Demon Directories: On Listing and Living with Tibetan Worldly Spirits

blue thebrang.jpg

(An image of a blue the’u rang or tebrang spirit from a Tibetan manuscript. Scanned images from this manuscript of many Tibetan worldly spirits described in the post that follows can be found here at but unfortunately the name and date of the source-text is not given. If anyone knows these details, please do let me know!)

I came across the following condensed directory of worldly spirits, gods, demons and other non-human Tibetan persons that go bump in the night in a book of essays which deal with the history and controversies surrounding the Tibetan protector-spirit Dolgyal, which I briefly discussed here. The book, whose short title is ‘The Impurity-Dispelling Mirror – An Investigation into the Origination and Controversy of Dolgyal’ was compiled by the Office of the Central Executive Committee of Dhomay (Amdo) Province in exile. The Committee spent some four odd years conducting research into the contentious spirit’s origins and nature and has penned a series of excellent essays explaining the role of spirit-protectors in Tibetan Buddhism and the development of the controversial sectarian issues associated with this spirit in particular. The essays in the book provide much needed context for a very complex issue, part of which revolves around divided opinions on the theological status of the spirit in question. Supporters of the spirit claim that it is a legitimate protector that is upholding its vows and deserving of propitiation; whereas His Holiness the Dalai Lama and numerous other authorities consider the being to be a harmful and demonic presence, a difficult to control hyper-zealous (and hyper-sectarian) force of violence and evil that should be avoided altogether.

The chapter which I have translated below provides a general overview of ‘worldly’ (unenlightened) spirits which feature prominently in Tibetan cosmologies and everyday lives. Worldly spirits are powerful and can thus prove both helpful and harmful. Despite their abilities or knowledge they have not achieved Buddhahood and should therefore not be relied upon like with Buddha-beings as a source of refuge, as guides on the path to liberation or salvation. Worldly protector gods and spirits which have been tamed and made to swear oaths of service to the Dharma by accomplished tantric masters operate instead like friends (and enemies) in high (and low) places, and there exist a whole range of ritual technologies designed to enlist their aid and thwart their dangers. Here’s the list (time-pressed readers, feel free to skip to the bottom and just refer back to it instead as you read through my thoughts on it below):

“A Brief Introduction to some different kinds of Gods and Spirits

Lha or ‘Gods’: this word is used for those beings who have entered into a state of love (kindness or mercy) or bliss. Such beings, who revel in pleasure and bliss, are called lha. They are a class of non-human being that possesses great merit, rejoices in the dharma and has the capacity to experience (every manner of sensuous) enjoyment as they please. At the same time, in the commentaries on nomenclature in the ‘100, 000 accounts’ (gleng ‘bum) of the Vinaya [the scriptures on monastic conduct] the term lha is also used as a designation for worldly deities – so-called rgyal po  or ‘kings’; for the Great Kings of the four abodes (i.e. or cardinal directions), and so on, who are the gods of ordinary people, and for noble persons, who are the gods of the wholly pure.

Lha min (non-gods) or ‘Demi-gods’/’Titans’: (These beings) mostly just compete with the wealthy and prosperous gods. Previously, they grew accustomed to the non-virtues of envy and quarrelling and by means of that karma they were propelled into taking up their (current) bodily form or incarnation. From about this point (governed by) the coarse conception of envy, they have fought in factions in their own abodes, and not being in accord with the gods, their sole past-time is to fight against them. According to the Abhidharmakosha the demi-gods live in a crevice below the shoreline of Mount Meru.

Lto ‘phye chen po (lit. Great Belly-Crawler) or ‘the Great Serpents’: These are the ‘Mahorag’, the name given to a great demon land-lord (i.e. earth-spirit genius loci). Moving about by means of their belly, they are like klu (nagas) and serpents.

