Lama Drukpa Kunley, Bhutan's Divine Madman

Zegrahm Contributor|June 1, 2015|Blog Post

While visiting Bhutan’s capital, Thimphu, the esteemed Indio-Anglian author and journalist Khushwant Singh heard numerous references to what he called “a wandering ascetic who combines preaching religion with sex and liquor.” This “Divine Madman” was, as Singh recounts in his book, The Freethinker’s Prayer Book: And Some Words to Live By, the “most unconventional holy man the world has ever known.”

To be fair, Lama Drukpa Kunley (1455-1529) comes from a long line of historic holy men who have succumbed to their Bacchic nature, and no religion is exempt. Yet Kunley’s fabled exploits are, as Singh says, “ribald beyond belief … bawdy tales of fornication and copious intake of chung wine,” all while offering spiritual counseling on how to escape one’s karma and attain nirvana.

As the Lama described his own antics: "The best chung wine lies at the bottom of the pail / And Happiness lies below the navel."

Yet despite his crude behavior—indeed, because of it— Drukpa Kunley is regarded as one of Bhutan’s greatest religious leaders, and beloved as the kingdom’s patron saint. Considered enlightened for espousing “crazy wisdom,” the Tantric Buddhist master combined faith with sexual gratification, using lewd behavior and raunchy humor to shock people out of their traditional sense of morality. Kunley said he utilized his “divine thunderbolt of wisdom” to penetrate life’s greatest mysteries—as well as many a willing female disciple. He constantly made fun of traditional conventions, and decried the monks for their hypocrisy.

Born in Tibet, Drukpa Kunley was, according to legend, a precocious child who had vivid memories of past incarnations. When his father was killed he became disillusioned, renouncing the world for an ascetic life. By his early 20s, however, he had given up his monk robe for more roguish ways, wandering the country as he practiced supernatural arts. Crossing the Bhutan border, Kunley openly mocked the establishment, propagating his own virtue of living honestly while enjoying divine excess.

Among the many miracles he is said to have performed, the Tantric yogi reformed demons; traveled thousands of miles instantaneously on the spiritual plane; and slaughtered animals for meat, then used their bones to bring them back to life. While a highly conservative people, the Bhutanese express their adoration for Drukpa Kunley by painting “flying phalluses” on their homes to ward off evil spirits and promote fertility. The walls of Chimi Lhakhang monastery near Punakha, built to honor Bhutan’s “Divine Madman,” are covered in these esoteric images, and a monk with a symbolic phallus blesses its visitors.

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