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Fear & Loathing at COVENANT FESTIVAL IV: A Manic Retrospective

THE COVENANT LIVES!

Among all the things involved in putting together this account of Covenant 2018– the article outlining, the draft edits, the irreparable hearing loss and brain damage, etc. — the greatest challenge lay in deciding what I might say first about it. Not only that, but sheltering that choice from further urges to go back and revise. There was a lot packed into those three days, and so much of it is worth talking about. Such as things are, I doubt this article could ever feel satisfactorily comprehensive, never quite as good, as I’d like it to be. On the other hand, that brand of perfectionism tends to feel a lot like a dress rehearsal for one of the milder Circles of Hell, where it’s grey and nothing ever really happens– a quiet torment designed for those damned souls deemed too mediocre to even suffer fashionably.

With that in mind, I think the best thing to say first is that everything in this article is hideously limited in perspective, biased by design, and imperfect out of necessity. Of course all music writing is technically subjective to begin with, but with this article I wouldn’t try to have some pretence of authority– at least no more authority than anyone else that was present for it. The article’s scope is necessarily bound by my experience; at the same time I’ve done what I can to cover all of the broadest points as I saw them.

If anything at all, I hope I’ve been able to capture the broad spirit of what Covenant IV was like. I had a great time, and reflecting on the experience while writing only made the memories sweeter. Still, in the event I’ve made some grave sin of omission; I hope whichever Circle I’m banished to burns warm and snuggy.

Grab a drink.

PART I: PRELUDE TO COVENANT IV

Hours before the doors opened on Thursday, I was reminded of something obvious, though no less startling: Covenant Fest has been running now for four years. Four years is a long time. Counting the folk-oriented “Denouement” nights, there have now been enough Covenant Fests to fill out two weeks if you linked them up as one, and that’s without taking its younger Atlantic counterpart into consideration. I’ve had the good fortune of being there every year to date, and while the number might seem small in light of all the Covenant have achieved, it begged a moment’s pause when I realized how much else in life had changed in that time.

The Covenant has established itself by now as a Vancouver staple; certainly the most significant force in the local metal community, and wielding due respect from onlookers abroad. For myself and many others, it’s become a yearly tradition, a recurring madness to look forward to as the months grow hottest. Depending on who you ask, the Summertime could mean fun in the sun, beach parties, drinking iced tea, and mowing the lawn. For this circle in Vancouver, the summer schedule’s come to include shortening your life expectancy with unhinged mania and wargrinding fukk. In other words; business as fucking usual.

Anticipation for Covenant IV arguably started a few hours after Covenant III wrapped up last year. Although the success of Covenant Montreal has taken a share of the hype, it was fairly common for Covenant speculations to arise in conversation in the year in-between– particularly in the months leading up after bands had been announced. The festival’s (as always entertaining) Facebook event page always had something new to announce. The full lineup was impressive once fully revealed, and the fest headliners standing out as particularly strong catches.

As with previous years, there was a share of bands that had to cancel. The presence of Black Witchery was sorely missed, although Hacavitz, who took their place, actually turned out to be the highlight of CovIV. There’s always been an air of chance and uncertainty leading up to a Covenant. A few bands inevitably drop out, others surprisingly jump in. The best one can do is to keep fingers crossed for certain bands, but the end result’s never been anything short of outstanding.

By the week of the festival, it seemed to be all that people were talking about– that is the sort of hype that can’t be bought by PR or ad campaigning. There was a pre-fest vinyl night the weekend before at Pat’s Pub, right down the street from the venue. With all the buzz, I was surprised how empty it was. It turned out to be pretty fun regardless– it’s not every day you get to see a cozy pub cleared out with Triumph Through Spears of Sacrilege blasting at high volume. I guess that proves Walt Disney right: sometimes dreams do come true.

