Mirroring the Master: Making Magic in a Nineteenth Century Tibetan Book of Spells

Recently, a Facebook friend of mine shared an article from the popular anthropology blog Sapiens in the Folk Necromancy Facebook group that I co-moderate. This article, true to its title, sought to argue that AI (Artificial Intelligence) was similar to ‘magic’, at least in certain respects, and as understood by anthropologists at any rate. I approved my friend’s post to share with the group despite finding the article quite irritating. Being irritated about what people generally consider to be the minor or obscure details of things is arguably the bread-and-butter of academia, but I submit that I had a solid reason to be annoyed. Many of my disciplinary peers positively DELIGHT in writing ‘X thing is actually like Magic’ type hot-takes. I get why, of course. Our discipline has grappled more with the comparative study of what people often call ‘magic’, ‘science’, and ‘religion’ as ways of acting, knowing, and being in the world than probably any other. Considering how foundational witchcraft and magic are to the history and identity of our field, I guess every anthropologist is supposed to be able to at least trot out something about these topics. It’s our wheelhouse! The thing is – and here’s what bugs me – the anthropologists I typically see forwarding ‘X is really magic!’ arguments are almost never actually researchers of magical practices or of ritual specialists. They are almost always ethnographers who study ‘X’, whatever X may be. In the case of the aforementioned Sapiens piece, neither of the article’s authors specialize in the study of magical practices, both work as science writers.

My Little Pony - Friendship Is Magic Poster

Holy shit, even FRIENDSHIP is magic now!?! 

While the Sapiens article raises several interesting points, my chief complaint when I encounter these sorts of popular, comparative arguments is that commentators often make very broad statements about ‘magic’, that end up lumping together a whole range of religious, medical, artistic, and somatic practices, procedures, and ideas under a single hazy, rather fraught rubric. They also often claim that magic works in ways that actual magical specialists from their field sites would likely disagree with or call things ‘magic’ which local magician-experts would not (this is nothing new, mind you. Anthropologists ply their craft by taking seriously and contrasting both emic – insider, ‘native’ views or interpretive frameworks – and etic or ‘outsider’ ones, which their own informants may very well not be aware of, appreciate, or credit. That said, the boundaries between ‘insider’ and ‘outer’ perspectives are in practice constantly shifting, entirely relative, and incredibly messy).

Anthropological theorizing of magic is dizzyingly diverse and magic as a category often gets grouped with all kinds of other big topics – ritual and ritual healing, spirit possession, witchcraft, ‘occult forces’, and so on. Throughout the many years I’ve spent studying and teaching anthropology, I’ve noticed that contemporary anthropological engagements with magic often tend to fall into two very broad, diverging camps: on the one hand you’ve got the extraordinarily popular and very convincing ‘occult economies, witchcraft, demonism of/in modernity’ roughly Marxist arguments. This approach emphasizes the way in which witchcraft and occult forces writ large are not only still very much a part of global capitalism and modernity, they actually help explain these things. Traditional magical practices and discourses have reconfigured themselves to present circumstances and are not ‘survivals’ – more charitable anthropologists may even go so far as to suggest that by thinking with these ideas their research informants are not succumbing to false consciousness – i.e. failing to understand the real, material causes of their current conditions in favour of cultural mystifications of these – but are possibly even demonstrating that they understand capitalism, bureaucracy and so on, better than those of us who are apparently disenchanted moderns – because neoliberal bureaucracy IS actually magical, global capitalism IS in truth kind of satanic, demonic, sinister, mysterious, beguiling and so on. Then, conversely, you have scholarship that focuses more squarely on actual ritual specialists and the minutiae of magical procedures – this work has tended to focus less on magic, and the magical or occult as a catch-all way of speaking about modernity, as a sort of metaphor or metonym for current conditions and structural forces, has tended to be less about rationality, belief, and broadly circulating discourses and political economic conditions and more about embodiment, cognition, affect, ontology, and cosmology – about how culture shapes perception, attention and individuals’ engagements with inner worlds, and vice versa.

Now, the problem I have with the first camp is the same as anthropologist Alireza Doostdar who researches esotericism and occultists or ‘metaphysicians’ in contemporary Iran. He notes that this first camp has argued for

“the modernity of occult knowledge and practice by essentially showing how modernity itself is racked by murkiness, conspiracy, and mystification (think Marxian commodity fetishism and Kafkaesque readings of bureaucracy). In these studies, the occult becomes a means through which ordinary people and subalterns make sense of the dark forces that control their lives. On the one hand, this work has been very successful in rehabilitating the occult as something to be taken seriously as a key constituent of modern experience. But on the other hand, this success has been won at the expense of writing rationality out of the occult. The upshot is either that rationality loses its analytic purchase altogether, or an old and stale dichotomy is once again restaged (but usually only implicitly) between science/rationality and magic/irrationality.”

I have mentioned this argument and cited Doostdar on this point in an older conference paper/blog post of mine before. This first camp of theorizing is chock-full of ‘X is really magic!’ proposals. ‘Colonial history is really (kind of like) sorcery!’ ‘Exploitative capitalism is really (sort of like) magic and witchcraft!’ ‘Bureaucratic procedures are more magical in operation than you thought!’. As Doostdar notes, the sub-text here is that bureaucracy or modernity is really more magical than skeptical ‘moderns’ appreciated because bureaucracy or modernity or what have you are in fact more irrational, sinister, opaque, and weirdly transformative than said skeptical moderns assumed. While indigenous shamans and ritual specialists may indeed think that the spirit world and spirits are weird, unpredictable, and difficult to categorize or taxonomize by their very nature, I am often left with the impression that anthropologists sometimes project their own mystification about how magic works or the mystification of their non-ritual specialist informants onto their descriptions and analyses of magical phenomena. Magic, when seen from the perspective of ritual specialists or experts, is far from a stand-in for broadly opaque, mysterious and seemingly spontaneously-arising forces or results (something which the Sapiens article seems to want to argue).

Magical practice all over the world is a craft. It is something specialists train in, refine, study. Practitioners of sorcery, ritual healing, crafters of charms, summoners of spirits and the like have had highly technical back-and-forths with one another for centuries over the mechanisms governing their procedures, they regularly debate and refine best practices, they evaluate what is well-executed magic and what is bad, compare their methods with fellow specialists and to cognate ones used by culturally other practitioners, they discuss substitutions, consider their practices’ efficacy and empirical impact, their value in terms of parallel or rival systems of knowledge, and they devise frameworks for evaluating forgeries and charlatans. As part of their proposal that AI is ‘like magic’, the authors of the Sapiens piece declare that one of the key, defining characteristics of magic is that magic expects to “obtain some ideal product or outcome without any cost or effort.” This statement alone suggests that the authors have not spent much time learning magic from actual practitioners of magic. As a scholar and practitioner of magical rituals, I can think of no sorcerers anywhere in the world who would claim that their magic produces results with no cost or effort. I am not sure where this claim comes from, since it’s certainly not one most anthropologists I know would support either.

