‘A Study of the Ldab ldob’ (1964)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

6 minutes

Based on interviews held with Tibetan informants living in Seattle from February to August 1963, Melvyn Goldstein published an academic study of the so-called dop dop (Wyl. ldob ldob) or Tibetan ‘punk monks.’

Goldstein introduces the dop dop as follows:

“But in a closed system one would expect, and indeed finds, deviants. There are monks who simply are unable to abide by the monastic laws. They are aggressive and pugilistic. They desire many of the pleasures of the layman’s life, but remain in the monastic system because of the economic and prestigious incentives the system offers. These monks, I suggest, step into the ready-made channel which the system offers them: the role of the Ldab ldob. Here they can reach a compromise between their vows as monks and their secular desires without losing their status and function in the monastic system.

The phenomenon of the Ldab ldob within the monastic segment of Tibetan society is unique. This paradoxical group, which numbers as high as 10 per cent of the monk-population of the larger monasteries, seems to flaunt and make ridiculous the monastic system. One of the sayings which the Ldab ldob proudly though facetiously use to describe themselves illustrates this nicely:

‘Sangs rgyas nam mkha’ la byon la na’ang dad pa mi shes/
Sems can rgyu ma lug na’ang snying rje mi shes mkhan//

Even if the Buddha appeared in the sky we (Ldab ldobs)
would not know how to have faith,
Even if the intestines of a sentient being were falling out,
we (Ldab ldobs) would not know how to have compassion.’

Although the Ldab ldob lives in a monastery, has taken monastic vows, wears basically the dress of a Buddhist monk, and considers himself to be a monk, he is at first glance more of an anti-monk than a ‘real’ monk. His behavior seems to put him in a category with the worst secular Buddhists, according to a large portion of the Buddhist texts. As evident as this may seem to the outsider, neither secular nor monastic Tibetans hold this view, and therefore we cannot facilely pass off the Ldab ldob as a bad monk. We can understand the paradox of Ldab ldob if we examine them according to what they do, how they dress, their role in the monastic society, how they are viewed by the members of the whole society, certain characteristics of the monastic institution, and the functional role of Ldab ldobs as a group.”

Goldstein goes on to discuss some of the sexual practices of the dop dop:

“The Ldab ldob also fights with laymen. Often without knowing the parties concerned, he enters into a fight on the side of the loser. This is one of the traits which endears him to the lay population. However, more frequently the Ldab Idob is the instigator.

A large proportion of the fighting between Ldab ldobs and laymen, and among Ldab ldobs themselves, hinges on the Ldab ldobs’ general propensity for homosexuality, and from this, their most infamous characteristic of ‘kidnaping’ [sic] young boys, and even adults, for homosexual practices. Among the monks in Tibet, and especially among the Ldab ldobs, homosexuality has a status similar to premarital sexual relations in our culture: it is sinful, but widespread. Among the Tibetan lay population, it carries an extremely derogative stigma and is almost unknown.

Although a monk who practices homosexuality is at the least committing the two sins of ‘sexual desire’ (‘Dod chags) and ‘perverse view’ (Log lta), he will often rationalize that he is not breaking the prohibition to derive pleasure from the three doors (anus, mouth, and vagina) since, in Tibet, homosexuality is practiced only between the legs from behind. Any other practice is considered unthinkable. This relationship with a close relative is equally scorned, for the same taboo for incest applies here. Yet when we look at the following well-known saying of Gelugpa monks, we can readily see that Ldab ldobs or monks who practice homosexuality really do believe that they are committing a wrong:

‘Spyi dpon shakya thub pas ni gang yang gsung mi ‘dub/
sger dpon blo bzang grags pas ni po mthog la bzhag gnang bzhag/
bar skabs pan ‘grub ‘ga’ zhig gis rdzab chen n a g gi sgang la
skyel bzhag//

The Universal Lord, Shakyamuni, didn’t say anything about it {homosexuality] at all.
On top of that, our private Lord, Tsong kha pa, left it as it was.
But in between these two, Pandits and ‘Enlightened ones’ have put
us in with the most wicked of the wicked.’

