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)


(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


Meditation Made Easy: Announcing Dr Nida Chenagtsang’s New Book ‘The Weapon of Light’

weapon of light cover

A week or few ago, Sky Press’s newest publication, The Weapon of Light: Introduction to Ati Yoga Meditation by Tibetan traditional doctor and tantric yogi Dr Nida Chenagtsang was released for sale. Since I helped with editing and translation for this book, you would think I would have thought to mention it on this blog, but distracted by other things as I was, I forgot to make an announcement. So, since ‘The Weapon of Light’ is actually quite a special little book, I thought I’d make a post about it now. Continue reading

Some Dos and Don’ts of Mantric or Tantric Healing

nyingma yogi chapman








(A photograph of an itinerant Nyingmapa yogi with prominently displayed trengwa or Buddhist prayer beads, one of the central tools of mantra healing, taken in 1936 in Lhasa by British army officer Frederick Spencer Chapman, 1907-1971. Chapman visited the Tibetan capitol between 1936 and 1937, where he served as personal secretary to Basil Gould, the British Raj Political Officer to Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet. Gould went to Tibet in the hopes of persuading the then 9th Panchen Lama to return to Tibet from China, to where he had fled after the 13th Dalai Lama had clamped down on his power and holding due to political differences) 

In the post that follows I offer yet another translation of a chapter from Tibetan tantric yogi and traditional doctor Dr Nida Chenagtsang’s book on Tibetan Mantra Healing (I’ve already provided translations of a number of chapters from this book, called rten ‘brel sngags bcos rig pa in Tibetan, here on my blog – you can find these posts by searching under the tags ‘dr nyida chenaktsang’ and ‘mantra healing’). In this short chapter Dr Nida provides an overview of ‘things to avoid and things to take up’ (spang blang) when doing mantra healing, using a traditional Buddhist turn of phrase which I’ve rendered more colloquially and chattily here as ‘dos and don’ts’. In the sections that follow, Dr Nida outlines suggested everyday behaviour and dietary prohibitions for tantrikas and mantrins and describes common ritual taboos connected with mantra healing practice as well as the optimal times and locations to do different kinds of tantric or mantric rituals.

Central to Dr Nida’s explanations is the concept of ngaki nüpa (sngags kyi nus pa) or ‘mantric/tantric power’ or ‘efficacy’. Anyone can recite the syllables of a mantra, but according to Tibetan cultural understanding there are a number of factors which contribute to whether or not a mantra will actually produce tangible results Continue reading


The White-Robed, Dreadlocked Community: Dr Nida Chenagtsang’s Introduction to and Defense of the Ngakpa Tradition

rigzin rabpel ling

(Ngakpa or non-celibate tantric yogis from the Rebkong ngakmang or tantric community performing rituals at Rigzin Rabpel Ling in July 2016)

Existing readers of this blog will know that my PhD research is concerned with ngakpa and ngakma (sngags pa/ma, the name for make and female long-haired, non-celibate tantric Buddhist vow-holders, ritual specialists and yogis). Ngakpa have been a crucial part of Buddhism in Tibet since the point of its very inception in that country, yet there continues to be a lot of misunderstanding about who ngakpa and ngakma are, what they do, what vows they hold and what role they have had or should have in Tibetan communities.

Dr Nida Chenagtsang is a ngakpa, traditional Tibetan doctor, scholar and teacher who hails from Malho in Amdo, North-Eastern Tibet. As I have mentioned elsewhere, for many years, he and his brother have committed themselves to preserving and promoting the Ngakpa tradition of non-celibate tantric practice both in Tibet and beyond. Continue reading


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


(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


Interview with Dr Nida Chenagtsang on Tibetan Tantra and Medicine


It’s been months since I’ve posted here, something quite regrettable. So to get back into the swing of things following my return to the U.S., I decided to whip up this quick translation of a long-distance interview that Dr Nida Chenagtsang, a Tibetan ngakpa or non-celibate tantric ritual specialist and Tibetan traditional doctor gave in Tibetan in 2014. Given its rich biographical and technical details, I thought that readers of this blog and students of Dr Nida would appreciate having access to an English language version.

The interview – conducted by astute interviewer Lu Nyön or ‘Crazy Snake Spirit’ – deals with Dr Nida’s two primary areas of expertise: Sowa Rigpa and Sang Ngak, that is, Tibetan Traditional Medicine and ‘Secret Mantra’ or Tibetan tantra. Lu Nyön and Nida la touch briefly on everything from Tibetan alchemical longevity practices, dream clairvoyance, traditional techniques of tantric sexual yoga, to contemporary near-death experiences with impressive clarity and directness. Dr Nida provides clarifications about the proper practice of advanced tantric yogas and gives useful introductions to both the Yuthok Nyingthik, the special esoteric Buddhist teachings aimed specifically at traditional doctors, and the Gyüshi, or ‘Four Tantras’ which  together comprise the core exoteric textbook of Tibetan medicine. Continue reading


New Book of Translated Commentaries on Yuthok’s Ati Yoga


Some happy news. Recently, I produced some English translations of commentaries written in Tibetan by Dr Nida Chenagtsang on the special Ati Yoga (Dzogchen) instructions of the Yuthok Nyingthig, the cycle of comprehensive tantric Buddhist teachings associated with Tibetan medicine and connected with Yuthok, the father and chief systematizer of Tibetan medicine who is said to have achieved full liberation in one life and to have dissolved into rainbow light at his death. These translations have now been combined with supplementary material to create a new book, ‘Mirror of Light: A Commentary on Yuthok’s Ati Yoga’ which will be published by SKY Press on the 9th of November 2016.

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


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


(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


The Magic of Interdependence: A general description of the view of how mantras produce results

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(Guru Rinpoche, the Precious Guru Padmasambhava surrounded by his own mantra, and the mantra of Dependent Origination)

In an earlier post, I mentioned Dr Nida Chenagtsang’s new book on the subject of mantra healing, which was written with Yeshe Drolma and published in December of last year by the Beijing People’s Press. The book, whose full title is “The Science of Interdependent Connection Mantra Healing’ (rten ‘brel sngags bcos thabs kyi rig pa), is a significant achievement. While there is no small number of mantra collections (sngags ‘bum) and tantric grimoires (sngags kyi be’u bum) within Tibetan literary tradition, these are, by and large, books of mantras and magical rituals, and not books about them. Dr Nida’s 339 page volume is thus ground-breaking. It represents one of the first Tibetan language treatments of its kind, in which a native practitioner and scholar of Tibetan traditional medicine and tantric ritual provides a general overview of mantra healing in theory and practice, and supplies a fuller range of interpretive frameworks and historical context for Tibetan approaches to mantra use. Continue reading