Tantra and Transparency, or Cultural Contradiction and Today’s Tibetan Buddhist Wizard

This is the first of a series of articles that I will be posting this month as a guest-contributor for Savage Minds. In each post I will be sharing some preliminary and open-ended reflections relating to my research on Tibetan diaspora, esotericism, and the globalization of Tibetan culture. This week, I’d like to introduce readers to the non-celibate Tibetan religious specialists known as ngakpa (literally mantra or ‘spell’-users in Tibetan, sngags pa) who are the focus of my current doctoral dissertation fieldwork with Tibetan refugees in India and Nepal. 

white and red robes
The red and white blue-lined cloth often associated with ngakpa.

Mass monasticism has often been used as a shorthand for Tibetan civilization in general. Over the last few decades in particular, large-scale Buddhist monasteries, whether in diaspora or in Chinese-occupied Tibet, have become key symbols for the continued vitality of Tibetan culture in the face of adversity. Yet even so, for centuries, ngakpa have existed in Tibetan societies as an alternative, smaller community of religious professionals, who though they are not monastics, nonetheless embody many of the possibilities and particularities of Tibetan culture life. Like monks and nuns, ngakpa are professional Buddhist renouncers, individuals who have taken formal vows to devote their lives to religious attainment. Unlike monastics, however, ngakpa are non-celibate and can engage in activities forbidden to the monastic community. Ngakpa thus straddle lay and monastic worlds and reside in a shifting third space of both accommodation and resistance to more centralized political and religious institutions. While monastics are the ‘yellow’ clothed community (ser) and laypeople are ‘grey’ householders (mi skya), i.e. clothed in no particular religious uniform, ngakpa, with their long hair and white and-red cotton shawls and robes, are known as the gos dkar lcang lo sde, the ‘white-robe, dreadlock [wearing] community’ of non-celibate yogis. Able to marry, have families, and pursue worldly work, ngakpa nonetheless spend much of their time in study, meditative retreat or working as ritual specialists for hire. 

Meeting ngakpa in her travels in Tibet during the early 20th century, French explorer and early convert to Tibetan Buddhism Alexandra David-Neel profiled them as ‘shamanists’ disguised as Buddhists (1992). To be sure, David-Neel was projecting her own categories and judgements onto native practitioners, and her turn of phrase has lurking behind it a long tradition of foreigners claiming that (as far as they were concerned) much of Tibetan Buddhism wasn’t really ‘real’ Buddhism at all. At the same time, David-Neel’s description usefully captures issues of esoteric power, authenticity, legibility, representation, and transparency that have proven to be central so far in my fieldwork with ngakpa living in exile. Ngakpas’ association with tantra, the esoteric forms of Buddhism that came to Tibet from India from the 7th century onwards, is key to understanding their position and importance in Tibetan societies. It is also key to understanding what makes them interesting anthropologically. Anthropologists have long been interested in how cultural histories, practices, and institutions are sustained and transformed cross-generationally in situations of major change and upheaval. They have described how shared religious beliefs and practices have served as a basis for political mobilization, for the legibility of diasporic groups, for the forging of transnational moral communities and ethno-nationalist imaginaries (phew!), and for the development of marked forms of cultural identity. As specialists in esoteric Buddhism living in exile, ngakpa present rich opportunities for exploring how religion, identity, and politics may intersect in situations where religious knowledge and power are distributed highly unequally, and where religious authority and practices that contribute to cohesive moral communities depend upon secrecy, ambiguity, and restricted occult knowledge. 

Esoteric or tantric Buddhism (the so-called Vajrayana or ‘Vehicle of the Adamantine Thunderbolt’) with its alchemical register,  stresses that what is impure and poisonous can be transmuted into the highest medicine. It promises that through a shrewd re-orientation towards the sensory arisings and afflictive emotions that are often treated in more exoteric Buddhist contexts as sources of contamination and suffering, these obstacles can be transformed into sources of realization. Tantric practitioners’ ritual repertoires draw on elaborate iconographies that embody Vajrayana’s unique orientation to visceral forces of sex, violence, and death. Through intensive imaginative engagement with both peaceful and forceful tantric Buddhist deities and vital forces in the subtle channels of the body, practitioners of various systems of tantric yoga seek to rapidly transform their (apparently) impure bodies, speech and minds into their innately pure and blissful state of Buddha-nature. Pursued under the guidance of a legitimate guru, and with proper preparation and intention such methods can guarantee enlightenment in a single human lifetime. Practiced incorrectly, however, they can bring corruption, madness and death.

