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

Interview with Gordon White on Rune Soup

I realized that I forgot to post a link to the interview I did with Gordon White for his Rune Soup podcast a few months ago here on the blog. Gordon and I had some trouble finding a strong enough internet connection when I was in South Africa to do the interview and I eventually ended up having to sneak into an empty lecture theatre late at night at the University of Cape Town with the help of an old friend and plug my laptop into a stray Ethernet cable to get good enough wifi to proceed (my thanks to said friend for the help and for getting a bemused pizza guy to show up at one point halfway through the interview).

Continue reading

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

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

 

De-calcifying your Pineal Gland, and other New Age Literalisms

“It’s not you…I just don’t think our pineal glands are in the same place right now.”#NewAgeDatingProblems

A while back, I was kinda bored and for reasons I still don’t fully understand, I made this meme. I thought it came out quite well.

decalcifying your pineal gland.jpg

I was just going to post this meme here, but then it got me thinking. Jokes aside, I find the idea of doing something like ‘de-calcifying your pineal gland’ quite fascinating. The concept is one of a panoply of New Age lifestyle/purificatory options, which rely at least in part on a veneer of scienc-i-ness for their legitimacy. Continue reading

Magic Without Savages and the Racialization of Ideas

magic and the savage post

Given the way history has unfolded, no matter who you might be, it is difficult, if not impossible to talk about magic without talking about time and temporality. Accordingly, then, to speak of magic is to inevitably invoke the lofty spirit-kings of modernity, rationality, and progress. I just started reading Christopher Bracken’s 2007 book ‘Magical Criticism: The Recourse of Savage Philosophy’. Bracken traces the ways Western Enlightenment philosophers and anthropologists have constructed categories of ‘primitive thought’ and how these remain influential today, despite formal disavowals of ethnocentric notions of the savage. He explains his position Continue reading

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

worms and anthropology post

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

On Weird Cultural Beliefs, Anthropologists’ Wizard-envy, and the Skeptical Native

graeber wizard envy ontology

“Apparently there’s virtually nothing, no matter how obviously crazy, a contemporary academic can’t get away with if they find some way to attribute it to Gilles Deleuze. (And in this case the authors themselves admit the link is fairly tenuous.)”

So, I finally got around to reading anarchist theorist, anthropologist, and public intellectual David Graeber’s recent piece in HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, that looks at one of the sexiest, most trending topics in Cultural Anthropology right now, the ‘Ontological Turn’, and specifically how this trend has influenced debates about how anthropologists should go about studying and interpreting magic.

When I first came across OT theories as an anthropology student in Cape Town in 2007/2008, I happened to be conducting fieldwork on neo-Pagans and their understandings of what it meant to identify as ‘witches’ in South Africa, where not everybody thinks of witchcraft as a benign revival of pre-Christian nature-worship. When I read cutting-edge OT theory, I thought to myself Continue reading

Some Thoughts on the Ominous, and Magical Consciousness

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Looking on Tumblr I realized I made a blog years ago, but made it private and only ever made one post. The post was an essay I wrote in 2008 in Cape Town that I called “Some Thoughts on the Ominous, and Magical Consciousness”. I think I wrote it for my photographer friend Jarred Figgins for some weird reason. I never did anything with it, and I don’t think anyone ever read it. I’m not sure I still stand by it all, but I figure people interested in magic and divination, or in how boringly consistent my long-sentence writing style has been, might enjoy reading it. Continue reading