(An image of a tantric practitioner providing a life-enhancing empowerment to a patient, from the medical paintings commissioned by Desi Sangye Gyatso, 1653-1705, to accompany his commentaries of the root-tantras of the Tibetan medical tradition)
One of the first things that someone visiting Tibetan communities tends to encounter -whether they’re a foreign visitor or a transmigrating Tibetan baby – is mantras. These set-apart forms of speech, made up of specific patterns of sacred and largely untranslatable phrases and syllables, are performed with special kinds of cadence and affect which distinguish them from other sorts of utterance.
As their Sanskrit etymology suggests, mantras are ‘instruments of the mind’; holding awareness firm they help to generate various effects and qualities in the one who recites them. While many mantras are the specific sound-embodiment of deities and Buddha-beings, others are more action-based and ‘worldly’, and exist as powerful spells that in the hands of trained experts who have properly ‘activated’ them are supposed to be able to produce all kinds of results.
Many people today are familiar with Indo-Tibetan mantras but are perhaps less familiar with where exactly mantras come from. Below I have attached my very rough and inadequate translation of the first part of a three-part Tibetan blog-post which appeared on a website about Tibetan culture in 2013 (cf here). This essay which was written by Dr Nida Chenagtsang some years ago in Lhasa (and which someone called Rinchen shared independently on the website above) essay discusses the history of the use of mantras for healing (སྔགས་བཅོས་ཐབས་ ngakchö tuhp) in Tibet. Dr Nida stresses that notwithstanding Sowa Rigpa or Tibetan medicine’s investment in strongly ’empirical’ and ‘secular’ therapeutic methods, mantra healing is nonetheless an indispensable element of Tibetan medical history and practice. His piece also acknowledges that healing mantras are not unique to Buddhism, and thus shows how magic and ritual healing are areas of Tibetan cultural life which are uniquely hybrid and non-sectarian and which perhaps span beyond Buddhist hegemonies. In general, mantra healing points to a rich and complex field of history and practice, one that comprises both elite and everyday ‘folk’ actors and knowledge systems, which intertwine in fascinating ways.
(Pema Chinnjor, the current kalon of the Chorig Lekhung, or minister of the Religion and Culture Department of the Central Tibetan Administration in exile)
Below is a translation I made of part of a recent article by Dondup Tashi that appeared on the Tibetan news site Tibettimes.net on the 25th of March 2016, which deals with concerns about the fact that the majority of students in the reconstituted Tibetan monasteries in exile are now not in fact ethnic Tibetans, but are Buddhists of Himalayan descent. While in recent decades sarjorpas, or new arrivals from Tibet (i.e. Tibetans typically born and raised in occupied Tibet, who have come to live in Tibetan exile communities more recently), have made up the primary demographic in the exile monasteries, things have now changed. Continue reading →
Given the way history has unfolded, no matter who you might be, it is difficult, if not impossible to talk about magic without talking about time and temporality. Accordingly, then, to speak of magic is to inevitably invoke the lofty spirit-kings of modernity, rationality, and progress. I just started reading Christopher Bracken’s 2007 book ‘Magical Criticism: The Recourse of Savage Philosophy’. Bracken traces the ways Western Enlightenment philosophers and anthropologists have constructed categories of ‘primitive thought’ and how these remain influential today, despite formal disavowals of ethnocentric notions of the savage. He explains his position Continue reading →
When I was about 12 years old my Dad got worms. He got a lot of them, and it ended up being quite awkward. He didn’t get them in his guts, though, but in a washing machine.
I had forgotten all about this episode in my Dad’s and mine own life until just now, when I was talking to a friend of mine on Facebook, Austin Coppock, about animism and the difference between Continue reading →
Padmasambhava (pictured above), the mythic tantric saint who ensured the flourishing of Buddhism in Tibet in the 8th century was both a fully realized being and a consummate sorcerer. He is credited with having tamed the unruly indigenous demons of Tibet and having helped establish the first Buddhist monastery on Tibetan soil. As Tibet’s ‘Second Buddha’ his cultural importance to Tibetans is hard to over-emphasize. This Lotus-Born Precious guru is the quintessential model for the non-celibate tantric practitioner or ngakpa. As a realized Buddha he is the practitioner’s own basic, pure and perfect nature, as a historical and cosmological figure he represents the model practitioner of the path of tantric Buddhism, the Secret Mantra Vehicle. In his dress, comportment, practices, activities, teachings, motivation, and view he embodies everything that the best tantric practitioner should be.
It is thus no surprise that Padmasambhava’s legendary activities should feature strongly in Tibetan magic. Compared to their counterparts in Western esotericism, Tibetan medico-magical practices, and Tibetan grimoires (ngak ki beubum, སྔགས་ཀྱི་བེའུ་བུམ) have received relatively little scholarly attention. This paucity of scholarly interest is perhaps exacerbated by the fact that the more spiritual dimensions of Sowa Rigpa, or Traditional Tibetan Medicine (TTM) have been formally excised from state-sponsored Sowa Rigpa curricula in contemporary China. Continue reading →
(The 11th century yogi Milarepa, in his retreat cave. He appears here in his iconic emaciated, green-tinged form that was brought about by subsisting on a diet of nettle soup)
I tend to read pop science pieces on neurological/psychiatric conditions with interest, as I’m sure most cultural and medical anthropologists do. I’m versed in neither neuro-anthropology nor neuro-theology but I do often find myself wondering about the broader social, historical, economic, and political landscapes through, in, and in spite of which specific bio-medical conditions emerge. It’s probably far too reductive and glib to characterize the cases below as merely examples of a contemporary willingness to ‘neurologize’ sicknesses of society. Still, while I’m not about to advocate for a hard-line social constructivist take on these kinds of ‘bizarre’ neurological conditions, I do think it can be interesting to reflect on contemporary psychiatric disorders and discourse in parallel to, and against religious vocabularies. Continue reading →