While pretty much all aspects of Tibetan Buddhism have a tantric sensibility or aesthetic, concerns about the preservation  and regulation of high-level and especially non-celibate tantric practices have been longstanding in Tibetan societies. Ngakpa lineages, which are strongly associated with the Nyingma (rnying ma) school, the most ancient sect of Buddhism in Tibet, were consolidated and elaborated during Tibet’s ‘Dark Age’. During this so-called ‘period of fragmentation’ (dus sil bu, approx. 842 to 986 C.E.) large-scale monastic institutions and state patronage/co-optation of religious power foundered in Tibet. Ngakpa, transmitting esoteric teachings within families, outside of monastic and state surveillance and regulation, were instrumental in adapting and indigenizing tantric Buddhist teachings from India and helped keep such traditions alive during a time of civil war and intense political upheaval. Anxieties about tantra going ‘rogue’ are particularly linked to the age of fragmentation in Tibetan histories. Records from this time describe non-celibate ‘village tantric masters’ misinterpreting tantra, and pursuing esoteric practices for selfish, immoral or harmful ends, without a proper Mahayana Buddhist motivation to liberate all beings from suffering. Since monastics with the proper training can and do engage in higher tantric practices, celibacy and monasticism have sometimes been seen as providing a more controlled context for the pursuit of potent but easily misused tantric methods.

Ngakpas’ non-celibacy and closeness to the  ‘wildness’ of everyday, worldly life is thus part of what makes them powerful and what makes them ambiguous. Ngakpas’ ambiguous charisma has shown up historically in various ways. As wandering ‘crazy’ ascetics ngakpa have lampooned entrenched institutions, yet as a hereditary clergy authorized to employ ritual violence as part of potent tantric rituals to exorcise and manipulate natural forces such as the weather, they have figured prominently in everyday community activities. Ngakpas’ shifting status can be seen in traditional legal codes from Tibet: ngakpa are forbidden from giving legal testimony for fear that they might delude their audiences with magic, yet their same powers may be called upon as an extra-judicial measure to settle intractable disputes (French 2002). Visiting groups of ngakpa attached to monastic institutions in early 20th century Eastern Tibet, David-Neel observed how ngakpa had been able to sell their unenviable but valuable talent for subduing demons to monastic authorities, thereby earning a partial incorporation into institutional, administrative structures, and a measure of prestige, privilege and payment. In my current research, I am interested in how such mediations of religious power between ritual specialists and institutional authorities are continuing in exile. How are ngakpas’ esoteric expertise and ambiguous charisma faring in the face of calls for increased democratization, clarity and standardization in Tibetan exile society? 


ben new image 2
Yeshe Dorje Rinpoche (1926-1993), a ngakpa who served as head weather controller for the Tibetan exile government, whose legacy and ngakpa retreat center in McLeod Ganj, India forms my primary field site.


His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama with prominent ngakpa and first appointed head of the Nyingma school in exile Dudjom Rinpoche (1904-1987)
His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama with prominent ngakpa and first appointed head of the Nyingma school in exile Dudjom Rinpoche (1904-1987)

Since the People’s Republic of China invaded Tibet over six decades ago, stateless Tibetan refugees who have fled their homeland have struggled to rebuild and stabilize their political and social institutions in exile. As the spiritual leader of Tibetans, the fourteenth Dalai Lama has spearheaded efforts to both preserve and to reform Tibetan life in diaspora. In particular, he and the Tibetan administration have taken measures to promote co-operation and inclusion among Tibetans’ diverse religious communities. One major development along these lines has been the establishing of the Central Tibetan Administration’s Office of Religion and Culture in McLeod Ganj, India, and the selection of formal ‘heads’ to represent the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism and Tibet’s pre-Buddhist religion Bon in exile. Ngakpa, like other religious professionals, have thus found themselves newly consolidated under the leadership of sectarian authorities in exile. With the encouragement of religious authority figures from both within and without their sectarian communities, they have built new educational and ritual colleges (ngakpa dratsang, sngags pa drwa tshang) and transmitted their lineage-practices to new students for the sake of posterity.

