“I can make you a new phallus, no problem.”
“But we’re leaving in the morning.”
Figuring that we could always use a bit more protection against demons in our house in Bangkok, I ordered a flying phallus sculpture from Karma, a village artist in central Bhutan. Of course there was no guarantee that the wooden phallus, once imported to Thailand, would have the same anti-demon properties that it provides to the deeply spiritual people of this small Himalayan country, but I figured it was worth a $10 investment.
Phalluses — sometimes simple and stylized, often ornate and anatomically correct — adorn many houses in Bhutan. They must do a good job of keeping the home free from evil spirits and slander, as Bhutan is famously pacifist, the people are largely content (this is the home of Gross National Happiness), and the landlocked kingdom is relatively free of the troublesome domestic dramas that afflict other Asian countries.
Called po in Dzonghka, Bhutan’s national language, these phallus images are sometimes painted on the outside walls of Bhutanese houses, or carved from wood and hung from the eaves of their sturdy stone and timber dwellings. Dasho Karma Ura, head of the Center for Bhutan Studies, describes the phalluses as “exuberant and gifted penises, always slightly askew, and sometimes frothy.”
The man who generally gets credited with popularizing the good-luck-phallus craze was a 15th-16th-century Buddhist master named Lama Drukpa Kunley. Enfant terrible of Buddhist missionaries, seducer of women (including his own mother, but it was for her own good, he argued), he famously subdued the female demons of Bhutan with his “flaming thunderbolt.” He exemplified the tantric belief that carnal relations can be the gateway to enlightenment, and was not hesitant to enlighten as many women as possible.
As we were finishing breakfast the following morning, Karma, the village artist, strolled into our camp with what appeared to be a colorful model airplane.
On closer examination, we saw that he had carved a pink-painted phallus as long as my forearm. To the “business end” of the phallus Karma had added a strip of faded yellow cloth, perhaps an homage to the ubiquitous prayer flags found throughout the country, but more likely representing anti-demon ejaculate.
He also carved a wooden sword, which he nailed at right angles to the phallus, giving the object the approximate look of a handmade, not-quite-completed B-52. Our friend and trekking guide Tashi Namgay explained that while the phallus provides protection, the wooden sword “cuts through ignorance, the first step towards wisdom.”
My French wife dubbed it the “Flying Zizi,” using the French slang for the male member.
We took our Flying Zizi to the simple village temple, set in the middle of a paddy field. We quickly located Dorji, a lay monk who doubled as the shrine’s caretaker. He didn’t flinch as we asked him to bless the object.
I asked Tashi, “This will work against all demons?”
“Actually, the really tough demons require something stronger,” Tashi replied, his unwavering patience for our ridiculous questions tempered now with a hint of good-natured sarcasm.
“An extra large phallus, perhaps?”
“No, just the opposite. Naked dancing monks.” He referenced a different phallus-based legend from his village.
On our return to Thailand in May of 2010, the people of Bangkok were tensing for a battle between supporters of Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and those loyal to the Thai monarchy. A military intervention seemed certain, and just a kilometer away from our home armed soldiers were gathering for a final showdown with the implacable demonstrators.
We carefully unpacked our Flying Zizi and hung it in our Thai garden. “This will work in Bangkok?” I had asked Karma when we purchased the talisman.
Karma had never been to the Bhutanese capital of Thimpu. But the shrug he gave us seemed to say, “can’t hurt.”
And he was right. While central Bangkok burned, life on our little soi continued relatively undisturbed. The noodle guy in front of our house stayed open, as did the grilled chicken lady, the vegetable seller, and the motorcycle taxi drivers. The cat slept peacefully. I’m not too sure that the sword helped us cut through ignorance to achieve wisdom, but I’m pretty certain that at least the phallus-fearing demons went elsewhere.