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?

“Freeing the Heart and Mind” — Strange Behavior

(Note: Although the title page on the E-Reserve PDF shows “Part 1: Introduction to the Buddhist Path,” this is a selection from “Part 2: Developing Compassion.” Also, there appear to be at least three different authors, editors, or compilers.)

This selection from His Holiness Sakya Trizin’s Freeing the Heart and Mind, which is focused on the development of compassion and the bodhisattva ideal, is broken into three sections. In the first section, entitled “The Life Story of Mahasiddha Virupa,” Jetsun Dragpa Gyaltsen provides a biographical account of Virupa, a mahasiddha of the Sakya lineage. Then, in “Training the Mind in Matchless Compassion,” we are presented with a meditation on compassion, originally delivered by Virupa himself. Finally, His Holiness the Forty-First Sakya Trizin, the current head of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism, explains the significance of Virupa’s meditation and guides us on how to properly perform it. This reading was rife with unfamiliar Buddhist concepts and terminology, and when necessary I consulted outside sources to get a better handle on the text.

In Virupa’s biography, we learn that he was a very unusual monk, both in his superb mastery of Buddhist doctrine and in his peculiar, and at times improper, behavior. Virupa, who was born between the seventh and eighth centuries CE, renounced the worldly pleasures of Indian royalty to join the monastic community. Though initially dissatisfied with his meditation practice, he eventually attained full enlightenment after encountering Vajra Nairatmya and other goddesses in a dream. The goddesses “bestowed upon him profound and complete initiation, empowering him into their mandala” (22). In Vajrayana, this empowerment is part of an initiation ritual in which the practitioner is instructed in tantric practice. As a mahasiddha, or tantric practitioner, Virupa gained liberation (moksha) and supernatural powers (siddhis) once he completed his instruction.

Once enlightened, Virupa continued to meditate in the monastery. Soon the other monks began noticing Virupa engaging in strange and inappropriate behavior, such as frequenting bars and brothels. They declared him to be improper and expelled him from the monastery; however they later forgave him once they recognized his power. Virupa began traveling around India, performing miraculous feats—e.g., reanimating dead insects, controlling the Ganges River, controlling the sun, destroying Vedic statues with his mind—and converting “heretical” yogis who were astonished and terrified by his powers. Eventually, the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara appeared and advised him to stop using terror and violence to achieve compassionate ends—e.g., to stop the slaughter of animals. After using his powers one last time to “tame” the Hindu deity Shiva, Virupa heeds this advice. His legacy: “through his spiritual power, the lord of mahasiddhas Virupa spread the Buddha’s doctrine and tamed heretics” (31).

In the next two sections, we see Virupa’s “Matchless Compassion” meditation and His Holiness Sakya Trizin’s explanation of it. We are shown the importance of developing compassion and the Awakening Mind (bodhicitta). The Bodhisattva Ideal is fundamentally important to Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, and the path of the bodhisattva requires us to be motivated by a sense of compassion for all sentient beings. To do this, Mahayana and Tantric meditations help us cultivate compassion for all people, even our enemies. We are told that those people who harm us in this lifetime were friends and family in other lifetimes, a reminder that we must transcend the animosity we feel toward those who cause us harm, for the superficial and karmically-conditioned aspects of personality that cause people to harm others conceal the deeper common bond of personhood. His Holiness explains that the way to cultivate widespread compassion is by expanding our compassion, starting with those closest to us and gradually directing it toward larger and larger groups, until we are directing compassion toward all. Other techniques His Holiness offers include contemplating on the fact that those who cause us harm are not in control of their mind, and pitying them for the great torment they risk facing in the hell realms.

Virupa is an intriguing figure and his peculiar behavior raises interesting questions. After attaining enlightenment, we are told he was “equal to that of a perfectly and fully enlightened Buddha” (22). And in Monday’s reading we learned that a Buddhist “must turn from worldly activities to religion by taking refuge in the Three Precious Jewels [i.e., the Sangha, the Buddha, and the Dharma]” (Kapstein, 216). So why is Virupa engaging in behavior indicating attachment to worldly things (e.g., prostitution, intoxicants)? Virupa’s aggressive terrorizing of “heretics” was also a strange thing for a master of compassion to be engaged in, even if it was done in the name of ending suffering—e.g., of animals. Do we expect the enlightened to act differently?

As always, I am also interested in the symbolic or allegorical significance of these biographical stories. If we doubt, as most of us would, that Virupa literally held the sun in one place with his mind, what purpose does such a tale serve? Is it simply an exaggeration of the less dubious claim that Virupa had mastered spiritual meditation and had attained a level of control over his mental faculties that most others do not ever attain? Yet, tantric practice is believed by many to give the practitioner supernatural powers (siddhis), so presumably Tibetans do actually believe Virupa was capable of such miraculous feats. Where does myth diverge from reality?

