White Robes, Matted Hair: My PhD Thesis on Tibetan Tantric Householders Now Available for Download

No photo description available.

A detail from the medical thangka paintings commissioned by the Fifth Dalai Lama’s Regent, tantric yogi-doctor Desi Sangye Gyatso (1653 – 1705), as accompanying illustrations for the teachings in the Gyushi (rgyud bzhi) or ‘Four Medical Tantras’, the core textbook of exoteric Tibetan medicine. The detail depicts representative examples of the “two communities of Buddhist renouncers and virtuous spiritual guides who are [valid] objects for offerings/reverence”, that is, the community of ‘shaved-headed, saffron robed monastic renouncers’ and the ‘community of long-haired, white robe-wearing tantric yogi/nis or householder renouncers’ known as ngakpa/ma.

Great news, friends!

My full PhD dissertation in cultural anthropology, titled ‘White Robes, Matted Hair: Tibetan Tantric Householders, Moral Sexuality, and the Ambiguities of Esoteric Buddhist Expertise in Exile’ is now available open-access to download via ProQuest. It’s over 500 double-spaced pages and has more typos than I’d like, but it earned me a doctorate.

Here’s the thesis abstract and link for those who’d like to download and read it. I hope that whatever small insight and merit might be in its pages may spread and bring benefit!

 

“White Robes, Matted Hair: Tibetan Tantric Householders, Moral Sexuality, and the Ambiguities of Esoteric Buddhist Expertise in Exile

by Joffe, Ben Philip, Ph.D., University of Colorado at Boulder, 2019, 542; 27663085

Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation offers an ethnographic study of ngakpa/ma (sngags pa/ma, m.f.)–Tibetan Buddhist non-monastic, non-celibate tantric yogis and yoginis–living in the Tibetan diaspora. Like monks and nuns, ngakpa/ma are professionally religious, yet unlike their monastic counterparts they can marry, have families, and pursue worldly work. Living in ‘the village’ like ordinary laypeople but also spending much of their time in retreat or working as ritual specialists for hire, ngakpa/ma occupy a shifting, third space between monastic renunciation and worldly attachments. Based on roughly five years of fieldwork research conducted in Tibetan and Tibetan Buddhist communities in India, Nepal, Northeastern Tibet, and the United States, this thesis explores how ngakpa/mas’ historically decentralized, morally ambiguous esoteric expertise has become implicated in various projects of cultural preservation and reform for exile Tibetans, even as it has come to circulate and have meaning well beyond the purview of ethnic Tibetan communities and interests. Chapters One to Five offer an overview of how ngakpa/ma and ngakpa/ma orientations have been pinned down (or have failed to be pinned down) in exile, via language; gendered divisions of labor; in physical space and permanent institutions; through hair, clothing, and embodied comportment; and as part of new family and career trajectories. Chapters Six to Nine examine how contentious esoteric tantric yogic practices, associated with sexuality and Tibetan medicine in particular, are being popularized and reframed in exile in new ways and for new audiences as part of increasingly transnational networks of exchange. In these chapters, I underscore the polysemous quality of tantric practices, and reflect on my own collaborations with a Tibetan ngakpa-doctor to translate and share information on Tibetan tantric yogic practices more widely. In conclusion, I assess trends and quandaries that have dominated the academic study of secrecy and esoteric religions and highlight the implications and value of an ethnographic approach to researching tantric traditions.”

https://pqdtopen.proquest.com/doc/2335180529.html?FMT=ABS

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. Continue reading

How to Mind Your Tantric Business: Padmasambhava’s Parting Words of Advice to Tibetan Ngakpa

188 Padmasambhava

(The One Born From A Lotus, the Precious tantric Buddhist Guru, Padmasambhava)

One of my favourite genres of Tibetan Buddhist literature is so-called ‘words or songs of advice’ texts, known as gtam or zhal gdams in Tibetan. These sorts of texts are great for a number of reasons. For one, they tend to be both pithy and poetic, which makes them a pleasure to read. They often have quite a colloquial flavour, which makes them interesting in terms of style and register. And they are also uniquely practical. While their ethical orientation means that they are focused on ideals and best case-scenarios, the fact that they are intended to be useful as guides means that they are forced to point out faults realistically, to take stock of where their target audience may actually be in their lives or religious practice. After all, the only thing worse than unsolicited advice is advice that has no bearing on the realities of one’s life.

