The White-Robed, Dreadlocked Community: Dr Nida Chenagtsang’s Introduction to and Defense of the Ngakpa Tradition

rigzin rabpel ling

(Ngakpa or non-celibate tantric yogis from the Rebkong ngakmang or tantric community performing rituals at Rigzin Rabpel Ling in July 2016)

Existing readers of this blog will know that my PhD research is concerned with ngakpa and ngakma (sngags pa/ma, the name for make and female long-haired, non-celibate tantric Buddhist vow-holders, ritual specialists and yogis). Ngakpa have been a crucial part of Buddhism in Tibet since the point of its very inception in that country, yet there continues to be a lot of misunderstanding about who ngakpa and ngakma are, what they do, what vows they hold and what role they have had or should have in Tibetan communities.

Dr Nida Chenagtsang is a ngakpa, traditional Tibetan doctor, scholar and teacher who hails from Malho in Amdo, North-Eastern Tibet. As I have mentioned elsewhere, for many years, he and his brother have committed themselves to preserving and promoting the Ngakpa tradition of non-celibate tantric practice both in Tibet and beyond. In December of 2015, Dr Nida la published a pioneering book called rten ‘brel sngags bcos thabs kyi rig pa or ‘The Science of Inter-dependent Mantra Healing’, which deals with a variety of different topics relating to tantric ritual healing. I have already shared some of my rough translations into English of some chapters from this book here on the blog (see herehere, here and here, for example), and for this post I would like to share another: Dr Nida’s chapter on ngakpa or mantra/tantra users’ training and practices. In this chapter Nida la offers an edited version of an essay he published in the early 2000’s as part of a newsletter relating to his and his brother’s Ngakpa tradition NGO, based in Xining, Tibet, called the ‘Ngakmang (or ngakpa community) Research House’ (see this English language site for more information about the Ngakmang Foundation’s international activities).

In both the newsletter and book chapter, Dr Nida provides an extensive introduction to ngakpas’ dress, hair, vows, training, modes of living, community activities and historical contributions. Throughout, he is at pains to clarify misrepresentations and misconceptions about the ngakpa/ma or gökar janglo de the ‘white robed, dread-locks wearing community’ and about tantric Buddhist practice in general. Rebkong has historically been a major center for the Ngakpa tradition, in no small part because of the Rebkong Ngakmang’s founder (and Dr Nida’s predecessor) Gelukpa monk turned ngakpa the Awareness-Holder Rigdzin Palden Tashi. Dr Nida is thus uniquely qualified to clarify the Ngakpa tradition and its particular orientations. In the chapter that follows he carefully explains what ngakpa do and why and defends his religious community against those who would denigrate their dedication, value or achievements. Dr Nida reiterates many of the points present in some earlier pieces I have posted on the ngakpa tradition here and here, key among which are that, on the one hand, ngakpa are often treated as inferior sorts of practitioners by monastically minded people because of the perception that their tantric engagement with worldly life and its problems somehow comprises their religious purity, and two, that on the other hand, for all the criticisms of ngakpas’ spiritual caliber and commitment their role in the perpetuation and development of Buddhism in Tibet is absolutely undeniable.

Anyway, I’ll leave off here so you can enjoy the translation. In a few places below, where I have felt it would improve readers’ understanding, I have inserted short passages from Dr Nida’s older, longer essay to expand upon or better contextualize his comments. As always, I hope this lousy rendering of Dr Nida’s words will be of benefit, and will contribute to improved understanding and appreciation of ngakpa lineages!

On Ngakpas (Tantrikas’) or Mantrins’ Education and Practices

Even though day by day more and more of the new generation both inside and outside of Tibet are becoming interested in ngakpa culture (shes rig), very few detailed explanations or articles about ngakpa exist. For this reason, the general public at least is not familiar at all with (what constitutes) ‘ngakpa culture’, dress, and so on. Even in the context of discourse on Tibetan Buddhism, it’s pretty rare to find anyone specifically addressing the gökar janglo de (gos dkar ljang lo sde) or the ‘white robed, dread-locked community’. Some foolish Buddhists and non-Buddhists (‘insiders and outsiders’) who pride themselves on being experts have identified ngakpas as a category of religious practitioner who doesn’t know the core texts of the Dharma, who hasn’t practiced the Creation and Completion Stages, who (just) likes women and drinking beer, or who runs around performing village rituals solely to make money. These people have debased and belittled ngakpas and as such, those few articles which they have written for different magazines have been especially inappropriate. Therefore, it’s really important that cultural research, ngakpas’ education, and ngakpa culture be (properly) introduced to the broader public and that they be properly informed (i.e. ‘the ‘door of their minds be opened’). Focusing on this genuinely vital need for proper and timely clarification about ngakpas, (I thus) offer this condensed commentary.

ONE: Some Comments proceeding from the term ‘ngakpa’ and its meaning

Since ‘ngakpa’ is the name for a master of Secret Mantra or for someone who uses mantras, (ngakpas) are also called ‘mantrins’ (sngags mkhan). In general, the ‘sngags/ngak’ in sngags pa/ngakpa refers to the tantric systems (sngags lugs) of Gsang Sngags/Sang Ngak [ lit. ‘Secret Mantra’ or Tantra], Rig Sngags/Rig Ngak [lit. ‘Awareness Mantra’], and so on. Given that ‘pa’ is the nominalizing or ‘personifying’ particle, ‘ngakpa’ is the name for someone who studies ‘ngak’ – mantras or tantra – and who practices these. For example, ‘brog pa, nomads is a similar term made up with a suffix, which designates people who do nomadic-pastoral work (‘brog las). (Ngakpas) are not only students of Secret Mantra but also the primary holders or bearers of the teachings, and so [their alternative title] sngags ‘chang, ‘mantra-bearer’ is understood to mean ‘someone who holds the teachings of the Secret Mantra’. In Sanskrit, one finds yogi – or as in some Tibetan writings dzo gi – or alternatively, a tsa ra, and so on. In spoken Tibetan, one finds rnal ‘byor pa, naljorpa [Tibetan for yogi], sngags mkhan [mantrin], and the well-known and widespread sngags pa. Thus, male individuals who apply themselves to the practice of the Secret Mantra are understood to be Sang Ngakpas [‘Secret Mantrists’] or ngakpa, and females are referred to as sngags skyes ma [‘mantra/tantra women’] or ngakma. However, in Tibet, it so happens that female practitioners of the Secret Mantra are called by the term ‘ngakma’ much less often than by the names mkha’ ‘dro ma/khandroma [dakini, sky-goer lady], rje btsun ma/jetsunma [reverent lady], and rnal ‘byor ma/naljorma [yogini].

Sera Khandro statue

(Statue of the great female treasure revealer and ngakma, Sera Khandro, 1892 – 1940. Photo by Antonio Terrone, via Treasury of Lives)

Although women are recognized as consummate practitioners, as the precious ‘secret mother’ or spiritual consort to a great lama or as someone who has thus achieved difficult to obtain levels (of realization), they aren’t generally seen as ‘ngakma’. The many ngakma who are members of the tantric community in Amdo, Rebgong are called ‘A ma’ (Mother) and ‘Jo mo’ (High-ranking Lady). Jomo is particularly fitting, since Dakini Yeshe Tsogyal is also called ‘Jomo or Lady Yeshe Tsogyal’ or ‘The Guru’s Lady’ and Jomo Menmo and other such ngakma of previous generations have in fact borne the title. Nowadays, in some places in Amdo female monastics are called Jomo and ‘Ani’ in Central Tibetan dialects, and so on, (but people) don’t realize this doesn’t accord with the true way of things. Jomo is the name for a female householder and tantric practitioner and ‘Ani’ refers to one’s father’s sister by blood or extended relation. In the Sutric system, (one finds) so-called dge bsnyen pha ma/genyen pa, genyen ma, or male and female ‘approachers of virtue’ [i.e. who keep the five Buddhist precepts], and genyen ma and likewise dge tshul/getsul and dge slong ma are names or titles that have been genuinely obtained by female monastics. In some places in Amdo ngakchang are called dpon/pön – since most ngakpa are exclusive followers of the Vajra master or slob dpon Padmasambhava, they are designated thus.

Even though both ngakpa and ngakma are indispensable to the upholding of the teachings of the Secret Mantra, nowadays there are some people who think of ngakpa as just black tantric magicians (sngags nag) who enjoy using intoxicants (chang nag, drinking and smoking) and women, as powerful and frightening sorcerers who curse any enemy that arises. Some people claim that wretched ‘old householder ngakpa’ have no understanding of the Dharma and look down on and defame them. Yet others regard so-called ‘village-ritualist ngakpa’ as greedy sorts of (practitioners) who only know how to make cross-thread charms, chant prayers, and cast tormas [i.e. sacrificial/offering effigies] and who go about performing village rituals just to fill their bellies. The people who think this are nothing but fools who proclaim nonsense and yet have no understanding at all about what the ripening and liberating practices of the quintessential ngakpa are, or about what ngakpas’ cultural traditions, education or the pacifying, increasing, magnetizing, and subjugating activities (which they perform actually) are, and so on. In sum, to identify ngakpa having spouses and families as something fundamentally discordant with the dharma merely comes from being overly attached to the sutric way of doing things, and is not at all the enlightened perspective of the tantras.

