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 [in a medical context the lower gates are the urethra and anus, here 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 heart-mind essence’ 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