Lopon P. Ogyan Tandzin Rinpoche (front), a ngakpa and student of Dudjom Rinpoche with students from the ngakpa school or dratsang which he founded in 2001 and which is located in a remote border region of Arunachal Pradesh, India
Lopon P. Ogyan Tandzin Rinpoche (front), a ngakpa and student of Dudjom Rinpoche with students from the ngakpa school or dratsang which he founded in 2001 and which is located in a remote border region of Arunachal Pradesh, India.

Yet drives for standardization and categorization can sit uneasily with ngakpas’ distinct styles of religious practice. Recently, I was told a story by a ngakpa friend about how some decades ago ngakpa in McLeod Ganj had complained to the Office of Religion and Culture about having been passed over by community members when it came to receiving donations for ritual services they had performed on behalf of the administration and the public. While monks had received alms for their religious labours, these ngakpa, feeling that they ought to receive adequate recompensation and recognition for their contributions, felt short-changed. The Office’s response, apparently, was that ngakpa had not been dressing properly – having failed to consistently wear markers of their affiliation as members of the ‘white religious community’ people had not known who, or what, they were. It was thus suggested that ngakpa at least wear their white yogi shawl when performing such services so as to avoid confusion.

A group of senior dreadlock-wearing ngakpa from Sakor village, Repkong in Eastern Tibet .
A group of senior dreadlock-wearing ngakpa from Sakor village, Repkong in Eastern Tibet .

The Dalai Lama has frequently stated that religious vow-holders should dress more consistently and distinctly to reduce ambiguity and misunderstandings  (especially among foreigners) about what is and isn’t permissible for different classes of practitioners. Invoking the way in which the early Tibetan kings set up distinctive boundaries between laypeople, ngakpa and monastics in accordance with the Buddha’s own teachings, the Dalai Lama has warned that inconsistency in dress and conduct can become a cause for the criticism, repudiation and deterioration of the teachings. Nonetheless, research shows that ngakpa rarely stay in uniform. Not only do ngakpa often dress in lay clothing when not conducting ceremonies, but recommendations that ngakpa stick to their white, long-hair ‘uniforms’ brush over the very real historical and regional diversity of ngakpa lineage-practices. Ngakpa in exile hail from different parts of Tibet and hold a range of major and minor vows. They conduct their work and embody their tantric commitments in distinct ways. While for some ngakpa heaped masses of dreadlocks point to their maintaining of a ‘natural’, ‘unfabricated’ (rang bzhin, ma bcos pa’) state of mind in the midst of worldly life, other practitioners prefer less elaborate hairstyles, tying their washed and combed hair back discreetly. From time to time, some practitioners have shaved their hair entirely, citing reasons of both practicality or necessity (itchiness, lice, heat etc) and modesty. Likewise, despite their association with white and red yogis’ robes, tantric ritual specialists from some regions have traditionally worn other colours, such as black or brown –  what one exile ngakpa described to me as a ‘low’ colour, appropriate for the very high practice of maintaining an ordinary, outer appearance alongside a lofty state of inner cultivation.

