Tibetan Master Meets Theosophical Mahatmas: Gendun Choepel’s Reflections on Blavatsky and Theosophy

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(Celebrated ex-monk Tibetan intellectual Gendun Choepel)

I was recently reading through Donald Lopez’s excellent book “The Madman’s Middle Way’ on the contributions of controversial and brilliant early twentieth century Tibetan intellectual Gendun Choepel (1903-1951), and I came across something I had missed before, namely, Gendun Choepel’s reflections in Tibetan on the popularity of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891) and the nature of her new religious movement Theosophy, as found in his ‘Serki Thangma’ or ‘Field/Surface of Gold’. This travelogue (which has been fully translated into English by Lopez and Thupten Jinpa) constitutes an extensive autobiographical account of the ex-monk’s wanderings in the 1930s and 40s throughout India and then Ceylon/now Sri Lanka. It is chock-full of fascinating insights about British empire, comparative religion, gender, and science as seen through the eyes and experience of an extremely gifted and innovative Tibetan scholar, poet, and artist.   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

To See is to Call: Tantric Visualization, Summoning Spirits and the Mind as Petting Zoo

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(Crushed marble sculptural installation ‘Flying Dakini’ 2014, by artist Agnes Arellano)

The other day I got sucked into a Facebook comment thread which got me thinking about the connection between translation strategies and the ways that practitioners think about and actually practice religious texts. To give you a little context, the thread was about spirit conjuration procedures and offering practices as found in Western magical traditions, and as the discussion unfolded I found myself reflecting upon the way that certain key technical terms often found in Tibetan sadhanas or tantric ritual manuals have been translated into English.

Translation is a double-edged process – to translate a thing involves both drawing it near and holding it apart. Depending on the circumstances, understanding can arise as much from domesticating a term in a target language as it can from choosing to hold onto a word’s strangeness through a literal translation. What is lost and gained, for example, when we translate the Sanskrit Dakini/Tibetan Khandroma – a tantric goddess – with a loaded Judeo-Christian-Islamic term like angel, and what is obscured, what is illuminated when we opt for say, a literal translation of the Tibetan term (khandroma, mkha’ ‘gro ma) ‘female sky-goer’? Continue reading

A Banquet of Nectar: Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche’s Advice for the Rebgong Tantric Community

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(His Holiness, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche)

Following on from an earlier post where I offered a rough translation of a Tibetan praise-poem to the long-haired, white-robed community of non-celibate tantric Buddhist ngakpa and ngakma, I thought I would share an equally rough translation of another ཞལ་གདམས (zhal gdams, pronounced something like shaldahm/jaldahm) or ‘oral advice’ text for ngakpa – this time, one given by the great tantric yogi, scholar, treasure revealer and Dzogchen meditation master His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche. Continue reading

For the Religion and the Race: Words of Praise for Tibetan Non-Celibate Tantrikas

(A depiction of prominent 19th century poet, meditation master and promoter of the ‘white robed, dreadlocked community’ or ngakpa tradition, Shabkar Tsokdruk Rangdrol)

Recently, some non-Tibetan practitioners of Tibetan tantric Buddhism or Vajrayana were asking me about some informal advice texts or ‘speeches’ ༼གཏམ། tahm༽written in Tibetan by great ngakpa ༼སྔགས་པ།༽ or non-celibate tantric ritual specialists and whether these had been translated into English. In the course of looking into some of these older texts, I was reminded of a Tibetan blog post from 2009, which represents an interesting variation on the genre of advice speech for ngakpas, by ngakpas. So I thought I would translate it – very roughly! – and share it here.

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“You Can’t Watch Pornos in the Monastery”: Tibetan Tantra, Imagined Pleasure, and the Virtuality of Desire

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(Non-Tibetan Buddhist monks, ‘just watching’)

In my previous post on the life of 18th century monk turned non-celibate sexual-yogi Lelung Jedrung Zhepai Dorje, I noted how historically, debates in Tibet about the practice of tantric Buddhism have often revolved around whether or not practitioners should implement instructions and embody imagery included in the Highest Yoga Tantras ‘in the flesh’ or in more figurative or symbolic ways ‘in the imagination’. In the post, I proposed that some Western neo-tantric practitioners had perhaps projected overly rigid distinctions of ‘symbolic/actual’ onto indigenous tantric phenomena. I pointed out how in native Tibetan contexts, the lines between ‘actual’ and ‘imaginary’ in tantric practice could be quite blurry. Continue reading

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

Signs of Sinicization: Katia Buffetrille on Road Signs and Cultural Erasure in Tibet

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The following is a quick translation into English from French that I made of what seems like an excerpt of a longer interview that Le Point.fr did with anthropologist and Tibetologist Katia Buffetrille. Although it is short, it covers important ground, so I thought non-readers of French might appreciate a version in English. The focus of the interview is the topic of Han Chinese Sincization of Tibet and Tibetans. In a very nice and concise way Katia, describes the little everyday ways – particularly in relation to naming – that Tibetan cultural and lived, embodied realities are erased and suppressed to make way for the steam-rolling priorities of Chinese settler-occupiers. Continue reading

An Unhappy Mother’s Day: Tibetan Self-immolation protests and Splaining over Corpses

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(Tibetan self-immolater Sonam Tso)

Today is Mother’s Day. The day before yesterday, on Friday, the 6th of May, news broke about yet another Tibetan self-immolation protest that took place inside Tibet. This was delayed news, however. The self-immolation took place some two months ago, but Tibetan exile media organizations had only now been able to even verify that it had happened. The woman who self-immolated was a mother of five. I had got up from being asleep and saw the news on Facebook. I shared this link, after quickly making a rough translation of the initial written information in the article: Continue reading

Economies of Curiosity: The Dalai Lama’s email inbox, the Foreign Researcher in Mcleod Ganj and Artaud Syndrome

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(Antonin Artaud, gazing upon the summit of interiority)

So, McLeod Ganj, India where I am living, ‘Little Lhasa’, or the Tibetan capital in exile, is a funny kind of place. It’s really only a very small town, but its few streets and rural mountain town feel belies its cosmopolitanism. It is a junction point for a virtually unceasing stream of Tibetan and foreign visitors, for news and information from all over the globe. Besides formal support from the Tibetan government in exile, and informal flows of money from friends and family – everything from transnational remittances, informal/illegal trade, community saving unions, personal support structures centered around people from the same home regions in Tibet and exile, from common Tibetan exile or Indian school graduating groups, or shared monastic colleges – many Tibetans rely on tourist dollars to survive.

I have often said that this town exists for better or worse in the midst of overlapping economies of curiosity. Romantic stereotypes and Tibetans’ global reputation precedes them. One silver lining about this curiosity or global gaze is that it can at least be turned into a source of continued survival and livelihood for exile Tibetans, who let it not be forgotten, remain by and large stateless refugees living deeply precarious lives.

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