Interview on the Guru Viking Podcast

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Hi there –

Just a quick post to let readers know that an interview I recently did for Steve James’ ‘Guru Viking’ Podcast has now gone live. This is the first of a series of interviews that Steve is hoping to put out where he quizzes me about my life, interests, and research, so it offers a broader overview of how I became an anthropologist focused on the study of Tibet and esotericism. Have a listen, if you feel so moved!

Here’s Steve’s introductory blurb for the interview, along with his time-stamped summary of the contents of what turned out to be a great chat. Would never have thought I’d see ‘Childhood Vision of Jesus’ indexed next to my face, but this world and every mind is indeed full of wonders that never cease.
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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

The Conqueror of Time and Space: Ju Mipam’s Prayer to Yuthok

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(The great scholar-adept Ju Mipam Namgyal Gyatso)

Ju Mipam (1846 – 1912) is remembered as a giant of Tibetan intellectual and cultural history. A monk scholar-practitioner born into an aristocratic family, Mipam Rinpoche was an influential and brilliant exponent and revitalizer of the Nyingma or Old Translation school who nonetheless studied and supported teachings from all schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Mipam wrote voluminously on philosophy, history, meditation, medicine, astrology, ritual practice and much else besides, and also invested special effort in preserving oral and folk divinatory and magical practices from across Tibet. He is one of the few great religious authorities in Tibetan history who was not recognized as a reincarnated lama or tulku.

Mipam Rinpoche is somewhat remarkable as a Nyingma luminary for the extent to which he did not emphasize the body of revealed or ‘treasure’ (terma) texts which form such an important part of Nyingma teachings. Mipam’s stress on the kama or orally-transmitted-as-opposed-to-revealed portion of the Nyingma canon notwithstanding, he was nonetheless versed in and deeply appreciative of terma teachings. The prayer below is one small example that points to Mipam’s familiarity and respect for revealed traditions. Mipam possessed considerable medical learning and was acquainted with the cycle of revealed teachings known as the Yuthok Nyingthig, the ‘Heart-essence of Yuthok’. This terma cycle refers to a comprehensive collection of teachings on Tibetan Tantric Buddhism which were transmitted via ‘pure vision’ in the twelfth century to Yuthok Yonten Gonpo the Younger, the father of Tibetan traditional medicine. These teachings comprise a unique corpus of instructions on esoteric Tantric Buddhist yoga and alchemy, meditation and ritual practices which are specifically geared towards physicians 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

Some Dos and Don’ts of Mantric or Tantric Healing

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(A photograph of an itinerant Nyingmapa yogi with prominently displayed trengwa or Buddhist prayer beads, one of the central tools of mantra healing, taken in 1936 in Lhasa by British army officer Frederick Spencer Chapman, 1907-1971. Chapman visited the Tibetan capitol between 1936 and 1937, where he served as personal secretary to Basil Gould, the British Raj Political Officer to Sikkim, Bhutan and Tibet. Gould went to Tibet in the hopes of persuading the then 9th Panchen Lama to return to Tibet from China, to where he had fled after the 13th Dalai Lama had clamped down on his power and holding due to political differences) 

In the post that follows I offer yet another translation of a chapter from Tibetan tantric yogi and traditional doctor Dr Nida Chenagtsang’s book on Tibetan Mantra Healing (I’ve already provided translations of a number of chapters from this book, called rten ‘brel sngags bcos rig pa in Tibetan, here on my blog – you can find these posts by searching under the tags ‘dr nyida chenaktsang’ and ‘mantra healing’). In this short chapter Dr Nida provides an overview of ‘things to avoid and things to take up’ (spang blang) when doing mantra healing, using a traditional Buddhist turn of phrase which I’ve rendered more colloquially and chattily here as ‘dos and don’ts’. In the sections that follow, Dr Nida outlines suggested everyday behaviour and dietary prohibitions for tantrikas and mantrins and describes common ritual taboos connected with mantra healing practice as well as the optimal times and locations to do different kinds of tantric or mantric rituals.

Central to Dr Nida’s explanations is the concept of ngaki nüpa (sngags kyi nus pa) or ‘mantric/tantric power’ or ‘efficacy’. Anyone can recite the syllables of a mantra, but according to Tibetan cultural understanding there are a number of factors which contribute to whether or not a mantra will actually produce tangible results Continue reading

The White-Robed, Dreadlocked Community: Dr Nida Chenagtsang’s Introduction to and Defense of the Ngakpa Tradition

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(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

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

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(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

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

Embodying Healing: Tantric Ritual Short-hand and the Training of Anthropological Attention

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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

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