Resistance to ‘standard uniform’ is thus also strongly linked to the ways ngakpa understand the relationship between outer and inner forms of religious practice, and to how they engage with larger tantric themes of revelation, concealment and the relativity of appearances. While ngakpas’ specific vows are concretely and visually marked through the various tantric ornaments, clothing, hair-stylings etc. associated with in scripture with a tantric vow-holder, ngakpas’ frequent foregoing of full regalia is tied up with culturally-specific understandings of self-presentation, modesty and secrecy. In conversation, ngakpa have often been quick to remind me that without inner commitment and attainment, the material trappings of their practice remain merely symbolic and trivial. Indeed, rather than suggesting discipline or transparency, staying in costume may sometimes indicate untrustworthiness. Tales about young Tibetan and sometimes foreigner men who flaunt elaborate dreadlocks and full tantric finery just to drink beer and pick up women (individuals ngakpa and scholar Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche once labeled ‘appearance ngakpas’ ) surface often in conversation. Such anecdotes suggest by way of contrast the figure of the ‘hidden yogi’ (sbal pa’ rnal ‘byor pa), the accomplished practitioner who avoids advertising their spiritual accomplishments through strategic performances of ordinariness. They underscore how no one but a Buddha can truly know the state of another being’s mind, how easy it is to be mislead by appearances, to dress up and merely pose as a tantric practitioner, and how much harder it is by contrast to consistently maintain one’s vows and the mental orientations associated with them in every situation. At the same time, while ngakpa often warn one not to judge based on misleading appearances and be wary of showiness, respected practitioners’ great potency or ritual efficacy (nus pa chenpo), is something concrete and demonstrable – emerging from the accumulation of vital-force and special abilities (dngos drub) in one’s person that can be pointed to and benefitted from by others. Status and self-disclosure tie into the gendered politics of religious practice as well. While ngakma or female non-celibate tantric vow-holders play important social and religious roles, they appear more often as the wives and sexual consorts of male practitioners than as stand-alone practitioners or experts in their own right. The cultural politics of being in and out of the lime light thus take on even further layers for female practitioners. 

Ngakpa Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche (1920-2009)
Ngakpa Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche (1920-2009)

Such ambivalence aside, representation and transparency still matter for Tibetans today. While exile ngakpas’ self-presentation varies contextually and individually, their vows and moral commitments as a religious community remain unambiguous and codified. In a social context where advertising one’s own spiritual accomplishments can sometimes be tantamount to providing proof you don’t have any, religious authority must be both secured and contested through daily and ongoing performances, and complex interpersonal and community dynamics. Today, ideas and practices connected to Tibetan religion are circulating more and more widely, and ngakpas’ knowledge and power are involved in ever broader economies of value and exchange. With the rapid globalization of Tibetan Buddhism since 1950, Tibetan refugee lamas are more and more catering to non-Tibetan students for whom the possibility of engaging with advanced Buddhist teachings without having to become celibate is distinctly practical and appealing. While Tibetan ngakpa continue to fulfill important functions within diasporic communities, new emphases on secular education and employment in exile have also meant that many exile-born Tibetans are opting not to take up hereditary religious vocations. As tantra is being reappropriated and reapplied in new contexts and for new audiences, and as more and more non-Tibetans are coming to adopt ngakpa styles of dress and religious practice, fears about the corruption of the teachings and about the spread and regulation of tantra outside of monastic – and native Tibetan contexts in particular -are as salient as ever. Various tantra-related ‘casualties’ – vow-breaking controversies and abuses of power involving Tibetan Buddhist convert communities that frequently operate beyond the pale of Tibetan structures of authority – reveal the extent to which truly centralized or standardized channels of authority or regulation do not exist for the deeply heterogenous (and now significantly transnational) landscape of contemporary Tibetan Buddhism. The current moment in Tibetan history can thus be compared to an earlier period of fragmentation, characterized as it is as much by dispersal and decline as by innovation and an unprecedented proliferation of Buddhist teachings. Ngakpa/ma thus provide a particularly relevant, albeit under-explored lens through which to understand processes of cultural and religious change as they are affecting Tibetans today. Ngakpa/mas’ shifting relationships with centralized authority and with material expressions of power show how the forging of cultural coherence and stable institutions in diaspora involves both creativity and contradiction – how cultural life revolves around tensions that are as unsettling as they are meaningful.


David-Neel, Alexandra. 1992. “Tibetan Journey,” New Delhi: South Asia Books.

French, Rebecca. 2002. “The Golden Yoke: The Legal Cosmology of Buddhist Tibet,” Boston: Snow Lion Publications.

