Embodying Healing: Tantric Ritual Short-hand and the Training of Anthropological Attention

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Elaborate ritual procedures are a hallmark of Indo-Tibetan tantra. Tantric rites are often long and complex. Ceremonies typically involve multiple parts or stages, replete with lengthy chanted liturgies, extensive visualizations and gestures, and the making of both physical and imagined offerings. The ability to memorize such procedures, and to properly and elegantly execute the intricate choreographies of body posture and movement, recited mantras, and imagined forms which they require, is crucial to tantric expertise. Large-scale and extended rituals which involve a lot of people, ritual trappings, and processes are important in Tibetan Buddhist contexts and are conducted frequently. Yet the prevalence of externally elaborate ritual performances should not be taken to mean that smaller, quicker and more ‘internal’ rites are not also a vital part of Tibetan ritual specialists’ work.

By regularly practicing fuller sgrub thabs or ‘means of accomplishment’ procedures (pronounced ‘drub tuhp’ this is the Tibetan translation for the Sanskrit sadhana – the general name for tantric ritual manuals or methods typically involving visualizations and recitations relating to one or more patron meditational deity) as part of intensive personal retreat, daily individual sessions, group ritual gatherings, or even during lucid dreams in the context of dream yoga practices, practitioners become habituated to the body-speech-and-mind mechanics of tantric practice. Over time, certain procedures, and mental and bodily dispositions become internalized and second-nature for experienced practitioners. Seasoned ritualists can call to mind and sustain extraordinarily intricate visualizations, a skill which has in recent years drawn the attention of scientists, who have apparently demonstrated that experienced tantric meditators exhibit highly developed levels of concentration and memory in ways distinct from practitioners in other traditions (Don’t get me wrong, this research is definitely interesting, although I can’t help but feel like it’s kind of on the same level as this other study, which determined that people should feel overwhelming existential awe more often because it would strengthen their immune systems. Improved memory and test-taking ability may well be a happy side-effect of Highest Yoga Tantra sadhana practice, but this seems like a pretty trivial or strangely-focused observation when the ultimate aim of these practices is spiritual cultivation and final release from the most fundamental miseries of the human condition –‘come for the enlightenment, stay for the better performance with crosswords and improved flu season’, because neuroscience? Snide aside, I guess there’s nothing wrong with taking good health and well-being where you can get it).

In the following translated chapter from his book on Mantra Healing, Dr Nida Heruka/Chenagtsang gives some examples of smaller, less elaborate tantric ritual techniques involving visualization, breathing, various body parts and gestures – ‘mini-rites’, which Tibetan tantric ritual specialists use as part of different kinds of healing treatments for themselves and others. Significantly, the procedures which Dr Nida lays out can all be found as components of fuller sadhana rituals, but here they function more as stand-alone short-hands, forming part of a quick and easy repertoire of techniques for experienced yogi-healers. (Readers will note that Dr Nida often identifies the specific tantras from which some of the methods he describes below derive – *Warning: here follows a fairly lengthy anthropological ramble –  those who want to skip to the translation of Dr Nida’s chapter can feel free to scroll down to the bold and underlined heading below).


Anthropologists and other researchers of ritual have often given bigger, more public ceremonies pride of place in their analyses. The reasons for this are obvious, and are directly tied to the particulars of anthropology’s characteristic research methodology, i.e. participant-observation. Larger, communal rituals are both easier to attend (i.e. to ‘participate’ in) as well as to actually perceive (to ‘observe’) than smaller, faster, more informal, spontaneous, and covert rites. Larger more collective ritual activities have historically lent themselves to both structural and symbolic anthropological analyses. Researchers have explained bigger, more formal and public ritual performances in terms of kinship patterns and the basic socio-political and economic relations between different categories of social actors, or alternatively have treated such rituals as ‘texts’ that encapsulate idealized cosmological visions and which dramatize (and inform) what are thought to be the core values and attitudes of those framed as ‘natives’.

