The Motion of the Pestle

AMONG BUDDHIST MONKS and nuns, to “disrobe” implies the renunciation of vows — for instance, no longer keeping one’s head shaved and being free to engage in “financial dealings.” But when the early 20th-century Tibetan Buddhist monk Gendun Chopel disrobed, likely around the time he left Tibet for India in 1934, he did so both figuratively and literally. He would go on to get naked, in fact, again and again, with many women, over many years, in brothels and in his own bed. An already provocative intellectual, scholar, and poet, Chopel secured his infamy by describing his sexual encounters in detail. And in verse.

Originally written in 1938, A Treatise on Passion is a compilation of 588 four-line poems that illuminate the universal yearning for intimacy and pleasure, as well as Chopel’s own exploits. The book is equal parts argument for orgasm as a basic human right and roadmap for how to get folks there, over and over again.

An enchanting new translation, by Buddhist Studies expert (and Chopel biographer) Donald S. Lopez Jr. and Thupten Jinpa, a Cambridge-educated former monk and longtime English translator for the Dalai Lama, will delight contemporary readers. Their version, entitled The Passion Book: A Tibetan Guide to Love and Sex, remains a graphic manual to love-making. But the book is also much more than that, in no small part because Chopel himself was such a brazen, brilliant, yet surprisingly earnest writer.

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Chopel made a name for himself early on. Known, even as a young monk, for antics such as dressing up as a ruffian to publicly debate fellow monks and teachers, he was always quick to call out hypocrisy. Though Chopel originally left Tibet to visit the holy sites of the Buddha’s life and to deepen his study of Sanskrit, he was also intensely curious, eager to explore the wider world outside of what was then a still very isolated Tibet.

Chopel spent a total of 12 years abroad, primarily in India, but also a long stretch in Sri Lanka. During that time, he railed against British colonialism, developed an interest in Marxism, and was offered a teaching job by Tagore (which he refused). He translated various seminal texts, including the Hindu Ramayana into Tibetan and the Buddhist Bodhisattva’s Way of Life into English. And he wrote prolifically, across genres, from haunting memoiristic poetry to highly sophisticated Buddhist scholarship to a kind of early Lonely Planet for fellow pilgrims.

As a Sanskrit scholar, Chopel was also inspired by classical erotic poetry, including but not limited to the Kamasutra (written in the third century CE). Determined to bring such knowledge back to Tibet, Chopel wanted to expand the genre, pulling from traditional manuscripts, but also from his own discoveries.

Because he ordained as a monk around adolescence and upheld his vows until his early 30s, Chopel then pursued sensuality with the awe of a novice and the concentration of a spiritual master. This wonderment drives The Passion Book. Though Chopel details positions and techniques with authorial credibility, he also maintains an unabashed reverence for the staying power of lust:

A man and woman, though bereft of wealth and power
Find the bliss of heaven in their bed.
Even an old man, with hair whiter than a conch,
Finds inexpressible joy in the womb of his old wife.

Most remarkably, it is this “inexpressible joy” that Chopel wants to bring to the masses. As Lopez and Jinpa note in their preface, Indian texts such as the Kamasutra were intended for princes and other gentlemen of high society. And, Lopez explains, although sexual union had long been a practice of some secret sects of Tantric Buddhists in Tibet, in those realms as well, the instruction — not to mention the actual experience — was available to only a few “spiritually advanced” men. Chopel believed that keeping such instruction for the elite was unfair. Everyone, he argued, should relish in meaningful, fabulous sex:

Only the rich acquire gold, silver, horses, and cattle.
The enjoyment of sex is found by all, high and humble.
Sunlight, wind, earth, and water.
Whatever is precious is shared by all.

Organized by chapters such as “Types of Bites [and Scratches],” “Mounting and Thrusting,” and “Various Methods of Copulation,” the book is likely to make readers squirm and sometimes laugh out loud. And yet, in this too, Chopel calls us out for our own skittishness:

Like a timid thief eating a meal in hiding,
To churn in and out and then ejaculate
Silently and quietly in a darkened bed,
This is not a true celebration of sexual passion.

Among the most captivating stanzas are those that remind us, half a world and 80 years away, of both the specificity of Chopel’s cultural references and the agelessness of his subject: “This act of going in and coming out, / This well-known way is called the motion of the pestle.

