Tantra as Religion, Tantra as Medicine, Tantra as Technique: Reflections on the Globalization of Tibetan Buddhist Esotericism

A few weeks ago I travelled to Washington D.C. for the first time to attend the American Anthropological Association annual meeting, which is one of the largest conferences for anthropologists in the U.S. and maybe the world (that said, while the conference is decidedly more international than the title might imply, it’s also a lot less international than some attendees seem to think, so let’s just go with that there were over 7000 attendees there, presenting and networking over five days from sunrise to sundown, and more gaudy scarves crammed into a single hotel space than you could shake a Margaret Mead wizard staff at)


(Famous American anthropologist Margaret Mead might not have worn colourful scarves at conferences as all genuine cultural anthropologists are known to do today, but she sure knew how to hold – and shake – a stick)

For the conference this year (which was christened ‘Anthropology Matters’) I organized a panel titled ‘Reframing Ritual and Ritualizing Return: Where, When, and How Religion Matters’. Theorizing religious difference has been a concern of anthropology since the very beginnings of the discipline, but it’s still quite rare to find whole panels devoted to ‘religion’ at the AAA. There are a couple of reasons for this I think: part of it has to do with disciplinary divisions of intellectual labour. To be fair hundreds of presentations every year at the AAA deal with religious experiences, practices, beliefs, politics and the like, but if you want panels devoted to religion as a specific field of inquiry Religious Studies Conferences are often a better bet. Contextualizing the ritual activities and cosmologies of the communities they worked with, early anthropologists sought to relativize and reveal the internal logic of these phenomena. This homing in on ‘primitive beliefs’ and ‘strange’ worldviews was not without its irony though. In confronting alterity, anthropologists situated religious practices and beliefs within broader, holistic frameworks of social interaction, frameworks which arguably diminished the salience of religion as a stand-alone category or discrete domain of analysis, behaviour or experience in the process. This commitment to holism then may go some of the way to explain why religion is not always specifically singled out at anthropology meetings. Then again, these days it’s also widely acknowledged by scholars from a range of disciplines that the naturalness of ‘religion’ and its reification as a category of experience somehow closed off from other areas of social life emerges from very particular cultural politics and intellectual histories, ones which we ought to turn a careful and critical eye towards.

Still, even as anthropologists have come to narrow their eyes and look somewhat askance at abstractions like religion, it is also nonetheless true that we find ourselves in a moment where religion continues to enjoy significant popular currency as a catch-all explanation for human behaviour and political difference.  Politicians and talking media heads in the U.S. positively delight in reducing complex social and political issues to monolithic religious identities and shows like CNN’s Believer cash in on sensational portrayals of exotic ‘fringe’ religious communities even as they try to magic away difference through glib invocations of a supposed ‘core faith’ that unites all people. In coming up with a panel for the conference, I wanted to create a space for looking at religion and contemporary invocations of religion and the ‘religious’ in ethnographically informed ways, as a topic for anthropological analysis itself. Accordingly, our panel asked when, where, how and why notions of the religious and religion fade in and out of view for both anthropologists and their interlocutors. The primary questions it posed were these: what might we learn by framing the religious as a shifting target and a traveling concept, as one that points at once to the set apart, the extraordinary, the timeless, and the ideal even as it remains folded into the contingencies, banalities, and messiness of everyday lives? What politics, processes and meanings are implied in diverging from and returning to the religious when it comes to enacting (and theorizing) ritual and cultural practices? How are continuities and ruptures in religious histories and cultural forms of belonging understood and negotiated? By addressing these and other questions the papers on the panel sought to track the ways in which the religious does and does not matter as a salient category for understanding individual experience and shared forms of cultural practice, across diverse times, locations and audiences. My intention was ultimately to ask what was at stake in both centering and muting religious affiliations and explanations and to examine how the religious is recognized, resisted or reframed, and with what consequences.

