Monthly Archives: July 2014

Waking up to Divine Madness

In Bhutan I encountered a sudden reminder of how culturally conditioned human vision really is. Looking and seeing are so automatic that it takes the sight of something never seen before, never even imagined before, to wake up awareness of just how much one relies on a taken-for-granted interplay between knowing and seeing. The sight that woke me up in Bhutan is usually referred to as a phallus. This particular style –  pink, erect, spouting, and wearing a ribbon tied with a bow –  is painted on many houses, shops and restaurants.

Outside a restaurant
Outside a restaurant

In addition to this particular image, there was also a proliferation of carved objects. Large ones, referred to in English as ‘flying phalluses’, were secured above doors, often wrapped with a prayer scarf, as protection against bad forces. Indeed, at the phallus shop at the beginning of the track to the fertility temple known as Chimi Lhakhang, one could buy everything from a key chain ornament to a metre-high statue.

Shop near Chimi Lhakhang
Shop near Chimi Lhakhang

Chimi Lhakhang is where imagery, pilgrimage, story and the sacred come together in the figure of Lama Drukpa Kunley (1455-1529). According to biographies, songs and legends, this Tantric master migrated from Tibet and travelled throughout Bhutan. He was fond of women, wine and excess, and as he travelled he taught by singing, telling stories, making jokes, and behaving outrageously. He called himself the ‘Madman from Kyishodruk’.

The story is that on one occasion when he received a blessing thread to hang around his neck, he tied it around his penis to bring luck with women. His sexual exploits are, apparently, legendary. And yet, Lama Drukpa Kunley is a saint.

There is a divine spark in all this excess.

The Lonely Planet Guide offers this poem as a sample of the wider works of Lama Drukpa Kunley. It is addressed to the great teacher Pema Lingpa:

I, the madman from Kyishodruk,
Wander around from place to place:
I believe in lamas when it suits me.
I practice the Dharma in my own way.
I choose any qualities, they are all illusions,
Any gods, they are all the Emptiness of the Mind.
I use fair and foul words for Mantras; it’s all the same.
My meditation practice is girls and wine;
I do whatever I feel like, strolling around in the Void….

The great Lama was also a holy fighter. In these stories his penis seems to acquire extra power, a fact which undoubtedly connects with the use of a phallus to protect homes and shops.

Phallus outside shop, hockadilly (CC)
Phallus outside shop, hockadilly (CC)

According to Keith Dowman’s lovely compilation on Lama Drukpa Kunley:

“The Lama saw the terrifying form of the Lhadzong Demoness approaching him dressed in absurd, unconventional clothing. He immediately erected his Flaming Thunderbolt of Wisdom in the sky and she, unable to bear the sight of that magical tower, changed herself into a Venomous Serpent. The Lama stepped upon her head and the creature was petrified. It can still be seen today in the middle of the main road.”

The phallus naturally has its fertility dimensions: Chimi Lakhang is a temple for such blessings. Couples who are hoping for children go there to be blessed with a wooden phallus.

Chimi Lhakhang, Oliver Lejade (CC)
Chimi Lhakhang, Oliver Lejade (CC)

Although temples are not ordinarily adorned with phalluses, there is one dance I read about (but have not yet had an opportunity to see) in which the monks dance wearing giant red phalluses. In their dances, they mock ‘worldly things’ and represent the achievement of wisdom.

What a complex story these phalluses bear: fertility, the wisdom of detachment, the joys of engagement,  jokes, protection, power, and traces of the divine!

These days, of course, they also have a place in international commodity chains.

Statues in the phallus shop
Statues in the phallus shop

As my eye became accustomed to the unexpected sight of phalluses on public display, I came to appreciate the intermingling of the sacred and the everyday.

Intermingling neither devalues the sacred nor utterly transforms the everyday, but rather bears constant witness to the fact that life’s complexities are intertwined.

This is an insight I want to hold ever-present in my heart. In the midst of all the suffering and death, terror and trauma, that I witness and write about in my work with living beings at the edge of extinction, it is good to keep hold of the knowledge that our world  includes more than terrible deathwork. The sacred, the holy and the madness of crazy exuberance are, truly, part of life’s great on-going story.

Divine madness, it is clear, has its comic dimensions. I was fortunate to encounter just such a holy joker in the person of Guru Baza, the sage at the Burning Lake sacred site discussed in an earlier essay (read here). Guru Baza engaged in the most delightful clowning. He snatched and wore the hat of one of the visitors, for example, and his jokes and fun kept us all laughing.

Guru Baza
Guru Baza

Interspersed with all the fun, he switched into his other mode, inviting us to listen, learn, and enter into the spirit of prayer.


