Indigenous ‘Nature Spirits’, Bio-regional Animisms and the Legal Personhood of Other-than-human Persons

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(Mauna Kea mountain in Hawaii. An inactive, million-year old vulcano, Mauna Kea is the largest mountain on earth. While Mount Everest is the tallest mountain when measured from sea-level up, Mauna Kea, when measured from its actual base deep in the Pacific Ocean to its peak, exceeds the Himalayan sacred mountain considerably)

The day before yesterday I was fortunate enough to catch some of the panels of the first day of a jam-packed two-day conference held at my University titled ‘Indigenous Storytelling and Law.’ The conference, which was presented by the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Native American and Indigenous Studies, brought together a great number of native and some non-native litigators, scholars, activists and community members to reflect on and discuss a range of pressing issues affecting native communities, with a spotlight on how indigenous politics, sovereignty, experiences, histories, and cultural, economic and legal practices have come up against those of both state and federal settler colonial U.S. authorities and non-native groups and institutions. Click here to see the fantastic line-up across the two-day event. Continue reading

For the Religion and the Race: Words of Praise for Tibetan Non-Celibate Tantrikas

(A depiction of prominent 19th century poet, meditation master and promoter of the ‘white robed, dreadlocked community’ or ngakpa tradition, Shabkar Tsokdruk Rangdrol)

Recently, some non-Tibetan practitioners of Tibetan tantric Buddhism or Vajrayana were asking me about some informal advice texts or ‘speeches’ ༼གཏམ། tahm༽written in Tibetan by great ngakpa ༼སྔགས་པ།༽ or non-celibate tantric ritual specialists and whether these had been translated into English. In the course of looking into some of these older texts, I was reminded of a Tibetan blog post from 2009, which represents an interesting variation on the genre of advice speech for ngakpas, by ngakpas. So I thought I would translate it – very roughly! – and share it here.

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Celebrity Shamans and the Question of Indigenous Knowledge: A Review of, and some stray Reflections on ‘Inyanga: Sarah Mashele’s Story’

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I was wafting around a second-hand clothing store when I was in Cape Town, South Africa in December last year when I came across a curious little volume hidden behind some piles of clothing and gaudy costume jewelry. The book’s single word title ‘Inyanga’ caught my eye. Inyanga is a technical term in isiZulu and isiXhosa for a particular kind of traditional healer or curer (more on the technical specifications or lack thereof of this designation later). Written by white South African writer and journalist Lilian Simon, Inyanga was published in 1993, one year before the abolition of Apartheid, and constitutes a kind-of memoir for prominent black South African traditional healer Sarah Mashele. From roughly the 1950s until the present (I have not been able to determine yet if she is still alive) Sarah Mashele worked full-time as a healer in and around Pretoria and Johannesburg – and in the formally blacks-only segregated urban neighbourhood of Soweto in particular – providing services to patients across the race, class and cultural spectrum. I just finished reading the book, and so I thought I would offer a review of it as well as some reflections on its contents and Simon and Mashele’s collaboration for interested readers. Continue reading

New Book of Translated Commentaries on Yuthok’s Ati Yoga

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Some happy news. Recently, I produced some English translations of commentaries written in Tibetan by Dr Nida Chenagtsang on the special Ati Yoga (Dzogchen) instructions of the Yuthok Nyingthig, the cycle of comprehensive tantric Buddhist teachings associated with Tibetan medicine and connected with Yuthok, the father and chief systematizer of Tibetan medicine who is said to have achieved full liberation in one life and to have dissolved into rainbow light at his death. These translations have now been combined with supplementary material to create a new book, ‘Mirror of Light: A Commentary on Yuthok’s Ati Yoga’ which will be published by SKY Press on the 9th of November 2016.

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Embodying Healing: Tantric Ritual Short-hand and the Training of Anthropological Attention

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Elaborate ritual procedures are a hallmark of Indo-Tibetan tantra. Tantric rites are often long and complex. Ceremonies typically involve multiple parts or stages, replete with lengthy chanted liturgies, extensive visualizations and gestures, and the making of both physical and imagined offerings. The ability to memorize such procedures, and to properly and elegantly execute the intricate choreographies of body posture and movement, recited mantras, and imagined forms which they require, is crucial to tantric expertise. Large-scale and extended rituals which involve a lot of people, ritual trappings, and processes are important in Tibetan Buddhist contexts and are conducted frequently. Yet the prevalence of externally elaborate ritual performances should not be taken to mean that smaller, quicker and more ‘internal’ rites are not also a vital part of Tibetan ritual specialists’ work. Continue reading

‘As Wealthy as a King’: Common Tools and Substances used in Mantra Healing

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(A regal-looking Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (1910-1991), with tantric ritual bell or dril bu, seated behind a sbyin sreg or ‘burnt offering’ fire)

As a follow-up to my recent translation of Dr Nida Chenagtang’s chapter on how mantras work, I decided to translate a subsequent chapter in Dr Nida’s Mantra Healing book which deals with the ritual tools and substances most commonly used by ngakpa/ma. Dr Nida la gives a brief summary of some of the most salient ritual implements and objects used by mantra-healers and tantric wizards, and describes their functions, rationale, and construction, along with rules for their proper handling and use. The subject of ritual tools necessarily ties in which more general, theoretical reflections I have made on this blog about the role of materiality in magic and religion. How ought we to understand the status of magical, blessed or powerful objects or materials, in a Buddhist context where nothing that exists has any innate or enduring substantiality on the ultimate level, or for that matter where subtle, ‘imagined forms’ may be just as ontologically real, agentive, and efficacious as gross, material ones? As we saw in Dr Nida’s earlier chapter about mantras’ efficacy, the ultimate emptiness of phenomena is in fact directly related to their functionality or agency – it is precisely because material things are impermanent, compounded and conditional, that they are able to be transformed, and to transform in kind. Buddhist notions of dependent-origination and emptiness are wholesale dispensations that apply across divides of body-and-mind, real-and-representational, which are themselves also categories that operate quite differently in Buddhist philosophical contexts versus non-Buddhist ones. Continue reading

