Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Punk Monks of Tibet By Chris Kavanagh

My recent post discussing the Dalai Lama reminded me of an interesting article I read a number of years ago about a rather unusual category of monks that existed in the monasteries of Tibet- the Ldab Ldob (dabdos) or, as they have also been called, ‘Punk monks’. These monks, who were an established and accepted part of the monastic community earned the moniker ‘punk because there time in Tibetan monasteries was spent engaging in violent duels, competing in intermonastery sporting events and rather infamously kidnapping young boys for sexual pleasure.

As such, they don’t just contradict the romanticised image of Tibetan monastic life but they grab that image, beat it senseless, steal all of its belongings then kick into a ditch and tell it not to come back and bother them again. They also illustrate how the real situation is often far more interesting and complex than any simplistic fantasy version can be.

The article discussing them was titled ‘A Study of the Ldab Ldob‘ and appeared in the Central Asiatic Journal back in 1964, it was written by the famous anthropologist and scholar of Tibet Melyvn C. Goldstein. Goldstein got his information about the dabdos from a small group of five Tibetan informants: two members of the aristocracy who had frequent dealings with the dabdos, a divination specialist, a member of a dabdos’ sporting society and one of the Dalai Lama’s dancing troop. Goldstein is careful to point out the limitation of his sources at the start of his article yet despite the small sample his informants were a varied and well informed bunch and the information he collected proved to be remarkably consistent with that gathered in later research (see for instance this later biography of a dabdo).

Also to Goldstein’s credit is the fact that he tested the reliability of the information he had collected during his interviews by occasionally relating false summaries to his informants to see if they would correct or challenge his errors- he reports that they always did. This simple test is a good example of how a responsible researcher should operate; critically testing the reliability of the information he is gathering rather than simply assuming it to be correct. So take note any future or current researchers or interviewers!
Based on his interviews Goldstein explained that the dabdos presented a potential channel in Tibet for those who entered the monastic setting and enjoyed the advantages of monkhood but were somewhat deviant and unsuited to a typical monastic lifestyle. Thus becoming a dabdo presented an officially sanctioned path for those of a more aggressive and unruly temperament and as a result the dabdos came to comprise about 10 per cent of the monastic community in the larger monasteries. As mentioned in the previous article discussing the Dalai Lama, the political situation in Tibet prior to the Chinese invasion was not as unified as is commonly portrayed. The larger monasteries operated, by and large, as independent political entities and thus the dabdos populations occasionally functioned for monasteries as a kind of standing army that could be called into service as required.
Diagrams of dabdos weapons

The dabdos despite being a violent and unruly lot and having a reputation for breaking their vows still remained an officially sanctioned group and as such they dressed like monks but with the additional feature that they also carried at least one weapon- with the most common being a sharpened ‘key’ or a curved blade attached to a leather strap which was thrown or used like a dagger at close range (see the schematic images to the right).

Something else which distinguished dabdos from other monks was their participation in sporting competitions. Many dabdos trained for and took part in sporting competitions and games. The most famous of these was the Mchong intermonastery competition in Lhasa held every few years between the large monastaries of Sera and Drepung. These competitions required the construction of a special sloped runway and had to be sanctioned by the abbots and officials from both monastaries (involving an official written guarantee that no fighting would be permitted). At the events the dabdos would be arranged into two teams of twenty or so competitors, who would be paired by size and strength, and would then face each other in a series of athletic challenges including a number of long jump and rock tossing events.

The events, at least in Lhasa, were attended by all of the officials from the two monasteries (except the abbots), government officials, traders and interested laymen. The dabdos who were competing dressed in distinctive costumes and were awarded white ceremonial scarves if they proved victorious. During the year the monks competing also had groups of lay people who would come and train with them throughout the year to prepare them for the tournament. Goldstein’s account of these competitions make them sound like some sort of bastard offspring between the Olympics and the Oxford-Cambridge Varsity competitions.

Amongst Tibetans the reputation of the dabdos did not derive from their taking part in games and competitions however instead their infamy largely extended from their fighting prowess and their reputation for brawling. As Goldstein explains:

More important than sports, the Ldab Ldobs love fighting, either among themselves or with laymen. Within the monasteries the Ldab Ldobs have a loose hierarchy which is based on their success as fighters. A Ldab Ldob renowned as a great fighter has achieved the most highly sought after honor that a Ldab Ldob can acquire. In fact a Ldab Ldob who does not fight, or cannot win fights, is a Ldab Ldob in dress only.

Dabdos often established their reputations by taking part in challenge matches both between fellow dobdos from the same monastery and rival dobdos from other monasteries. These matches were often vicious and occasionally ended in mutilation and death but much like combat sports today they were also often between dabdos who bore no personal grudge towards each other which resulted in the challengers ‘burying the hatchet’ as soon as the contest had ended.
Dabdos didn’t just fight other dabdos however they also fought with lay people and in a twist, which will be surprising to most, the most common reason for such fights was due to their “general propensity for homosexuality, and from this, their most infamous characteristic of ‘kidnapping’ young boys, and even adults, for homosexual practices”. The stories Goldstein relates of Tibetan school children banding together after classes to defend themselves with pen knives and barrages of rocks from gangs of marauding dabdos may seem fantastical and certainly don’t accord with the romantic images associated with Tibetan monks in the West but there is every indication that the dabdos penchant for young boys was a widely acknowledged problem in Tibetan society.
With all their negative attributes it might seem surprising that the dabdos were tolerated in Tibetan monasteries at all but Goldstein argued that in actual fact the dabdos were “the backbone of the monastery” and to support this he identified several prominent roles they played in Tibetan monastic life:

1. As discussed, the dabdos provided a sanctioned route for those who are unsuited to monastic life but did not wish to leave the privileges of monk hood behind. This also served to effectively convert potential anti-monastic elements of society into pro-monastic elements who were, in their own way, devoted to defending monastic life and its institutions.

2. They provided a source of physical labour typically performed the majority of manual labour in the monastery-repairing the buildings, building houses, transporting goods and making the tea! They served as a protective force and even occasionally as a quasi ‘police force’ for monasteries- policing religious festivals and processions and acting as bodyguards during official trips.
They provided an outlet for the inevitable youthful exuberance that accompanied monastic communities which had significant populations of young men. It is also notable that had a retirement age and typically by the age of 40 even the most infamous ‘punk monks’ would leave behind their violent past and assume more mainstream roles in the monastic community.

It’s hard to fault this analysis when the brute fact remains that dabdos remained tolerated and accepted in Tibetan monastic communities for centuries despite their far from ideal behaviour. Yet it should also be noted that many of the well known sayings presented in Goldstein’s articles make it clear that the dabdos themselves recognised that their actions were deviant and that their primary function in monastic life was to act as a support to the more pious monks in the community:

Even if the Buddha appeared in the sky,
we would not know how to have faith,
Even if the intestines of a sentient being were falling out,
we would not know how to have compassion.
… (We Ldab Ldob’s) are the outer walls,
(The other monks) are the inner treasures.

Goldstein’s article goes in to all of the aspects discussed above in much greater detail and is worth a read- especially if your only exposure to Tibetan Buddhism is the Dalai Lama’s speeches and that film about Tibet with Brad Pitt. And on the topic of the Hollywood portrayals I can’t help thinking how different Chow Yun-Fat’s portrayal of a Tibetan fighting monk would have been if it had incorporated some of Goldstein’s research… maybe Hollywood’s not quite ready for the real dabdos yet.

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