In The Life of the Madman of U, David M. DiValerio translates two partial biographies of Kunga Zangpo (1458-1532), a man who left a middle-class family to dedicate his life to religious pursuits, eventually finding notoriety as an extreme ascetic monk of the Kagyu sect. In his twenties, Zangpo adopted the extreme lifestyle of meditative retreat and ascetic wandering in which he took on the identity of a Heruka, wearing human bone ornaments and smearing his body with the ashes of a corpse, all while consuming rotting flesh and provoking the guards and inhabitants of towns to attack him. In this lifestyle, Zangpo acquired the title of madman as well as a legion of religious followers. Kunga Zangpo is remembered as one of a handful of holy madmen who sought enlightenment in the Tibetan Buddhism through a subversion of its cultural norms.

Kunga Zangpo, originally named Kyepo Dar, was born in 1458 in the Olkha region of U, Tibet. As land-owners, Zangpo’s family straddled the economic gap between the poor and the aristocratic populations of Tibet. They were part of a working middle class, known as “Tax People,” and were required to constantly pay taxes to more powerful families. As cultivating the arid land of the Tibetan plateau was difficult and laborious, many families entered their children into polyandrous relationships in which a generation of brothers would wed the same woman to keep the family’s capital and workforce intact. As a teenager, Zangpo and his four elder brothers brought two women into the family unit as communal wives.

As a teenager, Zangpo was assaulted by a minor lord causing “the youngster to perceive a great unfairness in the standing social order.” Between this and the oppression which was constantly levied against his family as “Tax People,” Kunga Zangpo became disillusioned with Tibetan life, regarding suffering as the “common denominator of all beings, continuing from life to life with subsequent rebirths.” As Zangpo viewed the only escape from this cycle of suffering to be religious study, at the age of 16 he fled to Tsari where he met his first guru, Kunga Namgyel.

Monk Life
Once he arrived in Tsari, Zangpo began tutelage under Kunga Namgyel who initiated his pre-initiate vows and gave him the name Kunga Zangpo. For several years, Zangpo followed Namgyel “like his own shadow,” beginning his mastery of the Six Dharmas. At the age of 18, Zangpo began traveling Tibet, expanding his religious education. “Like a vase being filled to its brim,” Zangpo mastered all the oral instructions of the Kagyu sect.

After obtaining all the oral instructions, the master went on a hermitage, spending years meditating in seclusion and mastering Buddhist teachings. In this time, he gained “complete control over his bodily processes,” learning to control every physical action and reaction of his body, from holding a breath for days on end to mastering his tummo, an internal warmth which allowed him to survive on the snow-covered Tibet mountains with nothing more than a thin cloth sheet; often spending his days and nights fully nude where he “transparently saw his own nature in its nakedness.” Zangpo also masters yogic and tantric techniques such as perceiving the inseparability of the samsara and the nirvana, as well as the Mahamudra, “an understanding of reality in which phenomena are neither superimposed upon nor negated by conceptions of existence or emptiness.” Eventually, he was described as achieving awareness and arriving at full Buddhahood.

Tantric Life
Having achieved high levels of mastery of various Buddhist and yogic studies and techniques, Zangpo chose to adopt an extreme ascetic lifestyle to continue his spiritual development. Renouncing all luxuries and cultural norms, Zangpo abandoned the indicators and attire of traditional Buddhist monkhood and adopted the extreme lifestyle of the “glorious blood-drinking Heruka.” The Heruka were fearsome and wrathful deities. Following the Laghusamvara Tantra and the Hevajra Tantra, Zangpo adorned the Six Accoutrements of the Heruka: a crown of hair, jewelry made from human bones, a tiger hide skirt, a human-skin shawl, hand drums made of skulls, and a trumpet made from human bone. He often covered his body with clumps of ash and drops of blood that he smeared over himself with grease made from human tissue. This appearance simultaneously branded him an exile from society and a devout practitioner of Kagyu buddhism.

