PLAYFUL PRACTITIONERS OR MINDLESS MISOGYNISTS? THE ‘ARTS OF LOVE’ OR ‘ARTS OF ‘A**HOLERY’? The question of sexist double standards, silent women and two Tibetan Buddhist male ‘heroes’, Gendun Chophel and Drugpa Kunley

“Pay no respect to mean Lamas, Pay no respect to immoral monks, Pay no respect to dogs, crows or women: That is the teaching on the Three Rejects.”Drugpa Kunley 

“Because of my lowly status and state of poverty, I was reviled and abused by practically everyone. So—although I had the capacity to reveal profound earth treasures due to not having the appropriate companions, dharma holders, and the like, this didn’t happen.”  ― Sera Khandro in her autobiography “Excellent Path of Devotion’

“”Did Drugpa Kunley (or Gendun Chophel) never meet, or come across women who were intellectual, talented, brainy, sexy and beautiful in other ways than mere physical sexual pleasure? ― Adele Tomlin

“Only the united beat of sex and heart together can create ecstasy.” ― Anaïs Nin, Delta of Venus

INTRODUCTION

Would the 15th Century Tibetan yogi, Drugpa Kunley and 20th Century Tibetan scholar-activist, Gendun Chophel get away with what many now would see as blatant misogynist, sexist and ‘a**hole’ conduct and be held up as ‘heroes’ in the 21st Century? Would female Buddhist practitioners be held up as heroines for similar conduct and views towards men? Is it men behaving badly or realised practitioners teaching us all a lesson about non-attachment? According to the male scholars and translators who have published their works, it is always the latter.

This short essay aims to provoke some thought about these questions, and the implicit misogyny and maintenance of patriarchal inequality within Tibetan Buddhism, by briefly considering the writings and perception of these two well-known historical male heroes, who are idolised and revered. As such, it is the first published essay on this subject looking at the contradictory nature of the public speeches about gender equality and respect for women by Tibetan Buddhist teachers and scholars, while revering as heroes, two ‘sacred cows’ famous men seen as worthy of emulation and promotion. In particular, the invisible and silent voices of the women these men lasciviously write about.

I conclude that in the 21st Century, values and attitudes towards women have changed and laws have been passed to ensure that is socially understood. Thus, perhaps it is time to re-evaluate and revise our perceptions of Tibetan Buddhist men who openly and wantonly contravene those values.  Is it men behaving badly or realised practitioners teaching us all a lesson about non-attachment? This one is difficult to conclude, especially as a Vajrayana practitioner. However, judging by recent Tibetan Buddhist sex scandals and court cases, where lone females are predominantly the sexual targets of powerful male teachers (and their enablers),  these ways of behaving are now being seen by many (rightly or wrongly) as unethical, medieval and ‘chauvinist’. Like the dinosaurs, to survive they will simply have to adapt or become extinct. As the quotes state at the beginning of this essay, without love, there is no real ecstasy and joy, without which, there can be no full awakening.

Music? For the misogynist, sexist dinosaurs, Some Girls by the Rolling Stones, and for the invisible female voices, Love is a Losing Game by Amy Winehouse and Enough is Enough by Donna Summer and Barbara Streisand.  

Dedicated to the invisible women whose lives and stories remain untold and unheard, and to blissful pleasure and liberation for all!

Spontaneously composed by Adele Tomlin, on 17th August 2022.

GENDUN CHOPHEL  – AUTHOR OF THE TIBETAN KARMA SUTRA OR A ‘MALE GAZE’ SEXIST SEX MANUAL?
Gendun Chophel (1903-1951)

The first example in this article is that of the 20th Century Tibetan, Gendun Chophel. In many respects, Chophel is indeed an admirable hero for freedom of speech and a great Buddhist scholar and practitioner. He was a philosopher, historian, artist, translator, traveller and a campaigner for the modernisation of Tibet. He translated the Dhammapada from Pali into Tibetan and his demise at the hands of Tibetan society is tragic and heartbreaking. Thus, he is rightly revered for his original and thought-provoking writings and courage.  However, when it comes to some of his conduct and views on women, they are suspect to say the least, and downright derogatory and sexist to say the most.

