Drukpa Kunle ('brug pa kun legs), also known as "The Crazy Yogi of the Drukpa" ('brug smyon) was born in the Earth Pig year of 1455 at the Ralung Monastery (rwa lung dgon) complex in the Tibetan region of Kyisho (skyid shod), the traditional term for the region around Lhasa. His paternal clan was that of the noble Gya (rgya) family, whom Drukpa Kunle himself describes as a "clan of nomadic herdsmen in the lineage of Tsangpa Gyare (gtsang pa rgya ras, 1161-1211)," the founder of the Drukpa Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Because Tsangpa Gyare was a celibate monk who sired no offspring, Drukpa Kunle's family line is thought to descend from Tsangpa Gyare's "middle brother" (in a family of seven children), Lhatsun (lha bstan, 12th century). Drukpa Kunle himself belonged to the "Middle" (bar) sub-sect of the Drukpa Kagyu founded by Tsangpa Gyare's nephew, Wonre Dharma Senge (dbon ras dharma seng ge, 1177-1237).
According to Drukpa Kunle's autobiography his father was named Rinchen Zangpo (rin chen bzang po), the "official" (nang so) of Ralung. He was the son of Dung Dorwa (dung dor ba), younger brother of Namkha Pelzang (nam mkha' dpal bzang, 1398-1425) and Sherab Zangpo (shes rab bzang po, 1400-1438). Drukpa Kunle's mother, the Lady Gongmo Kyi (dpon mo mgon mo skyid), seems to have been of high or noble blood. There is also mention of a younger brother and a younger sister although Drukpa Kunle gives no names for either, only mentioning himself as "the oldest son." It should be noted that this is different from the Bhutanese understanding of Drukpa Kunle's position in the family, where he is considered to have an elder brother by the name of Ngawang Chogyel (ngag dbang chos rgyal). However, the dates agreed upon by scholars for Ngawang Chogyel 's life are 1465-1540, which indeed suggests that he may have been a younger brother or, as is generally understood in Bhutan, a relative of Drukpa Kunle.
Drukpa Kunle is considered to have been a rebirth of the Indian mahasiddha Shawaripa, who was known, like Drukpa Kunle, to lead a hunting dog and carry a bow and arrow. This attribution was made during his lifetime, possibly initiated by Drukpa Kunle himself. In his autobiography he writes, "It is also true that I am the rebirth of Shawari Mahesvara, the great siddha, the teacher of emptiness."
Drukpa Kunle relates that when he was young, he was happy and often played jokes pretending to be an ascetic hermit. However, his happiness was short-lived. The Gya family had controlled the monastery and estates of Ralung, the abbatial seat of the Drukpa Kagyu tradition, for three hundred years, but once the ruling family of the Pakmodru (phag mo gru) began to lose authority in the beginning of the fifteenth century, the Gya family was caught in the middle of the struggle for power that consumed the better part of the century. Drukpa Kunle wrote that there were many who coveted the extensive Drukpa estates. He blamed his paternal uncle for inciting "a faction of [the family based at] Nel (snel)" to murder his father. E. Gene Smith adds that Drukpa Kunle's father had been disinherited by his cousins, suggesting that the family discord was widespread. The death of his father, which occurred when he was thirteen, continued to haunt Drukpa Kunle throughout his life, and no doubt influenced his unwillingness as an adult to involve himself in the politics of Ralung.
After his father's death, it appears that Drukpa Kunle's own life may have been at risk. He was taken away by his paternal aunt's husband to serve Kuntu Zangpo (kun tu bzang po, 15th century), the Lord of the Rinpung (rin spung sa skyong) family then ruling in Tsang. Drukpa Kunle notes that this person "took him to heart" and that they became very close, another probable cause for his remaining above the struggle for Ralung. Rivalries and conflicts continued to plague the area causing a strong sense of instability as the people of Gong and Nel harassed the Rinpung family, likely because of their allegiance to the Pakmodru rulers who the Rinpung were displacing. Although unhappy in his position, due largely to the power struggles, Drukpa Kunle remained there as an attendant for six years.
At the end of this time, when he was nineteen years of age, Drukpa Kunle made the decision that would influence the course of his life from that time on. He says, "Having thought that there is no point in anything if I could not practice the dharma…I prepared to wander through the country." Before doing so, however, he returned to U only to discover that his mother had married his paternal uncle, who may even have been the same uncle instrumental in his father's murder. Drukpa Kunle quickly said his goodbyes, giving to his sister a valuable rosary of fifty pieces of amber as well as a turquoise earring given to him by Lord Kuntu Zangpo and gave his horse, "a fine yellow Canard," to Zangpo (bzang po), a "tea-pourer" (gsol ja ba) who was his paternal aunt's husband.
