White Robes, Matted Hair: Tibetan Tantric Householders, Moral Sexuality and the Ambiguities of Esoteric Buddhist Expertise in Exile

White Robes, Matted Hair: Tibetan Tantric Householders, Moral Sexuality and the Ambiguities of Esoteric Buddhist Expertise in Exile
Ben P. Joffe


This dissertation offers an ethnographic study of ngakpa/ma (sngags pa/ma, m.f.) – Tibetan
Buddhist non-monastic, non-celibate tantric yogis and yoginis – living in the Tibetan
diaspora. Like monks and nuns, ngakpa/ma are professionally religious, yet unlike their
monastic counterparts they can marry, have families, and pursue worldly work. Living in ‘the
village’ like ordinary laypeople but also spending much of their time in retreat or working as
ritual specialists for hire, ngakpa/ma occupy a shifting, third space between monastic
renunciation and worldly attachments. Based on roughly five years of fieldwork research
conducted in Tibetan and Tibetan Buddhist communities in India, Nepal, Northeastern Tibet,
and the United States, this thesis explores how ngakpa/mas’ historically decentralized,
morally ambiguous esoteric expertise has become implicated in various projects of cultural
preservation and reform for exile Tibetans, even as it has come to circulate and have meaning
well beyond the purview of ethnic Tibetan communities and interests. Chapters One to Five
offer an overview of how ngakpa/ma and ngakpa/ma orientations have been pinned down (or
have failed to be pinned down) in exile, via language; gendered divisions of labor; in physical
space and permanent institutions; through hair, clothing, and embodied comportment; and as
part of new family and career trajectories. Chapters Six to Nine examine how contentious
esoteric tantric yogic practices, associated with sexuality and Tibetan medicine in particular,
are being popularized and reframed in exile in new ways and for new audiences as part of
increasingly transnational networks of exchange. In these chapters, I underscore the
polysemous quality of tantric practices, and reflect on my own collaborations with a Tibetan
ngakpa-doctor to translate and share information on Tibetan tantric yogic practices more
widely. In conclusion, I assess trends and quandaries that have dominated the academic study
of secrecy and esoteric religions and highlight the implications and value of an ethnographic
approach to researching tantric traditions.

Keywords: sngags pa (ngakpa); Tibet; Buddhism; esotericism; anthropology


Ben P. Joffe

Defended in


PhD defended at

University of Colorado at Boulder, Anthropology Department


Social Sciences


Global Asia (Asia and other parts of the World)
South Asia


National politics
Art and Culture
Health and Medicine
Gender and Identity
Diasporas and Migration