Crazy Yogins During The Early Renaissance Period

Tibetan Renaissance Seminar > Crazy Yogins During the Early Renaissance Period

Crazy Yogins During the Early Renaissance Period

By Stefan Larsson

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In his book Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture Ronald Davidson paints an interesting and detailed picture of the dynamic and formative period of Buddhist renaissance that occurred in Tibet from around 950 A.D. to 1250 A.D. Although Buddhism was disseminated in Tibet earlier, mainly during the so-called earlier spread of the teachings (bstan pa snga dar, approximately 600–850 A.D.), it was during this later dissemination period (phyi dar), or renaissance as Davidson prefers to calls it, that Tibetan Buddhism, as we today know it, definitely took shape on the Tibetan plateau. It was at this time period that the Tibetan people made Buddhism “Tibetan”, so to speak. Many interesting innovations and adoptions contributed to this “tibetanization process” and several factors were at play when Tibetan Buddhism took form. Davidson mentions that he, based on his understanding of the documents he has studied, has traced a fairly large number of loosely associated actors who were instrumental in the Buddhist revival during the period. Most of these actors are well known and often described in various sources, but some of them are more obscure. One of the more obscure ones was the crazy yogins:

Fourth there were the crazy yogins (smyong ba), invoking the behaviour of Mila Repa or to the wandering tantrikas constructing a Tibetan version of Indian siddha behaviour. Some were occasionally on a continuum with the popular preachers, and their songs had wide appeal. Others were more closely related to the Indian or Nepalese siddhas wandering in and out of Tibet, such as Padampa Sangyé or Gayādhara.

Although these crazy yogins are mentioned in Davidson’s book it is hard to grasp who these figures were, why they were called mad, and what role they actually played during the renaissance period. Davidson mentions them occasionally and shares some of his thoughts about them with the reader but despite this many questions remains to be answered. The most famous crazy yogins of Tibet, the ones that are most often mentioned, all lived several centuries after the period that Davidson investigates, namely in the 15th and 16th centuries. It was at that time that the four famous mad yogins of Tibet, gTsang smyon Heruka (1452–1507), ’Brug smyon Kun dga’ legs pa (1455–1529), dBus smyon Kun dga’ bzang po (1458–1532) and Thang stong rgyal po (1361–1485) roamed the plateau, alternatively chocking, provoking, amusing and frightening those who encountered them. These figures all became well-known and are still the ones that those interested in the subject repeatedly refer to. While there exist life-stories (rnam thar) and songs (mgur) attributed to each one of these four figures, we know far less about the crazy yogins of earlier periods. In order to obtain information about the crazy yogins of the early renaissance period many Tibetan texts needs to be investigated. Such an enterprise is far beyond the scope of this short essay, however, and I will limit my attention to only two books: Ronald Davidson’s aforementioned book and Debter Ngönpo (Deb gter sngon po) by Gölotsawa Zhönupel (Gos lo tsa ba gzhon nu dpal, 1392–1481). Ever since George N. Roerich’s and Gendyn Chöpel’s (dGe ’dun Chos ’phel, 1903–1951) English translation of Debter Ngönpo (Blue Annals) was first published in 1949 this extensive book has been one of the most important sources concerning the spread of Buddhism in Tibet during the later dissemination period. Both Davidson’s and Zhönupel’s books are widely used in western universities and Debter Ngönpo is also one of the significant historical texts used by native Tibetan scholars, both in Tibet and in exile. The two books are very different in character, one is written by a rational Western academic with a critical mind in the twenty-first century, and the other by a learned pious Tibetan monk living more than five hundred years ago. The difference between the two books makes a comparison both difficult and interesting. The structure of this essay is as follows; first I will investigate how Davidson treats the mad yogins and then I will look into how Zhönupel does it. Finally some comparisons will be made between them, followed by a brief conclusion.

