(A depiction of prominent 19th century poet, meditation master and promoter of the ‘white robed, dreadlocked community’ or ngakpa tradition, Shabkar Tsokdruk Rangdrol)
Recently, some non-Tibetan practitioners of Tibetan tantric Buddhism or Vajrayana were asking me about some informal advice texts or ‘speeches’ ༼གཏམ། tahm༽written in Tibetan by great ngakpa ༼སྔགས་པ།༽ or non-celibate tantric ritual specialists and whether these had been translated into English. In the course of looking into some of these older texts, I was reminded of a Tibetan blog post from 2009, which represents an interesting variation on the genre of advice speech for ngakpas, by ngakpas. So I thought I would translate it – very roughly! – and share it here.
The post, which appeared on the popular Tibetan language blog Khabda (and which can be read in its original Tibetan here) is by someone by the name of Serchö. The text describes itself as a ‘praising speech’ ༼བསྔགས་པའི་གཏམ། ngakpe tahm༽ for the gökar janglo de, ‘the community of ‘white-robed, dreadlocked ones’, i.e. Ngakpa/ngakma (Buddhist) tantrikas or mantrins. I haven’t dug through the years worth of comments yet to find out more, so it’s not clear to me if Serchö is himself a monk or ngakpa. The author could also be female – although the song is written from a rather male focus. While Serchö describes his piece as being for ngakpa, its intended audience would seem to be monastics and the laity, and it serves in effect as an elucidation and admonition for non-ngakpa/mas about the ngakpa tradition and its historical and contemporary value.
(His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama posing in 2009 with officials at the inauguration of a new school in a rural nomadic part of Ladakh)
As I mentioned in this earlier post, there is a long tradition in Tibetan societies of polemical defences of ngakpa/ma, and Serchö’s piece definitely fits within this genre. One thing particularly interesting about the piece is it’s stated inspiration. Serchö tells us that he wrote the piece in the wake of a teaching or ‘bestowal of advice’ ༼བཀའ་སློབ་བསྩལ་བ། kalob tsalwa༽ given by the Dalai Lama in Ladakh in 2009. During this event the Dalai Lama spoke in Tibetan to a large audience of nuns, monks and laypeople and had a lot to say about vows and the tantric or ‘Secret Mantra’ ༼གསང་སྔགས། sang ngak༽ tradition. His Holiness noted the prevalence of two phenomena in Tibetan Buddhist societies: monks and nuns who fail to keep their vows of celibacy, and practitioners who are ‘neither monastics nor non-celibate tantrikas’ who may have sexual partners and families, but who continue to dress like monastics or who fail to comport themselves as proper ngakpa/ma should. In making this observation, His Holiness reprised an often-repeated point of his, namely that it’s vital for ngakpa/ma to clearly and consistently mark themselves as non-monastic professional religious practitioners (for some reflections on the historically/cultural/political significance of the Dalai’ Lama’s visits to Tibetan Buddhist areas of Ladakh/Jammu-Kashmir, see this overview by Salomé Deboos).
In this earlier crash course of mine on contemporary ngakpa/ma (which readers are welcome to consult to get some more context for Serchö’s admonition), I describe why it is that this request to ‘stay in uniform’ by the Dalai Lama, a monastic from a school of Tibetan Buddhism that has at times been quite disparaging to ngakpa, has been a little more complicated for ngakpa/ma to honour than one might assume. Much of this has to do with what we can think of as a tantric ‘politics of display’ where at times disguising one’s tantric affiliations may be more important or valued than flaunting them. In Serchö’s song ngakpa are consistently referred to in terms of their outer trappings and we hear very little about the specifics of ngakpa/mas’ practices or inner lives.