Of course, saying anthropologists only study big public rites and ignore more minute or interior personal ones is hardly accurate. In the course of their participant-observation of rituals, anthropologists have more often than not ended up performing ritual procedures themselves or have at least adopted everyday ‘cultural practices’  and have learned the inner and outer movements, skills, and dispositions required to do so. The father of anthropological fieldwork Bronislaw Malinowski, in his famous introduction to his ethnographic study of Trobriand Islanders, allegorized the components of successful anthropological field research as a kind of body. Censuses, demographic surveys, and analyses of the material conditions of life – more wide-angle, bird’s eye view data about geography, resources, context and communities made up the ‘bones’, the skeleton or scaffolding of research. Natives’ ethos, their cosmologies, histories, codes of conduct, stories, jokes, songs, prayers and so on – that archive of endlessly rehashed and debated intellectual-cum-moral heritage and cultural imaginings – formed the immaterial ‘spirit’ of the research organism. And in between these was the flesh and blood – that wet and messy stuff somewhere between mind and matter which Malinowski evocatively called the ‘imponderabilia of everyday (socio-cultural) life’. Malinowski described all these small gestures, activities, dispositions, and affective responses – all those ingrained, tiny and seemingly banal cultural habits – as existing below the level of conscious native awareness or interpretation. Here was where the alienation and curious insider-outsider status of the anthropologist was really significant: what was typically ‘imponderable’ and pedestrian to the full-time native had to be learned and puzzled over by the anthropologist as part-time native. What ‘went without saying’ for the native was exciting and strange to the anthropologist, was loaded with meaning, magic, even menace. Without immersive fieldwork the researcher could never hope to even notice, let alone learn to engage, struggle with and analyse these daily rhythms and visceral modes of being.

Yet despite the long canonical status of immersive fieldwork in the discipline and consensus about the importance of such ‘imponderabilia’, it seems that working out how to study and theorize smaller, subtler, more internal, idiosyncratic or ad-hoc rituals – acts which form part of the flow of everyday lives and their myriad tiny exchanges – has still been a little tricky for researchers. For Malinowski, the researcher went native only as much as he needed to to understand, yet he needed to stay removed and alienated enough to relativize his experiences. Of course, today we can see that Malinowski’s portrayal of the anthropologist as the one who ‘thinks’ about living, and the native as the one who merely ‘does’ it, sans critical or relativizing ‘pondering’, is deeply flawed (As Francis Nyamnjoh, a Cameroonian anthropologist and my former HoD at the University of Cape Town used to like to put it, ‘These days, even the natives have to go native!’. No society has ever been perfectly homogenous and homeostatic, we are all at once imperfect natives).

All the same, the particular kind of training of the senses, and disciplining, habituating and transforming of the self involved in religious or ‘spiritual’ cultivation have tended to challenge fieldworkers in unique ways, and to incite particular sorts of theoretical and methodological orientations and discussions about academic politics and responsibilities. A whole demographic of phenomenologically and cognitively inclined anthropologists have taken up the challenge of describing and theorizing embodied and nominally interior religious experience. Thomas Csordas has spent decades investigating the embodiment and articulation of the viscerally experienced ‘gifts of the spirit’ of Charismatic Christians, and in their studies of witchcraft, shamanism, and  magic scholars like Jeanne Favret Saada, Robert Desjarlais, and Paul Stoller have advocated persuasively for a more embodied and sensuous social science, which not only recognizes and theorizes differences in sensory orders and schemata across cultures and contexts, but also turns its attention to the fieldworker’s own sensory attunement and habituation in the field not only as a necessary side-effect of participant-observation but as a specific object for analysis and reflection. As it happens, some of the most strongly argued phenomenological approaches in anthropology have appeared when anthropologists have immersed themselves in the study of phenomena like altered states of consciousness, spirit possession, magic, and ritual healing.

In her ground-breaking 1989 ethnography on contemporary ritual magic in England ‘Persuasions of the Witches’ Craft’ Tanya Luhrmann joined a variety of ritual magic groups and witchcraft covens and committed herself to a daily regimen of personal magical and meditative practice. Be that as it may, she initially avoided a phenomenological approach to analysing magic. Following her experiences, Luhrmann characterized modern British witches and magicians as highly educated neo-romantics zealously committed to the irrational. She proposed that as a result of a certain ‘interpretative drift’ magicians and witches were slowly but steadily socialized into believing in magic, a gradual ‘conversion’ to the impossible to which practitioners were mostly oblivious. At the same time, Luhrmann portrayed magicians as exploiting every possible intellectual sleight-of-hand in a dogged bid to side-step cognitive dissonance that emerged in the face of what Luhrmann proposed was a constant failure to achieve magical results. In this early text, as a methodological ‘safe-guard’ Luhrmann told herself when she began her research that she could not and would not believe that magic was possible – thus when unusual experiences or results did appear to occur following her intensive practice of magic she dismissed them instantly. In an article that appeared some two decades after the publication of ‘Persuasions’ in an anthology called ‘Emotions in the Field’ , however, Luhrmann confessed how she chose not to comment on her dramatic ‘paranormal’ experiences in the field for professional reasons. She explained  how she realized with hindsight that she had failed to address crucial, phenomenological dimensions of magical training and her own embodied experience (one incident involved the inexplicable spontaneous combustion of her backpack on the London tube, at the precise moment she had been reading about the spiritual qualities of the element of fire, and had felt her body become full of hot and fiery energy).  Luhrmann elaborated: “Had I not paid attention to my own experience in the field, I would have missed the phenomenology of magical training, which is both the most interesting aspect and the aspect not captured by the scholarly approaches to irrationality which focus on cognitive heuristics and biases.”