Finally, it would be interesting to discuss the differences between monks and nuns with respect to tantric practice. Are nuns able to receive the same type of “empowerment”?

Buddhism: Calm Peace or Violet Compassion?

In an excerpt from “The Life Story of Mahasiddha Virupa,” a chapter in His Holiness Sakya Trizin’s book Freeing the Heart and Mind, he describes the life story of Virupa, a master of the Buddhist text and practice. Virupa had a similar background to Siddhartha Gautama; he began as an upper class member of a royal family, but gave up his riches to become a monk and study at Nalanda University. He studied hard, excelled, and rose to the top. However, he never quite managed to achieve highly in meditation. He got frustrated and nearly gave up, but a goddess came to him in his sleep, instructing him how to reach enlightenment. Over time, “his realization was equal to that of a perfectly and fully enlightened Buddha (22).”

From there, he meditated constantly in his room, and other people claimed to see women, liquor, and oil lamps inside his room. Because of this, he decided to leave the university and he began to frequent bars and see prostitutes. The other monks decided to expel him from their community. After Virupa left the university, he set out on a journey and performed many miracles (similar to Jesus’s role in Christianity). He began by parting the waters of the Ganges to walk across it. Then, he escaped from heavy chains that people bound him with to drown him. He reversed the flow of the Ganges (causing a flood), he held back the sun (in order to drink up all the beer in a store without paying), he broke a shrine to Shiva to demonstrate his power, he mobilized a statue, and he destroyed a shrine run by heretics.

Through his actions, he gathered many followers and several people converted to Buddhism. However, he received warnings to stop wreaking havoc everywhere he went in the name of Buddhism. Despite these warnings, he challenged the Hindu god Shiva himself, and successfully gets him to follow his orders.

In another chapter of the book, “Training the Mind in Matchless Compassion: Pith Instructions of the Glorious Virupa,” His Holiness Sakya Trizin details meditative processes for how to feel compassion for everyone in the world. He tries to teach everyone how to embrace people that they hate by meditating and reflecting upon their enemies.

The two chapters struck me as an odd contrast to each other. In the first story, Virupa succeeds and gains power by obstructing people who challenge him with magic. Even when Virupa is warned to stop being so destructive, he carries out his original plans and receives positive reinforcement for his actions. The author clearly venerates Virupa and holds him in high esteem, regardless of what he left in ruins on his trajectory. This chapter seems to validate and accept the use of violence for the sake of Buddhism. However, the next chapter conveys quite an opposite message: it seems to be saying that if problems exist between two people, they should both just meditate and learn to accept the other person. A dichotomy exists between these forms of Buddhism: fierce propagation of Buddhism versus an introspective and individualistic search for inner compassion. Overall, I was surprised by the amount of brutality found in the reading. My question is: how accepted should violence be in the context of Buddhism? Is it appropriate for Buddhists to fight for their religion (as people have done in other religions) or does that go against the fundamental values of Buddhism?

Religion in Tibet

In Matthew Kapstein’s book “Religious Life and Thought, he spends a chapter focusing on traditions in Tibet. His main argument is that a proliferation of religions exists in such a small and scarcely populated area as Tibet. Each Tibetan has his or her own way of connecting to the spiritual world. To begin with, not only traditional Buddhism exists in the region. Muslims, Christians, and Jews inhabit Tibet, along Bön, a sect of Buddhism that pulls traditions from India, Iran and China (205).

A majority of Tibetans identify with Buddhism and/or Bön. Monastic life is extremely important there. Monasteries dot the Tibetan landscape, and the biggest ones hold hundreds or even thousands of monks (220). Though monks held a lot of importance, Kapstein brings up a lot of the same gender issues that Kim Gustchow mentioned in previous readings: “Nuns in most places suffered from economic privation,” and nunneries “seldom had resources to provide more than a rudimentary education” (219).

The monks in Tibet have enough resources to be able to specialize. For many, living in a monastery provides an opportunity to gain access to higher education; several monks pursue a variety of academic subjects in order to become a monk-scholar. Other monks around Lhasa become warrior monks, and they are known for their “rough manners, their penchant for gang violence, and, on occasion, homosexual aggression” (221). They act as policemen sometimes. Other monks immerse themselves fully in tantric practices, such as meditation and yoga. The highest point a monk could reach is the combination of both scholarship and tantric skill.

Laypeople participate in pilgrimages and festivals to celebrate their Buddhist roots. They spend time at religious shrines, and they also travel to holy places such as Mount Kailash. Everyone participates in festivals, but tantric rituals are reserved for only select, highly accomplished monks.

Tibetans also belong to the “nameless” or “popular” religion (205). They perform various rites for local gods and goddesses. These deities do not come from Buddhism, but they are accepted and incorporated into the religion in the same way that Christians accept the pagan winter festival as “Christmas” (206). The daily practices involve a lot of regulation of the relationship between the gods and humans; for example, if something goes wrong, Tibetans recite certain prayers to try to appease the gods and reset the balance of the world. Shamans perform exorcisms to rid areas of demons, as well. Divination is also a common practice among locals. Most of the local spirit worship involves keeping gods happy and getting rid of demons.