One other issue relating to contemporary Tibetan politics that looms large in Serchö’s piece is Tibetan anxieties about cultural and ethnic genocide and loss as a result of Tibet’s colonization and oppression by the People’s Republic of China and the precarious nature of life for Tibetans in exile. Population statistics for Tibetans both inside and outside Tibet are a highly contested and politicized domain, and Chinese authorities continue to paint an official picture of a happy and flourishing Tibetan minority ethnicity population as a counter to Tibetans’ testimonies about historical massacres, unmarked graves, forced sterilizations and ongoing state and structural violence. These realities, coupled with significantly smaller family sizes in exile, have meant that for the last few years the Dalai Lama has found himself in the peculiar position, as a monk, of encouraging Tibetans to have more children. Perhaps the most striking and contemporary aspect of Serchö’s praises and defense of ngakpa/ma then is that they have (given their non-celibate forms of transmission) contributed and will contribute to the preservation and furthering of both ‘dharma/religious’ and ‘ethnic/racial/biological’ lineages (it is interesting too that Serchö holds up the example of Hindu tantrikas as having preserved their lineages given the common caricature of Tantra having decayed in India but flourished as state religion in Tibet. It’s not clear exactly what lineages of Indian practice Serchö is referring to here but this comparison is perhaps suggestive of what kind of practitioner – i.e. probably not greatly institutionalized? – at least one Tibetan imagines ngakpas to be).
Also noteworthy is how much of Serchö’s defense of ngakpa is also a defense of the spiritual and cultural worth of women, and a rebuttal of Buddhist/scriptural justifications for female inferiority. This is telling – one implication would seem to be that part of what has made the Ngakpa tradition threatening or suspect vis-à-vis hegemonic monastic institutions is the way in which it has valorized women and femininity as part of its practices, has been its normatively heterosexual orientation (I’m reminded here of scholar Jeffrey Kripal’s comments on ‘radical’ heterosexual mysticism, or why ‘orthodox’ union with the Divine is necessarily/normatively homoerotic under patriarchy. Kripal has proposed tentatively that esoteric traditions in which the relationship between practitioners and the numinous is framed in heterosexual terms must necessarily be threatening, heterodox or subversive, in contexts where ‘normative’ or institutionally powerful versions of human-transcendent relations have predominantly taken the form of men yearning for a male/male-oriented God or Divine Power.
This complicates a little the complaint that many queer occultists and ritualists I know have often articulated, that traditional systems of tantric yoga, or Western sex magic are inherently heteronormative in how they understand sexual desire and activity and its role in spiritual transformation. Or, for that matter, that homoerotic spirituality is inherently counter-mainstream. It seems to me like what Kripal is arguing here is that in environments dominated by patriarchal, monastic and other homoerotic religious-political institutions, heterosexually-inflected spiritual expressions are themselves queer, and therefore subversive)
Anyway, there’s lots to think through and appreciate here but I won’t bore any of you further. Please find here following a VERY hasty translation of Serchö’s piece. I hope that I can correct and improve it later, and make it match the Tibetan original more in structure and flow, but for now I thought I’d this sub-par rendering for readers, since it captures so well some of the contributions of the ngakpa tradition and the issues at stake in either defending or defaming it.
(A statue of Yeshe Tsogyal, the 8th century Tibetan woman who was one of the first Tibetans to achieve full liberation in one lifetime and in one human body through the non-celibate tantric practice. You can read Serchö’s stanza of praise to her below)
A Cloud of Musical Offerings: Praises for the Community of White Robe and Dreadlock wearing Ngakpas
OM! May bliss and goodness prevail!
1) May the Lake-Born Vajra, Guru Rinpoche, the special and singular protector of beings of the Land of Snows, project forth in youthful form, endowed with all the major and minor marks, within the pure and shining ocean of the red HRI syllable that comes from the heart-center of the Buddha Amitabha of Limitless Light, the emanated manifestation of the speech of all the Victorious Buddhas, and through the efficacy of his magical power, may the teachings of Shakyamuni be elucidated and forever protected in this world!
2) Today I reflect on the condition (the waxing and waning) of the religious traditions of our kind forefathers.