This confessional mode, and turn to the phenomenological and visceral, is mirrored in the career of Paul Stoller, who also initially downplayed the intensity of his ‘re-attunement’ in the field for professional reasons. Stoller conducted PhD fieldwork with Songhay farmers in Niger in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but it was only in 1987 that he published a memoir revealing how he had in fact apprenticed with Songhay sorcerers, actively participated in aggressive magic, had been on the terrifying receiving end of magical attacks from rival sorcerers, and had even ultimately fled the field with his wife fearing for his safety. It was after this revelation that Stoller published his influential calls for a more sensuous and embodied anthropology. A few years back, I helped organized one of our excellent international and inter-disciplinary grad student conferences at the University of Colorado, Boulder, the theme for which was ‘Ethnography and Biography’. Our first speaker was a graduate student in the French Department at our own university, who as it happened was Songhay and from Niger. He explained how many people in his home village, including his own relatives, had interacted with anthropologists over the years, and revealed that they had, almost to the man, lied through their teeth to these researchers about virtually every detail under discussion. His community had lied to these anthropologists he said, because they did not trust them. They did not trust these anthropologists because these anthropologists did not really know Songhay ways of life. There was one anthropologist however, who did know, and who allegedly, Songhay almost unanimously trusted, and that was Paul Stoller. The reason for this was that Stoller had opened himself up to alternative ways of knowing, had developed the special, alternative senses and sensibilities required to experience the world of non-human persons which according to this presenter were an integral part of what gave daily Songhay life meaning. This graduate student set an interesting tone for our inter-disciplinary conference – he explained that he had applied to present at the conference so that he could ask ‘us anthropologists’ what we had to say about the importance of direct, experiential knowledge as researchers. He told us that he would be reporting back to his village elders later that day about our answer. In short, he portrayed Stoller as having for better or worse placed himself into a working relationship of mutual obligation to the spirits, as real actors in Nigerien worlds, and this, as far as this grad student was concerned, made Stoller accountable and trustworthy in a way other anthropologists were not, or could not be. That, or this presenter could just have been trolling all of us, in keeping with tradition).

Whatever the case, the question would seem to hinge on ‘scales’ of analysis. How should researchers balance the facts of their own and others’ direct, personal experiences of so-called alternative realities with broader realities of social, economic, political life? In his infamous (and at least partly fabricated) account of his roller-coaster apprenticeship with Yaqui (made-up) shaman Don Juan, anthropologist-turned-sorcerer Carlos Castaneda provided fieldnotes on a ‘separate reality’ – a world of spiritual cultivation and insight that stood wholly apart from mainstream and partial exoteric perspectives, both ‘lay’ and academic. More than anyone at the time, Castaneda popularized the idea that for scholars to truly study the knowledge of ritual specialists like shamans, they had to move beyond academic outsider ‘spectator’ positions to become practicing shamans themselves. But studying things like magic and ritual healing need not be presented in terms of an either/or all/or nothing choice – or contest – between ‘emic’ and ‘etic’ perspectives. As I and other anthropologists have argued elsewhere, this break-down of things is altogether too superficial and misrepresentative. One can practice magic, investigate deeply personal and transformative spiritual experiences, can engage with spirits viscerally as social actors, while still acknowledging things like the politics of religious authority, global economics, or discursive aspects of history, memory and narrative. The challenge is to bring together multiple levels of experience and analysis – to do justice to the lived and experiential components of magic, spirits, personal visionary experiences and ritual healing, while attending simultaneously to  community politics and more ‘public’ realities.