Ben Joffe is a Cultural Anthropology PhD candidate from South Africa based at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He is currently conducting Wenner-Gren funded dissertation fieldwork with Tibetan refugees in India. You can read more about him and his research here: https://colorado.academia.edu/BenPJoffe

7 thoughts on “Tantra and Transparency, or Cultural Contradiction and Today’s Tibetan Buddhist Wizard

  1. Ben, have you thought of doing comparative research? Except for the Tantric Buddhist and Tibetan context, almost everything you have written here could have been said of the Daoist fa-shi (masters of methods, magicians) I studied in Taiwan, now nearly a half century ago. Non-celibate, marginal to major institutions, experts in dealing with angry spirits (gods, ghosts, or ancestors), accused of corruption and sorcery, subject to attempts to subsume competing lineages under government-sanctioned authorities….very similar, indeed. And, of course, culturally next door to Tibet.

  2. You write “ngakpa are forbidden from giving legal testimony for fear that they might delude their audiences with magic, yet their same powers may be called upon as an extra-judicial measure to settle intractable disputes (French 2002).”
    In this respect they follow the monastic code dat forbids monastics to give testimony in court since they are not allowed to speak evil and are held to “bring together what has been separated”.

  3. You write “In a social context where advertising one’s own spiritual accomplishments is tantamount to providing proof you don’t have any, …”
    Buddha explicitly forbade his monks to display spiritual acomplishments, this in an age in which non-Buddhist contemporaries sought to use this as a competitive means to assert their superiority. Later generations of lay Buddhists more often then not demand that the monk/practitioner show some signs of “powers” in order to assure the layman and laywomen that their offerings are not given in vain.

  4. Ben, Rátana, has anyone taken the time to map the range of opinions surrounding the difference between the Buddha’s explicit prohibition on displaying spiritual accomplishments and lay demand that spiritual powers be displayed to justify offerings? I ask because in my work on Chinese popular religion, it is clear that Chinese individuals embrace all shades of belief, from fervent devotion to atheistic rejection. The mode appears to be a pragmatic interest in whether deities or practitioners are ling, i.e., efficacious, by which I mean they appear to answer prayers for health, wealth, or offspring. Intellectual Buddhists or Confucianists may see this pragmatism as corrupt superstition, but its modal position in popular practice seems unshakeable.

  5. Yes! Thank you Rátana for these points. I had hoped to include some more words in this piece on the idea of magical display (rdzu ‘phrul ston pa), of demonstrating one’s abilities as a method for inspiring faith and confidence, but unfortunately space didn’t allow. This sort of display extends beyond proving one’s power within the Buddhist community, and includes ‘magical duels’ or contests of miraculous display between Buddhist practitioners and potential non-Buddhist rivals. These dynamics show up frequently in Tibetan hagiographical traditions and in more contemporary contexts as well. I have heard stories about competitive displays of power between ngakpas in Tibet and between ngakpa and non-Buddhist practitioners in exile, and questions about what constitutes demonstrable efficacy when it comes to ritual power are necessarily a part of both individuals’ and institutional authorities-in exile’s engagements with ngakpa as exorcists and weather controllers. The ability to manifest miracles has also been held up as a sort of challenge by Tibetan authorities in response to contemporary Buddhist teachers who have claimed that they have achieved high-level realization and that they are therefore exempt from standard codes of conduct. In 2006, representatives of the Dalai Lama’s Private Office in India posed this challenge to controversial American convert and teacher Michael Roach, who had argued that his meditative accomplishments and superior insight into the nature of reality made it ok for him to grow his hair long and to engage in a sexual relationship with one of his students (‘Lama Christie’ McNally) as a tantric consort despite not having formally returned his monastic vows. You can see how this challenge was posed in a set of emails that were sent to Roach by Tibetan exile authorities urging him not to come and give teachings in McLeod Ganj here http://info-buddhism.com/Dalai-Lama-Letters.pdf

  6. John – yes, I think comparison can be very useful. In Tibetan studies, and in some corners of tantric studies as well, a lot of debate has centered around the relative usefulness or meaninglessness of the label ‘shamanic’ for understanding aspects of tantric Buddhism and Tibetan societies. Given how free-floating and up-for-grabs the idea of the shamanic has become, one can understand some scholars’ resistance to using it, but as with the value of any comparative analytic it’s going to depend on how finely ethnographically grained or tuned one’s case-studies for comparison are to start with. The fact that ngakpa and other Tibetan ritual specialists today often self-describe kinds of ‘shamans’ should remind us too that these sorts of comparison are part of a politics of everyday engagement and cultural exchange where distinctions between etic and emic categories can sometimes be quite hazy.

