Jeff Cox: Not many people in the West understand what ngakpas are, though many have seen photos of these longhaired, white-robed yogis. Perhaps the one that is best known is the late Yeshe Dorje, who was His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s “weatherman”—that is, he was called on to control the weather for certain occasions. I’d like to understand more about the pure ngakpa tradition.
Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche: Ngakpas can marry and have families. Their practice is essentially inward and a true spiritual practice.
Q: Is a ngakpa lineage more involved with working with the natural forces, the deities of the weather, the local deities? Do they have a more shamanic tradition?
A: They are engaged in similar rituals and ceremonies as those in the shamanic tradition but there is a distinct difference. This is, for the ngakpa the purpose and final goal is enlightenment in order to liberate others and self. Usually in the shamanic tradition no one talks of enlightenment—it’s only for healings and temporary performance which are maybe only for this life’s well-being. The goal is not as high.
Q: I see. You are saying that ngakpas will do similar kinds of things as shamans but the purpose is for creating better conditions for enlightenment, either mental or physical?
A: Yes. Simply, ngakpas do what they do not only for the present moment’s well-being but also for future enlightenment.
Q: I see. Is there anything else Rinpoche would like to say about the ngakpa tradition?
A: Buddhist monks take pratimoksa vows, of which there are two hundred fifty-three. But ngagpas, with their tantric vows and the samayas [commitments], there are a hundred thousand they have to keep in their mental level. It’s about practice in every single moment to keep all this and not engage in non-virtuous things.
Q: When you say “one hundred thousand vows” it’s like saying that at every moment of your day you have to maintain your awareness. It is not that there really are one hundred thousand.
A: Yes, it’s metaphorical.
Q: To keep the mind pure all the time.
A: Not pure but just aware.
A: You need a very high awareness to keep one hundred thousand samayas. So if people are keeping that kind of awareness, even though they appear outwardly as just simple beings they actually are great beings—they are realized or high practitioners.
Otherwise, most people, if they cannot take the ordained vow or keep all the samayas, then they can only make some connection to the Dharma but enlightenment would be very difficult. No matter what you do, if you don’t want to take ordained vows then become a lay practitioner. All you have to do is keep all those samayas well and then you become a true ngagkpa.
Q: Are you saying that tantric practice in the ngakpa way is more strict than that of the average practitioner who does tantric practice?
A: Exactly. On the mental level it is much stricter.
Q: So a practitioner in a Nyingma monastery who has taken pratimoksa vows or whatever and is also a tantric practitioner wouldn’t have the same expectation as a ngakpa tantric practitioner would?
A: Yes, the difference is that if you are a lay person, in order not to break all these vows every moment you need a high awareness. If you stay in a monastery the vows are much easier to keep.
Q: Okay, I guess the question is: if people were serious about practicing, why would they choose to be ngakpas when it may be easier another way? What is it inside one that makes one choose a ngakpa life?
A: Many people begin to follow the ngakpa tradition because to outward appearances the life looks like that of a lay person in which you can engage in everything: you can take a woman or you can drink alcohol. But what they don’t initially know is that there are very subtle restrictions and disciplines or awareness that must come with that. It is even harder than staying in a monastery.
Q: Because the practitioners stay in life, they are transforming the conditions of natural life, not an artificial life, which in a way a monastery is. So if your mind is disciplined enough to maintain inward awareness as you are saying, then the ngakpa way may actually have more power?
A: Yes. If you follow all the tantric samayas, you can recognize all those poisons and you progress much faster and much more powerfully than others, but also it is a very dangerous path if you cannot keep all the samayas. Then broken samaya is even worse and it brings worse results. Being a ngakpa is like being a snake in a bamboo hole—you have to go up or down, there is no side way you can exit. It is much more dangerous and risky. There are only two ways: If you really follow the samaya practice you will gain the fastest result, gain enlightenment and help others, or if you break samaya you go to hell.
Q: So it doesn’t sound like a job everyone would want. Sometimes people choose this path because they are born into a family of ngakpas?
A: Yes that is one reason, and also, what one prefers. Because of one’s physical nature or mental inclination or because one has reached a certain stage to take a consort or whatever.
Loppon (translator): Or if you come from a family of ngakpas—in my hometown, the twenty-five disciples and their descendants in the area kept the dharma in the family. The ngakpas from the family came together in the village and built a temple we call the ngag kang, meaning the ngakpa’s assembly hall. We didn’t have such formality but because of influence from the monastic tradition we built this temple, gathering on the auspicious days every month to make rituals, and give teachings and empowerments. But this is just a particular family lineage: always the eldest son will become the ngakpa and the rest of the children are sent to the monastery. But of course there are many others not from the family lineage who just want to become ngakpas in order to learn tantra without leaving the social life. There are a lot like that.
Q: The ngakpa path appeals to Westerners but it may not be something that is recommended.
A: No one tells you to become a ngakpa or not; it all depends on your practice. You come to the teaching, you start practice, and slowly progress. When you cultivate your merit, your wisdom is rising and you gain this awareness and then you spontaneously can keep all the practices. Such ones are the true ngakpas, the true practitioner ngakpas. The others are appearance ngakpas, who wear the clothes and leave the hair long. Tibetan lamas are shy to do that in the West but surprisingly many Western students wear these things like yogis.
Q: Yes, these days many Westerners look like ngakpas.
A: Tibetans don’t try to look like ngakpas. That is the difference: If you really follow those samayas you are a great practitioner and nobody can see it from the outside. On the other hand those who cannot follow anything but wear the clothes, it is nothing but costumes and emblems that they hold. Everything goes the opposite way if you really cannot hold the samayas.
KHETSUN RINPOCHE is the author of Fundamental Mind: The Nyingma View of Great Completeness by Mipam-gya-tso, translated and edited by Jeffrey Hopkins, and Tantric Practice in Nying-ma, also translated and edited by Jeffrey Hopkins, and co-edited by Anne Klein.