Ngakpa are looked down on because they have wives and (there is) the idea that this thus makes them no more distinguished or extraordinary than regular lay people. The perspective of the tantras is clear: a senior ngakpa or tantrika is superior to a gelong (vow-holding monastic). The Aruli tantra states:

“Obtaining the vase empowerment is (the level of) a gennyen (lay preceptor), obtaining the secret empowerment is the level of a getshul monastic vow holder, obtaining the third empowerment is the level of a gelong vow-holding monastic, and obtaining the fourth empowerment is the level of a senior (tantrika).”

(In other words), when one requests Secret Mantra empowerments, the latter are higher than the former, and someone who has obtained the fourth empowerment is said to be a senior tantrika or ngakpa.

As a result of the low regard in which ngakpa are held, some people will say, “Oh, him – he’s not a ngakpa, he’s a Chöd practitioner!” or rather than call him a ngakpa they’ll say “He’s a yogi,”or they’ll go through the list of big titles like, “He’s a tokden (a ‘realized one’, the name for a someone accomplished in the Six Yogas),” “He’s a drubtob (‘one who has obtained spiritual accomplishments,’ i.e. a tantric adept or saint),” “He’s a tertön (a ‘treasure-revealer’, i.e. tantric visionary prophet who receives uncovers concealed teachings and objects), all to avoid calling him by the name ‘ngakpa’ as much as possible, which seems to like a really pointless way of talking. For example, it would be stupid to say that a person who cares for horses, cattle, and sheep on the wide, open nomadic grasslands of Northern (Tibet) and who survives solely off of ‘nomadic pastoralism’ or herding work (‘brog las) is not a nomad (‘brog pa) but then to exclaim instead, “Oh, he’s a cattle-herder!” “He’s a horse-herder!” “He’s a chieftain!” when there’s not even one ounce of difference between (these ideas). If one were to say that if a nomad wore Chinese clothes on his back and lived in a (permanent) house he was no longer a nomad how could anyone, barring a few foolish people, possibly be inclined to think that whoever said this knew what they were talking about?

The teachings of the Secret Mantra spread enormously throughout Tibet and as a result well-known gelong or monastics who are fully-ordained according to the Vinaya also practice tantra. A ngakpa or ‘secret mantrin’ is a ‘three-fold vajradhara’ or tantric-preceptor which means someone who holds Individual Liberator, Bodhisattva and tantric samaya or pure, binding vows (together). So all of you who think that ngakpa are ‘black tantric magicians’ who curse people should definitely be careful (because if that were true) then every great lama would be a black magician (dmod pa) too! Most Tibetan people, important or not, wise or ignorant have received tantric empowerments and so have already entered into the mandala of the Highest Yoga Tantra of the Secret Mantra. Accordingly, even if they don’t hold the title of ngakpa or ‘tantrika’ they nonetheless still abide by tantric samaya and at the very least are required to practice ‘Clear Vision’ or perception towards their Vajra or tantric Dharma-friends. The only possible conclusion to not observing or protecting one’s tantric vows is that one goes to the so-called ‘Vajra Hell’ – wouldn’t that then mean that (all these people) who have requested or gone for tantric empowerments have committed a sin? When one holds tantric samaya and chants that one ‘goes for refuge to the Sangha’, there’s no way that this can’t mean that one ‘goes for refuge to ngakpa.’ For this reason, having faith in all those called ‘ngakpa’ and seeing them with Pure Vision, visualizing them at the top of one’s head as Vajradhara and not trampling them underfoot like some kind of evil dog is a profound virtue.


(Vajradhara, the Primordial or ‘ultimate reality body’ Dharmakaya Buddha, who enshrines the  ultimate essence of Buddhahood)

TWO:  An Analysis of Ngakpas’ Style of Dress

The ngakpa community is widely known as the Gökar Janglo De or ‘the white robed, dreadlocked community’. This designation is in line with ngakpas’ outer dress or appearance, since ngakpa wear white clothes or robes on their bodies and sport willow leaf-shaped (ljang lo can) dreadlocks on their heads. Generally speaking, ngakpa are described as possessing the ‘tantric vows of the three uncontriveds’ (ma bcos pa gsum gyi dam tshig): “the white cloth of uncontrived clothing, the endemic/innate/uninterrupted/genuine/natural awareness (gnyug ma) of uncontrived mind, and the dreadlocks of uncontrived hair.” The white colour (of ngakpas’ clothing), which is the colour of all that is original and unaltered (bcas bcos med pa’i), hair left un-styled and uncut, naturally as it is as dreadlocks – these are both uncontrived ways of styling the body. Nurturing the ‘true face’ or essence of natural awareness (rig ngo) is itself the uncontrived natural and basic state of mind. This awareness partakes of the mind of the ‘All-Creating King’ (kun byed rgyal po sems la, i.e. an Ati Yoga term referring to the basic creative intelligence of existence which makes all things appear and possible) and is the original mind (gnyug sems) devoid of (distinctions) between good or evil and hope and fear. It is primordially pure and is the Clear Light of spontaneous realization. The ngakpa who holds these vows of the three uncontriveds as his very life ‘sits on the throne’, i.e. resides in the enlightened state, of Vajradhara. Some authorities also speak of the uncontrived cup, the self-arisen skull-cup. The core of the Secret Mantra is the View of Dependent Origination (tendrel) – it is a fact that if one arranges one’s inter-dependently (arising/composed) physical body accordingly realization will dawn in one’s mind. Given this, the original state, devoid of fabrication or modification of conceptual thought comes to be perceived in the mind via the tendrel – the interdependent/auspicious links or ‘stable supports’ – of uncontrived clothing and hair as well.

dudjom rinpoche laughing

(The great treasure revealer and ngakpa Dudjom Rinpoche, Jikdrel Yeshe Dorje, 1904-1987, pointing some things out. Clothing and ritual implements can facilitate interdependent or auspicious connections with vital points of body-speech-energy-mind cultivation. These ‘magical’ links that unite material-and-immaterial, inner-and-outer, and conventional-and-ultimate realities go beyond just being mnemonic aids for practitioners, however, for the very possibility of the efficacy of ritual trappings depends on the fundamental Buddhist View of Dependent Origination which itself implies the ultimate emptiness of a stand-alone self in all and any phenomena. This Buddhist take on religious adornment and magical ritual thus requires that we take appearances, materiality and form seriously but not TOO seriously at the same time. So relax! After all, when it comes to how we look, looking through appearances to the uncontrived, primordial consciousness, to the true face of pure awareness, is THE most fashionable look for an authentic ngakpa or ngakma, darling.)

To briefly discuss ngakpas’ clothing –

Ngagpa doll

(A lovely ngakpa doll, showing some key aspects of tantric clothing and accessories, from the Losel Doll Museum at the Norbulingka Institute outside of Dharmasala)

For their dress, ngakpas’ principle accoutrements are the tantric pöka or gown (sngags kyi phod ka) which is their blue-black outer robe; the so-called dungma (mdung ma), which is their red inner garment; and the senkar, which is the white shawl (they wrap over) their shoulders. There are quite a few fashion styles among ngakpa today. Some ngakpa dress completely in monastic clothing in the style of getshul and gelong and the only difference between them and monks is whether or not they have hair on top of their heads. Some will go all in white, and will just wear a white skirt with a white shawl. Some will wear a white skirt with a red shawl and a red skirt with a white shawl. Most village ngakpa can be seen wearing a variety of chubas or robes, such as red or yellowish/dark brown (kham nag) ones. If one investigates further, it’s clearly apparent that most ngakpa have styled their dress or appearance as much in keeping with the fashion of individual liberator (i.e. pratimoksha vow-holding) monastic renouncers as they can. The fact though is that ngakpa’s style of dress is actually tantric, which is to say of the Vajrayana (i.e. tantric Buddhism, the ‘Adamantine Thunderbolt’ vehicle of non-duality). As such, there’s really no reason for ngakpa to keep their dress at all in accordance with the style of ‘listener’ or shravaka monastic renouncers. Just as Vajradhara sports the thirteen accoutrements of the Sambhogakaya or ‘complete enjoyment body’ and Master Shakyamuni wears the three Dharma Robes (chos gos rnam gsum) of a great teacher or religious founder (ston pa’i cha lugs) there is also necessarily something of a difference between ngakpa and individual liberator monastic renouncers. In the teaching of the great treasure-revealer Jatsön Nyingpo ‘The Feast that Delights the Yogis: A Commentary on How to Hold the Supreme Tantric Samaya Substances which are to be Relied upon in the Great Vehicle of the Secret Mantra’ (gsang sngags theg pa chen po’i bsten par bya ba’i dam rdzas mchog ji ltar bcang ba’I rnam bshad rnal ‘byor rol ba’i dga’ ston), it is taught that the dress of Awareness-Holder tantrikas and individual liberator monastics are not the same:

“Further, those who practice the yoga or samadhi of abiding in line with the oral tantric instructions for a Vidyadhara Awareness-Holder have the clothes and ornaments of ‘complete assembly’ that resemble a king; Bodhisattva vow practitioners of the yoga of abiding (wear) the clothes and ornaments of ‘complete renunciation’ resembling a beggar; and those who practice the yoga of abiding in line with the oral instructions for individual liberators wear the ‘completely beautifying’ clothes and ornaments resembling a queen.” [Cf. gsang rnying rgyan dang rol mo’i bstan bcos, pg. 205, 12, published by the Tibet Ancient Tibetan Scripture Publishing House]

As such, the approach of the people one sees a lot these days in parts of Tibet in general and around Kham and Golok in particular, where they wear the highly regarded style of individual liberator vow monastics mixed together with ngakpa dress, is highly inappropriate. The great treasure-revealer Jatsön’s explanation (should be enough to make these people) recognize their error and amend their ways (gter chen ‘ja’ tshon pas gsungs pa thugs mad do).

