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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Tantric Sex Partners, Actual and ‘Imagined’: Tibetan Karmamudra, and the Life and Times of Lelung Jedrung Zhepai Dorje

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(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

Tantra and Transparency, or Cultural Contradictions and Today’s Tibetan Buddhist Wizard

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Here’s my second piece for Savage Minds, and the first of the four-part guest-blogger series I did during October last year.

This essay offers a brief overview of my current dissertation research project on ngakpa and ngakpa lineages in exile and outside of Tibet. I tried to make this piece a useful summary of some of the dimensions of ngakpa/ma histories, orientations, practices, and lineages that I thought were of interest, especially for an anthropological audience perhaps less familiar with Tibetan societies and Vajrayana. Continue reading

Justin Bieber, Heroic Man-buns and the Relative Meaning (and Meaninglessness) of Dreadlocks

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Debates about hairstyles, fashion, identity and culture have been in the news in the last few days. After posting pictures of his new blond dreadlocks, pop star Justin Bieber was roundly criticized for cultural appropriation – for capitalizing on a cultural aesthetic that in the US is historically associated with black histories, identities, and struggles. Commentators noted that while people/celebrities of colour in the US have been routinely criminalized or villianized for sporting a hairstyle connected to their history and experiences as minorities, when Bieber as a white person casually took on this style as his own it came with none of the meaning, and context, and also none of the backlash. Continue reading

Depersonalization Disorder and Living Corpses: Psychiatry, Religion, and Alienation

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(The 11th century yogi Milarepa, in his retreat cave.  He appears here  in his iconic emaciated, green-tinged form that was brought about by subsisting on a diet of nettle soup)

I tend to read pop science pieces on neurological/psychiatric conditions with interest, as I’m sure most cultural and medical anthropologists do. I’m versed in neither neuro-anthropology nor neuro-theology but I do often find myself wondering about the broader social, historical, economic, and political landscapes through, in, and in spite of which specific bio-medical conditions emerge. It’s probably far too reductive and glib to characterize the cases below as merely examples of a contemporary willingness to ‘neurologize’ sicknesses of society. Still, while I’m not about to advocate for a hard-line social constructivist take on these kinds of ‘bizarre’ neurological conditions, I do think it can be interesting to reflect on contemporary psychiatric disorders and discourse in parallel to, and against religious vocabularies. Continue reading

The Meditation on the Two Brandos

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For many centuries and up until the present day, Buddhist ascetics have used contemplation of their body and its transformation into a rapidly disintegrating corpse as a sobering exercise – as a practice that reconfigures their relationship to their sense of self and deepens their appreciation of impermanence. In some cases, meditators have even visited charnel grounds and cremation sites where they have observed corpses directly to amplify their reflections. Not all of us have such opportunities. Continue reading

Buddhist Bromance and Homoerotic Hermits: Queer Sociality as an Obstacle to Spiritual Attainment

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I was recently looking through the Jataka Tales, that sizable collection of fables about the previous incarnations of the Buddha and his close disciples, when I came across one story, called ‘Jewel-Throat’, which you could call a queer, Buddhist version of ‘The Little Mermaid’. In this story about the relationship between a naga or snake-spirit king and two ascetic brothers, homoeroticism and homosexual love appear incidentally as obstacles to ascetic attainment. The story’s vivid account of homosexual spirit-love with reptile-people raises a number of points. Continue reading