The paper I came up with for the conference ended up focusing on the idea of ‘religion’ as it related to the globalization of Tibetan tantric yoga and ritual practices. I wanted to briefly (papers are 15 minute maximum!) get into the moments and ways in which not just outsider mis-appropriators but also ‘insider’ practitioners of Vajrayana or Tibetan tantric Buddhism might find cause to think of Vajrayana as more or other than ‘just religion’ and reflect on the consequences or implications of this. Following the occupation and erasure of Tibet by China in 1950, tens of thousands of Tibetans have fled their homeland to resettle as stateless refugees around the world. Today, Tibetans’ large-scale displacement and efforts to reconstruct and re-imagine Tibetan worlds and a Tibetan nation in exile have contributed to an increasing globalization of Tibetan culture and religion. For the paper, I decided to zoom in on how Tibetan esotericism – and practices of tantric Buddhist yoga and mantra healing in particular – are being transmitted and reframed both within and well beyond Tibetan communities. My idea was to reflect on what might be brought into focus, what might be missed in framing tantric Buddhism as Tibetan state religion, as indigenous knowledge and ethno-national heritage, as an esoteric expression of a universal or ‘world’ religion, or as set of ritual and therapeutic methods, as spiritual or body ‘tech’ that transcends place-time-and-creed. What I primarily wanted to do in my very modest presentation – beyond just introducing anthropologists to some of the details of Tibetan tantric Buddhism and contemporary ritual magic, with which they tend to be pretty unfamiliar – was bring the historical fact of tantric ritual praxis’ markedly cosmopolitan, ecumenical flavour into conversation with contemporary developments in the spread of Tibetan culture and religion. Tantric Buddhists in India before the spread of Vajrayana to Tibet were well aware of the fact that tantric methods were capable of being used – and were being used – by non-Buddhists outside of strictly Buddhist moral or philosophical frameworks, just as the Tibetan tantric tradition subsequently inherited and incorporated a range of teachings and practices from not solely or strictly ‘Buddhist’ figures and contexts, situations which produced both anxiety and opportunity. To tease out these ideas, I ended up comparing the teaching careers of two rather different practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism, both of whom I cherish as teachers, friends and collaborators.

Anyway, I offer my paper – along with parts of the slideshow I made to go with it – here, for readers of this blog to enjoy or not, as they will. There’s a lot of context that had to be cut out here, and I’m still very much thinking these issues through but I hope that this presentation may be of interest, and I look forward to hearing readers’ thoughts on the ideas tentatively presented in it.


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A few weeks ago, scholar of Buddhism in the U.S. Scott A. Mitchell wrote an article for Buddhist magazine Lion’s Roar titled, ‘Yes, Buddhism is a Religion’.

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To reduce Buddhism to either a wishy-washy New Age ‘lifestyle’ or to a set of scientifically confirmed techniques of secular mindfulness aimed solely at improving health and well-being, Mitchell argued, is to strip Buddhism of its richness and complexity as a ‘great world religion’. These comments are just one recent example of a by now well-established pattern in which scholars and especially converts to Buddhism react to what they see as the worrying misrepresentations of Buddhism by outsider enthusiasts. Labelling something called ‘Buddhism’ as something called ‘religion’ is here a corrective strategy, an attempt to return Buddhist practices to disregarded cosmological and moral moorings, to save phenomena associated with Buddhist philosophy, ritual, art, ethics from perceived appropriation, dissolution and dislocation.

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Scholarly analyses of claims of Buddhism as other than regular religion have focused primarily on non-Buddhist outsiders and colonial re-imaginings of Theravadan Buddhism, on scientists and coffee-table ‘Buddhists’. In this presentation I’d like to consider the framing of Buddhist practices as other-than-religion in a different context, that of the initiated ritual, contemplative practices of contemporary Tibetan tantric or esoteric Buddhism, aka Vajrayana.

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Vajrayana, with its alchemical register, suggests that the raw energy of conventionally impure and afflicting states like anger, hatred, fear, pride, envy, ignorance and desire can – in the light of pure gnostic awareness – be repurposed rather than rejected – can be purified, refined and transmuted to accelerate realization and empower practitioners to better alleviate the suffering of beings.

