Saturday, 20 August 2011

The Cult of Tara (Resources - part 4)

The final book that readers might find interesting by way of some background academic material on namkha is the Cult of Tara - Magic and Ritual in Tibet by Stephan Beyer. Unlike the other texts to which I've referred, I have found links to e-book downloads of this text. I'm not including links here because the initial sites I saw that carried those download options didn't look entirely reputable.  Readers can make their own minds up about that option (the book is still in print).

I say that this is the final book I recommend to provide an academic background to namkha practice, but I should acknowledge there are other options. Using one of these texts and tracing back the references will find you a host of material of course.  I also thought I should note the other entries on the Wikipedia page on namkha as they are most obviously in the public domain. Of these, I've not had a chance to read:

- Peter Gold's Navajo and Tibetan Sacred Wisdom: The Circle of The Spirit which is a comparative anthropological study of the two cultures.
- Claudia Muller-Ebelling & Christian Rasch's Shamanism and Tantra in the Himalayas explores the practices of Nepalese Shamen and how pre-Buddhist traditions informed Vajrayana.
- Nebesky-Wojkowitz' Tibetan Religious Dances

I have read the Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava and Ellen Pearlman's Sacred Dance, but both carry scant reference to namkha which are not worth mentioning here.

Having noted other publically referenced sources, I shall return to Beyer. Beyer's work focusses solely on practices surrounding Tara (sGrol ma).  It has a similar bent to Nebesky-Wojkowitz' work, in terms of being something of a catalogue of mantra and symbolic activity. It contains a section which walks through one particular Tara namkha practice from start to end, and in so doing Beyer provides some incrementally useful background information about Vajarayana in general and namkha in particular.

Namkha is clearly a practice that is associated with a range of different awareness beings (yidams / meditational deities) and protectors and can be employed for a range of different effects. Different lineages clearly use different yidams in association with their own namkha traditions.

Beyer mentions that Tara, as a peaceful yidam, is associated with the first two more peaceful of the four Buddha Karmas - in Beyer's terms these are pacifying and increasing (although in the Aro gTér Tradition they are magnetising and enriching).  Nebesky-Wojkowitz' work mentions namkha in connection with a range of both peaceful and wrathful yidams, making accessible the wrathful Buddha Karmas of pacifying and destroying.

Beyer is the first of the writers referenced here who recognises four general modes of practice, sometimes employed in isolation across the range of Tara practices, sometimes all present - as in the Tara namkha.  This is valuable as the other writers have tended not to look beyond or through the elaborate external symbolism of the practice of namkha, and thus have failed to fully understand the practice.

These modes include self  arising - a soteriological practice where the practitioner dissolves their experience of self into emptiness, and then self-arises as the yidam; generation - where the yidam is visualised as external, used to effectuate practice, and thirdly the yidam is used to empower objects - such as the namkha itself, or the bumpa (water vase) during a tantric empowerment - used to apply the effects of practice.

The next blog will explore symbolism and the practice of self-arising.  There we shall start to square the circle of the highly ritualised, symbolic even magical world of mahayoga (which Nebesky-Wojkowitz did not see beyond) and the far less symbolic and in some ways mundane world of Dzogchen. Once this circle is squared, we'll then go on to address the namkha practice of the Aro gTér.

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Oracles and Demons of Tibet (Resources part 3)

Oracles and Demons of Tibet by Rene De Nebesky-Wojkowitz contains comprehensive depictions of a range of namkhas, the yidams and protectors with which they are associated, and their various applications. It has a full chapter dedicated to 'Thread-crosses and thread-cross ceremonies' as well as a range of other references. This single source has the greatest breadth of material describing the practice that is easily available. It's strength as a work is also somewhat of a weakness, because it reads like a catalogue of textual imagery and iconography - so much so that fellow Tibetologists have often jested that the author's ultimate crime was to take interesting material and turn it into a boring academic work. (His supposed 'criminality' was that he had revealed the secrets of Dharma Protectors - he died tragically young, shortly after finishing this work, and a Tutankhamun-like curse was said to follow this 'terrible act'). In fact the writing is fairly dull - but does provide a flavour of the variety of namkha that can be created.