His book, Commentary on Desire/Lust (དོད་པའི་བསྟན་བཅོས།) on sexual relations, women and positions, is held up by many men (and women) as a magnificent read on sexual love and relationships, Tibetan Buddhist style; the Tibetan Karma Sutra.  In John Butler’s review about Chophel’s book and his time in India, he explains how Chophel composed the book:

“In 1934, Gendun Chopel, a former Tibetan monk, arrived in India in the company of an Indian scholar, Rahul Sankrityayan, just after giving up his monastic vows. He would remain there for some time before returning home in 1945 and getting himself arrested on a (probably) trumped-up charge of forging banknotes.

While in India, he lived in penury as he wandered around from place to place, gathering material for what would eventually become The Passion Book, a work completed in 1939 which started circulating in manuscript form and was eventually published in 1967, sixteen years after its author’s death. Pandit Rahul probably taught Gendun Chopel to read Indian Sanskrit, which would serve him well in his literary endeavours, and opened worlds to him that his knowledge of Tibetan Sanskrit could not.”

Gendun Chophel in India with Indian yogis. From: https://www.tibetanjournal.com/tibetan-scholar-gendun-chophel/

Chophel’s text has been translated into English twice. First, in 1992, as the ‘Tibetan Arts of Love: Sex, Orgasm & Spiritual Healing by Jeffrey Hopkins and Dorje Yudon Yuthog, a scholarly and rather ‘dry’ translation for such a ‘juicy’ book. Second, more recently by Donald S. Lopez and Thubten Jinpa (2018), entitled the Passion Book: A Tibetan Guide to Love and Sex, Gendun Chopel (I have not read Lopez’s translation (yet)).

On the one hand, years ago I loved reading this book (when I first got Hopkins’ translation of it) as it was (and still is) a fun and lively read for the sexually adventurous and also a great insight into the romantic and sexual mind of a masterly scholar and practitioner of Tibetan Buddhist Vajrayana. It presents in lucid detail the sixty-four arts of love divided into eight varieties of sexual play—embracing, kissing, pinching and scratching, biting, moving to and fro and pressing, erotic noises, role reversal, and positions of love-making. He gives advice how to shun inhibitions and explains how to increase female sexual pleasure.  However, after a while, I started to  feel uncomfortable with Chophel’s generalised caricatures of women (depending on their country, culture, physical features, age and so on) as grossly misogynist and sexist in many ways, considering the women he had ‘experienced’ were such a small number of people.

I was also surprised that no scholar or reviewer of his work had ever pointed this out in print. That is not to say that Chophel had zero respect for women though, he clearly ‘loved’ women for their bodies and pleasure they can provide. However, there is little to nothing in there about women he knew as companions, friends, partners and fellow intellectuals and so on. Yet, in  Butler’s review of the book he overlooks these gross stereotypes of women (and the invisibility of their voices) and asserts that Chophel does see women as equal partners:

“Gendun Chopel celebrates the joys of sexual union as an equal action between men and women; “Let her do what she wishes,” he tells men, “to complete her pleasure.” Contrary to traditional practice, then, women are partners, not simply vessels for male pleasure or instruments of procreation. “Swooning in the sleep of ineffable bliss,” he writes of a woman in ecstasy, “She dreams of the heavens making love to the earth.” He opens his book with a section on “The Sexual Practices of Women of Various Lands”, showing how they have an equal (or sometimes) stronger sexuality than men, after which he moves to the techniques of lovemaking, at which point his book shows the obvious influence of the Kama Sutra.”

However, the invisibility of these women and their own experiences of Chophel are too compellingly absent to ignore. For example, can one imagine if a female master had written such things about men:

It would never have been printed and worse, the woman would probably have been vilified and slut-shamed. If ever there were a book in Tibetan Buddhism that shows the gender inequality between men and women in Tibetan Buddhist culture, it is that one. Is it not time for a re-writing of how we regard Chophel and/or that book?