[*I included this fuller explanation in a longer version of the paper:

When Buddhism established itself in Tibet it did so in the form of Vajrayana or tantric Buddhism. Tibetan tantric Buddhism or Vajrayana is esoteric Buddhism – contra Mahayana’s universalism, as the ‘Secret Mantra’ Vajrayana refers to a set of special and restricted methods – contemplative disciplines and ritual procedures – reserved for those who possess the proper karma and preliminary training. Practitioners are authorized to employ these through mouth-to-ear transmissions and initiation ceremonies, transmitted from master to disciple. Sometimes called gyurlam, or the Path of Transformation to distinguish it from the Path of Renunciation that follows injunctions to wholly avoid ‘negative’ emotional-mental states as outlined in the Sutras, Vajrayana draws on an alchemical register to promote the idea that the raw energy of conventionally afflictive states like anger, hatred, fear, pride, envy, ignorance and lust can be purified, refined and transmuted to fuel accelerated realization and empower practitioners to better alleviate the suffering of beings. If pursued under the guidance of a qualified guru and with the right capacities and training, this poison-as-medicine, demon-into-ally approach promises full Buddhahood in one human lifetime and body. Yet without a stabilized mind, the maintaining of specific vows and devotion to one’s guru who is the essential guide and model on the path, tantra is also fraught with difficulties and danger. One of the greatest of these dangers is that practitioners might apply tantric methods, might master various yogas and spiritual powers, outside the pale of Mahayana Buddhist morality and altruistic intention. As a case in point, founding myths describe Buddhist tantra emerging as a strategy of last resort, as a necessarily ‘wrathful’ orientation emanated by Buddhas to subdue a being of cosmic proportions: a talented practitioner of tantric methods who failed to truly grasp Buddhist truths and moral imperatives and who became an omnipotent demon that only Buddhas in the guise of omnipotent demons could conquer. Tantric Buddhism is thus ideally conceived by Tibetans as the supreme actualization of the compassionate, altruistic intent of Mahayana Buddhism. By and large Vajrayana functions as a particular orientation or form, a set advanced expert procedures by which the aims and interests of Mahayana Buddhism can be actualized and expedited.

This being so, Vajrayana would seem to sit firmly within the ambit of Buddhist ‘religion’. Yet for the two ngakpa I mentioned, the label ‘religion’ fails to capture the full potential of tantric ritual practices’ scope of application and meaning.]

With the invasion in 1950, and ongoing colonization and erasure of sovereign Tibet by the People’s Republic of China, tens of thousands of Tibetans have left their homeland to resettle as refugees around the world. This dramatic displacement, along with Tibetans’ ongoing efforts to rebuild and reform a Tibetan nation-in-exile have contributed to the increasing globalization of Tibetan religion and culture.

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Today, Tibetan exile lamas or religious teachers propagate their specific lineages and engage with students and benefactors in increasingly transnational ways. For the last few years I have conducted ethnographic research with ngakpa and ngakma, long-haired Tibetan non-monastic, non-celibate tantric Buddhist yogis and yoginis and much of my work with these specialists has focused on how ngakpa lineages, knowledge and practices are being preserved and transformed both within Tibetan exile contexts and circulated well beyond the purview of Tibetan and Himalayan communities. I’d like to discuss two ngakpa I have worked with – one an ethnic Tibetan from Tibet, and one a white convert from New Jersey – who in parallel yet different ways both describe Tibetan tantric Buddhist ritual practices as other-than-religion.