Existing readers of this blog will know that one of my areas of specialty as an anthropologist is the study of Tibetan tantric Buddhist ‘magic’. In line with my gripes about hazy characterizations of magic outlined above, I thought therefore that I would share some translations of various Tibetan ‘spells’, written down in the nineteenth century by a highly respected ngakpa (sngags pa) or non-celibate, non-monastic Tibetan tantric Buddhist ritual specialist from Rebkong in Amdo in North Eastern Tibet called Chöying Tobden Dorje (1785 – 1848; several English-language websites wrongly list him as having been born in 1787). It is my hope that the small window into Tibetan tantric Buddhist magical practices offered by these translated excerpts will help to educate readers about some of the key procedures and assumptions involved in Tibetan tantric ritual processes, and will highlight the extent to which magical practice more generally requires considerable time, effort, training, care, concern, and expertise. Efficacious tantric magic – often glossed in Tibetan Buddhist sources as the skillful alignment of rdzas, sngags, and bsam gten, namely, ritual materia [i.e. ‘Body’]; mantras [outwardly and inwardly recited or visualized verbal formulae and prayers, the manipulation of the breath and subtle energies and so on, i.e. ‘Speech’] and meditative concentration or absorption [i.e. ‘trance’ states or manipulations of ‘Mind’] – requires considerable training to perfect (see the endnote in this earlier post of mine reflecting on Tibetan spells for calling vultures to a corpse to consume it, for more details on these three elements of tantric spellcraft).

One of the primary means through which tantric Buddhist practitioners cultivate facility in aligning this magical triad is through the discipline of lha’i rnal ‘byor or ‘[tantric] deity yoga’. Deity yoga entails learning how to stably and clearly perceive the fundamental emptiness or contingent, impermanence of one’s conventional sense of self and to perceive one’s self instead as the empty-and-luminous form of an initiatic tantric deity (yi dam, yid dam) or Buddha. Proficiency in ‘self-generation’ (rang bskyed) as the deity in Body, Speech, and Mind, implies competency in aligning one’s own human body, speech/energy, and mind with this perfected model via meditation postures and gestures, the recitation and visualization of mantras, and the cultivation of meditative concentration and blissful non-conceptuality. By perfecting the art of perceiving themselves as empowered Buddhas, tantric Buddhist initiates ultimately stabilize their recognition of their already-always present and perfect Buddha-nature. In addition, as part of this process, they create the conditions for giving rise to magical efficacy (nus pa) or exceptional capacities known as ngödoop (dngos grub, ‘real, direct, or manifest accomplishment’, siddhi in Sanskrit).

It is through increasing self-identification with the yidam that ngakpa – as tantric yogi-sorcerers par excellence – come to master the ngödoop of the ‘four rites’ or tantric actions (las bzhi), of pacifying (zhi ba – the curing of diseases, calming of adverse conditions, imbalances etc.); increasing (rgyas pa – increasing riches, resources, intelligence, memory, prestige etc.); controlling (dbang – exerting influence over humans, animals, and spirits, drawing people and things to oneself etc.); and forcefully subduing or destroying (drag – utterly eradicating enemies, adverse forces, obstacles etc.). Asked to offer some advice to the prominent ngakpa community or sngags mang in Rebkong in 1951, celebrated ngakpa Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (1910 – 1991) did so by providing commentary on a scripture recording words of advice that were offered by the original ngakpa of Tibet, the tantric sorcerer and enlightened saint from Oddiyana (contemporary Swat Valley) known as Guru Rinpoche or Padmasambhava, to Tibet’s earliest community of ngakpa vow-holders in the eighth century (incidentally, it was Padmasambhava’s efficacy as a deity-yoga ‘four rites’ practicing sorcerer that allowed him to ensure that Buddhism from India took hold in Tibet). Expanding on Padmasambhava’s comments about how ngakpa should accumulate the essential mantra [of the yidam] with every breath in their breasts, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche explained to members of the Rebkong ngakpa community that:

“Since the source of the magical power to accomplish deity [yoga practice] and the doorway to every dngos grub is the recitation of mantras, recite the mantras [and the associated visualizations] for serving or approaching [nyendoop, bsnyen bsgrub] whichever yidam deity you rely on unceasingly, day and night, like an ever-flowing river.”

We can thus see that, as ‘mantra wielders’ (the literal meaning of their name, sngags + pa), ngakpas’ primary training, their core mode of cultivation, revolves around the ‘service and accomplishment’ (bsnyen bsgrub, nyendoob) practices of the yidam, i.e. deity yoga. These procedures, involving the entrainment of body, breath, speech and imagination through liturgical recitation coupled with complex inner visualization procedures, enact increasing stages of intimacy with the deity, through which the ritualist draws progressively ‘nearer’ (bsnyen can mean both ‘wait upon/serve’ and to ‘draw close to’) to the meditational deity, eventually coming to experience complete inseparable union with it and its enlightened qualities and capacities.

Ngakpa Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche seated surrounded by local ngakpa from the Rebkong ngakmang in 1951 (Dilgo Khyentse’s two daughters, Chime Wangmo and Traga, can be seen in front of the left pillar as well).

