The one thousand nine hundred dagger wielding ngakpas
This is a post that has been floating around for a few months, whilst I've been waiting for a good time to pop it up. Now the title has got the better of me, and I can't keep it back any longer. Enjoy!
Recently had a remarkable day at the ARHC/SOAS conference on 'Unity & Diversity: Monastic and Non-monastic Traditions in Amdo', where the conveners were kind enough to let myself and Lama 'ö-Dzin attend as observers. The material from the conference will be published presently through an academic publishing house and before rolling on I should make it completely clear that although I have received academic training I make no pretence at presenting an academic assessment of the proceedings here. I am simply so inspired to hear of the sheer number and range of Nyingma and Bon ngakpas and ngakmas in Amdo that I'm moved to write about it. More specifically, there are some lessons about the form and function of the 'community of ngakpas' (or ngak mang) that touch on what we're doing with Aro Ling and with the Drala Jong project.
One of the conveners & speakers was Professor Geoffrey Samuel (above) who wrote Civilized Shamans. This is a book which for me when I was a new young apprentice back in the 1990s closed the door on the vajra-Muppet's I'd encountered early doors in my practice career. Back then there were westerners who suggested that there was no such thing as the go-kar chang-lo'i de and Ngak'chang Rinpoche had 'made up' the ideas that the ngakpa style of practice had ever been widespread. Indeed some challenged the very existence of this style of practice, suggesting if it had ever existed at all it was 'reserved only for High Lamas'. Now nearly 20 years have passed and so much more is known - such that today the conference was presented with 5 very different papers each of which illustrated different aspects of the ngakpa tradition. In fact some of the early critics have even taken ngakpa vows in the intervening time (vajra-muppetry duly recanted - good show chaps - no hard feelings, we all make mistakes).
Well, the conference certainly laid flowers at the gravestone of the idea that being a ngakpa was somehow a fiction, a thing of the past, or something distant and unobtainable to mere mortals. In Repkong in fact there something in the order of 2,000 ngakpas practising today from the Nyingma and Bon traditions (perhaps 80% Nyingma), and in the wider Amdo region this figure increases to around 3,500. In Repkong itself between 5% and 10% of the male population are ngakpas, and the number of ngakmas whilst much smaller is growing at a pace. I say much smaller, but the conference recognised that in fact ngakmas are much harder to spot than ngakpas, with neither party overtly displaying the white skirt of the tradition and thus only being identifiable by their hair (which women wear long anyway) and their presence as major rituals (which tend to be male dominated affairs).
The reasons as to why there should be so many ngakpas in this area seem many and varied, and there was not a single core view as to how this came to be the case. What is certain is that the vajrayana house holding style of practice had been present in the region for some centuries before monasticism arrived (which it did circa the 16th century). A number of small assemblies of ngakpas are noted from 12th century onwards, including in the 12th century when Rig'dzin Dorje established the 100 tantrists of Zho'ong, and the 14th century where Drupchen Dorje Tsering (1325-1403) established the 30 'Ja' mo Tantrists in 'Ja' mo village. The key spark for the huge spread and also survival of ngakpas in the area is attributed to Rig'dzin Palden Tashi (1688-1743) who was deeply troubled by the politically motivated massacres by Mongols that reached as deep into Tibet as Lhasa.
Although trained at Drepung He ceased to be a Gelug monk instead taking ngakpa vows at Mindroling. He organised the somewhat disparate Nyingma ngakpas of the region, enlarging structures, merging some traditions and encouraging new lineages where he could. This organisational force was cemented in a 15 day ceremony where he started giving out wooden phurbas to ngakpa attendees. By the end of the ceremony he had given out 1,900 - so the first major large scale establishment in the area was the '1,900 phurba wielding ngakpas' (phur-thog gos'dkar' lcang-lo-can) also called the 'Community of many yogis' (sngags-mang). The name ngakmang survives to modernity, most recently embodied by the excellent ngakmang institute, which strives to support this style of practice in Repkong today.
In modernity there are several overlapping structures which seem to knit the Repkong ngakpas together in a variety of different ways, and some of these structures seem entirely applicable in terms of Drala Jong, Aro Ling, and the evolution of go-kar chang-lo practice in the west.
Many of the ngakpas practice as part of a family lineage, and fullfil a local social role in their village and immediate surroundings. They often assemble and practice in a local village ngak khang. Their external ritual practice here tends to be focused on the needs of local people, and their personal focus is often on a local yidam or protector and on their family lineage. Larger gompas also exist, both with their own contingent of ngakpas and ngakmas and also as centres which draw practitioners from the surrounding areas to events specific to that gompa, or the lineage to which the gompa is affiliated. There are 6 major gompas, 3 older ones on the 'shady' side of the valley which are associated with Mindroling, and 3 newer ones on the 'sunny' side of the valley associated with the Longchen Nyingthig tradition. Major events also occur throughout the year, some of which are specific to a single gompa, and others which cycle through different major locations in the region. There is a strong reflection here of the model which we hope to create in the Aro gTér, where Drala Jong will act as that central hub, with centres like Aro Ling providing local focus for practitioners in one particular geographical area. All we need now is one thousand nine hundred phurbas. . .
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