(The Great Fifth Lelung Jedrung Rinpoche, Zhepai Dorje)
Recently, Tibetan scholar, traditional physician and yogi Dr Nyida Chenaktsang told me about (and gave me permission to read) a short text by the 18th century Tibetan yogi and visionary saint or ‘treasure revealer’, Lelung Jedrung Zhepai Dorje (sle lung rje drung bzhad pa’i rdo rje, 1697-1740). This saint, whose name means something like ‘the Jedrung reincanation, the laughing/proclaiming tantric thunderbolt, or non-dual reality from the Lelung region’, is also known by the personal names Trinlay Wangpo and Lobsang Trinlay. He was born in Ölga/Ölkha, a region in Lhoka in South-Western Tibet, and was recognized as the Fifth Jedrung Rinpoche – that is to say, as the reincarnation of Drubchen Namkha Gyaltsen (1326-1401), the celebrated master who was one of Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), the founder of the Gelukpa lineage’s, principal gurus. Yet, despite being the re-embodiment of a celibate master – of one who played mentor to boot to a figure strongly associated with the monastic regulation and circumscription of tantra in Tibet, AND despite the fact that Lelung Zhepai Dorje had himself received monk’s ordination from the Sixth Dalai Lama at the age of seven, the text that Dr Nyida brought to my attention has nothing to do with either vows of celibacy or monasticism.
Instead, the text describes a practice that is known in Sanskrit as Karmamudra, or las kyi phyag rgya in Tibetan. Literally meaning ‘action-seal’, the word refers to sexual yoga practices that involve having carefully controlled and ritualized physical intercourse with an actual tantric sex partner. Rather than being about merely recreational sex, Karmamudra practices are seen as an advanced and very powerful way of accessing very subtle and realized states of body-and-mind. The life and activities of the Fifth Lelung ‘Laughing Vajra’ Rinpoche (who took his title from the famous 11th century realized yogi-saint Milarepa) are fascinating for a number of reasons. In particular, the saint represents a very high profile and politically influential case of a Tibetan who began his religious career as a monk, and later segued into becoming a non-celibate tantric yogi. In addition to this shift from a celibate to non-celibate orientation later in life, the Fifth Jedrung Rinpoche also enshrined a notably rimé or non-sectarian perspective. While his early education as a monk took place in Gelukpa monastic contexts, he later became a disciple of the great Nyingma treasure-revealer, Terdak Lingpa (1646-1714). Terdak Lingpa was the founder of Mindroling Nyingma monastery, and Zhepai Dorje received many cycles of revealed esoteric, tantric teachings from him. In addition, Zhepai Dorje is said to have experienced many extremely vivid visions of the various Dharma-protectors and indigenous mountain deities of Tibet. These encounters subsequently became the basis for Zhepai Dorje’s highly influential collection of life-histories of the gods, called the dam can bstan srung rgya mtsho’i rnam thar, or the ‘Ocean of Biographies of the Oath-bound Protectors of the Teachings’. As Dr Nyida confirmed, it was through his visions and his relationship with certain protectors that Zhepai Dorje developed a special connection with non-celibate orientated Nyingma teachings.
(A statue of Awareness-Holder and founder of Mindroling Monastery, Terdak Lingpa, 1646-1714)
Zhepai Dorje wrote an extensive autobiography, which is known as the ‘Celebration of the Fortunate One(s)’ (skal bzang dga’ ston). The text has not been translated from Tibetan, and the copy I have is almost 800 print-book style pages. Dr Nyida explains that this text only covers the period up until Zhepai Dorje’s 28th year. In contrast, his Karmamudra text is supposed to have been revealed in 1730/1731, when the prophet was thirty-four years old. By this point in his life, the Fifth Jedrung Rinpoche already had numerous disciples, and had lived through all sorts of political intrigues and military coups (indeed, he was a principle guru to Lhazang Khan, the Qoshot-Oirat king who arranged the murder of the Regent of the Fifth Dalai Lama, Desi Sangye Gyatso, and staged a take-over of power in Tibet that involved deposing the Six Dalai Lama at the start of the 18th century). By 1730, Zhepai Dorje had also helped establish major new pilgrimage routes in Southern Tibet, had helped promote the development of particular protector-deity cults, and was an accomplished visionary treasure-revealer in his own right.