Mkha’ lding or ‘Sky-Soarers’: This is the ‘Garuda’ or Khyung, commonly called the ‘Khyung bird’. The Khyung is called the ‘King of the Birds’ and is (found) in the shal ma li tree forest of Southern India [the shemali tree has weapon-blades for leaves]. It is said to eat nagas and serpents as part of its food.

Mi ‘am ci (lit. ‘Human or what?’) : These have a human body with heads of various appearance – some have tiger’s heads, some horses, some bears, and so on. Looking at their form (makes one want to ask, hesitantly) “(Hang on), is this a human, or what?” and so they are named (for this ambiguity).

Klu or ‘Nagas’: These live in the ocean and have the upper-body of a human and a snake’s tail for their lower parts. Their head is adorned with the hood of a cobra and jewels. They possess various kinds of silks and precious objects. They are commonly divided (more specifically) into the ‘Conch-Protecting ‘King of the Nagas’ and the ‘Eight Great Nagas’. Of the lesser klu there are also the ferocious or malevolent klu, the gnyan klu and the btsan klu, which send leprosy and other maladies to humans.

Gnod sbyin or ‘Harm-givers’: This is one class of harmful and commanding spirits from the total classes of demons (gdon ‘dre). Vaishravana (rnam sras) ‘Eight Horse-Owner’, and the eight and twelve Great Harm-givers as well are claimed to be a specific kind of wealth-god gnod sbyin.

‘Byung po: These are called Bhut [in Sanskrit] and are said to be a kind of formless, harmful demon (gdon) or obstructing spirit (bgegs).

Bdud: A kind (of being) that causes injury to other sentient beings and obstructs the performing of virtue. There are two of these, those with and those without form. Of the formless kind there are four that create obstacles to complete liberation.

Gshin rje or ‘Master of Death’: ‘The Master of All the Dead’ – the servants of Hell, male and female spirits of the dead, Lord or Owner of Death death-spirits, all belong to the Dharma-King Gshin rje [Shinje] and as their work send out signs of death to the living through Shinje’s chart/liturgy (gshin rje’I khram la btab) and snatch away human’s life-force. When a dead person arrives in the land of the dead their virtues and sins are divided out and evaluated – (gshin rje) are the sinners, who are a sort of torturer-servant in the hell-realms.

Btsan: Tsen are a ferocious kind of non-human spirit. The btsan rgod ‘bar ba spun bdun or ‘Seven Wild and Blazing Tsen Siblings’ etc. go about leading the insubstantial hosts of the ten and one hundred million btsan armies. If houses or people and so on block the course of these btsan, these will be harmed due to being struck by the btsans’ arrows and poison.

Ma mo: As it says in the ‘(Inanimate) Matter of Existence’ (a text, Srid pa’I bems), “The inconceivable myriads of ma mo are gathered together into two (groups), ‘action’ or karmic ma mo and wisdom ma mo,” Palden Lhamo is described as the great essence of wisdom of all of the gathered retinues of liberating (enemy-destroying) sorcery-linked ma mo. Ma mo derived from karma or action are included within the class of flesh-eating ‘byung po.

The’u rang: A class of ‘byung po that moves through the sky or air. From this category (comes) the powerful and magically-potent oath-bound protector Rdo rje legs pa (and) from the retinue of this great protector of the Secret Mantra comes the oath-bound spirit Mgar ba nag po or ‘Black Smith’. (He, along with) Mon pa ser skya (‘The monastic-lay Monpa’), and all the encircling retinue of three hundred and sixty sibling spirits are also for the most part from the the’u rang category.

Gza’: ‘The Great Pervader’ (khyab ‘jug) Rahula with the upper parts of a human and the lower parts of a snake. His entire head and body are full of eyes and his nine heads have the faces of ravens. If one comes into opposition with these one is afflicted by their noxious vapours. It’s a kind (of spirit) that causes the channels/arteries on one’s brain to burst and which strikes one dumb and makes one’s eyes go squint. It causes the functions of (one) side of one’s body and one’s feeling tone or sensation to be impaired, and brings about fainting sicknesses. However, the supreme gza’ Rahula is also a great protector of the teachings of the Buddha.

