In 1934, Gendun Chopel, a former Tibetan monk, arrived in India in the company of an Indian scholar, Rahul Sankrityayan, just after giving up his monastic vows. He would remain there for some time before returning home in 1945 and getting himself arrested on a (probably) trumped-up charge of forging banknotes.
While in India, he lived in penury as he wandered around from place to place, gathering material for what would eventually become The Passion Book, a work completed in 1939 which started circulating in manuscript form and was eventually published in 1967, sixteen years after its author’s death. Pandit Rahul probably taught Gendun Chopel to read Indian Sanskrit, which would serve him well in his literary endeavours, and opened worlds to him that his knowledge of Tibetan Sanskrit could not.
During his time in India Gendun Chopel did two things: he had a lot of sex and he read a great number of classical Sanskrit texts, including, of course, Vatsyayana’s famous Kama Sutra. He even translated some of these texts into Tibetan.
In case readers find it unusual or shocking that a monk, even a former one, might write what on the surface looks like a sex manual, consider that in our own culture we have Andreas Capellanus (his second name means “the Chaplain”) and his De arte honeste amandi, which, if it wasn’t exactly a medieval Kama Sutra, certainly contained material a churchman wasn’t supposed to know.
Andreas, however, did not combine his fleshly advice on courtly love with biblical allusions, and, unlike Gendun Chopel, he did not dilate on the particular bodily convolutions involved in the art of making love. In the Renaissance, however, Pietro Aretino might be said to be a more likely equivalent to the Tibetan poet; his Sonnetti lussoriosi were combined with engravings of erotic paintings of sex positions by Giulio Romano, and in the same year (1526) Aretino published his Dubbi lussoriosi, in which questions about sex are answered in verse.
Gendun Chopel’s book may be said to combine the serious underpinning of Andreas’s work, which is often considered by critics to be satirical and an attack on the cynicism of sexual mores, and the overtly erotic, almost pornographic attitude of Aretino. The differences, of course, are cultural, and that’s where the interest in the Tibetan work lies.
Gendun Chopel has a serious purpose – he wants to make sexual love in Tibet more democratic. In the very last stanza (588) of his poem he states:
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.
In a short prose paragraph under this stanza he writes of “eliminating misconceptions about the passion of desire through hearing, thinking and experience,” which essentially describes what he was doing during his Indian sojourn.
Gendun Chopel believed that celibacy did not serve any purpose, and that it certainly did not enhance spirituality. For Buddhists, as the lengthy and very helpful afterword explains (reading it is a must), sex was originally a product of something negative, namely human craving, brought on by curiosity and greed or desire. Human beings are not seen as created by a god in his image, but by their own past deeds; sexual pleasure may be a result of virtuous past deeds, but it can also belong to the realm of desire, and indeed it has its own hierarchy in the Six Heavens of the World of Desire.
The moral problem is that sexual pleasure is not bad, but sexual desire is. In the end, it was found that you can’t prevent sex, but you can regulate it, which is what happened.
Gendun Chopel sees this as hypocrisy; sexual pleasure, he tells us in this book, is really a force of nature and something which people of all classes and stations should be celebrating, certainly not reserving its positive aspects for the Tibetan aristocracy, who would, of course, be the likely readers for his book.
Religion teaches that sexual activity must take place at certain times, in certain places, with certain people and using certain orifices; Gendun Chopel sees this as condemning by day what the religious do at night. And in any case, if there were no sex, where would monks come from? Yet Gendun Chopel sometimes surprises; he recommends, for example, that some people, including monks, should perhaps not read his book.
Gendun Chopel celebrates the joys of sexual union as an equal action between men and women; “Let her do what she wishes,” he tells men, “to complete her pleasure.” Contrary to traditional practice, then, women are partners, not simply vessels for male pleasure or instruments of procreation. “Swooning in the sleep of ineffable bliss,” he writes of a woman in ecstasy, “She dreams of the heavens making love to the earth.” He opens his book with a section on “The Sexual Practices of Women of Various Lands”, showing how they have an equal (or sometimes) stronger sexuality than men, after which he moves to the techniques of lovemaking, at which point his book shows the obvious influence of the Kama Sutra.
The poetry often reads like a voyage of discovery; Gendun Chopel, after all, was in his early thirties before he even had sex with anyone, and it’s this sense of wonderment which makes the book more entertaining and, indeed, more profound. In short, it makes Vatsyayana’s book look more like a textbook and a manual of techniques than something involving the human feelings like joy and exuberance which permeate the verse.
This excellent translation done by Donald Lopez, Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan, and Thupten Jinpa, the English language translator for the Dalai Lama and a faculty member at McGill University, admirably conveys the joy and beauty of the poetry as well as the underlying seriousness of Gendun Chopel’s work.
And, unlike our own Aretino, it is very far from being pornographic. It is good to have this wonderful rendition of a modern Tibetan erotic classic in English; it broadens readers’ outlooks on the subject, and takes them beyond the concept, say, of what many people know about “Tantric sex” or the Kama Sutra. It’s to be hoped that this accessible version of Gendun Chopel’s book piques the curiosity of readers to look further into the life and work of this fascinating man.
The Passion Book: A Tibetan Guide to Love and Sex, Gendun Chopel, translated by Donald S Lopez Jr and Thupten Jinpa, University of Chicago Press.
This article first appeared on Asian Review of Books.
John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specialises in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut’s Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.