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The first of my two cases is Dr Nida Chenagtsang, a ngakpa and doctor of traditional Tibetan medicine who was born in North-eastern Tibet in 1971. Growing up in a nomad community during the tail-end of the Cultural Revolution, Nida received a secular, Chinese-mandated education but as a hereditary yogi and reincarnation of a prominent ngakpa was also covertly exposed to tantric Buddhist teachings from local religious experts from an early age. Today, as the director of Sorig Khang International, Nida teaches Tibetan medicine and tantra to students in more than forty countries worldwide.  Since 2016, I’ve been collaborating with Nida to translate and publish teachings connected with tantric Buddhist yoga and ritual healing. Part of my work with Nida has involved translating his recently published writings on ‘the science of mantra healing’ – ngakcho rigpa – a practice which he now teaches at various levels of complexity worldwide. Mantra healing practices harness focused speech, breath, imagination, and attention to endow substances like water, salt, butter, medicinal ingredients, and ritually prepared threads and diagrams with healing potential. For several years, Nida has been a firm advocate for the re-integration of such tantric healing techniques into Tibetan traditional medicine, which has experienced a measure of secularization both inside and outside of Tibet.

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Nida positions mantra healing as an ‘indispensable’ branch of or supplement to – yenlag – Tibetan medicine. While he makes clear mantra healing’s pedigree as a specifically Buddhist form of healing, he recasts it as medicine more generally at the same time, and argues in this way for its compatibility with biomedicine, contemporary psychology and science, as well as other more secular modes of treatment in Tibetan traditional medicine. In keeping with tradition, Nida admits that the ultimate extent of mantras’ magical efficacy in the hands of realized adepts is “inconceivable,” yet at the same time he frames mantra healing as something more immediate and amenable to empirical, scientific investigation. In this way, he strikes a compromise between seeing mantra practice as difficult-to-quantify magic ultimately linked with the transformation and transcendence of conventional reality on the one hand, and as a kind of therapy linked to more habitual and empirical psycho-physiological processes and worldly domains and dilemmas on the other.

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My second example involves white American ngakpa and professional teacher of ‘strategic sorcery’ Jason Miller. Jason began studying a range of esoteric traditions – Western ceremonial magic, Hoodoo and Conjure, traditional witchcraft, as well as Vajrayana, from his early teens. As a young man he travelled to Nepal with Vajranatha, aka John Reynolds, an early white American convert to Bon and Tibetan Buddhism, and one of the first Americans to take up the ngakpa lifestyle. During his time in Nepal, Jason took up ngakpa robes and studied briefly with various Tibetan yogis. While Jason has continued until today to observe tantric practices he has received from Tibetan lamas over the years, he rarely presents himself in public as a ngakpa. Instead he teaches students all over the world key technical skills in magic through correspondence courses and books which draw on his experience as an initiate of multiple esoteric traditions.

For Jason, Vajrayana is a Tibetan system of magic, and one of the most comprehensive and sophisticated in the world to boot. For him, tantric ritual procedures and orientations represent a kind of ‘tech’, one capable of being removed from its institutional, Buddhist religious moorings. Magic as a craft, as a technology follows identifiable principles that care little for theological prescriptions or religious dogma. This take on Vajrayana as extricable technology is visible in Jason’s curricula.

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In his 2014 book on sex magic, ‘Sex, Sorcery, and Spirit: The Secrets of Erotic Magic’, for example, Jason adapts Tibetan tantric yogic frameworks and methods to augment Western sex magic procedures developed by Victorian occultists. In a section on preliminary, daily practices of purification, Jason provides a set of visualizations based on the Vajrasattva meditation that forms a key part of Tibetan preliminary or ngondro practices, which prepare tantric Buddhist practitioners for advanced tantric meditation. Rather than visualize the tantric Buddhist deity Vajrasattva above their heads as usual, readers are instructed to imagine a generic pair of male and female deities in sexual embrace, or ones from their own tradition, and instead of reciting Vajrasattva’s 100 syllable mantra as they imagine white purifying nectar pouring from these figures and washing impurities from their being, Jason provides an original mantra for harnessing the combined essence of the elements which he directly received via trance when communicating with elemental spirits. In the same book, Jason also teaches altered versions of Tibetan Tummo or inner psychic heat yoga and spirit offering and dedication rites based directly on Tibetan Buddhist models. Jason has stressed to me that he is not advocating for a hybridized Vajrayana or an anything goes syncretism here. Instead, he has described his approach as ‘Jailbroken Tantra’ – spiritual technology freed from the constraints and controls of proprietary software. Through this notion Jason seeks to return the sorcerous technology of Vajrayana to what he imagines as its original source in the decentralized authority and expertise of legendary ngakpa adepts. For Jason, reframing Vajrayana as magic and as technique ultimately frees its unique technology from what he sees as stifling monastic regulation and later theocratic institutionalization and co-optation in Tibet.

