The Holy Madmen of Tibet is to date the only monograph that seeks to address the full historical breadth of the phenomenon of the Tibetan saintly “madman” (smyon pa). Drawing from seventy-five works of Tibetan literature—including hagiographies, histories, tantric practice manuals, letters, and collections of song—as well as interviews with contemporary lamas, this study takes an interdisciplinary approach to understanding a series of individuals whose public identities have always rested on the fact of being inscrutable.
At the center of this study are the Madman of Tsang (1452-1507, author of the famous Life of Milarepa) and the Madman of Ü (1458-1532). Their “madness”—which included dressing in human remains, consuming filth, and acting disruptively in public settings—arose from their enacting what I characterize as a fundamentalist reading of the late Indian tantras. Chapters are devoted to understanding their norm-overturning tantric project; their roles as public figures; their place in the fifteenth-century political and religious landscape; and their institution-building activities—which included composing and mass-printing biographies of other saints. Meanwhile their even more famous contemporary, Drukpa Künlé (b. 1455), “Madman of the Drukpa,” assumed the moniker as a pen name, under which he wrote brutally honest critiques of the Tibetan religious culture of his day. This granted license to later generations of Tibetans and Bhutanese to imagine ever more outlandish antics for him to have performed.
The book also considers other exemplars of the Tibetan saintly “madmen” tradition, from the eleventh century to the present. Each of these “madmen” (and a few “madwomen”) are seen as self-aware participants in this unique mode of identity formation, casting recent articulations of “crazy wisdom” into a whole new light.
This book has been reviewed in History of Religions, The Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, The Journal of Religious History, Religious Studies Review, Lion’s Roar, and The Mirror.