For more than a thousand years, there have been two systems of ordination in Tibetan Buddhism. (“Ordination” is the formal recognition by a religious institution that an individual has made a permanent and unbounded commitment to serving the religion, its members, and the institution.) The familiar system is the “monastic” ordination of monks and nuns. These are referred to as the “Red Sangha,” from the color of their robes. This system primarily supports the practice of Sutrayana. Less familiar is the “White Sangha,” which primarily supports the practice of Tantrayana. It is called the gö-kar-chang-lo’i-dé, which means “the system of white skirts and long hair.” Again this refers to the robes worn by its members.
These two systems were once regarded as equal. One would enter one system of ordination or the other, according to whether one practiced Sutra or Tantra. One might also begin as a monk or nun and move into Tantric practice later—with a switch in ordination. However, in recent centuries, there has been increasing political pressure on the White Sangha. (This is due to unpleasant Tibetan politics that I won’t go into.) Not many Tibetans enter the White Sangha now. Some that do stay “in the closet,” because there can be retaliation if they wear the robes publicly. So until recently, this ordination was unknown in the West.
Ngak’chang Rinpoche was instructed by Düdjom Rinpoche to establish the White Sangha in the West. When Ngak’chang Rinpoche started teaching in a white skirt, in the late 1970s, almost no one in Britain had ever seen or heard of such a thing. Some thought that he had made the whole thing up—and attacked him as fake.
In the late 1990s, the Aro Encyclopædia posted a large number of photographs of Tibetan Lamas in white skirts. This showed that the suspicion that Rinpoche had invented the whole thing was mistaken.
The critics then changed their accusation to “this is just a ritual outfit worn by some monks when performing some Tantric practices. There is no such thing as a separate Tantric ordination. He just made that up.” However, in the past decade, several ethnically Tibetan Ngakpa Lamas have explained the system in the West, so it is no longer possible to doubt its existence. Some Tibetans now ordain Westerners into the White Sangha. The “no such thing as a separate Tantric ordination” claim is also clearly wrong and has been abandoned.
A male member of the White Sangha is called a Ngakpa; a female member is called a Ngakma or Ngakmo. “Ngak” is Tibetan for “mantra.” -Pa is a male suffix and -ma and -mo are female suffixes.
In Tibet, whereas Ngakpas were uncommon, Ngakmas (or Ngakmos) in most places were unknown. (Tibet has a less patriarchal culture than most, but the usual kinds of prejudice are still present.) For this reason, members of the White Sangha were all usually referred to simply as “Ngakpas.”
Gyaltsen Rinpoche wrote an introduction to Ngak’chang Rinpoche’s 1995 book Wearing the Body of Visions. He described Ngak’chang Rinpoche as “an authentic upholder of the ngakphang tradition of the Nyingma.” Ngak’chang Rinpoche, who is not a Tibetan language scholar, did not recognize the word “ngakphang.” Gyaltsen Rinpoche told him it referred to the White Sangha. Ngak’chang Rinpoche subsequently asked Lama Tharchin Rinpoche about it. Lama Tharchin thought the word was rare and archaic. Ngak’chang Rinpoche translated it as “mantra hurling” because ’phangs (pronounced “phang”) is “to throw or shoot” in the dictionary.
The Aro lineage historically emphasizes women practitioners, and the gender ratio is about 50/50 currently. So Ngak’chang Rinpoche adopted “ngak’phang” as a short, gender-neutral word to refer to “Ngakpas and Ngakmas.”
There is an urban legend that ngak’phang is a bad word. This appears to be based solely on two 1997 emails from Christopher Fynn. This was once widely accepted without anyone bothering to check whether it is true.
Understanding his emails requires tedious explanations of Tibetan spelling and grammar. You may wish to skip ahead over the rest of this section.
Tibetan is not pronounced as it is spelled. Many letters are silent, or change their sound according to context. Tibetan has its own alphabet, but can be written in the Western alphabet. That can be done in either of two ways. You can capture the pronunciation, or the Tibetan spelling. For example, the spelling “tulku” captures the way the word is pronounced. As spelled, it is sprul sku.
Gyaltsen Rinpoche wrote his introduction in English. He wrote “ngakphang,” which is definitely a phonetic spelling. The Tibetan spelling would have to be two words, of which the first is certainly sngags, pronounced ngak, meaning mantra. It is impossible to be certain from the phonetic spelling what the second word would be. There are three words that are pronounced “phang”: phangs, ’phang, and ’phangs. (The apostrophe represents a silent Tibetan letter, and the s at the end is also silent. There is no word spelled phang, although dictionaries note that it is a common misspelling of the others.)
In his first email, Mr. Fynn wrote:
In Tibetan Ngakphang (sngags phangs) in fact means "Mantra looser" or one who throws away or forsakes mantras - which would usually be interpreted as a samaya breaker.
He jumped to the conclusion that the second word was phangs. This is probably mistaken.