Today in this snowy realm of Tibet there are monastics who will cover their bodies with black as well as white coloured clothing, will wear their hair in top-knots and will wear bones and precious (i.e. royal/tantric etc) ornaments on their bodies. They adorn themselves and stand putting on airs in the middle of scores and scores (literally, 100, 000) of people. With multiple secret tantric substances in hand they loudly proclaim and publicize the secret body-mudras or seals and secret speech-mantras. These people have simultaneously violated both the Vinaya and tantric vows and have without a doubt accumulated (enough de-merit) all under their own steam (to be reborn) in hell. This then raises the question of whether or not adorning oneself with the genuinely secret (tantric) dress and substances or objects which (are meant to) call to mind the pure symbolism of the Secret Mantra deities is a transgression or violation (of one’s vows etc). If you answered that it wasn’t, this would most certainly be correct: (these things) are clearly (a part of) the tantric system and not the monastic, Vinaya one. In the context of the tantric vows it is taught that:

“the meat and alcohol that one eats and drinks are the ganachakra or ‘gathering circle’; the enemies ‘liberated’ are the weapons of the teachings; the woman relied upon (in spiritual/sexual yoga practice) is the ‘body seal or mudra’; the jewellery one fastens is the dress of the tantric ‘heroes’,”

and so in line with this it is neither correct nor fitting for ngakpa who abide by their vows to follow the individual liberator View or Conduct. The Mother Tantra states:

“One has changed above for below, has leaped from the heights to a lower place – for a practitioner of the Secret Mantra to take on the View and Conduct of the Vinaya is like if a Vinaya observing monk were to take on the View and Conduct of a layperson.” [Cf. pg. 249 in the previously mentioned volume]

This is a very significant teaching: since tantric vows are higher than monastic vows if a ngakpa becomes a monk it’s the same as if a monk has descended to the level of a layperson.

188 Padmasambhava

(Master Padmasambhava, with blue tantric gown clearly visible. Being a realized and consummate ngakpa, Padmasambhava used his tantric power to subdue the spiritual forces of the land and ensured the flourishing of Buddhism in Tibet)

So then what does ngakpas’ dress actually comprise? One of ngakpa’s primary garments is what’s called the ‘tantric gown’ or pöka. This is blue in colour and has clearly-visible three-sided sleeves. It is worn these days in the context of ritual cham dances during the tantric ‘liberation rite’ dances (i.e. aggressive exorcistic rituals for ‘liberating’ or killing/subduing demonic forces). Furthermore, in the very ancient style of thangka or religious tapestry painting Master Padmasambhava has for his clothing “the white inner garment which symbolizes his Bodhisattva vow, the red-yellow Dharma robe which symbolizes his Individual Liberator vows, and the dark blue-black gown of the Secret Mantra which symbolizes his tantric vows as an Awareness-Holder.” The blue robe that the Master wears on the outside of his upper body is unmistakably a ngakpa’s garment. Today, many representations of Padmasambhava have him wearing a (monk’s sleeveless) vest with a red garment resembling a skirt on his lower body – it’s really bad that religious artists just draw or paint whatever occurs to them. Most representations (of Padmasambhava) as the standing ‘Master who Spontaneous Accomplishes All Wishes’ (bsam pa lhun ‘grub ma) depict him wearing the ‘secret gown’, although it seems to me that the outer belt or sash fastening this is also a little wrong.


(Padmasambhava, the ON or ‘Original Ngakpa, in his form as Sampa Lhundrup. This form of the Precious Guru is related to special, revealed supplication prayers to the Master called the Sampa Lhundrupma, ‘the prayer which spontaneously accomplishes all thoughts or wishes’) 

It is taught that the tantric gown is fastened on the inside and that no belt is visible from the outside. There are dorje or vajra designs above the waist and naga snake-hoods are visible on the short sleeves. This tantric gown isn’t something worn regularly. Instead, it is supposed to be worn during the performance of various forceful or subduing activities (drag las) such as during rites for turning back or exorcising negative forces (las sbyor bzlog pa), for ‘pressing down’ demons (gnan pa) and when using consecrated magical weapons (zor).

1035 Jatson Nyingpo

(Treasure revealer, Jatsön Nyingpo, ‘the Essence of Rainbow-Coloured Light’, 1585-1656)

The Awareness-Holder Jatsön Nyingpo discusses the tantric gown in a little more detail in his writing, where its proportions are clearly described:

“First, concerning the clothes which one ought to wear: there are of course the dreadlocks of uncontrived hair, the white garments of uncontrived clothing, and the original innate state of uncontrived mind as described in the scriptures of the Secret Mantra, but regarding the clothes one puts on for forceful rites it says in the ‘Wheel of Vows of the Mother Tantra’ of the blue-black tantric garment –

“Wear a gown whose length beautifies the Vajra Body, which is namru ‘sky horn’ in proportion, and which has been lined with (the fur) of tigers and leopards.””

The blue-black coloured tantric garment ‘beautifies’, i.e. is beautiful or pleasing in length, and the gown’s short sleeves hang down in a namru (gnam ru), that is, in a half-bow that comes just up to and hangs under the fist. Moreover, when one puts the robe on and stretches out both one’s arms out straight its lower edge should not reach further than directly at the knee, it should not be very much longer or shorter than this. The tiger/leopard skin border should form a three by three hem five finger’s length (mchig gang gcig) in measurement and the space between the waist and the lining when folded twice should be able to wrap three fingers lengths. The folds under the armpit are described as being either six or ten (measures). This ngakpa garment is fastened inwardly, and not from the outside with a belt and the waist is beautified with vajra-shaped designs that makes it more charming.

The so-called ber (ber) or brocade robe or cloak is a type of ngakpa garment that is dark green and black in colour. Its upper part is circular and it is folded or pleated at the bottom. It is worn poncho-style without a belt and is like the ber cloaks of the Dharma-protector spirit-lords. One other ngakpa garment is the dungma (mdung ma). Its sleeves are the same length as one’s hands and it is tied with a belt arranged along its lower edge. The shape of it is a bit similar to modern Tibetan and Mongolian clothes. Given that the dungma is convenient and beautiful to look at it’s good to wear as everyday ngakpa clothes. I think that the dungma with a white shawl worn over it is a proper or authentic form of ngakpa dress. Also, to my mind, if one follows the contemporary ngakpa style of wearing the white shawl over an ordinary chupa started by the great treasure-revealer Dudjom Jigdrel Yeshe Dorje, that is also entirely okay. In some old Tibetan illustrations and tapestries as well, great ngakpas like Nubchen Sangye Yeshe and Nanam Dorje Dudul are represented in their images as wearing a white shawl on top of red or blue chupas that look like dungma.   Wearing ordinary or everyday clothes then, like village ngakpa in particular do, is thus for the most part probably in line with the true or proper way of things.

dudjom chupa

(The second Dudjom Rinpoche, wearing a plain grey chupa or robe)

Coming to the zenkar or white shawl, a single completely white cotton shawl is the only thing worn by Jetsun Milarepa (Venerable Mila the Cotton-clad) in his images. The Yoga Tantras state:

“Wear a white (cotton) cloth on your body (white) as drops of the molten lunar essence (zla zhun thigs ‘dra’i)”

And as Venerable Milarepa says:

“Through this white cloth made of cotton-and-wool is the yogi’s pure ‘white’ intention/motivation symbolized”

The white colour of the (yogi’s) shawl is thus very important.

