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

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.

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Secrets of the Sex Magic Space Lamas Revealed! Tibetan Buddhist Aliens and Religious Syncretism

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This was probably my favourite of the four October essays to write, probably because it involved so many things that I love to think and talk about, but was also something I never, ever imagined I’d be writing for an anthropological audience, or maybe at all.

Years ago I was warned by a lovely acting HoD in an anthropology department to be careful of pursuing the study of esotericism 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.

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Learning Hierogylphics and Academic Mentors

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I started asking myself the other morning if I could remember when I really felt like I was going to become an academic. I was a precocious child – I was passionate from a young age about reading and learning, about conducting my own research into specialized subjects that interested me. But I found myself thinking just now about when exactly the point of no return might have been.

I am the son of a (now semi-retired) professional academic. When I was growing up, I would often visit my Dad’s office in the English Department at the University of KwaZulu Natal in Durban, South Africa. My Dad worked for many decades as a professor there, and the university looms large in the city and my snap-shot memories of it. It is a tall, tan building that looks down somewhat imperiously onto the city from atop a small hill. Pushing up from the folds of land surrounding it, it exudes a quiet constancy. Yet despite its classic monastic-fortress on the hill feel, any firmness it might manage is ultimately lost to Durban’s humid haze, and the city’s trademark red sand has coated the building’s stonework altogether too thoroughly for it to maintain any illusion of celestial stateliness – ruddy-cheeked and dusty, the university’s brand of monasticism is less regal abbot, and more older, disheveled but dignified bachelor – tall, skinny and off to one side, a friend of the hosts at the mixer, pulling nervously at his collar. Continue reading

Magic Without Savages and the Racialization of Ideas

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Given the way history has unfolded, no matter who you might be, it is difficult, if not impossible to talk about magic without talking about time and temporality. Accordingly, then, to speak of magic is to inevitably invoke the lofty spirit-kings of modernity, rationality, and progress. I just started reading Christopher Bracken’s 2007 book ‘Magical Criticism: The Recourse of Savage Philosophy’. Bracken traces the ways Western Enlightenment philosophers and anthropologists have constructed categories of ‘primitive thought’ and how these remain influential today, despite formal disavowals of ethnocentric notions of the savage. He explains his position Continue reading

“Doctor, there’s a Demon in my Drink!” Tibetan Grimoires and the Tibetan Medical Tradition

 

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Padmasambhava (pictured above), the mythic tantric saint who ensured the flourishing of Buddhism in Tibet in the 8th century was both a fully realized being and a consummate sorcerer. He is credited with having tamed the unruly indigenous demons of Tibet and having helped establish the first Buddhist monastery on Tibetan soil. As Tibet’s ‘Second Buddha’ his cultural importance to Tibetans is hard to over-emphasize. This Lotus-Born Precious guru is the quintessential model for the non-celibate tantric practitioner or ngakpa. As a realized Buddha he is the practitioner’s own basic, pure and perfect nature, as a historical and cosmological figure he represents the model practitioner of the path of tantric Buddhism, the Secret Mantra Vehicle. In his dress, comportment, practices, activities, teachings, motivation, and view he embodies everything that the best tantric practitioner should be.

It is thus no surprise that Padmasambhava’s legendary activities should feature strongly in Tibetan magic. Compared to their counterparts in Western esotericism, Tibetan medico-magical practices, and Tibetan grimoires (ngak ki beubum, སྔགས་ཀྱི་བེའུ་བུམ) have received relatively little scholarly attention. This paucity of scholarly interest is perhaps exacerbated by the fact that the more spiritual dimensions of Sowa Rigpa, or Traditional Tibetan Medicine (TTM) have been formally excised from state-sponsored Sowa Rigpa curricula in contemporary China. Continue reading

Some Thoughts on the Ominous, and Magical Consciousness

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Looking on Tumblr I realized I made a blog years ago, but made it private and only ever made one post. The post was an essay I wrote in 2008 in Cape Town that I called “Some Thoughts on the Ominous, and Magical Consciousness”. I think I wrote it for my photographer friend Jarred Figgins for some weird reason. I never did anything with it, and I don’t think anyone ever read it. I’m not sure I still stand by it all, but I figure people interested in magic and divination, or in how boringly consistent my long-sentence writing style has been, might enjoy reading it. Continue reading