Nyendoop practices constitute a major component of the so-called ‘Creation or Generation Stage’ (kyerim, bskyed rim) of tantric yoga or meditation. These practices are strongly associated with the sort of everyday, practical tantric Buddhist magic for which ngakpa in particular are known. ‘Assorted rites’ or tantric ritual ‘workings’ (letsok, las tshogs) connected with specific yidam typically appear after nyendoop meditation practice instructions in Tibetan textual collections in which particular versions of the ‘Three Roots’ (rtsa gsum, the tantric Buddhist triad of Guru, Yidam, and Dakini or tantric Goddess/Spirit-Protectors visualized as part of tantric yogic training) are described, as the Tibetan expression bsnyen bsgrub las gsum or ‘the three [processes] of Service/Approach, Accomplishment, and Workings’ (bsnyen bsgrub las gsum) suggests. At the bare minimum then, ngakpa are thus practitioners who, having completed tantric preliminary practices (sngon ‘gro), as my own teacher Tibetan ngakpa and physician Dr Nida Chenagtsang has explained “perform the bsnyen (b)sgrub of the Three Roots of the Creation Stage both in secluded retreat and at home” and as a result gain spiritual powers  through which, at least ideally, they are able to make good on Mahayana Buddhist aspirations to benefit beings (in addition to the Creation Stage, tantric practitioners also train in the Dzogrim or the Completion Stage, which focuses more squarely on working with the rtsa rlung thig le or channels, winds, and energetic ‘drops’ of the subtle tantric anatomy to fast-track realization). As Dilgo Khyentse reiterates explicitly in his advice to the Rebkong ngakmang, to ‘accomplish’ the deity through nyendoop procedures requires intensive effort and dedication. Ngakpa must typically accumulate hundreds of thousands of recitations of the yidam’s mantra and visualizations of the deity’s form in order to cultivate their skill in deity yoga. Such training often takes place in the context of intensive, closed retreat, which itself requires significant time, resources, and support from one’s community and frequently from one’s spouse and other family members to accomplish in the midst of busy agriculturalist or nomad-pastoralist householder life. To successfully execute magical rites associated with a specific yidam could thus hardly be described as “obtaining some ideal product or outcome without any cost or effort.”

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Representations of ‘The Lake-Born Vajra Guru’ Padmasambhava

The tantric Buddhist grimoire by the great Dzogchen adept and Nyingma master Chöying Tobden Dorje which I’d like to explore in a little more detail in the rest of this post is one example of a letsok or ‘miscellaneous (magical) workings’ text associated with a specific tutelary deity which practitioners self-generate as as part of deity yoga procedures. As it happens, Chöying Tobden Dorje is one of the most famous teachers and ritual experts of the Rebkong ngakmang which luminary Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche advised about a century following Chöying Tobden Dorje’s passing . Chöying Tobden Dorje’s text, entitled ‘A String of Jewels’, is a letsok connected with Guru Tsokye Dorje, ‘The Lake-Born Vajra Guru’, an epithet and specific manifestation of Padmasambhava, often associated in Padmasambhava’s hagiographies with the circumstances of his miraculous birth. In Chöying Tobden Dorje’s text, ritualists empower magical workings intended to accomplish a range of different results by visualizing themselves as and praying to various forms of Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche, the OG ngakpa of Tibet. Padmasambhava’s own spiritual empowerment and ultimate enlightenment was facilitated by the practice of tantric Buddhist deity yoga, and as Tibet’s ‘second Buddha’ (sangs rgyas gnyis pa), this mythic figure now exists as a yidam in his own right, a divine, enlightened model with whom tantric yogi-sorcerers identify as part of their own spiritual development and empowerment.

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A thangka or Tibetan religious tapestry depicting the great Dzogchen adept and ngakpa sorcerer Chöying Tobden Dorje, courtesy of the Naldjor Facebook page.

As a ngakpa and adherent of the Nyingma or ‘Ancient School’ of Tibetan Buddhism Chöying Tobden Dorje was an ardent appreciator and follower of Padmasambhava and his example. The depth of Chöying Tobden Dorje’s devotion and the extent to which ngakpa can and should merge their own behaviour and self-image with that of the Guru from Oddiyana is made clear in a beautiful prayer that Chöying Tobden Dorje wrote at an unknown date which beseeches Padmasambhava’s blessings and which is included in Chöying Tobden Dorje’s gsung ‘bum or collected works (put together and published by the Rebkong Ngakmang Research Center, operated out of Xining by Dr Nida Chenagtsang’s brother, ngakpa and scholar Hungchen Heruka/Chenagtsang). The prayer, which is titled ‘The Swift Receipt of Blessings” or “Entering Swiftly into the Empowering Wave of Blessings: A Prayer to Guru Rinpoche, the Master of Oddiyana’, reads as follows:

“I pray to you, precious master of Oddiyana, you who when I have prayed to you before have not failed or misled me! Though my intellect is slight, my behaviour immoral and coarse, and my poisonous mental afflictions great, you never abandon your love and compassion for me. When I become ill with sicknesses of the three humours of wind, phlegm, and bile, be a physician to me, o Lotus-Born! When I’m oppressed by the eighty four thousand types of obstructing forces (bgegs), perform the protecting rim ‘gro rites for me, o Lotus-Born! When the three hundred and sixty types of harmful demons (gdon) strike, perform the rituals to send them packing, o Lotus-Born! When curses, phurba daggers, magical power, malefic torma/magical weapons, and summoned spirits are launched against me (byad phur mthu zor rbod gtong), dispel these, send them back from whence they came, o Lotus-Born! When evil divinations, omens, dreams, astrological conditions and adverse years (mo ltas rmi lam rtsis [bdun etc.] zur ngan pa) occur, improve and transform these, o Lotus- Born! When ritual pollution or obscurations (srib/grib) of whatever type strike, wash them away and purify me, o Lotus-Born! When ‘dre and ‘gong bo demons do harm, cast them aside, threaten/wring them into submission, suppress and overpower them (gzir gnon mdzod cig), o Lotus-Born! When I am tormented and antagonized by powerful [martial, conqueror] btsan po spirits, rally your own hordes more powerfully against them, o Lotus-Born!  When evil brigands and thieves dare rob me, bind these enemies and criminals, o Lotus-Born! When poverty occurs and food, clothes, and resources are hard to come by, shower me with all I need and desire, o Lotus-Born! When times arise when all I do seems uncertain and directionless, let all be perfectly accomplished as swiftly as possible, o Lotus-Born! When I find myself distracted by [trifling] activities that are neither here nor there, reconnect me with what really matters and benefits others, o Lotus-Born! When the time comes for me to go on to the next life, be the Guru who shows me the path, o Lotus-Born! Whatever I’m doing, whether I’m moving through the world, staying put, or sleeping, let me never be separate from you, o Lotus-Born! In short, whatever occurs, whether good or bad, whether I’m happy or suffer, look upon me, watch over me with your compassionate gaze, o Lotus-Born one! Taking you, Padmasambhava, as my only hope, my Sole Refuge, may I swiftly obtain your same Lotus-Born level [of attainment]! I pray to you from the depths of my heart, o Master of Oddiyana – grip me with the iron hook of your compassion, o Lotus-Born! Empower me with your waves-of-blessings that I may accomplish all I desire, that I may accomplish every good thing in this and future lives in accordance with the Dharma!