When the day finally arrived, we were all ready for chaos…


 

PART II: STORMING CHRIST’S KINGDOM

(THURSDAY, JUNE 21)

The first night felt surprisingly barren in the first half, though it might have seemed packed at the sort smaller venues Night I has usually been held in the past. Opening duties were entrusted to Vomiit– a name you can say with your hand in your mouth if you try hard enough. This was their first show as a band, though certainly not as musicians– for those sharing duties in Firecult, it’s not even their first time opening a Covenant.

Coming across essentially as “Finite does Arizmenda” musically, Vomiit kicked off the fest at some of its most physically animated. The music was good, but the performance is what sold it. Vomiit had a real will to provoke, beginning with Michael the vocalist writing a mean word on his stomach that looked an awful lot like “RAPE,” and arguably culminating when he started spitting fucking crickets at people like it was a Satanic LARP of Pinocchio or something. Is it silly? No shit it is, but it’s that same sort of self-conscious edge that’s been at the forefront of this music since people decided to start sniffing dead birds for fun– and long before that too. I give this emphasis because it’s that sort of no-fucks theatricality that makes for weird and twisted memories, and I kind of wish there had been more of that eccentricity at the fest.

The set from Victoria’s Human Agony was a closer indication of the general Covenant IV vibe. Gas masks and blasting noise following the footsteps of some of the bands later on that weekend. Graveolence after that were about as decent, although I found it interesting that the relatively slight difference of their deathgrind angle and plainclothes performance set them apart from the others.

Speaking relatively, Graveolence had a more lively, fun sort of tone that is maximized the times I’ve seen them on a small stage. It’s weird there’s such contrast in tone; the music itself ran fest par in chaotic noise.

I’m pretty sure Auroch is among very few bands I’ve probably seen ten times in about as many years. What I like is how they’ve managed to outdo the standard they set for themselves each time. There’s no doubt by this point they’re one of Vancouver’s world-class exports in death metal, like its companion project Mitochondrion in that regard, although with Mito I’ve never had the sense what it must be like to get rabies and attempt suicide-by-cop. Auroch’s material is a whirlwind already, and the stage presence translates it with greater viciousness.

Black Witchery’s cancellation meant the classic USBM fix rested ultimately with Profanatica. They’ve never really been my bag, but I was genuinely excited to see them. It’s something special when a band can come across as so fucking absurd, yet totally authentic. From the atmosphere to the performance, Profanatica exuded old school Satanic theatricality.

Although I figure they probably would have been booked for a club-sized venue at a standalone show, Profanatica do a surprisingly good job of making an open theatre space their own. One issue above any that bothered the first night was the shoddy sound quality. With Profanatica, whether the sound got better or worse depends on your view of guitar tones that sound like they’ve been implanted with wasp larvae. I think it was great, honestly, and I was surprised how well they culminated the first evening.


 

PART III: VANCOUVER BECOMING GOLGOTHA

(FRIDAY, JUNE 22)

By the point of arrival, Friday was already looking a lot bigger than the first night. Among all second night acts, I was most anticipating Sorguinazia, for reasons their 2016 demo could convey better than I ever could. The dread surreal imbalance come across immensely live, and I was reminded of the atmospheric effect during Sortilegia’s set from last year’s fest. The atmosphere returned to ground when Ahna took stage. I’ve always really liked them anytime I’ve seen them. I think the close quarters experience of their Red Gate show circa Covenant II was a better suit for the sort of death-infused crust they play, but they play fast and filthy enough to have fit right in with this year too.


Hellfire Deathcult deliver war metal in its straight, most unadulterated form. One of Covenant IV’s more distant visitors from Chicago, it wasn’t so long ago they played the same stage, having opened the historic Archgoat/Blasphemy show in 2017. The first time I saw them, I found them competent but inspired; I’d probably say the same thing about their Black Death Terroristic Onslaught from earlier this year as well.


I had to reconsider my stance after being really impressed by the wisdom and character of an interview they did some months back. I wouldn’t say my opinion on the music itself has changed much, although I was impressed this time by how well they command the stage.

