Drukpa Kunley (1455 – 1529)

Of all the crazy fuckers we are likely to talk about, Drukpa Kunley is likely to merit the title of craziest. Hands down, at least if we are to take the record of his exploits at face value. Trouble is, however, that the details of some of his exploits are so fantastical that they drag him out of the realm of spirituality and into the realm of legend, fable and magic. Nevertheless, I know of no account that more aptly opens us up to the possibility that one’s spiritual quest need not exclude having a rollicking good time.

To summarize his adventures, Kunley was extremely fond of chung, a beer-like liquor brewed in Tibet and Bhutan. His favorite method of bestowing enlightenment was sexual congress with young unmarried women. But that was not the only use to which he put his male organ. Legend has it that he would frequently employ his “Flaming Thunderbolt of Wisdom” in subduing demons, variously as a club, a battering ram, and even a flame thrower when the occasion warranted.

Many of the stories of Kunley subduing demons are now believed to be allegories of his missionary activity in the outer reaches of Tibet and Bhutan, bringing Buddhist teachings to hitherto unreachable mountain villages and hidden valley hamlets where they had not been heard before. The demons, in this interpretation, represented the superstitious fears which ruled the lives of the inhabitants prior to the arrival of the Dharma.

Allegorical as they may be, the stories are nevertheless fascinating. To subdue the Demon of Wong as he attempted to devour the last living inhabitant in her home, Kunley thrust his ever-ready thunderbolt through the keyhole and straight into the demon’s mouth, breaking all his teeth. Informed that the wound would never heal unless he submitted to Kunley, the demon prostrated himself as Kunley ordained him by placing the same thunderbolt on the demon’s head, converting him from a menace to a protector of the Dharma.

In another story, his words alone were sufficient to edify the Demoness of Longrong:

This indigent beggar, this vagrant
Has turned from desire in disgust

And speaking whatever enters his mind
Outward show is invested with virtue

Never working, letting reality hang loosely
Whatever arises is the path of release.1 

Inviting her to assume a new role as protectoress, she transformed herself into a beautiful woman, served him liquor in a crystal urn, vowed never again to harm living beings, and consummated her vows in an act of union, once again through the offices of Kunley’s ever-useful thunderbolt.

Kunley’s school of Tibetan Buddhism (Drukpa Kahgyu) traces its lineage back to solitary hermits and wandering ascetics of India and Tibet who strongly emphasized the individuality of spiritual growth, and tended to resist the excessive institutionalization represented by the growth of powerful monasteries. Kunley never missed the opportunity to rail against their hypocrisy and corruption. Here is an example from a poem he composed while visiting one monastery:

I, a wandering Naljorpa, visited a Kahgyu Academy
And in that gompas each monk was holding a bowl full of chung
So fearful of becoming a drunken reveler, I kept to myself.

I, a wandering Naljorpa, visited a Sakya Academy
And in that gompas the monks were splitting subtle doctrinal hairs
So fearful of forsaking the true path of the Dharma, I kept to myself.

I, a wandering Naljorpa, visited Mountain Hermitages
And there the monks were gathering worldly possessions
So fearing to break my vow to my Lama, I kept to myself.1

On the surface, Kunley’s claims to spiritual advancement might seem a bit suspect – the records show few instances in his life where he willingly restrained his passions, although some instances are recorded where they were involuntarily restrained.  In one, he seemed to have experienced a form of erectile dysfunction in front of an 80-year old woman’s demand the he give her the same treatment he was wont to lavish on girls a fifth of her age.

It would almost seem that he lived his life after the fashion of a “Dharma Bum” of the Beat Generation some 500 years in the future, carousing as he would and covering up his excesses with a veneer of spirituality.  But before judging him too harshly, we need to consider two factors – the tradition out of which he came and the extent to which he is still revered, especially among the people of Bhutan.

Drukpa Kunley came out of the Tantric Buddhist tradition, which is prevalent in Tibet and Bhutan, and differs significantly from the better known Buddhist traditions in Southeast Asia (Theravada) and East Asia (Mahayana).  The differences are perhaps best understood in terms of the approach that each one takes toward human desire.  In the Theravada tradition, desire is in itself the cause of suffering, so the focus is on eliminating desire.  The Mahayana tradition, in turn, focuses on replacing selfish desires with altruistic desires for the well-being of others, and indeed all sentient beings.

It would almost seem that he lived his life after the fashion of a “Dharma Bum” of the Beat Generation some 500 years in the future, carousing as he would and covering up his excesses with a veneer of spirituality.

The Tantric approach views human desire as a source of powerful energy that can be harnessed in the quest for enlightenment, so the focus is to purify that desire of contamination by the selfish ego rather than eliminate it entirely.  Ordinary pleasures, such as drinking chung, are considered to be a part of life, and not necessarily an obstacle to spiritual progress.

In fact, at the higher levels of Tantric practice, it is often customary for the practitioner to seek out a dakini, or consort, in order to achieve a level of bliss and approach enlightenment through sexual union.  In this light, Kunley’s practices can be seen as very much in line with his own tradition.

The second factor to consider is the esteem in which the people of Tibet and especially Bhutan hold this wandering madman.  He is in fact revered as a fully enlightened Buddha.  This is a part of the world where sexuality is treated in a more casual manner than the West.  It was not unusual in those times for wandering holy men to provide instruction in the arts of love to young girls, or offer a certain amount of solace to widows and spinsters.  Young men engage in “night hunting” where they seek admission to a girl’s bed for nocturnal activities and endeavor to escape undetected before morning.  If they are actually discovered in the morning, a marriage is assumed without further ceremony. 

In summary, Kunley’s practices are more in tune with the customs of his time and place, as well as his own spiritual tradition than it might at first have seemed.  Perhaps the reason he is so popular with the ordinary people of Bhutan is that the earthy gusto with which he conducted his affairs provides a simple and easily understood example of the Tantric principle that all of life’s delights may be tasted, and ordinary human desires resolved into a coherent whole that unifies the dualities of body and soul, flesh and spirit.

Notes

  1. The verse translations printed here are from Keith Dowman’s The Divine Madman – The Life and Songs of Drukpa Kunley.  1980.  Dzogchen Now! Books.  Available through Amazon.

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