This was composed by the Dzogchen practitioner Chöying Tobden Dorje, while, from the depths of his heart, he recalled the kindness and grace of the great, unmistaken master Padmasambhava and burned with unbearable devotion to him.


The references in this supplication suggest an author whose life is taken up with specialist ritual activity, paint a picture of a man engaged with and concerned about sorcerous affairs. Who exactly was this Chöying Tobden Dorje, this celebrated figure of the Rebkong ngakmang, who compiled a book of spells at some point in the mid-nineteenth century, however? (as with the above prayer, Chöying Tobden Dorje gives no date for the composition of his letsok).

Chöying Tobden Dorje was born in the wood snake year of the thirteenth Tibetan rabjung or calendrical cycle (i.e. 1785) in a small village of hereditary ngakpa and ngakma called Ponru (dpon ru), located in Zhohong (zho ‘phong) in the Rebkong region of Amdo, North-eastern Tibet. His father was named Rinchen and his mother, who was considered to be an emanation (sprul pa, tulpa) of the great Yogini and first Tibetan to achieve full Buddhahood Yeshe Tsogyal, was called Yeshe or Ngödrup Drolma. From a tender age, Chöying Tobden Dorje is said to have spontaneously displayed the bearing of a holy being. As a young man, he studied Tibetan language, calligraphy, scribal techniques, history and other secular as well as religious subjects with a range of lamas from his area, including the prominent Mongol secretary and royal chronicler Waka Tsering. He proved an extremely gifted student and received a range of sutric and tantric teachings from various respected Nyingma masters. After living for about five years abiding by strict-monk like conduct despite presenting as an ordinary layperson and having engaged in intensive retreat in his home region, he felt compelled to seek out an exceptional teacher who could help him definitively secure enlightenment in a single human body and lifetime, and so travelled to Dzogchen monastery in Kham. There he requested and received multiple empowerments, teachings and transmissions from the fourth Dzogchen tulku, Mingyur Namkhai Dorje and the great master Pema Kundrol, among others. He then settled in the tantric encampment or chos sgar of the first Dodrupchen Rinpoche,the celebrated treasure revealer and Nyingma master Jigme Trinley Ozer (1745 – 1821), where he stayed for a long time.

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The first Dodrupchen Rinpoche, Jigme Trinley Ozer

He became a devoted disciple of the first Dodrupchen Rinpoche and received many empowerments and oral instructions on advanced tantric yoga practices from this exceptional practitioner, through which he gained great gnostic attainments. He gained facility in a range of tantric sadhanas, and many wrathful magical and exorcistic tantric Buddhist practices, such as subjugating homa fire rites, those involving Vajrakilaya, and so on. These accomplishments persuaded his guru and others that his behaviour signalled the fulfilment of various prophecies. Dodrupchen Rinpoche explained that he should thus return to his home region of Rebkong and set about securing, teaching, and spreading the Dharma for the benefit of others. Returning to Rebkong, Chöying Tobden Dorje spruced up existing and established various new communities of religious study and practice in the region, and established his personal monastery-temple (dgon pa), Dzogchen Namgyal Ling, in Ko’u de, his village of birth. This gompa became the seat of a new reincarnation lineage established after his death (at the same time, Chöying Tobden Dorje is widely considered to be the third reincarnation of Rigdzin Palden Tashi (1688 – 1743) one of the chief founders of the Rebkong ngakmang  whose reincarnation lineage was officially discontinued and went somewhat underground for some time after his putative assassination. Dzogchen Namgyal Ling falls on the so-called ‘sunny side’ (nyi lta) of the Rebkong ngakmang, rather than the ‘shady side’ (srib lta) to which Rigdzin Palden Tashi’s own institution belongs).

Chöying Tobden Dorje is remembered today as being a great scholar and practitioner in the Nyingma school. He is often described as one of the four chief inheritors or lineage-holders of Dodrupchen Rinpoche’s Longchen Nyingthik teachings which Dodrupchen received from the originator of these teachings himself, the famed treasure-revealer Jigme Lingpa (1730 – 1798). Chöying Tobden Dorje is frequently referred to as Dodrupchen’s ‘northern’ disciple or heart-son whose Dharma activities are likened to a phur pa or three-bladed Tibetan tantric ritual dagger or stake made of meteoric iron, plunged into the earth. While he was a major promoter of the Longchen Nyingthik tradition in the Rebkong area, the great Dzogchen adept was hardly aggressively sectarian. His massive, thirteen volume compendium describing sutric and tantric teachings of the Nyingma school ‘The Treasury of Sutra and Tantra’ (mdo sngags mdzod, written between 1836 – 1838) forms a major part of the curriculum of Rebkong ngakpa (the collection has recently been translated into English and has been published by Shambhala press), and his fame as a scholar-practitioner was already widely attested in his own lifetime, as demonstrated by comments from the likes of Shabkar Tsokdruk Rangdrol (1781 – 1851), another celebrated Rebkong yogi adept, in his autobiography. Shabkar met Chöying Tobden Dorje and received transmissions from him, and the slightly older ngakpa in turn received the wandering yogi with great ceremony. Shabkar also performed all of Chöying Tobden Dorje’s funeral rites when the latter died at the age of sixty four in 1848, and comforted Chöying Tobden Dorje’s grieving tantric partner and sons.

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A painting of famed Rebkong yogi Shabkar Tsokdruk Rangdrol by by the eighth Dugu Choeyal Gyamtso Rinpoche.

Chöying Tobden Dorje has been described as the embodiment of Guru Tsokye Dorje (Padmasambhava) in human form, and when one looks at his accomplishments as a tantric sorcerer – and his book of magical procedures involving explicit meditative identification with the Oddiyana master – it is easy to see why. Chöying Tobden Dorje explains that his assorted workings represent the essence of Padmasambhava’s mantra, and that they are in line with the ritual procedures taught in a specific text from the bla ma dgongs pa ‘dus pa or Lama Gongdü, a multi-volume collection of gter ma or ‘treasure’ teachings which was revealed in the fourteenth century by the treasure-revealer Sangye Lingpa (1340 – 1396). I have not had a chance to closely compare Sangye Lingpa and Chöying Tobden Dorje’s texts, but they are far from identical. It appears that Chöying Tobden Dorje took procedures and principles from the much older ngakpa’s text in order to compose his own list of spells

(* Tibetologist Cameron Bailey let me know that he currently has an article in-press that discusses eighteenth century ngakpa Lelung Zhepai Dorje’s adaptation of this same text by Sangye Lingpa in his own terma cycle surrounding the Tantric Goddess Dakini Sangwa Yeshe, so it appears that Sangye Lingpa’s earlier text was quite influential and inspirational for multiple generations of ngakpa. See here andhere for earlier posts on my blog which discuss Lelung Zhepai Dorje’s life and legacy).