    The question of audience, audience reactions and what exactly constitutes an appropriate display of miraculous power, when, where, and why, makes me think of something a friend said online today in response to this online interview with David Gordon White, which deals with White’s research on yoga, tantra and Indian yogis status as ‘sinister’ sorcerers http://www.popmatters.com/column/on-evil-yogis-and-the-icy-silence-of-yogas-post-disintegration/. Noting how many of the ‘sorcerous’ elements of Hindu and Buddhist tantric traditions had been whitewashed and marginalized by middle class consumers of neo-tantra, my friend brought up the case of Ra Lotsawa, a 11th century Tibetan translator and tantric master who helped transmit and popularize Vajrabhairava practices in Tibet. Ra Lotsawa (aka Dorje Drak) boasted about having used magic to destroy several prominent rival lamas, and the potency of his homicidal sorcery came to signify for some the superiority of his preferred practice-lineage. As my friend put it, Ra Lotsawa could thus be seen as ‘a great saint or a murderous maniac depending on who you are talking to’. These dynamics are interesting. Ngakpa are often stereotyped as lowly village ritualists who do rituals and divinations just to get money, and ngakpa themselves are often quick to correct such type-casting by reminding people that some of the greatest Tibetan Buddhist practitioners, artists and scholars in history have been ngakpa, and that to hold tantric vows requires the greatest refinement and skill, since these vows subsume those associated with the other two vehicles. Still, even though this association with everyday ceremony is at times almost demeaning, great ngakpa are also remembered and revered for their ritual efficacy.

    Reputation and patronage are inevitably a big part of this I think. Something Gordon-White said about his new historical research in the interview above springs to mind:

    “As I’ve written elsewhere, “both the Silk Road and ancient and medieval maritime trade routes were information superhighways, and a portion of that information was demonological. It’s easy to imagine soldiers, sailors, merchants, diviners, monks, and priests swapping amulets and spells at Silk Road halting points and ports. Demons and the techniques to control them were as much a commodity in the ancient and medieval world as germs, guns, and steel.”

    …Much still needs to be done concerning patronage, the relationship between religious specialists and their royal / aristocratic / merchant / landowning clients…”

    Ritual power operates as part of multiple overlapping economies of value, and once it is patronized and channeled in particular ways it takes on new connotations and status. There’s certainly lots to think about here – such as Mongol leader’s co-opting and buying Tibetan lamas’ tantric power for their own purposes, or the Central Tibetan government arranging for practitioners of the Tibetan yoga of inner heat (gtum mo) based at retreat centers at Tsari sacred mountain to display their powers publicly for pilgrims as part of the government’s growing sponsorship/co-opting of the pilgrimage site (we can see a parallel if somewhat different politics of display and evidence at work in the Dalai Lama’s more recent recruitment of Tibetan yogis to take part in controlled scientific experiments relating to gtum mo practice with foreign scientists).

    Judging the levels at which Buddhist practice should be pitched – apotropaic, karmic, salvific, to use an old scheme – this can be interesting. Ngakpa often recognize that their ritual expertise overlaps with other non-Buddhist practitioners, but point to a Bodhisattva motivation/bodhicitta as being what distinguishes them from other practitioners – in this sense, contra David-Neel as cited in my piece, they might better be described as ‘Buddhists disguised as shamanists’ rather than the other way around – put differently their ritual activities are ultimately future/enlightenment-oriented, rather than purely this-worldly. Tantra’s non-dual philosophical basis however often stresses the ultimate inseparability of inner and outer or relative and ultimate levels. Many ngakpa are also practitioners of chöd (gcod, or severance), a Tibetan meditative tradition where the practitioner summons spirits in haunted places and offers his or her body to them as a food-offering sacrifice. Practitioners are taught that these spirits are at base projections of mind and that the ultimate purpose of the rite is to cut attachment to conventional delusions of self at their root and to generate boundless generosity and compassion. Nonetheless, on one level chöd practitioners still engage with ‘actual’ demons and are valued within communities for their skill in pacifying these. In light of such non-dualism (and given that the philosophical framework in which such practices are based suggests that spirits and exorcisms exist (and work) because spirits and exorcisms are as ultimately ‘un-real’ as the practitioner herself -distinguishing levels of practice (‘mere magic’ from other domains) becomes something of a non-sequitur. Still, it is fascinating to explore how, when, and why practitioners shift between such levels in practice.