“Crazies” in Davidson’s book Davidson, very appropriately I believe, connects the Tibetan crazy yogins with the Indian siddhas. In the chapters of the book devoted to the Indian siddhas he describes some of their unorthodox and antinomian aspects. Davidson mentions that the siddhas of India used images and told stories that violated Brahmanical ideals and he make the conclusion that this must both have shocked and delighted their audiences.

“As eccentric and sometimes criminal characters siddhas were frequently the object of fascination as well as veneration, for they wrapped themselves in an aura of power and potency that had not been so successfully purveyed before.”

Many of these Indian siddhas were key figures in the renaissance of Tibetan Buddhism some of them, such as Dampa Sangye (Dam pa sangs rgyas) and Gayādhara, visited Tibet and stayed there for long periods. Others, such as Nāropa and Virupa, never went to Tibet, but received visits from humble Tibetans who travelled from a far to receive blessings and instructions. In exchange of, sometimes large amounts, of gold the Tibetans became initiated and received guidance in the complicated secret tantric doctrines and practices that they later brought back to Tibet. When returning, the Tibetan devotees became important heirs of their Indian masters and often tried to emulate the life-style of their gurus. Some of the more successful Tibetans who had met with the Indian siddhas eventually became regarded as siddhas in their own right and acted as heirs of the Indian masters. One of the more controversial aspects of the practices the Tibetans brought to Tibet was connected with a specific kind of behaviour (carya, spyod pa) that a practitioner should adopt at certain, point in his (or hers) spiritual career. This particular conduct was performed after having reached a high level of accomplishment in the practices and the practice of the special conduct generally lasted for a specified length of time, after which the practitioner returned to other forms, of less controversial, conduct. Several technical terms are found in the tantras for this transgressive and provocative behaviour that the Indian siddhas and their Tibetan heirs sometimes pursued. One of the terms encountered is “ascetic vow” (vratacarya). The Tibetans translated the term as tulzhug chöpa (brtul zhugs spyod pa) and it is often used when the seemingly mad behaviour of the crazy saints is described in Tibetan exegesis. Davidson never analyses the specific terms used in connection with the mad yogins but the term “ascetic vow” (vrata, tulzhug) is encountered when Davidson cites a panegyric to Virupa composed by the great Sakya scholar Kunga Nyingpo (Kun dga’ snying po, 1092–1158).

In order to lead beings through the practice of the ascetic vow (vratacarya), By means of this inferior activity, he left the Samgha’s sacred precincts And headed fro town, wandering everywhere in the world. I bow with my head to him renowned by all as Birwa.

This verse gives us some hints about how the person who practiced the ascetic vow was supposed to behave. Given the inferior activity and wandering lifestyle of such practitioners it is no wonder that they resembled madmen, and the Tibetans sometimes called them just that—nyönpa (smyon pa). At times nyönpa was used in the derogatory sense, that actually is most near at hand, and thus simply imply that the person in question really was mad, in the clinical sense of the word. An example of the latter usage is found when Davidson informs us that Ratna Lingpa (1403–1478) said the following words about Gö lotsawa Khukpa Lhetse: “I don’t know if he’s just crazy or actually possessed by a demon, but be sure that he’s already in hell.” Another episode that Davidson cites is taken from the autobiography of Nyangrel Nyima Öser (1124–1192) and here the word nyönpa is obviously used for an individual who was regarded as holy and also behave like a madman.

Then, when I turned twenty, I heard of the fame of the precious lama Nyönpa Dönden, and an especial faith in him arose in me. […] Even just coming into his presence, I found his blessing naturally there, blazing out of him. […] In the midst of the assembly, the lama declared,

Now there are before me many learned professors of Dharma and practitioners who are accepted as realized yogins. But your coming is like the rising of the sun in the sky, shining for the welfare of beings.

Then he took off all his clothes and naked, grabbed my hand, and began to wildly jump and dance about.

Wake up, all you fortunate ones assembled here! The previous king of this border country is these days the young Nyang, with retreat hair piled on his head (ral pa can). The previous translator has nowadays been reborn as my crazy self. This is the deep connection of karma through many lives. Dance away, young Nyang with retreat hair on you head! Your have been reborn for the benefit of beings like the rising of the sun.

