The Life of the Madman of Ü

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David M. DiValerio
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , September
     248 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In The Life of the Madman of Ü author David DiValerio provides a clear and complete translation of the biography of a Tibetan Buddhist holy “madman” named Künga Zangpo (1458-1532). The book acts as a complement to DiValerio’s earlier publication, The Holy Madmen of Tibet (Oxford University Press, 2015), in which he examines the concept of sacred madness in Tibetan Buddhism as expressed by historical figures such as the Madman of Ü, Tsangnyön Heruka—the Madman of Tsang—and others. Nevertheless, The Life of the Madman of Ü is a standalone work that offers a lucid glimpse into Tibet at the turn of the sixteenth century and the unorthodox methods that some religious specialists use to promote Buddhism, win disciples, and establish a legacy.

Before the biography proper, DiValerio offers an incredibly detailed and revealing introduction that establishes the social, religious, and historical context in which the Madman of Ü flourished. DiValerio’s goal for his translation is to be accessible to specialists and non-specialists and to “serve as an introduction to the Buddhism, culture, literature, and history of Tibet” (3). He also sees his work as a vivid example of hagiographic literature, a source of information on the Kagyü sect of Tibetan Buddhism, and a helpful guide in attempting to understand the Indian Buddhist saints that came before. In these endeavors, DiValerio succeeds in all but perhaps the latter. He explores the connection to Indian saints much more directly in his previous publication.

DiValerio’s introduction is well-structured and informative. He begins with a brief examination of the madman’s early life and social surroundings before giving concise yet engaging summaries on the general tenets and practices of Buddhism, Tibetan religion, and Tantra. He contracts his focus further by discussing the Kagyü sect and its major teachings before returning to fifteenth-century Tibet and the Madman of Ü. There is an effective framing device at work here, with the madman’s specific sociohistorical context surrounding, and even permeating through examples, the broader overviews on Buddhism and Tibet. DiValerio ends his introduction with technical but necessary discussions on the biography’s provenance, his own translation decisions, and a final note on key aspects of Tibetan culture. What I appreciate most about this introduction are the consistent references to the Madman of Ü during larger examinations of Buddhist doctrine and Tibetan history. This places the madman explicitly within multiple threads of religious and cultural tradition, making him a concrete expression of otherwise abstract or generalized concepts.

The remainder of the book is taken up with the biography of the Madman of Ü which is divided into two parts, with each part having been composed by one of the madman’s disciples. The first part, consisting of five chapters, was composed in 1494 by a disciple named Nyukla Peṇchen Ngawang Drakpa, when the madman was thirty-seven. The second part, consisting of four chapters, was composed in 1537 by a disciple named Lhatong Lotsāwa Shényen Namgyel, five years after the madman’s death. Each chapter ends with several quatrains of poetic verse.

The first chapter is brief and simply lays out the madman’s auspicious birth and his life before monkhood. In chapter 2, after a failed earlier attempt to become a monk (63), the madman succeeds in renouncing his former life and running away to the holy site of Mount Tsari where he meets a guru, begins his training, and is given the monastic name Künga Zangpo. Chapter 3 is dedicated to Künga Zangpo’s training in and mastery of several Buddhist teachings and the austere forms of meditation through which he starts to develop supernatural abilities such as clairvoyance, invisibility, and flight.

The fourth chapter is the longest and represents the core of Künga Zangpo’s practice. In this chapter, Künga Zangpo exchanges his monastic robes for the far more extreme attire of the ferocious tantric deity Heruka—wearing bone ornaments, human skin, and cremation ash—and carries around a human skull cup and ascetic’s staff (86). With this fearsome guise of a madman, Künga Zangpo takes on an itinerant existence, traveling to towns and villages across central Tibet to display grotesque or irreverent behavior. He frightens a western king by walking through his palace walls (87), smashes or urinates on images of non-Buddhist deities in Nepal and India (88), and eats corpse brains and feces to the horror of the locals (113). In many of these instances, the now (in)famous Madman of Ü is violently attacked by the offended throng, yet he comes away miraculously unharmed or magically regenerates his broken body. These and the other miracles that the madman exhibits demonstrate the power of the practice in which he engages.

Having developed a reputation as a holy madman and teacher, chapters 5 and 6 show Künga Zangpo taking on disciples and teaching to various audiences, including rulers and religious leaders. By chapter 7, the Madman of Ü has established a meditation center at a sacred place called Tsimar Pel (148-149) and he spends ten years in solidary retreat there, speaking occasionally to visitors and disciples. Künga Zangpo breaks his retreat to appointment new heads of his lineage (154) and to teach various important visitors at his center. In chapter 8, he appoints his nephew as his successor (173) before his health begins to decline. The ninth and final chapter concerns Künga Zangpo’s death and the extensive funerary rites and good omens that accompany it. The book itself ends with an epilogue that briefly discusses the dissemination and impact of the madman’s biography, as well as various accounts of Künga Zangpo glimpsed in other forms of Tibetan literature.

The Life of the Madman of Ü offers an exceptional case study for understanding the tradition of holy madness in Tibetan Buddhism, and DiValerio’s masterful translation is clean and accessible to both Tibetologists and lay readers. In the broader field of Tibetan studies, the book adds greatly to our understanding of Tibetan history, religion, and culture which has recently been elucidated upon through the specific lens of the biographies and collected works of famed saints, incarnate lamas, treasure revealers, and holy madmen. DiValerio’s work is an excellent addition to other such studies including Andrew Quintman’s translation of Tsangnyön Heruka’s Life of Milarepa (Penguin Classics, 2010), Bryan Cuevas’s translation of Ra Yeshé Sengé’s All-Pervading Melodious Drumbeat: The Life of Ra Lotsawa (Penguin Classics, 2015), and James Gentry’s Power Objects in Tibetan Buddhism: The Life, Writings, and Legacy of Sokdokpa Lodrö Gyeltsen (Brill Academic, 2017).

About the Reviewer(s): 

Christopher Bell is assistant professor of religious studies at Stetson University.

Date of Review: 
February 24, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David M. DiValerio is Assistant Professor of History and Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He is the author of The Holy Madmen of Tibet (OUP 2015). The book acts as a complement to DiValerio’s earlier publication, The Holy Madmen of Tibet (Oxford University Press, 2015), in which he examines the concept of sacred madness in Tibetan Buddhism as expressed by historical figures such as the Madman of Ü, Tsangnyön Heruka—the Madman of Tsang—and others.


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