Monson, Elizabeth L. Tales of a Mad Yogi: The Life and Wild Wisdom of Drukpa Kunley. Shambhala Publications, 2021.
Summary by Leif Wood
The Tales of the Mad Yogi is the story of Drukpa Kunley (1455-1529), reconstructed by Elizabeth Monson from the four volumes of The Liberation Tales. The Liberation Tales are episodic, non-chronological, writings about (and some scholars argue by) Drukpa Kunley—they cover parts of his life, his religious teachings, and his interior life. The Tales of the Mad Yogi is broken into 20 chapters and tells the story of Kunley’s journey into monkshood and then his rejection of it after noting its many hypocrisies. Throughout his life, the main focus of Drukpa Kunley’s practice is constant “self-honesty and self-responsibility” (153). He recognized his path to enlightenment would necessitate constant self-reflection and as such constant rejection of religious institutions and their rules. This led him to a wandering life in which he never stayed in one place for too long, as it would confound his ability to truly engage in this self-reflection. His biography serves as a criticism of the hypocrisy present in instantiated religious and political orders as well as a guide to a different way one might approach their journey towards enlightenment.
Drukpa Kunley’s story begins with his father’s murder by his brother Rinchen Zangpo for his land and property, a seminal moment for the future monk as it was the inciting incident that caused him to leave home. Kunley left behind his mother and sister and accompanied his uncle, Zangpo to the Ringpo domain where he would live with Zangpo and his wife Arinma, Kunley’s mother’s sister. There, he would live within the walls of Gongkar under the rule of Kuntuzangpo, the lord of Rinpung.
Kunley found himself unsatisfied in Gongkar, though he admired Kuntuzangpo, and remained his attendant for six years. At the same time, Gongkar was undergoing attacks from the neighboring principalities of Gong and Nel. In these attacks, Kunley saw the same greed that led to his father’s death. On the night of his 19th birthday, Kunley had a dream, and when he awoke, he proclaimed “there’s no point in anything if I can’t practice the Dharma” (25). Before joining a monastery Kunley returned home to Ralung to reunite with his mother and sister after six years of absence. Kunley’s mother, however, and her new husband, Kunley’s uncle, had just left. Kunley saw this as a sign that his renunciation of everything for the Dharma really was the correct path. One day before he left for good, Kunley received a message from his Cousin Ngawang Chogyal, the abbot of Ralung requesting he come stay at Pokya, the retreat center for Druk Ralung. There he began his practice. He stayed there for eight months as his abilities to read and study grew. It was also at Pokya that he met Lhatsunpa, who was briefly visiting the monastery, and he became Kunley’s first teacher and introduced him to inner heat which would become central to his practice.
Shortly after meeting Lhatsunpa, Kunley decided to travel to the monastic complex of Samye in central Tibet. On the way there, Kunley ran into a nobleman and performed a ritual that would protect his son and while doing so had a vision of a dog who barked “examine your own compassion” (34). This process of self-examination would become an essential part of Kunley’s religious life. Kunley eventually arrived in Long Cave, the cave of Yeshe Tsogyal. There, while meditating, he had a vision of Ekajati, the protector of the most secretive tantric teachings Yeshe Tsogal’s master Guru Rinpoche had imparted to her years before. After meditating in the cave, Kunley decided to make a pilgrimage to Rong to seek Sonam Chokden and learn more about the oral tradition of Mahamudra. After meeting with him, Kunley retreated for six months to practice the form of non-mediation he learned. He then returned to Sonam Chokden. He did not want to have a sedentary monastic life, though, and eventually decided to seek out his first teacher Lhatsunpa. After finding Lhatsunpa, who showed him that he had more work to do, Kunley continued to wander. While serving as an attendant to various monks, Kunley had to deal with a level of poverty and food insecurity he had never experienced before.
