“Doctor, there’s a Demon in my Drink!” Tibetan Grimoires and the Tibetan Medical Tradition

 

guru rinpoche beer spell tibetan grimoires

Padmasambhava (pictured above), the mythic tantric saint who ensured the flourishing of Buddhism in Tibet in the 8th century was both a fully realized being and a consummate sorcerer. He is credited with having tamed the unruly indigenous demons of Tibet and having helped establish the first Buddhist monastery on Tibetan soil. As Tibet’s ‘Second Buddha’ his cultural importance to Tibetans is hard to over-emphasize. This Lotus-Born Precious guru is the quintessential model for the non-celibate tantric practitioner or ngakpa. As a realized Buddha he is the practitioner’s own basic, pure and perfect nature, as a historical and cosmological figure he represents the model practitioner of the path of tantric Buddhism, the Secret Mantra Vehicle. In his dress, comportment, practices, activities, teachings, motivation, and view he embodies everything that the best tantric practitioner should be.

It is thus no surprise that Padmasambhava’s legendary activities should feature strongly in Tibetan magic. Compared to their counterparts in Western esotericism, Tibetan medico-magical practices, and Tibetan grimoires (ngak ki beubum, སྔགས་ཀྱི་བེའུ་བུམ) have received relatively little scholarly attention. This paucity of scholarly interest is perhaps exacerbated by the fact that the more spiritual dimensions of Sowa Rigpa, or Traditional Tibetan Medicine (TTM) have been formally excised from state-sponsored Sowa Rigpa curricula in contemporary China. Continue reading

Depersonalization Disorder and Living Corpses: Psychiatry, Religion, and Alienation

milarepa emaciated

(The 11th century yogi Milarepa, in his retreat cave.  He appears here  in his iconic emaciated, green-tinged form that was brought about by subsisting on a diet of nettle soup)

I tend to read pop science pieces on neurological/psychiatric conditions with interest, as I’m sure most cultural and medical anthropologists do. I’m versed in neither neuro-anthropology nor neuro-theology but I do often find myself wondering about the broader social, historical, economic, and political landscapes through, in, and in spite of which specific bio-medical conditions emerge. It’s probably far too reductive and glib to characterize the cases below as merely examples of a contemporary willingness to ‘neurologize’ sicknesses of society. Still, while I’m not about to advocate for a hard-line social constructivist take on these kinds of ‘bizarre’ neurological conditions, I do think it can be interesting to reflect on contemporary psychiatric disorders and discourse in parallel to, and against religious vocabularies. Continue reading

So, You Want to be a Tantric Wizard, Huh?

so you want to be a tantric wizard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Part of my current PhD research focuses on the overlaps – and divergences – between ideas about what practicing tantra means in ‘traditional’ or ‘indigenous’ Asian contexts and in what can be called ‘neo’ or ‘New Age’ tantric settings.

Recently, I’ve been coming across a great number of (white) people who describe themselves as ‘Tantrikas’ and ‘Dakinis’, traditional terms for somebody following the path of (an often but not always non-celibate) tantric practitioner and vow-holder. The (often, but not always) white people who use these terms most liberally frequently seem to be operating well outside of the boundaries of traditional Indian or Tibetan tantra, that is, the native religious system of someone like His Holiness the Dalai Lama. As an anthropologist, I’m not interested in categorically dismissing or merely debunking these white self-avowed tantric masters and goddesses Continue reading

The Meditation on the Two Brandos

brando

For many centuries and up until the present day, Buddhist ascetics have used contemplation of their body and its transformation into a rapidly disintegrating corpse as a sobering exercise – as a practice that reconfigures their relationship to their sense of self and deepens their appreciation of impermanence. In some cases, meditators have even visited charnel grounds and cremation sites where they have observed corpses directly to amplify their reflections. Not all of us have such opportunities. Continue reading

