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

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།



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


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


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


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


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