The Holy Madmen of Tibet

The Holy Madmen of Tibet

The Holy Madmen of Tibet

The Holy Madmen of Tibet


Throughout the past millennium, certain Tibetan Buddhist yogins have taken on profoundly norm-overturning modes of dress and behavior, including draping themselves in human remains, consuming filth, provoking others to violence, and even performing sacrilege. They became known far and wide as "madmen" (smyon pa, pronounced nyönpa), achieving a degree of saintliness in the process. This book offers the first comprehensive study of Tibet's "holy madmen" drawing on their biographies and writings, as well as tantric commentaries, later histories, oral traditions, and more.
Much of The Holy Madmen of Tibet is dedicated to examining the lives and legacies of the three most famous "holy madmen" who were all of the Kagyü sect: the Madman of Tsang (author of The Life of Milarepa), the Madman of U, and Drukpa Künlé, Madman of the Drukpa Kagyü. Each born in the 1450s, they rose to prominence during a period of civil war and of great shifts in Tibet's religious culture.
By focusing on literature written by and about the "holy madmen" and on the yogins' relationships with their public, this book offers in-depth looks at the narrative and social processes out of which sainthood arises, and at the role biographical literature can play in the formation of sectarian identities. By showing how understandings of the "madmen" have changed over time, this study allows for new insights into current notions of "crazy wisdom." In the end, the "holy madmen" are seen as self-aware and purposeful individuals who were anything but insane.


His naked body was rubbed with ashes from a human corpse, daubed with blood, and
smeared with fat. He wore the intestines of someone who had died as a necklace and
ornamenting his wrists and ankles. His hair was bound up with a garland he had made
from the corpse’s fingers and toes, which he had cut off and strung together. He wore
an incomplete set of bone ornaments that someone had offered to him. Sometimes he
laughed, sometimes he cried. He did all manner of nonsensical things in the marketplace.
Although the people of Tsari were very coarse in their ways, he overwhelmed them with
his abilities and tamed them with his compassion. And so they became faithful, and since
they unanimously praised him as “the Madman of Tsang,” in every direction that name
became as renowned as the sun and the moon.

GÖTSANG REPA, The Life of the Madman of Tsang

SANGYÉ GYELTSEN, COMMONLY known as Tsangnyön Heruka—“the Madman from Tsang, the Heruka”—first became famous for making grotesque displays among crowds of people while wearing an outfit fashioned from human remains. Künga Zangpo, “the Madman from Ü,” miraculously survived the many savage beatings he received for making daring affronts to powerful lords. Drukpa Künlé, “the Madman of the Drukpa [Kagyü sect],” is credited with composing verses that overturn all sense of propriety, paying homage, not to the Buddha, but to an old man’s impotent member.

The central questions this book seeks to answer are: Why did these men (and a few women) behave in unexpected ways that would get them labeled “mad,” with that term carrying generally positive connotations? In what sense were they “mad”? The aim of this book is to convey a wellrounded understanding of the human beings behind these colorful personas, by looking at the details of their lives and literary works in their due historical contexts. Previous studies have addressed aspects of the lives and legacies of a few of these “madmen,” in particular Drukpa Künlé and . . .

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