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

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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 on Karmamudra and Sexuality and Desire in Buddhism on Imperfect Buddha Podcast

yuthok yabyum

Thought I’d make a quick post to let readers know that an interview I did recently with Matthew O’Connell at the Imperfect Buddha podcast where I discussed my work on Dr Nida Chenagtsang’s new book on Tibetan Buddhist traditions of ‘tantric sex’, and shared some comments on desire and sexuality in Buddhism more generally, among many other topics, is now available online.

I hope that this will prove interesting and informative for some of you. This is an incredibly broad topic, and Matthew and I only just scratched the surface here. It can be difficult to talk about the details of a book that people might not have read, or speak on the technicalities of a topic without necessarily knowing how familiar listeners might be with the specifics of Tibetan esoteric Buddhism. I had also just come out of the other side of a major car crash, so all in all I hope that what I’ve said here makes sense! I can never bring myself to listen to myself being interviewed, so I do hope that some of you will listen to this interview for me and let me know what you think.

My thanks to Matthew for having me on the show (click here).

Enjoy!

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

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

Indigenous ‘Nature Spirits’, Bio-regional Animisms and the Legal Personhood of Other-than-human Persons

mauna_kea_from_mauna_loa_observatory,_hawaii_-_20100913-1

(Mauna Kea mountain in Hawaii. An inactive, million-year old vulcano, Mauna Kea is the largest mountain on earth. While Mount Everest is the tallest mountain when measured from sea-level up, Mauna Kea, when measured from its actual base deep in the Pacific Ocean to its peak, exceeds the Himalayan sacred mountain considerably)

The day before yesterday I was fortunate enough to catch some of the panels of the first day of a jam-packed two-day conference held at my University titled ‘Indigenous Storytelling and Law.’ The conference, which was presented by the University of Colorado Boulder’s Center for Native American and Indigenous Studies, brought together a great number of native and some non-native litigators, scholars, activists and community members to reflect on and discuss a range of pressing issues affecting native communities, with a spotlight on how indigenous politics, sovereignty, experiences, histories, and cultural, economic and legal practices have come up against those of both state and federal settler colonial U.S. authorities and non-native groups and institutions. Click here to see the fantastic line-up across the two-day event. 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