Clifford Geertz famously declared that the reason symbols – which he identified as a key aspect of the performance and study of rituals – could be ‘read’ or interpreted by anthropologists was because they were part of the public domain, was because they existed beyond the confines of natives’ individual bodily or psychic experience, things forever foreclosed to anthropologists. Anthropologists got paid to read texts, shrinks got paid to read minds. Yet, psychological anthropologists like Gananath Obyesekere have shown how loaded, bodily symbols like the matted hair of Sri Lankan ascetics can operate as simultaneously public and personal symbols, can function as visceral links between inner and outer realities. One area of contemporary theory that has attempted to traverse inner and outer realities and to unify analysis of individual personal bodies and experience and larger, historical and material forces is Affect Theory.

The extent to which Affect Theory could be amenable to the study of things like magic and ritual healing was brought home to me after reading Kathleen Stewarts’ book ‘Ordinary Affects’. I approached Stewart’s book with some trepidation when I had to read it some years ago in a graduate seminar on the so-called Affective Turn in anthropology and the social sciences. I hadn’t really read much of Stewart’s work, but her name was familiar to me. She seemed to come up in graduate seminars whenever the topic of ‘reflexive’ or ‘auto-ethnography’ did, and when the conversation turned towards the limits and excesses of this kinds of supposedly ‘experimental’ writing, which we graduates are always told we must know about, and maybe even do – but just not too much. And not too soon.  I had heard that her first ethnography of Appalachia was “not for everyone. “Half the class couldn’t stand it”. “Worst thing I’ve ever read.” And then, there were articles and comment threads that had shown up on my Facebook feed – prominent anthropologists posting excerpts from more recent pieces by Stewart on ontology, and playfully mimicking her squirming, surging vocabulary of present participles and gerunds that like some strange almost-English sounding incantation seemed to promise to bring mundane objects to life – brooms and buckets and staplers shuddering to attention and scuttling across the living room floor. “Does anyone know what this means?” those anthropologists had posted. “Is there a special school where people go to learn to write like this?” I was scared.

It was a pleasant surprise then, to find that, much as I was primed not to, I totally loved Stewart’s book. Despite its initially random, disjointed quality, the writing had a rhythm and a flow which I found highly enjoyable and addictive. Stewart’s decision to refrain from using the narrative ‘I’ was profound and I think successful – her act of self-alienation, ironically, managed to avoid alienating me as a reader on the look out for gratuitous ‘I feel’ anthropology. So what is Stewart doing in the book? Why should we care to read a bunch of lyrical vignettes about broken cars, lecherous neighbours, weird news-stories, strangers at the supermarket (because this is what the book is about – it is an auto-ethnographic study of the affective dimensions of everyday, mostly banal suburban American life)? Stewart’s use of a shifting third person (because while we often like to comfort ourselves with the idea that ‘I’ is about continuity, ‘she’ needn’t be) has to do with her overall strategy and project. The way I read her, Stewart is interested in the ethnographic sense(s) – for me, ‘Ordinary Affect’ read like a rich and open-ended meditation on ethnographic epistemology and fieldwork methodology.

‘Method’ has a reputation for being rather slippery in anthropology. While we are all required to undergo methods training to prepare us for fieldwork, there is still something highly seductive, weird and terrifying, even after all such training, about the idea that a(n allegedly)-scientific discipline could be based on ‘deep hanging out’ or on ‘just going there and seeing what happens’. ‘Ordinary Affects’ starts with the experience of being a body (or many different contingent ones) moving through the world or worlds, through scenes. Stewart’s book is about the ethnographic sensibility of paying attention, of attuning, of being responsive. What for me is Stewart’s great achievement is that she captures some of this process, which is so often implicit, even in our most private field notes. We are right back with Malinowski and his ‘imponderabilia of everyday life’. What does it mean when one’s own body is the primary measuring instrument for collecting data in cultural anthropology? Why do we notice anything, anywhere at any time? What do we look at, when? Who’s also looking? Our field-notes are filled with affectively charged moments of ordinariness. The pouring of a cup of tea, that we note down as ‘tense’ or ‘languid’. An informant in the field pauses during an interview, the room seems to get smaller, our attention sharpens. All of these tiny, visceral moments come together to make up our impressions, which at some point – CRAZY! – become postulations, authoritative statements. Stewart choses to not begin with the already-made abstractions, the lazy moulds with which it’s so often tempting to start to show that we know what we are dealing with upon arrival – ‘modern’, ‘neo-liberal’, ‘American’.