Then a pair of witches. Portland’s Witchvomit was one of the bands I’d heard nothing from prior to going in, but their atmospheric take on old school death metal was a perfect fit for the curated style of Covenant– not to mention ideal support for Incantation. With Witches Hammer, I was thinking an old-school  speed metal band would feel out of place in the fest. Not so.

Like Ahna, Witches Hammer got over any chance of being singled out for their style on the merit of the sonic filth they inject into it. They had a ton of stage energy for a band that’s been gone so long. Covenant has been host to a few returning sleeping giants; even if I had no expectations from the band going in, special events like that are what make something like Covenant feel as significant as it does.

One way a festival might be judged lies in how the experience of the bands all come together. In this, Covenant IV struck gold getting Profanatica and Incantation under the same banner. Incantation have weathered the years the best of the old USDM heavyweights; John McEntee’s the only original member left but some Ship of Theseus argument needn’t apply when the authentic energy comes through as well as it did on the Friday.

Incantation’s performance felt like the biggest set the Covenant has ever put forward, the closest to the feeling of a classic fun metal show, without the usual underground severity.

I think part of the sense of “letting loose” stems from the fond memories listening to Incantation records as a teenager and subsequently losing my mind; the nostalgic charge gave it the feeling of something extra. Watching them within the context of the fest, too, underlined how legendary they really are. Many bands within Covenant owe something of their sound to Incantation’s — how fitting that the second night ended by returning to the source.


 

PART IV: FALLEN ANGEL OF DOOM RETURNS

(SATURDAY, JUNE 23)

I can always rely on Covenant Fest’s lineup for a list of superb black/death upcomers. Goathammer and Gloam were the two previously unknown newcomers that managed to knock me over unawares– I had a similar experience the year before with Brulvahnatu. Goathammer loaded their filthy black metal with some of the best stage presence of the fest. Gloam played a noticeably more melodic strain of black metal with unexpected progressive undertones. Both bands were further proof that it pays to be there from the start for these bills. The theatre was already pretty packed by the start of the third night.

Next was Weregoat, who have become a frequent sight in Vancouver, not least of all through their participation in Covenants past. I’m not sure how many times I’ve seen them at this point, but they’ve been consistently successful in bringing about their murderous caveman atmosphere. They would get my vote as the most musical and enjoyably listenable band in the current wave of war metal– and that doesn’t mean a whiff against their violent atmosphere.

Antichrist helped stoked the flames of Covenant as a fest of rare appearances; a local name whose limited recorded output made them underground legends. That history is a lot like Witches Hammer. The music’s a lot more like Blasphemy though– something that applies to several in CovIV’s lineup (not least its headliner!) Antichrist did a solid job, although I wonder if the concentration of war bands made their set less punishing than it might have otherwise. I actually think their Sacrament of Blood LP is the strongest release to come from RBC; but when it comes to playing live, there’s not some unique angle to Antichrist’s performance like I can pinpoint for Weregoat or Blasphemy. All the same, it was satisfying to have seen them play.

Hacavitz were announced shortly after Black Witchery dropped off the bill. Big shoes to fill. For a long time, I’d only been peripherally aware of them, and didn’t know much except that a) they’re from Mexico, and b) friends spoke well of their music. Fortune blows in mysterious ways. Their set turned out to be the best of the fest– in fact, one of the best Covenant has ever lay host to. Fucking phenomenal. I’ve since listened to a couple of their records and enjoyed them, but Hacavitz is clearly the sort of band that knows how to manifest real magic in their performances. Black and death done right.

Given the war metal throughline across every fest incarnation, there’s not a band in the world that fits the role of Covenant headliner as Blasphemy does. This was my third time in five years seeing them– once a year and a half ago in the same theatre with Archgoat, one back in 2013 in Calgary. They’ve always been the sort of band that commanded my respect for their history and authenticity; I could still never understand the rabid adulation fans have for Fallen Angel of Doom. Yeah; any reservations are out the fucking window anytime I’ve seen Blasphemy play live. They have a genuinely dangerous atmosphere on stage, and after a festival of bands owing much to them in style, the live energy reminds me what a unique entity they are. It’s probably best they played last too– the crowd went a notch up in mania and it all fed back into the atmosphere. This may have been the strongest set I’ve ever seen from Blasphemy– and that is saying a lot.


