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. Continue reading
After more than a year’s hiatus (hello, PhD dissertation), I thought I would revive my posting here with a translation of an essay by Tibetan physican and tantric yogi Dr Nida Chenagtsang about a different kind of revival.
The following essay, published in a 1999 edited collection of some of Dr Nida’s articles on Tibetan medicine, describes Dr Nida’s efforts to resuscitate and promote a traditional Tibetan healing practice known as Yookchö/Yukcho(e) (dbyug bcos), or ‘Stick Therapy’. Stick Therapy, also sometimes called ‘vajra-stick/rod’ (rdo rje dbyug) practice, involves tapping repeatedly and in a steady rhythm on particular treatment points on a patient’s or one’s own body with a specially prepared pliable stick with a bundle or knob on one end in order to treat specific ailments. Stick Therapy is one of several traditional Tibetan healing practices which were originally (or simultaneously) developed by tantric Buddhist yogi/nis for use on their own bodies for the purposes of self-healing in the context of meditation retreat, which were then apparently taken up and developed as more exoteric medical therapies for use on the bodies of uninitiated patients.
(Celebrated ex-monk Tibetan intellectual Gendun Choepel)
I was recently reading through Donald Lopez’s excellent book “The Madman’s Middle Way’ on the contributions of controversial and brilliant early twentieth century Tibetan intellectual Gendun Choepel (1903-1951), and I came across something I had missed before, namely, Gendun Choepel’s reflections in Tibetan on the popularity of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891) and the nature of her new religious movement Theosophy, as found in his ‘Serki Thangma’ or ‘Field/Surface of Gold’. This travelogue (which has been fully translated into English by Lopez and Thupten Jinpa) constitutes an extensive autobiographical account of the ex-monk’s wanderings in the 1930s and 40s throughout India and then Ceylon/now Sri Lanka. It is chock-full of fascinating insights about British empire, comparative religion, gender, and science as seen through the eyes and experience of an extremely gifted and innovative Tibetan scholar, poet, and artist. Continue reading
On this Easter Sunday, I am very happy to announce formally here on this blog the completion of a new book by Dr Nida Chenagtsang and Sky Press, Karmamudra: The Yoga of Bliss (Sexuality in Tibetan Medicine and Buddhism).
As some of you may know, I have been working as editor and translator for this project since 2016. In so many ways, it has been unlike anything I have worked on before. Dr Nida will be presenting the book at the 6th annual Tibetan Traditional Medicine Sorig Congress in Pisa, Italy in three weeks and it will be launched worldwide on April 25th. Here is the blurb for the book from Sky Press’ website:
“Karmamudra refers to the ancient Buddhist practice of partnered sexual yoga. Also known as ‘The Path of Skillful Means’ or ‘The Path of Great Bliss’, Karmamudra uses powerful meditation techniques to transform ordinary pleasure, worldly desire, and orgasm into vehicles for spiritual transformation and liberation. In this ground-breaking book, Dr Nida Chenagtsang draws on his extensive training in Tibetan medicine and yoga to clarify major misconceptions relating to Tibetan Buddhist Tantra in general and Tibetan Buddhist sexual yoga practices in particular. Demystifying sexual yoga without depreciating it, Dr Nida provides an overview of the relationship between Sutric and Tantric orientations in Tibetan Buddhism, offers explanations of Tantric vows, initiations, and subtle anatomy, and explores both bio-medical and traditional Tibetan ideas about sexual health and well-being.
Speaking in a colloquial style as a physician, teacher, yogi, and parent, he addresses issues of sexual abuse, well-being and empowerment in a learned, down-to-earth and compassionate way. Aiming to inform and empower, this book offers vital context and instructions through which beginner and advanced students of any gender or sexual orientation can learn to engage with typically destructive and distracting emotions in a skillful way. Drawing on special Karmamudra teachings found in the Yuthok Nyingthig tradition that are aimed at practitioners without any prior training in Tantric yoga, it offers safe and simple methods through which students can work with the raw energy of their desire and transform it into a source of blessings and benefit in their everyday lives.
(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. Continue reading
This most recent essay of mine on Savage Minds also took place as part of a running conversation with popular media and representations. I think that it does a decent job of re-iterating and extending some of the ideas that came up in the Tibetan aliens and singing bowl essays about the sometimes bewildering cross-fertilizations between Indo-Tibetan esotericisms, Western occultism, and popular culture.
There’s a lot more to be said in all this about Continue reading
This was also a piece I did not expect to write. Popular media, and reactions to popular media however, got me thinking more about issues of commodification and cultural appropriation, and the singing bowl turned out to be a particularly useful entry point into a lot of these.
I find it quite surprising that so little academic material has been written about singing bowls and their history, despite them being such iconic and familiar New Age objects. Continue reading
This was probably my favourite of the four October essays to write, probably because it involved so many things that I love to think and talk about, but was also something I never, ever imagined I’d be writing for an anthropological audience, or maybe at all.
Years ago I was warned by a lovely acting HoD in an anthropology department to be careful of pursuing the study of esotericism Continue reading
Despite the ridiculous title, I get the feeling this next Savage Minds essay was a little less widely read. This may have something to do with the fact that the technicalities of Tibetan exile secularism and school curricula have less of a wide appeal than some of the other subjects I’ve covered. Whatever the case, I think that this particular Tibetan origin myth Continue reading
Here’s my second piece for Savage Minds, and the first of the four-part guest-blogger series I did during October last year.
This essay offers a brief overview of my current dissertation research project on ngakpa and ngakpa lineages in exile and outside of Tibet. I tried to make this piece a useful summary of some of the dimensions of ngakpa/ma histories, orientations, practices, and lineages that I thought were of interest, especially for an anthropological audience perhaps less familiar with Tibetan societies and Vajrayana. Continue reading