Kidnaping might begin with a Ldab ldob striking up a conversation with a young girlish-looking boy (either monk or lay). If the boy is not receptive to his advances, the Ldab ldob may forcibly lead the boy away. Unless the Ldab ldob has an arrangement with friends to use their house, he will have to take the boy back to the monastery in order to have privacy. If this is the case, the boy will be forced to spend the night there because of the distance between the monastery and Lhasa (using Lhasa and the three large monasteries as an example). Ldab ldobs are not reluctant about taking a boy from the aristocracy against his will, and some Ldab ldobs are even famed for taking nobles’ sons. There are also instances where Ldab ldobs took adults, and even aristocrats who were government officials.

The Ldab ldobs are able to continue this behavior because their ‘victims’ fear retaliation by the Ldab ldobs, but more because of the shame at having been a homosexual partner (Mgron po). In Tibet, the main stigma goes to the victim, or to the voluntary partner, and not to the doer, the Ldab ldob. We know from our own culture how strong this same type of stigma is in cases of rape and forced homosexuality, and it seems to be even stronger in Tibet, when the victim is a layman.

Yet, in accordance with the dichotomy in the Ldab ldobs‘ behavior, his kidnaping of boys is not necessarily one-sided. Ldab ldobs are noted for their generosity to their Mgron po, which, in the case of the lower classes, partly soothes the shame.

With this brief background, the relationship of homosexuality to fighting becomes evident. Usually Ldab ldobs will fight to determine who owns a voluntary Mgron po. Since these fights are spontaneous and unconcealed, they are the most common ones in which the Ldab ldobs are caught and punished by the monastic officials, both for fighting and for homosexuality.

Fighting occurs when laymen try to avoid kidnaping. School children are the prime targets of Ldab ldobs, and the close of school each day the prime time. Trouble starts when the school boys get word that Ldab ldobs are waiting for them. They may then plan a way to turn the tables on the Ldab ldobs. Since all school children carry a small pen knife to sharpen their bamboo pens, they have a weapon of a sort. If the children can manage to down the Ldab ldobs, they can inflict serious injury on them, and my informants knew of several incidents where the Ldab ldobs were killed. These were not common, however. Usually the school boys go in groups, and when they meet the Ldab ldobs, hold them off with barrages of rocks.”

Melvyn Goldstein’s study was corroborated by Tashi Tsering who writes in his autobiography:

“They were also notorious for fighting with each other to see who was toughest and for their sexual predation of lay boys. All schoolboys in Lhasa were fair game for these dobdos, and most tried to return from school in groups for protection against them. I knew for some time that I was being pursued and had several close calls. But I was always able to escape until one fateful day when that monk caught me after a gadrugba performance in Lhasa and forcibly took me to his apartment in the monastery. He made me a prisoner, threatening me with beatings if I tried to escape or I refused to cooperate with him sexually. It was distasteful, but he released me after two days. The incident, however, reawakened my ambivalent feelings toward traditional Tibetan society. Once again its cruelty was thrust into my life. I wondered to myself how monasteries could allow such thugs to wear the holy robes of the Lord Buddha. When I talked to other monks and monk officials about the dobdos, they shrugged and said simply that that was just the way things were.”

This book, The Struggle for Modern Tibet: The Autobiography of Tashi Tsering (1999), is available here. The book’s jacket says:

“Born in 1929 in a Tibetan village, Tsering developed a strong dislike of his country’s theocratic ruling elite. As a 13-year-old member of the Dalai Lama’s personal dance troupe, he was frequently whipped or beaten by teachers for minor infractions. A heterosexual, he escaped by becoming a drombo, or homosexual passive partner and sex-toy, for a well-connected monk.”

Goldstein - A Study of the Ldab-Ldob (Central Asian Journal 9 1964 pp. 123–141)

About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

Investigative reporter and academic researcher Rob Hogendoorn (b. 1964) began researching the reception of Buddhism in Western society and culture in the early 1990s. His modus operandi remained the same ever since: independent, inquisitive and provocative.