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Gendun Chopel: The Rebel Monk and his Treatise on Passion


In his “Treatise on Passion,” a Tibetan monk subverts the elitism of pleasure and presents it as a gift to all.

Despite a rise in interest in Buddhism in all its many currents, there’s little doubt that the tradition of the teachings based on the Buddha Gautama is laden with misogyny. One little-known text is the Blood Bowl Sutra, the story of Maudgalyayana, a disciple of the Buddha, who descends into the underworld to save his mother. He finds her there in the company of other women, condemned to drink their own menstrual blood. According to the book, such blood pollutes the earth and offends the gods.

Beyond the tantric tradition, which is relatively recent (with a thousand years of baggage and bearing the famous Kama Sutra, the “sutra of pleasure” as its primary text), there’s been very little room in Buddhism for bodily pleasures, or for any celebration of passionate union. That was the case until a young Tibetan monk, Gendun Chopel, abandoned his monastic vows to travel Asia acquiring knowledge then unavailable in the monastery.

The hills and valleys of a place add to its beauty.
The thorns of thought are the root of illness.
To stop thought without meditation,
For the common person, comes only in the bliss of sex.

Chopel was born in the Tibetan province of Amdo in 1903. From an early age, he was trained in rigid religious discipline, and recognized for his aptitude for debate and for his handling of doctrinal texts. At 25, he began to develop his own very particular philosophical style, based not on his documentary and encyclopedic knowledge, but on an appeal to common experience. His argument was that all Buddhas were human, earthly beings, and as such they must first acquire sensory knowledge outside of monastic life, prior to reaching the great heights of their reading.

Gendun Chopel

In 1934, he left the monastery to travel. He lived practically and in poverty, surviving on small donations from Western academics and Christian missionaries. During this time, he became passionate about alcohol and the company of women, but he also wrote profusely on Tibetan historical themes, and at precisely the time when the country was being annexed by China. At about this time, in 1939, Chopel wrote his Treatise on Passion. It’s a celebration of the body in verse. Full of advice of an (almost) pornographic precision, it’s a book of remarkable spiritual value.

This passion that arises so naturally
In all men and women without effort
Is covered by a thin veil of shame.
With just a little effort, it shows its true face, naked.

Chopel, inspired by the Kama Sutra, described many sexual practices (all of them heterosexual, it bears noting), as a way of overcoming conventions and shame for the body, and orgasm as a divine attribute of the flesh.

All fitting expressions of beauty and smiling,
Switching back and forth like magical illusions,
With a laughing face, blazing with a blood red glow
This is called the great Frightful Goddess, body of passion.

Close, trusting, free of worry,
When both are drunk with deep desire,
What would they not do when making love?
They do everything; they leave nothing.

Unfortunately, Gendun Chopel’s story doesn’t end happily. Upon his return to Tibet and after a brief period of recognition in his homeland, the authorities arrested him on false charges of smuggling and espionage. This earned him four years in prison. Upon his release, he again lived in poverty and died among women and wine. His legacy to the world is a history of Tibet in which he sought to make known the advances of the world onto this closed and jealous society, and a treatise on carnal pleasure, which closes with these words of hope:

May all humble people who live on this broad earth
Be delivered from the pit of merciless laws
And be able to indulge, with freedom, 
In common enjoyments, so needed and right.



Images: 1) Dinesh Kannambadi-Creative Commons 2) Public Domain

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