Chimi Lhakhang and Tantric Buddhism

Rice fields are easy to cross: there are narrow embankments along the edges, meant to trap the waters. We took these easy paths to cross stretches of fields, and reached the hillock below which Chimi Lhakhang stands. The monastery was built in 1499 and is dedicated to the "mad monk" Drukpa Kunley.

This disciple of Pema Lingpa is said to have subdued the demoness of Dhochu La with his Magic Thunderbolt of Wisdom and trapped her in a rock near the monastery. If you think about the fact that this is a place where women who want children come for the monk’s blessing, then you don’t need to see the wooden copy of the thunderbolt to figure out what it is.Gilded wooden Buddha in Chimi Lhakhang, Bhutan In any case, if you are interested, you can be blessed with a tap on the head with it.

The main shrine had interesting paintings and statues, including one of Drukpa Kunley and his dog. Unfortunately it was too dark, and the exposure required tested the steadiness of my hands. The only photo which I managed to take was of this gilded wooden representation of the Buddha.Monk, Punakha, Bhutan The lobby, on the other hand, was very well lit, and the monk at his rosaries there was clearly interested in our party of six. I should have paid more attention to the paintings on the walls. My memory is that they depicted monks and celestial beings surrounded by animals, being serenely cruel towards demons and other powerful evil creatures. I’m sure the old monk would have explained the meanings of these paintings. We were to see more such paintings later in the day.

Butter lamps in Chmi Lhakhang, Bhutan

Most holy places in Bhutan have burning lamps, and stores of ghee for lighting new lamps. The rooms are nice and warm when you come in from the outside, but also, because of that, smells of rancid ghee. We left the shrine and walked about the monastery. It was full of young novices at work making candles and the lotus-and-dagger wooden pieces which go on top of poles holding prayer flags. They seem to be pretty fired up by the teaching of Drukpa Kunley.

In her on-job avatar, The Sullen Celt had been bringing tour groups to Thimphu and Punakha every year. She was the one who had read up about Chimi Lhakhang and its tradition of Tantric teaching. Drukpa Kunley was a Tantric master who taught that sex and religion were inseparable. The oldest Tantric story I knew was of Kapalika, who, after her lover died and was cremated, smeared his ashes over her body as a mark of their union. In India the tradition remains mainly in temple sculptures showing sexual acts, but in Bhutan it is very alive. Phalluses were painted on walls of huts in villages nearby. The refusal to separate different aspects of life is a very healthy attitude.

However, Drukpa Kunley lived in medieval times, and his poems reveal that his attitude towards women was of his times. As tourists we met few urban people socially, so I was unable to find out how his teachings are interpreted today.

An initiation into Tibetan history

tibetan

This statue in the Lama temple in Beijing reminded me of the Tibetan statuary I grew up with. One of my grand-aunts was an artist and a keen traveler, who collected, among other things, statuary, masks and paintings from the Himalayan, mainly Tibetan, Vajrayana buddhism. Her collection was large enough that it spilled over to all her brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces. Even now, the violent imagery and snarling masks induce in me a sense of peace and nostalgia, and clear visual memory of her large house, and in general, of my extended family.

But now, planning a possible trip to Dharamshala and McLeodganj, I became curious about Tibetan history and religion. Religion first: the extreme ritualism and the violent iconography of Himalayan buddhism is completely at odds with what one learns about buddhism in India. Moreover, Nepali and the remnants of Indian Vajrayana buddhism do not have such violent imagery. It turns out that the dominant Gelugpa (yellow hat) sect, to which the Dalai Lama belongs, is possibly a late and syncretic development. The rituals come from the late Indian Vajrayana (tantric) buddhism, carried to Tibet by the monk Padmasambhava. There could be a dash of Bon beliefs and a soupcon of older Mahayana buddhism stirred into this. Some of the imagery could be a survival from Bon, but the violence?

This brings me to the second point: history. Tibetan history has been warlike. From the Tibetan empire of the 7th century, there were continuing wars with Nepal, Indian kingdoms, China, the Mongols, and later with the Sikh and British empires. Buddhism became a state religion by the 8th century, and the Dalai Lamas were involved in Tibetan and Asian politics since the 16th century. It is possible that this warlike stance of the state crept into the iconography we associate specifically with Tibet.

The re-invention of Tibetan buddhism as a religion of peace seems to be due to the 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso. This Gandhi-like political-spiritual transformation is his greatest achievement, and directly responsible for the rock-star status that he enjoys.