Of the many blessings that come with encountering holy, clowning teachers, perhaps the deepest is the realisation that the spark of divine madness flares up everywhere.

Lama Drukpa Kunley taught this centuries ago, and I will close with a few lines that express this great wisdom in his own words:

“The teaching of the Tantric Mysteries is most profound,
But liberation cannot be gained without profound experience.
Drukpa Kunley may show you the way,
But you must traverse the path by yourself.”

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Resources: Much of the information in this essay is drawn from Keith Dowman’s book on Lama Drukpa Kunley, as is the final quote.

Other quotes and information come from the book Bhutan: The Mosaic of the Dragon, (published by the Bhutan Media Services),  the Lonely Planet Guide and Wikipedia.

Special thanks to Mr Balaram Gurung for taking a small group of us to the Burning Lake sacred site and introducing us to Guru Baza.

Arts of Peace While Bombs Are Falling

The violence in Gaza has taken another torque into anguish and grief. Tal Nitzan, an Israeli poet and pacifist, has written a beautiful open letter to her Palestinian colleague Basem Al-Nabriss, also a poet and peace activist (view here).

Tal Nitzan, courtesy of Amit Zinman
Tal Nitzan, courtesy of Amit Zinman

Tal posted this letter from Basem Al-Nabriss on facebook:

“The situation is really like Dante’s Inferno.
Little Tal [Basem’s granddaughter] and the entire family are in horror. No-one can sleep but for a few hours. I am in constant contact with them, and I try to give them some hope.
There is massive destruction of homes, unprecedented numbers of casualties, mostly innocent people.
What concerns me now is that we get out of this hell as soon as possible.
Regrettably, I feel that being a writer is futile now. What can words do in the face of this fanatical madness? In the face of burnt flesh?
It must be a nightmare for you too.
I imagine and feel the pain of everyone on both sides.
I wish you safety. Safety for our two peoples, and peace for all.”

I wrote about Tal, and another great poet of peace, Maram Al-Masri, in an earlier essay on arts in dark times. I join all of them in solidarity and love, and invite others to do the same. Tal speaks of the role of prophecy in awakening conscience and the awareness of responsibility. She claims poetry as ‘a rebellious act that unsettles axioms, generates question marks, and asserts the right of readers and writers as one to doubt, protest, and rise up.’ I hope she is remembering her own brave words in this time of terror, for she reminds us that ‘throughout history, literary creations have expressed the forbidden and the revolutionary and have … precipitated’ great changes.

Wild Strawberries ~ Arts of Happiness

It was very quiet just after the finish of the International Society of Ethnobiology’s 14th Congress. A lot of people left Bumthang for tours and treks, but by a curious twist of fate, I had a day without a plan.

Dog at Burning Lake


Flicking through my Lonely Planet Guide, I came across instructions for getting to a rock painting that was said to show Padmasambhava, better known in Bhutan as Guru Rimpoche. Around 750 (CE) he came to Bhutan and Tibet, battling demons, subduing and containing them, and directing their energy toward Buddhism. The entwined actions of earth, stone, water and mountains as they mingle with local guardians (ney) and, often, with the further engagement of Guru Rimpoche and other founding Buddhist figures, make for a rich, sensuous, varied, and expressive sacred geography.

Prayer wheels, Kyichu Lhakhang,one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Bhutan
Prayer wheels, Kyichu Lhakhang,one of the oldest Buddhist temples in Bhutan

To get to the site I would need both a vehicle and my own two feet. I decided to ask my host at the Gongkhar Guest House for some help. Would she, Deki, be able to organise a reliable taxi driver for me so that I could count on him waiting for me while I hiked off in search of the site? Her response was to borrow the book and go into the private rooms to consult with some of the others.

Deki returned to greet me with her beautiful, dignified smile. She and her sister would take me, she said. We would visit the site together, but we would need to leave straight away. Deki’s sister Dechen is the cook, and we would have to be back in time for her to get dinner prepared.

We drove to the place where we would leave the car, and we crossed the river on a suspension bridge. It swayed interestingly, but Deki and Dechen apparently decided it wasn’t lively enough so they jumped around to make it more fun! They, too, had not been to the site. This was going to be something fresh and enticing for all three of us.

Once across the river we had a brief but wonderfully pleasant walk in the valley while listening to the splashy rumbles of the river. It was a delight to be on level ground, for in the land of mountains every path is either an ascent or a descent and one’s visual perspective almost invariably is either a bird’s eye view from a precipitous cliff or a neck-straining gaze up into very high places.