PART V: AS THE DUST SETTLES…

COVENANT IV HANGOVERVIEW

Following the three days of Covenant IV, the Lord’s Day of Rest was well-timed. I, like everyone else, spent the better part of Sunday scraping my brain off the floor after everything. Seventeen bands is a lot to take in one weekend, and even if I thought I’d had my fill by the end, that unique feeling of post-fest depression doesn’t take long to kick in and make you wish you were still in the midst of it.

What was Covenant IV in a word? Satisfying, for starters. It satisfied in all the ways I’ve come to expect from Covenant. Expectations were met, and a few pleasant surprises were tossed in for good measure. There is no doubt that it outreached the scope of the year before. A lot of the exhilaration arose from the jaw-dropping selection of headliners CovIV had on offer.

With Revenge headlining Covenant last year, booking Blasphemy clearly upped the ante. Profanatica and Incantation both felt perfectly attuned to the Covenant character; something feels inherently historic in bringing the two bands together under a common banner. Hacavitz perhaps felt most special of all; they’re not a band we probably would have seen here otherwise, and I found their set to be the most emotionally charged and significant of the entire fest.

There’s always the question with an event like this, how to improve and expand it each year. It can be tricky to pinpoint with something as underground-focused as this; increasingly “bigger bands” wouldn’t take long before it really deterred, and I doubt Covenant Fest is in the firing line for energy drink sponsorships. If judged by its cohesion and memorable tightness, Covenant IV succeeded, matched only by CovII in 2016.

If Covenant Montreal has benefited from a more metropolitan selection of bands, Vancouver’s edition is distinguished by its specialization. More than any one thing, Covenant IV felt like a veneration of the city’s scene itself. Witches Hammer, Antichrist and Blasphemy all shone light on the city’s legendary past, and the local younger blood proved a formidable force amidst the imported talent. Part of the promise of Covenant Fest lies in its effect on the notoriety of Vancouver’s scene to the underground abroad. Covenant IV served as reminder that the scene’s already plenty notorious as is.

PART VI: CRITICISMS AND OBSERVATIONS

There’s an element of the uncanny and miraculous behind any successful fest. Covenant is no different, though the miracle gets easier to predict every time they deliver an experience like this. The organizers’ increasing confidence in pooling these events together is apparent. From an outsider’s perspective, CovIV was the smoothest-running operation to date. I didn’t feel that CovIV was bogged down by anything too significant. The experience was great on the whole, so I thought it best to throw all criticisms and nitpicks here at once, all with the blanket understanding that they pale against all of the good. Add “Alas! No perfect vvorld…” to the start of following points wherever necessary.

One of the coolest things about Covenant in years past was its tradition of showcasing immersive ambient sets– a tradition CovIV broke away from to its own detriment. The ambient artists calibrated the festival’s atmosphere in a way that felt missing this year. I have strong past memories of sets from Randal Collier-Ford and The Nausea amidst the metal fare. For whatever reason it didn’t happen this time, I think the fest could have been more effective if they’d kept the ambient element. You don’t appreciate a respite fully until it’s gone.

Sound quality felt like a recurring issue over the weekend, most notably on the Thursday. I think there’s only so much you can expect from a venue that size. As noisy as this music is to begin with, it feels washed out further by the theatre resonance. Notably, although mixing was never great, it was significantly better by the third evening.

photo from Covenant team

Regarding the venue, I have a love-hate attitude towards the Rickshaw Theatre as the festival host. One the one, it’s comfortably spacious, easily accessible, with arguably the best staff in a Vancouver venue. The sound’s not even so bad with all factors considered, but totally lacks for atmosphere. The space is a deadzone for the sort of vibe Covenant aims to manifest with these shows, and the venue geography lacks a proper place for the fest vendors. I know that booking the Rickshaw makes the most sense from a business lens. I don’t think I’d even be thinking in terms of atmosphere outside the context of a festival. Still, there’s a side to Covenant that’s not being explored to its full potential.