(The great 11th century yogi cotton-clad Mila, shown wearing a single white robe or shawl and red gomtak, or ‘meditation sash’ on the left, and just a single white shawl or zenkar on the right)

tummo yogi

(A contemporary Drigung Kagyu Tummo yogi, sporting a white yogic shawl, red meditation sash or belt, and dreadlocks or ‘retreat hair’. In this photograph, courtesy of the Naldjor Facebook page, he is preparing to undergo tests of his mastery of the ‘inner-heat’ of Tummo Yoga. A sheet will be soaked in water and he will have to sit outside with it wrapped around his otherwise naked body and generate exceptional amounts of internal body heat to keep himself warm, evaporate the moisture and thereby demonstrate his proficiency in this tantric yoga)

I think that the ‘white’ spoken of in the ‘white robed’ (part of the designation ‘white robed, dreadlocked community’) primarily describes the zen. Nowadays, the ‘multicoloured zen shawl’ which is white in the middle and decorated with red at the borders has become widespread for the most part. The white decorated with red is a sign of the indivisibility of wisdom and means. The cotton clothing of Tummo (‘ferocious lady’ aka inner heat yoga) comes from the ‘clothing empowerment’ (gos dbang ‘byung ba) and this is also the white cotton shawl of ngakpas. This is the garment of the ‘short A syllable’ of Tummo and as such it is a sign of (this syllable) which blazes from within the heat of bliss-emptiness and is a sign of being free from the defects of samsara. The Awareness-Holder Jatsön Nyingpo states further that there are shawls in the tantric tradition in all sorts of colours. Regarding the tantric shawl, the ‘Doorway to the Dharma’ states that:

“The white – or whatever colour is appropriate – sweat(-absorbing) tantric shawl is three cubits and two fathoms in the direction of the collar and is adorned with an ‘iron mountain (edge) one tho gang and three fingers’ widths”

Which is to say that the shawl’s colour is white or whatever colour is fitting, it is three cubits in breadth and two fathoms in length and  around the collar there is a border one tho gang in length (the distance from the thumb to middle finger) with variegated satin patches of otter or carnivore (skin) satin one khyi (mkhyid) or four sor finger measures in size.”

The shawl’s proportions are explained as measuring three cubits downwards and nine cubits across. According to the practice of the Rebgong ngakpa community, it’s (considered) good and proper to wear the white shawl after one has perfected the oral instructions of tsalung or the channels-and-winds yogic practices. The shawl is a distinguishing feature that symbolises that one has gained confidence (in the practices) of the Completion Stage.


(The great tsalung master and ngakpa Kunzang Dorje, 1930-2010, here wearing the all-white clothing of a consummate practitioner of advanced tantric yoga)

The (Rebgong) ngakpa community will also customarily attach the fur of a tiger, leopard, or other such (carnivorous) animal to the collar of the garment as decoration – (yet despite these practices support in traditional sources) it is nonetheless very much a reality that people who don’t understand (these customs) insult (those who follow them). The ten accouterments of the Heruka (or blood-drinking meditational tantric Buddhist deity) taught in the Kagye or Eight Ordinance deity practices and so on, are described as the carnivorous or predatory animal accouterments made from the parts of a leopard, of a poisonous snake, the ‘tantric hero’s’ tiger ornaments, freshly wet blood decoration (dmar gsar khrag gi chas), accouterments from an agile or powerful lion (rtsal chen sengge’i chas), the parts of a deadly bear, and so on.

dalai lama heruka

(His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama sporting bone ornaments and carrying tantric ritual implements. While such accouterments are typically put on as part of specific ritual performances, at points in Tibetan history particularly dedicated tantric practitioners have taken on the appearance and air of especially ferocious Herukas or ‘blood-drinker’ meditational Buddhist deities as described in the tantras as their primary form of (public) dress. For those who might like more information on this mode of comportment or actualizing of tantric iconography (or what I sometimes like to think of as ‘tantric drag’) David Di Valerio does a good job of contextualizing the practice as part of its specific historical, political, cultural and religious contexts in his recent book ‘The Holy Madmen of Tibet’)

The ngakpa’s upper garment/mantle (stod g.yogs) or pungkhep (‘upper arm cover’, dpung khebs) is decorated with red-base borders with yellow edges that are finely encased with blue. It is decorated all over inside and out with circular lotus-like designs. Its construction is such that when one seats oneself on one’s seat (i.e. meditation cushion, mat etc.) it covers one’s upper arm (up until) the hollow of the elbow depending on the size of one’s body. The Awareness-Holder Jatsön Nyingpo explains that a ngakpa’s robe and this upper mantle can both come in various shades in accordance with the colours of the four tantric ritual activities of pacifying, expanding or increasing, magnetizing or empowering, and subduing or destroying. Whatever the case, since in the Secret Mantra tradition clothing possesses an interdependent or stable/auspicious connection to the yidam or meditational deity it’s extremely important that mantra-holders pay attention to everyday clothing as well. In ‘The Ornamenting Flower of the Mantra-Holders: An Explanation of the Enjoyment (Body) Accoutrements, Clothing, Jewellery and Music of the Ocean of Awareness-Holders of the Ancient Translation (School) Vajrayana’ it states:

“In this, one ought not to look merely to the most sublime of the Vajra (tantric) Awareness-holder mantra-holder’s clothes – it is an essential teaching (gnad dam pa) that not only these but even regularly worn clothes and clothes of enjoyment are inseparable from tendrel or interdependent, auspicious connection. As it says in the Great One of Oddiyana’s (i.e. Padmasambhava’s) ‘Embodiment of the Lama’s Realization or Enlightened Mind/Intention/Perspective (‘bla ma dgongs ‘dus kyi de nyid):

“Clothing has the auspicious or inter-dependent connection of the yidam. Fasten yourself without impurities or defilements to what possesses magnificence, spontaneous and natural dignity, and brilliant radiance (bag dro lhun chags bkrag mdangs can). Improper clothes are those which are unattractive (literally, which don’t ‘come into the mind’) and which possess a form displeasing to the eye: they are made of impure materials, they are badly made, they exceed their proper proportions, they have ugly colours, they are rough in texture, and so on. When one wears sumptuous clothing (phun sum tshogs pa’i gos) one imagines that one is putting on the Dharma-robes of the body of the yidam which possesses the clear or vivid appearance of the Creation Stage. With this, hold the View of Interdependent or Auspicious Connection (knowing that) the clothes worn externally as a mantle are the manifestation of the Father Daka or tantric hero, those wound around the inner body are the manifestation of the Mother tantric Heroine, those that cover the upper body are the manifestation of the peaceful yidam, and those which wrap around the lower body are the wrathful deities.

Since the collar is auspiciously connected with the life-span, don’t make its length too short all around! Since the encircling hem (ljags ri cha) is connected with merit and riches be careful to bring together the ends! Since the qualities of construction of the garment are inter-connected with one’s own (moral) qualities or character make sure to make it to proportion! Since the dyes and colours are connected with one’s feelings (of loving-kindness or hatred) towards beings make the oil (pigments) bright! Since the adornments are linked with the retinue and students, decorate it beautifully! Since the way one wears it is connected with the accomplishment of one’s actions, abandon improper behaviour like wearing it crooked, having one side (pulled) below the other, wearing it inside out or upside down, letting the front sag down or trampling the back of it underfoot, and don it properly!” [Cf. gsang rnying rgyan dang rol mo’i bstan bcos, iron block-print sha 22, tha 13)

New ngakpas should understand what is taught here.

Regarding ngakpas’ ralpa (ral pa) or long, matted hair or dreadlocks –


(Ngakpa of the Rebkong Ngakmang performing group rituals. Ngakpa there typically tie their dreadlocks sideways around their heads)


(Willow leaves or ljang lo, from which ngakpa and ngakmas’ dreadlocks get their name)

Generally, with monks’ monastic vows one has to shave one’s hair and with ngakpas’ tantric vows or samaya one has to leave it in place. Ralpa or ‘dreadlocks’ refer to when one’s hair clumps together into pieces and becomes individual ‘wholes’ from not washing, brushing, shaving or cutting it in any way. When ngakpa stay for many years or months in retreat they don’t’ wash or brush their hair and it collects together and forms dreadlocks – this is known as ‘retreat hair’ and won’t be cut from that time on. Dreadlocks that are wrapped on top of one’s head and are completely tied up are commonly known as jahnglo (ljang lo, literally ‘willow leaves’, in reference to the resemblance between the shape of the tree’s leaves and yogis’ dreads). Some people also call these torjok (thor cog) or a top-knot. Thus, if one were to ask, ‘do you really need dreadlocks if you are a ngakpa?’ generally speaking the answer would be yes, one does, seeing as ngakpa are known as the jahnglo de (i.e. the dreadlocked community). Given that ral pa (flowing locks) are an indispensable tantric ‘interdependent connection’ or auspicious sign, even if ngakpa haven’t grown dreadlocks they should still have (long) hair.

