By Arun Ganapathy
Fascinated by drukpa kuenley, an enigmatic tibetan monk, a schoolmaster travels to bhutan to retrace his footsteps
At the Chimmi Lakang temple in Bhutan, the abbot was blessing a group of women, by placing a dildo on their heads, while bowing deeply. A dildo in a temple? I walked up to the abbot and asked him why he did it. Mumbling “Drukpa Kuenley”, his face creased into a nervous giggle.
Drukpa Kuenley was an itinerant Tibetan monk, revered throughout Bhutan 500 years ago. He was a ‘crazy wise’ teacher, whose outrageous behaviour and ribald humour were intended to awaken common people and yogis alike. He walked through the hills of Bhutan, teaching his wisdom, through songs, skilful use of shock therapy, laughter and tears. I was fascinated by a biography I had read of him, and decided to go to Bhutan, and retrace the journey he had made through the mountain kingdom.
On the Trail
From what I had read, the Drukpa had walked down the road from Paro to Thimphu centuries ago in search of an arrow he had shot from Tibet. I thought it a good place to begin my journey in his footsteps. He had followed its path, stopping at villages on the way, drinking in the beer-houses, working miracles, and spreading his wisdom. At one such village, the legends say, he had stopped, unrolled his Vajra (penis), and then caught and bound a demon in it.
I got out of my car, and walked into the village to look for some landmark of the lama’s achievement – nothing, only the sound of the wind as it howled through the trees, and the creak of a prayer wheel as it was turned by the brook running past it. I remembered lines from the book. In the 16th century, the Bhutanese were still obsessed by demons – the different demons were an expression of their fear of the latent powers of the snow, wind and altitude, given projected form by the mind.
A few miles out of Thimphu, there is a TV tower overlooking the city. The winding road goes through forests of cypress trees. Though deserted, there is evidence of Buddhist devotees having passed this way. Colourful prayer flags, strung between trees, flutter in the breeze, and the spaces between rocks are filled with miniature stupas shaped of mud. Then the road climbs, and takes a sharp turn. A board at the turning reads:
Takin nature reserve – WWF.
“Here lama do magic,” said my guide as he stopped the car.
I copied what was on the board outside:
“Here, the lama was asked to perform a miracle. Before complying, he demanded he be given a whole cow and a goat to eat. When he had finished, he took the goat’s head, and stuck it on the bones of the cow. To everyone’s amazement, on a command of the lama, the new animal came to life – the Takin befuddles taxonomists.”
I had hardly walked 50 yards into the reserve, when a strange cry from an even stranger animal behind a tree, convinced me that Drukpa Kuenley’s magic was still very effective. I was back in my car in a flash, and heading on the road to Punakha.
The Monk’s Magic
We were still on the trail of the arrow, which had landed close to a place called Dochu la Pass, en route to Punakha. The Dochu la Pass is a large roundabout on the Thimphu-Punakha road, with a chorten in the centre. At 10,000 feet, it is the highest point on this road. A log cabin here offers tea, and a stunning view of the Tibetan Himalayas – range upon range of grey mountains topped with snow, white and still, just hanging in the distance against the sky, as though they had been painted. I walked up to the base of the chorten, and pulled out my book on Drukpa Keunley trying to understand why I was here.
‘Dochu la Pass was the place where the lama had met a boy coming down from Wongdu road, with a cow. A demon had been feeding on the cattle of passers-by, and the boy was scared. He begged the lama for help. The lama promised to look after his cow for the night, and transported the boy home, using his magic. When the demon appeared that night, she saw the cow, and called up the hill to the Sing la Pass demoness, and down the hill to the Hing la Pass demoness, telling them to come and feast. As they were about to eat, he caught her by the hair, and dragged her to the Wongdu road.’
I looked up and heard a loud voice from behind. “Well I hope we get to see a tiger, they said we’d see a lot of tigers around here.” It was a group of Americans who had followed me on this trip.
As I walked back to the car, I tried to picture the scene: a lama holding a demon by the scruff of her neck, dragging her down this high road, 500 years ago. Somehow, the demon bit did not fit, but the Americans’ remark on the tigers now made sense.
‘Here she transformed herself into a red dog. The lama caught her by the ear, covered her with a pile of earth, and built a stupa on top of it. He predicted a temple would be built over it in the future.’
A Fantastic World
That temple is the Chimmi Lakang. It is a long walk through fields of ripening paddy and orange orchards. The entrance is marked by a large prayer wheel with a bright red drum covered in gold Tibetan lettering. A lay Buddhist monk sat at its side, slowly turning the wheel, and intoning the Buddhist chant ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’. One tug at the wheel, some chewing of betel nut, and then a short grunt, ‘Om Mani Padme Hum.’
Inside was a world as fantastic as the surroundings. In the main prayer room, rich brocades of silk hung from the ceiling, and the walls were filled with murals in red and turquoise depicting scenes from the lama’s life: One showed him sitting on a deerskin wearing a snake as a sash.
It was dark, save for a shaft of sunlight slanting in through the window, and falling on the abbot’s desk. In front of it was a glass case, lit by flickering butter lamps at its base. A bronze statue of the lama, sitting in padmasana, was inside. He wore a black skullcap, beneath which was a boyish face with mischievous eyes.
A group of women were standing behind me, waiting to be blessed. They were carrying cans of Coca Cola and rolls of camphor. I watched the abbot take it from them. He placed the Coca Cola cans on the floor, and lit the camphor in a brass holder. He then picked up a dark wooden dildo, and an arrow from a corner, and placed it on the heads of the women. “Temple coming and women getting children,” whispered my guide in the dark.
I understood that this was a temple of fertility. And the meaning of the dildo. And the nervous giggle on the abbot’s face.
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