So saying, he danced his crazy naked dance. Because of this, those friends of mine previously given to jealousy now said their streams of being had been ripened, and all became filled with faith.

When Davidson are discussing the mad yogins, or “crazies”, as prefers to call them, two figures stand out, the renowned Kagyu lama, Lama Zhang (Zhang g.yu grags pa, 1123–1193) and the Indian siddha Padampa Sangye—“The Little Black Ācarya”. The two masters are quite different from one another and Davidson seems to consider them as representing two types of crazy yogins. Lama Zhang is depicted as an example of an institutionalised, religious and worldly leader, acting out his siddha role and displaying outrageous behaviour I a way that went hand in hand with his worldly interests. Padampa Sangye, on the other hand, is described as a renounciate, living with his disciples in remote areas far away from worldly and politic activities. The two masters are thus examples of two different siddha prototypes active in the renaissance period. Both of them might be considered crazy yogins, or if not crazy yogins themselves at least as masters with important connections with the “crazies”. Lama Zhang started out as a learned, innovative and a bit unconventional teacher who emphasised on his particular way of Mahamudra teaching. According to Davidson he eventually became a political leader and “changed from somewhat eccentric to brutal and bloody”. Lama Zhang seems to have been one of the most controversial figures of the period and Davidson asserts that he exemplifies the problem that are embedded in the notion of holy madness and the tantric transgression of moral principles. The most disturbing being the way in which he attempted to justify his aggression by means of the tantric doctrines. “This self-serving excuse was based on the idea that the siddha has superior knowledge and is above the mundane standards of the world,” Davidson informs us. Lama Zhang’s unusual and mad ways was displayed when the great Karmapa lama intervened and forced him to stop his violent behaviour. At that time Lama Zhang grabbed Karmapa’s finger and did a little dance celebrating the moment of resolution before ceasing his criminal behaviour, we are told. It is unclear if Padamapa Sangye himself should be called a mad yogin. The reason why Davidson connects him with them is that an astonishing number of “crazies” are associated with both the Zhije (Zhi byed) and Chö (gCod), two loosely associated systems that he and his disciples created. Davidson imagines that “by midcentury, Padampa-lineage tantric feasts must have seemed as much a psychiatric outpatient support group as a gathering of awakened masters”. The reason for this being that the group of eccentric yogins that followed his teachings cultivated a sense of entitlement among the poorly socialized and attracted to the lineage others with severe mental problems, according to Davidson.

“Crazies” in Debter Ngönpo (Blue Annals)

