Justin Bieber, heroic man-buns and the relative meaning (and meaninglessness) of dreadlocks

Ajo Repa

[Welcoming new contributor Ben Joffe, whose writings on the ngakpa tradition are always humorous, informative, and insightful. This is reprinted, with permission, from his Facebook feed; you can follow him there too. —Eds.]

Debates about hairstyles, fashion, identity and culture have been in the news in the last few days. After posting pictures of his new blond dreadlocks, pop star Justin Bieber was roundly criticized for cultural appropriation—for capitalizing on a cultural aesthetic that in the US is historically associated with black histories, identities, and struggles. Commentators noted that while people/celebrities of colour in the US have been routinely criminalized or villianized for sporting a hairstyle connected to their history and experiences as minorities, when Bieber as a white person casually took on this style as his own it came with none of the meaning, and context, and also none of the backlash.

The globalization of reggae and Rastafari religion, and the development of various articulations of African nationalism/Africanity/black consciousness in the US some decades ago saw a proliferation of semiotics around dreadlocks. The hairstyle has now been thoroughly co-opted and commercialized as a symbol of anti-establishmentarian, anti-authoritarian and counter-cultural values. A number of op-eds have come out in recent months or weeks either by or about white people with dreadlocks, arguing that white people should desist from wearing dreadlocks and recognize that this hairstyle is more than a disposable fashion statement.

In many parts of the world, growing dreadlocks has a long history of association with asceticism and intensive religious practice. While I don’t want to weigh in here on the question of white privilege and the cultural appropriation of dreadlocks, I thought people might still find it interesting to learn a little more about the cultural significance of dreadlocks in a context that is perhaps less widely familiar, and which forms part of my own research interests—namely, Tibetan tantric Buddhism.

Non-celibate Tibetan Buddhist tantric specialists (ngakpa/ngakma) distinguish themselves from ordinary laypeople and from monastic vow-holders through special styles of hair and dress. (You can get a sense of this from the photo I include here of renowned ngakpa Ajo Repa, who was born in the 19th century and was from the Kagyu lineage). One of the chief characteristics of ngakpa and ngakma is their long and/or matted hair. The translated excerpt below is from an essay by Dr Nida Chenagtsang, a scholar and hereditary practitioner of Tibetan tantric traditions, and discusses the meanings that are associated with dreadlocks for Tibetan tantric yogis. Far from being just an individual fashion statement, in the context of Buddhist tantra, practitioners’ long and or matted hair points to their commitment to maintaining an ‘uncontrived’ or natural state of awareness at all times, to recognizing and resting in the basic state of being and ultimate nature of reality and to honouring their gurus and special vows.

Tröma Nakmo, Bhutanese feminism, and modern Vajrayana

The current (December 2015) issue of Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines is a special collection on Women as Visionaries, Healers and Agents of Social Transformation in the Himalayas, Tibet and Mongolia.

This post draws on “Empowering Religious Women Practitioners in Contemporary Bhutan,” an article in it by Françoise Pommaret. She describes many ways the social status and religious opportunities of Bhutanese women have improved dramatically over the past decade or two, under the influence of modern egalitarian ideas. Some of these came directly from ethnically Western Tibetan Buddhist women practitioners, notably Venerable Karma Lekshe Tsomo.

Most relevant here is a discussion of a new social context for Tröma Nakmo practice. Tröma Nakmo is now practiced by thousands of laywomen, ngakmas, and nuns in Bhutan, in a distinctively modern format. Although Tröma and chöd have always been connected with women in theory, in recent centuries very few women have been permitted to do any sort of formal tantric practice. Lay people have also mainly been excluded; ngakpas have faced organized oppression; and ngakmas have been so rare that many Tibetans and Bhutanese had never heard of them, and denied that there is such a thing.

Ben Joffe: Ngakpas and ngakmas in exile

Ben Joffe

Ben Joffe, a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, is pursuing fascinating PhD research on ngakpas and ngakmas in the Tibetan diaspora.

