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
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 Fifth Lelung Jedrung Rinpoche, Zhepai Dorje)
Recently, Tibetan scholar, traditional physician and yogi Dr Nyida Chenaktsang told me about (and gave me permission to read) a short text by the 18th century Tibetan yogi and visionary saint or ‘treasure revealer’, Lelung Jedrung Zhepai Dorje (sle lung rje drung bzhad pa’i rdo rje, 1697-1740). This saint, whose name means something like ‘the Jedrung reincanation, the laughing/proclaiming tantric thunderbolt, or non-dual reality from the Lelung region’, is also known by the personal names Trinlay Wangpo and Lobsang Trinlay. He was born in Ölga/Ölkha, a region in Lhoka in South-Western Tibet, and was recognized as the Fifth Jedrung Rinpoche – that is to say, as the reincarnation of Drubchen Namkha Gyaltsen (1326-1401), the celebrated master who was one of Je Tsongkhapa (1357-1419), the founder of the Gelukpa lineage’s, principal gurus. Yet, despite being the re-embodiment of a celibate master – of one who played mentor to boot to a figure strongly associated with the monastic regulation and circumscription of tantra in Tibet, AND despite the fact that Lelung Zhepai Dorje had himself received monk’s ordination from the Sixth Dalai Lama at the age of seven, the text that Dr Nyida brought to my attention has nothing to do with either vows of celibacy or monasticism. Continue reading
(Not sure why this picture is so small, but hopefully at the top you can see some of the photos of the allegedly fake Golok terton Drolma Thar, on the bottom left, Pema Lingpa, and on the bottom right a pensive Jesus Christ)
Tertön གཏེར་སྟོན་ or ‘treasure revealers’ are visionary prophets or saints in Tibetan Buddhist tradition. They are understood to be reincarnations of the original disciples of Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche, the Indian tantric master or ‘Second Buddha’ who established Buddhism in Tibet. Before he dissolved his 8th century physical form, Guru Rinpoche is said to have hidden various ‘treasures’ or terma གཏེར་མ་ all over Tibet and the Himalayas, with the intention that these treasures would be discovered by appointed persons at a later date. Guru Rinpoche left various treasures for safekeeping with guardian spirits in the sky, under the earth, in rocks and caves, and in the mind-streams of his closest disciples. Centuries after his time and into the present, certain individuals have claimed to have had powerful visionary experiences and past-life memories which have convinced them and others that they are reincarnations of Guru Rinpoche’s elect. Attending to these visions, insights, and memories, these individuals have been able to follow the clues to unearth treasures left specially for them across space and time by Guru Rinpoche and his partner the great female Buddha and queen Yeshe Tsogyal. 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.