Further, phangs does not appear to mean “throw away” or “forsake.” I consulted three dictionaries: the Illuminator, Rangjung Yeshe, and Sarat Chandra Das. I did not find any meaning like that. Phangs means “a sharp subjective feeling of loss.” sNgags phangs would mean “the feeling of being upset at having lost mantra.” Phangs is an emotion provoked by something that has happened to you; it does not refer to a deliberate action. The idea that sngags phangs could be interpreted as “samaya breaker” seems far-fetched.
When it was pointed out to Mr. Fynn that the word is actually the unrelated ’phangs, he backpedaled in a second email:
Yes, 'phangs is the _future_ root of 'phen which is one of the words for shoot or throw.
(This was mistaken; 'phangs is the past tense. The future is 'phang, without an s.) He then suggested:
Wouldn't "ngags 'phen mkhan" be the way to write "mantra shooter"?
His point was that 'phangs is a verb, so sngags 'phangs is a sentence: “[someone] shot mantra.” This could be converted into a noun phrase by adding the “nominalizing particle” mkhan: sngags 'phangs mkhan would be “someone who has shot mantra.” ('Phen is the present tense.) A fair point—if we were attempting to translate “mantra shooter” into Tibetan. However, Ngak’chang Rinpoche’s translation from the Tibetan was “mantra hurling,” not “mantra hurler.” The nominalizing particle in that case would be pa, not mkhan.
This is beside the point, however. No one has found examples of either sngags ’phangs or sngags phangs being used in a Tibetan sentence. Without surrounding Tibetan syntax, we cannot use grammar as a clue to meaning. All we have is a pair of Tibetan words used in an English sentence. It is common when embedding short Tibetan phrases in English to omit the Tibetan syntactic particles. English grammar conveys the syntactic role of the Tibetan words, rather than Tibetan particles. In “the ngakphang tradition,” it is clear by English grammar that “ngakphang” is acting as a nominal, so there is no need for a nominalizing particle such as pa or mkhan. (Further, nominalizing particles, particularly pa, are often omitted even in Tibetan sentences, when they can be inferred from context.)
Mr. Fynn concluded:
Maybe your Tibetan is better than mine but I think most Tibetans would understand it the way I did - though the word "ngags 'phangs" is not in any dictionary.
I do not see any support for this conclusion. However, I too am not fluent in Tibetan. I hope that experts will read the analysis above carefully and point out any errors I may have made.
Why would Gyaltsen Rinpoche have told Ngak’chang Rinpoche that “ngak’phang” refers to the White Sangha if it actually meant “throw away mantra”? Mr. Fynn suggests:
Are you quite sure that some Tibetan lama wasn't pulling your teacher's leg when he gave this name? (Some of them are fond of this kind of thing.) Alak Zenkar Rinpoche (the author of the tshig mdzod chen mo and a Nyingma lama) certainly found this term highly amusing.
Unfortunately we don’t know the context in which Mr. Fynn presented the term to Alak Zenkar Rinpoche. Perhaps it went like this:
Mr. Fynn: Rinpoche, have you ever heard the term “ngak’phang”?
Alak Zenkar Rinpoche: No—where did you get it?
Mr. Fynn: There’s this crazy white guy who claims to be part of the “ngak’phang tradition,” which he says means “mantra thrower.” But I think he is a samaya breaker, so maybe it really means “throws away mantra!”
Rinpoche: Hah hah! Highly amusing!
That is a good joke—but laughing at it is not exactly a statement of professional opinion.
It seems there are three possibilities:
Possibility 1: Lama Tharchin Rinpoche was right: it was an archaic term for the White Sangha. It was sufficiently rare that it did not make it into dictionaries. (I see no strong reason to doubt this.)
Possibility 2: Gyaltsen Rinpoche invented the term, with good intentions. It had no definite meaning before. (This also seems quite likely.)
Possibility 3: “Ngak’phang” somehow did mean “throw away mantra.” Gyaltsen Rinpoche knew this and was making fun of Ngak’chang Rinpoche. (After reading his introduction, it seems unlikely to me that he would be malicious. I also think this meaning is unlikely based on the linguistic analysis above.)
None of these scenarios seem to reflect badly on Ngak’chang Rinpoche. If anyone were to look bad, it would seem to be Gyaltsen Rinpoche—another reason it is an unlikely interpretation.
It also is used on the official web site of the Drikung Kagyüd lineage. (This web site is impeccably Tibetan, with no white Lamas to be seen.) To quote: “Ongtrül Rinpoche [is] a ngak'phang Lama who is the emanation of Khyéchung Lotsa.” This might be evidence that “ngak’phang” is indeed an ancient Tibetan term. It might also be evidence that some Tibetans know a good new word when they see one, and have the flexibility to adopt it.
Words do not have inherent, eternal, “real” meanings. Meanings are established by use, not by God. They differ across time and space. Whatever “ngak’phang” may have once meant in Tibet (if anything), it means “Ngakpa or Ngakma” in the West in 2008.