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.