PART VII: SOME CLOSING REMARKS

(OR, PERSONAL MUSINGS ON A WILD WEEKEND WITH A GOAT-WITCH VOMIITING)

photo from Covenant team

There’s a special satisfaction in having watched Covenant Fest grow and mutate over four years; like most great things, it’s more than the sum of its parts. Music aside, the fest has been a great place to congregate with friends and forge new alliances. Covenant brings with it a very specific sort of “fest mode” mindset that spurs adventure. I can’t comment on the nature of aftershow extracurriculars this time around, but there was plenty going on during the day. A lot of the best memories that weekend involved catching up with friends from out of town. On a side note, on Saturday afternoon before the third night, I hit up the Mountainview Cemetery (only a ten minute walk from home) and toured the crypts Blasphemy had posed photos with years before.

There was a slew of strong shows rounding the weeks after. As with last year, CovIV was rounded off with an acoustic denouement, headlined by Galician folk act Sangre de Muerdago. I wasn’t able to make it, but Sangre’s new LP is tied with albums by The Caretaker and Mournful Congregation for my current favourite of 2018. So I need not speculate on how bad I missed out.

The aftershocks of Covenant IV arguably climaxed with the “Clandestine Congregation” on July 13th, with Mitochondrion, Encoffinate, Akyros Expanse and Kanashibari– all of whom would have been formidable additions to the festival itself. Evenings like this offered some consolation for the inevitable post-fest depression. As the coming months return us back to the cold and dark, so we return to the state of gnawing anticipation. As for the future… there are predictably high standards for the inevitable Covenant V, but I know better than to have clear expectations on how they’ll achieve it. Some of the my favourite sets from the past four years have been bands I’d never heard of before, and I dare not speculate how they’ll push the envelope after a set of headliners like those they boasted with IV.

Onward and forward, then… No end in sight.

One last thing: a major “thank you” goes to all those involved in some capacity with bringing the Covenant Festival to being in Vancouver; again, and again, and again. I’d also like to extend my personal thanks to the festival’s organizers, who invited me to document the event as a third-party perspective. If it’s indeed true that a monkey unbound by time could compose the complete works of Shakespeare, I’m certain the same rule applies to underground black/death metal fest coverage.


All photos provided by Ndamato Photo (except where indicated)
http://ndamatophoto.com 
http://instagram.com/n.damatophoto

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Editorial Spirit

In Search of the MAHASIDDHAS: A Journey Through the Sacred Himalayas

Traditional thanka of the great Indian Mahāsiddha Nāropa (11th century)

India is home to one of the oldest civilisations in the world. For over 5000 years, this ancient country has produced a rich and diverse stream of wisdom traditions, many of which continue to exist till this day. For decades, scholars, archaeologists, philosophers, artists and scientists have turned their attention towards India to study and examine the vast cultural heritage of the country. My own interest in the history and culture of India goes back to the days of my childhood when I voraciously read ancient Indian myths and occult stories through comic books, graphic novels and magazines. As I grew older, my childhood interests metamorphosed into a serious pursuit of the history, culture, and most importantly, the sacred knowledge imparted by the sages and seers of my country.

I studied the history of Indian and European art and culture at the age of 19 at a Delhi-based art institute. However, I wasn’t satisfied with the limited amount of information about subjects pertaining to metaphysics and philosophy at the institute. That prompted me to start my own research into the vast and complex world of Indian religious and philosophical thought. Initially, I was merely interested in a comparative study of the diverse schools (darshana) of Indian philosophy, namely Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Mīmāṃsā, and Vedanta. Later, when I got acquainted with the philosophy of the Tāntric tradition I clearly understood that it resonated with my own sphere of thought and that I must dive deeper in its paradigm.