Garwong Sangye Lingpa

Sangye Lingpa, the tantric visionary who revealed the Lama Gongdü treasure collection in the fourteenth century (the image caption reads “Born in Gying in Langpo [as the reincarnation] of the Divine Son Damdzin [i.e. the son of the eighth century Tibetan Dharma-King Trisong De’utsen]/[you revealed] the Lama Gongdü at the great cave of Puri/chief among the twenty eight treasures you uncovered, and your enlightened activities spread throughout the Land of Tibet – Homage to you Sangye Lingpa, Lord of the Dance!”).

Chöying Tobden Dorje’s text contains ninety two distinct workings, which span the gamut of the four tantric actions or activities. I offer a translation of the full list of procedures below so that you can get a sense of what sorts of magical procedures are covered. This list provides useful insight into the sorts of everyday magical concerns and problems the average ngakpa in Rebkong practicing Dharma and plying their craft in the mid-nineteenth century might find themselves (or their clients) dealing with:

  • For accomplishing longevity
  • Increasing merit/luck (bsod nams)
  • Increasing riches or resources
  • Drawing beings under your power or control
  • Increasing glory and splendour
  • Increasing fame
  • Making yourself attractive or enchanting to others
  • Amplifying magical power
  • For performing protective rites or workings
  • For sending back [demonic spirits] that have been sent out [against enemies via sorcery, i.e. rbod gtong ba]
  • For killing
  • For effecting rites of [wrathful] suppression (gnan pa’i las)
  • For driving off [enemies, i.e. causing enemies to scatter or flee, bskrad pa]
  • For ‘hooking’ [i.e. summoning, calling, pulling] men to you
  • For bringing women under your power
  • For ‘hooking’ [i.e. summoning, calling or pulling] ‘byung po demons to you [‘elemental’ spirits, correspond to the Indian bhut(a)]
  • For pulling jewels or wealth to you
  • For pulling food and wealth/resources to you
  • For pulling fabrics/clothing to you
  • For pulling [magical/medicinal etc.] substances or ingredients to you
  • For pulling/summoning women to you
  • For frugality [i.e. warding of sri spirits which drain wealth]
  • To be waited upon and served by the protector deities
  • To be waited upon and served by humans
  • To be waited upon and served by demons
  • To increase intelligence/wisdom
  • To have facility in voice and speech
  • To clarify all the senses
  • For manifesting clairvoyance
  • To be victorious in battles
  • To be victorious in debates or disputes
  • To win in business
  • To win in bets or gambling
  • To be victorious in athletic games, martial arts, crafts etc. (sgyu rtsal)
  • To triumph over armies
  • To accomplish one’s business, personal wishes or affairs
  • To be victorious in the use of magic [i.e. the use of rig sngags, the so-called ‘awareness’ or ‘knowledge’ mantras]
  • To accomplish Dharma-related matters
  • To increase chos srid [Buddhist political power/governance]
  • To triumph over slander and be victorious in court cases
  • To protect against ritual defilement [from tantric vow violation, nyams grib]
  • To send back vexation from ‘byung po spirits
  • To protect against contagious diseases or epidemics
  • To make a ‘byung po spirit invisibility wand [sgrib shing, a stick which renders one invisible to ‘byung po spirits]
  • To protect against [wounding from] weapons
  • To increase or amplify magical power [a repeat of item 8, but with different procedures]
  • To protect against poison
  • To protect against curses [gtad]
  • To protect against evil planetary and stellar influences
  • To protect against heading in bad or inauspicious directions
  • To turn back untimely death
  • To protect against gag lhog type infectious diseases and leprosy
  • To make rain
  • To stop rain
  • To turn back floods
  • To stop hail
  • To bind enemies and brigands
  • To bind the mouths of predatory animals
  • To protect against the poisonous bites of serpents which cause madness etc.
  • To promote conception [can be used on men or women]
  • To ‘transform the navel’ [lte ba bsgyur ba, change the sex of a child, here to male]
  • To increase the birth-rate of horses, cows, yaks etc.
  • To protect horses, cattle etc.’s [unborn] babies
  • To damage someone’s voice/render them mute
  • To free or loosen someone’s voice
  • To send out [dazzling/disturbing/terrifying] magical forms of emanations [cho ‘phrul ‘gyed pa] to a target
  • To send back negative omens or signs [ltas ngan]
  • To neutralize a khram kha curse [a form of demonic black magic utilizing a wooden board with crossed designs especially associated with character assassination]
  • To liberate someone from a byad curse
  • To free someone from depression, confusion or befuddlement [rmugs shing ‘thib pa las grol ba]
  • To free someone from paralysis
  • To improve or recover eyesight
  • To cure throat ailments
  • To cure tooth problems
  • To cure harm caused by deities (lha)
  • To protect against harm caused by klu or naga spirits
  • To protect against harm caused by yakshin/i spirits [wealth-possessing nature spirits]
  • To protect against harm caused by dri za or ‘smell-eater’ spirits
  • To protect against harm caused by mkha’ ‘gro ma or dakini spirits who fly through the sky
  • To protect against harm caused by gza’ or astrological spirits
  • To protect against harm caused by srin po spirits [ravenous, flesh-eating demons]
  • To protect against harm caused by ma mo spirits [a kind of hideous, predatory demoness]
  • To protect against harm caused by shi ‘dre spirits, ‘dead demons’ or restless, vengeful ghosts
  • To protect against harm caused by gson ‘dre spirits, ‘living [human] demons’ [i.e., typically female witches whose souls travel out of their bodies and harm people, animals, crops etc. Their power is occasionally thought to be inherited at birth or not entirely intentional]
  • To protect against harm caused by rgyal ‘gong spirits [these are extremely dangerous and powerful demons who typically understood to be the rebirth of tantric practitioners who violated their vows, of lamas, accomplished ritual specialists who died under violent, unwholesome, vengeful circumstances]
  • To protect against harm caused by th’eu rang spirits [small, capricious, shape-shifting aerial spirits who can take the form of animals, cause sickness, and poltergeist-like phenomena, and are sometimes associated with blacksmithing. Can occasionally be captured or grant luck]
  • To protect against harm caused by btsan spirits [wild, red, martial spirits associated storm-winds and mountains and other features of the natural environment]
  • To protect against harm caused by gri bo spirits [‘knife-demons’]
  • To protect against harm caused by gshin rje spirits [i.e. attendant spirits of Yama, the Lord of Death]
  • To protect against harm caused by grib or ritual pollution [i.e., caused by contact with impure people, substances, or objects, the violations of social taboos etc.]
  • To forcibly turn back or dispel nightmares
  • To accomplish whatever you wish