Nighttime ecstasies: Tutelary teachers and revelations in revelry
According to Zhepai Dorje, the particular Karmamudra teachings recorded in the text were bestowed upon him as a ‘pure-vision’ or dag snang revelation by the Dakini or tantric goddess Lhachik Nyima Zhönnu (lha gcig nyi ma gzhon nu, ‘Single-deity Youthful Sun Maiden’). This deity was Zhepai Dorje’s main personal ‘treasure dakini’. As I touched on briefly in two earlier posts here and here, dakinis (khandroma, mkha’ ‘gro ma, or ‘sky-going ladies’ in Tibetan) play important roles in the revelation of ‘new’ Tibetan Buddhist scriptures and relics, or what are known as terma or ‘treasures’. In their incorporeal, spirit-form dakinis serve as tutelary spirit-helpers and messengers for visionary-prophets and prophetesses. These beings write down, protect, and disclose visionary teachings which have been appointed to these specific prophecized tertön. By extension, dakinis in their specially-endowed human female practitioner-form, serve as physical sexual consorts to treasure-revealers, and collaborate in more corporeal ways with them in the revelation of their treasures.
(An image of Sangwa Yeshe Khandro, ‘The Secret Wisdom Dakini’. The goddess plays a central role in Terdak Lingpa’s treasure-cycles, and Lelung Zhepai Dorje received and extended the teachings relating to her and the wrathful horse-headed deity Tamdrin or Hayagriva)
The parallels and continuities between fleshy, human dakinis and disembodied spiritual ones can be clearly seen in Zhepai Dorje’s text. He describes how, on the twenty-ninth of the month (of July) he and a host of other tantric vow-holders spent the day summoning various spirits, deities, protectors, and Buddhas, and engaged in a range of ritual activities involving prayer, song, and offerings – all part of fairly typical tantric feast-gathering practices (the 29th of the Tibetan lunar month is a day specially reserved for practices relating to the Buddhist protector-deities). Zhepai Dorje then describes how he spent that whole night engaged in ‘meditation without a fixed reference point’. He admits to dozing off briefly during this meditation-vigil, however, and it is during this moment that he experiences an intense vision through which a special teaching on sexual yoga is revealed to him. His patron dakini Lhachik Nyima Zhönnuma appears to him in the form of a beautiful, smiling woman, and proceeds to seduce him. What comes next is a fairly graphic description of what could perhaps be described as a profoundly-meaningful wet-dream.
While engaging in sex with Zhepai Dorje, the goddess provides him with blow-by-blow practical instructions on how to practice the ‘magical technologies of sexual yoga’ (rgo’i ‘khrul ‘khor) which use a physical consort, and in which she is an expert. The Dakini lists the attributes of a suitable consort, and describes the various ritual and sexual foreplay preliminaries that prepare the yogi and yogini for the actual practice of sexual congress. Stimulating and sustaining intense levels of desire and arousal in a highly focused and non-contrived way are a key theme. Lhachik Nyima Zhönnu instructs Zhepai Dorje and his chosen consort to visualize themselves and each other as deities – specifically, the consort should imagine herself, and be imagined by the yogi, as Lhachik Nyima Zhönnu herself. The instructions the Dakini reveals represent a sexualized version of more general Tibetan alchemical ‘elixir extraction’ practices, known as chulen, bcud len. After the sexual union the couple is instructed to stay close to one another, to eat delicious and nourishing foods, and continue to enjoy each other’s company.
This record of a specialized esoteric practice is only eight pages in folio, but points to many key points worth reflecting on. The text is a very profound and useful example of the sorts of relationships that treasure-revealers have with their spirit-helpers (a theme I briefly and more generally address in this post here). Zhepai Dorje’s own biography, and his text with its (literal and figurative) overlaps between human and spirit-dakinis, is useful for thinking about the different ways that the relationship between the physical/material/external and imagined/internalized enactment of tantric ritual practices of ‘transgression’ (i.e. the use of conventionally impure substances and conventionally impure behaviours in highly controlled and secret ritual contexts) has been understood by Tibetan experts. As indigenous, Asian tantric ideas have migrated out of their native contexts and have been appropriated and re-imagined by outsiders, the Hindu tantric distinction of ‘Left-Hand’ versus ‘Right-Hand’ practices has come to take on great meaning for Western neo-tantric practitioners.
The title ‘Left-Hand Path’ derives from the Hindu term vamamarga, a word that is supposed to refer to Indian tantric specialists who historically emphasized the actual consuming of impure substances, the actual frequenting of charnel-grounds, the engaging in actual sex with physical consorts, and the actual breaking of social taboos and flouting of social mores. These practitioners are conventionally contrasted with ‘Right-Hand’ pathers, individuals who still practiced tantra but in a supposedly more ‘sanitized’, internalized or symbolic way. A lot of scholarly ink has been spilled over the extent to which Indo-Tibetan tantric ‘transgressions’ are really all that socially transgressive in practice. Researchers have also shown just how much Western esoteric ideas about The Left-Hand Path owe to Theosophical Society founder Madame Blavatsky and her followers, and their pretty blatant misrepresentations of Hindu and Buddhist Tantra and weird ideas about black magic and sexuality’s role in spirituality.