Before long, though, we were following a snaky little path as it took us up a hill. The two local women moved effortlessly, but I did not. So we stopped and rested a couple of times, and we talked. We talked about families, languages, life histories, food, beauty, and cultural differences. I learned that Deki is a woman of many accomplishments. Before she became a businesswoman she was a nurse at the local hospital. She did her nurse training in Switzerland, and is proficient in German as well as English, and of course in the district dialect Bumthangkha, the national language Dzongkha, and Tibetan.

Debbie and Deki
Debbie and Deki

As we walked Deki noticed wild strawberries, and so we ate. We ate and walked in perfectly lovely country, and the blessings of life flowed around us in sunshine, breeze, river splashings, tall trees, and the bright vision of red berries tucked amongst varied shrubs including artemisia, the aromatic herb that is used in Bhutanese hot stone baths.

The rock painting was a great surprise – bright, fresh, lively and detailed! There he was, Guru Rimpoche in the form of Dorje Drolö, riding the flying tigress who brought him to Bhutan to wrestle with demons. The tigress is his ‘consort’ in a metamorphosed form: the great Yeshe Tsogyul, a Buddhist master in her own right and sometimes known as the mother of Tibetan Buddhism.

Rock Painting
Rock Painting, Guru Rimpoche & Yeshe Tsogyul

The stories are full of metamorphoses, transformations, and manifestations. Nothing in the world of material reality is fixed, but in the Buddhism of this region place is a point of holding, while form and time seem incredibly mutable.

Sitting at the base of the painting, straining my neck to look up at it, and trying not to take too much notice of the steep fall below me, my practical imagination took over. In the presence of all this shape-shifting, I began to think what a thrill it would be to turn into a flying tiger and avoid having to hike down along the narrow, twisty little path to the valley floor.

Actually, though, I was totally happy. I didn’t really want to be a flying tigress, or even a bird. I was remembering, almost as if the memories had been stored in my cells, the irreplaceable pleasures of walking in the bush with women. The pleasures of gathering food, eating, chatting, taking life as it is offered, and sharing the moments without demands or requirements.

Detzen and Debbie
Dechen and Debbie

Walking in such abundance brought a new dimension to the fact that ‘Green Tara’, one of numerous manifestations of the female Buddha, is very popular in Bhutan. I had seen her statue in many of the temples, and had learned to recognise her signature features: a vine twining around one arm, flowers surrounding her, and the other arm held out open-handed in a gesture of giving. The statues were beautifully serene, and yet in their perfection they seemed remote.

Green Tara, OlivIreland (CC)
Green Tara, OlivIreland (CC)

Here on the hillside, amongst wild strawberries and women who belong in this place, Green Tara came into liveliness.

My cherished memories include the painting, the twisty path, the valley floor, the sharp sweetness of wild berries, artemisia’s captivating smell, and most of all the glow of life’s beauty when women walk, chat, gather, eat, and share the limitless pleasures of sun, water, wild food, and the sacred.

Much later I learned that western experts at econometrics have been helping Bhutan to develop methods to quantify their gross national happiness more effectively.

Somehow, I suspect that the deeply satisfying pleasures of walking amidst wild strawberries will never figure in their models. I hope that is the case. I want to go on walking in the bush with women, gathering, eating, sharing and laughing, and I hope never to have to justify or account for it, or tick a box to show that I’ve done it.

Happiness doesn’t need robust statistics. It may be, though, that for happiness to flow through us, we human beings need to be aware of manifestations and metamorphoses of the sacred – goddesses and gods, teachers and demons, rivers and mountains, ancestors and histories. We need them because life has its own power and story; it comes to meet us place by place as we walk in the world alive to ourselves – alive as creatures attentive to, and participating in, the generosity that surround us.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Postscript: Later, Deki and Dechen took me to meet Dechen’s mother (Deki’s father’s second wife). The family spoke Tibetan at home because their origins were on that side of the border. Dechen and her mother are both great cooks. They gave me the best momo ever, plump and mellow with a crimson-red chilli sauce for dipping.

Jakar is the main town in the area known as Bumthang. The Gongkhar Guest House is a short walk from town and is a perfect place to stay: friendly, family-owned, excellent food, clean, comfortable and attractive. If you want to take a meal in town, Deki’s Restaurant and Bar has fabulous momos.

Resources: The information I have shared here comes from conference presentations, local guides, the Lonely Planet Guide, various websites, and my own general knowledge of Tibetan Buddhism.

Ursula Le Guin offers a wonderful account of the pleasures for women of walking/working together, in her essay ‘The Carrier-Bag Theory of Fiction’, published in  Dancing at the Edge of the World.

I have written an essay on these pleasures drawing on my long-term research with Australian Aboriginal people (access here).