My head is swimming with thoughts at the moment. I’ve just recently had an edited version of my blog post, Spiritually Inappropriate, published in Isis-Seshat, journal of the Fellowship of Isis. I also replaced the cruder, less-considerate version of the original blog post with said edited version of the article (some day, I will learn to digest and think on things before I publish them, but I also often find that my tendency to shoot from the hip gets the message across much more effectively and in ways that are surprisingly well-received by folks). I also published a couple more related posts here, and only then read some of the other articles in the aforementioned issue of Isis-Seshat, which honestly gave me some food for thought. Certain viewpoints expressed therein were very challenging to my original position, but ultimately galvanized me to keep expanding on my defense of same (I did mention that I’m stubborn).
Rather than repeat the mistake of firing off a reactive rant, I’d like to answer to some of the ideas with which I’ve been wrestling in a non-confrontational manner. It’s worth a shot, anyhow. I won’t guarantee results.
One of the points that stands out to me is the important distinction between feeling a personal calling to establish a working relationship with an entity, practice or ritual implement from another culture, and feeling entitled to present that idea to others.
In the former case, there is a balancing act between respecting another culture’s sovereignty over its own ideas and artifacts on the one hand, and acknowledging that we also hold personal sovereignty over our own psychic spheres on the other. In this relatively confined and often secret context, it is obnoxious to tell a person they cannot adopt a practice for themselves because of where it originated. Kept “Hermetically sealed” in such a way, there’s not a very strong case to be made for “appropriation,” for the lone practitioner is not taking anything out of another person’s hands in order to hold it in theirs. Admittedly, however, that is not what I was talking about in Spiritually Inappropriate. I was talking about doing a workshop.
I’m not a rabid culture warrior, one way or the other. I don’t feel the siren call to champion the cause of oppressed cultures (though I am glad there are those who do, and I wish them well), and I certainly don’t have a vendetta against any other cultures.
When I lost contact with M., I had only the rough sketch of his basic teachings to go on. It didn’t take me long to realize that there was a very strong resonance between the “Green Magic” he taught me and the Pagan revival I could see going on in the occult community. I looked into Wicca and Druidism, but never adopted any ritual practices from either. I got to know about some of the Celtic deities, but never felt compelled to form a relationship with one. At this stage, my path was more about investigating different belief systems to get a feel for the variety of viewpoints that exist in the world. I drew more from the philosophy and metaphysics of various cultures than from any specific symbolic structures, deities or practices. I stayed as much in the realm of metaphysics as I could.
If it weren’t for phurba, I would be ignoring this discussion altogether and still going by the label of chaos magician. There are no words to describe what happened inside me the first time I held one. It was the basic energy of the dagger—and energy-reading is something I’ve become very familiar with over the years—that really grabbed my attention. Scores of associations welled up in my mind, and basically all of them have since been borne out by my research. Importantly (to me, anyway), long before I ever read that this might be the case, I understood that phurba is more than capable of defending itself. It is a living entity. Like the Ancient Egyptian view of statues of their deities, the shamans of the Himalayan region hold that every phurba is not just a representation of the entity phurba/Vajrakilaya, but is a direct embodiment of same. I understood, without being told, that if phurba had a problem with me wielding it, it would waste no time in putting a stop to my dalliances. Phurba and I had a strong rapport, one that I actually have intellectual reasons to believe by now. We were immediate allies because phurba understood that I know all too well the importance of working on myself. The process of exorcism works not only upon the demon or inimical influence being targeted, but on the operator him-or herself. This is unavoidably so.
Why do I feel so compelled to take that extra step and share phurba with others? Think what you will, but I honestly believe it wants me to. I look at the world around me, and I see a strong need for phurba’s energy, phurba’s process—one which is very unique. In over 22 years of study and practice, I have never come across a ritual item that has quite the same meaning and function as phurba, except for analogous tools from within the same cultures through which phurba has been expressed—and that brings up another point:
Even culturally speaking, phurba is hard to nail down (that was a pun and half, for anyone who knows phurba—perhaps, a few posts from now, you’ll have learned enough to get the joke). It is most commonly associated with Tibetan Buddhism, but as I mentioned in Spiritually Inappropriate, the use of phurba was adopted by Buddhist monks relatively recently. Even the monks themselves will acknowledge this, saying that the phurba practice as it is known in Tibetan Buddhism today was “perfected”—not created—by Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche, founder of the still-living Nyingma sect, in the 8th century. Prior to that, it was mostly used by Himalayan shamans.