(Notwithstanding its frequent allusions to Asian traditions, ‘The Left Hand Path’ in Western esoteric contexts emerges out of very different histories and has very different aims and orientations to Indo-Tibetan tantra. LHP discourse in Western esotericism is often connected with Satanism, Lucferianism, black magic, and ideas about radical autonomy, counter-culturalism, self-reliance and empowerment (the above book by Kennet Granholm, one of the foremost scholars of LHP traditions, provides excellent background on this). The extent to which Western LHP’s anti-mainstream heavy metal diabolism and counter-cultural rebellion or ‘deviance’ is at all comparable to the orientations of tantric saints who, though they were subversive and oppositional, still operated in contexts where tantra was mainstream, remains open to question. First image courtesy of DeviantArt user BleadingRose666)
Zhepai Dorje’s text reminds us how close and blurry the lines between ‘actual’ and ‘imagined’ (that is to say, ‘clairvoyantly/imaginatively perceived’, not ‘wholly non-existent and devoid of all meaning’) can be in native Tibetan contexts. We find in the text terminology and processes relating to both physical bodies and substances and more subtle energetic/mental phenomena, occurring simultaneously. There isn’t really any equivalent term for ‘Left Hand Path’ in Tibetan,and the extent to which the term actually makes sense or was even used as an emic category historically by native Indian tantrikas remains somewhat unclear.Still, as tantric Buddhism came to be reformed in Tibet with new waves of missionaries and texts coming from India in the 11th century, religious experts began promoting new ways of regulating and institutionally policing tantra, which often revolved around tensions between ideas of physical or actual enactment, or tantric literalism, and more symbolic or figurative interpretations. These scholars championed more circumscribed visions of tantric practice, and debated how, when, and by whom highly advanced and esoteric tantric practices could or should be implemented.
(The Great Fifth, left, and right, the Great Sixth Dalai Lama)
As it happens, it appears that not all of Lelung Zhepai Dorje’s contemporaries approved of his non-celibate, tantric yogi turn. Zhepai Dorje’s general period provides many examples of non-sectarian practitioners who blended visionary, non-celibate orientations of the Nyingma, Tibet’s oldest Buddhist school, with the monastic-scholastic (yet still tantric) orientations of the Gelukpa lineage. There’s the great fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682), who although he remained a Gelukpa monastic vow-holder (rumours that he was the Regent Desi Sangye Gyatso’s biological father notwithstanding), nonetheless practiced and taught teachings of the Nyingma Great Perfection tradition. There’s also his successor, the Sixth Dalai Lama (1683-1706), who is remembered as a great sexual yogi and who in an unprecedented and subsequently not-repeated move, gave back his vows of celibacy to live as a non-celibate tantric practitioner. Still, even with these high-ranking examples, Zhepai Dorje’s tantric revelries are supposed to have generated some resistance and criticism from his Gelukpa peers.
In his extremely controversial sectarian text supporting the propitiation of the highly contentious Gelukpa protector deity that I wrote about here, Trijang Rinpoche (1901-1981), who served as the junior tutor to the current Dalai Lama, cites the biography of the second Reting Rinpoche to support the claim that Zhepai Dorje had acted inappropriately in trying to mix Gelukpa and Nyingma forms of practice, and in promoting non-celibate ritual procedures in Gelukpa contexts. He describes how Zhepai Dorje’s colleagues tried to discourage him from his sexual yoga practices, but the treasure-revealer would not listen:
“As he [the Second Reting Rinpoche] says, previously at Olka Lelung there was one named Jedrung Lozang Trinley also known as Shepay Dorje, a great being renowned to be the Lhodrag Mahasiddha Lekyi Dorje’s emanation. He studied at Ngari Tratsang in the early part of his life and became a great scholar. He kept the Lhodrag ear‐whispered lineage teachings and Chakrasamvara as his innermost essence practice. He had attained realizations at quite a high level and cultivated pure view and action of the Geden lineage. At one point he began practicing a secret wisdom teaching in accordance with a Mindrol Ling treasure text and began emphasizing it in his teachings to his many disciples, both lay and ordained. In the name of offering the wisdom consort and offering nectar, he and all the disciples gathered many young women around them and enjoyed drinking intoxicants without restraint, singing and dancing. They started many monks of Sera and Drepung, lamas, tulkus and geshes into consort practice. With such actions as these they threw proper Tantric conduct into disarray, perverting it. The three, Purchog Je Ngawang Jampa, Shogdon Yo Kedrup, and Lelung Jedrung Rinpoche were all mutually teacher and disciple to each other. Once they had gathered at Miwang Polhawa’s place at Gaden Kangsar in Lhasa. Purchogpa and Kedrupa tried to dissuade Jedrung from what he was doing, but acting as if the time for his actions had been prophesied by the dakinis, he would not listen.”
