Ngakpa literally means someone who says mantra. In Tibetan, ngags means mantra and pa means someone, a person. In Sanskrit this is a mantrika. So anyone who practices the repetition of mantra may be said to be a ngakpa. However, within Tibetan society and especially among Nyingmapa, the term ngakpa most commonly refers to a lay Tantric practitioner as opposed to an ordained monk or nun. Really serious ngakpas are professional religious who spend as much time or more in the practice of the Dharma as monks or nuns.
The division between ordained and non-ordained sangha is an ancient one in Tibetan Buddhism. The first ngakpa center in Tibet was a branch of the Samye temple complex on the Brahmaputra River and was called Ngakpa Dud-dul Ling (The Place of the Demon-subduing Ngakpas). Because ngakpas often wear white (as opposed to the red and yellow of ordained sangha) and wear their hair long and uncut (as opposed to the closely cropped hair of monks and nuns), the community of ngakpas is also sometimes referred to as go-kar chang-lo de, "the community of white clothes and long hair." In the 9th century, Tri Ralpachen, the third Dharma King of the Yarlung Dynasty, especially supported and promoted the community of ngakpas, and it was from this time that ngakpa centers sprang up all over Tibet. During the repression and decline of monastic Buddhism under Ralpachen's successor, Langdarma, it was the ngakpas, practicing in families and small groups, who kept Buddhism alive in Tibet. Within the Nyingma sect or school, many, if not most, ngakpas are married with children.
There are also ngakpas in the other three dominant schools of Tibetan Buddhism. For instance, among the Kargyudpa, there are so-called renouncing ngakpas, also referred to as tokden (holders of realization) and naljorpa and naljorma (yogis and yoginis). These practitioners are often monks and nuns but who wear long, uncut hair and spend their lives in retreat practicing Vajrayana after the style of Milarepa. Within the Sakya, there is a family lineage of ngakpas, the Gongma. This family lineage actually started from the time of Guru Rinpoche and is a Nyingma lineage even though the Gongma are the heads of the Sakya sect. In addition, in the Gelug sect there are monks and nuns who are also ngakpas, holding all three sets of vows of the Pratimoksha, Bodhisatva, and Vajrayana.
Historically and still to this day, many "ngakpas" are female, in which case they are called ngakmas. Yeshe Tshogyal, Machig Labdron, Migyur Paldron, Sera Khandro, Jetsun Shukseb, and Tare Lhamo were all great ngakma, to name just a few. Therefore, there is no discrimination between male and female within the ngakpa community. In fact, it is one of the 14 root vows of the ngakpa to never disparage a female. It is also believed that female practitioners who really take the Dharma to heart may become greater practitioners than their male counterparts.
In particular, the ngakpa/ngakma tradition is strong and widespread in northeast Tibet in the regions of Amdo and Golok. In Amdo, the most famous area for ngakpas is Rebkong. In northeast Tibet, ngakpa centers are called ngak-khang, "ngakpa houses," and this is where the name of our center, Boulder Valley Ngakpa House, comes from. Gatherings of ngakpa are called ngag-mang, literally "many ngakpa." Ngakpas may be relatively sedentary and ensconced in their communities or they may be wandering mendicants. The latter is especially the case of those ngakpas who focus their practice on chod.
Within many communities in Tibet and the Himalayas, ngakpas serve as "village priests," officiating at all the local ceremonies, controlling weather, healing the sick, insuring good fortune, dealing with the dead and dying, etc. We could also call them sorcerers, "white magicians" or, in Spanish, curanderos, "healers." Ngakpa may also be lha-pa or [spokes-]persons of the Deities, i.e., seers and oracles. Ngakpas' magical activities are divided into four basic categories: pacifying, enriching, over-powering (also called magnetizing), and wrathful (subjugation). Based on the universal altruism of Bodhicitta, ngakpas work their magic through a combination of mantra, mudra (ritual gestures), substances, and samadhi or concentration. Depending on the circumstances, they may also use song, dance, music, art, and costume. The cornerstones of their practice are faith, devotion, lineage, and samaya, their Vajrayana vows.
In the West, most Buddhist practitioners are laypersons. For a number of reasons, ordained monks and nuns are relatively few. Therefore, practicing as a ngakpa or ngakma is very attractive to many Western Buddhists. However, while anyone may call themself a ngakpa, the true ngaka is he or she who has gained the power of at least one mantra and can make it work in the service of all sentient beings.