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.
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 →
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.
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 →
[Savage Minds is pleased to publish this essay by Ben Joffe. Ben is a PhD candidate at the University of Colorado. He holds a MA from the University of Capetown, and a Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research dissertation grant for the project “White Robes, Matted Hair: Tibetan Renouncers, Institutional Authority, and the Mediation of Charisma in Exile.”]
You know that guy. He talks about ‘Tantric yoga’ in casual conversation. Maybe he has dreadlocks. Maybe he’s shaved his head. He’s definitely not had a beverage with regular milk in it for years. He’s probably white and affluent. He’s probably been to India. And he probably wears Buddhist prayer beads as jewelry.
It’s easy enough to compare this stereotype to the ‘serious’ convert to Buddhism, who though they too may talk about Tantra, sport distinctive hairstyles or be white and affluent, seem at least to wear their prayer beads as more than just a fashion statement. Yet, how easy is it to identify where religious conversion begins and cultural appropriation ends? Continue reading →