Part of my current PhD research focuses on the overlaps – and divergences – between ideas about what practicing tantra means in ‘traditional’ or ‘indigenous’ Asian contexts and in what can be called ‘neo’ or ‘New Age’ tantric settings.
Recently, I’ve been coming across a great number of (white) people who describe themselves as ‘Tantrikas’ and ‘Dakinis’, traditional terms for somebody following the path of (an often but not always non-celibate) tantric practitioner and vow-holder. The (often, but not always) white people who use these terms most liberally frequently seem to be operating well outside of the boundaries of traditional Indian or Tibetan tantra, that is, the native religious system of someone like His Holiness the Dalai Lama. As an anthropologist, I’m not interested in categorically dismissing or merely debunking these white self-avowed tantric masters and goddesses – after all, what they are practicing is still meaningful and transformative, and has its own complex histories and lineages. Many of these people are very decent and accomplished individuals. But, for the most part – despite their claims at times to the contrary – what these individuals are practicing tends to be something other than both Western sex magic traditions (which are developments in Western esotericism that focus on the harnessing of sexual energy and orgasm to manipulate reality) and ‘traditional’ tantra (which has only very little to do with actual physical lovemaking in a conventional sense). Their practices fall instead into the domain of what we could call contemporary ‘sacred sexuality’ and sexual self-help. These trends tend to emphasize becoming ‘more blissful’ or ‘unlocking one’s orgasmic potential’ as a form of personal empowerment and self-growth, and focus on transforming individuals’ relationships to their bodies and sensual pleasure in ways that resonate in particular with the concerns and cultures of late or neo-liberal capitalism.
These practices are not ‘wrong’ but they’re also quite different to what Tibetans mean when they talk about being a ngakpa or ngakchang (སྔགས་པ་པའམ་སྔགས་འཆང, i.e. a tantrika or mantrika, or non-celibate practitioner of ‘the secret mantra vehicle’ of esoteric Buddhism). For better or worse, such neo-tantric practices tend to take place in different contexts and are informed by different priorities, histories and understandings.
For the sake of interest and edification then, I have made this rough translation of a passage from the work of traditional Tibetan doctor and ngakpa Nida Chenagtsang, in which he describes the typical traditional education of a tantrika, especially as it takes place in his native area of Rebgong in Eastern Tibet. The clarity and level of detail with which Dr. Nida writes about and summarizes esoteric subjects is noteworthy and commendable, so I imagine his comments will be of interest and value to many.
“Concerning Ngakpas’ Education and Activities
The majority of ngakpas are part of family lineages. Yet, although many authentic realized masters are indeed born into family lineages, the claim made by some that only a person from a family-lineage is permitted to become a ngakpa is completely wrong. Many famous mantra-holders, like mantra-holders from Tibet’s ancient period – Nubchen Sangye Yeshe, Düdul Dorje and His Eminence Marpa, and so on – weren’t hereditary ngakpa. So accordingly, being able to become a ngakpa depends solely on the extent of your personal faith and not on external conditions like whether you are or aren’t part of a ngakpa lineage, are or aren’t ‘pure stock’ or on how old you are. Most ngakpa in Amdo today are from family-lineages. Ngakpas’ children first learn to read and write Tibetan from their parents and close relatives. Then, from whatever available teacher they learn about spelling, grammar, poetry and composition. Whenever time and circumstance allow, they request whatever empowerments and reading transmissions they can get from their guru(s).
Once they’ve established some little foundation in literary Tibetan, gradually, by relying on the tantric teacher known as the ‘vajra master’, once their mind-streams have been made to ripen through the empowerments, reading transmissions, and pith instructions of the Vehicle, as part of daily practice and monthly retreat they recite the preliminary practices of the four ordinary contemplations that turn the mind (from samsara) * [i.e. contemplation on the freedoms and resources (associated with a human rebirth) which are hard to acquire, on (the inevitability) of one’s death and impermanence, on the cause-and-effect of karma (or one’s actions across lives), and the faults of samsara]; five hundred thousand uncommon preliminaries or ngöndro *[100 000 Refuge prayers, 100 000 prayers for arousing Bodhicitta (or the mind that aspires to enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings), 100 000 mandala offerings, 100 000 visualizations of Vajrasattva and recitations of his 100 syllable mantra, and 100 000 Guru Yoga recitations, the accumulation of which together make 500 000 iterations], and practice things like ‘Transference’ (i.e. mastering the projection of consciousness from the body), and ‘Pacification’ and ‘Severance’ (meditation practices where one offers one’s body to spirits to subdue them and to cut through one’s investment in self and fear of individual annihilation). Then, in isolated retreat and at home, they do the Creation and Completion Stage practices of the three roots (guru, meditational deity and dakini) [higher tantric practices of deity yoga] and the ‘approach and accomplishment’ practices [recitations and visualizations for ‘attaining’ the meditational deity or yidam]. In the ngakpa houses (specific to) their own regions they will be instructed in the ‘four tantric activities’ [pacifying; enriching /extending; magnetizing; and wrathfully subduing], and (in the use of) the tantric substances and mantras (related to these). (And also) the three tantric ritual procedures of preparing, beating and blowing. The three are, namely: preparing tormas [sacrificial substitution effigies]; beating various drums, and the damaru [double-headed ritual hand drum] and tantric bell; and blowing the ritual human-thigh bone trumpet and conch-shell, and so on. (Then) the triad of dance, melodies and proportions [this refers to cham, large-scale, exorcistic masked ritual dances]; vocal melodies, and the proportions of mandalas, and so on], have to be mastered completely.
