Ngakpa, NgakmoTib., sngags pa, sngags mo
The Tibetan word sngags refers to mantra (incantation, magical spell),
and the syllables pa (male) and mo (female) are linguistic denominators for someone's gender.
However, nothing is ever as simple as that - in Tibetan - and the syllable pa can also be found in names such as Nyingma pa, Kagyud pa, Geluk pa - cases in which the syllable indicates what we call school, tradition or lineage. So in fact, a female practitioner of Tibetan Tantra is a sngags mo, but she is also part of the non-monastic tradition bearing the name sngags pa - rendered into English as Ngakpa.
The 'non-monastic' in the above sentence is what truly defines the Ngakpa and distinguishes this (loose) group of
male and female Tantrics from the monks and nuns trained or living in monasteries. All other definitions one encounters -
lay practitioner or non-celibate on the one hand, or sorcerer and exorcist on the other - are biased in one way or another
and do not reflect reality.
Even though Buddhist monks and nuns are regarded to live according to the moral code known as Vinaya (ethical rules for life in a monastery; including celibacy), we also know that any initiation into the Higher Tantras, or the discovery of a terma, does involve sexuality - so absolute and continuing celibacy in Vajrayana is a myth.
But it is also a myth that someone immersed in everyday life
(married for example, or having a family), cannot achieve enlightenment or liberation and will thus remain a 'lay' person forever.
So the white robed Ngakpa with their traditionally long hair are just as valid and real Tantric practitioners as are their maroon robed monastic counterparts; they simply are different types of people and they actually form a second and often overlooked branch of the Buddhist Tantric community (Skt., sangha). This is clearly reflected in the Tibetan term dge bdun gyi sde (divisions of the sangha), which refers to the following two types of practitioners:
- those with shaved heads, bare feet and maroon robes form the Vinaya division (Tib., bdul ba'i sde)
- those with long, usually braided hair and white robes form the Mantra division (Tib., sngags kyi sde)
Today, there is a so-called 'White Sangha' operating under the name Ngakphang Sangha (Mantra-holding Community) who will ordinate suitable candidates into this old tradition, but the 'white sangha' and all references to 'white robes' are more symbolical than real: many a teacher in that tradition wears what he likes and is more likely to be recognized by the hair style.
For more information go to our Lam Yig page with links to Tibetan sites.