Padmasambhava (pictured above), the mythic tantric saint who ensured the flourishing of Buddhism in Tibet in the 8th century was both a fully realized being and a consummate sorcerer. He is credited with having tamed the unruly indigenous demons of Tibet and having helped establish the first Buddhist monastery on Tibetan soil. As Tibet’s ‘Second Buddha’ his cultural importance to Tibetans is hard to over-emphasize. This Lotus-Born Precious guru is the quintessential model for the non-celibate tantric practitioner or ngakpa. As a realized Buddha he is the practitioner’s own basic, pure and perfect nature, as a historical and cosmological figure he represents the model practitioner of the path of tantric Buddhism, the Secret Mantra Vehicle. In his dress, comportment, practices, activities, teachings, motivation, and view he embodies everything that the best tantric practitioner should be.
It is thus no surprise that Padmasambhava’s legendary activities should feature strongly in Tibetan magic. Compared to their counterparts in Western esotericism, Tibetan medico-magical practices, and Tibetan grimoires (ngak ki beubum, སྔགས་ཀྱི་བེའུ་བུམ) have received relatively little scholarly attention. This paucity of scholarly interest is perhaps exacerbated by the fact that the more spiritual dimensions of Sowa Rigpa, or Traditional Tibetan Medicine (TTM) have been formally excised from state-sponsored Sowa Rigpa curricula in contemporary China. Moreover, in recent decades, the status of ‘magical’ expertise and the relationship between medical and religious knowledge in TTM has also shifted in the diaspora, as doctors outside of Tibet have worked hard for Sowa Rigpa to be recognized as an empirically efficacious healing system that can meet Western biomedical standards and regulations.
Below I have translated a charm that comes from a Tibetan grimoire attributed to Yuthok Yönten the Younger (1126-1202), one of the luminaries of Tibetan traditional medicine. The procedure comes from a 2008 edited volume of esoteric instructions called ལས་སྣ་ཚོགས་པའི་སྔགས་བཅོས་བེའུ་བུམ ‘A Grimoire of Diverse Mantra Healing Procedures’. The book was prepared by scholars connected with the Arura Medical institute and Tibetan Medical Research Association in Tso ngo (Kokonor, Amdo), Xinghai Province, as part of a publication series of collections of ‘ancient Tibetan medical texts’ (བོད་ཀྱི་གསོ་བ་རིག་པའི་གནའ་དཔེ་ཕྱོགས་བསྒྲིགས་དཔེ་ཚོགས). The series is intended to preserve Tibetan cultural knowledge, and it seems these esoteric, magical instructions are intended to serve for some doctors as a supplement to the more material, or ‘secular’ practices of Tibetan medicine (It would of course be interesting to find out just how many state-institution trained young doctors in Tibet and elsewhere, without more established backgrounds in tantric ritual, are using these practices).
The charm deals with a maybe less familiar kind of alcohol-poisoning, that is, the subduing of negative spirits that affect the qualities of alcohol. Even in its brevity, it should be clear that there is a lot of rich meaning in such procedures which deserves further analysis – we see, for example, the use of historical commemoration and ritual mimesis, tantric assumption of deified forms, and the idea of changing one’s own self-image to change the outer world. ‘Magic’ is in many ways a misleading or inappropriate category for use in Buddhist contexts, but I suggest nonetheless that procedures such as this one below still offer interesting parallels and contrasts with other magical and grimoire traditions from across the world and history, both in terms of procedure, and in terms of how ‘magical’ expertise has been understood alongside other forms of expert knowledge.
“Twenty: OM: Here follows the Beer-Charm, ‘Ocean of Nectar’
Homage to the great Guru of Odiyana [Padmasambhava]. (Imagine) yourself as a black yogi, from your mouth fire blazes. Smoke wafts from your nose. On your head you wear a tufted woolen turban [or your hair in this way – resembling Bönpo priests]. Imagine that you annihilate absolutely every demon that does damage to beer. (Recite) the following mantras onto a black protection cord: NAMO HRI # # SOHA [*FULL MANTRA REDACTED] Having tied (this cord) to his index-finger and placed it on the beer, this is the upadesha [spiritual instruction] for protecting against beer-demons that the Lotus-Master performed during the raising of the Spontaneously Arisen Samye [Tibet’s first Buddhist temple].”
* The sizable body of scholarly (and practical) research into ‘Western’ grimoires and grimoiric traditions has been little engaged by Tibetan Studies scholars. In my own limited research into Tibetan grimoires I have been struck by the multiple parallels between Tibetan tantric magical materials and the grimoires and magical papyri with which I am more familiar from Western esoteric contexts. It seems to me like bringing together material and insights from across disciplines could prove useful.
Discussing current directions in the study of Hindu Tantra, David Gordon White made the following observations in a recent interview:
“Regarding your work on yoga, now that you’re handing the torch, so to speak, to a younger generation of scholars, what specifically do you see as promising avenues of inquiry?
Much still needs to be done concerning patronage, the relationship between religious specialists and their royal / aristocratic / merchant / landowning clients. The relationship between urban and rural religion in the medieval and modern periods has yet to be adequately addressed. As far as primary source material on Hindu Tantra is concerned, the surface has barely been scratched, even with the flowering of tantric studies over the past few decades. When one looks at the catalogues of India’s manuscript archives, one finds hundreds upon hundreds of titles of works that no one has looked at. Many are on the topic of what would fall under the heading of magic and sorcery, and one of my grad students, Aaron Ullrey, is currently completing an outstanding dissertation on the subject”.
I’d say that the circulation of magical practices and tantric ritual expertise as part of multi-layered and cosmopolitan economies of exchange and patronage is equally of great historical significance in Tibetan Studies as well, and is a key interest of mine. Whatever the case, for those interested in learning a little more about Tibetan be’u bum or grimoires, the following links provide excellent, open-source material:
- Historian of ancient Tibet Sam Van Schaik discusses a 9th or 10th century Tibetan book of spells from the Dunhuang collection, and offers valuable reflections on the role of magic in Buddhism here, and goes on to consider the continuities between ancient and contemporary ritual practices in Tibetan societies using the example of a rain-making spell from that ancient grimoire here.
- You can find also read Bryan J. Cuevas’ article on Ju Mipham Rinpoche’s (1846-1912) be’u bum here. The essay originally appeared as a chapter in Tibetan Ritual, the 2009 collection edited by Jose Ignacio Cabezon. Cuevas’ piece is one of the few sustained scholarly treatments of Tibetan grimoires as a scholarly genre. Ju Mipham compiled his spell-book toward the end of his life, and it remains a primary source-book for contemporary Tibetan ritual specialists.
- Here Daniel Berounsky offers some reflections and translations relating to Geluk founder Je Tsongkhapa and tantric magic. Berounsky discusses Tsongkhapa’s own relationship with tantric ritual, and examines specific magical procedures and traditions which involve engaging with Tsongkhapa himself as a deified figure.