Here today I reflect on the karma of Tibetans as a people, the people of the Land of Snows. Today I reflect on how to preserve the divine dharma of the pure and holy ones, which benefits beings equally in this life and the next. Today I reflect how a great danger is emerging for the Tibetan people.
3) There is a path which one, does not contradict the teachings of the great saints of the past; which two, offers an innumerable array of spiritual strategies or ‘methods’ for native Tibetans; which three, is highly suitable for the minds of people worldwide, East and West –
This religious system which is suitable for our times is that of the gökar janglo de, the tradition of those who wear white robes and dreadlocks
4) There were more householders in Buddha Shakyamuni’s circle of disciples than there were monastics, to take on the individual liberator vow, beings of the three continents need a woman.
There were a great many gods, demi-gods, and non-human entities in the Buddha’s circle of disciples –
The backs of Buddhas like Avalokiteshvara, Vajrapani and Manjushri were are all covered with long matted locks
5) In the past in the noble land of India there were great beings like the eighty-four mahasiddhas and in our country of Tibet there were 108 great treasure revealers and many such prophets among the noble men and commoners of the Nyingma or ancient school.
There were many ngakpa awareness-holder mahasiddhas as well, of the lineage of great accomplished masters like So Yeshe Wangchuk, Zur Shakya Jungne, and Nubchen Sangye Yeshe and this very same, positive tradition has spread everywhere right up until today.
6) The religious system of three ‘white’ masters of the Sakya Khön lineage, of the principal teachers (of the Kagyu lineage) Marpa, Mila(repa) and Dromtön, and the ancestral practice lineage of the great Asanga and Nagarjuna was this very system.
It is taught again and again that even if one remains a householder one can achieve liberation when one passes away (‘into bliss’) and there are many people who have obtained Buddhahood as householders, practicing in a worldly person’s body.
7) It’s not definitively clear that to uphold the moral discipline of the Greater Vehicle one has to renounce women.
The mind-of-enlightenment that exists for the three pure bhumis or levels of attainment which is described in the ‘Ten Bhumis Sutra’
Is said in this scripture to include being content with your wife or female partner,
So if you have a wife while cultivating the bodhicitta of the Perfection of Moral Discipline in particular, nothing more need be said.
8) The Buddha praised women time and again; in the Sutras it says
‘Great enlightened beings, emanating their own bodies as women, present offerings to the Buddhas of the ten directions’ –
This scriptural statement makes it clear that to make offerings to Buddhas women are also needed, so what possible reason is there to consider women as defective?
9) If takes on monastic vows of celibacy in a pure and proper way, then it is a beautifying ornament of the teachings,
Yet it is doubtful whether there are any monastics today just like those described in the scriptures of the Vinaya
It is better then to be a ngakpa than to be a monk who criticizes others for ‘having a woman’ while one doesn’t even know how to uphold one’s own 364 [monastic] vows.
10) The Tibetan woman Yeshe Tsogyal of the Kharchen lineage, who was both wise and accomplished in practice
Collected together all the profound teachings of the Lotus-born Master and wrote them out in the form of dharanis that would stop the teachings from ever being forgotten.
She engraved images of histories hidden as treasures in mountains, cliffs, and lakes, she is the woman to whom we owe our thanks for the teachings, she is their owner and master.
11) Having the view that a practitioner who has a female partner is defective is a sign of having little experience or understanding of the teachings.
Denigrating women, who are the very nature of wisdom, is a root downfall in Vajrayana –
If you enter onto the path of the Secret Mantra then women are the greatest friend of tantric means.
The Tibetan monk Tsongkhapa also relied on a ‘seal’ or consort when he was in the in-between after-death state of the Bardo.
12) Thus, the tradition of not denigrating ngakpas who have female partners preserves Tibetan religion and civilization and allows for the proliferation of the Tibetan race.
Most ngakpas who have practiced the pure and holy dharma properly will obtain spiritual accomplishments (siddhis), just as a great many monks who act in disagreement with the dharma will be reborn in the lower form realms.
