How to Mind Your Tantric Business: Padmasambhava’s Parting Words of Advice to Tibetan Ngakpa

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(The One Born From A Lotus, the Precious tantric Buddhist Guru, Padmasambhava)

One of my favourite genres of Tibetan Buddhist literature is so-called ‘words or songs of advice’ texts, known as gtam or zhal gdams in Tibetan. These sorts of texts are great for a number of reasons. For one, they tend to be both pithy and poetic, which makes them a pleasure to read. They often have quite a colloquial flavour, which makes them interesting in terms of style and register. And they are also uniquely practical. While their ethical orientation means that they are focused on ideals and best case-scenarios, the fact that they are intended to be useful as guides means that they are forced to point out faults realistically, to take stock of where their target audience may actually be in their lives or religious practice. After all, the only thing worse than unsolicited advice is advice that has no bearing on the realities of one’s life.

I previously translated and shared a ‘words of advice’ text aimed at ngakpa or non-celibate, tantric vow-holder yogi-householders on this blog. You can read that text by famous 20th century ngakpa Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, and some stray thoughts on it here. Today I was taking a read of a much older text of advice for ngakpa than Dilgo Khyentse’s text: the ‘final words’ or parting testament (zhal chems) of the legendary ON (‘Original Ngakpa’) Padmasambhava (‘The Lotus Born one’) a.k.a. Guru Rinpoche, the ‘Precious Guru’, as found in a biography of this Great Tantric Master who secured the spread of Buddhism in Tibet which was revealed by the tantric visionary-saint Orgyen Lingpa in the fourteenth century. Despite a gap of six centuries, I was struck by the similarities between Dilgo Khyentse’s words of advice for ngakpa and the testament of the eighth century Padmasambhava as reported in Orgyen Lingpa’s fourteenth century revelation (Dilgo Khyentse is directly inspired by it), Continue reading

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Tibetan Master Meets Theosophical Mahatmas: Gendun Choepel’s Reflections on Blavatsky and Theosophy

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(Celebrated ex-monk Tibetan intellectual Gendun Choepel)

I was recently reading through Donald Lopez’s excellent book “The Madman’s Middle Way’ on the contributions of controversial and brilliant early twentieth century Tibetan intellectual Gendun Choepel (1903-1951), and I came across something I had missed before, namely, Gendun Choepel’s reflections in Tibetan on the popularity of Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (1831-1891) and the nature of her new religious movement Theosophy, as found in his ‘Serki Thangma’ or ‘Field/Surface of Gold’. This travelogue (which has been fully translated into English by Lopez and Thupten Jinpa) constitutes an extensive autobiographical account of the ex-monk’s wanderings in the 1930s and 40s throughout India and then Ceylon/now Sri Lanka. It is chock-full of fascinating insights about British empire, comparative religion, gender, and science as seen through the eyes and experience of an extremely gifted and innovative Tibetan scholar, poet, and artist.   Continue reading

Interview on Karmamudra and Sexuality and Desire in Buddhism on Imperfect Buddha Podcast

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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).

Enjoy!

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

Meditation Made Easy: Announcing Dr Nida Chenagtsang’s New Book ‘The Weapon of Light’

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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

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

Teaching Christianity to Tibetan Buddhists, as a Non-Christian

Today, I used Hozier’s song ‘Take me to Church’ as part of an English listening exercise with some Tibetan students. I chose the song strategically: it is loaded with Christian and sexual themes but also reframes these in surprising, perhaps even blasphemous ways. I figured that the song could provide a good lesson in how important cultural background can be for language comprehension and offer a nice parallel with things the students were more familiar with as Tibetan Buddhists: in this case, the much celebrated if somewhat scandalous poetry of Tsangyang Gyatso, the sixth Dalai Lama, who in the early 18th century bucking the bonds of his royal, monastic education, returned his vows of celibacy and wrote erotic poems laden with tantric Buddhist religious imagery.

Continue reading