DRUGPA KUNLEY – CRAZY, PLAYFUL YOGI OR MISOGYNIST AND MISGUIDING?
Drugpa Kunley (1455-1529)

Of course, prior to Chophel, there have been many male Buddhist practitioners who behaved in less than kind ways (on the appearances side) towards women. The culture and society allowed it to be so. For example, there is Sera Khandro’s biography by Sarah Jacoby that details her own shoddy and unkind treatment at the hands of monks/male practitioners and by women in their entourages. For more on that and the invisibility of women’s voices, see below.

Nonetheless, the prime example, who is still held up a as a hero for his sexual yoga and womanising is the 15th Century Tibetan yogi, Drugpa Kunley (brug pa kun legs 1455 – 1529).  It is noticeable that some men (who are ordinary and unrealised) often seem to use him as an example to justify their own sexual objectification and unkind treatment of women, as if using his name automatically makes it acceptable.  Therein lies the danger of holding up such men as heroes, it provides a questionable example for ‘unrealised’ men to follow and revere.

One English language translation of Drugpa Kunley’s poems is called The Divine Madman and also one called the Sutra of Sex, translated by Keith Dowman and Sonam Paljor (again both men), here is an excerpt from that below:

The vagina is a glutton for sex,
And should be sated again and again:
That is the teaching upon Necessity.

Hunger is the mark of an empty stomach,
A large penis is the mark of an idiot,
Passionate lust is the mark of a woman:
That is the teaching on the Three Marks.

Immoral monks have thin skirts,
Widows and spinsters have thin stomachs and clothes,
Fields without manure bear thin crops:
That is the teaching on the Three Thin Things.

Kunley never tires of girls,
Monks never tire of wealth,
Girls never tire of sex:
That is the teaching on the Three Indefatigables.

Anyone reading this outside the Tibetan Buddhist context would see it as a clear example of gross misogyny and sexism in its statements about ‘women.’  Yet, no one seems to be willing to call out Kunley on that, such as the scholars and translators who publish about him (and seem to unquestionably revere him). Even though Kunley does also make many gross generalisations about men and corrupt lamas too though, there is a playful and humorous side to his writings, his general remarks about women (translated as ‘girls’ by Dowman) and their insatiable desire and stupidity for sex litter his writings. Did Kunley (like Chophel) never meet or come across women who were intellectual, talented, brainy, sexy and beautiful in other ways than physical sexual pleasure or beauty? If they did, why did they never write about them?”

Perhaps none of that is so surprising considering Bhutanese culture’s fascination with all things phallic though, as is evidenced by the predominant penis graffiti outside temples and so on, see here. Apparently this culture can be traced back to Drugpa Kunley, see here. Without the balance of worship and respect for the Yoni/Vagina, is it any wonder that male stories of sexual experience are the norm in such countries and cultures?

 Kunley’s writings also often mock egoism, religious hypocrisy and sexual attachment and his joie de vivre is infectious but not if it is done at the expense of our general perception of females and their uses.

The starving beggar has no happiness,
The irreligious have no divinity,
The wanderer has no bonds or commitment:
That is the teaching on the Three Lacks.

He who is without honesty has a dry mouth,
He who is without spirituality makes no offering,
He who is without courage does not make a general:
That is the teaching on the Three Zeros.

There is another recent publication and translation (2014) of the first volume (ka) of the autobiographical writings of Kunley called More Than a Madman: The Divine Words of Drugpa Kunley, by Elizabeth Monson, which seeks to present Kunley in a favourable light. In this review of her book, Monson says that:

“Writing a conventional biography would have been almost impossible, because “other than a few hints here and there, nothing definitive was known about the life-story of an historical Drukpa Kunley.” What she had at her disposal were folk-tales, orally-transmitted material put into writing, snippets of information in other authors, and written works which may or may not be by Drukpa Kunley, the most notable of these being a work entitled The Liberation Tales, “written primarily in the first person and is generally referred to as the autobiography.”