13) Tenzin Gyatso, the expansively victorious, all-knowing one of the two systems of secular and religious rule, has taught and advised that, since Tibet’s ethnic population is small, there is a great danger that if monks and nuns proliferate excessively this could harm the propagation of the Tibetan people.
Thus, for preserving both the race and religion, being a ngakpa is better.
14) Since the Buddha knew everything, why shouldn’t he have known about the method of gaining Buddhahood through relying on women?
Just look at how other religious traditions have furthered both their religious and biological lineages and have been prime movers in the world –
So if you want to preserve our race and religion, then this advice of mine has value
15) Even though my own view is that being a monk is something necessary and desirable, today’s Tibetan monks have experienced problems upholding their vows regarding women.
I have heard the far-reaching warning which was seen by the Buddhas and spoken to the Karmapa,
That after two of our current generations most of our monks will be gone.
16) Ngakpa who practice the good tradition of their ancestors of previous generations have white robes and long, matted hair,
They have the means and wisdom, the skills for protecting both secular and religious traditions without discriminating between either male or female practitioners,
Theirs is an open-minded approach compatible with all people in today’s world, East and West and they possess traditional practices for people whose respective karma does not bar them from practicing.
“17) It is elucidated in the Blue Annals of the scholar Phulchung Gö Lo[tsawa] Shönnu [Pel, 1392 – 1481] that when the teachings declined because of [the Tibetan] Emperor Lang Darma,
the King praised Nubchen for his magical power as a ngakpa and swore an oath [because of it] to not harm the precious and rare ngakpas,
For this reason the reading transmission and oral instruction lineages for the Kangyur and Tengyur did not degenerate in Tibet [this country of ours].
18) Even though Muslim armies damaged [tantric] teachings in India and brought them into decline,
Just look at how Hindu ngakpa have still upheld the lineages of their religious tradition.
When the Red Chinese armies conquered Tibet (bod khams) it was said things could not be accomplished as Ngakpa [Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodrö [1893 – 1959] outlined in his prophecy and the Buddhas have despaired continually.
19) Some treasure revealers, because they practiced celibacy, fell under the influence of other karmic conditions (rten ‘brel gzhan dbang gyur ba),
and did not extract profound treasures [and as a result] [ritual] methods that could have benefited all of Tibet in general were postponed
These and other [facts] are made clear in many authentic, properly sourced histories and the Great Fifth Dalai Lama,
scattered flower after flower of praise for ngakpas’ kindness in protecting Tibet.
20) Tibetan people (bod pa’i mi) have a duty to preserve this positive [ngakpa] tradition
Young people, please don’t shoot out taunting words like arrows and say (with derision) “He’s a wretched old ngakpa!’
Tibetan ladies, when you see a ngakpa smile with joy and put on a happy face!
Monks, when you see a ngakpa think of him as a follower of the same Buddha (as you)!
21) Thus is this wise and joyful discourse a gift for all my online friends,
It is an investigation for groups of people with clear understanding into whether or not there is any future for the conjoined system (i.e. of religious-and-secular activities )
It is my own feelings, I, a beggar sustained by the teachings of many wise and accomplished masters,
It is the viewpoint of one who has wandered amidst the six ranges and mountains and toured around the country.
This was written as a result of seeing the advice which His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama gave in Ladakh – may it be meritorious! The Dalai Lama, in the advice-speech he bestowed there stated: “In the past, when the Abbot (Shantarakshita), the Vajra master (Padmasambhava) and the Dharma-king (Trisong Deutsen) gathered together it was stated that there would be two communities of practitioners: the white-robed, dreadlocked community (of ngakpa/mas) and the saffron-robed community of monastics. If you have a family and children, practicing as a member of the white-robed, long-haired ngakpa community is best. If you practice as part of the saffron-robed monastic community and wish to continue doing so, you have to uphold the rules and discipline well” (this quotation was copied from the Tibetan Times website).