The Erect Penis Symbol in Bhutan
Can the penis symbolize a good thing?
If you grew up in the Western world, chances are you were told about modesty. About protecting your “private parts.” For many the penis and vagina are seen as dirty words. The body parts you don’t speak about. Yet, they are crucial for our survival, for creating new life and for creating intimacy with our partners.
In many ancient religions and traditions around the world, the reproductive organs were cherished and even used in symbols of worship, particularly surrounding fertility. Back home in Sweden we still erect a penis that we dance around every June. That’s to say: on midsummer night’s eve, we erect a maypole, which we dance around. The maypole is a symbol for the penis though. I don’t think I figured this out until in my twenties, as I’d never considered what the maypole symbolized. To me, midsummer was simply a celebration of summer and the maypole a pole filled with flowers.
While a maypole might not immediately make you think of penises, the penis paintings on the walls in Bhutan certainly will.
Drupka Kunley (1455–1529) was a monk from Tibet who moved to Bhutan, where he became famous and it’s much thanks to him that you find phalluses all over Bhutan today.
Kunley was trained at the Ralung Monastery in Tibet where he was taught in the Drupka Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. After that he moved to Bhutan as a missionary and set up the Chimi Lhakhang monastery.
Kunley is also known as Kunga Legpa, the Madman of the Dragon Lineage and The Saint of 5,000 Women. The most impressive nickname, however, is perhaps the one given to his penis: Thunderbolt of Flaming Wisdom.
The reason Kunley (and his penis) got these nicknames is because he was on a mission to prove that you could be enlightened without living in celibacy. He also wanted to show that enlightenment could be imparted in different ways, including via sex.
However, Kunley was likely not just someone who was a proponent of sex as a means of connecting on the spiritual plane, but also a womanizer that abused his position as a saint, given he required anyone who wanted a his blessing to show up with a beautiful woman and a bottle of wine. Then again, there are no records of him ever having sex with anyone against their will — in fact, rather the opposite. Many women came to him during his lifetime as they wanted his blessing themselves and he became known as the fertility saint.
Thanks to tantra, sex has a different connotation in the East, than it does in the West. Sexual encounters and spiritualism go hand in hand in some instances. However, tantra as a practice is a way of life, not just about sex. Kunley himself was, at large, popular because he went against the uppity clergy and made pleasure a way of life.
Thanks to Kunley it became popular to paint an erected, ejaculating, penis on the walls of houses and other buildings to ward off the evil eye. Other traditions linked to this also developed, such as erecting wooden penises on the roof of a house when moving in.
Today in some parts of Bhutan phalluses are worshiped with flowers, ara and milk during part of the year. It’s also common to dip a wooden phallus into a drink before drinking it. And big wooden phalluses are used as scarecrows in the fields.
Whether Kunley was enlightened, or not, is debatable, but his way of questioning norms is something well worth remembering — how many traditions do you partake in without questioning their origins? How many societal norms do you agree to, without questioning why? Or even if they’re beneficial? And in a day and age where sex is shown on silver screens, but sexually transmitted diseases still come with stigma and the thought of saying the word “vagina” out loud still comes with embarrassment, maybe it’s time to question some “norms.”
While Kunley may have failed to make sex sacred, I, for one, think it’s time we do look at what it means to view both sex and our reproductive organs as sacred and honor both pleasure and human connection, while also teaching people that attraction and desire can lead us astray if we don’t watch out. In fact, desire might be one of the most misleading forces you’ll ever come across. And that’s not just sexual desire, but any form of desire that doesn’t come from your heart. Learning discipline to be able to see beyond it is a much needed tool for leading a happy life.