Let us now leave Davidson for a while and turn our attention to Debter Ngönpo—Blue Annals—to see what Zhönupel has to say about the nyönpas of the renaissance period. Zhönuphel’s book is, as noted, very different from Davidson’s. The Blue Annals is comprised of fifteen major sections (dum bu), and one-hundred and two chapters within those sections. Zhönuphel has a completely different agenda and mainly renders the life-stories of different important Buddhist figures and tries to describe how the various lineages of the period were transmitted without making the critical analysis of a Western academic, such as Davidson. He does however, manage to remain unbiased and neutral and if it wasn’t for the fact that the chapter on the Kagyu (bKa’ brgyud) tradition is the by far longest, his own sectarian affiliation would be hard to estimate. Debter Ngönpo consists of a complicated web of events and people, teachings and practices that in various ways are interrelated and connected, but at the same time different. It is very easy to lose track in this plethora of names, lineages and life-stories and forget who is transmitting what to whom after a few pages of reading. Inserted in the rather tedious web of names and lineages Zhönupel occasionally gives us a piece of information that stands out and surprises. These moments are valuable since they open up new and different perspectives and force us to reassess our picture of the time period and some of the main actors, such as Atiśa (see below). Occasionally the nyönpas occurs in the text, but it is often hard to discover them. At times it is impossible to determine if a certain person should be classified a mad yogin, a madman or simply a yogin, the dividing lines between these three categories of individuals is blurred and sometimes non existent it seems. A first step to take in order to find the mad yogins in the text is to start looking for the specific terms used for them. Several words related to the yogins and crazy yogins are found in the Blue Annals. Terms such as: “vagabond” chatrelwa (bya bral ba), “yogin” neldjorpa (rnal ’byor pa), “realized person” togden (rtogs ldan), “hermit” ritröpa (ri khrod pa) and “mendicant” kunpangpa (kun spangs pa) are often used. These terms are similar to one another and despite some small nuances in meaning they are often used synonymously. The terms refer to persons who devote their time to meditation rather than studies and who have left worldly concerns behind. These figures often appear to be different compared to other Tibetans both monks and lay, and their difference can sometimes be so huge that they more resemble crazy persons. Besides these terms there are some other terms in use in the Blue Annals that more unambiguously refers to the mad yogins. Terms such as: “mad man” nyönpa, “mad ascetic” zhigpo (zhig po), “one who has realized emptiness” trulzhig (’khrul zhig) and “to practice the ascetic vow” trulzhug chöpa (brtul zhugs spyod pa) are clearly associated with the mad yogins. Because of the latter four terms unmistakable association with mad yogins I will limit my discussion to them and investigate how they are used in the Blue Annals. The word nyön or its nominalized form nyönpa, meaning “mad” or “madman” is a good word to start looking for. The term is found in eight of the fifteen major sections (dum bu) of the book. It is important to have in mind, however, that the term can be used in many different ways. The term zhigpo resembles the word nyönpa, but more unambiguously refers to a mad yogin. Roerich translates zhig po in various ways, two examples being “mad ascetic” and “one who had abandoned all worldly laws”. Dan Martin explains the term as follows:

We are accustomed to seeing this word [zhig mo] in the masculine form (zhig po), which means a person who has totally dissolved (zhig pa) ordinary clinging to the concept of self as well as the usual bonds of social life. ‘Madmen’ and ‘madwomen’ are people who act out their realization of Buddhist truths in unconventional, ‘crazy’ ways. […] Don grub 1985: 585 defines zhig po as bdag ’dzin zhig pa po, ‘one who has dissolved selfish grasping (to the illusion of the self).’ It seems to be more or less closely synonymous with the appellative ’khrul zhig (-pa), ‘one who has dissolved erroneous appearances’, further interpreted as one who has realized emptiness.

As Martin points out the term trulzhig (’khrul zhig) is also of importance and it is occasionally used in Blue Annals. However it is, again, important to be aware of the fact that when these terms are found in the Blue Annals this does not necessarily mean that the person in question was a mad yogin. It is possible that he was a nyönpa or zhigpo in name only. For instance we encounter a certain rdzogs chen practitioner with miraculous powers named Zhig po of dBus, but we receive no information if he really acted in a mad way. Another example is Gyara Benyön (rGya ra ban smyon) and dispit his name it is unclear why he was called mad—nyön. Both these persons might have been mad yogins in name only, but it is also possible that they received the name because of their seemingly mad behaviour. At other times Zhönupel explains more about a certain person’s behaviour and it is obvious that he or she really resembled a mad person. The following example depicts a master who behaved in a way that resembles a mad person for instance.