Shifty Sorcerers and Playing with Empathy: a response from the creator of Tibet: The Role Playing Game

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Recently, Brian St. Claire-King, the Creative Director of Vajra Enterprises and creator of Tibet: The Role Playing Game sent me a response to my essay on this blog about his game, and he was kind enough to let me share it with readers. Brian has honoured me with some very thorough and thoughtful comments on my post. I’m glad he responded – I made it very clear to him that what moved me to write the piece in the first place was the extent to which he achieved what struck me as a remarkable level of feasibility in his representations of Tibetan life. I was amazed to discover his work, and at least a few Tibetans who read my article have let me know that they were fascinated to see it too.

In his letter below, Brian answers some of the questions I pose in the article, and points out some areas worth elaborating on or exploring further. He expands persuasively on gaming’s power to engender empathy, and echoes eloquently some of my own thinking on the parallels between anthropological and gaming ‘pedagogies’ (I especially love the idea he mentions of gamers using RPG resources to get into the headspace of the very same Christian moral crusader ‘enemies’ who sought to oppose their activities). Continue reading

The Magic of Interdependence: A general description of the view of how mantras produce results

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(Guru Rinpoche, the Precious Guru Padmasambhava surrounded by his own mantra, and the mantra of Dependent Origination)

In an earlier post, I mentioned Dr Nida Chenagtsang’s new book on the subject of mantra healing, which was written with Yeshe Drolma and published in December of last year by the Beijing People’s Press. The book, whose full title is “The Science of Interdependent Connection Mantra Healing’ (rten ‘brel sngags bcos thabs kyi rig pa), is a significant achievement. While there is no small number of mantra collections (sngags ‘bum) and tantric grimoires (sngags kyi be’u bum) within Tibetan literary tradition, these are, by and large, books of mantras and magical rituals, and not books about them. Dr Nida’s 339 page volume is thus ground-breaking. It represents one of the first Tibetan language treatments of its kind, in which a native practitioner and scholar of Tibetan traditional medicine and tantric ritual provides a general overview of mantra healing in theory and practice, and supplies a fuller range of interpretive frameworks and historical context for Tibetan approaches to mantra use. Continue reading

Demon Directories: On Listing and Living with Tibetan Worldly Spirits

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(An image of a blue the’u rang or tebrang spirit from a Tibetan manuscript. Scanned images from this manuscript of many Tibetan worldly spirits described in the post that follows can be found here at himalayanart.org but unfortunately the name and date of the source-text is not given. If anyone knows these details, please do let me know!)

I came across the following condensed directory of worldly spirits, gods, demons and other non-human Tibetan persons that go bump in the night in a book of essays which deal with the history and controversies surrounding the Tibetan protector-spirit Dolgyal, which I briefly discussed here. The book, whose short title is ‘The Impurity-Dispelling Mirror – An Investigation into the Origination and Controversy of Dolgyal’ was compiled by the Office of the Central Executive Committee of Dhomay (Amdo) Province in exile. The Committee spent some four odd years conducting research into the contentious spirit’s origins and nature and has penned a series of excellent essays explaining the role of spirit-protectors in Tibetan Buddhism and the development of the controversial sectarian issues associated with this spirit in particular. The essays in the book provide much needed context for a very complex issue, part of which revolves around divided opinions on the theological status of the spirit in question. Supporters of the spirit claim that it is a legitimate protector that is upholding its vows and deserving of propitiation; whereas His Holiness the Dalai Lama and numerous other authorities consider the being to be a harmful and demonic presence, a difficult to control hyper-zealous (and hyper-sectarian) force of violence and evil that should be avoided altogether. Continue reading

The Red Wind of Memory: A Review of Susan Kenyon’s ‘Slaves and Spirits of Central Sudan’ (2012)

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I thought I would re-post a review that I wrote some months ago of anthropologist Susan Kenyon’s 2012 longitudinal study of zar possession practices in Central Sudan, Spirits and Slaves in Central Sudan: The Red Wind of Sennar. A slightly edited version of this review appeared in print in Anthropology News, and was also featured on the periodical’s website. Since the online review appears to no longer be accessible, I am re-sharing it here so people more people read it and learn about zar and Susan’s book.

Zar spirits and ‘healing cult’ phenomena are compelling for many reasons. Zar is distinctly transnational in both its cosmological scope and actual practice, yet it is also tied to specific regional histories and experiences, to very specific lives and biographies. With its layered and cosmopolitan spirit cosmologies, zar possession reveals beautifully how history lives in the body, how legacies of colonialism and violence, of upheaval and encounters with the culturally other, are intimate, living presences that may come as afflictions but also as lovers, friends, helpers, and teachers in disguise. Zar provides material for the study of religious pluralism, it presents rich examples of the tense back-and-forths between affliction and accommodation, oppression and opportunity that have fascinated and challenged anthropologists (and well, everyone else) for generations. Zar’s particular approach to placating and accommodating spirits is a distinctly gendered phenomenon. Zar has been described both as a women’s ‘cult of affliction’ and as a form of women’s resistance, an empowering spiritual club for women and gender misfits (or in the language of more contemporary, internet-assisted identity politics maybe, for ‘femmes’) which sits at times parallel and at times perpendicularly to mainstream Islam and its institutions Continue reading