The Sanskrit word ‘Tantra’ is derived from the root “tan”, meaning “to spread”, “expand”. According to one common definition, in the religious sense, a Tantra is simply “a scripture by which knowledge is spread” (tanyate vistaryate jnanam anena iti tantram).  [1]  The world of the Tantras includes complex meditations, ritual techniques, mystic syllables (mantras) and other techniques with which an adept uses in order to attain spiritual realisation. It is also important to note that Tantra is not a singular tradition and the Saivas (followers of Shiva), Sākta (followers of the mother goddess tradition of India), Bauddha (followers of the Buddhist tradition), Vaishnava (followers of Vishnu) among others all developed their individual Tāntric streams based on the individual schools’ metaphysics and soteriology.

Although the last few decades have seen an incredible amount of quality scholarship on the Tantric traditions of India and the countries in which it subsequently spread, a lot of confusion still continues to exist on the internet and among lay people regarding the subject. The shameful exploits of the New Age movement, which left no stone unturned into making Tantra a sham by promoting erotic massages and ordinary orgasmic pleasure as a means to unlock “spiritual bliss”, can certainly be held responsible for a negative attitude towards this sacred tradition. Nevertheless, the limitless primordial power pervading through the sacred world of the Tantras has enabled the tradition to continue despite the negativity. Today the Tāntric traditions continue to exist almost unchanged and unbridled, especially in the sacred Himalayas.

18th century gilt bronze statue of Indian Mahāsiddha Virupa from Tibet.

As I noted above, the Tāntric traditions are many in number and the following sections of the article shall be concerned with the followers of the Buddhist Tantra, especially Tibetans and other Himalayan people. With a deep urge to explore and examine the practices of existing Tāntric lineages in the mountainous regions of India, my wife Viktoria (Visionis Phosphorescent) and I travelled extensively to many sacred and power spots of the region in search of the mystics and the wandering itinerant sadhus – the Mahāsiddhas. The word Mahāsiddha is Sanskrit (Tibetan: གྲུབ་ཐོབ་ཆེན་པོ, THL: druptop chenpo) for ‘Great Adept’. As the Buddhist writer and teacher Keith Dowman notes, the siddhas were:

“…mendicant yogins living with the people on a grass-roots level of society, teaching more by psychic vibration, posture and attitude – mantra, mudra and tantra – than by sermonizing. Some of these siddhas were iconoclasts, dissenters and anti-establishment rebels fulfilling the necessary function of destroying the rigidity of old and intractable customs and habits, so that spontaneity and new vitality could flourish. Obsessive caste rules and regulations in society, and religious ritual as an end in itself, were undermined by the siddhas’ exemplary free-living. The irrelevance of scholastic hairsplitting in an academic language, together with a host of social and religious evils, were exposed in the poets’ wonderful mystical songs written in the vernacular tongues, They taught existential involvement rather than metaphysical speculation, and they taught the ideal of living in the world but not of it rather than ascetic self mutilation or monastic renunciation, The siddhas are characterized by a lack of external uniformity and formal discipline.” (http://keithdowman.net/essays/introduction-mahasiddhas-and-tantra.html)

As evident from the aforementioned words, these great adepts lived at the fringes of society and held disdain for religious orthodoxy which created hindrance for actual spiritual growth of an individual. Many lineages that stem from these great adepts continue till this date in the Himalayan regions of India, Nepal, Tibet and Bhutan. The Dzogchen (Mahāsandhi) tradition which is preserved and practiced among Himalayan Buddhists till date harkens back to the time of yogin saints like Prahevajra, Shri Simha, Jnānasutra, Padmasambhava among many other powerful adepts who transmitted the non-dual gnosis of the Tantras to their fortunate disciples, who in turn preserved a long line of unbroken lineal transmissions which have now spread across the western world.