Trijang Rinpoche then goes on to suggest that this misconduct on the part of Zhepai Dorje was the cause of the ex-monk’s premature death, and states that Zhepai Dorje only lived as long as he did because of conducting fire offering rituals. Trijang Rinpoche further claims that the controversial, hyper-sectarian Geluk protector he is writing about ended Zhepai Dorje’s life as a punishment after repeated warnings, and that the vitality of Zhepai Dorje’s reincarnation lineage has been compromised ever since. (We also see that Zhepai Dorje’s detractors appear to take issue with a certain level of tantric literalism that is implied by the way that he practices his tantric feast gatherings, which are presented as being a lot more wild and riotous than the standard tshok performed routinely in Tibetan shrine rooms and monasteries today).
(The current and Eleventh Lelung Rinpoche, b. 1970 at his residence in Dharamshala)
Trijang Rinpoche’s is a divisive position, one with which Nyingma and other practitioners disagree. The Lelung lineage is alive and well today, and its current incarnation, the 11th Lelung Rinpoche, divides his time between England and India and is working hard to preserve Zhepai Dorje’s teachings through a variety of publishing projects. Contemporary Nyingma-orientated practitioners like Dr Nyida too, consider Zhepai Dorje to be one of the greatest and most accomplished masters of Karmamudra in Tibetan history. In Zhepai Dorje’s own time and presently, we can see that sectarian affiliations not only play into religious interpretations but inform political decisions and outcomes as well. The invasion of Tibet by a different Oirat Mongol group the Dzungar, and the dispatching of Zhepai Dorje’s disciple Lhazang Khan (read a summary of the dramatic events of 1717 here), ushered in a period of fiercely Gelukpa-centric and anti-Nyingma violence and destruction in Tibet, and many Nyingma practitioners were killed or fled the country. Zhepai Dorje’s revelatory text thus points to a calmer period after the storm, albeit one that still involves significant tensions.
Finding the time to practice: Life-trajectories, sleeping on the job, and direct downloads
The idea of prematurely ended lives directs our focus to another significant theme suggested by Zhepai Dorje’s revelatory text, that of life-cycles and life-spans, of time-investment or management in religious practice. One of the things that is so interesting about ngakpa, Tibetan non-celibate tantric specialists, is the way in which they juggle the demands of ascetic, meditative-retreat practice with other more ‘worldly’ responsibilities and endeavours, such as raising families, establishing institutions, serving communities as ritual/medical/cultural specialists and teachers, or engaging in other, ‘ordinary’ work. In an earlier post, I proposed tentatively that ngakpa could be glossed as ‘socially engaged yogis’. Skepticism and debates about fraudulent or self-serving ngakpa notwithstanding, generally, when Tibetans opt to call someone a ‘ngakpa’ it tends to imply not just that that someone has taken tantric vows and received instructions on tantric practices, but that that someone has (or is claiming to have) actually intensively practiced these instructions, and has attained demonstrable power from doing so (Such powers are often referred to as nüpa, nus pa, or potency, or ngödup, dngos grub, ‘explicit/material/genuine (spiritual) attainment’). A common corollary of having attained power, however, is that one has practiced for long periods of time, specifically in closed conditions of meditative retreat.
The desire to spend years of one’s life sealed in a cave or other retreat-site can be thought of as a kind of ‘queering’ of time, a subverting of the mainstream concerns or ‘common-sense’ priorities of worldly (or as the phrasing goes, ‘temporal’) life and its expected labours and expenditures. For Tibetans, to chose to invest one’s time in retreat may well position you ‘queerly’ against a samsaric mainstream, but unlike some other queer/non-heteronormative lifestyle choices that may be labelled as dangerous or deviant, religious renunciation and meditative cultivation tend to be highly valued and celebrated (if still non-mainstream) cultural choices. Controlled experiments in tantric sexual yoga are not exactly heteronormative – they plainly subvert and frustrate ordinary expectations and goals involved in casual, recreational sex, as well as in sex for procreation. Still, historically in Tibet, perhaps much more than India, tantric sexual yoga became at least partially (and literally) domesticated. Tibetan Buddhist khandroma thus more often than not end up becoming the wives and mothers of yogis’ children. Religious time management thus needs to be understood both in terms of daily, monthly etc schedules for religious practice, and in terms of life-long orientations and investments. Gender-roles, family size, birth-order for siblings, prophecies, unforeseen catastrophes, and not least unstinting personal commitment to religious practice, all come into play at different times, to influence whether or how individual practitioners will practice (see this post for one colourful story about how three Tibetan lay brothers divvied up their time and responsibilities when it came to meditation, home life, and retreat).