Although we’ve already gone very far back in history, we’re still not done tracing the origins of phurba. In Dagger Blessing, Thomas Marcotty asserts that the origins of phurba are likely to be rooted in Mesopotamian “stakes” that functioned very much in the way Europeans understand gargoyles to work: Plunged into the ground to demarcate ritual space, they served as stationary guardians so wrathful themselves as to frighten away evil spirits.
So when I pick up phurba, am I speaking to a Tibetan spirit? A Nepalese, Bhutanese or Indian spirit? A Mesopotamian spirit? Whose traditions am I obligated to respect? Is it wrong for me to look beyond the layers of culture that have accrued around this figure and look instead into its form, its essence, and its spiritual function apart from the cultures it has traversed?
I say it is just fine for me to recognize phurba as a spirit—period—and that if I believe (as I do) in my heart that this spirit trusts me to convey certain things about it, no human authority has the right to refute that, as sensitive as they may be to current socio-political issues. Phurba did not come into this world to join a culture war. It came to eradicate demons, and to help us do the same, both within and without.
The Tibetan Buddhist sects that include it as part of their traditions are extremely protective of phurba and the practices that surround it. Even when they do deign to dispense some of the teachings to Westerners, they tend to withhold crucial pieces such as the specific mantras used in certain rituals. They allow only those they deem worthy to approach phurba at all, and generally only those from their own culture to plumb the innermost depths of its cultus. I can recognize this, but I also have a very hard time granting it full legitimacy in my mind and heart when they openly acknowledge that phurba did not originate in their hands. In the sense that they feel they have “refined” the practice from the “backwards” shamans from whom they took it, it seems to me that they don’t have the “cultural appropriation” defense to hide behind. They did the same thing, not only in ignorance of the culture from which they took it, but in outright spiritual arrogance born from a difference in dogma and philosophy. For those who idealize Buddhism and don’t believe me, below is a quote from Vajrakilaya: Heart of Light, Blade of Thunder by Stephen K. Hayes, who was initiated partially into phurba practice by the man who initiated His Holiness XIV Dalai Lama:
“It was also true that phurba rites were not the exclusive property of the Tibetan Buddhist orders. Some histories attributed to spooky pre-Buddhist traditions the spirit dagger powers for banishing obstruction.”
Yup: He called the shamans from whom Buddhists appropriated phurba “spooky.” Very dignified! Let’s give him a round of applause.
In light of attitudes like this, I do not feel bad sweeping in, like Garuda or like Prometheus, and sharing what I know about phurba with the caveat that people shouldn’t just blindly follow what I say. I hope my presentations spur others to do their own research. I hope (and in fact, am pretty confident) that someone else’s research will surpass my own.
Having addressed the secretive Tibetan cults from which it is silly to accuse me of stealing, what of the living shamanic traditions in the Himalayas? Well, quite frankly, anything I know about phurba came from books freely available to anybody who cares to find them, and was shared with their authors openly by Himalayan shamans (who strongly value syncretism, it ought to be pointed out–but that’s another post entirely).
In the wider debate about cultural appropriation, this defense will likely be taken as weak, but I am simply following my heart, and with each shaky step I take, it is only in retrospect that it all comes into focus. I will continue to trust that. In any spiritual or magical matter, my first allegiance is to the dharma with which I entered this world, which involves working with spirits. In so doing, my first allegiance is to those spirits and what they have to tell me—not to the cultures that claim them as their own. From what I have read and also what I have experienced, the idea of claiming any kind of ownership over something of the spirit is itself a form of appropriation. There is an important distinction between culture and the world of spirit—very real to those who experience it—that just so happens to be embedded in cultural artifacts at times.
If, in so doing, I draw anyone’s ire—well, I will consider that to be a manifestation of phurba’s very own purifying point being aimed squarely at me. I will take my medicine like a man and it will make me a better person.