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

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

Some Dos and Don’ts of Mantric or Tantric Healing

nyingma yogi chapman

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(A photograph of an itinerant Nyingmapa yogi with prominently displayed trengwa or Buddhist prayer beads, one of the central tools of mantra healing, taken in 1936 in Lhasa by British army officer Frederick Spencer Chapman, 1907-1971. Chapman visited the Tibetan capitol between 1936 and 1937, where he served as personal secretary to Basil Gould, the British Raj Political Officer to Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet. Gould went to Tibet in the hopes of persuading the then 9th Panchen Lama to return to Tibet from China, to where he had fled after the 13th Dalai Lama had clamped down on his power and holding due to political differences) 

In the post that follows I offer yet another translation of a chapter from Tibetan tantric yogi and traditional doctor Dr Nida Chenagtsang’s book on Tibetan Mantra Healing (I’ve already provided translations of a number of chapters from this book, called rten ‘brel sngags bcos rig pa in Tibetan, here on my blog – you can find these posts by searching under the tags ‘dr nyida chenaktsang’ and ‘mantra healing’). In this short chapter Dr Nida provides an overview of ‘things to avoid and things to take up’ (spang blang) when doing mantra healing, using a traditional Buddhist turn of phrase which I’ve rendered more colloquially and chattily here as ‘dos and don’ts’. In the sections that follow, Dr Nida outlines suggested everyday behaviour and dietary prohibitions for tantrikas and mantrins and describes common ritual taboos connected with mantra healing practice as well as the optimal times and locations to do different kinds of tantric or mantric rituals.

Central to Dr Nida’s explanations is the concept of ngaki nüpa (sngags kyi nus pa) or ‘mantric/tantric power’ or ‘efficacy’. Anyone can recite the syllables of a mantra, but according to Tibetan cultural understanding there are a number of factors which contribute to whether or not a mantra will actually produce tangible results Continue reading

Interview with Scott Gosnell on Bottle Rocket Science

(Yuthok Yönten Gönpo the Younger, the King of Doctors. While he is typically remembered as one of the founding figures of Sowa Rigpa or Tibetan traditional medicine, he was also a great and accomplished non-celibate tantric yogi and ngakpa. Exquisite painting by Anna Artemyeva)

An interview I did two weeks ago with Giordiano Bruno translator Scott Gosnell for his Start-up Geometry podcast is now up for listening on Scott’s podcast website Bottle Rocket Science.

I feel deeply flattered and overrated considering that my interview follows that of far more accomplished scholar Alan Wallace, but I am nonetheless happy to be in good virtual company (do yourself a favour and listen to Alan as well!). In my interview I talked a bit about my research with Tibetan Buddhist non-celibate tantric specialists or ngakpa, and also delved a little into issues surrounding the globalization of Tibetan esotericism as well as the links between Tibetan tantra and Tibetan traditional medicine. I hope you find it interesting or useful and that the things I said weren’t too boring or stupid. As always I’m probably not going to listen to this edited version, so please do tell me your thoughts! དགེའོ།

http://bottlerocketscience.blogspot.com/2017/04/ep-030-ben-joffe.html?m=1

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

AH syllable.jpg

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