Given the different ways to practice Buddhism, and the hundreds of different gods found in different regions of Tibet, each Tibetan has a unique way of observing his or her own beliefs. I found it incredible that so many deities, spirits, and monsters could all be accepted under the same religion as “Buddhism” with no problems. Because Buddhism seems so individualistic in Tibet, how malleable can the boundaries of Buddhism be before someone’s practices no longer conform to the religion? How does one balance worshipping both the larger gods within Buddhism and the smaller divinities specific to local areas?

Religion in Tibet: A Peculiar Display of Integration

Chapter 7 of Kapstein’s “The Tibetans” provides a general overview of religion in the Tibetan region, including traditions besides Buddhism such as the Bön religion or the autochthonous beliefs. The text encompasses information regarding traditions and rituals that originate before Buddhism, a brief explanation of Tibetan Buddhism, and monasticism and its role.

The introduction to the chapter begins with mention of the “nameless religion” prevalent in Tibet that centers on cults of local divinities and spirits (205). Interestingly, the tradition still remains integrated into Buddhism and Bön, accepted as it is. Household traditions of offering juniper incense to the gods of the local environment, curative practices of medicine, or even exorcistic rituals of evils such as the ‘gossip-girl’ are all examples of this tradition (212). The acknowledgement of Divination (astrological, augural, systemized understanding) is accepted both by Bönpo and Buddhists, as seen in examples of pronouncements delivered through possessed medium for essential Buddhist events such as the transfer of power to the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. The Tibetan Buddhist tradition shows great interest in death, and perform rituals for the ‘bardo’ (intermediate state between life and death) especially to secure favorable rebirths for the departed, and to prevent the sprits from haunting the living (214).

Primarily, Tibetan Buddhism is a branch of Mahayana Buddhism, which means that adherents must not simply seek for personal nirvana, but cultivate compassion for all living beings (216). The idea of rebirth takes an important role in Tibetan Buddhism, and gaining merit is especially emphasized. The Bön religion is said to be similar in its general outlines. This doctrine acts as the fundamental basis of Tibetan religion heavily affecting lay life as it does monastic life.

Kapstein then goes on to explain monasticism and its role in society. The monastery functioned as a concentration of cultural resources such as education or the arts, while also serving as an absorbent of surplus labor (219). Monastic life was not limited to religious practice, but also regularly involved in commerce or administration. Literacy, and the study of philosophy (emphasizing on the art of debate) were almost exclusive to the monastics. Through debate, monastics could develop their understanding of Buddhist philosophy and doctrine, at times even earning titles such as geshe or khenpo (depending on the order) (224). Apart from scholarly religious study, tantrism and yoga plays a significant role in Tibetan Buddhists. Being a complex system that requires initiation from a guru, extensive meditation and practice (yoga), tantrism is a way to attain enlightenment in one lifetime. Scholar-monks and tantric yogins while distinct are both highly valued in Tibetan culture.

The chapter continues with an explanation of the major orders of Tibetan Buddhism and ends with the importance of pilgrimage and cycles of celebration in Tibetan culture. Despite the fact that this was a chapter from a book, it surprisingly didn’t require too much context. The information was not too difficult and displayed very interesting parts of Tibetan religious life that I hadn’t known of. The integration of tradition into the later ‘foreign’ religions (Buddhism, Bön) mesmerized me and portrayed the uniqueness of Tibetan religious life. However, one part that bothered me was the lack of organization within the chapter. When reading the introduction and the first sub-chapter, I felt excited to learn more about the integration of tradition into Buddhism, and its influence in culture. However, going into the second sub-chapter and beyond, the text started to skip around introducing different concepts, which felt less unique and comprehensive of Tibetan religion. Monasticism through debate and tantrism made me concentrate again, but then the sub-chapter regarding the major orders seemed to lose the color of the chapter. Personally, to me the chapter also ended without a comprehensive conclusion.

So, naturally I wanted to ask the class whether they approved of the organization of this text. Regarding content, reading the text I wondered if the integration of local traditions to the introduced unified religion was in fact a common pattern all over the world. The text briefly mentioned Christmas as a pagan tradition. It felt as if I could have been treating Tibet as an excessively special culture, without knowing about cultures more familiar to us that share similar examples of integration. I also wanted to know more about the Bön religion, since Kapstein used examples from the Bön religion only to prove similarities to Buddhism or integration of the “nameless religion”, and did not provide an overview of the Bön religion. For instance, I knew of the existence of Bön but had never known that it was originally foreign like Buddhism (205). Finally, how pilgrimage to sacred places happens in the modern world of Chinese occupation was also a sad curiosity that came to mind.