To go to the webpage containing links to the texts of two Tibetan folk tales (for adults), and commentary, please click here.

Commentary on Stories about Aku Tompa,
a Trickster Hero of Tibetan Folk Tales

by Dr Eric Miller, Director, World Storytelling Institute;
and Others

Myself and family recently (May 2012) visited the Dharamsala area, in Himachal Pradesh, for approximately two weeks.  Dharamsala is a home in India of Tibetan people who are refugees from Tibet. 

Being a Folklorist, I asked questions that prompted people to tell me about Aku Tompa, a character from Tibetan folklore.  Aku Tompa (or, Aku Tenpa) can be translated as, Uncle Emptiness.

Then, in response to my inquiry on Publore (an e-mail list concerning Public Folklore), Prof Noe Dinnerstein (Dept of Art and Music, John Jay College, City University of New York) kindly recommended some books about Uncle Tompa.  I was able to find and photocopy most of this material at the main Library in Dharamsala. 

Uncle Tompa is a classic trickster character.   The people he tricks tend to be powerful, wealthy, and greedy.

At times Uncle Tompa causes misunderstandings between people, which may lead to benefit for him and others (similar to stories like the European folk tale in which the servant leads her master to believe that his guest has stolen a chicken, and leads the guest to believe that her master is furious, so that the guest runs away and the servant herself eats the chicken).

At times Uncle Tompa goes along with others' fictions, or draws others into fictions, which then lead to benefits for him and others.  One example of this is the following story (which is both an Uncle Tompa story, and is also found elsewhere around the world):  Uncle borrowed a large pot from a wealthy man, and returned it the next day with a tiny pot in addition, saying that the large pot had given birth to the tiny pot.  The rich man, greedy and gullible, loaned the large pot again -- but this time, the following day, Uncle returned with nothing, saying that the large pot had passed away.  The rich man had accepted the idea that a pot could give birth, so he also had to accept that a pot could pass away.

The two most stunning Uncle Tompa stories I have come across so far are Uncle Tompa Plays a Trick on his New Wife, and Uncle Tompa Sells the P_nises.

These stories are meant for adults.  One factor that makes these stories tellable in public is that in each story, a character who enjoys illicit behavior gets punished with death.  I found both of these stories to be very surprising, and funny (up to the sad endings).

In the second story, the motif of p_nises growing up out of the ground is surreal.  I found it refreshing that male sexual organs were reduced to objects, dis-embodied from the rest of a person.  This sort of objectifiction is more often done with female genitals.

Photos of myself and others performing Uncle Tompa stories at the Volunteer Tibet Centre on 29 May 2012 are here.  (The performance began outdoors, and moved indoors.  The two above-mentioned stories for adults were performed indoors, in the more private setting.)

Any thoughts on these stories -- and on anything else on this webpage -- would be most appreciated!  Please send any such to me at .

Below are commentaries by others on Uncle Tompa.


Aku Tompa's very name, which can be translated as "Uncle Emptiness," indicates that he shows the emptiness of all worldly phenomena -- including pride -- as he bursts the bubbles of the high and mighty.

From Noe Dinnerstein, Personal Communication (e-mail), 18 May 2012.


Many people in the world, especially in the West, believe Tibet is a land of "magic saints" where all the people spend their time meditating.  Although this is an exaggeration, it is true that many Tibetans are very devoted to the Buddhist religion.  While all the stories in this book deal directly with Tibetan Buddhist culture, they also reflect ways in which Tibetans laugh and enjoy life.  These stories were told to me while I was a yak herder boy between the ages of six and twelve.  Until now, none of them have ever appeared in print.

From the Author’s note --
The Tales of Aku Tonpa: The Legendary Rascal of Tibet.  Retold and Translated by Rinjing Dorje.  San Rafael, CA: Dorje Ling.  1975.


Anybody who believes that Tibetans have nothing but religion and are a somber inscrutable race obviously has not heard of Agu (Uncle) Tompa.  One need only mention his name to any Tibetan -- high or low, monk or lay, man or woman -- to demolish this fallacy.  Much information about the non-religious pastimes of the Tibetans can be gained by hearing a few of the legends surrounding this character, who is said to have lived in the 13th century although the character's historical authenticity has never been proven.  What is more important is that, according to these legends, Agu Tompa stalked the length and breadth of the country, exposing every hypocrisy known to mankind...  Many of the stories have sexual themes, and have traditionally been told in the most explicit language.  Yet, no Tibetan is ever known to have been shocked or scandalised to hear these stories.  Indeed, many hold Agu Tompa to be yet another earthly manifestation of the Buddha, this one to ensure that Tibetans become an easy-going race, devoid of all hypocrisy.

From the Introduction --
"Folk Tale: Agu Tompa, the Legendary Rascal of Tibet," by Rinjing Dorje.  Tibetan Review, Vol XII, No. 6, June 1977, p 17-18.


For the everyday people of Tibet, Uncle Tompa mirrors the rough and ready, mean and bawdy, always down-to-earth quality of life itself.  A beloved rogue, Uncle combines the street smarts of Br'er Rabbit, the triumphant outrageousness of Coyote, and the unconventional wisdom of Mullah Nasruddin.  Conman, prankster, and playboy, his exploits outwit the vain and greedy, and turn the tables on those who would take advantage of others.  Behind the ribaldry and hard-hitting down-home fun, he's a hero of the "Little Man," who wishes to get even with the abusive rich, the powerful, and the religiously privileged.

From the Back Cover --
The Tales of Aku Tompa: The Legendary Rascal of Tibet.  Retold and Translated by Rinjing Dorje.  Second Edition.  Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Arts, Institute for Publishing Arts, Inc.  1997.


Aku-Tonpa is one of the most popular folk heroes in Tibetan folklore...  His exploits are full of laughter and humour.  In an effort to document his stories and re-charge our sense of humour, we bring before our readers this short compilation of his exploits.

It is said that Aku Tonpa was sent by Lord Chenresig (protector deity of Tibet) to teach the Tibetans the arts of being shrewd and witty.  Though known by different names in different parts of Tibet, in Nedhong province of Tibet, he is known by Nyichoe Zangpo...  The stories revolve around how the Governor of Nedhong, who is very oppressive and miserly, is outwitted by Nyichoe Zangpo.  Though a common man, through his wit Nyichoe Zangpo outsmarts the strong and mighty in society.

From the Publisher’s Note --
Nyichoe Zangpo: Aku Tonpa in Nedhong.  Kalsang Khedup.  New Delhi: Paljor Publications.  1999.


When Rinjing Dorje was growing up... in the remote mountain areas of Tibet, itinerant storytellers called Lama Mani traveled from monastery to village, telling stories in exchange for a few coins or a handful of roasted barley flour called tsampa.

Mystery shrouds Uncle Tompa's heritage.  Some claim he was a monk who lived during the thirteenth century.  Others claim he was a reincarnation of the Buddha of compassion, called Chenrezig in Tibetan (and Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit...

Because Uncle Tompa in his ingenuous and slapstick way champions the common folks, the tales reinforce peasant values which encourage independence and bravery, while mocking artifice, pretense, and strict authoritarian rule.

Uncle Tompa's adventures feature trickery and hyperbole not so different from those of the Native American Coyote, and the Middle Eastern Mullah Nasruddin. 

From the Introduction, by Marilyn Stablein --
The Tales of Aku Tompa: The Legendary Rascal of Tibet.  Retold and Translated by Rinjing Dorje.  Second Edition.  Barrytown, NY: Station Hill Arts, Institute for Publishing Arts, Inc.  1997.