I am not aware that Monson herself addresses the issue of the invisible and silent women in Kunley’s life and writings though. I have sent her this article for her feedback and will update it, if she responds.

I think is it worth saying that in Buddhist philosophy, non-attachment is not the same as cold detachment. Something that men in particular, judging by recent scandals in Tibetan Buddhism, seem to have issues distinguishing. Love and compassion and respect for women are fundamental aspects of all the three main vehicles of Buddhism. Non-attachment and lack of ego do not mean less love and compassion but more. However, the biggest issue in these writings though is the invisibility of the female voices of these women in their poems and stories.

THE SILENT, INVISIBLE FEMALE  – WHAT WAS HER EXPERIENCE?
Women’s voices and experiences are mainly silent and invisible in such writings by Buddhist men

The most problematic aspect about the conduct of these men and their writings, is the anonymity, invisibility and silence of the women they write about. Who are these ‘nameless’ women who are held up as examples of sexual conquests and figures of desire (or mockery)? Where are their testimonies and experiences of these men? As most feminist analyses of literature and history tell us, the History of men and their conduct continually erases women, their lives and their experiences, and these two heroes are no different.

As I have written about before in here and here (2021),  the artistic representation of women with these men (as goddesses or humans) with the back facing the viewer, adds to that sense of invisibility and inferiority. Or alternatively, as pretty young ‘Barbie-doll’ type figures increases the sexual objectification and predominance of the male gaze.

SERA KHANDRO, KUNGA TRINLEY WANGMO AND OTHER EXAMPLES OF ‘WOMEN TREATED BADLY’
Sera Khandro (1892 – 1940). Image: Heike Wierenga

A recent example of a woman’s voice, who was not only a great practitioner, but  also treated very badly by men who used her as a consort and whom she followed as a disciple, is that of Sera Khandro (1892 – 1940), also known as Kunzang Dekyong Wangmo, as detailed by scholar Sarah H Jacoby in her biography of Khandro, Love and Liberation: Autobiographical Writings of the Tibetan Buddhist Visionary Sera Khandro (Shambhala, 2015). 

There are also other 20th Century examples, of female practitioners treated badly so on, such as Shukseb Jetsunma Chönyi Zangmo (1852–1953). It is good that such women’s stories and experiences are coming more to light, as I have written about in some of the essays here and in this article about Dakini script and female tertons, here.

I myself have written a few times about the unsung nature and invisibility of women’s voices and lives in Tibetan Buddhism, particularly in relation to Kunga Trinley Wangmo (the important Jonang Shentong lineage holder and secret consort of Jetsun Taranatha here). Even when her voice and story was amplified, it was hijacked by a male scholar’s voice and perception.

Perhaps now, more than ever, is the time for female scholars, translators and writers to do new translations and analyses of these poems and texts, and for publishers to publish more nuanced, female-friendly versions of them too?

DO INNER REALISATIONS ALLOW A MAN TO BEHAVE ‘BADLY’ IN THESE WAYS ANYMORE?
Marpa the Translator with wife, and student Milarepa. Marpa is one of the most well-known examples of a teacher who treated his student ‘badly’

The question that many who might defend these male examples would say is that such men are not ordinary men, like Milarepa and Marpa, they have extraordinary inner realisations and so their conduct can be defined as ‘unconventional’ (tul zhug) in Tibetan. In some respects, for a Vajrayana practitioner this is acceptable as an excuse. However, for non-Buddhists and Hinayana and Mahayana practitioners, it is not.  That is where the issue remains though. In the 21st Century, as we are seeing with all the recent sex scandals involving Tibetan Buddhist teachers (many of whom are monks) and from my own direct experience, values and cultures have changed in their views towards such men and the women they prey on/choose. Such activities may have been acceptable within medieval Tibet and India, but these days are seen more as sexual predation and misogyny.

