Phal­lus Art Brings Luck in Bhutan — and Tourists, Too

Bhutan Times - - Editorial - By STEVEN LEE MY­ERS

LOBESA, Bhutan — For cen­turies, Bhutan has cel­e­brated the phal­lus. They are painted on homes, or carved in wood, in­stalled above door­ways and un­der eaves to ward off evil, in­clud­ing one of its most in­sid­i­ous hu­man forms, gos­sip. They are worn on neck­laces, in­stalled in gra­naries and in fields as a kind of scare­crow. They are used by masked jesters in re­li­gious fes­ti­vals and at one tem­ple near here in Lobesa as a bless­ing of fer­til­ity.

Now, as Bhutan in­creas­ingly opens up to the world, the an­cient tra­di­tion has been evolv­ing or, some say, sul­lied — by com­mer­cial­iza­tion.

Though still a re­li­gious sym­bol, it has be­come, to some, a relic of a pa­tri­ar­chal past, some­thing vaguely em­bar­rass­ing and not fit for the mod­ern new democ­racy that has, by all ap­pear­ances, taken firm root in Bhutan af­ter decades of rel­a­tive iso­la­tion and ab­so­lute monar­chy.

It has also be­come a cu­rio to ped­dle in all sizes and col­ors to the in­creas­ing num­ber of tourists vis­it­ing this re­mote Hi­malayan king­dom, renowned for its pur­suit of “gross na­tional hap­pi­ness.”

“Peo­ple still use it as a sym­bol,” said Nee­drup Zangpo, the ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Jour­nal­ist As­so­ci­a­tion of Bhutan, who has writ­ten about the his­tor­i­cal in­spi­ra­tion for the sym­bol, “but the ne­ces­sity of hav­ing it painted on your house is go­ing away.” He at­trib­uted this ero­sion of tra­di­tion to “the ex­po­sure to Western cul­ture.”

The sym­bol, like Bhutan it­self, seems sus­pended be­tween two im­pulses: the coun­try’s head­long em­brace of moder­nity and its preser­va­tion of traditions that made it unique to start with.

“Sto­ries of Bhutan’s en­gage­ment with the phal­lus shed light on traditions and life­style that make Bhutan one of the hap­pi­est places on earth,” Karma Cho­den wrote in the 2014 book “Phal­lus: Crazy Wis­dom from Bhutan,” which was pub­lished here and claims to be the first schol­arly ef­fort to doc­u­ment the ubiq­uity of the phal­lus.

The tra­di­tion has been widely traced to one lama, Drukpa Kun­ley, who spread the tenets of Bud­dhism through Bhutan in the 15th and 16th cen­turies.

Called the “Di­vine Mad­man,” he was a holy fool, a men­di­cant, drunk­ard and Lothario who sub­dued women and demons alike with his height­ened spir­i­tu­al­ity and what leg­end called his “Flam­ing Thun­der­bolt of Wis­dom.”

Drukpa Kun­ley is cel­e­brated through­out the coun­try — and in Ti­bet, across the bor­der — but his cult is cen­tered on Chimi Lhakhang, the “no dog” monastery, near Lobesa, which en­com­passes a clus­ter of still smaller ham­lets nes­tled in a val­ley of ter­raced pad­dies of red and white rice.

The monastery was built in 1499 on a knoll above the Puna Tsang River, though given the hazy mythol­ogy sur­round­ing Drukpa Kun­ley’s evan­ge­lism, there are con­tra­dic­tory ac­counts of the monastery’s found­ing.

n the pre­vail­ing one, the lama sub­dued a de­mon haunt­ing a nearby moun­tain pass called Dochula by turn­ing her into a red dog, which he buried “with a pile of earth to re­sem­ble a woman’s breast.” Hence the name “no dog.”

In the other, ac­cord­ing to an oral history com­piled in the 1960s and trans­lated into English as “The Di­vine Mad­man: The Sub­lime Life and Songs of Drukpa Kun­ley,” the lama built a stupa, or mon­u­ment, on the spot where a fol­lower died af­ter re­peat­ing a rib­ald prayer the lama had taught him. (“I take refuge in the maiden’s Lo­tus,” one cou­plet be­gins.) The lama him­self was said to have lived to 115.

In nei­ther sce­nario of the monastery’s found­ing, Mr. Zangpo em­pha­sized, did he use his pe­nis, though that is how the leg­end is of­ten gar­bled.

“We don’t have a clear line be­tween history and mythol­ogy,” said Mr. Zangpo, who is com­pil­ing his own trans­la­tions of the oral his­to­ries that he hopes will set the record straight. Like other schol­ars, he ar­gues that the phal­lus sym­bol can more likely be traced to pre-Bud­dhist pa­gan rit­u­als than to the Di­vine Mad­man’s leg­end.

Nev­er­the­less, the tales of the lama’s sex­ual ap­petite have pre­vailed — in no small part be­cause of the oral his­to­ries, in which Drukpa Kun­ley flouts both sec­u­lar and re­li­gious sen­si­bil­i­ties by rev­el­ing in sex and al­co­hol on his path to en­light­en­ment.

To this day, hope­ful cou­ples tra­verse Bhutan to par­take of the monastery’s fer­til­ity bless­ing. They reach it by climb­ing the knoll on foot af­ter pass­ing through the ham­lets of Sop­sokha and Teo­prongchu. The val­ley is in­dis­putably beau­ti­ful. Drag­on­flies swarm in cir­cles over­head. Small aque­ducts feed­ing the green rice pad­dies spin col­or­ful prayer wheels like water mills.

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