When I first met Nida in 2016 in Benguluru, India during the nejang tantric yoga self-massage and purification and mantra healing level 1 course he was teaching there over three days, I was surprised at his willingness to transmit tantric Buddhist practices to what turned out was a small group of almost exclusively non-Buddhist, Hindu students. Nida’s inclusive approach to teaching such tantric methods fits with the precedent set by his own ‘yogi-doctor’ historical role-models who in former ages integrated tantra and medicine into unified practice. Nida made this clear to me as we went over translations of his commentaries on advanced Ati Yoga meditation one evening in Tibet. When lamas teach Dharma as religion, as they typically do, he said, they will speak of the ‘worthy’ or ‘karmically fortunate’ (skal ldan pa) student.

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By contrast, when a great physician and ngakpa like Yuthok, the founder of traditional Tibetan medicine, taught Dharma, it was as medicine. No patient is turned away for want of a cure – medicine is dispensed in the proper form and dosage for all and any who suffer. Priests may minister to supplicants based on religious affiliations and qualifications, after all, but doctors can make no such distinctions.

By framing tantric Buddhism as medicine rather than religion, Nida is afforded greater reach in his decidedly Buddhist efforts to spread the Dharma and alleviate suffering. Jason’s ‘jail-broken Tantra’ also aims to make useful and efficacious ritual methods available to wider audiences, though here instead of ‘patients’ we have something more like ‘users’ of open-source software. Jason acknowledges that this arguably cannibalizing approach to native knowledge would be seen as dangerous and heterodox by most Tibetan lamas. At the same time, he points to historical precedents for his engagement with multiple traditions. He explains that combining elements from multiple magical and religious traditions was as common among Ancient Graeco-Egyptian sorcerers as tantric ritualists in Tibet. During an interview about his book on sex magic, he noted:

“When you’re doing magic, it’s not about belief, it’s not about the theory of whatever tradition, it’s about the reality that’s right in front of you. So, a magician should have no more trouble putting together say, elements of Tibetan magic, and say Western magic or Greek magic than one would going to New York City and hopping into a cab driven by a Greek driver and having him drop you off at a Tibetan restaurant. It’s all there, it’s all right in front of you.”

Jason’s justification for combining methods depends on the idea that Vajrayana’s core ‘technology’ can not only be separated from its particular religious, cultural, political and moral milieux but that it ultimately transcends these. Jason’s comments suggest too that such pluralism is not only desirable, but that it is also an inevitable feature of a globally interconnected, cosmopolitan world. Jason’s analogy arguably naturalizes a picture of ‘ethnic’ knowledge producers and (unmarked white) sorcerer consumers. It is also rather silent on the hardly neutral political and moral economics and ethical playing-fields in which contemporary occultists’ experiments in religious and magical pluralism and syncretism take place. Neither Greeks nor Tibetans just immigrate randomly to New York – particular histories, forces, and constraints influence such ethnic others’ decisions to sell their services and culture in the American marketplace.

[In the longer version of the paper I cut out a further comparison between Jason’s take on such magical plurism and that of one of Nida’s role-models, the 19th century scholar and tantric ritual expert Ju Mipham, from whose mantra compilations Nida selected many of the 100 healing mantras for different organs and medical conditions transmitted in his level one course. Playing anthropologist, Mipham conducted textual and ethnographic research during the latter part of his life and recorded and compiled a host of mantras and rituals for everyday use and benefit. Mipham admits that he included rituals from obviously non-Buddhist sources in his collections, but explains that he added these because of their usefulness to beings and assures his readers that provided these are practiced with an overarching Buddhist motivation and mindset they too can be Dharma.