During five years he [’Dzeng] wandered about gTsang naked, and performed in the company of yogins various (yogic) practices, such as jumping (from a height) into ice and water, jumping into abysses striking one’s head (at rocks) and self-immolation, There did not exist a severe from of asceticism which he did not practices. He was called the “Hero ’Dzeng, the Junior” (dPa bo ‘Dzeng chung ba). To So Mang btsan he taught the Mahāmudrā. […] His illusion vanished and all seemed him to belong to the Noumenal Aspect only. To dNgul mo rGyal le lcam he explained the Yi ge bzhi pa (i.e. the Anuttara), and the secret precepts of the “Great Achievement” (rDzogs chen, and she became one who had abandoned all worldly laws and was beyond the human state [zhig mo]. Another striking example is Bya bral chen po and in his case it is quite clear that the man was a mad yogin: In the beginning he used to be a very cleanly person, and disliked others, but afterwards he achieved emancipation independently (of others), used to eat his own excrement and applied it to his body. At times he offered it to the Ratna, at times to demons (of the rGyal-po and ‘gong-po class), and imitated insanity (smyon spyod) Another kind of mad behaviour that is found in the Blue Annals is carried out by figures that usually are not associated with nyönpas and for whom nyöpa, zhig po or similar epithets never are used. Even such a monastic role model as Atiśa can sometimes, oddly enough, display a behavioural pattern that resembles a mad man and seem at odds with the way in which he is usually depicted:

One day the Master [Atiśa] behaved in a child-like fashion: inside his cell he discharged his bowels in small quantities all over the floor. ’Brom ston pa cleaned (the floor) well, and did not feel any disgust at the conduct (of the Master’s) physical body.

Not only “divine” madmen, but “divine” mad women too, occasionally occur in Zhönupel’s book. One example of a nyönmas—mad female of this kind is encountered when t Atiśa visited to Lhasa. At that time “a ḍākiṇī known as the ‘Mad One of Lhasa’ uttered a prediction, following which the Master was able to extract the history of Lhasa from inside a beam (in the Jo-khang).” This is not the only place in the Blue Annals where female mad ones are depicted; we find that the mother of a certain Kunzang (Kun bzang) had obtained instruction in the doctrine from a nun named the “Mad Samdrub” (bSam grub smyon ma). More examples of female mad yogins are found in the chapters about the Zhije and Chö traditions. A provisional idea about the context in which the mad yogins figure in the Blue Annals can be obtained by investigating in which major section of the book the above mentioned four terms are found. None of them appear in section 1, 2, 6, 7, 9 and 10, sections that describes the early spread of the doctrine (chapter 1), the later spread of the doctrine (chapter 2), the origin of the Mādhyamika (chapter 6), the preaching of the tantras (chapter 7), Kodrag pa and Nigu (chapter 9) and the Kalacakra (chapter 10). The absence of the terms in these chapters does not mean that mad yogins were absent in these traditions or time periods periods, but only that Zhönupel didn’t use the four terms in these chapters. The term nyönpa is found in chapter 3, 4, 5, 8, 12, 13 and 14, but it is only in chapter 12, 13 and 14 that the term occurs more that two times. These three chapters are about Zhije (chapter 12), Chö (chapter 13) and Chenrezig and Vajravali (chapter 14). The term zhigpo appears thirteen times in chapter three, a chapter about the early translations of the Mantrayana tantras, but besides that only four times in chapter five, the chapter about Atiśa. In the other chapters we find no mention of the term. The term trulzhig appears in five chapters, but mainly in chapter three, eight and twelve. The term tulzhug appeared in three chapters but most frequently in chapter eight, a chapter about the Kagyu tradition. Despite the problem involved in this kind of very superficial investigation of terms some provisional ideas about how Zhönupel uses them can be gained. Tulzhug seem to be related with the Kagyu tradition, Zhigpo within the early translation of the Mantrayana tantras and Trulzhig is frequently used in chapter twelve, a chapter about Zhije. Nyönpa is more evenly distributed throughout the chapters, which is natural given that it is a general word for mad, whiled the other terms are more specific and technical. Finally we find all the terms nyönpa and trulzhig quite frequently used in the Zhije and Chö chapters.