Buddhist Bromance and Homoerotic Hermits: Queer Sociality as an Obstacle to Spiritual Attainment

jewel neck

I was recently looking through the Jataka Tales, that sizable collection of fables about the previous incarnations of the Buddha and his close disciples, when I came across one story, called ‘Jewel-Throat’, which you could call a queer, Buddhist version of ‘The Little Mermaid’. In this story about the relationship between a naga or snake-spirit king and two ascetic brothers, homoeroticism and homosexual love appear incidentally as obstacles to ascetic attainment. The story’s vivid account of homosexual spirit-love with reptile-people raises a number of points. Continue reading

A Tibetan Ghost Story: How Three Chod-pas Tamed a Yakshini

chodpa

The following is a rough translation of a spooky Tibetan story that was shared on the popular Tibetan-medium site Khabdha. It tells the tale of three ngakpa – non-monastic, non-celibate tantric yogi sorcercers – who engage in the special exorcistic meditation of  Chöd, and end up encountering a very dangerous demoness (more specifically, a yakshini or alluring female nature spirit, associated with the granting of power, riches, and sickness). I hope you will read it and be careful the next time you are practicing yoga in the wilderness!

Besides being quite chilling and engaging, the story is also noteworthy for other reasons. It reminds us for one, how Tibetan Buddhist yoga is a lot more human thigh-bone trumpet and visions of demons than Lulu Lemon, coconut water and gym memberships, and points to the awe and fear with which the Tibetan practice of Chöd – particularly in its solitary, and itinerant iterations – continues to be held. As part of the Chöd (gcod) or ‘severance/cutting’ offering rite practitioners visit terrifying, haunted locations, where, through complex ritual choreographies of visualization, liturgy-singing, dancing, and drumming, they work with the energy of their fear of annihilation by meditatively disengaging from their body, severing their investment in a constructed self, and offering their ‘corpse’ up to be eaten by beneficent as well as  hungry, suffering demonic beings, which they have summoned. As I mention in another post about the practicegcod not only pacifies these demons – themselves ultimately displays of Mind and a product of self-grasping like all phenomena – but also powerfully severs the practitioner’s attachment to their self-importance and allows them to develop profound compassion, generosity and fearlessness.

The story below is noteworthy, however, for how it reminds us that just because spirits are empty, illusory displays from the vantage-pointless vantage-point of ultimate non-dual reality, that does not mean that they do not appear to be real at the conventional level, and do not act in the world of apparent phenomena (after all, your and my own sense of self is likewise an ultimately empty, illusory display but many people still take your and my actions in the world pretty seriously). Chöd (and the story below!) is thus interesting for how, on one level, it is a teaching about the ultimate non-reality of demons, of all those terrifying projections that haunt us, but on another, serves to demonstrate just how potent and devastating, how perilous, those demons can be. On a separate note, with its descriptions of the three brothers’ divvying up of familial and religious duties, the story that follows also provides some small insight into ngakpas’ time-management strategies, and the everyday familial, socio-economic dimensions of Tibetan yogic practice.

Here follows the translation:

A story of how three Chodpa exorcists tamed a Yakshini [i.e. Female ‘Harm-Giver’ or local land spirit (gnod sbyin mo)] – By Tenpai Nyima Continue reading

Lama Wangdu and the Boogaboogabooga Mantra

lama wangdu fire puja

For my friends who practice Tibetan Buddhism, and especially Chöd (གཅོད), this is quite a remarkable image. So remarkable, I even made a collage for you!

The Tibetan Lama featured on the right is Lama Wangdu. The photograph of the fire apparition on the upper left was taken by someone called Natalia Makeeva during a ritual service conducted byLama Wangdu at his temple in Boudhnath, Kathmandu, Nepal in 2011. The apparition is supposed to have appeared after Lama Wangdu cast ritual offering substances into the fire. The apparition bears a striking resemblance to the Tibetan female tantric saint who originated one of Lama Wangdu‘s Chöd practice lineages, the great 11th century yogini Machik Ladrönma (pictured bottom left). Continue reading