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

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Anthropology, Esotericism, and ‘Fringe’ Buddhism: Interview on the Imperfect Buddha Podcast

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A month or two ago I did an interview with Matthew O’Connell for his ‘Imperfect Buddha’ podcast, where I talked about doing research on Western esotericism as an anthropologist and scholar-practitioner, and about some of the more ‘fringe’ dimensions of global Tibetan Buddhism today. I ended up talking a lot about myself and not that much about the specific details of my research, and Matthew barely got a word in edgeways, but it is what it is. Many of the posts and articles on this blog get a mention. I no doubt said a lot of things that would benefit from further qualification and which I would probably take issue with if I heard myself saying them now. The thought of listening to my voice drone on for that long curdles my juices and fills me with acute horror though, so I’m can’t be sure – you’ll just have to listen to the interview yourselves and tell me how it makes you feel instead.

Shout out to Matt for arranging things, and thinking I was interesting enough to have on the show. Let me know what you think!

8.0 Imperfect Buddha Podcast: Ben Joffe on the paranormal, Tibetan Buddhism & the Ngakpa

 

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

Learning Hierogylphics and Academic Mentors

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I started asking myself the other morning if I could remember when I really felt like I was going to become an academic. I was a precocious child – I was passionate from a young age about reading and learning, about conducting my own research into specialized subjects that interested me. But I found myself thinking just now about when exactly the point of no return might have been.

I am the son of a (now semi-retired) professional academic. When I was growing up, I would often visit my Dad’s office in the English Department at the University of KwaZulu Natal in Durban, South Africa. My Dad worked for many decades as a professor there, and the university looms large in the city and my snap-shot memories of it. It is a tall, tan building that looks down somewhat imperiously onto the city from atop a small hill. Pushing up from the folds of land surrounding it, it exudes a quiet constancy. Yet despite its classic monastic-fortress on the hill feel, any firmness it might manage is ultimately lost to Durban’s humid haze, and the city’s trademark red sand has coated the building’s stonework altogether too thoroughly for it to maintain any illusion of celestial stateliness – ruddy-cheeked and dusty, the university’s brand of monasticism is less regal abbot, and more older, disheveled but dignified bachelor – tall, skinny and off to one side, a friend of the hosts at the mixer, pulling nervously at his collar. Continue reading

How my Dad got Worms: Academic Karma, and Wondering what Anthropology is even good for

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When I was about 12 years old my Dad got worms. He got a lot of them, and it ended up being quite awkward. He didn’t get them in his guts, though, but in a washing machine.

I had forgotten all about this episode in my Dad’s and mine own life until just now, when I was talking to a friend of mine on Facebook, Austin Coppock, about animism and the difference between Continue reading

A Lazy Lucifer: Bear Sacrifices in Boulder

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Was just reminded of that time when a drugged bear fell out of a tree at our university, and I spent 45 minutes procrastinating grading by writing a poem about the incident and this iconic photo of it, after my adviser Carole McGranahan dared me to. Carole and I had both been marvelling at how mesmerizing this photo taken by a student at the scene was (the photo has since become internet-famous), and Carole said that someone ought to write a poem about it, and then proceeded to nominated me. Continue reading