Provided that carrying around long tresses won’t prove too difficult, a person should, after requesting the ‘hair empowerment’ from a vajra-master, renounce cutting off or trimming their hair and should keep it clean by washing and brushing it. This was the entirely correct or unmistaken/unconfused practice of the great treasure-revealer Dudjom Jigdrel Yeshe Dorje. Dreadlocks and top-knots are so important in the tantric tradition that even bald pratimoksha vow-holders will wear fake hair (i.e. ritual wigs) when they are performing drubchen (large-scale tantric rites or consecrations), and other sorts of rituals. There are a number of different ways of tying one’s hair. The esteemed Awareness-Holder Hungnag Mebar [i.e. Jatson Nyingpo] has clearly explained this:

“(When) one’s top-knot of dreadlocks at the top of one’s head is half-tied, the strands of hair are pushed up and downwards. The top-knot is when all of one’s hair has been brought together on top of the crown of one’s head and all the various hairs (making up) the knots of one’s dreadlocks have been brought in together and have been fastened high on top of one’s head, with the ends (tucked) back out of sight. The top-knot’s height is described as being twelve of one’s own finger-widths, and the tok or crowning ornament is a beautifying symbol of about three finger-widths. With half-tying one’s locks, one ties one’s dreadlocks as described above and half of them are left hanging down. With the locks hanging down, one leaves something like five or three (loose). For slicking or pulling them back there’s also yellow, yellowish-brown and black (cords?). If (sadhana) practitioners don’t have dreadlocks they should fabricate a top-knot out of blue-black silk. As described above, this should be twelve finger-widths in height with the lower parts measuring seven finger-widths, to match (the size of) your own head. A tok ornament of three sor or three half-sor finger lengths is displayed two or three sor above (the crown of one’s head). It is said that the top-knot of reincarnate lamas is circular and the top-knot of the enjoyment body (deities etc.) is flat. The reason given for it having a round shape is that it is without (the angles and delimitations) of conceptual mind. The superior practitioner’s tresses are those that come from the dreadlocks of the tantric heroes and heroines; otherwise, the average practitioner possesses the hair of mastery gained through reciting mantras; and the inferior practitioner possesses the hair of virgin children and women (literally children and women ‘uncontaminated by villagers’ Dharma’, i.e. everyday sexual activity, grong pa’i chos kyis ma gos pa’i).” [C.f. [Cf. gsang rnying rgyan dang rol mo’i bstan bcos, sha 223, tha 17)

Further, the symbolism of the dreadlocks on the crown of the head is as follows: if coiled to the right they symbolize the hero or daka, if coiled to the left they symbolize the heroine or dakini. Their black colour represents the changelessness of the dharmata, the ultimate empty nature of reality. Dreadlocks left hanging down long symbolize positive qualities (yon tan) and wangtang,  charismatic or authoritative vital force, and the magical power of the protector spirits is represented by the locks being rough to the touch, and so on. There are many other associations like this, but the primary symbolism for the dreadlocks is that they represent (the tantric practitioner’s) constant inseparability from the Lord of the Buddha-family (into which they were initiated). The dreadlocks being constantly tied is a sign of the practitioner honoring or meditating on the essential point of Guru Yoga, the glorious root-lama, at the crown of their head at all times. Moreover, since dreadlocks also possess the meaning of the three bodies and three roots and because they can hold esoteric diagrams or charms (dpe mkhyud), mantra-syllables of the three roots, takdröl (btags grol ‘liberation by touching’ sacred objects), and so on, they are also said to be particularly special mantric or tantric sungkhor or protection charms.

In his ‘Exegesis of the Heruka Accoutrements’ (he ru ka’i chas kyi rnam bshad) Lhatsün Namkha Jigme quotes directly from the tantric scriptures on the subject of the purpose of dreadlocks:

“The reason one has to have a top-knot, dreadlocks etc. is as follows. There are many passages from scripture, such as in the ‘Path of Ripening’ (smin lam) where it says: “Employing (special) hair liberates the afflictive emotions – the beautiful, arresting top-knot, the crown of dreadlocks ornamented with pearls represents (‘carries the aspect’) of the lamp of primordial wisdom.” And in the ‘Second Exposition’ (i.e. the Hevajra Mulatantraraja, the second condensed section of the Hevajra Tantra) it says: “Prepare one’s crown of hair like ‘the hairstyle of a thief’ and focus on a HUNG syllable arising in it (de la HUNG byung sbyar bya)” and “The twice-looped belt of girdle of hair is the very embodiment of Means and Wisdom.” And from the Doha: “The wheel-possessing top-knot is held atop the crown of the head.” In the ‘Reciting of the Names (of Manjushri)’ it states: “Wielding the mun dza grass dreadlock crown” and in the ‘Suchness’ Scripture: “bearing the dreadlocks top-knot.”” [C.f. iron block-print sha 190 tha 18]

THREE: Ngakpas’ Education and Activities

Although most ngakpas are from family lineages, people not from ngakpa lineages can still become ngakpa. Even so, ngakpas’ children first learn to read and write Tibetan from people like their parents and close relatives. Then, from whatever available teacher they learn about spelling, grammar, poetry, composition, and so on. Whenever time and circumstance allow, they request whatever empowerments and reading transmissions they can get from their guru(s). Once they’ve established some little foundation in literary Tibetan, gradually, by relying on the tantric teacher known as the ‘vajra master’, once their mind-streams have been made to ripen through the empowerments, reading transmissions, and pith instructions of the Vehicle, as part of daily practice and monthly retreat they recite the preliminary practices of the four ordinary contemplations that turn the mind (from samsara) * [i.e. contemplation on the freedoms and resources (associated with a human rebirth) which are hard to acquire, on (the inevitability) of one’s death and impermanence, on the cause-and-effect of karma (or one’s actions across lives), and the faults of samsara]; five hundred thousand uncommon preliminaries or ngöndro *[100 000 Refuge prayers, 100 000 prayers for arousing Bodhicitta (or the mind that aspires to enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings), 100 000 mandala offerings, 100 000 visualizations of Vajrasattva and recitations of his 100 syllable mantra, and 100 000 Guru Yoga recitations, the accumulation of which together make 500 000 iterations], and practice things like ‘Transference’ (i.e. mastering the projection of consciousness from the body), and ‘Severance’ (meditation practices where one offers one’s body to spirits to subdue them and to cut through one’s investment in self and fear of individual annihilation). Then, in isolated retreat and at home, they do the approaching-and-accomplishment practices* [i.e. they do the approaching-and-accomplishment – recitations and visualizations relating to – the guru, yidam and dakini] of the three roots of the Creation Stage. In the ngakpa houses (specific to) their own regions they will be instructed in the mantras and ritual substances of the ‘four tantric activities’ (pacifying; enriching /extending; magnetizing; and wrathfully subduing). The three tantric ritual procedures of preparing, beating and blowing (bca’ brdung ‘bud gsum, i.e. preparing tormas or sacrificial substitution effigies; beating various drums and the damaru (double-headed ritual hand drum) and striking the drilbu or tantric bell; and blowing the ritual human-thigh bone trumpet and conch-shell, and so on) and of dance, melodies and proportions (i.e. cham, large-scale, exorcistic masked ritual dances, vocal melodies and the proportions of mandalas) have to be mastered completely.

ngakpa dancing

(A yogi singing, dancing, and beating a tantric drum and bell)

The sequence of practices of an authentic ngakpa is as follows: one carries out to completion and masters the hundred day Completion Stage tsalung or channel-and-winds practices such as Tsalung, Tummo (inner-heat),  and the ‘Lower Gates’ thigle or ‘energy-drops’ (sexual yoga) practices; then there are the three sections of Dzogchen or the Great Perfection of heart-mind, expanse, and direct oral instructions and particularly, the two Ati yoga practices of ‘cutting through hardness’ and of ‘direct crossing’ [*This description is in accordance with the Ancient Translation School or Nyingma tradition. Ngakpa of the New Translation schools cultivate mastery in the ultimate practice of Chagchen or the ‘Great Seal’ Mahamudra]. Beyond this though, most ngakpa will be able to make mantras work for them once they have got the gist of the Creation Stage practices and have trained emphatically in mantra recitation and tantric ritual procedures. To be a truly qualified or authentic ngakpa then, you will have to have studied both the tantric scriptures and practices for at least twelve to eighteen years.

When it comes to ngakpas’ activities, village ngakpa either farm or do nomad herding work while upholding, preserving and promoting religion and culture at the same time. They preserve or sustain the Buddhist teachings in theory and in practice by being educators and by propagating the lineage of instruction through explaining the sutric and tantric scriptures to young ngakpa. They do this too by mastering the approaching-and-accomplishing sadhana practices, and by upholding the tantric ritual practices of preparing, beating and blowing and of dance, melodies and proportions without error.