In my experience of ‘Buddhist men behaving badly’ (see here) one of the most prevalent excuses cited to excuse it was ‘you are ordinary and he is a realised being’ and so on. Perhaps they are right. I am an ordinary, flawed human being, there is no doubt. However, insisting that I should take the attitude of Milarepa to his guru, Marpa, also seems to be asking a bit too much. On the one hand, they were saying I was ordinary, but on the other hand, they were suggesting I adopt the lofty, realised view of an extraordinary yogi, like Milarepa towards a man I did not even see as my Guru. Is that not expecting too much? Or are women culturally conditioned and expected to ‘suck it up’ and ‘grin and bear it’ a lot more than men?  

Nonetheless, there are many examples in Vajrayana of ‘men behaving badly’ towards their students (male and female) and yet, very few female examples of female teachers doing the same to male students.  Would women be held up as heroines if they did the same thing? That is the question.

CONCLUSION – ADAPT OR BECOME EXTINCT
Male chauvinists like dinosaurs – adapt or become extinct?

There is much more that could be said about this phenomena, but to conclude by answering those few questions asked at the beginning of this essay: it is highly unlikely that such men could(or even should) be held up as heroes in contemporary, liberal societies and cultures. It is also highly unlikely that female Buddhist practitioners would be held up as heroines for such conduct and views towards men.  Is it men behaving badly or realised practitioners teaching us all a lesson about non-attachment? This one is difficult to categorically conclude, especially as a Vajrayana practitioner. However, I think it is fair to still ask these questions about those men (and others in positions of power and influence) and whether it is beneficial to hold their lives and literature as excellent examples to follow.

In any case, all is impermanent and subject to change, and those privileged male ‘teachers’ (and their followers), who have grown up surrounded by medieval type male patriarchal, power, privilege, misogyny and lack of respect for females, now find themselves increasingly at the mercy/command of the values and legal systems of countries and cultures where equality and respect for men and women is on a much more equal and legal footing. If they do not like it, then perhaps they should not live in, or visit such countries and get money/employment within them? Or perhaps they should learn, grow and abide by those values and change their own conduct and attitudes accordingly? Either way, it is a major lesson for growth and learning, if they are willing to learn from it. Like the dinosaurs before them, they will simply have to adapt or die.

Whether these chauvinist dinosaurs naturally disappear or not though, as the quotes state at the beginning of this essay, without love there is no real ecstasy and joy, without which, there can be no art of love, or more importantly, full awakening.

 

Written by Adele Tomlin. Copyright, August 2022.

FURTHER READING/SOURCES

Chophel, Gendun:

Gendun Chopel.  Tibetan Arts of Love: Sex, Orgasm & Spiritual Healing, translated by Jeffrey Hopkins and Dorje Yudon Yutog, Snow Lion, 1992

Gendun Chopel. Grains of Gold: Tales of a Cosmopolitan Traveler. Translated by Donald S. Lopez Jr and Thupten Jinpa. University of Chicago Press, 2014.

Donald S. Lopez Jr., The Madman’s Middle Way: Reflections on Reality of the Tibetan Monk Gendun Chopel, University Of Chicago Press, 2005.

Donald S. Lopez Jr., In the Forest of Faded Wisdom, 104 Poems by Gendun Chopel: A Bilingual Edition, University Of Chicago Press, 2009.

Donald S. Lopez Jr., NOTES ON TREATISE ON PASSION, A TIBETAN POEM BY GENDUN CHOPEL. Volume 52, Issue 2: The Translation Issue: Within and Beyond the Metropole, Spring 2013.

Gedun Choephel. The White Annals. Translated by Samten Norboo. Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works & Archives, 1978. Download at https://archive.org/details/81480283GedunChoephelTheWhiteAnnals.

https://www.tibetanjournal.com/tibetan-scholar-gendun-chophel/

“The Passion Book: A Tibetan Guide to Love and Sex” by Gendun Chopel

Drugpa Kunley:

Dowman, Keith and Sonam Paljor. Tales of a Divine Madman: The Sublime Life and Songs of Drukpa Kunley (Dzogchen Now, 2000)

Monson, Elizabeth; Tshering, Chorten. More Than a Madman: The Divine Words of Drukpa Kunley. Thimphu: Institute for Language and Culture Studies (ILCS), Royal University of Bhutan, 2014.