Srin po (‘ogres’): A type of being that lives in the southern and northern Chamara (‘Tail Whisk’) continents. They eat humans’ flesh and drink (their) blood. They fasten bones and garlands of dried out and still wet human heads to themselves as ornaments. They wear still dripping human and tiger skins as clothes and are a kind (of spirit) that indulges in rites of ‘union and liberation’ (i.e. tantric sex and ritual murder) in actuality (i.e. not symbolically/in the imagination) with (total) abandon.   

Dri za (‘scent-eaters’): So named on account of being a type of spirit that eats all of the good and bad smells (produced) by good and bad fate in the intermediary realm of desire. They are also the singers of the gods, and the ‘songs of the scent-eaters’ are perfectly melodious. The well-known king of the scent-eaters Tatrira and the horse-headed king of the scent-eaters of the forest (realm) and so on are also types of dri za.

Gdon: A type of non-human spirit that lives inside a person, or else a sort of being that sends various sorts of illnesses and misfortunes. These are exemplified by the likes of the fifteen great children’s gdon, and there are said to be many kinds of gdon demons, the upper (part), middle (part) and lower (part) gdon, male and female gdon and so on.

‘Dre: A specific kind of non-human spirit that causes harm and injury to humans. It resides inside people and having brought them under the sway of its other impressions or fantasies, all of the thoughts and behaviours that may enter (their consciousness) are said to be those of the ‘dre. 

Sri: A type of harm-causing demon (gdon ‘dre). In the ‘History of the Small Sri of the Kilaya (i.e. ritual dagger) the father and mother bdud are described as the thirteen sri: the disaster/calamity (phung) sri kings, the calamity sri ministers, the yogic vow-breaking sri, the enemy/warrior sri, the sri of losses (god), the sri of the (sensory?) gates or doors, the small/inferior sri, the charnel ground sri, the losses sri of Helambu (gyol mo in Nepal), the hostile sri, and the sri of evil omens and magic.

Ro langs (lit. ‘raised corpses’): After a person dies, some other gdon spirit enters their body and it rises again. Symptoms of being gripped by this gdon are said to be that one likes to sleep a lot, that one adorns oneself, and that one’s body shakes.

Bse rag: This is a specific kind of ‘byung po that eats the essence of foodstuffs and wealth.

‘Gong po: After a person who has gone against their own sacred vows and the guru or teacher connected to their religion dies, they’re reborn as a demon (gdon ‘dre) called a ‘gong po.

Dmu: After the various kinds of ‘dre and gdon united with each other, there emerged a cross-breed gdon ‘dre demon that’s known as a dmu.

Gnyan: A spirit that belongs to the class of land-owning klu. Various gnyan – land gnyan, water gnyan, wood or tree gnyan, and stone or rock gnyan, and so on, as well as the land-lord spirits (sa bdag) that accompany them are considered as equivalent.

Zo dor: The chief, or most renowned kind of local deity or spirit of a place (yul lha gzhi bdag) which protects the surrounding locale.

Rgyal bsen: Ferocious male and female ‘dre gdon demons. They are noxious (‘dre) demons that bring harm to infants and newborn babies. They are known as rgyal bsen and as bsen mo [this seems to be the more feminine forms].

Yi dwags or ‘hungry ghosts’: These are the so-called ‘pretas’ whose minds (yid in Tibetan) are bound to/fixated on (btags pa) hunger and thirst, or those ‘who have gone that way but cannot turn back’ are known as yi dwags [the sound of phyir mi ldog chi (mi) dog, ‘can’t go back’ resembles yidak]. They abide in a state of torpor. There are two disparate types: Those with outer obscurations and those with inner obscurations [these pretas live in the preta-realm]. There are also said to be many specific sub-divisions of magical pretas. There’s also said to be separate categories of pretas that exist in the god and human realms.