Be it a catalogue, it worth noting it is a well referenced caalogue and thus if anyone wishes to obtain a springboard for academic investigation into the primary and secondary sources about a range of Mahayoga practices this is a great starting point (although a working knowledge of Tibetan, German and French would be useful).

In terms of this Blog, Oracles & Demons flags a number of items that are noteworthy:

- the thread-cross constructs (mDos, in Nebesky-Wojkowitz' terms) are generally highly complex. The term mDos applies to the full structure, which can often include a base, whereas nam mKha' describes the individual thread-crosses around this central structure. Because in the Aro gTér Mahayoga is approached from the basis of Dzogchen View, the symbolic activity in Aro gTér Mahayoga is in relative terms minimalist. In the basic form of Ogyen Rig-nga namkha practice a single namkha is created - hence the slightly different focus on terminology.

Complexity is possible however. Lama Rig'dzin Dorje has overseen the creation of the most complex Aro gTér namkha although a comparison with the Tara namkha (see an earlier post) shows even this is relatively simple in design

- the term thread-cross seems to have been adopted from use in other anthropological studies around the world, where similar symbolic practices are found (including in South Africa, Peru, Australia, Sweden, and throughout the Himalayas including Naga tribe, Siberian Shamanic and Bön practice). Perhaps for this reason the academics never thought to investigate why the term nam mKha' was used for the crosses themselves. I will define namkha later in this series

- Oracles & Demons is the first work to distinguish between the outer, physical practice, and an inner, visualised practice, as well as alluding to the interaction between them. Again, we'll look at this later in the series

- finally, Oracles & Demons describes clearly that to release the potency of a completed namkha, it is necessary to destroy it, either through breaking it or burning it. This effectuates the practice, and in the Aro gTér this effectuation is achieved most commonly through a fire ceremony - jin sreg (sbying sreg)

Friday, 12 August 2011

Symbolism is no small Beer (Resources part 2)

Namkha can get just a little more complex than those practised in the Aro gTér Tradition as you can see from this particular version, ascribed to the practice of Tara. This is to be expected, because it is a practice from the Mahayoga section of the Buddhist Inner Tantras, and Mahayoga is highly symbolically sophisticated. On the Aro gTér Apprentice Retreat which ended yesterday, Ngak'chang Rinpoche taught about the principle and function of Mahayoga and the broad scope of the nine yanas. Within this teaching he noted that each of the Buddhist yanas other than Dzogchen tends to have a mode reflective of one of the four philosophical extremes. In the case of Mahayoga, this is Eternalism. That is not to say Mahayoga is Eternalistic, but it can be taken, or mistaken as such. This is noteworthy for what is to follow in this Blog series.

Mahayoga - especially when practised from within it's own framework creates and works with symbolic complexity. With that complexity come symbolic rules. For example there is the symbolic rule that the two skull bowls used during tsog must never be switched. In tsog one bowl contains alcohol (symbolic of the five nectars) and one contains meat (symbolic of the five meats). Within some Mahayoga systems it is taught that should the wrong item be placed in the wrong bowl, and then consumed, instant death will occur. To the post-modern, scientific, rationalist mindset of the West, this notion seems like poppy cock. Such hocus-pocus is a nonsense to us sophisticated folk in the developed world. Symbolism holds no sway, no power over us; it is hollow and utterly without substance, isn't it?

If you understand the principle and function of symbolism within the broad scope of Buddhist Vajrayana, you will already have an answer to this question. If that is the case then I can do little more than recommend to you Robert Beer's excellent work on Tibetan Symbols and Motifs (or, if you are looking to save a few pennies the abbreviated Handbook version, which is also a solid piece of work).

Beer's work contains within it some comments on namkha (which as with Tucci he translates figuratively as 'thread cross') as well as some line drawings from Buddhist iconography. Beer's writing adds a slightly different dimension to Tucci, in that he refers to the wrathful application of the practice in providing a snare to catch malignant spirits, or a prison to constrain them. He also refers to the destruction of the namkha - a vital aspect of the Aro gTér method of practising sky weaving.

If you remain suspicious of ritual and symbol - well, you are not alone - but perhaps you might pause to consider symbolism in a secular context.

Namkha is authenticated in a Fire Ceremony (again, more later). Relaxed about fire? Really relaxed? How about burning the American Flag in the White House - does that have meaning for you?

