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)
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 →
A week or few ago, Sky Press’s newest publication, The Weapon of Light: Introduction to Ati Yoga Meditation by Tibetan traditional doctor and tantric yogi Dr Nida Chenagtsang was released for sale. Since I helped with editing and translation for this book, you would think I would have thought to mention it on this blog, but distracted by other things as I was, I forgot to make an announcement. So, since ‘The Weapon of Light’ is actually quite a special little book, I thought I’d make a post about it now. Continue reading →
(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།
Some happy news. Recently, I produced some English translations of commentaries written in Tibetan by Dr Nida Chenagtsang on the special Ati Yoga (Dzogchen) instructions of the Yuthok Nyingthig, the cycle of comprehensive tantric Buddhist teachings associated with Tibetan medicine and connected with Yuthok, the father and chief systematizer of Tibetan medicine who is said to have achieved full liberation in one life and to have dissolved into rainbow light at his death. These translations have now been combined with supplementary material to create a new book, ‘Mirror of Light: A Commentary on Yuthok’s Ati Yoga’ which will be published by SKY Press on the 9th of November 2016.
(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 →
(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 →
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.
“It’s not you…I just don’t think our pineal glands are in the same place right now.”#NewAgeDatingProblems
A while back, I was kinda bored and for reasons I still don’t fully understand, I made this meme. I thought it came out quite well.
I was just going to post this meme here, but then it got me thinking. Jokes aside, I find the idea of doing something like ‘de-calcifying your pineal gland’ quite fascinating. The concept is one of a panoply of New Age lifestyle/purificatory options, which rely at least in part on a veneer of scienc-i-ness for their legitimacy. Continue reading →
Like all other Buddhist traditions, Vajrayana or tantric Buddhism offers a way out of the terrifying and bewildering morass of human suffering and habitude that is shorthanded as Samsara (འཁོར་བ་ khorwa in Tibetan, or ‘wandering around and around’). What stands out about the tantric path of liberation from suffering, though, is that rather than insisting that we completely reject or avoid the perceptions and experiences that can easily mire us in suffering, Vajrayana proposes that the quickest and most convenient way out is through.
In my anthropological research on ngakpa/ma, I have written about how Vajrayana provides a unique philosophical framework for thinking about (and experiencing) the relationship between different levels of reality, the ultimate and the relative, inner and outer, mundane and extraordinary, subtle and gross. A large part of what makes tantra interesting is the way in which it plays with, and attempts to resolve the contrasts between more or less subtle levels of perception and activity, between what anthropologist of Buddhism Melford Spiro long ago called ‘nirvanic, karmic, and apotropaic’ levels of Buddhist philosophy and practice (that is, the goal of ultimate liberation, improved karma for better rebirth, and a focus on the conditions of this life here and now, respectively). While the ultimate or ‘extraordinary’ ‘super-power’ in Vajrayana is Buddhahood, tantric experts can (and should) develop all kinds of other abilities along the way so as to help beings. Ngakpa/ma are distinct for how they cultivate the highest view and attainments while apparently remaining firmly grounded in the midst of ‘worldly’ life and its everyday contingencies. Ngakpa/mas double up as both master-meditator yogis cultivating spiritual attainments in retreat at a remove from worldly obligations, and as fully-engaged householders who apply their expertise and the power of their attainments to the needs and problems of their own and others’ daily lives.
(An image of a tantric practitioner providing a life-enhancing empowerment to a patient, from the medical paintings commissioned by Desi Sangye Gyatso, 1653-1705, to accompany his commentaries of the root-tantras of the Tibetan medical tradition)
One of the first things that someone visiting Tibetan communities tends to encounter -whether they’re a foreign visitor or a transmigrating Tibetan baby – is mantras. These set-apart forms of speech, made up of specific patterns of sacred and largely untranslatable phrases and syllables, are performed with special kinds of cadence and affect which distinguish them from other sorts of utterance.
As their Sanskrit etymology suggests, mantras are ‘instruments of the mind’; holding awareness firm they help to generate various effects and qualities in the one who recites them. While many mantras are the specific sound-embodiment of deities and Buddha-beings, others are more action-based and ‘worldly’, and exist as powerful spells that in the hands of trained experts who have properly ‘activated’ them are supposed to be able to produce all kinds of results.
Many people today are familiar with Indo-Tibetan mantras but are perhaps less familiar with where exactly mantras come from. Below I have attached my very rough and inadequate translation of the first part of a three-part Tibetan blog-post which appeared on a website about Tibetan culture in 2013 (cf here). This essay which was written by Dr Nida Chenagtsang some years ago in Lhasa (and which someone called Rinchen shared independently on the website above) essay discusses the history of the use of mantras for healing (སྔགས་བཅོས་ཐབས་ ngakchö tuhp) in Tibet. Dr Nida stresses that notwithstanding Sowa Rigpa or Tibetan medicine’s investment in strongly ’empirical’ and ‘secular’ therapeutic methods, mantra healing is nonetheless an indispensable element of Tibetan medical history and practice. His piece also acknowledges that healing mantras are not unique to Buddhism, and thus shows how magic and ritual healing are areas of Tibetan cultural life which are uniquely hybrid and non-sectarian and which perhaps span beyond Buddhist hegemonies. In general, mantra healing points to a rich and complex field of history and practice, one that comprises both elite and everyday ‘folk’ actors and knowledge systems, which intertwine in fascinating ways.