Thursday, July 3, 2014

Tales of Uncle Tompa: The Legendary Rascal of Tibet

Book Review: Tales of Uncle Tompa: The Legendary Rascal of Tibet  - compiled and translated by Rinjing Dorje (Stanton Hill Arts 1997)

Here is a selection of tales involving this rather odd trickster character. He uses trickery to get vengeance, make money, and get sex. Some of the tales are hilarious. Others are oddly silly. Uncle Tompa does not usually represent the typical Buddhist ideals of Tibet, but perhaps a more fundamental human folk hero ideal. Sometimes he is on the side of justice but at other times he is on the side of his own selfish nature. Sometimes he wins and sometimes he loses but he is always the prankster!

Apparantly, Uncle Tompa’s exploits were/are often the subjects of Tibetan bards and storytellers. These stories are part of an oral tradition. Amidst long cold winters and isolation, many villages were visited by these travelling bards, called Lama Mani. Some think Agu Tompa (Uncle Tompa) was an actual character who lived in Central and Southern Tibet in the 13th century while others see him as purely legend. Some even consider him as an incarnation of Chenrezik, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Even though he seems a simpleton his cleverness often saves the day. Many of these tales can be interpreted as simple comic relief. Sexual themes and politically incorrect behavior are common in the stories.

Uncle Tompa proves the bane of the miserly, the rich, and the gullible. Some of his stories resemble those of the “mad” yogi, Drukpa Kunleg, who travelled around Bhutan and parts of Tibet in the 1500’s, though Drukpa Kunleg was a deeply practiced Buddhist yogi whose stories offer profound teachings. But he also indulged in sex, drink, and much unconventional and ribald behavior. Uncle Tompa, on the other hand, wiled his way into food, drink, sex, and leisure. He is a hero to the common man.

Some of his trickery revolves around language and double meanings. In that sense, the stories can be compared to those of the Mulla Nasruddhin and Native American Coyote.
Uncle Tompa was said to be a former monk, and so was literate, which gives him a certain advantage in a nomadic culture where literacy was not common.

In one story he tells a tale to wile momos (dumplings) from his master. There is a hilarious one about Uncle whose name was “penis” to some and “vagina” to others.
The tale where he sells penises at the nunnery speaks of hypocrisy, the just-as-real human urges of monastic people, and more hilarity. But beware the magic penis, as it will find a hole, and if that’s the only one you got, well too bad!

Uncle Tompa appears in a stint disguised as a nun in a nunnery, making nuns pregnant! In another he becomes a transvestite using a sheep’s lung as a fake, but apparently functional, vagina – so that he acquires jewelry from a rich man.

Uncle Tompa’s victims often do not fare too well. He is rather a lecherous and greedy scoundrel using his wile and charlatanry to satisfy his needs. Quite a con man is he.

The story of the “miracle shit” was hilarious.  A king was punishing him by confining him to the roof without clothes. He took a shit and gradually covered it over with lime that he found so that it froze. Then he carved mysterious writing into it and dropped it through the roof hole onto the king’s lap as the king was meditating. The king was baffled and recalled Uncle Tompa from the roof to interpret the writing. He noted that it was special lucky shit from heavenly realms and convinced the king to eat a piece for blessings!

Other accomplishments of Uncle Tompa include making a king bark like a dog at New Year – apparently an inauspicious act in Tibet and gaining control of the promiscuity of his promiscuous second wife through trickery. He manages to talk his way in and out of various predicaments with his cunning lies.

In a more heroic manner, Uncle Tompa manages to trick a stingy king into giving a large three-day feast to all his subjects – by making up a story about a Naga queen living in a well who offers jewels.

Three other stories are also given that do not involve Uncle Tompa. One is about a village fool and another about rather naïve nomads. The last story is one about Kyakug, or “Dumbshit,” a rather gullible fellow.

I suspect this small book is just a sampling of the tales of Uncle Tompa and other Tibetan folk tales. Perhaps other collections will preserve more of the oral tales as old Tibetan culture gives way to Chinese and Tibetan-in-exile cultures. Uncle Tompa sure was a peculiar character willing to do bizarre things to make ends meet or to get laid. One can only imagine what he would do for Klondike bar!

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