(Ngakpa and traditional Tibetan doctor Dr Nida la examining a patient’s pulse. As I have suggested here, with their offering of various services to communities and close engagement with the practicalities and vicissitudes of everyday, worldly life ngakpa and ngakma can be thought of as ‘socially engaged yogis’)

Without concerning themselves with just their own happiness or gain, mantra-holders go out to do village rites, averting obstacles facing families, curing harm from the outer and inner elements, and applying remedies for human and livestock sicknesses as best they can. Still, some fat/arrogant/well provided for/self-satisfied monks (grwa rgyags kha shas – the adjective rgyags pa can mean all of these) malign ngakpa by saying that ‘they are village ritualists who chase after payments of food and money for religious services’ (lto dang dkor). In this [these monks] are just digging up dirt on other people without acknowledging their own faults. What person [alive] doesn’t chase after food/resources (lto) for the sake of survival? There can’t possibly be any difference between staying in a monastery and having ‘black’ [i.e. dubiously obtained] donations (dkor nag) just be handed to you and receiving offerings of money after you have gone to the difficulty of going out [to people’s homes to get it, so in other words these monks have nothing to complain about].

In sum, after ngakpa have become qualified in their studies and practices, they protect the welfare of beings or perform service for society through the four tantric activities. As part of pacifying activities they pacify the obstacles of things like human sickness and livestock epidemics, their increasing activities include increasing wealth and longevity, and they magnetize and bring under their control beings like gods and demons that harm people. They pacify obstacles caused by stubborn demonic spirits like gyalgong through ritual fire ceremonies, through rituals that involve stabbing them with phurbas (i.e. three-edged ritual daggers or stakes), through ceremonial dances that press them down, or alternatively through the wrathful subduing rites of pressing down, burning and casting out, and exert themselves in ritual activities that produce auspiciousness and happiness for everyone and everything.

In line with this, a number of ngakpa will get together to perform extensive tantric rites and ngakpa will go out to perform various small village rites. Tsechu or the tenth day of the lunar calendar is the most important time for assembling for ngakpas’ tsok or feast-gathering rituals, a practice which was invented by Guru Padmasambhava. For this, a number of ngakpa gather together in the ngak khang or ngakpa house or temple on both ‘the waxing moon tsechu’, the tenth day (of the lunar calendar) and ‘the waning moon tsechu, the twenty-fifth day (of the lunar calendar) and will conduct tsoks elaborately for the three roots. Ngakpa gather on other important dates as required to perform averting torma or offering-cake rites, kangsö or expiation for the protector-spirits, shidro rites of the peaceful and wrathful deities connected with the after-death, intermediary state or bardo and so on.


(Now retired from the farming duties of younger life, this older ngakpa and his wife serve as caretakers of the Rigzin Rabpel Ling Ngakpa Temple in Rebkong)

Some older ngakpa stay in their own homes and dedicate themselves to meditative practice. Others apply themselves to approaching-and-accomplishing sadhana retreat in secluded places. The realization or actualization of the ultimate, hoped-for goals or promise of human life include (gaining) freedom and Buddhahood at the moment of death or alternatively, arriving (at the state of) the rainbow body once the body and mind have been indivisibly ‘extensively purified’ (i.e. have achieved Buddhahood). Or, at the very least, having gone beyond both the pleasures and pains of body and mind one goes from this life to the next one (experiencing) bliss in the ‘three gates’ of body, speech, and mind.

FOUR: Ngakpas’ Tantric Vows and Conduct

Regarding ngakpas’ tantric vows: after ngakpa have taken up the four empowerments of the Highest Yoga Tantra they are done obtaining the vows of a ngakpa. The tantric vows or samaya of the Highest Yoga Tantra are the root and branch or supplementary samaya which are common to the tantric vow systems of the Old and New Translation schools and which are the main vows which ngakpa are required to preserve or observe. The Fourteen ‘Root Downfalls’ (the vows are expressed negatively) are:

  • Belittling the Vajra-Master or Guru
  • Transgressing the commands of the Sugatas
  • Becoming angry with your Vajra-siblings
  • Abandoning loving-kindness
  • Abandoning Bodhichitta
  • Belittling (other Buddhist) doctrines
  • Proclaiming secret teaching to unripe people
  • Abusing the ‘five heaps’ (i.e. the skandhas, one’s physical and mental constitution)
  • Having doubts about the purity of the Dharma or teachings
  • Having loving-kindness for poisonous or malevolent people (i.e. keeping the wrong company)
  • Appraising phenomena through intellect alone (i.e. not realizing or abandoning the truth of the emptiness of all phenomena)
  • Irritating the faithful
  • Not relying on or having faith in the samaya substances
  • Belittling women (who are the embodiment) of Wisdom

The eight supplementary ‘thick’ or ‘rough downfalls’ or vows are:

  • Relying on a rigma or ‘wisdom woman’ (i.e. consort) who does not hold samaya
  • Fighting during tsok celebrations
  • Taking the nectar (in the context of Sexual Yoga) from an ordinary or ‘vulgar’ rigma or consort
  • Not revealing the Dharma to those fit for it.
  • Revealing other (teachings) to someone who (received them before but now) questions the Dharma
  • Staying (more than) seven days among sravakas who slander the View and Conduct of the Secret Mantra
  • Boasting of being a ngakpa when one doesn’t possess yogic (accomplishment)
  • Explicating the profound meaning (of the tantric teachings) to unfit vessels

Beyond this, there are many other vows like the samaya of body, speech, and mind, the twenty five branch or supplementary vows, and the uncommon samaya of the Great Perfection tradition, but I won’t go into these here. In any case, to obtain mantric or tantric power and to obtain the siddhis (spiritual accomplishments or powers) of the yidam deities, it’s extremely important that mantra-holders cherish and protect their tantric vows like the hearts in their chests or eyes in their heads, and as such, they should certainly devote themselves to this in every respect.


It’s very important to offer some clarification on the alcohol and meat one consumes, the women one relies upon, and the ‘fierce activity direct conduct’ (drag las mngon spyod, i.e. wrathful, violent, wild or seemingly impure tantric behaviour) one performs when one takes up ngakpa vows. Some people think that relying on meat, alcohol (literally, chang or beer), and women is the core of tantric vows while many others uniformly denigrate these things. In the writings of great tantric masters and in the tantras it’s sometimes taught that one must rely on meat, alcohol and women and sometimes that one should utterly abandon these things. So many people are wrong about this. If we investigate this a little further (what we discover is that) in general, it’s taught that monastic renouncers in the Sutric tradition have to abandon meat, alcohol, and women yet in the tantric tradition there are vows to rely on these. To be more precise, ngakpa who are true to their name and who have directly manifested the realizations of the two Stages are permitted to rely on meat, alcohol, and women but beyond that, when mere in-name-only ngakpa make use of meat, alcohol and women wantonly with minds filled with ordinary desire then it’s nothing but cause for rebirth in hell. The (enlightened) perspective in the tantras teaches that beginner ngakpas should primarily rely on meat, alcohol, and women only when they gather for tsok. During the tsok they generate the guru, yidam, dakini, protector-spirits and so on through focused visualization (dmigs pas bskyed) and offer meat and alcohol consecrated as nectar to them. The ngakpa themselves will consume/taste/indulge in (rol ba) the ritual substances of the deities and tsok as nectar, as they wish. As far as this nectar is concerned, one can merely touch this to one’s lips – it’s not a tantric vow that you have to drink alcohol until you’re drunk and that you have to eat meat until you’re stuffed – all doing this means is that you have just become overpowered by ordinary worldly confusion and desire. Guru Padmasambhava says: “the ngakpa who gets drunk off of alcohol will be reborn in the wailing hell-realms” and “there is no vow to drink alcohol, there is no compassion in eating meat.”


Accordingly, if one doesn’t grasp the essence of the Creation Stage practices one should not have recourse to external meat and alcohol.

“The ganachakra or tsok feast-gathering circle is (made up of) mantra-holders who have (directly or visibly) actualized Deity Yoga visualization and who live the inseparability of emptiness and wisdom (as their) life, and who, through visualizing themselves luminously as deities consecrate meat and alcohol as nectar and then partake of it.”

Generally, beginner Secret Mantrists and Creation Stage meditation practitioners actually have to renounce women (i.e. sex), so they are prohibited from training in Completion Stage practices. In the context of the Completion Stage, when one is practicing the trulkhor or ‘magic wheel’ tsalung channels-and-winds yogic exercises if one experiences disturbances with the circulation or spreading of the loong or vital winds one is permitted to make use of meat and alcohol in order to supress the source of these winds. It is specifically said that “the ganachakra of meat and alcohol and the karmamudra or ‘action seal’ rigma woman of wisdom (i.e. the tantric consort) are when mantra-holders who have gained freedom (from the influence of) ‘winds-and-(ordinary)-mind’ make use of meat and alcohol without falling under the sway of afflictive emotions or mental states and when they rely on female consorts and actualize Clear Light Bliss-Emptiness.” All of the tantras of the New Translation school state unanimously that it is a samaya that one should not lose even so much as a turmeric seed’s worth of one’s thigle or seminal essence. As such, if one is not proficient in the ‘method’ or technology of the Great Bliss of the Lower Gates’ or in pulling up the thigle energy-drops then one may not make use of a karmamudra or physical consort.

