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.


  1. Thank you for mentioning this book.

    I have it on my bookshelf but I have not read it completely, for it is a rather heavy book and I lost my focus. Now that you mentioned this, it really gives a new motivation to read the book again. :)

  2. Happy to help. A tip for the 'lazy academic' if you don't fancy trying to digest a tome like this all in one hit is just to cherry pick from it, by using the index to spot topics of interest. So, if you're only interested in Siberian Guava Juggling, check that out in the index of the book in question and read around the section(s) indicated. This is particularly useful for a practitioner looking at academic work, because some of the material can be terribly dry if you're not used to it (or even if you are).