The sequence of practices of an authentic ngakpa is as follows: one carries out to completion and masters the hundred day Completion Stage tsalung or channel-and-winds practices involving the thigle or vital essence drops, such as elixir extraction practices [techniques that involve extracting essences both from plants and from the air, elements etc in a way that allows the yogi to replenish and extend their vital energies], inner-heat practices (known as Tummo or ‘fierce lady’), and practices involving the ‘lower’ or secret gate [this refers to esoteric practices involving sexual energy centers]; then there are the three sections of Dzogchen or the Great Perfection of heart-mind, expanse, and direct oral instructions and particularly, the two Ati yoga practices of ‘cutting through hardness’ and of ‘direct crossing’ [*This description is in accordance with the Ancient Translation School or Nyingma tradition. Ngakpa of the New Translation schools cultivate mastery in the ultimate practice of Chagchen or the ‘Great Seal’ Mahamudra]. Beyond this though, most ngakpa will be able to make mantras work for them once they have got the gist of the Creation Stage practices and have trained emphatically in mantra recitation and tantric ritual procedures.
‘Approach’ practices of the three roots [i.e. drawing near to or becoming ‘familiar’ with the guru, yidam, and dakini through reliance/propitiation via recitation and visualization retreats], propitiatory ‘amending and restoring’ liturgies for the dharma protectors [fierce and tamed oath-bound spirits that protect Buddhist teachings] , and practices of maintaining the essence of the mind’s (basic nature) are in general daily practices for ngakpa. [As such], in order to end up a truly qualified or authentic ngakpa you will have to have studied both tantric scriptural traditions and practices for at least twelve to eighteen years.”
From ‘Notes on Ngakpa Culture’, pg. 90-91, Ngakpa Association Research, Vol. 6, 2003. ༼སྔགས་པའི་ཤེས་རིག་ལ་དཔྱད་པའི་གཏམ། སྔགས་མང་ཞིབ་འཇུག། འདོན་ཐེངས་དྲུག་པ།༽ photo courtesy of http://www.tibetanyogisvillage.com/Pages/TheNgakpaTradition.aspx
*For a complete translation of Dr Nida’s essay on ngakpa see the following post:
I have been a victim of tantra on myself and my family . I am a follower of Kagyu Buddhism for last 10 years . They have blocked my success. Pls help me to protect myself we have suffered a lot for 25 years under the influence blackmagic. Om tare tu tare ture Soha
Stages of the Ngakpa Training
The following notes describe the three-part series on the Stages of the Ngakpa’s Training:
a sweeping overview of the path of practice according to this traditional training in Vajrayana Buddhism.
They are very informative and also quite sobering as they challenge some of the assumptions and preconceived ideas that we have in the west of what a Ngakpa or Ngakmo really is.
The Ngagpa’s path is outlined as a series of progressive stages of training – from taking Refuge and Bodhisattva vows, to practicing the preliminaries (Ngondro), to the generation and completion stage practices of the three roots, and the inner yogic trainings.
Only after the practitioner has shown signs of accomplishment in the inner yogas, is he or she considered to be a ‘ngakpa’ or ‘ngakmo.’ In other words, a Ngakpa or Ngakmo is a practitioner who possess some measure of siddhis or accomplishment, as the result of this training, and is able to use and demonstrate those siddhis to benefit others in profound ways.
This is the true meaning of a Ngakpa. To say it is not enough to wear white robes and grow long hair. It is not enough to have fancy ritual instruments. It is not enough even to take the 14 root vows and call yourself a Ngakpa. Rather, one arrives on the stage of the Ngakpa through consistent and committed practice, and keeping one’s samayas. As one progresses through the practices, there are higher samayas that are taken according to the practices one is doing.