I previously translated and shared a ‘words of advice’ text aimed at ngakpa or non-celibate, tantric vow-holder yogi-householders on this blog. You can read that text by famous 20th century ngakpa Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, and some stray thoughts on it here. Today I was taking a read of the much older text of advice for ngakpa on which Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche based his later commentary: the ‘final words’ or parting testament (zhal chems) of the legendary ON (‘Original Ngakpa’) Padmasambhava (‘The Lotus Born one’) a.k.a. Guru Rinpoche, the ‘Precious Guru’, as found in a biography of this Great Tantric Master who secured the spread of Buddhism in Tibet which was revealed by the tantric visionary saint Nyangral Nyima Ozer in the 12th century. Dilgo Khyentse’s words of advice for ngakpa in the early twentieth century are directly inspired by the testament of the eighth century Padmasambhava as reported in Nyangral Nyima Ozer’s twelfth century revelation, Continue reading

Tibetan Master Meets Theosophical Mahatmas: Gendun Choepel’s Reflections on Blavatsky and Theosophy

gendun choepel

(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

The Conqueror of Time and Space: Ju Mipam’s Prayer to Yuthok

mipham

(The great scholar-adept Ju Mipam Namgyal Gyatso)

Ju Mipam (1846 – 1912) is remembered as a giant of Tibetan intellectual and cultural history. A monk scholar-practitioner born into an aristocratic family, Mipam Rinpoche was an influential and brilliant exponent and revitalizer of the Nyingma or Old Translation school who nonetheless studied and supported teachings from all schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Mipam wrote voluminously on philosophy, history, meditation, medicine, astrology, ritual practice and much else besides, and also invested special effort in preserving oral and folk divinatory and magical practices from across Tibet. He is one of the few great religious authorities in Tibetan history who was not recognized as a reincarnated lama or tulku.

Mipam Rinpoche is somewhat remarkable as a Nyingma luminary for the extent to which he did not emphasize the body of revealed or ‘treasure’ (terma) texts which form such an important part of Nyingma teachings. Mipam’s stress on the kama or orally-transmitted-as-opposed-to-revealed portion of the Nyingma canon notwithstanding, he was nonetheless versed in and deeply appreciative of terma teachings. The prayer below is one small example that points to Mipam’s familiarity and respect for revealed traditions. Mipam possessed considerable medical learning and was acquainted with the cycle of revealed teachings known as the Yuthok Nyingthig, the ‘Heart-essence of Yuthok’. This terma cycle refers to a comprehensive collection of teachings on Tibetan Tantric Buddhism which were transmitted via ‘pure vision’ in the twelfth century to Yuthok Yonten Gonpo the Younger, the father of Tibetan traditional medicine. These teachings comprise a unique corpus of instructions on esoteric Tantric Buddhist yoga and alchemy, meditation and ritual practices which are specifically geared towards physicians Continue reading

Absent Fathers and Missing Camels: Notes on Sudanese Sand Divination

Mali geomancer

(A geomancer or sand diviner from Mali traces geomantic figures in a prepared bed of sand)

A few days ago a member of a Geomancy study group that I am a part of on Facebook posted some interesting links to 19th century material that mentions geomancy. Many of the links this person posted included accounts of geomantic procedures that European colonial explorers like Sir Richard Burton had observed during their travels through parts of Africa. One of the links was a little different however: it was a facsimile of Voyage au Darfour (Journey to Darfur), the 1845 translation into French of a travelogue written in Arabic by Sheikh Mohammed Ibn Omar El-Tounsy (Al-Tunisi), who served as chief reviewer of translations of medical texts translated from European languages into Arabic at the School of Medicine in Cairo. This particular source thus jumped out at me, not only for its content but because rather than yet another white colonist’s account of native culture, it represented the reflections of a colonized non-white foreigner observing cultural practices that were both different from and cognate with his own.

Continue reading

Telling the Future: Some Thoughts on Fortune, Fingers and Tibetan Rosary Divination

I have performed divinatory services for clients since I was about eleven years old. As both a scholar and a practitioner, I am deeply fascinated by the incredible range of – but also significant similarities between – forms of divination as practiced across the centuries and the globe, and I know that readers of this blog – many of whom also practice some kind of divination – are too. With that in mind, I thought I’d offer some casual thoughts and a few original rough translations relating to Tibetan divination practices here, with a focus on one type of prognostication in particular: ‘phreng mo (pronounced treng moh), or divination through the use of a prayer beads or rosaries (‘phreng ba). Continue reading

Tibetan Spells for Calling Vultures to a Corpse: On Human-Bird Relations and Practicing Magic

Himalayan griffon vulture running

(A Himalayan vulture coming in for landing)

A day or two ago I was looking through a compilation of simple Tibetan healing rituals when I came across a short entry on a genre of Tibetan magic that I find quite lovely and interesting: vulture summoning spells.  I thought I would share these spells here and offer some reflections on why I found them significant. Continue reading

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)

MargaretMead1

(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. Continue reading

Meditation Made Easy: Announcing Dr Nida Chenagtsang’s New Book ‘The Weapon of Light’

weapon of light cover

A week or few ago, Sky Press’s newest publication, The Weapon of Light: Introduction to Ati Yoga Meditation by Tibetan traditional doctor and tantric yogi Dr Nida Chenagtsang was released for sale. Since I helped with editing and translation for this book, you would think I would have thought to mention it on this blog, but distracted by other things as I was, I forgot to make an announcement. So, since ‘The Weapon of Light’ is actually quite a special little book, I thought I’d make a post about it now. Continue reading