The Passion Book: A Tibetan Guide to Love & Sex
Translated by Donald S. Lopez, Jr. and Thupten Jinpa
University of Chicago Press, April 2018
160 pp., $19.00, paper
The Passion Book, modeled in part on the Kamasutra, is an explicit, unabashed, detailed, and encyclopedic description of sexual positions, methods, and pleasures. Throughout, the author, Gendun Chopel, urges his readers to engage in an exuberant, adventurous, generous, and considerate pursuit of sexual delight. It is a joyful book.
Gendun Chopel spent a third of his life as a monk and so would not seem to have been the most likely person to have written a work of such scandalous hedonism. Born in Amdo, Tibet, in 1903, he was a brilliant and original scholar, historian, poet, and artist—the most inspiring and unsettling figure to emerge in the last days of Tibet’s independence.
Donald S. Lopez Jr., Professor of Buddhist and Tibetan Studies at the University of Michigan, and Thupten Jinpa, a scholar and the Dalai Lama’s principal English interpreter, have a passion for making Gendun Chopel’s diverse body of work available in English, and their latest collaboration combines a wonderful lyricism with a careful exposition of the complex background of this vivid and still provocative text. (While highly attentive to women’s concerns, Gendun Chopel’s text only describes relationships between women and men. Jeffrey Hopkins, who made the first, excellent translation of the Passion Book, published in 1992 as Tibetan Arts of Love, also made a version for gay men in 1998.)
Gendun Chopel believed that liberation, in all forms, should be as accessible as possible. He dedicated The Passion Book in the final verse as follows:
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.
Despite the generosity of his intentions, some things in this book may offend you, others may charm you or secretly stimulate you, yet others may seem irrelevant and wrong, or deeply true and sincere. Please keep in mind that this book was written by a man, born in a specific place and time, who struggled with the cultural and spiritual conventions of the world in which he found himself. With great awareness of the limitations of his culture, in great loneliness, he exerted all his considerable powers to cut through the deadening manifestations of conventional thinking and behavior, and so to restore to every class and gender of humankind its intrinsic wisdom, freedom, and joy.
It is hard now to imagine the world into which Gendun Chopel was born. For all of its spiritual and philosophical refinement, Tibet was an isolated and feudal culture where even the most educated were certain that the earth was flat, where the most advanced students debated and rejected rumors that flying machines could possibly exist, and where science, if known at all, was given the dubious name (which Gendun Chopel also used) of “new reasoning.”
His father was a lama who made sure he learned grammar, poetics, astrology, and art. At 13, he began training in a nearby monastery, and at 18 he went to the famous monastic university at Labrang. There he excelled in philosophy, debate, and all other aspects of the traditional curriculum. At the same time, he began to learn English, mechanics, and Christian doctrine. At 25, he went to Lhasa and entered Drepung Monastery, where he became a close student of one of the most renowned Gelugpa teachers of that time and established a reputation both for his mastery of philosophical doctrines and for his ability in debate to challenge and even refute deeply held tenets about existence, nonexistence, and the nature of reality altogether. He particularly objected to propositions that could not be supported by reference to ordinary experience. His style was confrontational, mocking, and rebellious, even as he remained a vigorous exponent of the purity of monastic life.
But in 1934, Gendun Chopel met the Hindu and Buddhist scholar Rahul Sankrityayan, with whom he subsequently traveled to India. There, his omnivorous curiosity led him to improve his English, study Sanskrit, Pali, and the Theravada Vinaya [monastic code], and tour Buddhist archaeological sites as far south as Sri Lanka. He also met Western Tibetologists with whose help he became the first Tibetan to study the Tibetan historical manuscripts that had recently been found in China at Dunhuang. During those years, he abandoned his monastic vows. Despite his growing reputation as a scholar with acute understanding of a wide range of topics, he lived in extreme poverty all the while, barely getting by on small stipends from Western scholars and donations from Christian missionaries. Even in Tibet, Gendun Chopel had been a heavy drinker, and now he enjoyed the company of women as well. He spent a great deal of time exploring the political ideas that were fermenting in India at that time, including communism. Based on his researches, he wrote articles questioning Tibet’s historical traditions (later assembled in the collection translated as Grains of Gold), and then wrote The Passion Book.
Gendun Chopel was pleased to note that while the only other book of this kind in Tibetan, the work of the celebrated Nyingma master and scholar Ju Mipham Rinpoche, was based on reading, his own work was based on experience. He mentions many women, some by name, and it is clear that he not only enjoyed sex with these partners, but he also took delight in gossiping about sex. And it is equally clear that sometimes they found the avidity of his curiosity tiresome.
The chapter titles give a clear idea of the book’s range of information and advice: types of embrace, acts of kissing, types of bites (and scratches), modes of pleasure, playing with the organ, mounting and thrusting, moans, and so on. As he says:
This passion that arises so naturally
In all men and women without effort
Is covered by a thin veil of shame.
With just a little effort, it shows its true face, naked.
Lying down, sitting, standing, kneeling; face to face, back to front, side by side, head to foot; on beds, on tables, chairs, benches, lawns; at dawn, midday, early evening, by candlelight and in utter darkness— Gendun Chopel’s exuberant worlds of sexual passion encompass the six senses, pursuing bliss far beyond the boundaries of convention and shame. And the culmination of all passionate embraces is found in the transcendent.
