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.
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.”
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 →
It is 8:00 in the morning in Colorado. On the other side of the world a young Tibetan woman self-immolated at 2:00 pm today, Monday the 22nd of December 2014. Her name was Tsering Dolma (and her nickname was Tsepey). She was twenty years old. She was the 141st Tibetan to self-immolate in recent years.
(Savage Minds is pleased to post this essay by guest author Kevin Carricoas part of our Writer’s Workshop series. Kevin is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oklahoma’s Institute for US-China Issues, having completed his PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology at Cornell University in 2013. His research focuses upon the implications of Han nationalism for ethnic relations in China. He is a contributor to Cultural Anthropology’s special issue on Self-Immolation as Protest in Tibet, and his translation of Tsering Woeser’s Self-immolation in Tibet is forthcoming from Verso Press in 2015.)
I recently finished translating a book, Tsering Woeser’s Self-Immolation in Tibet(Immolation au Tibet, la honte du monde), in a project that combines the two main components of my career path thus far: translation and anthropology. Prior to my graduate work, I was a translator of Chinese and French documents in Shanghai. And now as an anthropologist, I still engage in the occasional translation of texts that I consider uniquely insightful. This brief essay is an attempt to think through the relationship between these two activities via my recent work on self-immolation in Tibet. Continue reading →
For five decades, the People’s Republic of China has been proclaiming the death of the Tibetan resistance. In the 1950-60s, they discursively denied the existence of the Tibetan resistance army by referring to them as “high class separatists” and “rebel bandits.” Since then, they have attempted to curb any resistance by immediately putting down protests through arrests, beatings, imprisonments, disappearances (remember the 11th Panchen Lama?), and deaths. The PRC has done everything they can to give the impression that resistance in Tibet—armed or peaceful, coordinated or everyday—is a rare and unwise exception to their benevolent rule, is conducted only by monks or members of the “Dalai clique,” and is not representative of the majority of the Tibetan people who love the Chinese motherland.
Yesterday, therefore, marked a major departure from this stance, perhaps for the first time ever. On Thursday, March 20, 2008, the PRC government acknowledged that Tibetan protest is widespread. That is, it is not just confined to Lhasa or to monks, but is spread throughout Tibetan areas of China and is being committed by Tibetans from all backgrounds—by monks, laypeople, and students, and by men and women, young and old.