His project title is “White Robes, Matted Hair: Tibetan Renouncers, Institutional Authority, and the Mediation of Charisma in Exile.” A preliminary abstract:

What is the relationship between institutional authority and religious power in Tibetan exile? My research focuses on how the charisma and legacy of Ngagpa Yeshe Dorje Rinpoche, the former official weather controller of the Tibetan exile government, are being institutionalized and mediated in exile following his death. Ngagpa (m) and ngagma (f), are non-celibate, professional Buddhist renouncers who specialize in esoteric ritual traditions. Simultaneously existing in and straddling lay and monastic worlds, they reside in a shifting third space of accommodation and resistance to mainstream structures. With the invasion of Tibet by China in 1950, Tibetan refugees in India have struggled to make a sovereign nation legible and legitimate in exile, and to rebuild political and social institutions away from home. The once de-centralized religious traditions of virtuoso ngagpa/mas are now being preserved in durable institutions, fixed in texts, and taught increasingly to foreigners. Researching Yeshe Dorje’s institution in India and its resident ngagpa/mas, I examine how the politics of ritual power are playing out in exile communities. Using ngagpa/mas’ charisma as a lens through which to explore unfolding politics of reform in diaspora, I show how the forging of cultural coherence in exile involves both creativity and contradiction.

Lama Tharchin Rinpoche's Passing

[Letter from the Aro Lineage Lamas:]

Dear apprentices of the Confederate Sanghas of Aro,

This is an extremely sad time for the gö kar chang lo’i dé – and for us personally. It is with the deepest regret that we have to inform you of the passing of Lama Tharchin Rinpoche. He was a dear friend of ours. He was also a great inspiration and support to us. We have known him since 1990. He has visited our home in Penarth and we have shared many joyful meals together at Pema ’ö-Sel Ling.

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Automata in Tibetan Buddhism (&c.)

The American Academy of Religion has a Call for Papers for the Tibetan section of its 2012 meeting.

Among the more intriguing topics:

  • Systems of Religious Education in Tibet (monastic and ngakpa)
  • Religious Propaganda in Contemporary Tibet
  • Agents and Automata: On the Life of Animate and Inanimate Objects

Whoa!  That last one certainly caught my eye, since I was an artificial intelligence guy in my previous life. "Agents and Automata" is straight-up AI jargon; and what has that to do with Tibetan Buddhism?

New Research: Tantric Buddhism, the Dark Age, and Their Relevance to Contemporary Tibet and the West

I earlier wrote for this site about the 9th-10th century Tibetan ‘Dark Age’  (https://ngakpa-update.org/causes-and-characteristics-dark-age-tibet).  I find this period fascinating both because it is still rather obscure and mysterious, and because whatever that time was like it clearly was not—perhaps not at all—like the popular Tibetan mythical history of the country’s distant past.

The Causes and Characteristics of the Dark Age in Tibet

I have been researching Buddhist history for several years, and will summarize here what I believe to be the most likely narrative regarding the social, political, and religious history that led to the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ of Tibet. All of the information here comes from academic sources; I will not resort to footnotes at this time but will publish this material later in a more complete form.

Jacob Dalton: Dark Age audio

Tibet’s “Dark Age” was perhaps the high point for the ngakpa tradition, and may have important implications for Buddhism’s future. Jacob Dalton has done some of the most interesting research on non-monastic Tantric practice in the Dark Age.

A talk he gave on the subject two years ago is available as a “webcast” (online audio recording/podcast). (Click on the speaker icon on the linked page to listen.)

His title was “Rethinking Tibet’s Dark Age: Demons, Tantras, and the Formation of Tibetan Buddhism.” From the talk description:

Traditional accounts have obscured the more positive aspects of the period. Freed from the watchful eyes of the imperial court and the monastic orthodoxy, Tibetans of the late ninth and tenth centuries were able to make Buddhism their own. The themes, the imagery, and the strategies they developed during these inchoate years formed the cultural foundations upon which Tibetan Buddhism would be built. Only by excavating these foundations and shedding some light on this “dark age” can we gain a clear appreciation of the Tibetan adaptation of Buddhism.