Sha za or ‘flesh-eaters’: The Pishatsa. The kinds of ‘dre demons and ogres (srin po) that eat human flesh are called this.

The aforementioned descriptions are merely a summary of some of specific characteristics of worldly gods and so on, and are not an exhaustive or fully-detailed list. Even so, from these, some have been differentiated by type, some have been distinguished in terms of their functions or activities, and yet others have been singled out in terms of their (magical) powers and abilities. In summary then, it’s necessary to understand the father-lineages and mother-lineages of the srin po and the eight classes of gods and spirits and haughty demons all equally in kind.

Chapter 2 from ‘A Thorough Investigation based on the Hundred Thousand Rays of Sunlight of Scripture and Reasoning of the Origination and Controversy involving Dol rgyal, the Gyalpo spirit from Dol, the Properly conducted In-depth analysis which Illuminates Truth from Falsehood like the Day, which is called Impurity-Dispelling Mirror – or ‘The Impurity-Dispelling Mirror, an Investigation into the Origination and Controversy involving Dol rgyal for short: dol rgyal gyi byung rim dang rnyog gleng la rnam par dpyad pa lung dang rigs pa’i ‘od snang ‘bum gyis legs par drangs pa’I mtha’ dpyod bden rdzun nyin mo ltar gsal bar byed pa g.ya’ sel me long zhes by aba bshugs so)

Compiled by the lesser Dolgyal Research Committee of Dhomay (Amdo) Province, printed and published by the Office of the Central Executive Committee of Dhomey, Tibetan year 2133, common year 2006, pp. 105-111.

As the authors of the chapter note, the list above is brief, and far from an exhaustive overview of different Tibetan spirit categories. Still, it strikes me as a valuable list in a number of ways. It touches on a range of spirit types and despite its brevity amply demonstrates the heterogeneity of Tibetan spirit worlds – the diversity of sources which have shaped them, and the complicated overlaps, slippages and ambiguities that exist between spirit-categories. Readers will note that Sanskrit equivalents are provided for many of the spirit types. The list includes among its entries various imported Indian spirits which came to Tibet as part of the country’s Buddhicization as well as other spirits that are more distinctly indigenous. The distinction between ‘imported’ and ‘indigenous’ is not always so obvious, however. The catalogue is useful for what it reveals, if somewhat indirectly, about processes of cultural assimilation, adaptation, and indigenization. Beings like klu (equivalent to Indian nagas) and khyung (corresponding to the Indic garuda) are on one level ‘imports’, but on another, it’s clear that klu and khyung are also indigenous Tibetan categories which over time have been both amplified and obscured by Indian Buddhist concepts. As Robert Mayer recently recapitulated in his study of avian symbolism in pre-Buddhist Tibet and Central Asia more generally, the khyung clearly relates to strands of cosmology and cultural practice that extend well beyond Buddhism in significant ways. Likewise, despite the klu’s standard association with snake-imagery, we are provided in Bönpo sources like the probably 11th century Gzer myig, which details the life of the pre-Buddhist Bön religion’s founder Tönpa Shenrab Miwo, with a slightly different picture of klu which may arguably point to more indigenous models. At one point in the text, the Master summons and binds a black klu by the name of ‘The Many-Limbed Grasper’ (‘dzin pa lag mang) which he sends to possess and afflict the daughter of a king. The spirit is described as drooling venom, as having a single eye and multiple legs like a spider, with which it pushes into and infests the princess’ veins after climbing into her mouth and settling in her heart while she is sleeping. Take a look:

Black Naga.JPG

It’s worth remembering that Buddhist cosmologies and spirit directories in ancient India themselves stand as continuations and adaptations of earlier pre-Buddhist Indian beliefs and practices, an issue examined at length in Robert De Caroli’s important book.Some of the spirits below are described in terms of ‘classical’ scriptural Buddhism – entries for the ‘Great Serpents’ and ‘Demi-Gods’ for instance, directly reference ‘standard’ Buddhist theological models of the cosmos from the Abhidharma (Mount Meru, various ‘continents’ and so on), whereas entries for distinctly pre-Buddhist spirits like gnyan suggest slightly different and maybe less abstract locales or cosmic maps. To the casual reader without much interest or conviction in spirits, this list might read as merely colourful cultural trivia, may seem (as I discussed in this post) little different from a directory of monsters in a Role Playing Game. For the authors of this list, however, this kind of specialist knowledge has far more than just purely intellectual value. It is vital knowledge, both in the sense that it is important and in the sense that the stakes of such expertise frequently hinge around matters of life-and-death. The authors of this directory make clear that understanding the different ontologies and activities of such beings is crucial to making sense of issues like the Dolgyal controversy, to understanding the moral order of things. In light of the range of severe community and geo-political implications that the Dolgyal controversy has had, this kind of knowledge can hardly be thought of as quaint folklore. Tibetan religious specialists and non-celibate tantric ritual specialists or ngakpa in particular, make use of such specialized knowledge as part of ritual repertoires designed to redress the flow of forces of fortune and vitality (or what anthropologist Giovanni Da Col has aptly dubbed the ‘cosmo-economics’) that make up the everyday, moral fabric of people’s lives.

Yet for all this knowledge’s importance, it can be messy and vague. In typical Tibetan fashion, the catch-all generic term for demon is itself a composite noun made of two similar but not identical terms: gdon ‘dre. Both gdon and ‘dre are listed as distinct kinds of spirits and as somewhat more generic categories which subsume other types. Spirit categories snake in and out of each other, we see how some spirits are ranked as sub-categories and as servants of others, sometimes bdud and ‘dre are specific types, at other times they are general umbrella terms. The entry for dmu too suggests inter-breeding, a certain generational complexity within spirit categories, and we read of lesser and greater spirits, of spirit armies and military divisions, of leaders and followers, masters and servants.


(Scholar, Dzogchen master and traditional Tibetan doctor Chogyal Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche)

Spirit hierarchies can thus be bewildering both for their Byzantine precision and for their ambiguity. Spirit kinship patterns and hierarchies can change from one text or ritual liturgy to the next. This is where the RPG manual analogy falls apart – as living and evolving agents, spirits resist standardization, may refuse to sit still, to remain in place, in category or in character. Spirits’ ambiguity extends to their moral status. To expand on some of these thoughts, what follows below is my translation of an excerpt from a set of memoirs by Tibetan scholar-practitioner Chögyal Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, in which he discusses at length his personal and traumatic interactions with Dolgyal. Namkhai Norbu’s account is valuable in many ways, not least because it comes from a Rime or non-sectarian lama whose (negative) experiences with this spirit took place long before the controversies surrounding it came to a head in the Tibetan exile community from the 1970s onwards. As Namkhai Norbu lays out, as far as he and his own family/religious community were concerned when he was growing up, this particular entity ranked as one of many powerful worldly protectors (or as we learned from our list above, gyalpo or ‘kingly spirits’). As such, it was very powerful, but inherently temperamental and dangerous. Namkhai Norbu refers to the being using another composite term, rgyal ‘gong. This designation points to the idea that this particular worldly protector arose after the (violent) demise of some high-ranking religious figure, involving dubious vows, and so on, which does indeed relate to one leading theory of Dolgyal’s origins. Namkhai Norbu’s father’s account of his own dealings with the gyalpo spirit point too to certain characteristics of the spirit that have become somewhat infamous more recently, such as the idea that making offerings to the being can secure great fortune in business, for example. Namkhai Norbu’s father’s description of how he started offering to the being out of a kind of peer pressure also recalls the most common metaphor I metaphor I have heard used by Tibetans in exile today to describe worship of the spirit, namely that of addiction, self-destructive dependency, and withdrawal.