If it has no meaning for you, I assure you it has tremendous meaning for many - for an entire Nation in fact. Some (Penn and Teller amongst them) feel that they should be able to commit this symbolic act. Some feel to the contrary that this act should in fact be prohited by American law. In fact some feel so passionately that they will be unhappy to even see this 'magical illusion' referred to here. Even as someone disconnected from that direct emotion (I'm a Brit, you see) in writing this I am conscious that some people's passions may be inflamed by mentioning flag burning in this manner. So - a symbol that does not directly influence my own life, still has power, and simply by referring to the symbolic act, that power is tapped into, accessed, infused into a situation. And this is just one example. As we'll see through the Blog series, there are myriad others.

Thursday, 4 August 2011


The practice of Sky Weaving or Namkha (nam mKha')is not well known by Western students, despite being present in a number of Buddhist and non-Buddhist lineages in the Himalayas. Even the academic references to it are limited in number, and scope, with the largest scholarly survey being by Rene De Nebesky-Wojkowitz.

In terms of Vajrayana Buddhist lineages, the two which most publically practise and display namkha are those of Chögyal Namkha'i Norbu Rinpoche and the Aro Tradition, to which I belong, under the tutelage of Ngak'chang Chögyam Rinpoche and Khandro Déchen

The namkha practices of Namkha'i Norbu Rinpoche's Dzogchen Community are reserved for Community members (although they make a piece of software available publically which describes one of their forms of namkha). The main body of this blog will focus therefore on the namkha practices of the Aro Tradition, but by way of context in this first section I will survey some of the academic resources available to the public on the subject at large.

First, Tucci's work. Tucci (1980) focuses primarily on namkha as an essential element of the mDos practice which he describes in his essays on folk religion. It is one of a number of practices which pre-date the arrival of Buddhism in Tibet, and which have over time become absorbed into Buddhism. As with many academics, Tucci describes nam mKha' figuratively as a 'thread cross' and does not explore the linguistic origin of the term - which literally means 'sky' (more on this later). Tucci describes how the ritual is performed particularly by ngakpas (sNgags pa), but this is usually done on behalf of a lay person who makes an offering in exchange for some form of magical intervention in their life circumstances. Whilst Tucci makes passing reference to the practice as being able to be used for the realisation of the enlightened state, his focus is entirely on how mDos are 'devices to extricate oneself from the threatening dangers of hostile powers' (1980:176) often involving offering of a ransom (gLud) to those powers which are invoked during the ceremony.

mDos are often performed at geographically significant locations, such as three-peaked mountains, crossroads, locations where neither sunlight nor moonlight shines, and so on. In the context of other, similar magical rituals, it is clear Tucci finds that the power invoked are either hostile non-Buddhist entities which require placation, or Buddhist Protectors or Wrathful yidams (awareness beings / meditational deities) invoked as external beings to intervene on the supplicant's behalf. This mode of relating to a yidam as an entirely external being is very much the field of Outer Tantra, and the entire subject is presented by Tucci as being entirely magical, even described as 'hallucinatory' in one passage.

The namkha of the Aro gTér Tradition is rooted not in Outer Tantra, but is a Mahayoga (Inner Tantra) practice based on Dzogchen View. It is useful to start by highlighting Tucci's work for two reasons. Firstly by comparison with the Aro gTér Tradition, it is clear that similar practices can be presented in very different ways by different Buddhist traditions, based upon the Vehicle from which they come. In fact many practices, even within a single tradition, can have an Outer (Sutric) Inner (Outer Tantric) Secret (Inner Tantric) or Most Secret (Dzogchen) mode and these modes are different. Secondly there is a tendancy for Westerners to focus on Modernist aspects of Buddhism, and this sometimes neglects the actuality of what people do in the East. The namkha that Tucci describes in fact would likely to be found to be the major mode of namkha practice. Before engaging in any new form of meditative technique, understanding its origins and scope can be valuable, to provide context. It would not be helpful to start practising namkha from the standpoint that 'I'm a Westerner and wouldn't touch any of the magical stuff with a barge-pole'. Later I shall try to show that understanding how and why namkha is practised in that way is helpful in terms of understanding the application of the Sky Weaving of the Aro gTér Tradition.