The Ngakpa’s path rests squarely on the foundation of the Ngondro,the actual preliminaries.
Part One of Three : Entry into the Buddhist Path and Establishing the Essential Foundations:
To clear a lot of confusion about the path nowadays, here is the path as it has been practiced since the time of the Mahasiddhas of ancient India.
In order to be ready to embark on the tantric path and yogic training, the novice must have taken the Refuge and the Pratimoksa (Hinayana) vows of the lay practitioner, or of the monk or nun. According to the tantric tradition, and in accordance with the example of the siddhas, one should study and train in the Vinaya for some time. The length of time –whether it is one week, one year, or an entire lifetime, is dependent on the student’s capacity and the Guru’s advice.
After successfully practicing these vows, the practitioner moves into the training of the Bodhisattva and takes the Bodhisattva (Mahayana) vows. This essential foundation cannot be overlooked!
After training in these vows and evidence of attaining understanding the meaning of these vows has been shown, certain individuals with capacity are allowed to progress into the sacred tantric (vajrayana) vehicle, which begin with the 14 root vows common to all lineages. Ngag-la Shug-Tsam – Taking the Tantric Vows.
The entry into the sacred mantradhara path (tantra or Vajrayana) is when the novice receives the 14 root tantric vows or has taken a tantric empowerment in which the vows are implied. At this stage, it is assumed that the practitioner has established a mutual relationship with a Root Guru, or Vajra Master, who will individually guide the practitioner according to their ability.
Without such a guide, one cannot successfully practice the sacred mantra teachings. Also, the tantric vows must be carefully explained to the practitioner through the oral tradition of their lineage.
These vows are not to be written down or learned from a book. Once trust and commitment has been established between Guru and student, the Guru may then bestow the inner branch vows, in accordance to their particular lineage. These vows are given in a private ceremony and the student is required to memorize the information and to keep it secret – never revealing them to anyone, even their Vajra brothers and sisters.
Along with the vows, the student receives a name and formally enters into the order of Yogis or Ngakpas.
There are ten levels of tantric vows, adding up to hundreds of secret branch vows, which are based on the lineage and the particular practice they are doing.
Usually, these vows are given as the practitioner enters retreat to embark on a particular practice. The vows pertinent to that practice are given as the retreatant does the practice. The student is introduced to these vows slowly, over time. They first learn to hold the vows of the practices they are doing. As they progress on the path and embark on more advanced practice, they receive more vows as their capacity to hold them increases.
Throughout their training, the student’s ability to hold samaya with their teacher is repeatedly tested, as well as their level of commitment to the practices. Ideally, the Guru will assess each student’s level of commitment and ability and give the teachings that are appropriate for that student. In this way, sacred teachings, which require high levels of commitment and trust, will not be divulged to a student who does not demonstrate correct understanding, or who is not ready to take on such a commitment.
It is very difficult nowadays to keep tantric vows purely, while living in the modern world. For example, some of the vows regarding substances requires that the yogi always keep certain articles with him or her at all times.
Other substances are almost impossible to obtain.
There are vows of dress and appearance (just as with monastic vows).
Most of all, it is very difficult to keep the level of secrecy required with respect to one’s practice. This is one reason why it is always stated in the texts that the yogi should live in an isolated place. These vows require that pure samaya be kept between Guru and student.
There are many warnings of the dangers of being reborn in Vajra Hell if sacred samaya is broken. The inner branch vows are never given to anyone with a questionable samaya history or if they have proven unreliable in maintaining practice commitments. The student must also have demonstrated the ability to keep secrets – never talking about their practices or vows to others.
Naturally, talkative types of students, or students who enjoy boasting or gossiping, will not be candidates to hold inner tantric vows.
Traditionally a Guru is only allowed to give these inner vows to a small number of students in his or her lifetime. Therefore, great discernment is used before agreeing to bestow them.
On the other hand, the fourteen root vows can be given to any number of students.
Part Two of Three : Ngak- Tsog Stage – Generation Stage (Kye-Rim) practices
a. Ngak- tsog nam-lam chung
b. Ngak-tsog lam -ding
c. Ngak-tsog la-nam chen-po
Ngak- tsog nam-lam chung
The practitioner is now moving in the Path of Collecting Merit or virtue.
