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

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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


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