All posts by Ben Joffe

Ben Joffe

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:

Paranormalizing the Popular through the Tibetan Tulpa: Or what the next Dalai Lama, the X Files and Affect Theory (might) have in common

What’s the newest and weirdest sub-culture on the Internet, you ask? If you’re Vice Magazine, it’s apparently tulpamancers.

Tulpamancers are people who, through extended bouts of concentration and visualization, produce a special kind of imaginary friend that they call a tulpa. Tulpas are understood to be distinct sentient beings with their own personalities, inclinations and (relative) autonomy. Through various active and passive processes known as ‘forcing’ tulpamancers spend hours solidifying their impressions of their creations as something more than just an ordinary inner voice. (Active forcing means concentrating single-pointedly on the tulpa’s form and features, passive forcing is when the tulpamancer finds ways to bring tulpas into more regular routines, such as through ‘narrating’, where tulpamancers chat with or read stories to their creations). Tulpamancers meet tulpas in imagined environments called ‘wonderlands’, dream or mind-scapes that more fully contextualize interactions and provide a place for tulpas to ‘hang out’ when idle. They also work to perfect ‘imposition’ -seeing, hearing, or feeling tulpas in the ‘real world’ – and may practice tulpa-possession or even ‘switching’, where the tulpa takes over the host’s body and the host temporarily occupies the tulpa’s form in the wonderland.

A tulpamancer’s portrait of his creation from Nathan Thompson’s 2014 Vice article (left). Many have noted the tulpamancer community’s overlap with Brony, anime, furry, and otherkin sub-cultures and have stereotyped tulpamancers as obsessive and socially-awkward nerds. While sub-cultural overlaps do exist, they are partial and shifting, and many tulpamancers object to being type-cast or being lumped with these other groups. Most of the tulpamancers that anthropologist Samuel Veissiere investigated were white, middle to upper-middle class, urban, and between the ages of 19 and 23. Men outnumbered women three-to-one, although roughly ten percent of the tulpamancers Veissiere surveyed identified as gender-fluid.

Continue reading

Tripping On Good Vibrations: Cultural Commodification and Tibetan Singing Bowls

In September of 2014, science-and-technology news outlets reported on a discovery that supposedly had the potential to revolutionize the field of solar energy. While doing PhD research at the University of Cambridge, a physicist by the name of Niraj Lal developed a new way to design solar panel cells that increased their ability to absorb light and covert it into electricity dramatically . This alone was good news, but the hook of the story was more specific. For Lal’s breakthrough was inspired not only by recent developments in the world of physics, but also by something ancient and ‘spiritual’: the Tibetan Buddhist singing bowl.

Lal had experimented with playing a variety of metal singing bowls – i.e. with making them ‘sing’ by striking their sides and then running a padded pestle or mallet around their rim to produce a sustained ringing sound. As he explained in his 2012 PhD thesis, such musical experiments helped him realize that, if properly arranged, tiny, resonating singing bowl-shaped solar cells could do with light what their larger cousins did with sound, and therefore maximize light-energy conversion. (Well, actually what he said was more like this:

“This thesis explores the use of plasmonic nanovoids for enhancing the efficiency of thin-film solar cells. Devices are fabricated inside plasmonically resonant nanostructures, demonstrating a new class of plasmonic photovoltaics. Novel cell geometries are developed for both organic and amorphous silicon solar cell materials…A four-fold enhancement of overall power conversion efficiency is observed in organic nanovoid solar cells compared to flat solar cells. The efficiency enhancement is shown to be primarily due to strong localised plasmon resonances of the nanovoid geometry, with close agreement observed between experiment and theoretical simulations. Ultrathin amorphous silicon solar cells are fabricated on both nanovoids and randomly textured silver substrates. Angle-resolved reflectance and computational simulations highlight the importance of the spacer layer separating the absorbing and plasmonic materials. A 20% enhancement of cell efficiency is observed for nanovoid solar cells compared to flat, but with careful optimisation of the spacer layer, randomly textured silver allows for an even greater enhancement of up to 50% by controlling the coupling to optical modes within the device.”

…but you get the idea). Continue reading

Secrets of the Sex Magic Space Lamas Revealed! Tibetan Buddhist Aliens and Religious Syncretism

In this post I’m going to be talking a little about aliens. Tibetan ones, specifically. Also, sex magic. Bear with me now. A lot of this may be quite unfamiliar, esoteric territory for Savage Minds readers, but it’s territory that I think is anthropologically interesting. In addition to being an under-appreciated slice of Orientalist history, the Tibetan alien is an exquisitely weird gateway into a number of issues relating to epistemology, ontology, and ‘truth’. The convoluted history of the Tibetan alien opens up a space for thinking about the construction of ‘tradition’ and its relationship to religious practice and experience. It also beams a light on the politics of other-ness, both as they relate to issues of cultural appropriation and personal spiritual transformation.

To begin, let’s travel first to Dharamsala, North India, 1992. Continue reading

My Mother was a Rock-Ogress-Yeti-Monster: True Tales of Dharma, Demons, and Darwin

Recently, while browsing in a bookstore in McLeod Ganj, India, I came across a small Tibetan-language comic book. The store I was in was also small – more kiosk than shop, it’s manned by a single old Tibetan clerk and has barely enough room for three customers to stand inside at one time. That said, it’s a major purveyor of secular and religious Tibetan-medium educational literature in McLeod Ganj, the Himachali mountain town that today serves as the home-in-exile for the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, a great many Tibetan refugees, and the Central Tibetan Administration (the CTA, or Tibetan government-in-exile). The comic, like many of the books in the kiosk, was compiled and published by the Sherig Lekhung (shes rig las khungs), or the CTA’s Department of Education. Published in 2005, the comic’s title explained that it was the first installment of an in-total twelve-part series of comics dealing with the genealogies of Tibet’s early kings (bod kyi btsan po’i rgyal rabs mu ‘brel brnyan deb dang po). This initial comic was about ‘King Nyatri’ (gnya’ khri btsan po), Tibet’s first mythic king.

Paging through the comic I observed that rather than opening with King Nyatri’s birth, the book’s authors had started their account instead with the beginning of all life on earth. They had also decided to describe the creation of the Tibetan people in general before they attended to the circumstances of Nyatri’s birth specifically. Glancing at this sequence I noticed something interesting. I was familiar with the traditional Tibetan account of how the early ancestors of the Tibetan people had emerged from the union of a wise and compassionate monkey and a blood-thirsty, cthonic Tibetan demoness, a story which technically speaking, the comic reproduced. What struck me, though, was how through its pictures and descriptions the comic had reworked earlier versions of this origin myth so as to align the tale with science, or with what at least on the surface looked like science and contemporary theories of evolution. Here are the first nine pages of the comic, with my rough translation: Continue reading

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.  Continue reading