Altogether, the following excerpt from Namkhai Norbu’s book offers a rich window into the overlapping lives of humans and spirits in pre-1950s Tibet, and gives more person-centred and historical/ethnographic details about typically shifting and ambiguous human-spirit relationships than we glean from the list above. Namkhai Norbu’s recollections highlight as well the sometimes generational quality of spiritual afflictions, and point to the nebulous borders between spirit-related and psychological/neurological complaints and the boundaries between self-and-other (what Charlene Makley has elsewhere called the ‘partible self’) in Tibetan contexts:

 “In the Tibetan cycle year 3863, common year 1946, in the middle of autumn of the male fire dog year, when I was eight years old, I was at the great monastery of Derge to learn some or other practice of ritual liturgy from my uncle and guru Ngawang Lodrö, and one night, while looking for my uncle, I arrived at the entrance of the rgyal po (gyalpo spirit) temple on the shaded side of the monastery (grounds). I heard my uncle beating a drum and praying inside the gyalpo temple. I went a bit to the side through the gate of the lower gyalpo temple building. The pillars there were overflowing with countless bows and arrows, armour, shields, silk banner-spears, swords, the pelts of various predators, and various other wrathful offerings. While climbing up the stairs, thinking that I needed a piece of silk from among the vast array of multi-coloured silk cloths that were on the surface of the pillars as a decoration for my horse’s tail, I took from the collection one square of yellow silk of good quality. Suddenly, as I was doing so, I heard someone say close by, in a low voice, “What are you doing?” I looked around me in every direction but saw no one. I felt then uncontrollable terror and quickly went straight home and stayed close to my uncle without daring to move even an inch. From that point I never ever went inside the gyalpo temple on the shaded side of the monastery.

At that time I also experienced several terrifying dreams. The only thing I remember is that in the dreams a monk wearing a yellow hat [one word missing] terrorized me, but beyond that at present I can’t remember clearly how the dreams unfolded. This event was the first time in my life that I was terrorized by the rgyal ‘gong.

Again in the Tibetan cycle year 3863, common year 1946, at the end of autumn of the male fire year, my eighth year, my father Tsewang Namgyal la became the chief of dbon stod (Wöntö) county. While I was living there, when I was staying at the Wöntö county palace to conduct the forty-nine day rites of passing for my most gracious grandmother Lhundup Tso, everyone at the place, young and old, told me unanimously “Don’t ever go onto the roof of the castle!” I asked them what the reason was for this and they said, “If you go onto the roof of the castle, you will incite the afflicting wrath (phog thug shor gyi red) of the gyalpo” I asked them multiple times “How will his wrath be incited?” but they didn’t give any clear answer about how this would happen. The castle food-provisioner (?) Tshaphu Tenzin said, “There’s a big store-house that’s to one side on the edge of the palace roof – that’s Wöntö monastery’s gyalpo temple. If you make a racket on top of the palace you’ll incite the wrath of the gyalpo.” I thought to myself, if I incite the gyalpo’s wrath, what will he do? I ought to find out. One day, when I had a break from the forty-nine day rituals I went leisurely up to the roof of the castle. I started to make a big noise by striking the surface of the gyalpo temple storeroom with a fairly large piece of a wooden beam – “Hey, gyalpo! What are you doing?! D’you hear me?!” That night, in my dreams, a Chinese man wearing a long and black archaic da sho was standing in front of the hundred-pillar (?) front door of the assembly hall of Wöntö monastery. I myself was walking on the stone paving of the shrine room in the direction of the southern door but as soon as the Chinese man saw me his face distorted with rage and braying terrifyingly like a donkey, he came chasing after me. I fled outside through the southern gate and woke up immediately, terrified. At that time, however, I did not realize that my dreams were the magical emanations (cho ‘phrul) of the gyalgong.