The brief instructions for each of these workings assume that the operator is well-versed in tantric ritual methods and Creation Stage style deity yoga. Many of the concise and compact ‘spells’ likewise enjoin the ritualist to perform other, standard types of prayer and ceremony as part of the larger working (for e.g. to recite prayers of Refuge, Bodhicitta, to perform a rab gnas or ‘consecration’ on a fabricated magical object to empower it/make it a stable ‘home’ for spiritual forces, and so on). While all of the procedures ultimately entail the alignment of the three Ms of materia, mantra, and meditation, a closer look at the workings reveals that some spells emphasize one or some of these Ms more than others. In some workings choice material substances (animal parts, special woods or metals, incenses, inks, types of dirt, necromantic objects like corpse-shrouds etc.) combined together do a great deal of the work; in certain cases, especially in workings aimed at transforming the bodily or mental condition of the operant himself, the emphasis is much more on mental procedures (as can be seen for example, in the workings below for clarifying the senses and dispelling nightmares. Still, even these procedures nonetheless involve the inner or outer recitation of mantric syllables and focused manipulations of the material body). The final procedure of the list, an all-purpose working for accomplishing whatever one desires, references yogic breathing and subtle-body manipulation procedures central to Completion Stage practices. Certain procedures emphasize the making of talismans and amulets to be empowered or enlivened and kept on the body, others the production of ‘pills’ for ingestion. Yet others describe the creation of magical assemblages meant to be hidden or discarded in specific locations (under reliquary shrines, images of Buddhas or deities, in a secret spot in a person’s home, in locations inhabited by specific spirits, and so on). In some spells the calling of specific spirits is required, in every procedure blazing devotion and prayer to the Guru and various other expressions of enlightened awareness is crucial.

Below you can see my translation of fourteen of these workings. I have selected an assortment of procedures from Chöying Tobden Dorje’s list above which I think will be interesting and edifying to readers, and which do not deal with especially malefic or aggressive forms of magic. While these instructions are meant to be practical and ‘simple’, perceptive readers will notice that hundreds of thousands of recitations of indicated mantras may well require a whole day’s worth of continuous chanting and visualizing. While these procedures might be essential, to say they expect to achieve something from nothing, from no real work at all, would certainly be a misrepresentation. Even a cursory glance at these instructions should make it clear that they assume a significant level of existing expertise and training on the part of the would-be operant. It is my hope that the translations below will help to make clear some of the underlying mechanics and principles of Tibetan tantric magic and clarify how, rather than being ‘mysterious’, random, or miraculous, these are firmly in line with broader Buddhist philosophies and ontologies (see my linked discussed of Buddhist magic as a skillfully operationalized understanding of rten ‘brel or ‘interdependent causality/causation’ here). It is my hope too that in the midst of what might seem like somewhat gruesome and outré details, the compassion of tantric ritualists who dedicate themselves to demanding and time-consuming procedures on behalf of others may become apparent. As Chöying Tobden Dorje notes in his colophon to his text, he wrote down these instructions to “increase happiness and well-being” and with the intention that whatever accumulated merit might exist in his words would ultimately contribute to beings achieving the supreme, lasting happiness that comes from realizing and abiding in their true Buddha-nature.

A String of Jewels: Assorted Magical Workings of the Guru Siddhi

By the Great Perfection or Dzogchen master Chöying Tobden Dorje

Namo Guru Padma Rajaye! Reverence to the Guru Lotus-King! Strong in the blessing-power of your compassion, o unstoppable vajra-holder, Ratna Guru, Lake-Born Lord Tsokye, I pray that you forever seat yourself upon the lotus in my heart!

Here follow the practices associated with the various magical rites or workings of the utmost quintessence Vajra Guru who in his infinitely victorious outer form is the Precious Master of Oddiyana, as described in the yon tan gyi rgyud bstan pa’i srog shing (‘The Vital-tree/Axis of the Teachings of the Tantra of Spiritual Qualities’) text from the Bla ma dgongs pa ‘dus pa:

2. If you would increase merit or luck (bsod nams): on the fifteenth day of the lunar month inscribe [an image] of your own body with gold [ink] on an unsullied piece of golden/yellow silk. Recite the mantra OM AH HUNG BANDZA (VAJRA) GURU PEMA SIDDHI HUNG PUNYE PUSHTYAM KURU SOHA (SVAHA) ten thousand times or more and having accomplished this perform a rab gnas consecration on it then fasten it along with various coloured silks and jewels to your body without any person seeing and your merit/luck will increase exponentially. In the interim, recite the prayer with fervent devotion, ‘I pray to you Lama Urgyen, the Guru of Oddiyana, the Wish-Fulfilling Jewel, you who possesses the treasure of pure, limitless merit. Bestow upon me the siddhi or spiritual accomplishment of stable merit or luck that grows and multiplies superlatively!’

7. If you would be attractive or enchanting to others: [imagine] that you are Guru Tsokye Dorje. You are youthful and beautiful, attractive and enchanting. Light comes from your heart center and ‘hooks’ or pulls all beings towards you. They remain with you, exceedingly joyous, with facial expressions of overwhelming feeling, their eyes quivering with tears. Recite the BANDZA (VAJRA) GURU mantra with single-pointed concentration feeling loving-kindness and compassion for all these beings. If you exert yourself in making actual, physical and mentally projected offerings to these beings you will become attractive and kind or loving-seeming to others. Intermittently, pray: ‘I pray to the body of the Guru, which is agreeable to any being who sees it, which they never tire of looking at! Bestow on me the siddhi of being enchanting to, of capturing the imagination [yid kyi dbang po ‘dren pa, ‘pull or guide the imaginative faculty] of any being who sees me!’

