Bhutan’s Divine Madman

A group of young monks greet visitors at a monastery in Bhutan.
A group of young monks are happy to greet California Native visitors at a monastery in Bhutan.

Bhutan is an exotic and strange destination. But of all of its unique characteristics, none seems more peculiar to us than the history and legends of the great religious teacher and holyman, Lama Drukpa Kunley, known throughout Bhutan as “The Divine Madman.”

Drukpa Kunley was born in Tibet in the year of the wood-pig in the eighth cycle—or, as we would call it, 1455.

As a child he was extremely precocious and had full memory of his previous incarnations. After his father was killed in a family feud, he became disillusioned with the world and dedicated himself to a religious life, eventually becoming a monk. In his early twenties, he gave up his robes and became a mendicant, wandering throughout the country and gaining mastery of the spiritual arts and magic.

As he traveled through Tibet and into Bhutan, he purposely spurned accepted ways of behavior as a method of calling attention to the hypocrisy, selfishness and greed of the world and thus lead people to adopt honest and spiritual lives. His unorthodox methods of religious teaching seem most peculiar from our frame of reference because they were based on a very ribald and debauched life style. The great lama spent much of his time singing and drinking with young ladies and deflowering virgins.

Reading the legends of Lama Drukpa Kunley is like reading Rabelais—both relying on the idea of divine excess. When he is not drinking chung (a sort of Tibetan beer) or making love to a maiden he is using his “Flaming Thunderbolt of Wisdom” to strike down evil demons. He is totally irreverent and ridicules the establishment, especially corrupt and self seeking priests. He performs magical feats—what the Judeo-Christian culture calls “miracles”—blessing or damning families, based on their moral treatment of others, turning tiny quantities of tea into amounts sufficient to quench the thirst of thousands, exorcising evil spirits, reforming demons, and instantaneously transporting himself to far off locations. In some of the stories he slaughters animals for their meat then, from their bones, restores them to life and sends them on their way.

He is adored by the Bhutanese who, despite being a very conservative society who never show affection in public, protect their homes from evil spirits and promote fertility by painting cartoon images of flying phalluses on the outside walls of their houses.

Near the town of Punakha, Drukpa Kunley founded a monastery dedicated to fertility. Each year hundreds of people come from all over Bhutan to pray for children. In the temple they are blessed by a monk holding a symbolic phallus.

Tucked away in the green valleys of the Himalayas, Bhutan is indeed an exotic country, so different from ours, yet the Bhutanese people make us feel welcome and invite us to try and understand their ancient and tranquil ways. The more we see of their country the more we want to return.

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