(The great Dzogchen teacher Mingyur Peldron, 1699-1769)
While men may struggle with the decision to return their monk’s vows so as to become (potentially misunderstood and maligned) ngakpa, women often face resistance when they seek to forgo marital and reproductive responsibilities so as to become nuns who can (in theory) devote their lives solely to religion. As an alternative form of female religious professionalism, being a consort to a great yogi or treasure revealer has provided Tibetan woman with important social leverage and opportunities for spiritual practice and attainment. Still, becoming the spouse of a great master can also saddle female practitioners with a whole host of other time-consuming responsibilities (like child-rearing) that pose significant and possibly inextricable obstacles for engaging in intensive religious practice. At one point in his life, Zhepai Dorje attempted to convince the great female Dzogchen adept Mingyur Peldron (1699-1769), the daughter of Zhepai Dorje’s visionary, non-celibate teacher Terdak Lingpa, to become his consort. Mingyur Peldron, who lived a celibate life, turned down Zhepai Dorje’s prestigious offer, which as scholar Alison Melnick notes, was no small thing considering Zhepai Dorje’s religious and political clout and connections at the time. (Interestingly, in a recently produced ‘song of realization’ which he wrote to motivate yogis and yoginis in his home-community to always remember the View of the Great Perfection, Dr Nyida provides specific words of advice and encouragement for already practicing and potential tantric yoginis. His statements both acknowledge women’s traditional responsibilities as care-providers, and exhort yoginis to not be exploited by male practitioners or to forget their equal worth or autonomy. I have included the Tibetan of these verses with an English translation as an end-note to this post. See here too for a candid interview about religious practice and time-management with Jetsun Kushok Chimey Luding, who is the elder sister of the current head of the hereditary Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism, and who holds the full-transmission for the lineage. Jetsunma began her life as nun, but the contingencies of exile in India, and subsequent onward migration to Canada, saw her get married and become the principle domestic care-giver to her children).
(Left: Mingyur Rinpoche, b. 1975, right after his recent return from a four year wandering retreat. The incarnate left unannounced and in secret, and did not say where he was planning to go or when he would return. Right: Mingyur Rinpoche’s father, the Dzogchen master Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, 1920-1996)
Again and again, Tibetans have told me how being a monk or nun is ‘easier’ ‘happier’
and ‘more free’ than other life-orientations. By living at a monastery and by doing away with such obligations as having to get married, to have children, and to work to support them, monastics are supplied with precious amounts of time to study and practice. At the same time, the monastery is often described by Tibetan practitioners as its own kind of burden. As educational, social, political, economic, and ritual institutions, monasteries and nunneries produce their own sorts of bureaucracies and demands which are frequently portrayed as being anathema to meditative cultivation. Significantly, when monks want to gain some actual experience or accomplishment in meditation they invariably quit the monastery entirely, usually to go to institutionalized retreat-centers or less frequently, to wander as unaffiliated, peripatetic yogi-ascetics (see the recent case of Mingyur Rinpoche’s absconding from his monastery for an example of the latter). Yet again – as is made amply clear in the memoirs of great 20th century yogis like Mingyur Rinpoche’s father, meditator Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche – yogis who may want nothing more than to live out their days in retreat in caves may also be pressured by their gurus (as in Tulku Urgyen’s case, with the Sixteenth Karmapa) to ‘renounce renunciation’ and commit themselves to more outward, socially-focused pursuits – like the transmitting of rare teachings to disciples, or the raising of money and overseeing of merit and community-building projects. Sometimes, it would seem, there really is no rest for the, well, infinitely compassionate.
Tibetan monks are often scolded for over-sleeping, and sleep schedules are carefully regulated for younger monastics. The idea here is that sleeping is a waste of precious time, which monks and nuns could better use for study and ritual practice.Many tales exist about great celibate and non-celibate practitioners who as they have advanced in their practice, have effectively ceased to sleep. By contrast, I have heard it expressed by more than one ngakpa that ‘yogis like to sleep’. In the Six Dharmas or Yogas of Naropa, a popular and comprehensive cycle of tantric yogas, there are two ‘nighttime’ yogas: the Yoga of Clear-Light (or Sleep) and the Yoga of Dreams, where the practitioner learns how to induce and direct lucid dreams. Besides familiarizing the practitioner with subtler states of consciousness and with the nature of their mind, this latter practice is also understood to be a kind of training-ground for learning to navigate the disembodied after-death state of the bardo, or interstitional space between one incarnation and the next. (Celibate practitioners may also practice these yogas, however, even if non-celibate tantric yogis are strongly connected with ideas of yogic expertise. A Tibetan friend of mine told me stories he had heard while living as a child-monk in his home-region of Amdo in Tibet, about a great, reincarnate celibate lama who attached the pages of scriptures at eye-level on the wall across from his bed. He then strung a noose from the ceiling above his pallet, which he would loop around his neck while reading and meditating. If he fell asleep and his head and chin dipped and he lapsed in his holding ofa straight-backed, cross-legged meditative pose, the noose would start choking him. This, it goes without saying, was a strong incentive to wake up, and to get back to studying, praying or meditating).