Traditional thanka of the first human Dzogchen master Prahevajra (Tibetan: Garab Dorje)

Our quest to understand the present state of the Mahāsiddha tradition in the Himalayas led us to the Ngakpa tradition, the origins of which are connected to the 8th century Indian Tantric Buddhist saint Padmasambhava. This great adept was responsible for the spread of Buddhism in Tibet, the Land of Snows, in the 8th century – a tradition which was named the “Nyingma” (“ancient” in Tibetan) school of Buddhism. During that early period of transmission of the Buddhist Tantras in the Tibet, the community of practitioners (the “sangha”) was divided into two branches: the “red” sangha of monastics with shaven-heads and the saffron robes (Tibetan: rab byung ngur smig gi sde) and the “white sangha” of Ngakpas with white clothes and long, plaited hair (Tibetan: gos dkar lcang lo’I sde).  [2]

Guru Padmasambhava (Tibetan: Guru Rinpoche), the 8th century Indian Tantric saint who is credited with bringing Buddhism to Tibet

 The Tibetan word Ngakpa means “Māntrin”, or a “Tāntrika” in Sanskrit, i.e. a Tāntric practitioner. They are called the ‘white sangha’ (“gendun karpo” in Tibetan) as their Tantric vows (“samaya” in Sanskrit) entitle them to wear white shamtags (skirts), white, red and blue shawls of the yogic lineage and conch-shell spiral ear-rings; have long hair, often kept in a spiral atop the head; all of which represent specific aspects of the teachings. [3]

Unlike the celibate order of monks and nuns, the Ngakpas rely on “internal renunciation rather than on external renunciation” and are allowed to marry and have families.  This Tantric order founded by Guru Padmasambhava, who was himself a non-celibate, long-haired yogin, has continued to exist since the first wave of Tantric teachings that were spread in Tibet till the modern times.

A Ngakpa from Central Tibet, 1926

Traditionally,  Ngakpas are both healers and practitioners of the highest levels of Tantric praxis. On the one hand, a realised Ngakpa guru can perform ceremonies to pacify illness, disease and help in other worldly activities and be a master of the inner levels of Tantra and Dzogchen practices dealing with liberation on the other. However,  many people confuse them as “shamans” or just “lay practitioners” and oftentimes they can be belittled by those who are unaware of their history and importance as the torchbearers of an ancient Indian tradition. As the great Ngakpa lama Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche said, “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.” [4]

Ngakpas of Rebkong, Tibet participate in a Tantric ceremony

In our search for the existing Ngakpa lineages in the Indian Himalayas, we travelled to the sacred town of Rewalsar (Tso Pema in Tibetan) in Himachal Pradesh. Rewalsar is a small yet highly important town for Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs alike. For the Buddhists, this place is considered to be part of the ancient kingdom of Zahor where Guru Padmasambhava practiced Tantra in the caves with the princess Mandarava acting as his consort. According to ancient legends, the king of Zahor and his ministers arrested Guru Rinpoche and Mandarava and burned him alive, but he transformed the pyre into a lake, and was found sitting, cool and fresh, on a lotus blossom in its centre. This lake is considered to be the Rewalsar Lake, ‘Tso Pema’, around which the existing town of Rewalsar was built. [5]

Rewalsar (Tibetan: Tso Pema) in Himachal Pradesh, India

Rewalsar is not only a sacred pilgrimage spot for Himalayan Buddhists, but it is also home to a few important Buddhist monasteries along with a community of lay practitioners and cave-dwelling hermits who have dedicated their entire lives into solitary practice of Tantric meditation.

Sacred Guru Padmasambhava cave located on the hills above Rewalsar
Yogini Ani Bumchung (Centre), one of the seniormost hermit practitioners in her cave in Rewalsar with the author’s wife Viktoria Polikarpova (R) and their yogin friend Senge Drayang (L)

Our search for a genuine Ngakpa guru led us to meet Jigme Namgyal Rinpoche, a long-haired, white-clad married lama (Tāntric guru) who has made Rewalsar his home after living and practicing in Tibet and Bhutan for decades. Ngakpa Jigme Namgyal Rinpoche comes from the high grasslands of Kham in Eastern Tibet and belongs to the Nyingma order of Tibetan Buddhism. His spiritual consort, Rigzinma Jangchub Lhamo, is a female Ngakpa, or a “Ngakmo” and they have a son named Tenzin Thinley. Both practitioners belong to unbroken lineages of Tāntric Buddhism coming from India into Tibet through Guru Padmasambhava and other great masters of that time.