As readers of this blog will know, for the better part of my life I have studied and practiced various forms of meditation, hypnosis, trance-induction, and have engaged in various sorts of activities that fall under the rubric of ‘Western esotericism’, ‘occultism’ or ‘magic’. Central to all magical training is a range of disciplining, conditioning and de-conditioning exercises which resemble in many ways the exercises performed by actors, therapists, physical performers and culinary specialists. These exercises, more or less elaborate, are meant to teach the student of magic to attune and to pay attention differently, to shift and change consciousness, to relate to the body, to bodies and selves differently. This might involve refraining from using the words ‘me’, ‘my’, ‘I’, ‘myself’ ‘mine’ when speaking or thinking, learning to move, think, see, feel differently or more intensely – to sit motionless, to hold images intently in mind, to evoke memories, induce glossolalia or produce emotions in the absence of their usual triggers. It may involve listening closely to others’ vocal patterns,for breaks and flows, discordances, involve seeing visions in a pool of ink or inducing states of paranoia and hypervigilance while walking through a city or on a deserted beach, attending to signs and omens. These building blocks of magic are very much about attending to ordinary affect, to being more conscious of its ebbs and flows and how they work, or as Stewart would say ‘jump’ between bodies to produce various forms of awareness. They are about strategic alienation and novel forms of identification and affiliation. It has often seemed to me that anthropologists engage or must engage in similar experiences, must make of their own and others’ habitual patterns something strange and compelling, must ‘slow down’ the flow of affective reactions so as to understand them and how they shape experience better. Stewart’s book trades in on a number of key words that hinge around Deleuzian ‘motioning’ aesthetics. One of her central – counter-intuitive? – ideas is of the ordinary and everyday as the hypervigiliant, and she repeatedly returns to the idea of ‘jumps’, ‘relays’, ‘circuits’ and ‘surges’, ‘surface tension’, ‘grids’, of ‘somethings’, of ‘dreams’. Stewart is clearly highly attuned to unequal structures, to histories, to power, all those things we feel any ethnography needs to attend to, but she comes at them differently.

Tibetan tantric rituals are interesting for several reasons. One reason is that they specifically operate on different levels simultaneously, not only as far as outside etic perspectives might have it, but also in terms of the indigenous theories that undergird them. Large-scale tantric empowerments (dbang) operate both as communal events with distinct, social, political and economics dimensions (mass initiations affect the flow of capital, goods and people, are community events involving religious experts and dedicated participants, as well as not-as-serious or advanced participants, their families, children etc). Large-scale initiations can be as much performances of national Tibetan identity and resistance, as global and ecumenical ones.They can be state-orchestrated and stringently controlled or requested by only a handful of practitioners. Levels of ‘attunement’ may be wildly different across actors in the performance – as with other affectively charged group events like concerts and sports matches, some participants may be engrossed in a whole range of internal dynamics, in forms of spiritual ‘discipline’ relating to the ritual at hand, while yet others may be equally engrossed but focused on different things entirely,or have altogether different and less ‘internal’ priorities.

Small-scale ritualizations which focus on internal visualizations, for all their interiority, are not necessarily reducible to solely individual or insular worlds, but rather partake of the kind of affective inter-subjectivites – the ‘jumps’ and ‘surges’ between persons, objects, dreams, places and things that Stewart describes. Such ritual short-hands blur the lines too between categories of ‘folk’ and ‘elite’ religious knowledge and practice. Although, as mentioned, these methods emerge out of a depth of familiarity with advanced forms of esoteric tantric yoga that is limited to a select few, they appear here as accessible and everyday therapies which can be applied to all and any beings who suffer. Tantric specialists who ‘self-generate’ as deities to blow mantras on salt or lay their hands on patients are at once doing something distinctly interior and difficult to observe directly, and are engaging in activities that problematize the idea of a bounded or stable ‘self’ somehow opposed to the altogether. Dr Nida’s chapter provides fascinating details about Tibetan tantric spiritual disciplines, about simple but potent practices for training and refining body, speech, and mind which cut to the heart of tantra’s transformative vision. These are aspects of Tibetan tantric-mantric healing which may not be immediately obvious or accessible to more cursory observers, and non-practitioners of Tibetan Buddhist tantra. For this reason alone we can give thanks to Dr Nida for laying these procedures out so clearly. On the other hand, (as this post may have made painfully obvious for some of you) these descriptions invite us to think as well about how researchers have approached the study of ascetic disciplines and forms of cultivation of the body, speech, breath and mind aimed at generating distinct and tangible results in self and others.

Anyway, here, finally, is the translation!


