How to Mind Your Tantric Business: Padmasambhava’s Parting Words of Advice to Tibetan Ngakpa

188 Padmasambhava

(The One Born From A Lotus, the Precious tantric Buddhist Guru, Padmasambhava)

One of my favourite genres of Tibetan Buddhist literature is so-called ‘words or songs of advice’ texts, known as gtam or zhal gdams in Tibetan. These sorts of texts are great for a number of reasons. For one, they tend to be both pithy and poetic, which makes them a pleasure to read. They often have quite a colloquial flavour, which makes them interesting in terms of style and register. And they are also uniquely practical. While their ethical orientation means that they are focused on ideals and best case-scenarios, the fact that they are intended to be useful as guides means that they are forced to point out faults realistically, to take stock of where their target audience may actually be in their lives or religious practice. After all, the only thing worse than unsolicited advice is advice that has no bearing on the realities of one’s life.

I previously translated and shared a ‘words of advice’ text aimed at ngakpa or non-celibate, tantric vow-holder yogi-householders on this blog. You can read that text by famous 20th century ngakpa Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, and some stray thoughts on it here. Today I was taking a read of a much older text of advice for ngakpa than Dilgo Khyentse’s text: the ‘final words’ or parting testament (zhal chems) of the legendary ON (‘Original Ngakpa’) Padmasambhava (‘The Lotus Born one’) a.k.a. Guru Rinpoche, the ‘Precious Guru’, as found in a biography of this Great Tantric Master who secured the spread of Buddhism in Tibet which was revealed by the tantric visionary-saint Orgyen Lingpa in the fourteenth century. Despite a gap of six centuries, I was struck by the similarities between Dilgo Khyentse’s words of advice for ngakpa and the testament of the eighth century Padmasambhava as reported in Orgyen Lingpa’s fourteenth century revelation (Dilgo Khyentse is directly inspired by it), Continue reading

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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

Demon Directories: On Listing and Living with Tibetan Worldly Spirits

blue thebrang.jpg

(An image of a blue the’u rang or tebrang spirit from a Tibetan manuscript. Scanned images from this manuscript of many Tibetan worldly spirits described in the post that follows can be found here at himalayanart.org but unfortunately the name and date of the source-text is not given. If anyone knows these details, please do let me know!)

I came across the following condensed directory of worldly spirits, gods, demons and other non-human Tibetan persons that go bump in the night in a book of essays which deal with the history and controversies surrounding the Tibetan protector-spirit Dolgyal, which I briefly discussed here. The book, whose short title is ‘The Impurity-Dispelling Mirror – An Investigation into the Origination and Controversy of Dolgyal’ was compiled by the Office of the Central Executive Committee of Dhomay (Amdo) Province in exile. The Committee spent some four odd years conducting research into the contentious spirit’s origins and nature and has penned a series of excellent essays explaining the role of spirit-protectors in Tibetan Buddhism and the development of the controversial sectarian issues associated with this spirit in particular. The essays in the book provide much needed context for a very complex issue, part of which revolves around divided opinions on the theological status of the spirit in question. Supporters of the spirit claim that it is a legitimate protector that is upholding its vows and deserving of propitiation; whereas His Holiness the Dalai Lama and numerous other authorities consider the being to be a harmful and demonic presence, a difficult to control hyper-zealous (and hyper-sectarian) force of violence and evil that should be avoided altogether. Continue reading

Secrets of the Scoby: Tibetan Taoist Gummiberry Juice and Boulder’s Buddha’s Brew

gummiberry juice

I was recently reminded of an old entry from the annals of Shangri-La La Land: the apparently Tibetan fermented drink known as ‘Jun’. Jun is a relative of the classic fermented health-drink Kombucha. Whereas Kombucha is born from the alchemy of adding a kombucha culture or ‘scoby’ to black tea and sugar, Jun is made from Jun cultures mixed with green tea and honey. According to popular legend, besides being more obscure and more magical than Kombucha, Jun also hails from Tibet.

On August 4th, 2010, Emma Blue penned an article for The Elephant Journal which she, mincing no words, called ‘Jun: Nobody Wants us to Know About it’. The Elephant Journal claims to be committed to a more thoughtful, ‘non-New Agey’ brand of spirituality, but you could be forgiven for not quite believing this after reading Blue’s article. Continue reading

Tripping on Good Vibrations: Cultural Commodification and ‘Tibetan’ Singing Bowls

 

pizza yoga.jpeg

This was also a piece I did not expect to write. Popular media, and reactions to popular media however, got me thinking more about issues of commodification and cultural appropriation, and the singing bowl turned out to be a particularly useful entry point into a lot of these.

I find it quite surprising that so little academic material has been written about singing bowls and their history, despite them being such iconic and familiar New Age objects. 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

Mantra Healing is an Indispensable Branch of Tibetan Traditional Medicine

mantra healing indispensable

(An image of a tantric practitioner providing a life-enhancing empowerment to a patient, from the medical paintings commissioned by Desi Sangye Gyatso, 1653-1705, to accompany his commentaries of the root-tantras of the Tibetan medical tradition)

One of the first things that someone visiting Tibetan communities tends to encounter -whether they’re a foreign visitor or a transmigrating Tibetan baby – is mantras. These set-apart forms of speech, made up of specific patterns of sacred and largely untranslatable phrases and syllables, are performed with special kinds of cadence and affect which distinguish them from other sorts of utterance.

As their Sanskrit etymology suggests, mantras are ‘instruments of the mind’; holding awareness firm they help to generate various effects and qualities in the one who recites them. While many mantras are the specific sound-embodiment of deities and Buddha-beings, others are more action-based and ‘worldly’, and exist as powerful spells that in the hands of trained experts who have properly ‘activated’ them are supposed to be able to produce all kinds of results.

Many people today are familiar with Indo-Tibetan mantras but are perhaps less familiar with where exactly mantras come from. Below I have attached my very rough and inadequate translation of the first part of a three-part Tibetan blog-post which appeared on a website about Tibetan culture in 2013 (cf here). This essay which was written by Dr Nida Chenagtsang some years ago in Lhasa (and which someone called Rinchen shared independently on the website above) essay discusses the history of the use of mantras for healing (སྔགས་བཅོས་ཐབས་ ngakchö tuhp) in Tibet. Dr Nida stresses that notwithstanding Sowa Rigpa or Tibetan medicine’s investment in strongly ’empirical’ and ‘secular’ therapeutic methods, mantra healing is nonetheless an indispensable element of Tibetan medical history and practice. His piece also acknowledges that healing mantras are not unique to Buddhism, and thus shows how magic and ritual healing are areas of Tibetan cultural life which are uniquely hybrid and non-sectarian and which perhaps span beyond Buddhist hegemonies. In general, mantra healing points to a rich and complex field of history and practice, one that comprises both elite and everyday ‘folk’ actors and knowledge systems, which intertwine in fascinating ways.

Anyway, here’s the translation: Continue reading