After this, it appears that Drukpa Kunle traveled extensively from one place to another in south-central Tibet and the southern Himalaya where he met with many of the primary masters who became his teachers. One of these, Lhatsunpa Kunga Chokyi Gyatso (lha btsun pa kun dga' chos kyi rgya mtsho, 1473-1557), became his root teacher. Drukpa Kunle received from him teachings on Dotsa (rdo tsa) and Nyingpo (snying po), topics that are left unexplained in the sources. Lhatsunpa sent him off with the admonition, "All dharma teachings must be meditated on. If you only recite the texts without meditating, your mind will become rigid."
After this, Drukpa Kunle met with his other primary master, Sonam Chokden (bsod nams mchog ldan pa, 15th century), who lived in Drakar Choding (brag kar chos sdings) in Rong (rong). He received from him the complete teachings of Mahamudra as well as The Six Cycles of One Taste (ro snyoms), a treasure teaching said to have been concealed by Rechungpa Dorje Drakpa (ras chung pa rdo rje grags pa, 1083/4-1161) and revealed by Tsangpa Gyare. He also received the practice instructions for Tummo (gtum mo).
Drukpa Kunle took his novice monastic vows before the abbot of Nenying (gnas rnying) at a place called Nyingro Menchuka (rnying ro sman chu kha), near to Gyangtse in south Tibet. Later on, he took full ordination vows before a prominent member of Zhalu (zhwa lu) Monastery, Khyen Rabpa (zhwa lu rje khyen rab pa, d.u.), and was given the name Kunga Lekpa Peljor Zangpo (kun dga' legs pa dpal 'byor bzang po). He also received the name Tsewang Gyelpo (tshe dbang rgyal po). Other teachers of Drukpa Kunle include the Seventh Karmapa, Chodrak Gyatso (karma pa 07 chos grags rgya mtsho, 1454-1506), from whom he received the transmission of the Profound Inner Meaning (zab mo nang don), composed by the Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje (karma pa 03 rang 'byung rdo rje, 1284-1339).
Drukpa Kunle studied with a variety of persons, from ordinary individuals to religious actors in a range of disciplines and affiliations, and he embarked on a number of pilgrimages to such places as Tsari (tsa ri), Nenang (gnas nang), Labchi (la phyi), and Kailash. He is also recorded to have served as the abbot of Nyel Dreu Le Gon (gnyal dre'u lhas dgon), although it is unclear when.
At some point during his life Drukpa Kunle returned his monastic vows and took a wife, whose name was Tsewang Dzom (tshe dbang 'dzom). They had a son named Shingkyong Drukdrak (zhing skyong 'brug grags). Bhutanese sources also mention the name of another wife (or consort) by the name of Pelzang Buti (dpal bzang bu khrid) or alternatively, Norbu Dzom (nor bu 'dzom), with whom Drukpa Kunle had a son by the name of Ngawang Tendzin (nga dbang bstan 'dzin). This son became quite important in regards to the lineage of Drukpa Kunle in Bhutan where he is considered to be the head of a series of recognized rebirths with their seat at Driulhe (dri'u lhas). One such rebirth, named Dorje (rdo rje), was the editor of volumes Ka, Kha, and Ga of Drukpa Kunle's collected works. Ngawang Tendzin is also famous in Bhutan as the grandfather of Gyelse Tendzin Rabgye (rgyal sras bstan 'dzin rab rgyas, 1638-1696), a famous Drukpa hierarch and the fourth temporal ruler of Bhutan, whose most current incarnation is the head abbot of Tango Monastery at the head of the Thimphu valley. While we cannot know for certain how many children Drukpa Kunle may have sired, posterity asserts the prestige of his Bhutanese descendants.