To be an accomplished practitioner thus takes time. Yet as we have seen, past life connections and potential, as well as visionary experiences, can speed up progress on the path exponentially. In Zhepai Dorje’s text, his ‘sleeping on the job’ appears less as a lapse in his meditative practice, and more as a sign of attainment. Still today, many Tibetans recount having observed senior lamas nod off during extended rituals, only to wake up and report having had profound visions where they visited a Pure-Land, or conversed with Dakinis. For ngakpa/ma whose lives often include a range of different responsibilities, managing affective and temporal investments is especially important. Besides its more immediate and direct benefits of cultivating the awareness and subtle body energies, Dream Yoga can also arguably be seen as a practical response to the concern of simply finding enough time to practice.
As we all know, waking-time and dream-time are not the same. In theory, an experienced lucid dreamer can pack the equivalent of a good few hours of meditation practice into a ten minute snooze. Visionary encounters that take place in subtle spaces of consciousness too, can speed up and bridge time. The ‘unlocking’ and disclosure of treasures, where a text seeded in the mind-stream of a practitioner in a previous lifetime is revealed in the present, bridges the centuries in an instant. Likewise, direct instruction from Dakinis and protectors can save years of more conventional study and research. Zhepai Dorje did not need to spend hours in the library cross-referencing existing accounts of the protector-deities’ lives (if these existed at all), nor did he solely need to seek out a human guru who could eventually reveal to him direct and concise instructions on the actual practice of Karmamudra. He could get such knowledge directly, straight from the source,as it were. In his memoirs, the ngakpa Khamtrul Yeshe Dorje Rinpoche explains how in his youth, as a reincarnate boy-lama at a monastery in Kham, he possessed no aptitude for study. He relates that his tutor was so ashamed of Yeshe Dorje’s lack of ability that the man had already made plans to flee from the monastery to escape having to deal with the shame of seeing his ward flunk his exams and fail so publicly. Yeshe Dorje states, however, that Dakinis appeared to him before his tests, and were able to convey realizations about his studies to him in the space of a single visionary encounter. In Tibetan contexts then, dakini dreams function as a kind of ‘direct download,’ an intensely emotionally-charged encounter that collapses time-and-space.
Idealized narratives or personal diaries? The politics of disclosure, monks behaving badly, and ethnographies of visionary experience
In his extensive 2012 cross-cultural psychoanalytic-phenomenological study of visionary experience, anthropologist of Buddhism Gananath Obeyesekere explains that he was forced to scrap an intended appendix for the book on “those fascinating instances of the radical transformation of sexuality into the complex soteriological eroticism of Tibetan Buddhism.” The reason for this was because he “couldn’t find a single autobiographical account of a monk or any interview with a current salvation seeker using the path of Karmamudra – (“in which one has sexual intercourse with a select consort whereby orgasmic bliss is transformed into the bliss that promotes one’s salvation quest”) – that was not idealized hagiography.” Obeyesekere concludes that “until this lacuna is filled by scholars investigating the lives of current practitioners, it is impossible for me to make any in-depth study of Tibetan soteriological eroticism from the standpoint of deep motivation.”
Zhepai Dorje’s text certainly reproduces established hagiographical models, but given what is known about contemporary Tibetan tantric practitioners and treasure-revealers, I’d argue that it’s fair to call his account straight autobiography. His text is written as a direct record of a personal experience, one which forms the basis of equally direct and practical instructions on the actual practice of Karmamudra. His language is rich and evocative, but his style, all things considered, is matter-of-fact, to-the-point. Lhachik Nyima Zhonnu even transmits specific recipes for medicinal ointments designed to stimulate and fortify the yogini’s erogenous zones, and prevent coldness disorders in both partners. These recipes include real-world, relatively accessible ingredients, something which further confirms that we are not dealing here with an idealized hagiographical ‘tale’ written by faithful fans centuries later, but with a set of practical and auto-biographically informed instructions, meant to benefit properly informed readers.
In his comments above, Obeyesekere seems to also conveniently ignore the very real paradoxes and politics of secrecy, and the important ethical-methodological issues connected to this lacuna and the academic study of esotericisms more generally. Few autobiographical accounts exist because these are practices that practitioners engage in or talk about as part of specific motivations. When and if practitioners do discuss such esoteric practices, they do so not merely as an intellectual exercise to titillate or impress audiences, not just for the sake of posterity or scholarship. At the end of his account, after Lhachik Nyima Zhonnu has warned him to avoid bad, uninitiated company and maintain his tantric vows, Zhepai Dorje offers the following prayer and dedication: “May those who desire to practice this rite of sexual intercourse, look upon it with bodhicitta, with a desire to achieve enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. By this virtuous intention may all appearances and arisings without exception manifest as the chakra of sexual union, and by mastering the self-cognizing awareness of one’s natural state may they be liberated all at once into the body of light.” As with Tibetan hagiographical records of great masters’ esoteric experiences and accomplishments in general – accounts of Karmamudra, however general or precise in detail they may be, should thus be shared only in so far as they can serve as a beneficial framework and encouragement for others to better understand what tantric Buddhism is, what it is ultimately for, what it can do, and how it should be practiced, and practiced well.