8. If you would increase your magical power: [imagine] you are the great and powerful acharya from Oddiyana. Your body is dark black in colour, you have three dark green faces and six arms. In your right three hands you hold a vajra, iron hook, and [blacksmith style] hammer. In your left three you hold a bell, a freshly severed skull and a noose. You are seated atop a solar disk on a lotus and your left leg is bent. Light radiates out from your heart center and condenses back in again gathering together all the magical potency throughout all Samsara-Nirvana, which dissolves into you. You become equal in karmic allotment or status to all the magically potent wrathful deities and the god Vishnu. Recite the concluding root-mantra MAHA PALA PUSHTYAM KURUYE SOHA (SVAHA) with single-pointed concentration. Smear your body with the bone-marrow of an elephant and wear clothes made of the skins of predatory animals and then discard these in a fire and abandon these in the sun. Do this and your magical power will then increase. In the interim, say the prayer, ‘I pray to you, o Dorje Drölo, you who incinerates the hordes of noxious beings through the might of your magical power that strikes like meteoric-lightning! May I blaze with magical might and potency, bestow upon me the siddhi of vanquishing the hordes of perverting, misleading beings!’

20. If you would ‘hook’ [i.e. pull or summon] ingredients or substances to you: draw an image of whatever substance you desire and write “Swiftly summon ‘SUBSTANCE NAME’!” on a board of red sandalwood four fingers long with gold ink. Visualize yourself as the great Oddiyana master. The sandalwood board is in front of you. Above the board is the Ratna Guru surrounded in the four quarters by four dakinis. Light rays radiate out of the seed-syllables in the figures’ hearts and condense back gathering up whatever ritual substances or medicinal ingredients you desire and the siddhis are bestowed upon you. Recite the concluding root-mantra: HARI NISA NGÖPO CHE GEMO PASHAM KURU HRING SOHA (SVAHA). In the interim pray, “I pray to you Tsokye Dorje, Master of Miracles, endowed with the glory of the magical power of ritual substances, mantras, and meditative absorption! Grant me the siddhi of quickly drawing all common and uncommon accomplishing substances to me!” Imagine that the deities melt into light and dissolve into the board. Then perform a consecration. Men should fasten this under their left armpit and women under their right, and whatever substances you desire will be summoned.

28. If you would illuminate or clarify all of your senses: during the eighth, fifteenth, or thirtieth day of the lunar month visualize yourself as the great master from Oddiyana. Imagine that there is a white [Sanskrit] BHI syllable in your right eye, a red KṢA in your left eye, a blue ṢTI at the right ear, a green E at the left ear, a red HAM at the right nostril, a yellow BAM at the left, a white DHI at the mouth, a green HRI above the mid-brow/in the center of the forehead [i.e. at the so-called ūrṇā/mdzod spus ‘hair whorl’ Buddha mark] , and a dark blue HUNG at the heart center. Clearly visualize [and recite?] these letters over and over, one hundred and eight times, and then let them dissolve. Attach these syllables to the root-mantra and recite it [that is, recite Padmasambhava’s mantra tacking each syllable onto the end]. In the interim, pray: “I pray to you Padmsambhava, you who has control over the primordial wisdom eye, over vajra-hearing, and the other [enlightened, adamantine] senses! Profoundly clarify my sense of sight, and all other senses and bestow upon me the siddhi of crystal-clear perception!

53. If you would cause rain to fall: collect various kinds of waters [i.e. from different water sources] and pour them into a clean container and add to this whatever klu or naga spirit medicines you are able to assemble. Place this inside an effigy of a frog and then cover the top of this with a new tile of terracotta. Avoid all meat, alcohol, garlic, onions [and similar klu-offending foods]. Visualize yourself as Guru Rinpoche and imagine that the frog effigy in front of you instantly transforms into the King of the klu with all his retinues. Then the [actual] Klu King along with all of his retinues is invited from the expanse of the great [cosmic] Ocean, and dissolves into [this visualized form]. You offer them multiple offerings, great collections of different sorts of things they desire, and they are pleased. Clouds appear from their bodies and rain comes in a great stream falling from their nostrils. Chant the concluding root-mantra BHARISHAYA PATALI HUNG HUNG NAGA RATSA (RAJA) TSITTA (CITTA)TROM TROM SADHU PHU BED (RBAD) YA BED (RBAD) YA NAGA RATSA (RAJA) BHARISHA SARVA SIDDHI SOHA (SVAHA) one thousand times. Pray many times: “I pray that you will cause an overwhelming shower of every wished-for siddhi to rain down forever in an a continuous stream on beings, o Pema Tsokye, Lake-Born Lotus Master, at whose feet I supplicate with devotion. I pray that you will make it rain swiftly and in abundance!” Do this and rain will fall. Once you have accomplished the working, to destroy it dispose of it (‘entrust it’) in a place where klu live [i.e. a water-hole, spring etc.].

[the use of a frog effigy in weather magic and other sorcery intended to influence klu spirits seems to have a long-established pedigree. See Tibetan Studies scholar Sam Van Schaik’s discussion of the use of similar magical frog effigies roughly a thousand years apart – in a Tibetan spellbook from the roughly tenth century Dunhuang corpus, and among contemporary ritual specialists in the Tibet-Nepal borderlands

56. If you would stop hail: on the surface of whatever length of a phurba dagger made of Acacia catechu wood write “BANDZA (VAJRA) KHRODA HUNG KARA BHIDZAYA (BHIJAYA) NILATANTA YAMANTAKA ATSALA H(A)YAGRIVA ABARA TSITA AMRITA KUNDALI HRE LOKSHA BIDZAYA (BIJAYA) MAHA PALA – Turn back lightning and hail!” Anoint this with frankincense and blood mixed with poison. Attach a crown to [the phurba] made from black silk and a corpse-shroud. Imagine that the phurba itself is Guru Drakpo surrounded by the ten wrathful deities performing rites of turning back hail. When hail falls, filled with the divine pride that you yourself are the deity, perform the threatening [tarjani mudra] and piercing ritual gaze and raise the phurba in the direction of the hail and this will send it back.

60. If you would bring a being into incarnation [i.e. induce conception]:  take the semen of an adult man who never continued his line due to having leprosy, but who is still young and who has not given birth to any bastards, the seed of a horse and donkey, the genitals of an uncastrated yak, sheep, and goat, white and red sandalwood, camphor, nutmeg, and arura and pound these together. Roll this into pill-like balls of deer-musk, using sbrang smyon or ‘maddening honey’ [i.e. honey produced from pollen collected by poisonous bees, pollen from poisonous flowers]. Recite the mantra BU DRA SIDDHI KURU BHASA BHASA MARITA DA PHOB DA PHOB one hundred thousand times over these and [your work] will be accomplished. If these are taken on an empty stomach in the morning with strong chang or beer, each pill eaten, whether by a man or a woman, will induce conception.

