Tibetan Spells for Calling Vultures to a Corpse: On Human-Bird Relations and Practicing Magic

Himalayan griffon vulture running

(A Himalayan vulture coming in for landing)

A day or two ago I was looking through a compilation of simple Tibetan healing rituals when I came across a short entry on a genre of Tibetan magic that I find quite lovely and interesting: vulture summoning spells.  I thought I would share these spells here and offer some reflections on why I found them significant. Continue reading


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

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


(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


Celebrity Shamans and the Question of Indigenous Knowledge: A Review of, and some stray Reflections on ‘Inyanga: Sarah Mashele’s Story’


I was wafting around a second-hand clothing store when I was in Cape Town, South Africa in December last year when I came across a curious little volume hidden behind some piles of clothing and gaudy costume jewelry. The book’s single word title ‘Inyanga’ caught my eye. Inyanga is a technical term in isiZulu and isiXhosa for a particular kind of traditional healer or curer (more on the technical specifications or lack thereof of this designation later). Written by white South African writer and journalist Lilian Simon, Inyanga was published in 1993, one year before the abolition of Apartheid, and constitutes a kind-of memoir for prominent black South African traditional healer Sarah Mashele. From roughly the 1950s until the present (I have not been able to determine yet if she is still alive) Sarah Mashele worked full-time as a healer in and around Pretoria and Johannesburg – and in the formally blacks-only segregated urban neighbourhood of Soweto in particular – providing services to patients across the race, class and cultural spectrum. I just finished reading the book, and so I thought I would offer a review of it as well as some reflections on its contents and Simon and Mashele’s collaboration for interested readers. Continue reading


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


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


(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


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


Tantra and Transparency, or Cultural Contradictions and Today’s Tibetan Buddhist Wizard


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


The Social Life of Magic: Memories of Hoodoo in Detroit


In occult ‘scenes’ you find a lot of people identifying as magicians. Of course, this makes sense: if you do magical rituals, especially if you do them professionally for clients, then why not call yourself the rusty, graveyard dirt-smeared spade that you are?

Still, discussions about self-identifying as a contemporary practitioner of magic and the supposed implications of this, can potentially distract from the fact that magic isn’t just something people say they do or are, it’s something that merely exists as part of the everyday rhythms of many people’s lives, and that’s ok. In a beautiful piece, Kenya Coviak reminisces about growing up in Detroit and reflects on the ways that Hoodoo was literally a part of the scenery, furniture, and foundations of her daily life.

Continue reading