In advance of my trip to Bhutan, I have finished reading The Divine Madman: The Sublime Life and Songs of Drupka Kunley. It’s always wise to know at least a little bit about the culture of a country that you’re going to visit, I think, and it’s safe to say that Drupka Kunley has had his impact on Bhutanese culture.
In fact, in the Paro valley it is not uncommon to see phallus motifs painted on the whitewashed houses. Wooden penises are erected in crop fields as scarecrows, and carved wooden penises are hung in new homes as a part of a housewarming ceremony. And all of this ritualized significance of the penis in Bhutan can be traced back to Drukpa Kunley.
Kunley was a Buddhist saint from Tibet who traveled extensively in Bhutan. He is called the Divine Madman, and the Saint of 5000 Women. He traveled as a beggar, he consumed large quantities of alcohol wherever he went, and is said to have deflowered Bhutan’s virgins. He is perhaps the greatest instance of the trickster archetype that I’ve encountered in Buddhism, though I really wish we had a different word to describe this role; I find that in modern western culture, the trickster has been whitened and sanitized into a sort of a jolly figure… the harmless prankster. Coyote with his flute and whatnot. Drukpa Kunley was indeed jolly at times, but the trickster is also a dark figure in religion, literature, and even film, and I think that the whitewashing does the role a tremendous disservice. The trickster’s darkness, its anger and hate and sin, all serve a purpose, and to eliminate those qualities robs the archetype of all of its meaning and humanity. Sadly, this is a thing that happens all too often in modern western culture; the sanitation of humanity.
I have to say, I loved this book. And when I say that I loved this book, I don’t mean that I thought this book was pretty cool, I mean that it provided an anchor to a part of me that has been lost in doubt and sadness and fear for a period of a couple of months and brought it back to the surface. It was a part of me that makes me very happy, and I hadn’t even noticed how far away from it I had strayed until I felt things coming back into focus. Not because I’m religious, or because this was a religious text, but because the book speaks of a man who sees things just similarly enough to how I do to remind me of what’s important in life.
Kunley was often drunk, lustful, and angry… not traits one might expect to be cherished in a Buddhist saint. But the Madman used these things to reveal the greedy and prideful nature of the townsfolk and especially of the primary structure of power; Buddhism itself.
In Lhasa, he sought to test the local lama, and went to the temple. Once there, he found the local monks engaged in metaphysical discussion, and presented them with his own flatulence, asking “what came first, the air or the smell?” The monks became furious. This was Kunley’s lesson in humility; the idea that their lofty discussion has as much validity as his own farts.
He asked to gain an audience with the lama and was told that he would need to provide an offering in order to do so. In response, Kunley said, “If it’s absolutely necessary, I have this fine pair of testicles given to me by my parents, will they do?”
The use of humor in teaching these lessons is essential; through humor, one can transgress against accepted societal norms, but the status of Kunley as a beggar and a stranger made that transgression non-threatening to the social order, as it came from a man with no standing or social power, so that it could be laughed at. Laughter triggers a release of dopamine in the brain, a neurotransmitter strongly associated with the reward system in the brain. This system has developed over time to encourage behaviors that make survival more likely; laughter itself is theorized to be a reaction to a relief from fear; a bush rattles, and one discovers that it was the wind rather than a predator. The tension is broken, one feels relief, and the laughter signals that it is safe. This is true through all stages of life. In infancy, a child laughs at a game of peek-a-boo, because they have not fully developed a sense of object permanence and when the parent or playmate disappears, there is a moment of fear and discomfort. When the playmate reappears, there is relief, and then laughter. This reward system, which is the same system that drives us to eat and to have sex, is one of the most powerful behavioral motivators that we have, sometimes culminating in addiction.
Kunley was a womanizer, said to have five thousand consorts. Kunley’s ready engagement with lust despite being a Bhuddist saint is a thing that he claims as his own due to his own attainment of Buddhahood. On his way from Tibet to Bhutan, he seduced a man’s wife with this song:
“It would seem by the size of your buttocks
That your nature is exceedingly lustful
It would seem from your thin, pert mouth
That your muscle is tight and strong
It would seem from your legs and muscular thighs
That your pelvic thrust is particularly efficient
Let’s see how you perform!”
In these acts, we see an acceptance of carnality as a facet of humanity, as well as the breaking down of societal norms. The goal of Buddhist practice is a kind of transcendence beyond earthly wants and pleasures, beyond emotions such as pain, anger and sadness. I don’t see these as worthwhile goals for humanity; they are unattainable, and the establishment of unattainable goals by people in power is a means of control. During even this period in history, the lama/peasant relationship and Tibetan Buddhism itself were just such establishments.
Though the book contains a great deal of misogynist overtones, one must accept in the reading that Kunley was a product of a time in which women were essentially property, to be taken at will by whoever had the right to them at the time. I think that it’s important to not throw out the baby with the bathwater; I think that these stories are applicable to the modern day. With their refusal to accept the corrupt nature of established authority, their determination to see the world as it is and not as we wish it to be, and their acceptance of human nature in its entirety, including it’s gross, carnal, and sinful aspects, I see friends whose genius and insight I envy. I see a divinity accessible to all, and not just to those willing to engage in denial of self and of the world. I see a world of beauty, brilliance, and determined compassion.
I see a world as viewed through my own eyes, and it feels like homecoming.