Also, about a week later, during a break from the forty-nine day rituals, I again went up to the castle roof. Banging on the storehouse with a plank, I clamoured like before, “Gyalpo, are you listening?! Can you hear me?!!” As I was striking the surface of the storehouse with the beam again and again the castle cook suddenly appeared on the rooftop and escorted me home. My father learned about the incident and scolded me severely. From that point on, the Chinese man in the da sho chased me in my dreams. At times the Chinese man in the da sho changed into a monk wearing yellow silk robes who also chased after me totally enraged. Waking up from fear became routine for me.

Since my dreams were so disturbed I wasn’t sleeping well at night, and I asked my Father about it. Everyone in the castle admonished my father strongly “Oh! The wrath of the gyalpo has been incited! Now you have to give offerings and request that the lama of the gyalpo temple do gyalpo propitiation rites. If we don’t quickly make offerings and ask the lama of the gyalpo temple to do these rites immediately (he) won’t be able to save himself from the gyalpo’s harm!” My father responded, “When I was young and living and doing business in Shing-Ga, Kyegumdo, some of my merchant friends said that through making offerings to the gyalpo they had achieved great fortune in business. Wanting to exchange my lot for their own, I made gyalpo propitiation offerings at several gyalpo temples within Ga.  As a direct result of this I did experience what I thought might be good fortune a few times. However, a few years later, I got a serious case of heart-wind sickness [a kind of depression] that welled up and which, although I relied upon both Chinese (i.e. allopathic biomedicine) and Tibetan medicine, gradually got worse. Finally, not only could I no longer do business but I almost went mad from not being able to retain any inner calm or happiness. For a little while I was left helpless, not knowing what to do.

My mother Lhundup Tso was staying at Adzom (religious) encampment in Dokham where she was requesting religious instructions from Adzom Drukpa Rinpoche and was practicing the holy Dharma, I had received successive letters from her several times in which she said that if went to have an audience with Adzom Drukpa Rinpoche he would be able to cure my illness, and that, previously, the realized yogi Urgyen Tenzin had been seized by heart-wind sickness and had gone mad, and he had also gone to see Adzom Drukpa Rinpoche and been completely cured. If you truly also want to be cured of your own sickness, she’d said, come see Drukpa Rinpoche quickly! Eventually, encouraged (thus), I went to Adzom encampment to see Drukpa Rinpoche. My Mother and I both went to have an audience with Drukpa Rinpoche. He looked at me very closely, and said, “Oh. You’ve been caught by the gyalgong’s demon-curse (byad gdon). From tomorrow I’ll do a curse liberation (procedure) for you. The next day my mother and I came into Drukpa Rinpoche’s presence, who was preparing things for a ritual. He made us sit in front of him and he bound my head, body, limbs, and minor appendages (fingers) to each other with fine thread made of five different colours. He recited many mantras and prayers and then at last he cut my threads into multiple small pieces. He placed these threads to one side on a plate in a heap. Then, after washing me, we went outside of Drukpa Rinpoche’s house where we made a fire in which we burned the threads completely, then we made dedication prayers. About one week after Drukpa Rinpoche graciously protected me with his gyalgong curse-liberation ritual my severe heart-wind sickness was completely cured. So, if we go to the gyalpo temple and offer prayers in the future inauspiciousness will certainly arise. On account of this, it’s better that we don’t offer prayers.” During the forty-nine day showing of the path for my Grandmother, I asked my mother’s relative, Uncle Khyentse Rinpoche about the disturbed condition of my dreams. He gave me extensive instructions as well as a gyalgong protective circle amulet. I fasted the amulet around my neck and from that time on, for a little while my dreams became calmer…”

‘My Experiences connected with Dolgyal’ (Dol rgyal dang ‘brel yod rang thog gi myong ba) by Chögyal Namkhai Norbu, written in Tashigar, Italy, 2000, pp.3-9.

In the pages that follow, Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche goes on to recount the many subsequent years during which he struggled to secure the ritual remedies which finally freed him once and for all from the spirit’s harmful influence, and which did not require him to submit himself to its authority.

