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.

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