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

Mirroring the Master: Making Magic in a Nineteenth Century Tibetan Book of Spells

Recently, a Facebook friend of mine shared an article from the popular anthropology blog Sapiens in the Folk Necromancy Facebook group that I co-moderate. This article, true to its title, sought to argue that AI (Artificial Intelligence) was similar to ‘magic’, at least in certain respects, and as understood by anthropologists at any rate. I approved my friend’s post to share with the group despite finding the article quite irritating. Being irritated about what people generally consider to be the minor or obscure details of things is arguably the bread-and-butter of academia, but I submit that I had a solid reason to be annoyed. Many of my disciplinary peers positively DELIGHT in writing ‘X thing is actually like Magic’ type hot-takes. I get why, of course. Our discipline has grappled more with the comparative study of what people often call ‘magic’, ‘science’, and ‘religion’ as ways of acting, knowing, and being in the world than probably any other. Considering how foundational witchcraft and magic are to the history and identity of our field, I guess every anthropologist is supposed to be able to at least trot out something about these topics. It’s our wheelhouse! The thing is – and here’s what bugs me – the anthropologists I typically see forwarding ‘X is really magic!’ arguments are almost never actually researchers of magical practices or of ritual specialists. They are almost always ethnographers who study ‘X’, whatever X may be. Continue reading

How to Mind Your Tantric Business: Padmasambhava’s Parting Words of Advice to Tibetan Ngakpa

188 Padmasambhava

(The One Born From A Lotus, the Precious tantric Buddhist Guru, Padmasambhava)

One of my favourite genres of Tibetan Buddhist literature is so-called ‘words or songs of advice’ texts, known as gtam or zhal gdams in Tibetan. These sorts of texts are great for a number of reasons. For one, they tend to be both pithy and poetic, which makes them a pleasure to read. They often have quite a colloquial flavour, which makes them interesting in terms of style and register. And they are also uniquely practical. While their ethical orientation means that they are focused on ideals and best case-scenarios, the fact that they are intended to be useful as guides means that they are forced to point out faults realistically, to take stock of where their target audience may actually be in their lives or religious practice. After all, the only thing worse than unsolicited advice is advice that has no bearing on the realities of one’s life.

I previously translated and shared a ‘words of advice’ text aimed at ngakpa or non-celibate, tantric vow-holder yogi-householders on this blog. You can read that text by famous 20th century ngakpa Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, and some stray thoughts on it here. Today I was taking a read of the much older text of advice for ngakpa on which Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche based his later commentary: the ‘final words’ or parting testament (zhal chems) of the legendary ON (‘Original Ngakpa’) Padmasambhava (‘The Lotus Born one’) a.k.a. Guru Rinpoche, the ‘Precious Guru’, as found in a biography of this Great Tantric Master who secured the spread of Buddhism in Tibet which was revealed by the tantric visionary saint Nyangral Nyima Ozer in the 12th century. Dilgo Khyentse’s words of advice for ngakpa in the early twentieth century are directly inspired by the testament of the eighth century Padmasambhava as reported in Nyangral Nyima Ozer’s twelfth century revelation, Continue reading

‘The Yoga of Bliss’: A Foreword to Dr Nida Chenagtsang’s New Book on Tibetan Buddhist Sexual Yoga

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On this Easter Sunday, I am very happy to announce formally here on this blog the completion of a new book by Dr Nida Chenagtsang and Sky Press, Karmamudra: The Yoga of Bliss (Sexuality in Tibetan Medicine and Buddhism).

As some of you may know, I have been working as editor and translator for this project since 2016. In so many ways, it has been unlike anything I have worked on before. Dr Nida will be presenting the book at the 6th annual Tibetan Traditional Medicine Sorig Congress in Pisa, Italy in three weeks and it will be launched worldwide on April 25th. Here is the blurb for the book from Sky Press’ website:


“Karmamudra refers to the ancient Buddhist practice of partnered sexual yoga. Also known as ‘The Path of Skillful Means’ or ‘The Path of Great Bliss’, Karmamudra uses powerful meditation techniques to transform ordinary pleasure, worldly desire, and orgasm into vehicles for spiritual transformation and liberation. In this ground-breaking book, Dr Nida Chenagtsang draws on his extensive training in Tibetan medicine and yoga to clarify major misconceptions relating to Tibetan Buddhist Tantra in general and Tibetan Buddhist sexual yoga practices in particular. Demystifying sexual yoga without depreciating it, Dr Nida provides an overview of the relationship between Sutric and Tantric orientations in Tibetan Buddhism, offers explanations of Tantric vows, initiations, and subtle anatomy, and explores both bio-medical and traditional Tibetan ideas about sexual health and well-being.

 

Speaking in a colloquial style as a physician, teacher, yogi, and parent, he addresses issues of sexual abuse, well-being and empowerment in a learned, down-to-earth and compassionate way. Aiming to inform and empower, this book offers vital context and instructions through which beginner and advanced students of any gender or sexual orientation can learn to engage with typically destructive and distracting emotions in a skillful way. Drawing on special Karmamudra teachings found in the Yuthok Nyingthig tradition that are aimed at practitioners without any prior training in Tantric yoga, it offers safe and simple methods through which students can work with the raw energy of their desire and transform it into a source of blessings and benefit in their everyday lives.

Continue reading

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)

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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

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

Interview with Scott Gosnell on Bottle Rocket Science

(Yuthok Yönten Gönpo the Younger, the King of Doctors. While he is typically remembered as one of the founding figures of Sowa Rigpa or Tibetan traditional medicine, he was also a great and accomplished non-celibate tantric yogi and ngakpa. Exquisite painting by Anna Artemyeva)

An interview I did two weeks ago with Giordiano Bruno translator Scott Gosnell for his Start-up Geometry podcast is now up for listening on Scott’s podcast website Bottle Rocket Science.

I feel deeply flattered and overrated considering that my interview follows that of far more accomplished scholar Alan Wallace, but I am nonetheless happy to be in good virtual company (do yourself a favour and listen to Alan as well!). In my interview I talked a bit about my research with Tibetan Buddhist non-celibate tantric specialists or ngakpa, and also delved a little into issues surrounding the globalization of Tibetan esotericism as well as the links between Tibetan tantra and Tibetan traditional medicine. I hope you find it interesting or useful and that the things I said weren’t too boring or stupid. As always I’m probably not going to listen to this edited version, so please do tell me your thoughts! དགེའོ།

http://bottlerocketscience.blogspot.com/2017/04/ep-030-ben-joffe.html?m=1

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

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(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

For the Religion and the Race: Words of Praise for Tibetan Non-Celibate Tantrikas

(A depiction of prominent 19th century poet, meditation master and promoter of the ‘white robed, dreadlocked community’ or ngakpa tradition, Shabkar Tsokdruk Rangdrol)

Recently, some non-Tibetan practitioners of Tibetan tantric Buddhism or Vajrayana were asking me about some informal advice texts or ‘speeches’ ༼གཏམ། tahm༽written in Tibetan by great ngakpa ༼སྔགས་པ།༽ or non-celibate tantric ritual specialists and whether these had been translated into English. In the course of looking into some of these older texts, I was reminded of a Tibetan blog post from 2009, which represents an interesting variation on the genre of advice speech for ngakpas, by ngakpas. So I thought I would translate it – very roughly! – and share it here.

Continue reading