Or, in outlining foreplay, Chopel references the sky, so common in Tibetan Buddhist imagery:

Make rows of bites, one above the other,
On the breasts and the soft part of thighs.
This is called fragments of clouds.

He admonishes men who finish too quickly and advises everyone to get in the habit of doing it at least twice. But he also condemns the sexual abuse of women, the purchase of child brides, and the religious insinuation of sex as “dirty.” Chopel both encourages individual pleasure and challenges thousands of years of social inequality. With a mission to eradicate shame, explain basic anatomy, and encourage synergy between partners, Chopel’s text is nothing short of revolutionary.

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Not surprisingly, the book was — and remains — controversial. Smuggled as manuscript back to Tibet in 1939, it wasn’t published until 1967, 16 years after Chopel’s death. The first English translation, by Jeffrey Hopkins, appeared in 1992. This elegant version was made in prose. In response to Chopel’s focus only on heteronormative sex, Hopkins also adapted A Treatise on Passion for a later book entitled Sex, Orgasm, and the Mind of Clear Light: The Sixty-four Arts of Gay Male Love. But in this #MeToo era, Chopel deserves to be celebrated as the early advocate of consent that he was: “To forcibly urge her and have intercourse against her will, / This is a mound of sin and the custom of the uncivilized.”

Although Chopel promotes uninhibited arousal, he’s clear that trust and communication are essential to transcend gratification and experience something transformative. He also criticizes the conventional Hindu prohibition of sex with widows (still in place throughout much of India, especially among the poor). Particularly in a society where women were customarily younger than their husbands, this was a daring claim, disruptive to thousands of years of religious orthodoxy and tight regulations on women’s sexuality.

In general, Chopel denounces every culture that expects women to bow down, touching the feet of their husband in respect, even though that husband may have taken the wife “by force” the night before. Among the most straightforward but also divisive statements, particularly given traditional caste laws of cleanliness, is that “[w]hatever comes from a woman’s body at the time of sex is pure.” And yet in the midst of all his rightful bluster, Chopel also pauses to wonder, in all sincerity, if there is “anything that surpasses a woman’s vagina?”

To be sure, the book also contains antiquated ideas that would now be deemed “offensive.” There are sweeping generalizations about the tendencies of men and women, and there are categories of different “kinds” of women, such as “deer,” “mare,” and “elephant.” (The “elephant,” for instance, “cannot be satisfied by a hundred men” and her vagina is “hairy and burns like fire.”)

He likewise offers some wildly imaginative testimonials about women from different regions. Those from southern Gujarat, he says, are so loud during sex they can be “heard beyond the boundary of three fences,” while women from the eastern coast of India like to keep on hand a “male member made of leather.” Western women, meanwhile, are referred to as “semen-drinkers,” a claim I think most men I know wish were true.

But these portions of the book ought not detract from its heart. If anything, his detailing of female self-pleasure could be called feminist:

When their husbands are away,
Women do it themselves.
It’s said the rich even have them made for that purpose,
Of precious metals like gold, silver, and copper.

Most women in the land of India
Know their husbands alone.
Since fulfilling sex is rare,
There are many such practices.

But for all its radical efforts of empowerment, The Passion Book is perhaps even more profound in light of its spiritual underpinnings and the fate of its author.

Chopel was born in northeastern Tibet in 1903 (the same year that George Orwell was born on the flat plains of eastern British India). Protected by the Himalayas, Tibet was then among the most insulated countries on earth, both geographically and culturally. Since the mid-17th century, the country had been governed by a succession of rigorously educated Buddhist monks, each of whom was recognized in childhood as the next reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. (The current Dalai Lama, who has been living in exile in India since 1959, is the 14th.)

Tibetan Buddhism is in the Mahayana tradition, which, in broad brush strokes, diverged from the earlier Hinayana tradition in that nirvana was seen as plausible within this lifetime. Also, practitioners commit not only to striving toward their own realization, but even more so to helping others.

Until the Chinese occupation began in 1950, an estimated 10 to 15 percent of the Tibetan population was monastic (about 20 to 30 percent of all men). In other words, because Tibetan political governance was executed in support of widespread Buddhist learning, Tibet’s sense of its own power was grounded in the Bodhisattva’s vow to free all beings from suffering. As the Tibetan administration wrote to Chinese authorities in 1946: “There are many great nations on this earth who have achieved unprecedented wealth and might, but there is only one nation which is dedicated to the well-being of humanity.”

