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. 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།
(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.
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!
(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 →
Today is Mother’s Day. The day before yesterday, on Friday, the 6th of May, news broke about yet another Tibetan self-immolation protest that took place inside Tibet. This was delayed news, however. The self-immolation took place some two months ago, but Tibetan exile media organizations had only now been able to even verify that it had happened. The woman who self-immolated was a mother of five. I had got up from being asleep and saw the news on Facebook. I shared this link, after quickly making a rough translation of the initial written information in the article: Continue reading →
(Antonin Artaud, gazing upon the summit of interiority)
So, McLeod Ganj, India where I am living, ‘Little Lhasa’, or the Tibetan capital in exile, is a funny kind of place. It’s really only a very small town, but its few streets and rural mountain town feel belies its cosmopolitanism. It is a junction point for a virtually unceasing stream of Tibetan and foreign visitors, for news and information from all over the globe. Besides formal support from the Tibetan government in exile, and informal flows of money from friends and family – everything from transnational remittances, informal/illegal trade, community saving unions, personal support structures centered around people from the same home regions in Tibet and exile, from common Tibetan exile or Indian school graduating groups, or shared monastic colleges – many Tibetans rely on tourist dollars to survive.
I have often said that this town exists for better or worse in the midst of overlapping economies of curiosity. Romantic stereotypes and Tibetans’ global reputation precedes them. One silver lining about this curiosity or global gaze is that it can at least be turned into a source of continued survival and livelihood for exile Tibetans, who let it not be forgotten, remain by and large stateless refugees living deeply precarious lives.
Since I’m just now launching this blog, I thought I would re-post links to my earlier Savage Minds blog essays for readers, with some additional comments.
This is the first piece I put out on the Savage Minds blog, and deals with the controversial Western Buddhist organization, the New Kadampa Tradition (NKT). This was a modest piece on my part. Continue reading →
(I originally made the following post on my Facebook page on April 7th. I reproduce it here, along with some clarifications and further reflections at the end. This picture collage shows the Nechung kuten in trance at the top, the Tsering Chenga goddesses possessing their medium on the bottom left, and Security and Welfare minister Mr Ngodup Drongchung is on the right, during an interview with Tibetan exile media immediately following his resignation)
Tibetan social media and exile society have been alive of late with commentary about the recent pronouncements and actions made by some of the Tibetan state oracles here in India. The state oracles, who are known in Tibetan as ཆོས་སྐྱོང ༼chökyong༽ or བསྟན་སྲུང་ ༼tensoong༽, i.e. ‘dharma-protectors’, are powerful and ferocious spirits – supernatural bouncers or ‘fixers’ – who are oath-bound to serve the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan government and the Tibetan people by providing prophetic advice on religious issues and affairs of state. Continue reading →
Tibetan can be a confusing language – not least because it isn’t really one language at all. There’s still no standardized form of either written or spoken Tibetan, even if there have been attempts to produce them, and when it comes to the spoken language there are many, many registers and regional variations of both grammar, syntax, pronunciation and vocabulary. Tibetan language(s) is/are also notoriously filled with homophones and homonyms – like French, many Tibetan dialects have a lot of ‘silent’ or almost silent letters, and words that are spelled quite differently on paper may sound very similar to each other depending on one’s regional accent. The same word, either in its written or spoken incarnation, may have various meanings, depending on the context. The following story demonstrates just how dangerous language ambiguity can be. Continue reading →