Chapter Nine: Various Small Details concerning the practice of mantra healing

Although a great many different methods for the direct putting into practice of mantras have been taught in the old scriptures, generally speaking performing the recitation-visualization-accumulation (or ‘approaching’) procedures for these, getting all the ingredients, doing the rituals, and so on is difficult. As a result, nowadays it’s generally quite difficult to be a mantrin. Thus, I describe a few types of mantra healing here which suit the times, require little effort, are easy to do, work swiftly, are strongly beneficial, and which are in line with the Tibetan system of Sowa Rigpa, or traditional medicine. These will be described in five sections.

One: Concerning healing through concentration/visualization

In the most Tibetan Secret Mantra texts, many methods for healing illnesses through visualization are taught. In the context of Kyerim or Creation Stage practices in particular, visualizations are generated  of the forms of deities, their mantra-syllables, of light and so on. This generating of visualizations is not arbitrary – it’s taught that visualizations possessing all of ‘the three supports/reliances of clarity and purity’* are needed [* These are: clarity of (the deity’s) attributes, recollecting of (the deity’s) pure appearance, and relying on (Vajra/divine) pride’ – rnam pa gsal ba, dag snang dran pa, nga rgyal brtan pa bcas so]. If one performs visualizations involving distinct forms and shapes, colours, and other such uncommon secret objects of focus, disturbed subtle elemental constituents will be balanced through the power of the winds and (subtle) mind and impurities will be dissolved. The primary tantric-mantric object or visualization that purifies wrong-doings, obscurations and sickness taught in the Tibetan tantric Buddhist scriptures is the meditation-recitation of Rdo rje sems dpa’ or Vajrasattva. With this the patient meditates on Dorje Sempa at the crown of her own head and nectar trickles down from the circular string of mantra-syllables in Vajrasattva’s heart-centre. Entering through the crown of the head, this completely and perfectly washes away the faults of all of the outer and inner body, of the flesh, skin, bone, blood, and all the internal organs, and so on. It washes away every manner of sickness and impure thing, and these stains are absorbed into the earth. By imagining that all sickness vanishes like darkness dispelled by light, wrong-doings and obscurations (or pollutions, sgrib pa) are purified, and finally, by joining oneself with emptiness, mental stains are dissolved alike. A condensed summary of this meditation method is taught in ‘The Most Excellent Path of Omniscience’ (rnam mkhyen lam bzang) the ngondro or preliminary practice liturgy from the Longchen Nyingthik, the ‘Heart-Essence of the Great Expanse’:

“AH: At the crown of (the head of) my ordinary self, in the centre of a white lotus-moon seat, from a HUNG, (you appear) Guru Vajrasattva, (in your) clear and white Sambhoga body of complete enjoyment, clasping (your consort, Vajra) Topa, who holds Vajra and Bell. To you, I pray for refuge, purify my wrong-doings!  Having confessed (them) with a mind of fierce regret, I henceforth vow (to not repeat them) even at the cost of my life! Above your expansive moon mind, a HUNG syllable encircled by your mantra – by reciting it I incite you (to action). Through this, from the point of union of the blissful enjoyment of you and your consort, clouds of bodhicitta nectar trickle down like camphor dust. I pray that all karma, afflictive emotions, causes of suffering, sicknesses, demons, wrong-doings, obscurations, faults and pollutions of the downfalls, mine and those of all sentient beings of the three realms without remainder, be purified! OM BANDZA SATTVA etc (recite the hundred syllable mantra as many times as you can, then, when finished, pray): “Lord, grant me, an unknowing fool, who has gone against and violated samaya, (your) Refuge! O Lord Guru! Chief Vajra-holder, embodiment of great compassion! I go for Refuge (to you), chief among beings! I confess all violations of the root and branch samaya of Body, Speech, and Mind! I pray that you will cleanse and purify all the collections of the stains of wrong-doings, obscurations, and faults of the downfalls!

Having said this, (Vajrasattva) smiles (at you) with joy, and says: “O you child of the lineage! All of your wrong-doings, obscurations, and faults of the downfalls [i.e. vow violations] are (made) pure!” He grants this permission and dissolves into light, and as a result of being absorbed into your being, you yourself transform into the empty appearance of Vajrasattva, which is like a reflection in a mirror. Light rays radiate out from the four clearly manifesting seed syllables that encircle the heart-life essence HUNG [i.e. in the heart-centre of your transformed divine body] and while imagining that the nature of all inhabitants of the three realms who are relying and will rely on the five families of Vajrasattva are enlightened, you recite “OM BANDZA SATTVA HUNG” as many times as you can. When done, rest in equanimity.”