Since promises to either rely on meat, alcohol and women or to not do so all ultimately bind one to conceptual thought, if one has actualized the realizations of the Great Perfection one conducts oneself however one is comfortable, free from moral prescriptions of what to do and not to do, following the approach of not reifying or treating phenomena as truly existent (bden ‘dzin med pa’i spyod pa bya). Some ngakpa today use the Great Perfection as an excuse to greedily indulge in meat, alcohol and women, however and whenever they like. The behaviour of these people who you seen regularly and who will rattle off a few lines from the tantras and then proclaim, “I’m a togden (a realized practitioner)! I’m a yogi! I’m free of faults!’ is terrible, vulgar conduct that goes against both the Holy Dharma of the Gods and the Worldly Dharma of Humans. That which is spoken of as the ‘View that accords with the Gods’ and ‘the Conduct which accords with Humans’ is the behaviour of the hidden yogi which is an omniscient, enlightened perspective. This being so, mantra-holders really should be cautious.

Wrathful activities – so-called ‘wrathful or fierce direct conduct’ (drag po mngon spyod) is the liberating of the ‘ten objects’ (zhing bcu, the ten sites or fields for wrathful liberation) and ‘seven violators’ (nyams pa bdun), of all of the embodied and formless enemies of the pure teachings through reliance on the wrathful magical power of the meditational deities and protector-spirits *[Dr Nida lists the ten objects as ‘the enemies of the Three Jewels; the enemies of the lama; the violators of samaya; those who pervert the tantric teachings; those who contend against the lama and vajra-siblings; those who enchant people through tantric actions; those who harm all beings; oath-bound beings who have become enemies of the faith; the nine who solely engage in non-virtuous actions whose actions are a result of suffering; and beings whose behaviour is motivated by suffering in the three realms of bad rebirth].

These activities are the primary weapon for protecting the teachings of the Secret Mantra and thus it is taught as a vow that one should engage in fierce rites in order to protect the Buddhist teachings – “liberating enemies and (demonic) hindrances is the weapon of the teachings.” When qualified ngakpa who have gained confidence in the (Creation Stage practice) of visualizing the deities clearly, purely and stably perform rites of liberation having recognized Emptiness and motivated by Great Compassion they uphold their samaya. Otherwise, plotting to kill a personal enemy out of ordinary hatred or anger is no different to a butcher killing a sheep and will thus accomplish nothing but the accumulation of sin. Therefore, it is better if beginner ngakpas and practitioners without proficiency in tantric yoga don’t touch or have nothing to do with ‘the razor of evil mantras’ (i.e. extremely wrathful sadhana practices). If they do come into contact with them without understanding them it is possible they could bring about their own death instead. Thus, as it states in the ‘Vajra-knot of the Samaya’, “(The teaching that say) ‘being realized, one liberates the (idea of a) self, being compassionate, one liberates others’ is crucial and to be cherished. Even so, the two rites of union (i.e. sexual yoga) and liberation (i.e. ritual violence) must be (kept) secret. The conduct of the four aspects of the ritual activities of union and liberation are secret – if they are not kept secret one will suffer the punishment of the Mamo dakinis.”

In brief, the most crucial thing is that ngakpa properly preserve the root and supplementary samaya vows, without holding onto meat, alcohol and women as their main priority. One would certainly think that if one is truly a Buddhist not transgressing the instructions of the Sugatas would constitute the consummation of one’s conduct and tantric vows.

FIVE: Ngakpas’ Communities and Organization

karma lhundup

(Ngakpa performing regular communal rituals at Rigdzin Namdolling Ngakpa Gompa in McLeod Ganj. Photo courtesy of Ngakpa Karma Lhundrup la)

The community in which ngakpas live is a ngak gar. The retinue and students of the main ngakpa who live with him and all their families on the side are referred to as the gar or ‘encampment’ of the ngakpa in question. The so-called ngak de or ‘ngakpa/yogi village or community’ is in the same way said to be the de or village community of all the families or households who are practicing the ngakpa tradition. When there exists some sort of holy place (gnas) which was founded by a lama who was a ngakpa and which resembles a gompa or ‘place far from the village or city’ (here Dr Nida is referring to the literal meaning of gompa: while the word is used colloquially today to refer to monasteries and nunneries, its actual etymology is something like ‘an isolated place, far away from worldly society’ so it’s technically possible to have a gompa without any monks or nuns in it) one finds names like ngak gön or a ‘ngakpa gompa’.

The main name for ngakpa temples though is ngak khang. The house, room or building (khang) in which ngakpa study, practice and make offerings, or in which they gather together is said to be a ngak khang or ngakpa house. This is the centre where ngakpa request or receive empowerments, reading transmissions and oral instructions (for tantric practices), where they get an education, perform tsok feasts and do practices, and undertake matters relating to their religious system. Generally, when there are a few ngakpa among a group of villagers they will come together and construct a ngakpa house or temple. In there they will preserve the culture and most important points of knowledge worth knowing about the white robed, dreadlocked community. Moreover, the construction and design of the ngakpa house resembles that of a lha khang or shrine room – physical supports or links of the body, speech and mind are erected inside and in the middle there are ‘gathering seats’ or a ‘gathering carpet’ (tshogs gdan) like in the assembly hall of a monastery where practitioners get together for religious meetings like the waxing and waning moon tenth day celebrations, and for other events in the calendar like Shitro practice and averting torma rites. Sometimes ngakpa houses are divided into two temples, one where ngakpa meet together and one where ngakma assemble – even so, the fact of the matter is that descriptions about tsok are extremely clear that yogis and yoginis assembling together is the correct form of tsok practice. It was absolutely Jigdrel Yeshe Dorje or Dudjom Rinpoche’s practice for men and women to do tsok together.


(Ngakpa and Ngakma of the Rebkong Ngakmang practicing and praying together)

While a more elaborate ngakpa house has a room for tsok or gathering, a protector shrine room or gönkhang, a hail protection ritual room, a library room, retreat rooms, rooms for darkness retreat practice, and a tea room or kitchen, some smaller ngakpa houses only have a tsok room and protector shrine room. Bhutanese ngakpa erect yak hair tents and do tsok in those and ngakpa connected with nomad areas also relocate their practices to tsok tents.

Beyond this, older ngakpa will teach in ngakpa houses and sometimes other lamas will teach there by invitation. Some ngakpas will stay in their own households and work to improve and nurture ngakpa of the new generation. Some expert ngakpa will be invited to various monasteries and religious communities and will preserve and promote the oral instructions of the Secret Mantra in those places. As for the condition or status of the various people associated with the ngakpa house, should a tulku or reincarnation of a ngakpa reside there then this ngak tul is the lama or guru of the ngakpa house. Most of the responsibilities associated with the ngakpa house are carried out in accordance with the lama’s instructions. The Vajra Master or preceptor of the ngakpa house is the primary teacher and leader. The gekö or disciplinarian is the person chiefly responsible for ritual practice and the geyog is the disciplinarian’s assistant. The treasurer oversees the finances and the kor soong, the ‘protector of alms’ or temple-attendant is responsible for the articles inside the ngakpa house, for keeping it clean and so on. This short account primarily describes the customary organization of ngakpa and the situation of ngakpa communities or yogi villages that are part of the Rebgong ngakpa collective.

SIX: The Accomplishments of Mantra-Holders and Ngakpa Communities

In Tibetan Buddhist tradition, the so-called white robed, dreadlocked community was distinguished from the so-called ‘saffron robed’ community of monastic renouncers. Holders of this system from long ago are described as ngakpa. Tantrikas or ngakpas have existed in the Tibetan tradition since ancient times. The white robed, dreadlocked community of the Buddhist tradition was founded by the Vajra Master Padmasambhava in the eight century during the time of the Tibetan king Trisong Deutsen and was spread and developed by his twenty five disciples who were the king and his subjects. On account of this, the majority of ngakpa are followers of Guru Padmasambhava who is their great and common ancestor.

The development of the white robed dreadlocked community relates to the emergence in the eighth century of figures like the twenty five king-and-subject disciples (just mentioned) at Chimbu, the thirty ngakpa at Sheldrak, the eighty mahasiddhas or great tantric adepts at Drakyerwa, the one hundred and eight achievers of the rainbow body of Palchen Chuwo Ri, and so on. From the time of the three Ngakpa Kings So Zur Nub (i.e. Nubchen Sangye Yeshe, So Sangye Wangchuk, and Zurchen Shakya Sengye) onwards, the one hundred and eight treasure-revealers from the ninth century like Sangye Lama, Nyang Nyima Özer, Guru Chökyi Wangchuk and most great treasure revealers like Sangye Lingpa, Pema Lingpa, Terdak Lingpa, Lerab Lingpa, Dudjom Lingpa and so on dressed in the style of the white robed, dreadlocked ngakpas and established many tantric communities, as a result of which such communities not only gradually spread through the three enclosures of Tö and Ngari, through the five mountains of U-Tsang in mid-Tibet, through Amdo, the six ranges of Kham – basically throughout every region of Tibet – but they also spread and developed throughout countries like Ladakh, Bhutan, and Mongolia as well.

