known or publicized.

Discussion Questions:

In scrutinizing his teachings, I would love to know how the rest of the class felt about the emphasis of Kunley’s “Thunderbolt of Wisdom” as such a main part of his legend. Specifically what role this statement would have on the followers of the religion and what impact it may have had on nuns as well as women in Buddhist culture.

Another question I would pose would be to discuss the significance of the people of whom he released from samsara being elderly women?

Lastly, I wanted to pose the question of why these legends were written? Who do you believe they were written for and what purpose would they serve?

9 thoughts on “Questioning the Intention of ‘The Divine Madman’

  1. Although I agree that the emphasis on Kunley’s penis throughout the stories was very different from other Buddhist texts we have read thus far, but gender differences have been a common theme throughout this semester. By outwardly hailing an erect penis as a “magical device” and “thunderbolt of wisdom,” the story is reinforcing the belief that men are superior to women, which just continues to subordinate women, and especially nuns. These stories are very different from the comics we read, which portrayed deities as strong and intelligent, and superior to men at times, but this was because they were deities.

  2. I was also skeptical of the portrayal of the Lama at times. I think the concept of a “crazy yogi” with unconventional ways and perspectives is cool and valuable, and his purpose was clear and honorable in both the salvation of pious old women and in Drukpa Kunley’s conquering of various demons. However there were still a lot of times when I thought the Lama’s words didn’t make sense, like when he says that he has “turned away from desire in disgust” when he spends a portion of almost every vignette having sex with a new woman. I’m not saying that sex is sinful or anything, but it gets to be gratuitous and maybe it’s just part of his wacky character but I thought the Lama ended up being portrayed a bit less honorably than was likely intended.

  3. In response to your first proposed question, I think the continuous mentioning of the “Thunderbolt of Wisdom” can possibly be rationalized if one was to think about this characteristic of the madman like another physical characteristic of another god/goddess (for example, the goddess known to always stick her tongue out or the gods/goddesses with other distinct traits). I guess Drukpa Kunley’s “characteristic” would be the abilities of his “thunderbolt.” This might not be intentional (or maybe it is), but by giving the penis such strength to overtake enemies and have supernatural abilities definitely places those who possess penises (men) on a higher ground as they can believe that maybe they too possess the powers that the Lama does.

  4. I found this story very similar to that of Virupa. Though Drukpa and Virupa are from different Tibetan lineages/schools (the Kagyu school and the Sakya school, respectively), both traveled the Himalayas, converting inhabitants and making grand displays of their spiritual powers. And in both stories we see a similar conflict between odd behavior and compulsive indulgence in earthly delights (i.e., sexual exploitation and intoxication) on the one hand, and a deep commitment to compassion (i.e., working to end suffering and to enlighten others) on the other hand. Based on this similarity, and taking from our discussion of the Virupa reading, I would hazard a guess that Drukpa’s unorthodox behavior is part of an attempt to shake conforming Buddhists out of their attachment to doctrine and protocol. The shocking phallic imagery of the story itself—e.g., the sudden mentioning of a “steel hard penis” (120)—may be a literary device that serves to disrupt the traditional Buddhist understanding of sexual impropriety.

    Nonetheless, there are messages in the text that are upsetting. MacKenzie could not have put it better when she suggested that the story is telling us that “as a woman one is wounded from the beginning.” This is especially strange to see considering the text begins with a verse that praises Kunga Legpa for “exterminating every subject/object dichotomy” with “the arrow of non-duality” (119). Rather, Drukpa seems to *enforce* the duality between male and female, penis and vagina. What do others make of this? How is Drukpa rupturing duality?

  5. The whole story confused me at first and I actually re checked the syllabus multiple times to make sure it was the right reading because it was so different then all of the other readings up until this point. The jarring sexual details took me back a bit and at first I was a bit confused on their purpose. I realized throughout that it was like an origin story for many holy places but at the beginning I was very confused. I think the connection of a thunder bolt to his erect penis was very demeaning to women in the story which oddly was the least surprising bit about it. While not a lot of sexual details have been discussed a lot has been discussed about the gaps between men and women and monks and nuns, like Araceli stated. So I think it wasn’t that surprising that he deemed himself and his sexual encounters so god like. It seemed to be more of a second nature in these readings finding disparities between men and women and the power struggle that is always constant.

  6. As Aracelli and Jana have already touched upon, I also found the themes of male superiority and female subordination quite relevant to our discussions about the inequalities that exist between monks and nuns. This story really illuminates how females are viewed in relation to men. In regards to MacKenzie’s first question, I feel like these themes are most definitely the messages that readers take away, which is alarming. I can read this story and be shocked at the female subordination present in the tale, while others might not be able to do that, which is why stigmas against female are created and are able to exist and spread.

  7. I think Kunley’s emphasis on the “Thunderbolt of Wisdom” definitely merits commentary concerning gender roles. As the distinguishing characteristic, clear importance is given to the penis and can logically be interpreted to apply to gender roles and a social order where being a man connotes certain characteristics or the potential to develop certain abilities similar (or aspiring to be similar) to those of Drukpa Kunley. I found incredibly interesting how through this story religion comments on the power mechanisms of sex and establishes power dynamics in it that oppresses and wounds evil beings.

  8. I thought that this reading was by far the most overtly sexist of all of the Buddhist texts we have encountered so far. Kunley’s penis is completely glorified, while the vagina is presented as filthy and lowly. It reinforces the subordination of women within Buddhism.

  9. I agree that this story was the most openly sexist Buddhist text we have read in this class. I was surprised that the text included both explicitly sexual language and metaphors to describe his penis and the way it was used to defeat demons. I also agree that describing it as the “thunderbolt of wisdom” and “magical device” definitely asserts male dominance. Lastly, it was interesting to see the gender imbalance even in lay people with the women being the subjects of subordination in the tale.

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