67. If you would send back evil omens or signs: take a phurba [a three-edged tantric ritual dagger or stake] of skyer ba [Berberris aristata, Himalayan Barberry], tsher nag [black thorn?], and seng ldeng [Acacia/Senegalia catechu] woods. Along its length, using ink made of blood mixed with poison (dug khrag), write ‘SAMASA YOGA TSITA BET (RBAD) BHYO : ARALI YOGI TSITA SAMAYE DURU GASHA PHAMA SRI RODA WAWE – Turn back, flee, be turned back!’ multiple times. Take a skull-cup with evil symbols [on it] and fill it with buckwheat, black beans, and other black grains. Plant the phurba into the top [of this pile of grains]. Fashion a canopy to cover this from a corpse-shroud and place this [assemblage] into the house secretly. By doing this, evil omens will be turned away.

78.  If you wish to protect yourself from harm caused by dri za or ‘smell-eater’ spirits: add an assortment of various medicinal and sweet-smelling substances to a paste made from sandalwood, and make round balls or beads out of this. String these together and tie them to your body. From time to time, apply a paste made from human, horse’s and dog’s feces mixed with deer musk to the soles of your feet and you will be protected from harm caused by smell-eater spirits.

85. If you wish to protect yourself from harm caused by rgyal ‘gong spirits: take soil from a place with old prayer wheels and combine this with the tantric urine and feces of a fully-ordained monk who upholds his vows and abides by proper conduct. Roll this into pills about the size of rabbit droppings. Wrap these up in materia made from human flesh, frankincense, and monkey flesh. Recite the mantra RATSA DRILING HUR THUM NYAK – TSITA SAMAYA NYOK NYOK – RATSA BAM RI LI LI MARAYA BET (RBAD) one thousand times and attach these to your body. If you do this you will be protected from harm caused by rgyal po spirits.

90. If you would protect yourself from harm caused by grib or ritual pollution: Write the mantra HUNG YATI KSHAI BHA RUTI BED (RBAD) BHYO with vermillion or silver ink on [a piece of] tiger skull. Perform a consecration on this. Wrap it in a corpse-shroud and attach it to your body and this will protect you from the harm caused by the oppression of grib.

91. If you wish to forcibly dispel nightmares: As soon as you wake up stand up and, reciting prayers of Refuge and Bodhicitta thoroughly and purely, resolve for yourself that all the phenomena represented in your dreams lack any true existence and shout PHAT! Resting then [in non-conceptuality], you will truly dispel dreams.

92. If you would accomplish whatever you wish: At dawn expel [stale] rlung or winds. Generate from a BHRUM syllable of self-cognizing awareness a radiant, shining, resplendent, sumptuous wish-fulfilling jewel that accomplishes all desires, into which all the assemblies of deities of the Three Roots [guru, yidam, dakini] enter and dissolve. Hold the vase-breath [i.e. practice kumbhaka]. Let light radiate out again and pervade throughout all appearances and arisings in existence and conceive that all your wishes are accomplished. Rest in a state of non-conceptuality, not focusing on any conceptual object, and whatever you think of will be accomplished as you wish.

* As an additional note on my final point about training in letsok procedures as being connected with compassion, and tantric Buddhist initiates’ altruistic commitments, I thought I would share some feedback I got to this post from Khandro Kunzang Dechen Chodron. Khandro la is the wife of respected Tibetan ngakpa Dawa Chodak Rinpoche (1951 – 2017). Lama Dawa was a senior student of Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche and other great ngakpa of the twentieth century and was widely known for his exceptional mirror divination skills and tantric Buddhist ritual and yogic expertise. As a consummate yogini herself, Kunzang Dechen Chodron continues to provide thorough, traditional Tibetan Vajrayana  ritual education for students at the couple’s Dharma center and private retreat facility called Saraswati Bhawan located in Lansing, Iowa in the United States. As Kunzang Dechen Chodron shared with me:

“My teachers, who were consummate Ngakpas, always taught that once you had completed the Nyen-Drub recitation retreats of a particular deity cycle, it was your duty to then perform the las-tshogs associated with that cycle in order to benefit others. In fact, the performace of the las-tshogs was the way in which you enacted your bodhisattva vows to benefit all beings. Much training goes into learning the various rituals and a lot of time and energy (and expenses) goes into collecting the many strange substances (rdzas) that the rites require. According to Lama Dawa, the effort you must make to gather your ‘ngakpa apothecary’ is part of the fulfilment of the paramita of tsondru [‘the perfection of the enlightened attribute of ‘dedicated effort’ or ‘diligence’ on the path]. It saddens me that so few practitioners who have even completed three year retreats give any importance to the las-tshogs (or even know about them), and very few Lamas take the time to train such students. It was always Lama Dawa’s wish that western practitioners become adept at these kinds of practices. He placed great emphasis on them as well as took the time to instruct his students.”

I strongly believe that more attention to this aspect of Vajrayana cultivation will help make ‘Western Tantra’ less individualistic, more humane and community-based, even if some practitioners still balk at terms like ‘magic’ or ‘sorcery’. Kunzang Dechen Chodron’s comments also remind me of the sentiments of my own ngakpa teacher Dr Nida Chenagtsang, who has likewise stressed the connection between magical proficiency and the cultivation of a compassionate, Buddhist intention to help others. The following excerpt from my recently defended PhD dissertation, ‘White Robes, Matted Hair: Tibetan Tantric Householders, Moral Sexuality, and the Ambiguity of Esoteric Buddhist Expertise in Exile’ makes this clear:

“Dr Nida made the connection between ‘self’-cultivation through identification with the yidam and the ideally altruistic performance of miscellaneous efficacious ‘actions’ (i.e. las tshogs) for others clear during a one day teaching he gave on mantra healing in Lafayette, Colorado, in May 2019. He explained that just repeating “May all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering” over and over – the standard Mahāyāna Buddhist aspiration that forms part of the recitation of the ‘Four Immeasurables’ prayer (tshad med bzhi) which practitioners repeat thousands and thousands of times as part of tantric preliminary practices – was not enough. One had to actually do something to actualize this intention. To fail to do so he said, was the same as if a person was constantly telling their partner, “I love you, I love you!” but never did anything to show it, never took any actions to demonstrate this to be true. In this way, the quintessential ngakpa is one who cultivates strong spiritual efficacy or power (nus pa) through the recitation of mantras and visualization of deities in order to help others and demonstrate their love.” (2019, 53)


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