The Holy Madmen of Tibet (Oxford University Press, 2015) is, to date, the most comprehensive study of the phenomenon of “holy madmen” (སྨྱོན་པ་ or smyon pa in Tibetan).
These are Buddhist renunciants who take on norm-overturning modes of behavior—eating filth in public spaces, provoking others to physically attack them, going about naked or dressed in human remains—and achieve a degree of saintliness as a result.
While it addresses figures living from the eleventh century to the present, most of the book focuses on the lives and writings of the three most famous “holy madmen,” who were all born within six years of one another in the fifteenth century, a period of civil war and great changes in Tibetan religious culture. These are: the Madman of Tsang (1452-1507), author of the famous Life of Milarepa; the Madman of Ü (1458-1532), who spent much of his life in meditative retreat, including ten years confined to a single room; and Drukpa Künlé (born 1455), known as “the Madman of the Drukpa Kagyü” (or somewhat mistakenly, “the Madman of Bhutan”), one of the most beloved—and most misunderstood—figures of Tibetan religious history.
As Andrew Quintman, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Yale University, has written:
Nyönpas, or religious madmen, stand among the most colorful and influential figures in the transmission of Buddhism across the Himalaya. Blending translation, historical analysis, and contemporary ethnography, DiValerio offers our broadest and most textured account to date of this fascinating tradition. The Holy Madmen of Tibet is a major contribution to the study of Tibetan religion and culture.