Kunley then went on a pilgrimage to Tsari. Thinking that many religious acts were merely performative, though, Kunley first meditated in isolation to try and ascertain if this were truly worth it. Then, when he made his pilgrimage, he attempted to do good deeds on the journey to actualize his learned compassion. On this pilgrimage, he had a vision of Chakrasamvara. After his pilgrimage to Tsari, Kunley kept practicing in the province of U, particularly the rituals of inner heat. Here he ran into a man who waxed poetic about how all yogis were liars and only used their religious practice as an excuse to gain wealth and renown. After reflecting on the performative nature and hypocrisy of the religious institutions he had seen, Kunley decided the only way to continue his spiritual journey would be by leaving his monkhood behind.
Kunley then began a journey to Mon by shooting an arrow towards it and imagining where the arrow landed in his mind’s eye. On his way there he defeated a demon with his mantra of compassion, and then stopped at a cave where Yeshe Tsogal had meditated. On his journey, he was confronted again with various aspects of the hypocrisy of the monastic order, such as abstaining from eating flesh but planting rice which is “replete with sin” (70). After joining some pilgrims he preached to them about how one must practice religion unchained from worldly desire and thus institutions. Eventually, Kunley arrived in The Valley of Changdana to discover his arrow had been found and saved as a sacred object by Pelzang Bhuti. He also encountered an old man to whom he gave a refuge prayer but made him promise that he would recite it whenever the old man thought of him. As it turned out the prayer contained the line: “I take refuge in an old man’s penis, useless but not forgotten” (82). The old man’s family was embarrassed by this, but he kept reciting it, and eventually—to his family’s shock—the old man transcended into “the pure land of Avalokiteshvara” (83).
Soon after Kunley took up and left again. After all, his vow of renunciation included renunciation of any praise from successful religious work as well as any worldly comforts afforded to him in The Valley of Changdana. In the valley of Phobjika, Kunley heard that Pema Lingpa, “the crazy treasure revealer,” was giving teachings, and, wanting to see if he was truly “crazy,” Kunley sought him out. They exchanged teachings and, recognizing how alike they were, became friends. Later on in his journey, Kunley encountered an old nun who told him stories of Yeshe Tsogal and guided him to the sacred valley of Aja Ney. Here, Kunley meditated and had a vision in which his body dissolved. Afterward, he recounted what he remembered of his past lives to pilgrims who had also come to Aja Ney. He then decided to return to Tibet. At an inn on his journey, he explicated again the various contradictions of priesthood and reaffirmed his renunciation of them. Eventually, he returned to Mon and again retreated to explore various tantric practices. He then emerged to preach the superiority of feminine power—“from a primordial time, everything that was ‘feminine’ was best… in the Dharma also, the feminine is best… it’s when we praise women that we experience an increase in good qualities” (137-8). Leaving again, Kunley traveled to Sametang in the district of Wangdi. Here Kunley was offered a meal of goat’s head which he, through ritual, revived on the body of a cow, before leaving the town.
After hearing of his mother’s death, Kunley returned to Druk Ralung. He helped out his sister who had been impoverished when his uncle took everything after his mother’s death. He refused, however, to take up a position as abbot of the monastery of Druk Ralung which had, in the past years, fallen into disrepair as he didn’t want to be beholden to any leaders.
Afterward, Kunley wished to again return to Mon, so he and some of his disciples began the journey. Meanwhile, he wrote his own biography. After giving it to a famous biographer he encountered, the biographer criticized it as having no structure. Kunley responded, “I wrote whatever would expose my faults and humiliations and free me from my own hypocrisy” (156). It was also during this journey that he saw off his consort, as she was a chieftain of Zatson Phugpa and had to return home to be a leader, by giving her his political teachings, such as “don’t envy too much the wealth of others” and “if you want to be a layperson, depend on a lawful lord” (158-9).
Back in Mon, Kunley raised his son Zhingkong Drukdrak into a strong-willed follower of the Dharma. When his son came of age, Kunley and his son began a pilgrimage. As they traveled through Mon, Kunley gave his final testament. In this testament, he laid out his spiritual practice, including his universal condemnation of all the sorts of hypocrisy he found in various forms of Buddhist practice. With Kunley nearing death, they once again returned to Tibet, where Kunley gave one final prayer before passing on.