Drukpa Kunle spent a substantial portion of his life traveling back and forth to Bhutan, where he has become a patron saint and beloved Buddhist figure for local people across the country. Wherever one goes in Bhutan, one finds a rather striking contrast between Drukpa Kunle’s erudite self presentation and social critiques found in his autobiography and the oral tales of his outrageous antics and methods for teaching Buddhism that extend beyond the written word and into the ritual and imaginative lives of Bhutanese people. These tales, in addition to producing a range of rituals oriented around fertility and sexuality, present Drukpa Kunle as a wild, womanizing, antinomian “crazy yogi” whose most prevalent activities include subduing demons and demonesses in order to transform them into protectors of the Buddhadharma and seducing beautiful women as a means of awakening their potential as suitable vessels for receiving the Buddhist teachings—all while under the influence of the potent local brew known as "ara" (a rag).
Drukpa Kunle has also become indelibly associated with a rich tradition of symbolic imagery—particularly the graphically depicted phalluses painted on the outer walls of many Bhutanese homes as well as the “flying phalluses” suspended from the eaves. This is the case in spite of the fact that phallic imagery and iconography in Bhutan and the Himalayas has a far older history with different associations. Drukpa Kunle is also associated with a small temple in the Punakha valley near the village of Lobeysa known as the Chimi Lhakang, where, as the story goes, he subdued a ferocious demoness of the Dochu La with the power of his "magic thunderbolt of wisdom" by transforming her into a black dog and burying her beneath a small stupa that remains a prominent feature of the temple today. The Chimi Lhakang itself is considered by Bhutanese to have been established by Drukpa Kunle's more conservative brother, Ngawang Chogyel ('brug pa ngag dbang chos rgyal, 1465-1540) in 1499. Today, the temple is renowned as a popular fertility site where infertile women from different countries come to be blessed on the head by a large wooden phallus and Drukpa Kunle's bow and arrows.
It is possibly as a result of his scandalous activities in Bhutan that Drukpa Kunle has come to be considered one of the main representatives of the nyonpa (smyon pa), or "mad yogin" tradition in Tibet during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Tsangnyon Heruka (gtsang smyon he ru ka, 1452-1507) and Unyon Kunga Zangpo (dbus smyon kun dga' bzang po, 1458-1532) -- the "madmen of Tsang and U", respectively, shared the distinction with Drukpa Kunle, and were fellow disciples of his main teachers, the Seventh Karmapa and Kunga Peljor. One popular oral tale relates how Drukpa Kunle taught a refuge mantra, filled with lewd words, to an old man named Ap Tendzin (ap bstan ‘dzin), instructing him to repeat the mantra as loudly as possible at all times. Ap Tendzin’s recitations deeply embarrass his wife and daughter, who confine him to a small hut outside their main home. One day, not hearing the old man's prayers, his daughter investigates. Opening the door to his hut she finds only a sphere of rainbow light with a large syllable AH in the center of it. As she watches, the sphere rises up into the clear sky trailing the sound of her father's voice behind it. As a result, both mother and daughter develop profound faith in Drukpa Kunle.
Upon hearing of his mother’s death, Drukpa Kunle’s autobiography recounts that together with his son, he returned to U. There he sang a mournful song, which seems, in part at least, to be aimed at comforting his sister, who was by then a nun. The bulk of the song, however, expresses his sadness at impermanence and reflects again on the murder of his father and his own reluctance to be part of the politics of Ralung in U. He sings:
My old father, Rinchen Zangpo was murdered. My old mother, Gongmo Kyi, has passed away. Myself and my son, we are cut off from Ralung Kyogmo (skyog mo). O protector deities of Druk, wherever we wander in the world, protect us from obstacles!
The homeland I loved has become a wasteland. The abbot I loved has fled. I, non-conceptual wisdom, am hopelessly stranded between the extremes of existence and non-existence. O Self-knowing Wisdom, wherever I dwell in the world of apparent world, may I avoid taking appearances as real!
Descriptions of Drukpa Kunle’s death include details of multiple miracles, such as his foot being pierced with a five-colored rainbow as he rides toward Nakartse, and rainbow lights appearing in the sky in the middle of the winter after he has passed away. His son and primary disciple, Zhingkyong Drukdrak, appears to have supervised the funeral and distribution of the relics which are said to have been found in his cremation ashes. Some of the relics, including statues of Sakyamuni, Avalokitesvara, and Tara, were wrapped in silk and placed in a large silver reliquary stupa in Lampar Monastery (lam 'phar dgon) in Tolung (stod lung).
Bhutanese oral traditions of Drukpa Kunle maintain that he did not actually die, but instead, for the benefit of beings, he sent his consciousness to the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa where it entered into the side of Jowo Sakyamuni statue. There he resides to this day, awaiting the appropriate time to return to benefit beings.
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