Here’s my second piece for Savage Minds, and the first of the four-part guest-blogger series I did during October last year.
This essay offers a brief overview of my current dissertation research project on ngakpa and ngakpa lineages in exile and outside of Tibet. I tried to make this piece a useful summary of some of the dimensions of ngakpa/ma histories, orientations, practices, and lineages that I thought were of interest, especially for an anthropological audience perhaps less familiar with Tibetan societies and Vajrayana.
This piece was a pleasure to write, and I’m very happy to share some of my preliminary and fledgling insights into the richness of ngakpa traditions. I am happy too that the piece has been a springboard for Tibetan and non-Tibetan practitioners to reach out and share their own experiences of engaging with ngakpa traditions and Vajrayana. Many of the points summarized (or implied) in this article appear or are treated elsewhere on this blog. If there’s one thing that I’ve come to appreciate it’s that ngakpa lineages (and Tibetan religions more broadly, of course) are amazingly diverse, something that is easy to forget when one is necessarily relying on convenient and constructed, and potentially homogenizing short-hands like ‘Tibetan Buddhism’ for analysis.
Readers will notice that in various places I have opted to write ‘Tibetan religions’ rather than ‘Tibetan Buddhism’. While I have not emphasized it that strongly in my existing work, this is largely because ngakpa also exist in Tibetan Bonpo, and hybrid Tibetan Buddhist-Bon environments. Since I am not a specialist of Bon, and am not specifically focusing on Bon religion as part of my current dissertation research, I chose not to delve into the subject of Bonpo ngakpa or ngakpa-cognate traditions in the Savage Minds piece. John Myrdhin Reynolds AKA Lama Vajranatha and anthropologist Nicholas Sihle have both published excellent material relating to this subject (See John’s website and various articles here, and a fantastic piece by Nicholas on categories of ritual specialist and interactions between Bon and Vajrayana in Nyemo). Reynolds in particular (and other scholars such as Tenzin Wangyal Rinpoche and Geoffrey Samuel) have drawn on the notion of shamanism to tease out and make sense of overlapping orientations and expertise between Tibetan Bonpo and Tibetan Buddhist ritual specialists (and practitioners from other cultural and religious contexts as well).
There is an enormous and frequently confusing amount of overlap between different labels and job descriptions when it comes to ngakpa/ma in Tibetan contexts. Issues of nomenclature and categorization alone could fill volumes. I am thinking of maybe making a short post with curated resources on the question of ‘Tibetan shamanism’, the idea of ngakpa as pre-Buddhist and how ngakpa get labelled soon, but for now, despite its limitations, I hope you will enjoy the Savage Minds piece.