The Jangthang and Amdo tantric communities and especially the well-known tantric community of the one thousand nine hundred phurba bearers which began with the (early) diffusion of the teachings and developed further significantly during the later diffusion are the greatest ngakpa communities to emerge in Tibetan history. Many ngakpas who embody the true meaning of that name have arisen from this great and quintessential ngakpa community, great masters like the eight mantra-holder mahasiddhas, Amdrön Khetsün Gyamtso, the vidyadhara or great Awareness-Holder Palden Tashi, the great Awareness-Holder Dharma King Ngawang Dargye, the tantric teacher Palchen Namkha Jigme, Shabkar Tsogdruk Rangdröl, the Great Perfection master Chöying Tobten Dorje, the mahasiddha Khampa Lama Namkha Gyamtso, the master scholar-and-practitioner Maksar Kunzang Tobten Wangpo, the great treasure-revealer Natsok Rangdröl, the attainer of the rainbow body and old retreatant from Gartse, and even today there are many great and holy beings living amongst the more than five thousand ngakpa, ngakma, and child ngakpa found throughout Amdo. These practitioners currently uphold, protect and promote the teachings of the Secret Mantra and are great objects of veneration.

The white robed, dreadlocked community doesn’t actually have to live in monasteries like Individual Liberator monastic renouncers (so thar rab byung) so most ngakpa preserve their culture (rig gnas rgyun ‘dzin) while living in villages and staying at home. Since ngakpa are known to not only practice the Creation and Completion Stages or the Creation and Completion Stages and the Great Perfection but also to teach and study things like medicine, astrology, handicrafts, art, composition, and language while remaining at home or in the village (khyim dang grong na), they are called ‘householders’ (khyim pa) and ‘village tantrists’ (grong sngags). Ngakpas’ domains of knowledge (rig gnas) surpasses what is known by monks and involve knowledge about lay people or lay life (skya bo’i rig gnas) as well. This is because ngakpa are practitioners who have confidence in and train in the ripening and liberating [instructions] without positing any contradiction between Dharma and worldly phenomena. While there are people who hold the view that Dharma and worldly phenomena are [as different as] hot and cold, at present, given the times, we have no choice but to mix together Dharmic and worldly affairs. There are currently quite a few more villages/cities than there are monasteries so, investigating the issue, it seems to me that ngakpas’ cultural tradition greatly agrees with our present time.

Whatever the case, village ngakpa have been the preservers of cultural knowledge par excellence since ancient times. When the Tibetan king Lang Darma caused the Dharma to decline village ngakpa kept the Secret Mantra tradition intact and developed it without deterioration. Likewise, in India and Nepal while the sutric teachings were completely destroyed, the tantric teachings were not and these were held onto by ngakpa. The esteemed scholar Gendün Chöpel correctly states: “While, from one perspective, Lang Darma caused the decline of the Dharma, householders ensured that the Secret Mantra did not deteriorate. The Secret Mantra teachings endured in India as well, and did not come to be utterly destroyed, so there were undoubtedly people who continued to practice most of the oral instructions from the earlier classes of tantras without being noticed.”

*[C.f. the latter volume of Gendün Chöpel’s royal genealogical account, ‘The Field of Gold’, which was published by the Tibet ancient text publishing house]

However many bad times and no matter what kind of circumstances they found themselves in, village ngakpas’ secret practices were in no way destroyed. As such, I think that one crucial point that comes from this is that Dharma and culture don’t deteriorate unless an ethnicity or group of people (mi rigs) does, that a people and its culture develop and endure together, that Dharma and society are inseparable. Our current time is like a period of degeneration – since most practitioners of Buddhist teachings in Western countries take the form of village/city ngakpa and since future generations of practitioners will no doubt become ngakpa in the same way, as a community the gökar janglo de is both indispensable and unparalleled for the perpetuating and maintaining the teachings.


(The great 9th century Tibetan scholar and magician Ngakpa Nubchen Sangye Yeshe. Nubchen was a vital figure for the perpetuation of tantric Buddhist traditions during the so-called ‘Age of Fragmentation’ in Tibet, a period of extreme political upheaval – but also cultural foment – during which state patronage for large-scale monastic Buddhist institutions was in decline)

Despite the fact that the great mantra-holders of earlier generations practiced Secret Mantra practices properly, some monastics in the Sutric tradition who don’t find these masters’ practices appealing, say things like “the Secret Mantra is a confused, perverse or dissolute form of conduct (‘chol bar spyod),” or that these mantra-holders “performed the rites of union and liberation and of the five meats and five nectars literally.” They call Tibetan ngakpa ‘householders’ and accuse them of telling their cooks, “The day is long, so brew some beer and I will write religious treatises”! Listing disconnected justification after disconnected justification the monks criticize and refute (the activities) of ‘ngak gen’ or ‘rotten old ngakpa’ while working to end the ngakpa tradition at the same time.  Not one bit of truth can be seen in any of these criticisms. To explain: literally using the five nectars is something done by qualified or authentic mantra-holders who are purified of conceptual thought which distinguishes between pure and impure. And as for thinking that we should burn every treatise on the Secret Mantra written by hidden mantra-holders who possess the ripening and liberating instructions – is it not taught that the majority of tantric scriptures of the Secret Mantra of the Old and New Translation schools are by great tantric yogis? And what ultimately are any of the mind-treasure texts or pure vision dharma cycles if not texts that were put into writing by saints or holy beings? The vast majority of the scriptures of the classes of tantras were produced by mantra-holders or yogis from Oddiyana and India, so if Indian ngakpa can write tantric religious treatises then Tibetan ones most certainly can!

Although ngakpas’ status or position in society is not as high as that of monks in monastic institutions they have made extremely great contributions to upholding, protecting and developing (Tibetan) religious traditions and culture. For this reason, many great experts in Tibetan medicine and astrology like both the elder and younger Yuthok Yönten Gompo, Sumtön Yeshe Zung, Guru Chöwang, Jangpa Namgyal Draksang, Drudrung Rinchen Chödrak and so on have worn ngakpas’ clothes. A great many authentic ngakpa have practiced tantra and medicine inseparably: the great teachers of the tantric tradition such as Lotsawa Marpa Chökyi Lodrö, Sakya Drakpa Gyaltsen, the Dharma King Ngawang Dargye and Shabkar Tsokdruk Rangdröl were nothing if not experts in Sowa Rigpa Tibetan traditional medicine or Sowa Rigpa. Not only did these figures practice medicine and tantra/mantra inseparably, they also developed the ten traditional sciences, astrology, geomancy, literary composition and art alongside ngakpa culture. Due to this, we can appreciate that ngakpa are the primary preservers or perpetuators, without deterioration, of both monastic and lay culture.

Since ngakpa are so indispensable for the advancement of religion and culture then, mantra-holders have arisen out of altruistic Bodhicitta intention among all four of the great schools or doctrines which emerged in Tibetan Buddhism. Given that the Ancient Translation Nyingma school is the origin of ngakpa it has already been broadly described above; the Kagyupas have Ma Mi and Re (i.e. the translator Marpa Chökyi Lodrö, ‘The Laughing Vajra’ Milarepa and Rechung Dorje Drakpa); the Drukpa Kagyu have Pema Dorje, the mahasiddha Ling Repa, Drukpa Kunleg and Tsangnyön Heruka and so on; among the Kadampas there is Dromtönpa ‘Born of the Victorious Buddhas’ and so on; there’s the founder of the Sakya doctrine Könchog Gyaltsen of the Khön clan, and the ‘three white ones’ of the Sakya (i.e. Kunga Nyingpo, Sönam Tsemo, and Drakpa Gyaltsen) and others who appeared from the unbroken lineage of the hereditary Khön lineage who are special tantric lineage holders; masters like Sangye and Thöpa or Skull-cup Samdrup of the Pacification and Severance traditions (i.e. Shije and Chöd) were exclusively mantra-holders. Likewise, most of the powerful or aristocratic women (mdzangs ma) of Tibet were also ngakma. Great women like Dakini Yeshe Tsogyal, Machik Labkyi Drölma, the rainbow body attainer Lady Menmo, the Venerable Lady and Awareness Holder of Shugseb, Chönyi Zangmo, the Dakini of Sera Dewe Dorje, the daughter of the Awareness Holder Changchub Dorje Tamdrin Lhamo, Lady Tare Lhamo, Dudjom Rinpoche’s daughter Dechen Yudrön and the Venerable Matriarch of the Sakya were all great contributors to religion and culture. They all lived exclusively as ngakma.


(Daughter of Dudjom Rinpoche, Venerable Dechen Yudron. The great ngakma, who passed away in 2007, stayed in Lhasa to manage her father’s seat in Kongpo, and was on of Dr Nida la’s teachers)