Healing diseases by focusing on seed-syllables alone is a convenient and simple-to-do method (of treatment). For example, there’s a HUNG visualization that’s taught in Dudjom Jidrel Yeshe Dorje’s Rdo rje Dro lod texts as follows: having visualized a blazing blue HUNG at the place in your own body where you have sickness, which (you have imagined) as a heap of grass, you imagine that this is utterly burned up and destroyed. This is good for cold diseases. Likewise, you (can) imagine a cool white AH syllable in places where you have hot illnesses or fever, and contemplate that these sicknesses are absorbed by (this syllable) and disappear. Should you happen to be focused on meditating on other deities, you (can) visualize (other) syllables like THROM, TA, HRI, PHAT and so on, and meditate on (these) to pacify sickness.

In the Yuthok Nyingthik round of visualizations, for eye diseases, one imagines that there are four holes in the eye, and that blood, pus, smoke, and many other different things come out (of the eye) and are absorbed into a HUNG mantra-syllable on which one is meditating in front of oneself. After that, one exercises one’s eyes by gazing in the ten directions. If one visualizes a hole wherever one has some object of sickness, and if one contemplates that all that sickness is expelled out it in the form of blood, pus, and as red and black smoke that is then absorbed into the ground, it will help with disease-pollution (nad grib). (This) is also able to cure bodily diseases, and according to the esteemed Za Kalsang Chokyi Gyaltsen, it can also draw out gall-stones.

Two: Mantra-syllables for clarifying the senses and Stages of Visualization

If one (would like to) clarify one’s senses in this way, on the three special days of the month, the eight, the fifteenth (full moon), and the thirtieth (the new moon), one imagines a white BHI syllable at one’s right eye and a red KHU KASHA at one’s left and visualizes each one 108 times, after which (these) dissolve into the eye area. This purifies the (visual) faculty. Likewise, by meditating on a blue EH at the right ear, and a green EH at the left; a red LDAM at the right nostril and a yellow SAM at the left; a white DHI at the mouth; a green HRI at the mid-brow; and a HUNG in the heart-centre, one clarifies the senses.

Since the sounds, shapes and so on are linked with the root of the elements, the elemental constituent-balancing mantra-syllables are able to re-calibrate the foundation of the elements. For example, if one meditates on a yellow SUM at the navel, a white KHAM at the heart, a red RAM at the throat, and a green YAM at the crown, it balances the channel-chakras. Or, alternatively, if one meditates, from the crown of one’s head to the hair-line, on a white OM (that is) the essence of the aggregates of one’s body; from the hair-line to the throat a red AH that is the essence of the aggregates of perception; from the throat to heart-centre in the middle of the nipples a blue HUNG that is the essence of the aggregates of consciousness; from the heart-centre to the navel a yellow SWA that is the essence of the aggregates of sensation; from the navel to the thigh-channel a green HA that is the essence of the aggregates of the mental formations, this balances one’s elements and increases the force of one’s subtle constituents.

For invigorating the power of the elements and protecting against provocations or harm caused by demons, one meditates on (the following): at the gate of the eye. a white DZA; at the ears a yellow HUNG; at the nose a yellow BAM; at the tongue a red OM; at the mouth a green HO; at the heart a red HUNG; at the ‘secret-vajra’ (genitals) a green OM; at the joints a green SAM; at the tendons and sinews a white MAM; at the right hand a blue HUNG; at the left a white HUNG; at the right shoulder a blue HUNG; at the left a blue HUNG; blue HUNGs at the right and left knees; and blue HUNGs at the crown of the head and soles of the feet. This is from the Sri Guhyasamaja system.

Three: Healing methods using inhalation and exhalation

This is primarily a method for treating disease through the action of rlung (vital energy ‘wind’) or the flow of the breath. Generally, when it comes to the flow or movement of rlung, the movement of the gross winds comprises the three stages of exhalation, abiding [i.e. without breath], and inhalation. Since the subtle wind flows indivisibly along with the mind (sems), and because in essence, the gross wind balances the subtle constituents, (we can) establish that the (the winds’) purpose is to benefit body and mind equally. The ‘nine-fold stale winds’ taught in the tantric texts is the foundational method for clearing out the stale winds inside the body via the inhalation and exhalation of breath. After seating themselves in the seven-point posture of Vairocana, mantrins meditate on their body and channels as being thoroughly empty or hollow. After finishing exhaling slowly, the mantrin blocks the left nostril with the left index-finger and slowly inhales through the right nostril. One breathes in with the right index-finger leading the wind, following it down (with one’s finger), then come up, following it up the surface of the right-side of the body, after which one blocks the right nostril and exhales the stale wind out of the left nostril. For an unhappy heart and for impure constituents (khams mi dwangs ma) (the patient) straightens up her body and recites a long HA and the mantrin strikes the back of her trunk with his or her palms. This method for clearing out stale wind is done about seven to twenty one times.