    I was recently re-reading the memoirs of Chagdud Tulku, a prominent ngakpa from Tibet who ended up founding a religious organization in Oregon. Before he travelled to the US, however, he worked for a while as the resident lama at a small monastery in a remote part of North India called Chamba. After three years eking out a living performing ceremonies and giving teachings their he decided to leave. He explains:

    “I had not accomplished much there. People liked me but they had no leisure to practice during good-weather months because they worked hard in the fields. In the winter, they were in accessible. Moreover, the main motivation of many of them for following Buddhism was their belief that it would protect them from black magic, which was widely practiced and feared in that area. They would come to me with stories of strange phenomena but they traced back to some person who hated or envied them. I did not deny the authenticity of their experiences, and usually, if I performed a chöd ceremony, the phenomena abated. Still, even though they were grateful and awed, these people were not interested in methods for taming their own minds or in seeing that their own fear and negativity had provided the stage for demonic appearances. I felt that I could help them in the moment but could not effect long-term change.”

  7. Ben, I like what you have written here. I would, however, like to suggest another, perhaps complementary approach. In 1976, I published a paper in the Bulletin of the Institute of Ethnology, Academia Sinica (ROC) titled “The Parting of the Ways.” Having spent a year and a half working with a Daoist healer and writing a dissertation about his rituals, I observed that another disciple of the master, an older brother in the art, performed a ritual differently from the way our master did. To explain how this was possible. I found myself drawn to the sociology of professions and, in particular, the sociology of medicine. A book I was reading pointed out that prior to the establishment of standardized medical school curricula and certification boards to license doctors, anyone could claim the knowledge to practice “medicine.” Some might acquire reputations as better healers than others; but it wasn’t until nation states imposed licensing criteria that medicine became standardized.

    Returning to the history of Daoism in China, I found that except for brief periods during the Tang dynasty, Daoism had been a heterodox alternative to state-sanctioned Confucianism (then Communism). Anyone could claim to be a Daoist and claim legitimacy in one of two ways, asserting membership in an established lineage or proclaiming new revelations from a god. It was, moreover, standard practice for members of one lineage to cast aspersions on members of other lineages. You can, if you wish, find a marvelous example in Arthur Wolf, ed. Religion and Ritual in Chinese Society, in which Kristopher Schipper, who studied Daoists in southern Taiwan, and Michael Saso, who studied Daoists in Northern Taiwan attack each other’s claims to have been taught the “orthodox” tradition.

    We should also note the structure of competition in markets for religious services. In Japan, the iemoto system ensures the authority of the head of a school. In China relations between masters and apprentices are more fluid. In Taiwan truck mechanics as well as Daoist healers told me that masters never teach all they know. To do so would “break the master’s rice bowl.” Thus, while aspiring healers nominally attached themselves to particular masters, hoping to claim legitimacy through lineage, they also explored what others who claimed spiritual powers did, and shaped their own performances in ways that, empirically speaking, seemed to work. The result was a culture with a common symbolic language and grammar to which all performances conformed to some degree, coupled with a constant churning and reinvention of tradition.

    Later I found myself reading Paul Stoller’s work on magicians/sorcerers among the Songhay, a West African people.The details of belief and ritual were not Chinese; but the world that Stoller described seemed very familiar — as, at least to me, your description of Tibetan nkgakpa does. There may yet be something to be said for anthropological generalizations grounded in social structure and political economy that transcend cultural boundaries.

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