Monson, Elizabeth. Tales of a Mad Yogi: The Life and Wild Wisdom of Drukpa Kunley. Shambhala Publications, 2021.

The Mystery of Bhutan’s Penis Graffiti (Sara Hussain, 2017)

How Drukpa Kunley convinced Bhutan to worship the phallus

Treasury of Lives biography: https://treasuryoflives.org/biographies/view/Drukpa-Kunle/TBRC_P816

Sera Khandro

Sarah H. Jacoby, “Consorts and Revelations in Eastern Tibet: The Auto/biographical Writings of the Treasure Revealer Sera Khandro (1892-1940)” (unpublished PhD thesis)

Sarah H. Jacoby, “Love and Liberation, Autobiographical Writings of the Tibetan Buddhist Visionary Sera Khandro”, Columbia University Press, New York, USA, 2014.

Treasury of Lives biography: https://treasuryoflives.org/biographies/view/Sera-Khandro-Kunzang-Dekyong-Wangmo/10083

A Reader’s Guide to Sera Khandro (https://www.shambhala.com/sera-khandro/

Monson, Christina. Sera Khandro’s Autobiography Excellent Path of Devotion (Lotsawa House, 2014).

Kunzang Trinley Wangmo:

A Woman’s Voice : the Autobiography of Kunga Trinley Wangmo, (Zhentong lineage holder and secret consort of Tāranātha)

General

Adele Tomlin (2019-2021):

UNSUNG HEROINES, MOTHERS OF MAHĀMUDRĀ AND SOURCE OF SARAHA’S SONGS : Re-telling the (her)stories of the symbolic ‘arrow-maker’ Dakhenma, and the ‘radish-curry’ cook gurus of siddha, Saraha

IIN PRAISE OF THE HEADLESS, FEMME FATALE ‘SCARLET WOMAN’: Male monastic privilege and appropriation, denigration of women, female lineages, ‘feminist’ male consorts, and Vajrayoginī with severed-head and reversed Yum-yab union

DAKINI SCRIPT (Khandro Da-yig): Mysterious Symbolic Key to Hidden Treasures

Tantric Buddhism, vows, sex and women – the importance of love, respect and consent

2 thoughts on “PLAYFUL PRACTITIONERS OR MINDLESS MISOGYNISTS? THE ‘ARTS OF LOVE’ OR ‘ARTS OF ‘A**HOLERY’? The question of sexist double standards, silent women and two Tibetan Buddhist male ‘heroes’, Gendun Chophel and Drugpa Kunley

  1. Dear Adele, I wanted to share this (public) facebook post from a FB fried who is a very sincere and highly intelligent Buddhist practitioner. This post is in regards to one his teachers, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche who I am sure you know about, especially since he had been called out on some questionable “male” behavior during his time. Rinpoche was around in the 70’s and 80’s. Jon provides his honest take on the situation and I am sure there are many others who have expressed their feelings over the years.  I do not have much to say since I did not know this Rinpoche. I am not sure if this will be of interest to you. I apologize if it is not.  If for some reason you cannot get to it, just search for Jon Norris and scroll down his page a bit to the post with the following photo. Again it is all public. https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=5896322937063178&set=a.477219758973550 Best Wishes, Paul

    1. Hello Paul, thanks for your continual interest and support of the work on this website. Yes, I am very aware of Chogyam Trungpa and my view is this. Trungpa never tried to hide who he was. He was very transparent about it. His English wife was young, but 16 years old is considered an adult in the UK and they can marry. He never continued pretending to be a celibate, pure monk. In that respect, he cannot be faulted for being dishonest or hypocritical. His books in English are amazing, especially Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. He was one of the main innovators for translating amazing Tibetan texts into English via the Nalanda Committee. His activities are amazing and beneficial. I cannot comment on him personally because I never met him and was never his student. But in terms of his legacy of ACTIVITIES, they are really astonishingly great in getting the Buddha Dharma into Europe and North America and teaching people about the pitfalls when spiritual practice becomes another big, ego trip.

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