For discomfort breathing and sicknesses of the lungs and wind-pipe, one slowly recites the three seed-syllables OM AH HUNG – one visualizes a white OM when one inhales, a red AH when one abides without breath, and a blue HUNG when one exhales. This is done twenty one to one hundred and eight times.

For unclear mindfulness one says PHAT! forcefully three to seven times.

For not abiding in the essence of mind, one says AH AH AH slowly and in an extended way three times.

Four: Healing through the palms of the hands and through mudras (ritual hand gestures or ‘seals’)

Since the palms of the hands are fire-chakras, they’re really excellent for heat treatment. If one brings heat to any point with any kind of humoral disturbance – whether of the wind, bile or phlegm – it can have the power to balance one’s constituents. In this, there are different elemental constituents for right and left (hand): because the right (hand) is the fire-element it is joined with the rlung and with the greater creative energy of fire (me yi rtsal che ba) and can thus (be used) to focus and project (these energies) into (specific) objects or locations. Since the left hand is the earth element, it can project the power of the greater creative energy of earth and rlung into objects. Likewise, because the right leg is the air element and the left is more strongly the water element, these two aid the movement of rlung  and blood. (The element of) space is the heart, and this is linked with the head. The lungs are wind and this power is linked with the right leg. The liver is fire and its power is connected with the right hand. The kidneys are water and their power is linked with the left leg. The spleen is earth and its power is connected with the left hand.

The five fingers, correspond in order from the pinkie finger to the thumb with earth, water, fire, air, and space. Likewise, regarding the ‘gates’ of the elements (i.e. the senses and the elements): the eyes are space, the gate of air is the nose, the gate of fire is the tongue, the ears are water, and the gate of earth is the skin. Being equivalent (to the elements in this way, each of these) can be treated with the fingers that correspond with them [i.e. the middle finger, being fire, can be used to treat the tongue, the thumb can be used on the eyes, and so on]. Selecting the finger of the patient that corresponds to their illness the mantrin should hold it and should recite corresponding mantras, and for the visualization, should concentrate on different kinds of illnesses being expelled and the (diseased) area being totally purified and cleared out.

  • For indigestion and a bloated, upset (stomach): recite TAD THA HU TE HU TA NA NI SO HA into your palms and massage. If one heats up both palms by rubbing them together and warms the stomach and massages the belly this helps.


  • For a bloated stomach: imagine white AHs on the palms and massage the object of sickness.


  • For bleary eyes and exhaustion: warm (these) up with the palms or heat up the recess of one’s eye with the warmth of one’s thumb.


  • For a bloated stomach and inability to digest food: rub together both palms and generate heat and imagine your palms as wheels or chakras of fire and warm up the afflicted points of one’s stomach and upper and lower intestines.


  • For sicknesses causes by coldness in the kidneys and loins: with warmed up palms heat up the kidneys and loins, the recess of the stomach, the hip bone sockets and lateral side of the thigh.


  • For sickness of the joints caused by cold: heat up the sick areas with the palms.


  • For poor blood circulation: warm up the soles of the feet, recess of the liver and spleen and so on, and visualize running swiftly from the channel-chakras.


  • For insomnia: apply oil to and heat up the afflicted rlung points of the head, both palms and feet.


  • For places with rlung pain: meditate on a white HUNG in the palms, and visualize a black KAM at the site of illness. Hit (the area) and visualize this is being drawn out into the HUNG.


  • For head illness and headache: If you recite OM NI THA onto the hands one hundred and eight times and touch the head, this cures head illnesses and demonic sickness.


  • For rlung sicknesses: heat up the crown, throat, and heart-centre, and the areas of sickness.
  • For bile sicknesses: heat up several of the liver and bile points.


  • For phlegm sicknesses: heat up the belly, kidneys, middle of the chest and joints.


From ‘The Science of Dependent-Origination Mantra Healing’ (rten ‘brel sngags bcos rig pa), written by Nyida Heruka and Yeshe Drolma, 2015, mi rigs dpe skrun khang, pp. 121-129.