Heroic Tibetan Man-buns on Ngakpa Update

David Chapman who runs the Ngakpa Update site asked to share my earlier post about Justin Bieber, dreadlocks and Tibetan tantric practitioners on his blog. The post includes a translated excerpt from an extensive Tibetan language essay by Dr Nida Chenagtsang, which offers comprehensive and clear details about Tibetan tantric specialists’ traditional styles of dress.

David collects a lot of really useful news and links connected to ngakpa practices and lineages on the page Continue reading

Retiring the Gods? Tibetan Democracy in Exile and Alternative Modernities

retiring the gods post

(I originally made the following post on my Facebook page on April 7th. I reproduce it here, along with some clarifications and further reflections at the end. This picture collage shows the Nechung kuten in trance at the top, the Tsering Chenga goddesses possessing their medium on the bottom left, and Security and Welfare minister Mr Ngodup Drongchung is on the right, during an interview with Tibetan exile media immediately following his resignation)

Tibetan social media and exile society have been alive of late with commentary about the recent pronouncements and actions made by some of the Tibetan state oracles here in India. The state oracles, who are known in Tibetan as ཆོས་སྐྱོང ༼chökyong༽ or བསྟན་སྲུང་ ༼tensoong༽, i.e. ‘dharma-protectors’, are powerful and ferocious spirits – supernatural bouncers or ‘fixers’ – who are oath-bound to serve the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan government and the Tibetan people by providing prophetic advice on religious issues and affairs of state. Continue reading

Learning Hierogylphics and Academic Mentors

learning hieroglyphics

I started asking myself the other morning if I could remember when I really felt like I was going to become an academic. I was a precocious child – I was passionate from a young age about reading and learning, about conducting my own research into specialized subjects that interested me. But I found myself thinking just now about when exactly the point of no return might have been.

I am the son of a (now semi-retired) professional academic. When I was growing up, I would often visit my Dad’s office in the English Department at the University of KwaZulu Natal in Durban, South Africa. My Dad worked for many decades as a professor there, and the university looms large in the city and my snap-shot memories of it. It is a tall, tan building that looks down somewhat imperiously onto the city from atop a small hill. Pushing up from the folds of land surrounding it, it exudes a quiet constancy. Yet despite its classic monastic-fortress on the hill feel, any firmness it might manage is ultimately lost to Durban’s humid haze, and the city’s trademark red sand has coated the building’s stonework altogether too thoroughly for it to maintain any illusion of celestial stateliness – ruddy-cheeked and dusty, the university’s brand of monasticism is less regal abbot, and more older, disheveled but dignified bachelor – tall, skinny and off to one side, a friend of the hosts at the mixer, pulling nervously at his collar. Continue reading

Justin Bieber, Heroic Man-buns and the Relative Meaning (and Meaninglessness) of Dreadlocks

Dreadlocks post

Debates about hairstyles, fashion, identity and culture have been in the news in the last few days. After posting pictures of his new blond dreadlocks, pop star Justin Bieber was roundly criticized for cultural appropriation – for capitalizing on a cultural aesthetic that in the US is historically associated with black histories, identities, and struggles. Commentators noted that while people/celebrities of colour in the US have been routinely criminalized or villianized for sporting a hairstyle connected to their history and experiences as minorities, when Bieber as a white person casually took on this style as his own it came with none of the meaning, and context, and also none of the backlash. Continue reading

Bee Careful what Ewe Wish Four: Monks behaving badly and Grammar-nazi Genies

dop dop post

Tibetan can be a confusing language – not least because it isn’t really one language at all. There’s still no standardized form of either written or spoken Tibetan, even if there have been attempts to produce them, and when it comes to the spoken language there are many, many registers and regional variations of both grammar, syntax, pronunciation and vocabulary. Tibetan language(s) is/are also notoriously filled with homophones and homonyms – like French, many Tibetan dialects have a lot of ‘silent’ or almost silent letters, and words that are spelled quite differently on paper may sound very similar to each other depending on one’s regional accent. The same word, either in its written or spoken incarnation, may have various meanings, depending on the context. The following story demonstrates just how dangerous language ambiguity can be. Continue reading

Reaching the Rainbow with your feet on the Ground: An Essay on the Importance and Special Characteristics of the Yuthok Nyingthik

yuthok nyingthik post

Like all other Buddhist traditions, Vajrayana or tantric Buddhism offers a way out of the terrifying and bewildering morass of human suffering and habitude that is shorthanded as Samsara (འཁོར་བ་ khorwa in Tibetan, or ‘wandering around and around’). What stands out about the tantric path of liberation from suffering, though, is that rather than insisting that we completely reject  or avoid the perceptions and experiences that can easily mire us in suffering, Vajrayana proposes that the quickest and most convenient way out is through.

In my anthropological research on ngakpa/ma, I have written about how Vajrayana provides a unique philosophical framework for thinking about (and experiencing) the relationship between different levels of reality, the ultimate and the relative, inner and outer, mundane and extraordinary, subtle and gross. A large part of what makes tantra interesting is the way in which it plays with, and attempts to resolve the contrasts between more or less subtle levels of perception and activity, between what anthropologist of Buddhism Melford Spiro long ago called ‘nirvanic, karmic, and apotropaic’ levels of Buddhist philosophy and practice (that is, the goal of ultimate liberation, improved karma for better rebirth, and a focus on the conditions of this life here and now, respectively). While the ultimate or ‘extraordinary’ ‘super-power’ in Vajrayana is Buddhahood, tantric experts can (and should) develop all kinds of other abilities along the way so as to help beings. Ngakpa/ma are distinct for how they cultivate the highest view and attainments while apparently remaining firmly grounded in the midst of ‘worldly’ life and its everyday contingencies. Ngakpa/mas double up as both master-meditator yogis cultivating spiritual attainments in retreat at a remove from worldly obligations, and as fully-engaged householders who apply their expertise and the power of their attainments to the needs and problems of their own and others’ daily lives.

Continue reading