Drawing on his expertise as a native scholar-practitioner and teacher, Dr Nyida devotes a considerable amount of time to addressing misrepresentations and misunderstandings about tantric tradition and tantric approaches to sexuality. He represents an interesting example of a non-celibate, married tantric specialist and traditional physician who today gives introductory teachings on Karmamudra practices all around the world. The Doctor’s position is that in the current moment, maintaining extreme secrecy and refusing to even explain the general contours of Tibetan tantric yogic practices may in fact lead to as much, if not greater harm than the unscrupulous disclosure of esoteric information. Tibetan and non-Tibetan teachers alike can exploit secrecy – if a general overview of what esoteric practices genuinely entail is unavailable for the uninitiated, such individuals risk being manipulated by deceptive or unqualified teachers who can get away with claiming any kind of incorrect, manipulative or harmful thing by saying, “Don’t worry, I know this sounds incredible and hard-to-swallow, but you see this is very secret! So of course you’ve never heard of it and you feel confused. But I’m revealing this to you because you are very special. How lucky you are! (Now touch my thigh)’ etc.
The subject of Karmamudra is a complicated and controversial one, and tends to incite strong reactions in both Tibetans and non-Tibetans alike. Dr Nyida’s position and openness is unusual. Many teachers do not show his same willingness to discuss and share information about esoteric topics. In the absence of any centralized authority that can speak totally unchallenged on behalf of all lineages or practices of Tibetan Buddhism, individual lamas, based on their personally-specific training, expertise, loyalties, commitments, and gurus, make different decisions about how to approach secrecy, esotericism, and disclosure for difference audiences, in different contexts. By extension, this post and my ability to examine Zhepai Dorje’s work is based on Dr Nyida’s approval and encouragement, on his belief that benefit will come from offering some context for Zhepai Dorje’s life and contributions to Tibetan Buddhism.
Many of the key misunderstandings and controversies surrounding tantric non-celibacy hinge around differences in sectarian orientation and perspective. In the text mentioned above, Trijang Rinpoche claims that Zhepai Dorje’s subsequent reincarnation made ‘an error in the order of his practice’ by taking a consort without first resigning from his position as abbot of Gyuto monastery, the tantric college once located in Lhasa, where in the Gelukpa system, monks would go to become proficient in (celibate) tantric ritual after they had completed their lengthy and more scholastic, two-decade odd-long Geshe degrees, or Gelukpa monastic ‘PhDs’. Trijang Rinpoche claims that Zhepai Dorje’s successor was unable to complete his practice, and maintains that he died prematurely because of his infractions. Concerns about ‘tantric casualities’ and errors, about (especially Gelukpa) monks segue-ing into advanced tantric consort practice, continue to this day. The case of white, American Tibetan Buddhist teacher Michael Roach is instructive here.
Roach, a native of Arizona, took ordination as a Gelukpa monk in 1983 and lived and studied for a time at Sera Mey college at Sera, a major reconstituted Gelukpa monastery in exile in India. Under the apparent advisement of his Tibetan teacher, however, Roach left the monastery after a few years and returned to the U.S., where, in addition to amassing a significant fortune through the New York diamond industry, he also gained significant acclaim as a Buddhist teacher and benefactor. Over time, Roach began teaching more secret and advanced tantric practices to an inner cohort of students which included a young Indian-style yoga teacher by the name of Christie McNally. Controversially, although Roach had not returned his monastic vows, he grew out his hair and entered into a spiritually and sexually intimate relationship with McNally, whom he married in a Christian ceremony in 1998. After engaging in sexual yoga with McNally as part of a self-directed three year desert retreat between 2000 and 2003, Roach announced that he had successfully achieved some of the highest realizations possible in Tibetan Buddhism.