While for Mipham Buddhist ‘theories’ and moral frameworks spell the difference between mere superstition, morally dubious sorcery and genuine Dharma activity, Jason’s justification for combining methods depends on the idea that Vajrayana’s core ‘technology’ can not only be separated from its particular religious, cultural, political and moral milieux but that it ultimately transcends these. Jason’s comments suggest that such pluralism is not only desirable, but that it is an inevitable feature of a globally interconnected, cosmopolitan world. In the equally cosmopolitan context of Vajrayana’s rise in 6th-8th century India, tantra did largely constitute a set of methods and orientations which were being shared across religious and sectarian lines. Yet the very fact that non-Buddhists were also making use of tantric methods in their own ways is precisely the reason that Buddhist commentators placed such stress on keeping their use of such skillful means aligned with a fundamentally Mahayana Buddhist View. ]

The politics of describing tantric Buddhism as something other than religion are necessarily very different for Nida than they are for Jason. Yet Jason’s comments also hint at a shared sensibility between him and Nida that to consider Vajrayana’s methods from the standpoint of religious dogma alone would be to miss a key empirical and humanistic quality in what could be called Buddhist magic, and what Erick White, in moving away from that fraught term, has called ‘Buddhist ritual arts of efficacy’.

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Recent anthropological theorizing on magic has stressed the modernity of occult knowledge and practice and has represented these as mechanisms through which sub-altern individuals make sense of the mystifications, conspiracies and half-seen sinister, far from rational or logical forces that control their lives. In his just published ethnography on occultism in contemporary Iran, Alireza Doostdar argues that although relevant, such theories have effectively written rationality out of the occult and risk flattening the long and complex intellectual histories and commentarial traditions of esoteric philosophers and ritual specialists. Rather than position the occult against rationality and science, Doostdar highlight the ways in which occultists seek to rationalize their experiences and knowledge, to carefully evaluate its mechanisms and empirical dimensions. Although very differently positioned both Nida and Jason are concerned with elucidating and subsequently teaching what they understand to be empirical principles of esoteric ritual practices.

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Religion as a category intersects with such interests in crucial ways, but as we’ve seen it also fails to accommodate the ecumenism and pragmatic experimental, empirical quality of both magic and medicine. For Nida, mantra healing may operate on more subtle or ‘spiritual’ levels than therapies like massage or blood-letting, but he makes clear that to think of mantra healing as “just a psychological or psycho-somatic cure” is to misunderstand or to deny the Buddhist truth of interdependence or contingency – the doctrine that guarantees that body, speech, and mind; inner and outer; subtle and gross inevitably overlap and influence one another, and which explains why the skilful alignment of such levels of being must necessarily produce tangible results. Here ‘inter-dependence is at once religious Buddhist doctrine and a universal fact endemic to reality itself, at once an article of faith and the core principle of Buddhism as ‘nangdon rigpa’, the science of ‘inner matters and meanings’.

Correctives that bring religion back to Buddhism are important but they risk becoming misrepresentations all of their own if the possibility of interpreting Buddhist practices as anything other than religion is identified solely with outsider interests and distortions. For centuries, the categories and subtle cartographies of tantric yoga and ‘magic’ in particular have engendered vigorous debate among Tibetan intellectuals over just how to demarcate religious, medical and scientific domains of knowledge.  Ultimately then, I propose that for all the fuzzy and colonial thinking associated with magic, ritual arts of efficacy or ‘magical’ practices like mantra healing and tantric yoga provide both researchers and practitioners with an especially germane space for exploring the politics of intersecting knowledge communities and economies, as well as complex processes of cultural adaptation, accommodation, translation and change, more so than the category of religion sometimes can.



2 thoughts on “Tantra as Religion, Tantra as Medicine, Tantra as Technique: Reflections on the Globalization of Tibetan Buddhist Esotericism

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