With this new uniform, Zangpo spent most of his time alternating between extreme isolation and trespassing upon civilization to provoke a violent response of the local authorities. This cycle of events first takes place in Ngari Dzongkar with Zangpo sneaking into the local palace only to be met by a highly frightened king’s guard. Fearing the unusual appearance of the madman, attacked him and beat him severely. Due to his enlightened state, Zangpo experienced no pain and “his entire body became pervaded by an unmitigated bliss.” Witnessing this miracle, the king and his followers were convinced of Zangpo’s siddhahood. This is the first of many scenarios in which Zangpo provokes attack only to be unharmed by swords, spears, boulders, fire and drowning, eventually converting the witnesses.

During his years of wandering, isolation, and piety, Zangpo is noted to have orchestrated many miracles, such as: curing a monk who is afflicted with the illness of an earth spirit, shooting an arrow halfway through a rock wall in the Gonpo gorge, and stopping a boulder from crushing his students with a snap of his fingers and a mere puff of air. In these travels, the master collected a large quantity of pupils and united many people, including the Jozang and Tsari yogins, with his teaching of the Mahamudra. In Nubcholung, he sensed the un-cremated corpse of a monk, exhumed it, and ate from its rotting flesh, simultaneously impressing and disgusting his followers. In 1488, he traveled to an enormous gathering of monks, geshes and yongins in the region of Zambulung. In Zambulung, Zangpo stood out as the greatest and most knowledgeable monk amongst thousands of Tibet’s most renowned practitioners. Upon leaving Zambulung, Zangpo converts Kuntu Zangpo, ruler of the Ringungpa Family and father to Dorje Tseten and Donyo Dorje. After several interactions, Zangpo converts Donyo Dorje at the Lhunpo fortress in Chushul, when Dorje’s guard believed him to be a fraud dressed as a holy madman. Surviving an attack “so disturbing that decent, conscious people could not bear to watch it,” everyone present is convinced that Zangpo is an actual buddha, and Donyo Dorje begins his patronage of the madman. The Ringungpa dynasty ruled central Tibet and, under the lead of Donyo Dorje, were patrons of the madman monk.

By the age of 38, Zangpo achieved “perfection in experiential realization,” and was qualified to induce superior quality from his disciples. After this, Zangpo began the next stage of his journey, that of a teacher.

Monastery Life
In 1502, Kunga Zangpo founded the Tsimer Pel Monastery northeast of Lhasa, where he would remain for the last 30 years of his life, teaching students and dispatching his disciples all over Tibet and southern China to distribute his knowledge.Here, the master taught the Mahamudra, the Six Dharmas, the dohas, the Secret Practice of India and various other scriptures. Renowned for his abilities as a yogin and a teacher, Zangpo was said to teach his pupils and “with their minds melded together as one, the Master filled the vase of his student’s mind with a nectar that can never be surpassed.”While teaching his students, he was witnessed performing miracles such as manifesting multiple bodies simultaneously. On one occasion, Zangpo secretly went on a backcountry retreat where he found a boulder the size of a yak blocked his path. With excitement, the aging master carried the boulder to a better location, leaving his handprint in the rock.

On top of his own students and disciples, Zangpo constantly received visitors hoping to partake of his erudite knowledge. This included Kunga Lekpa, the Madman of Drukpa, another devotee of ascetic worship. During a conflict between two Tibetan regions, the monastery as Tsimer Pel was attacked. Zangpo ordered his followers not to harm the attackers in any way. When they stormed his residence, the attackers found Zangpo dressed in his Heruka accouterments and were unable to attack him.

In 1531, sensing his oncoming death, Zangpo names as his heir his nephew, Kunzang Nyida Pembar. Although he was knowledgeable and capable of performing the miracle of the rainbow body, he chose to leave his earthly body behind to aid his disciples in their religious growth and died in 1532 underneath a sky filled with rainbows.

In his life, Kunga Zangpo achieved great levels of buddhist enlightenment through traditional study as well as an extreme form of highly ascetic buddhism that earned the notoriety and respect of those around him by subverting societies values and norms. While Zangpo is not the only or even the most well-known madman in Tibet, he is influential nonetheless.

DiValerio, David M. 2016. The Life of the Madman of U. New York, New York: Oxford University Press.