(Michael Roach, b. 1952, and Lama Christie, confusing categories. For a while, the two apparently took a vow where they committed to never being more than 15 feet away from each other at any time – p.s. this is not a part of traditional tantric Buddhist vows)
Already controversial for his hybrid, idiosyncratic teachings, and for having continuously promoted himself as a Geshe, despite allegedly not having completed the full degree, Roach further scandalized the Tibetan Buddhist community by publicizing and defending his breach of vows and alleged spiritual attainments. Confronted by other white Tibetan Buddhist teachers about his non-celibacy , Roach claimed that he had in fact not had sex with a human woman. Since as his consort Lama Christie was a tantric goddess in the flesh, not only did his relationship with her not compromise his monastic commitments, but it further demonstrated the extent of his ‘pure perception’ as a practitioner, one for whom all worldly appearances were divine. For all of Roach’s appeals to tantric theory and Buddhist scripture, however, Tibetan Buddhist authorities weren’t buying it. In 2006, when the Dalai Lama’s private office discovered that Roach was planning to come to Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama’s seat-in-exile in India, to give teachings to Western students supposedly on behalf of a Tibetan lama, Roach was requested by Tibetan exile governmental representatives to cancel his visit. In emails to Roach, officials in the Dalai Lama’s private office in Dharamsala rebutted Roach’s ‘long explanation’ and expressed concern about the ‘unresolved controversy’ over his proper upholding of Buddhist vows of celibacy. “We have seen a photograph of you wearing long hair, with a female companion at your side, apparently giving ordination. This would seem to conflict with the rules of the Vinaya, and as you know, the Gelug tradition makes a point of upholding these very strictly, “Joint Secretary Chhime R. Chhoekyapa explained. Lest the Dalai Lama, as one of the primary stewards of ‘the welfare of Tibetan Buddhism’, be seen as condoning Roach’s ‘unconventional behavior,’ and in the interest of the greater purity of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, Roach was thus repeatedly advised not to come. While Roach ultimately changed his itinerary, he insists to this day that he is a Geshe and has not broken his vows. (Interestingly, in line with my reflections above, the Joint Secretary also noted that if Roach was truly a realized tantric yogi who had gone beyond ordinary categories of morality, he would be able to prove it by displaying miracles. Lama Christie’s own trajectory following her split from Roach has also been dogged by controversy and significant, even fatal ‘tantric casualties – see the Rolling Stone report on some of this here).
For Nyingma practitioners like Dr Nyida, for whom the possibility of being a non-celibate lama and still occupying positions of authority in monastic institutions is totally viable, things are naturally quite different. Dr Nyida has informed me that many ngakpa from his home region in Amdo first train as monks, and then later return their vows to become ngakpa, and I know of exile Tibetan ngakpa who have spent time studying monastic curricula in monasteries during early life without necessarily taking monastic ordination (Benjamin Bogin offers an excellent treatment of the life of 17th century Tibetan lama and painter Yolmo Tenzin Norbu here, who lived and studied as a monk until his mid-twenties, after which he decided to become a ngakpa). There’s a lot more that could be discussed here, but this post is already very long. Ultimately, Zhepai Dorje represents a case of a lama who straddled both hyper-celibate and very not-celibate religious spaces and lineages, and who in his lifetime became a very public, sought-after and polarizing tantric figure. His story offers a unique window into sectarian politics, and useful food for thought for considering developments in Tibetan religion and politics more currently. Today, both celibate and non-celibate lamas are rightly concerned about the violation and misunderstanding of vows, and about the need for the lines between monastic and non-monastic obligations to be properly respected and understood. Zhepai Dorje’s life and biography would seem to provide a wealth of historical background and comparative material for understanding how these dynamics play out today. I can only hope that his works will continue to be made available for scholars and practitioners, and that readers will be able thereby to understand and appreciate esoteric Tibetan tantric practices in their proper spirit and context.
- In this latter regard I would encourage interested readers to consider donating to the current Lelung Rinpoche’s publishing initiatives.
*Here are the verses about female tantric practitioners from Dr Nyida’s song, mentioned above:
There is no difference between the bodies of either yogis or yoginis – whosoever sees the primordial awareness will be liberated. The white and red drops blaze of their own accord with blissful heat – o ngakmas, women are especially noble!
Meditate on the kindness of all mother sentient beings, care lovingly for all beings impartially and with no specific object. Having accomplished your own goals independently, strive for the well-being of others and cultivate, o ngakmas the bodhicitta of the Greater Vehicle!
Without being deceived by fake treasure-revealers or monks, request the consummate (teaching) of mind’s own essence from a realized guru. O ngakmas, what’s needed is the inner realization of neither feeling regret during life nor fear during death!
Nuns who stay in nunneries, ngakmas who remain in the household, life-companions of tantric ‘heroes’ (male practitioners) and mothers of their children, female nomads and labourers, whoever you may be – be liberated, o ngakmas, through the essence of awareness of Primordial Purity!
Having obtained a precious human body through the kindness of your parents, having encountered the Vajrayana thanks to your merit, having discerned the View of the Self-Liberation through the grace of the guru – pray, o ngakmas, for the benefit of beings!
Dr Nyida’s closing verse ends with a prayer that more baby-ngakpa will be born to accomplished female practitioners:
May conditions be auspicious for the birth of realized mantra-holders! May conditions be auspicious for ngakma to recognize the essence of mind! My conditions be auspicious for the proliferation of child-ngakpas! May conditions be auspicious for the spreading of the teachings of the tantrika community!