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.

And his profile at

My research interests focus specifically on the anthropology of Tibet and Tibetan diaspora. My doctoral dissertation research is concerned with the ways in which the esoteric knowledge and charisma of Tibetan non-celibate professional renouncers and Tantric ritual specialists (Tibetan: སྔགས་པ/མ) are being mediated, circulated, appropriated and contested in light of the increasing globalization of Tibetan Buddhism, and drives to make legible a Tibetan nation and to preserve and reform Tibetan culture in exile. I am interested in how and engage institutional and other forms of authority in exile, and the ways in which the expertise, charisma and activities of such specialists can be said to contribute to the forging of particular moral orders and imaginaries in situations of dislocation, change and uncertainty.

His page lists several interesting talks and papers, but most of the texts are not available.

However, he is writing a series of exciting posts, for a popular audience, on the group anthropology blog Savage Minds.

Tantra and Transparency, or Cultural Contradiction and Today’s Tibetan Buddhist Wizard” is a highly readable summary of his current work.

Secrets of the Sex Magic Space Lamas Revealed! Tibetan Buddhist Aliens and Religious Syncretism” is about the appropriation and reinterpretation of aspects of Tibetan tantra by Western occultists over the past few decades. I found this article particularly interesting, since much of my own intellectual work has been in tracing the recent intellectual history of popular Western spirituality, and its complex relationship with Buddhism, particularly including Vajrayana. “Secrets of the Sex Magic Space Lamas” is also funny and over-the-top weird.

I’ve had some conversations with Ben online, and he’s told me more about his current work and ideas for further research. Striking stuff—I look forward to learning more as his investigations proceed!