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
(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
(His Holiness, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche)
Following on from an earlier post where I offered a rough translation of a Tibetan praise-poem to the long-haired, white-robed community of non-celibate tantric Buddhist ngakpa and ngakma, I thought I would share an equally rough translation of another ཞལ་གདམས (zhal gdams, pronounced something like shaldahm/jaldahm) or ‘oral advice’ text for ngakpa – this time, one given by the great tantric yogi, scholar, treasure revealer and Dzogchen meditation master His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. Continue reading
It’s been months since I’ve posted here, something quite regrettable. So to get back into the swing of things following my return to the U.S., I decided to whip up this quick translation of a long-distance interview that Dr Nida Chenagtsang, a Tibetan ngakpa or non-celibate tantric ritual specialist and Tibetan traditional doctor gave in Tibetan in 2014. Given its rich biographical and technical details, I thought that readers of this blog and students of Dr Nida would appreciate having access to an English language version.
The interview – conducted by astute interviewer Lu Nyön or ‘Crazy Snake Spirit’ – deals with Dr Nida’s two primary areas of expertise: Sowa Rigpa and Sang Ngak, that is, Tibetan Traditional Medicine and ‘Secret Mantra’ or Tibetan tantra. Lu Nyön and Nida la touch briefly on everything from Tibetan alchemical longevity practices, dream clairvoyance, traditional techniques of tantric sexual yoga, to contemporary near-death experiences with impressive clarity and directness. Dr Nida provides clarifications about the proper practice of advanced tantric yogas and gives useful introductions to both the Yuthok Nyingthik, the special esoteric Buddhist teachings aimed specifically at traditional doctors, and the Gyüshi, or ‘Four Tantras’ which together comprise the core exoteric textbook of Tibetan medicine. Continue reading
(The Great Fifth Lelung Jedrung Rinpoche, Zhepai Dorje)
Recently, Tibetan scholar, traditional physician and yogi Dr Nyida Chenaktsang told me about (and gave me permission to read) a short text by the 18th century Tibetan yogi and visionary saint or ‘treasure revealer’, Lelung Jedrung Zhepai Dorje (sle lung rje drung bzhad pa’i rdo rje, 1697-1740). This saint, whose name means something like ‘the Jedrung reincanation, the laughing/proclaiming tantric thunderbolt, or non-dual reality from the Lelung region’, is also known by the personal names Trinlay Wangpo and Lobsang Trinlay. He was born in Ölga/Ölkha, a region in Lhoka in South-Western Tibet, and was recognized as the Fifth Jedrung Rinpoche – that is to say, as the reincarnation of Drubchen Namkha Gyaltsen (1326-1401), the celebrated master who was one of Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), the founder of the Gelukpa lineage’s, principal gurus. Yet, despite being the re-embodiment of a celibate master – of one who played mentor to boot to a figure strongly associated with the monastic regulation and circumscription of tantra in Tibet, AND despite the fact that Lelung Zhepai Dorje had himself received monk’s ordination from the Sixth Dalai Lama at the age of seven, the text that Dr Nyida brought to my attention has nothing to do with either vows of celibacy or monasticism. Continue reading
The following is a quick translation into English from French that I made of what seems like an excerpt of a longer interview that Le Point.fr did with anthropologist and Tibetologist Katia Buffetrille. Although it is short, it covers important ground, so I thought non-readers of French might appreciate a version in English. The focus of the interview is the topic of Han Chinese Sincization of Tibet and Tibetans. In a very nice and concise way Katia, describes the little everyday ways – particularly in relation to naming – that Tibetan cultural and lived, embodied realities are erased and suppressed to make way for the steam-rolling priorities of Chinese settler-occupiers. Continue reading
Part of my current PhD research focuses on the overlaps – and divergences – between ideas about what practicing tantra means in ‘traditional’ or ‘indigenous’ Asian contexts and in what can be called ‘neo’ or ‘New Age’ tantric settings.
Recently, I’ve been coming across a great number of (white) people who describe themselves as ‘Tantrikas’ and ‘Dakinis’, traditional terms for somebody following the path of (an often but not always non-celibate) tantric practitioner and vow-holder. The (often, but not always) white people who use these terms most liberally frequently seem to be operating well outside of the boundaries of traditional Indian or Tibetan tantra, that is, the native religious system of someone like His Holiness the Dalai Lama. As an anthropologist, I’m not interested in categorically dismissing or merely debunking these white self-avowed tantric masters and goddesses Continue reading
The following is a rough translation of a spooky Tibetan story that was shared on the popular Tibetan-medium site Khabdha. It tells the tale of three ngakpa – non-monastic, non-celibate tantric yogi sorcercers – who engage in the special exorcistic meditation of Chöd, and end up encountering a very dangerous demoness (more specifically, a yakshini or alluring female nature spirit, associated with the granting of power, riches, and sickness). I hope you will read it and be careful the next time you are practicing yoga in the wilderness!
Besides being quite chilling and engaging, the story is also noteworthy for other reasons. It reminds us for one, how Tibetan Buddhist yoga is a lot more human thigh-bone trumpet and visions of demons than Lulu Lemon, coconut water and gym memberships, and points to the awe and fear with which the Tibetan practice of Chöd – particularly in its solitary, and itinerant iterations – continues to be held. As part of the Chöd (gcod) or ‘severance/cutting’ offering rite practitioners visit terrifying, haunted locations, where, through complex ritual choreographies of visualization, liturgy-singing, dancing, and drumming, they work with the energy of their fear of annihilation by meditatively disengaging from their body, severing their investment in a constructed self, and offering their ‘corpse’ up to be eaten by beneficent as well as hungry, suffering demonic beings, which they have summoned. As I mention in another post about the practice, gcod not only pacifies these demons – themselves ultimately displays of Mind and a product of self-grasping like all phenomena – but also powerfully severs the practitioner’s attachment to their self-importance and allows them to develop profound compassion, generosity and fearlessness.
The story below is noteworthy, however, for how it reminds us that just because spirits are empty, illusory displays from the vantage-pointless vantage-point of ultimate non-dual reality, that does not mean that they do not appear to be real at the conventional level, and do not act in the world of apparent phenomena (after all, your and my own sense of self is likewise an ultimately empty, illusory display but many people still take your and my actions in the world pretty seriously). Chöd (and the story below!) is thus interesting for how, on one level, it is a teaching about the ultimate non-reality of demons, of all those terrifying projections that haunt us, but on another, serves to demonstrate just how potent and devastating, how perilous, those demons can be. On a separate note, with its descriptions of the three brothers’ divvying up of familial and religious duties, the story that follows also provides some small insight into ngakpas’ time-management strategies, and the everyday familial, socio-economic dimensions of Tibetan yogic practice.
Here follows the translation:
A story of how three Chodpa exorcists tamed a Yakshini [i.e. Female ‘Harm-Giver’ or local land spirit (gnod sbyin mo)] – By Tenpai Nyima Continue reading