Ngakpa Jigme Namgyal Rinpoche at his shrine room in Rewalsar, India

Together, they highlight the very ideals of the ancient Mahāsiddha tradition and live at the fringes of society instead of a monastery and teach ancient meditation practices to those who seek them without expectations of fame or material gain. They are both masters of Dzogchen meditation and maintain a loyal group of students whom they teach philosophy,  metaphysics, rituals and meditation praxis based on the needs and existing level of each individual. For beginners, basic mind training and preliminary practices called “Ngondro” in Tibetan are stressed before they can take the path of the higher Tantric and Dzogchen meditation. Lama Jigme readily teaches the Ngondro of his tradition with painstaking detail to students who are willing to step on the path of Tantric practice. In fact, the Ngondro enables students to get an entire gist of the Buddhist practice, ranging from its basics to the highest paths of non-dual meditation techniques that involve complex visualisations, mantra recitations and rituals.

Ngakpa Jigme Namgyal Rinpoche and his consort Rigzinma Jangchub Lhamo engaged in a Tantric ceremony

While most westerners and sometimes even lay Himalayan Buddhist practitioners think of lamas as shaven-headed and monastic, the reality is far from the truth. Lamas are not supposed to be just monks; married, householder Ngakpas are also equally eligible for that title. Ngakpa lamas like Jigme Namgyal Rinpoche and his consort embody the ideas of Buddhist Tantric practice that emerged in India and were later transmitted to Tibet.

Our search into the Ngakpa lineages was more than fruitful as we were able to encounter a living Tantric couple who hold within the deep expanse of their mind sacred wisdom which has been taught and preserved from the time of Sakyamuni Buddha to the later awareness holders of the Tantras. It is important to note that enough emphasis is laid upon maintaining secrecy over the inner symbolism of iconography and practice, not because Tantra is a ‘cult’ as many think, but to safeguard the meanings from beings who could potentially harm and misuse the teachings.

Ngakpa Jigme Namgyal Rinpoche and his consort Rigzinma Jangchub Lhamo with the author Ankit Sinha and his wife Viktoria Polikarpova after the conclusion of a Tantric ceremony at their shrine room in Rewalsar

Indeed, the Tāntric tradition has been able to survive and sustain despite all the foreign invasions in India and the political upheavals in Tibet mainly because of the same ideals. If the teacher-student tradition would have been forsaken and the secret teachings sold like confectionery, there is no doubt that a vast number of lineages would have died out long ago.  So, one must acknowledge the role many of these masters have played in preserving an authentic tradition and presenting it practitioners of the modern era.

May these teachings continue to benefit beings for countless aeons!

Sarva mangalam bhavatu!

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Bibilography:

[1] N.N. Bhattacharya, “History of the Tantric Religion” (1982), page 20

[2] Kyabje Kunzang Dorje Rinpoche, “An Historic Description of Awareness Holders of the Great Secret Mantra who are Resplendent in White Clothes and Long Hair” (2004). https://enricokosmus.com/2012/06/13/an-historic-description-of-awareness-holders-of-the-great-secret-mantra-who-are-resplendent-in-white-clothes-and-long-hair/

[3] Ngakpa Ga’wang, “An Introduction to the White Sangha of Ngakpas and Ngakmos” (1997) https://www.chinabuddhismencyclopedia.com/en/index.php?title=An_Introduction_to_the_White_Sangha_of_Ngakpas_and_Ngakmos

[4] Jeffe Cox, “The Ngakpa Tradition: An Interview with Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche” (2016) http://padmasambhavagururinpoche.com/the-ngakpa-tradition-an-interview-with-khetsun-sangpo-rinpoche/

[5] Rigpa Translations, “Great Treasure of Blessings – A Book of Prayers to Guru Rinpoche” (2004), page 28