[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.
While top-knots, man-buns and long tresses are now the manly do du jour, this piece reminds us that, in the language of Vajrayana or tantric Buddhism, tantric practitioners were perhaps the original top-knot flowing-locks ‘heroes’.
Regarding ngakpas’ long, matted hair or dreadlocks
རལ་བ་ (ral ba, ralpa) or ‘dreadlocks’ refers to when one’s hair clumps together into pieces and becomes individual ‘wholes’ from not washing, brushing, shaving or cutting it in any way. When ngakpa stay for many years or months in retreat they don’t’ wash or brush their hair and it gathers together and forms dreadlocks—this is known as ‘retreat hair’ and won’t be cut from that time on. Dreadlocks that are wrapped on top of one’s head and are completely tied up are commonly known as ལྕང་ལོ་ (lcang lo, janglo, literally ‘willow leaves’, in reference to the resemblence between the shape of the tree’s leaves and yogis’ dreads). These are also sometimes called ཐོར་ཅོག་ (thor cog, torjok), or a top-knot. In general, monks have to shave their hair for their monastic vinaya vows, and ngakpa have to keep their hair for their tantric samaya vows. The great Awareness-Holder Palden Tashi stated:
A ngakpa without dreadlocks is neither a layperson nor a monastic,
A ngakpa without head or ear (ornaments) doesn’t exist in the scriptures
A ngakpa without tantric vows is someone with no concern for holy beings or commitments
Yet even so one encounters all three of these.
A ngakpa without dreadlocks that is neither a layperson nor a monastic is said to be equivalent to a ngakpa without tantric vows. So, if someone asks “does one really have to have dreadlocks if one is a ngakpa?” generally speaking the answer is yes, one does, seeing as ngakpa are known as the ‘lcang lo sde’ (janglo de, i.e. the dreadlocked community). Given that flowing locks (i.e. ral ba) are an indispensable tantric ‘interdependent connection’ or auspicious sign, even if ngakpa haven’t grown dreadlocks they should still have long hair. The great treasure-revealer Dudjom Jigdrel Yeshe Dorje’s practice—which was entirely correct—was (to recommend that) provided that wearing big dreads wouldn’t prove too difficult, a person should, after requesting the ‘hair empowerment’ (སྐྲ་དབང་ skra dbang, tra wang) from a vajra-master, renounce cutting off or trimming their hair, and should keep it clean by washing and brushing it. One can appreciate just how significant dreadlocks and top-knots are in the tantric tradition from the fact that even shaved-headed pratimoksha vow-holders will wear fake hair (i.e. ritual wigs) when they perform large-scale tantric rites or sgrub chen (སྒྲུབ་ཆེན་, drubchen).
There are a number of different ways of tying one’s hair. The esteemed Awareness-Holder Hungnag Mebar has clearly explained this:
Thus, generally speaking, one’s top-knot of braids is half-tied—once you’ve pulled the plaits upwards, the top-knot (is when) all your hair has been gathered together on the crown of your head and all the ends of the hair of the knots of your dreadlocks have been brought in together and fastened high on top of your head, with the ends (tucked) back out of sight and not sticking out. Regarding the height, it’s said to be twelve of one’s finger-widths, and when it comes to the crowning ornament, this is depicted as a beautiful adornment of about three finger-widths. With half-tying your locks, you tie your dreadlocks as described above but half of them are left hanging down. With the top-braids, leave five or three hanging down, and so on. For slicking or pulling them back there’s also yellow, yellowish-brown and black (cords?). If practitioners don’t have dreadlocks they can fabricate a top-knot out of blue-black silk. As described above, this should be twelve finger-widths in height with the lower parts measuring seven finger-widths, in accordance with (the size of) your own head. This is depicted as being three finger-widths on top, two fingers-width on top of which is the crowning ornament which is itself three or three half finger-widths in length. This top-knot is also said to accord with the round, emanation-body top-knot and the flat enjoyment-body top-knot,which are justified as being ‘round’ (i.e. without angles or delimitations) because of their non-conceptuality. Moreover, the top-knot plaits that arise from the heads of the tantric heroes and heroines are said to be those of the superior practitioner, otherwise, the dreadlocks of the mastery of the recitation of mantras are those of the average practitioner, and the inferior practitioner’s dreadlocks are said to be those undefiled by (everyday) sexual activity with women or by child-rearing.
Further, the symbolism of the dreadlocks on the crown of the head is as follows: if coiled to the right they symbolize the hero or daka, if coiled to the left they symbolize the heroine or dakini. The changelessness of the nature of all phenomena is represented by the colour black, dreadlocks left hanging down long symbolize the dbang thang (དབང་ཐང་ wangtang, charismatic or authoritative vital force) of good qualities, the magical power of the spirit-protectors is represented by the locks being rough to the touch, and so on. There are many other associations like this, but the primary symbolism for the dreadlocks is that they represent (the tantric practitioner’s) constant inseparability from the Lord of the Buddha-family (into which they were initiated). The dreadlocks being constantly tied is a sign of the practitioner honoring or meditating on the essence of guru yoga, the glorious root-lama, at the crown of their head at all times. Moreover, since they also contain the meaning of the three bodies and three roots, anymantra-syllables and btags grol (བཏགས་གྲོལ་ takdröl, ‘liberation by touching’ objects) of the esoteric instructions and three roots that the practitioner might hold (in their hair) are said to be particularly special mantric protection charms…
From ‘Notes on Ngakpa Culture’, pg. 88–89, Ngakpa Association Research, Vol. 6, 2003. ༼སྔགས་པའི་ཤེས་རིག་ལ་དཔྱད་པའི་གཏམ། སྔགས་མང་ཞིབ་འཇུག། འདོན་ཐེངས་དྲུག་པ།༽