Hi, friends! A small announcement to let you know that from this coming Tuesday (May 11th 2021), I will be guiding a ten-week long word-by-word study group relating to the ngöndro or preliminary practices of the Yuthok Nyingthig tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, the unique set of Highest Yoga Tantra teachings from Tibet especially connected with Tibetan medicine and the Medicine Buddha. In each class, we will investigate the rich meanings, wider contexts, and nuances of each word of the various prayers involved in these practices, to enrich our understanding and practice of these beautiful and transformative meditative, devotional procedures.Continue reading
I thought it would be a good idea to post an announcement here about two upcoming online courses to be taught by my own teacher and research collaborator Tibetan physician and tantric yogi Dr Nida Chenagtsang, which I will be assisting with. Both training programmes start in only a few days and are being offered through Sorig Institute. The courses will be hosted on Teachable and lectures and discussion will take place primarily over Zoom (further information about Dr Nida, his life, work, and training can be found here, here, and here).
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.
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
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.”
After more than a year’s hiatus (hello, PhD dissertation), I thought I would revive my posting here with a translation of an essay by Tibetan physican and tantric yogi Dr Nida Chenagtsang about a different kind of revival.
The following essay, published in a 1999 edited collection of some of Dr Nida’s articles on Tibetan medicine, describes Dr Nida’s efforts to resuscitate and promote a traditional Tibetan healing practice known as Yookchö/Yukcho(e) (dbyug bcos), or ‘Stick Therapy’. Stick Therapy, also sometimes called ‘vajra-stick/rod’ (rdo rje dbyug) practice, involves tapping repeatedly and in a steady rhythm on particular treatment points on a patient’s or one’s own body with a specially prepared pliable stick with a bundle or knob on one end in order to treat specific ailments. Stick Therapy is one of several traditional Tibetan healing practices which were originally (or simultaneously) developed by tantric Buddhist yogi/nis for use on their own bodies for the purposes of self-healing in the context of meditation retreat, which were then apparently taken up and developed as more exoteric medical therapies for use on the bodies of uninitiated patients.
Thought I’d make a quick post to let readers know that an interview I did recently with Matthew O’Connell at the Imperfect Buddha podcast where I discussed my work on Dr Nida Chenagtsang’s new book on Tibetan Buddhist traditions of ‘tantric sex’, and shared some comments on desire and sexuality in Buddhism more generally, among many other topics, is now available online.
I hope that this will prove interesting and informative for some of you. This is an incredibly broad topic, and Matthew and I only just scratched the surface here. It can be difficult to talk about the details of a book that people might not have read, or speak on the technicalities of a topic without necessarily knowing how familiar listeners might be with the specifics of Tibetan esoteric Buddhism. I had also just come out of the other side of a major car crash, so all in all I hope that what I’ve said here makes sense! I can never bring myself to listen to myself being interviewed, so I do hope that some of you will listen to this interview for me and let me know what you think.
My thanks to Matthew for having me on the show (click here).
(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
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.
(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
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