Summary written by Kim Carson, May 2015.
Drukpa Kunley spent the 115 years of his life, from 1455 to 1570 AD, as a perpetual teenager, rebelling vehemently against convention. Born in the Tsang region of Western Tibet, he left home as a young man, following the assassination of his father in a family feud, with the goal of receiving formal religious training in the Mahamudra tradition. Eventually finding any one sect or monastery too confining, he gave up all worldly possessions to become a self-proclaimed vagabond, wandering throughout Bhutan, bringing shocks, laughter and ultimately a devout faith to all of those he came across. Regarded as a reincarnation of Milarepa, Drukpa Kunley expanded upon the notion of spirituality established by his predecessors.
Drukpa Kunley was a divine madman, referred to in India as an “avadhūta.” To him, divinity had nothing to do with earthy trifles, including society and religion itself. A profound belief that man should find his own path to enlightenment led him from town to town shocking people out of preconceived notions and misconceptions. His intentionally unconventional behavior was often expressed in relation to women and alcohol (chung), reflecting a tantric notion of refusal to abide by what is traditionally considered pure and impure. Drukpa Kunley often acts outwardly cruel toward women through actions that eventually allow them to reach enlightenment. After spending some time as a lover of a girl named Sumchok, he banishes her to a hillside cavern for three months. She is initially terrified, but this exile that seems to be so inhumane eventually results in her achievement of enlightenment. Similarly, Drukpa Kunley cruelly teases and casts out another lover, Loleg Bhuti. When she asks to given a spiritual name, he teases her, renaming her “Leopard Bear Serpent Saviouress” and later “Lustful Shameless Divine-Teaching Saviouress” and, despite her pleas to stay with him, he casts her away to a cave to meditate as well. Eventually, however she comes to be called simply “Divine-Teaching Saviouress” and attains enlightenment in her exile.
Drukpa Drukpa Kunley has a complex relationship with women, embodying the dichotomy between objectification and respect for the female form. On the one hand, his primary relationship with women is through the physical act of sex, and he seems to find unattractive girls unworthy of enlightenment. In a poem, Drukpa Kunley classifies the various types of dakinis, and in each description, the physical form of the dakini corresponds with the result of coupling with her. For example, coupling with the beautiful Jewel dakini is said to bring wealth and shut the gates of hell while coupling with the Ashen dakini, who has spongy yellow skin, is said to create suffering and rebirth as a hungry ghost. In this sense the female physicality represents character and worth. But on the other hand, Drukpa Kunley seems to have no notion that women cannot attain enlightenment. While Chokyi Dronma was a devout practitioner, she seemed resigned to the fact that her inferior rebirth as a woman was an obstacle to enlightenment. Drukpa Kunley holds no such reservations. So in some ways, it seems that Drukpa Kunley is a progressive thinker in that he does not see femaleness as an obstacle to enlightenment. But he does consider certain elements of the female form, namely physical features that he finds undesirable, to be obstacles to enlightenment. Female physicality is not seen to embody samsara and suffering, but it is subject to spiritually significant scrutiny in a way the male form is not.
Drukpa Kunley’s brand of holy wisdom regards any form of organization as an error of perception, whether this organization is in the form of religion, society or family. His means of shocking people out of this erroneous mindset, being too tied to conditioned perception, is through laughter and outrage. One day, while wandering through Drepung, he decides to play a prank on the local monastery. When he says that that he would like to become a novice, the monks asks whether Drukpa Kunley has a good voice. He replies that he does not but that he has a friend with an excellent voice. The monks request he bring this friend with him next time and he shows up the following day with a donkey in monks’ robes. “This is my friend with the good voice,” he says when the monks notice a donkey seated at the end of their line, and he kicks the donkey to make it bray. Every moment for Drukpa Kunley is an opportunity to teach others to laugh and he regards these antics as a refusal of pride.
Similarly to his treatment of women, his outlandish behavior toward powerful figures is often received as immediately insulting and only later are his benevolent intentions revealed. When Drukpa Kunley arrives at Rawa, he meets with the local governor, who asks for a meat tax and accuses Drukpa Drukpa Kunley of trying to avoid paying this tax. Drukpa Kunley, in response, manages to herd musk deer as though they were sheep and begins wantonly cutting off their heads to exaggeratedly demonstrate his payment of the meat tax. The governor is shocked and begs Drukpa Kunley to stop, at which point Drukpa Kunley snaps his finger and the bodies and severed heads of the deer crawl back together and reanimate. After seeing this amazing act, the governor renounces his former way of life as someone whose job it was to enforce societal regulations, cuts off his hair and becomes a bodhisattva. In this way, the divine meaning of a seemingly offensive act becomes apparent.
Drukpa Kunley’s denouncement of societal systems extends beyond religion and law and into the familial realm. While traveling through Ralung, Drukpa Kunley impregnates a woman named Tsewong Peldzom. He does not stay with her, but returns to visit after the birth of his son. Recognizing his son as a demon, Drukpa Kunley hurls his child into the middle of a field where he is struck by lightening. This demonization of his child as well as Drukpa Kunley’s sexual promiscuity, which can be read as a departure from traditional family values, symbolically demonizes the institution of family in general and suggests that there can be no justifiable institution. Even institutions that have traditionally been connoted as pure, such as the family, are not innocent of obstructing pure divinity untainted by earthly trifles.
Drukpa Kunley’s systematic denouncement of each traditional origin of law and convention (religious, gubernatorial and familial) also demonstrate a fundamental contradiction with the idea of an avadhūta. His refusal of each type of society is in itself organized. He specifically identifies and contradicts each institution and in doing so, he expounds an organized anarchy, a fundamental oxymoron. A religion that systematically rebels against each institution, regardless of whether the individual acts of rebellion themselves seem random, makes one question if our patterns of thought are not simply being redirected, rather than dispelled as claimed. A common argument against organized religion is that it provides a platform of power to those who claim to be closer to divinity, just as a system of law gives power to its president and a family has traditionally granted power to the patriarch. As a divine madman who claims to understand the flaws in normal patterns of thought, Drukpa Kunley is directing the respect of the people away from kings, families and monks and posing himself as the having knowledge of how to connect with divine chaos, the authority on entropy. Is it possible his denial of previous forms of authority, and the idea of authority in general, serve in fact to implant himself in this power vacuum? Does his claim to understand chaos establish his own judgement as simply a new version of convention?