Practices includes Ngondro and the Three Roots recitation of the Lama, Yidam, Dakini according to their lineage. This is traditionally completed in a three-year retreat, or a series of short retreats; either case being done under the supervision of the Root Guru or a qualified retreat master.
a. Four Thoughts That Turn the Mind Towards the Dharma
b. Extraordinary Refuge, 100,000 prostrations
c. Bodhicitta Practice; 100,000 recitations
d. Vajrasattva Practice for purification; 100,000 recitations
c. Mandala Offerings to accumulate ordinary and special merit; 100,000
e. Guru Yoga; 100,000
Three Roots: Kye-Rim; Generation Stage according to the Dudjom tersar
a. Yeshe Tsogyal Dakini Practice, Nyen-pa: recitation. One to six months retreat. Or 1,500,000 recitations. Or until you get the correct signs of achievement.
Drub-pa: One to six months retreat, or 1,500,000 recitations or until you get signs.
Lay-shi: four activity mantras; 425,000 recitations each activity mantra. If you want to focus on one particular activity, need to recite many more of that mantra. Jin-sek or Fire Puja
b. Lake Born Vajra Padmasambhava
Practice Nyen-pa, Drub-pa, Ley-zhi, Jin-sek
c. Vajrakilaya Practice
Nyen-pa, Drub-pa, Medlay (Activities) Practices at this level are done to increase the two accumulations. This prepares and makes a solid base for further spiritual practices and development.
This is the stage where most practitioners are hung up – they have not finished Ngondro or begun the practice of the Lama, Yidam and Dakini. Therefore, it will be impossible to move to the next stage of “applying siddhi or the generosity of Giving Dharma, according to the Bodhisattva Paths”
A practitioner who has not completed these practices will not have enough siddhis to accomplish activity ceremonies such as P’howa, smoke offerings, offerings for the dead, hungry ghosts, elemental spirits, reversal of negative energies, healing ceremonies, purification rites, excorcisms, ceremonies to increase wealth, lung-ta, etc., or making amulets, protection cords, ngag-chu, etc., etc. If a practitioner engages in such activities before completing Ngondro and the Three Roots practices, they are only putting on a show which will have no real result. There are plenty of these ‘artificial Lamas’, so beware! According to Patrul Rinpoche’s “Words of My Perfect Teacher, under the chapter of Bodhicitta and the Generosity of Giving Dharma
“To give empowerments, explanations of Dharma, transmissions of texts, etc.
when one’s own selfish desires have not yet disappeared would be nothing but a show.
When Atisa’s disciples asked him when they might be able to teach others, work for other’s benefit by performing Phowa, etc., his response was:
“You may guide others once you have realized emptiness and developed clairvoyance. You may work for their benefit once for your own benefit there is no more left to do.
You may perform P’howa once you have entered the Path of Seeing.”
He also said: ” This degenerate time is no time for boasting. It is a time for arousing determination. This is no time for holding high positions, it is a time for keeping to a humble place. This is no time for having attendants and disciples, it is a time for living in solitude. This is no time for taking care of disciples, it is a time for taking care of yourself. This is no time for analyzing the words, it is a time for reflecting on the meaning .
This is no time for being out and about, it is a time for staying in one place.”
Patrul Rinpoche goes on to explain in the text, “It is useless for a beginner with neither experiences nor realization to try to help others with the Dharma. No blessings can be obtained from him, just as nothing can be poured out of an empty vessel. His instructions would be insipid and without substance, like beer brewed without pressing the grains….This decadent age is therefore not a time for ordinary beings to help others externally, but rather a time for them to live in solitary places and train their own minds in the love and compassion of bodhicitta.
It is a time to keep away from negative emotions. While a precious medicinal tree is still just a shoot it is not yet time to pick it, it is the time to protect it. For these reasons it is quite difficult to really make the gift of Dharma to others. To expound a teaching to others without having experienced it oneself will not help them at all. As for acquiring offerings and wealth by teaching Dharma, that is what Padampa Sangye called, “Using the Dharma as merchandise to get rich.” Until you have overcome wanting anything for yourself, it would be better not to rush into altruistic activities. When your own selfish desires have been exhausted, the time will have to come to
devote yourself entirely to others, without concern for your own peace and happiness and without relaxing your efforts for an instant.”
A practitioner at this level will have committed to a particular Path – according to the Guru and the lineage. They do not jump around, doing a little of this practice and a little of that, going
to every empowerment by every Lama that comes to town. They are very focused on ONE lineage and practice, and have the perseverance to complete it before moving on. They are faithful to the path the lama has laid out for them and have confidence in it’s effectiveness.