One way of looking anthropologically and historically at spirits (as I discussed briefly in this book review) is to see them as a kind of living embodiment of history, of various layers of time, memory and experience. Earlier social mores, fears, kinship patterns and so on, may persist in the lives and worlds of spirits, they may point to older speech patterns, forms of etiquette and social relations (anthropologist and Tibetan Studies scholar Charles Ramble captures this aspect of Tibetan spirit kinship traditions in this excellent talk on Tibetan ‘vampire’ (sri) slaying practices). The social organization of spirits often dramatizes and mirrors particular historical periods and problems. Yet as neat and compelling as such etic explanations of spirits and their behaviours might be, they remain ultimately provincial. As human-centric accounts of non-human beings, they treat spirits as categories that ultimately stand for human values and orientations. As ontological ‘others’, spirits are beings with their own lives, priorities, and motivations, all of which are often partially, or even wholly opaque to humans. Ultimately, it’s possible to argue that spirits’ difficult-to-categorize quality and shifting (and shifty) status may say less about human ways of thinking and more about the vagaries of spirits themselves.

If spirits are often inscrutable, and yet their lives and activities intersect in often crucial ways with humans, it follows then that much of human experience must take place beyond the immediacy of humans’ own direct agency, understanding and control. The lives and activities of Tibetan Buddhist protector spirits are intimately tied up with the ongoing vitality and efficacy of religious lineages. These lineages in turn amount to those chains of accomplished practitioners who, branching back in time, form a living conduit or vehicle for animating currents or waves of blessing-power and realization into which devout practitioners may plug themselves, and which serve as a controlled context for their spiritual progress. The links that bind these chains, that which keeps the ‘blessing-cables’ of lineages sealed and secure, which makes of them perfect conduits, are practitioners’ sacred pledges, their binding tantric oaths (dam tshig) or samaya. As intersubjective commitments, spiritual family ties, dam tshig span across human and non-human domains and life-times. The way that the life-force and well-being of individuals, communities, and spirits all intertwined was brought into focus recently when Nechung Pehar, the state-protector deity declared during one of his prophetic announcements that unless the Tibetan exile community worked harder to improve their common karma (spyi las) and became less politically divided, even he did not have the power to fully protect the Dalai Lama’s life-force or fortune (sku phywa).

Given that often all that separates a powerfully helpful worldly protector or spirit from a deeply destructive demon is tantric vows, humans’ entanglement with these beings is subject to constant investigation and anxiety as commitments are checked, renewed and re-checked, and repeatedly called into question. Spirit relationships and shifting categorization thus point to the fact that many of the most vital aspects of human experience remain subject to uncertainty, ambiguity, and paradox. In an article on Nkulaelae spirits, linguistic anthropologist Niko Besnier theorizes that the ambiguity present in spirit categories points to something more inherent in their nature, to what it is that makes them so challenging to researchers:

“In most cultural contexts, spirits are liminal entities, whose ambiguous social status poses problems for cultural accounts of self and personhood…Not only are [Pacific spirits] encountered in geographical and temporal margins, such as the bush, the beach, and nighttime, but they are linked with areas of social life that are least controlled and systematized…In short, the world of spirits and the cultural processes with which it is associated (e.g., mediumship, possession, sorcery) are fraught with ambiguity, contradiction, and shiftiness of a kind for which traditional models of cultural anthropology, with their emphasis on structure and coherence are ill-prepared. Based on this case study in a Polynesian atoll society, I demonstrate that spirits and their world cannot be understood through a search for resolution of such ambiguities and contradictions; rather these qualities must be perceived as constitutive of the very nature of spirits.”

  • For readers looking for more insights into the complexities of worldly spirits and deities in Tibetan history and cultural life, I’d recommend looking at the overviews provided by my friend Christopher Bell in his MA thesis available online. Chris is an excellent Tibetan Studies scholar who does very interesting work that focuses specifically on the history of protector-deity cults.

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