All fitting expressions of beauty and smiling,
Switching back and forth like magical illusions,
With a laughing face, blazing with a blood red glow
This is called the great Frightful Goddess, body of passion.
It is frequently said that enlightenment is simply the natural state, yet few have had the dedication and courage to realize it. In the same way, Gendun Chopel presents physical bliss as the natural desire and capacity of all women and men.
Close, trusting, free of worry,
When both are drunk with deep desire,
What would they not do when making love?
They do everything; they leave nothing.
When Gendun Chopel returned to Lhasa in 1946, his opinions were sought on a wide range of topics, particularly by those who were interested in progressive ideas from outside Tibet. He began to write a history of Tibet (The White Annals), but he attracted the attention of Tibet’s conservative regents, who soon had him arrested, tortured, and imprisoned on charges of counterfeiting, being a communist spy, and (paradoxically) being an agent of Chang Kai-shek. He remained in prison for four years.
After that, his health was broken. He lived with several women and drank heavily. One lama who encountered him was shocked by his appearance, but Gendun Chopel pulled him into an alley and, though completely inebriated, gave a lengthy, lucid, and original exposition of his views on the philosophical positions of Nagarjuna.
In Gendun Chopel’s last work, he returned to the kind of topic that had once gained him such notoriety as a debater. Here he stated:
Thus, if one takes pains in analyzing the ultimate, one must accept that all our decisions are mere fabrications of the mind with no basis whatsoever. When one thinks about things like this, a great fear is created, and this is the onset of the arising of the fear of the view of emptiness. . . .
In brief, all those who believe in the Mahayana must also believe in the inconceivable . . . .
However, one should know that the union which nondualistically mixes as one such things as object and subject, desire and hatred, hot and cold, pure and polluted, is the body of great wisdom or the body of union, the mixture of body and mind in one.
These two quotes point to a continuing element of Gendun Chopel’s concerns. In this world, the most profound experiences of bliss and of the awakened state are realized in cutting through the conventions of feeling and thought. He never wavered in the pursuit of this view. Nonetheless, in his last months, he said to an acquaintance: “A priceless lapis lazuli vase has been dashed against a stone.” Within a few weeks, Chinese troops were marching through Lhasa, and by mid-October of 1951, he was dead.
After his death, the following verses were found written on the wall of Gendun Chopel’s former cell:
May the wise regard as an object of compassion
The small truthful child left all alone
In the wilderness where the frightening roar resounds
Of the stubborn tiger drunk on the blood of envy.
The Passion Book, however, represents Gendun Chopel at his most joyful, curious, and optimistically lascivious. His avid engagement with sexual pleasure was part of his deep belief that all the deepest aspects of human experience are expressions of the awakened state, and are themselves paths to enlightenment. Donald Lopez and Thupten Jinpa’s glorious translation is accompanied by a detailed biography and an extensive commentary that, rather than burdening the text and clouding Gendun Chopel’s essential message, make it even more scintillating and alive.
Q&A with the translators
Why did you choose to translate Gendun Chopel’s treatise on passion? Did you have any hesitations about taking on a project that is so sexually explicit?
Donald Lopez (DL): One of our goals has been to translate Gendun Chopel’s major works. So our primary motivation, to be honest, was literary rather than erotic. The University of Chicago Press, however, did worry about publishing a work that is borderline pornographic. When it was accepted, the editorial director wrote to me in an email, “Congratulations—and thanks for bringing me what is surely the sexiest book I’ll ever publish.”
Can you discuss your portrayal of Gendun Chopel as an egalitarian sex advocate?
Thupten Jinpa (TJ): Gendun Chopel was very critical of those in high positions—whether Tibetan aristocrats or Indian Brahmins—who abused the lower classes. He was also in India at the height of the independence movement; his best Indian friend was a communist. As a tantric yogin, he understood that deep states of bliss could be achieved through practice (and he weaves tantric terminology throughout his poetry). For the rest of us, there is orgasm. He talks about it as a human right, not to be restricted by church or state.
How does he fare by the standards of contemporary feminism?
DL: To answer that fully would require a longer conversation, but he is quite critical of the exploitation of women. He is clearly committed to their sexual pleasure in heterosexual lovemaking, and he discusses female masturbation at some length, in a way that is not prurient. Gendun Chopel was celibate until his early thirties and lived in a much more traditional time and culture. So I was surprised to see references to wood, leather, and metal dildos, not to mention suspension ropes and swings.
Does he have any good tips?
DL: We were interviewed about the book last summer, and in the course of the interview, I said, “Sadly, we turned to this project too late in life to do us much good.” To which Jinpa said, “Speak for yourself.” I will say in my defense, however, that like Gendun Chopel, Jinpa was a celibate monk into his thirties and so got a much later start than I did.
You’ve written in the afterword that “English [is] strangely impoverished for the translation of erotica.” What translation issues arose specifically because of the subject matter?
TJ: It was mostly what words to use for the male and female genitals, where English has either Latinate clinical terms or words that are considered (or used to be considered) vulgar. Tibetan is not much better, with such sexy terms as “male sign” and “womb hole.” In the end, we copped out and did what Gendun Chopel did, using the Sanskrit linga and bhaga. The translation effort was, obviously, a collaboration, and about a topic we’re not used to discussing openly.
Any awkward moments?
DL: No, we did it entirely by Skype. Seriously, figuring out written descriptions of complicated sexual positions was a major challenge, much harder than translating Madhyamaka philosophy.
—Emma Varvaloucas, Executive Editor
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.