Anthropology, Esotericism, and ‘Fringe’ Buddhism: Interview on the Imperfect Buddha Podcast

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A month or two ago I did an interview with Matthew O’Connell for his ‘Imperfect Buddha’ podcast, where I talked about doing research on Western esotericism as an anthropologist and scholar-practitioner, and about some of the more ‘fringe’ dimensions of global Tibetan Buddhism today. I ended up talking a lot about myself and not that much about the specific details of my research, and Matthew barely got a word in edgeways, but it is what it is. Many of the posts and articles on this blog get a mention. I no doubt said a lot of things that would benefit from further qualification and which I would probably take issue with if I heard myself saying them now. The thought of listening to my voice drone on for that long curdles my juices and fills me with acute horror though, so I’m can’t be sure – you’ll just have to listen to the interview yourselves and tell me how it makes you feel instead.

Shout out to Matt for arranging things, and thinking I was interesting enough to have on the show. Let me know what you think!

8.0 Imperfect Buddha Podcast: Ben Joffe on the paranormal, Tibetan Buddhism & the Ngakpa

 

‘As Wealthy as a King’: Common Tools and Substances used in Mantra Healing

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(A regal-looking Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (1910-1991), with tantric ritual bell or dril bu, seated behind a sbyin sreg or ‘burnt offering’ fire)

As a follow-up to my recent translation of Dr Nida Chenagtang’s chapter on how mantras work, I decided to translate a subsequent chapter in Dr Nida’s Mantra Healing book which deals with the ritual tools and substances most commonly used by ngakpa/ma. Dr Nida la gives a brief summary of some of the most salient ritual implements and objects used by mantra-healers and tantric wizards, and describes their functions, rationale, and construction, along with rules for their proper handling and use. The subject of ritual tools necessarily ties in which more general, theoretical reflections I have made on this blog about the role of materiality in magic and religion. How ought we to understand the status of magical, blessed or powerful objects or materials, in a Buddhist context where nothing that exists has any innate or enduring substantiality on the ultimate level, or for that matter where subtle, ‘imagined forms’ may be just as ontologically real, agentive, and efficacious as gross, material ones? As we saw in Dr Nida’s earlier chapter about mantras’ efficacy, the ultimate emptiness of phenomena is in fact directly related to their functionality or agency – it is precisely because material things are impermanent, compounded and conditional, that they are able to be transformed, and to transform in kind. Buddhist notions of dependent-origination and emptiness are wholesale dispensations that apply across divides of body-and-mind, real-and-representational, which are themselves also categories that operate quite differently in Buddhist philosophical contexts versus non-Buddhist ones. Continue reading

Demon Directories: On Listing and Living with Tibetan Worldly Spirits

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(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

‘His Weight in Gold’: Women of Power in Game of Thrones and Tibetan Buddhism (*SPOILERS!)

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FOR THE INTERNET IS DARK AND FULL OF SPOILERS! GAME OF THRONES AND TIBETAN BUDDDHIST SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THOSE WHO HAVE NOT WATCHED THE MOST RECENT EPISODE OF THE SERIES OR HAVE NOT ACHIEVED ENLIGHTENMENT!

Last week’s episode of Game of Thrones, the second in this current season, saw fans’ questions about whether we’d be seeing more of a moving version of the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch Jon Snow put to rest. Continue reading

Tibetan ‘Yogi-Doctors’ Today: Professor Gojo Wangdu’s Preface to Dr Nida’s new book on Mantra Healing

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The following is a translation of Professor Gojo Wangdu’s preface to Dr Nida Chenagtsang’s new Tibetan-language volume on the ‘Interdependent/Auspicious Science of Mantra Healing’. In his preface, the Professor supplies a brief overview of Dr Nida’s upbringing, education, and achievements. He describes the important contributions that Dr Nida has made to re-invigorating Tibetan traditional medicine, like his efforts to preserve and revive lapsed oral lineage practices such as the ‘stick-therapy’ methods that were taught by Padampa Sangye and others centuries ago. The Professor makes a strong case for why Tibetan doctors today should practice as the founding lineage masters of Tibetan traditional medicine did, as ‘yogi or ngakpa doctors’, that is, as practitioners who seamlessly integrate mantra healing rituals, yogic practice, and medicine. He also responds to questions readers might have about the issue of secrecy, and of the pre-requisites – the transmissions and training – required to put mantra healing into practice to benefit beings. While the Professor follows the traditional Tibetan style of modestly talking-down his own achievements, he is a highly respected and learned scholar, and his endorsement of Dr Nida’s book speaks to its value.

Continue reading

Paranormalizing the Popular through the Tibetan Tulpa: Or what the next Dalai Lama, the X Files, and Affect Theory (might) have in common

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This most recent essay of mine on Savage Minds also took place as part of a running conversation with popular media and representations. I think that it does a decent job of re-iterating and extending some of the ideas that came up in the Tibetan aliens and singing bowl essays about the sometimes bewildering cross-fertilizations between Indo-Tibetan esotericisms, Western occultism, and popular culture.

There’s a lot more to be said in all this about Continue reading

My Mother was a Rock-ogress Yeti Monster: True Tales of Dharma, Demons, and Darwin

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Despite the ridiculous title, I get the feeling this next Savage Minds essay was a little less widely read. This may have something to do with the fact that the technicalities of Tibetan exile secularism and school curricula have less of a wide appeal than some of the other subjects I’ve covered. Whatever the case, I think that this particular Tibetan origin myth Continue reading

Angry White Buddhists and the Dalai Lama: Appropriation and Politics in the Globalization of Tibetan Buddhism

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Since I’m just now launching this blog, I thought I would re-post links to my earlier Savage Minds blog essays for readers, with some additional comments.

This is the first piece I put out on the Savage Minds blog, and deals with the controversial Western Buddhist organization, the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT). This was a modest piece on my part. Continue reading

Bee Careful what Ewe Wish Four: Monks behaving badly and Grammar-nazi Genies

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Tibetan can be a confusing language – not least because it isn’t really one language at all. There’s still no standardized form of either written or spoken Tibetan, even if there have been attempts to produce them, and when it comes to the spoken language there are many, many registers and regional variations of both grammar, syntax, pronunciation and vocabulary. Tibetan language(s) is/are also notoriously filled with homophones and homonyms – like French, many Tibetan dialects have a lot of ‘silent’ or almost silent letters, and words that are spelled quite differently on paper may sound very similar to each other depending on one’s regional accent. The same word, either in its written or spoken incarnation, may have various meanings, depending on the context. The following story demonstrates just how dangerous language ambiguity can be. Continue reading

Science Explaining or Science-splaining? Neurologists take on Sleep Paralysis, OOBEs, and Demon Dominatrices

(Images detailing different forms of sleep paralysis with spiritual causes from the website http://www.spiritualresearchfoundation.org)

A while back Vice published this piece reflecting on Rodney Ascher’s documentary cum horror film about people’s experiences of sleep paralysis. Over the course of my life I’ve experienced sleep paralysis/terrifying ‘waking’ night visitations several times. I think the link between so-called sleeping disorders and phenomena like out-of-body-experience, spirit visitation and alien abduction is compelling, and the idea of learning to relate to the experience and its attendant beings differently is interesting and sounds very sensible to me. That said, I’m wary of reductive explanations – after all I’ve experienced out-of-body and menacing spirit encounters just as often if not more so without any associated sleep paralysis. Continue reading