One interesting question that needs to be pondered concerning the Blue Annals is related to the time period in which it was written. Zhönupel wrote Debter Ngönpo between 1476 and 1478 and it was printed on the year of his passing (1481). At that time, the aforementioned four famous Tibetan mad yogins (Tsangnyön Heruka, Drukpa Kunley, U Nyön Kunga Zangpo and Thangtong Gyelpo), were all adults and it is possible that rumors about them could have reached the ears of Zhönupel. However, it is quite possible that he had not heard of Tsang Nyön, Drugpa Kunley and U Nyön since these three mad yogins most likely became famous at a later date. It is hard to estimate when they became famous but it is likely that their disciples contributed in substantial way to their fame by writing and printing their life-stories and songs in the 16th century. Thangtong Gyelpo, the famous bridge building siddha was much older than the other three and due to his activities he was probably quite famous when Zhönupel’s book was written. If it is a bit unclear how influential these figures were in the late 15th century it is nevertheless a fact that they lived at the that time period and it was at that time that Debter Ngönpo was written. This raises some questions about this time period. Could it might be so that the mad yogins were more respected and regarded as more important at that time period compared to later time periods? Tibet was fragmented and troubled during the late 15th century and in many ways it was a time of transition. The Dalai Lamas and Gelugpas had not yet seized power but they were a force to be reckoned with. The Kagyu tradition, especially the Karma Kagyu branch, was the most influential and powerful tradition and they were supported by the Rinpung princes who had seized power from the Phagmotrupas. During this period the mad yogins seem to have been a force to be reckoned with and since Debter Ngönpo was written in the late 15th century and since Zhönupel belonged to the Kagyu tradition it is reasonable to argue that the relatively many mad yogins depicted in his book might have mirrored the times in which the book was composed. One striking difference between Zhönupel and Davidson is that while the former doesn’t seem to see any problems connected with the mad yogin’s crazy behaviour, Davidson often focuses on the problems and dangers associated with mad yogins. The question is if the mad yogins were as problematic as Davidson makes us believe. While it no doubt is a truism that “eccentric personalities can rationalize their behaviour, regarding it as natural expression of the deconstruction of social artifice in the face of the overwhelming experience of the absolute,” as Davidson puts it, it is nevertheless often the case that these mad yogins might have contributed with many things that, even morally, was important and necessary. To focus on the difficult aspects of them might lead us to forget their many contributions and functions in Tibet at the early renaissance period. To complement Davidson’s view of the crazies, such as Lama Zhang, some of the articles written by Dan Martin about Lama Zhang should be read. Through Martin we get a quite different picture of this controversial figure. While Davidson states that it was obvious that Lama Zhang had turned to a pathological tyrant, and constantly is focusing on Lama Zhang’s problematic sides, Dan Martin shed light on other sides of this many facetted and original personality. To summarize, it is obvious that both Davidson and Zhönupel finds the mad yogins important. While many others who have written about Tibetan Buddhist History have, more or less, neglected the “crazies”, both Zhönupel and Davidson give them regards them as being important. Since it is hard to make the mad yogins fit into the already complex scenario that was Tibetan renaissance it would probably be tempting to leave them out, but none of them chooses that option. When their books do differ in many ways both authors agrees that the mad yogin’s have a close link to the Zhije and Chö tradition. To conclude this little essay I would therefore like to cite a section of Blue Annals when the female founder of Chö, Machig Labdrön’s children and grandchildren are depicted and with this we get yet more examples of crazies in the early renaissance period.

Later he [Ma gcig’s son Grub che] stayed at the monastery of gYe-chung gLang-lung, free from all hypocrisy, and became a zhig po, or “mad ascetic”. […] He [Ma gcig’s son Grub che] had three sons […] Thod smyon bSam grub was known as the “Snow man (gangs pa) residing in Sham po gangs” […] He was cured of his leprosy, as a snake sheds its skin. He slept naked on the snow of Sham po, and when the snow melted, his (body) sunk deep into it. People threw yak tails to him, and he used them to make a garment and mat for himself. He also wore a tail as his hat. The fashion of the black hat of Gangs pas originated with him. He subsisted on water only. Later at Chu rgyud mkhar he partook of carrion. At Drang pa, having found scars on the nose of a leper, he sucked them, and his eyes filled with tears. Since that time his fortune increased. […]