White Robes, Matted Hair: My PhD Thesis on Tibetan Tantric Householders Now Available for Download

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A detail from the medical thangka paintings commissioned by the Fifth Dalai Lama’s Regent, tantric yogi-doctor Desi Sangye Gyatso (1653 – 1705), as accompanying illustrations for the teachings in the Gyushi (rgyud bzhi) or ‘Four Medical Tantras’, the core textbook of exoteric Tibetan medicine. The detail depicts representative examples of the “two communities of Buddhist renouncers and virtuous spiritual guides who are [valid] objects for offerings/reverence”, that is, the community of ‘shaved-headed, saffron robed monastic renouncers’ and the ‘community of long-haired, white robe-wearing tantric yogi/nis or householder renouncers’ known as ngakpa/ma.

Great news, friends!

My full PhD dissertation in cultural anthropology, titled ‘White Robes, Matted Hair: Tibetan Tantric Householders, Moral Sexuality, and the Ambiguities of Esoteric Buddhist Expertise in Exile’ is now available open-access to download via ProQuest. It’s over 500 double-spaced pages and has more typos than I’d like, but it earned me a doctorate.

Here’s the thesis abstract and link for those who’d like to download and read it. I hope that whatever small insight and merit might be in its pages may spread and bring benefit!

 

“White Robes, Matted Hair: Tibetan Tantric Householders, Moral Sexuality, and the Ambiguities of Esoteric Buddhist Expertise in Exile

by Joffe, Ben Philip, Ph.D., University of Colorado at Boulder, 2019, 542; 27663085

Abstract (Summary)

This dissertation offers an ethnographic study of ngakpa/ma (sngags pa/ma, m.f.)–Tibetan Buddhist non-monastic, non-celibate tantric yogis and yoginis–living in the Tibetan diaspora. Like monks and nuns, ngakpa/ma are professionally religious, yet unlike their monastic counterparts they can marry, have families, and pursue worldly work. Living in ‘the village’ like ordinary laypeople but also spending much of their time in retreat or working as ritual specialists for hire, ngakpa/ma occupy a shifting, third space between monastic renunciation and worldly attachments. Based on roughly five years of fieldwork research conducted in Tibetan and Tibetan Buddhist communities in India, Nepal, Northeastern Tibet, and the United States, this thesis explores how ngakpa/mas’ historically decentralized, morally ambiguous esoteric expertise has become implicated in various projects of cultural preservation and reform for exile Tibetans, even as it has come to circulate and have meaning well beyond the purview of ethnic Tibetan communities and interests. Chapters One to Five offer an overview of how ngakpa/ma and ngakpa/ma orientations have been pinned down (or have failed to be pinned down) in exile, via language; gendered divisions of labor; in physical space and permanent institutions; through hair, clothing, and embodied comportment; and as part of new family and career trajectories. Chapters Six to Nine examine how contentious esoteric tantric yogic practices, associated with sexuality and Tibetan medicine in particular, are being popularized and reframed in exile in new ways and for new audiences as part of increasingly transnational networks of exchange. In these chapters, I underscore the polysemous quality of tantric practices, and reflect on my own collaborations with a Tibetan ngakpa-doctor to translate and share information on Tibetan tantric yogic practices more widely. In conclusion, I assess trends and quandaries that have dominated the academic study of secrecy and esoteric religions and highlight the implications and value of an ethnographic approach to researching tantric traditions.”

https://pqdtopen.proquest.com/doc/2335180529.html?FMT=ABS

Interview on Karmamudra and Sexuality and Desire in Buddhism on Imperfect Buddha Podcast

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Thought I’d make a quick post to let readers know that an interview I did recently with Matthew O’Connell at the Imperfect Buddha podcast where I discussed my work on Dr Nida Chenagtsang’s new book on Tibetan Buddhist traditions of ‘tantric sex’, and shared some comments on desire and sexuality in Buddhism more generally, among many other topics, is now available online.

I hope that this will prove interesting and informative for some of you. This is an incredibly broad topic, and Matthew and I only just scratched the surface here. It can be difficult to talk about the details of a book that people might not have read, or speak on the technicalities of a topic without necessarily knowing how familiar listeners might be with the specifics of Tibetan esoteric Buddhism. I had also just come out of the other side of a major car crash, so all in all I hope that what I’ve said here makes sense! I can never bring myself to listen to myself being interviewed, so I do hope that some of you will listen to this interview for me and let me know what you think.

My thanks to Matthew for having me on the show (click here).

Enjoy!

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)

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(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

Tibet, the Role Playing Game: Table-top Anthropologies and Competing Knowledge Jurisdictions

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When I was a kid growing up in pre- and post-Apartheid South Africa it wasn’t easy to study occultism.

To be sure, South Africa is a country filled with professional and semi-professional sorcerers, but it is also a nation whose white supremacist government for a long time directly funded a special ‘Occult-Related Crimes Unit’ attached to the national police force. This unit, which was founded in 1992 and which was supposedly officially disbanded/absorbed in 2006 (but which is in fact still operating in various capacities)  was guided for the most part by the expertise and priorities of white, Afrikaner Christian investigators. Working under the auspices of the state, pastors with police training, criminology degrees and a measure of knowledge about local black South African ‘customs and traditions’ investigated South Africa’s dark and criminal occult underbelly. While the existence of witch-lynching and so-called ‘muthi killings’ – ritual murders conducted to ostensibly secure human parts for sale in criminal magical economies and use in rituals – served as the primary justification for state-spending on the Unit, the majority of the Unit’s time appears to have been spent on locating and routing out ‘cells’ of adult and teenage Satanists, and assisting especially young South Africans who had been afflicted by demons and other Satanic forces. 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

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