There are many signs of accomplishment that the practitioner will exhibit and that are verified by the Guru. If the practitioner is practicing correctly, miraculous signs often appear during retreat. In addition, the practitioner can demonstrate certain abilities and the diminishing of course emotional behaviors is seen by others. In other words, one should have less anger, less pride, less jealousy, etc. The practitioner will feel more inner peace, more self-confidence, and more devotio to the lineage and the Guru who is the source of the teachings.
This completes the first stage: accumulation and purification – The maha yoga level – The nirmanakaya.
Part Three of Three : Jor Lam Stage – Completion Stage (Dzog-Rim) practices
Three levels – Applying Siddhis for Performing Activities in the world to benefit beings.
Practices at this level include Six yogas of Naropa, Tsa-Lung -Thigle, Tummo, Khorde Rushan. These are usually done in a retreat environment under the close guidance of a Master.
Ngak Jor Lam Chung:
Vase breathing, silent recitation, vajra recitation (giving focus on letters of mantra only – giving light, while holding breath, regardless of counting.
Based on the Tummo, you have to do the Five Branches Practice:
a. Illusory Body
b. Dream Yoga
c. Clear Light
e. Bardo Practice
During this stage, also “Khorde Rushan” Practice
Advanced Tummo: How to do melting, dripping, and increasing great bliss
a. Yoga of Complete Tummo
b. Yoga of Complete Mudra
a. Ngak Jor Lam Drud
At this first stage of accomplishment; you have some siddhis, but it is not useable yet.
Some heat (signs) has come, other signs are starting to show.
According to Pathrul Rinpoche in “Words of My Perfect teacher”, the practitioner at this stage has some ‘warmth’ of the practice, but has not yet established a firm stability in it, and therefore cannot yet work for the benefit of beings.
His blessings are like something poured from one vessel into another – he can only fill others by emptying himself. His instructions are like a lamp passed from hand to hand: if he gives light to others, he is left in the dark. (This is another way of saying that the practitioner would lose whatever siddhis they had accumulated).
Ngak Jor Lam Tenmo
The heat has risen to the crown and the practitioner can now perform healing pujas.
Ngak Jor Lam Jür Chog
You have attained full accomplishment in the particular practice you are doing. You can apply
the energy of your accomplishment in various ways, such as performing healings, using blessings from your hands or breath.
According to “The Words of My Perfect Teacher”, Someone who has attained one of the Bodhisattva levels is ready to work for other’s benefit. His blessings are like the powers of a wish-granting vessel: he can bring all beings to maturity without ever running dry. His instructions are like a central lamp from which others can take light without it ever being dimmed.
This completes the second stage of training – The anu yoga level – The sambhogakaya.
Ngak Sa Dangpo
This is where the true “Ngakpa” level starts. Everything done before this is simply training to reach this point.
The word “ngakpa” actually refers to someone who has siddhi or mantric power. This would be someone who can change the weather, send curses, heal, expel negativity, etc. They typically perform miraculous activities such as levitation, leaving hand prints on rocks, telepathy, etc.
Every village had their Ngakpa, who was paid a tax by the residence, and whose job it was to make the weather favorable for successful crops, keep away plagues, enemies, perform P’howa and other ceremonies for the villagers, make amulets, or perform divinations.
Even the famous Lamas who were heads of monasteries, would consult with the local Ngakpa to accomplish some activity. They are an indispensable part of the community, benefiting beings in numerous, inconceivable ways. Practices at this level include Trekchod, Tog-dal, Odsal.
At this level, one begins to move through the thirteen Bhumis. In certain Dzogchen texts, the levels are described and one can use this as a roadmap to see what level one is on.
A secret name is given to the Yogi or Yogini, which is only used when he or she is writing sadhanas or Termas.
Many Westerners are attempting to enter onto the Path at this level. However, without the base of the previous practices, it can’t work. There will be no real achievement and there is the risk that the practitioner will develop a distorted self-importance, or pride, preventing them from truly progressing. Or, failing to understand the teachings, the practitioner will abandon the practices, moving on to something that feels “more powerful.”
This completes the third stage of the yogi – The ati yoga level – The dharmakaya
Brilliant article. Thanks to esteemed Dr Nyida and your collective efforts in writing this very valuable piece. As a Nyingma Tradition practitioner, I had been generally familiar with Lelung Jedrung Rinpoche. This provides very significant enhancement of that image-particularly where you’ve woven the political/historical threads of the Great Fifth’s most heady religious associations with Nyingmas, the ensuing conflicts, and tying it in with the loose ends of the Tibetan diaspora-community vis-a-vis Trijang Rinpoche, his views, practices, legacies, etc. Very well done. Thank you.