Chopel cherished these ideals throughout his life, albeit in unorthodox ways. Though he relinquished his monkhood, it could be argued that he never strayed from his path as a Bodhisattva (known in Tibet as “enlightenment hero”). While The Passion Book advocates pleasure for pleasure’s sake, orgasm, as Lopez explains, can also become “the common person’s path to bliss.”

The book opens with a supplication of the Buddha, signaling the work as a kind of offering. Toward the last stanza, Chopel also invokes the names of three specific women with whom he’d disrobed (notably, a Tibetan, a Hindu, and a Muslim, among “others”). He praises them, hoping they “persist” from “bliss to bliss.” Which is to say, he wishes them liberation, a release from suffering. The book is framed with the intention to generate the clarity and the ecstasy that can be glimpsed in sex but also sustained through spiritual practice. And this, too, is what he offers.

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But despite — or, likely, because of — Chopel’s goals to promote equality, he was eventually silenced. When he left Tibet in 1934, crossing the border into India meant encountering steam trains, electricity, telephones, movie theaters, and cosmopolitan urban life. Because of this contrast from agrarian, candlelit Tibet, Chopel’s legacy is often considered as a pivot toward modernity. Especially in light of all of his writing and translations, Chopel was unique not simply for his extensive travels, but because he worked so hard to bring the outside world home with him.

Chopel returned to Lhasa in 1946. Initially, he was honored as the intellectual darling he’d become. But this was a time of intense political turmoil. The Dalai Lama was still young and not yet enthroned as the full political leader. Amid increasingly dire threats of Chinese invasion, there was infighting among the Tibetan aristocracy.

In this uncertain atmosphere, about a year after his homecoming, Chopel was arrested and imprisoned on false counterfeiting charges. While he was in jail, his room was ransacked and all his writing, including the draft of a comprehensive history of Tibet, was destroyed. Some of Chopel’s contemporaries believed he was suspected of being a communist. Others speculated that, due to his anticolonial sentiments, a British official in India was responsible for his arrest.

Regardless of reason, however, undeniable is the doom that Chopel shared with so many poets. As Osip Mandelstam said of writing poetry under Stalin, “[i]t gets people killed.” Tibet before the Chinese invasion was not a Russian Gulag. (And was not yet the oppressive regime of the Chinese occupation, which resulted in the death of over one million Tibetans, the destruction of most monasteries, and the ongoing torture of many monks, nuns, and dissidents.) Yet even in a Buddhist country, a writer as subversive as Chopel could be seen as dangerous.

Released in 1950 under general amnesty, Chopel stumbled into the sunlight demoralized. After developing a serious drinking problem while in jail, he was unable to return to writing. His health problems and his drinking worsened. In 1951, as Chinese soldiers marched through the streets of Lhasa, rifles on their shoulders, Chopel died of complications of cirrhosis.

And yet, his work lives. With this translation, Lopez and Jinpa have recreated the poetic form of the Tibetan “song,” or stanza, which is based on cadence rather than rhyme. These direct, sometime curt claims meander, from nearly crass to sublime, from salacious to tender.

The new translation also includes a thoughtful afterword, contextualizing both the work and Chopel’s life, allowing a wider, general audience with the chance to engage with this truly original, fiercely human writer. As with any great work of literature, this means reflecting on the big picture questions raised by the text, as well as on its individual resonance. Of the larger, even global importance of good sex, Chopel says:

Because women and men are so different,
If they were not brought together by coupling,
The world would be split into two factions
Always in conflict and at war.

At the same time, we obviously cannot think about sex without conjuring our most private encounters. And in reminding of us of our own vulnerability, Chopel’s work becomes a window onto human nature itself:

The experience of bliss is no small matter.
The creation of families is no small matter.
If the path of passion can be sustained within bliss and emptiness,
How can that be a small matter?

These poems remind us that our bodies deserve not only pleasure, but protection. That, in fact, we cannot have one without the other. In this, Chopel’s writing couldn’t be more timely — or timeless for that matter. He confronted the patriarchy, challenging those who dehumanized women or thought the poor deserved less. This is an ongoing fight, and I cannot think of a better reason to read.

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Beginning in 2019, Liesl Schwabe will serve as a Fulbright Scholar in India, where she will teach at Presidency University in Kolkata.

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