Telling the Future: Some Thoughts on Fortune, Fingers and Tibetan Rosary Divination

I have performed divinatory services for clients since I was about eleven years old. As both a scholar and a practitioner, I am deeply fascinated by the incredible range of – but also significant similarities between – forms of divination as practiced across the centuries and the globe, and I know that readers of this blog – many of whom also practice some kind of divination – are too. With that in mind, I thought I’d offer some casual thoughts and a few original rough translations relating to Tibetan divination practices here, with a focus on one type of prognostication in particular: ‘phreng mo (pronounced treng moh), or divination through the use of a prayer beads or rosaries (‘phreng ba).

mala mandala

(A woman praying with her hands in the mandala offering mudra, with prayer beads or ‘phreng ba wrapped around her fingers)

Divination is a thoroughly everyday activity. People the world over turn to oracles and various prognostication procedures more or less seriously, on a more or less daily basis to receive guidance, discover hidden causes and histories, and assess current circumstances and future possibilities. Practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism too make use of a great number of oracular methods: divining through the fall of dice, pebbles, rice, balls of dough; through the behaviour of birds and animals; via spirit possession and communication, through casting astrological charts; gazing into mirrors, sacred lakes or the sky; through appearances in visions and dreams, to name only a few popular approaches. Divination via dice is one of the better-known Tibetan divinatory methods – it is used by lamas and ritual specialists across Tibetan lineages and its profile has no doubt been heightened by the publication in 2000 of an English translation of an easy-to-use dice divination manual written by Mipham Rinpoche and published by Shambala Press. This manual makes use of two dice, which are rolled to produce one of thirty-six permutations. Each permutation then lists answers or results for specific kinds of queries (inquiries about travel, medical procedures, spiritual afflictions, lost objects, and so on – a rough catalogue of general, quotidian human concerns).


Divining with prayer beads is a common method as well, in no small part because of its practicality. Most ethnic Tibetans and Tibetan Buddhist practitioners carry a rosary on their person for the better part of their day (and lives) and oracular procedures involving such beads typically require little more than a standard string of 108 beads, one’s body-speech-and-mind, functional fingers and an accompanying catalogue of divinatory meanings for those who may not have memorized or internalized possible results and correspondences specific to the system they are using (incidentally, divination by rosary is not unique to Tibetan contexts. See here for a lovely article by Dr Amidu Sanni of Lagos State University on Muslim geomancy and rosary divination traditions  as they are practiced and creatively adapted and indigenized by Yoruba Muslims in Nigeria). There are many varieties of Tibetan rosary divination, but the general modus operandi goes as follows.

The diviner performs preliminary prayers and invocations to their guru, tutelary deities, or spirits associated with the oracle. In keeping with tantric Buddhist methods, this will typically involve the use of various visualizations and mantras. Having connected with these sources of inspiration, aid, truth and clarity, the diviner takes a set of prayer beads and seizes a particular bead somewhere in the middle of the rosary with their left and right hands on either side. Tibetan rosaries have a single large or otherwise marked bead that is typically referred to as the ‘Guru bead’ in English. When Tibetan Buddhists tell a rosary they count recitations of prayers and mantras starting from the bead adjacent to the guru bead and then reverse the direction of their counting once they reach the bead on the opposite side (i.e. one does not ‘jump over’ the head of the Guru bead, but flips the rosary around). For rosary divination, after randomly dividing the rosary into two sections, holding the beads horizontally one then moves the fingers (typically the thumb and index finger, although see here for other possible combinations and the symbolism associated with these) of one’s left and right hands towards the Guru bead, counting three beads at a time. One continues counting in this fashion until one is left with three or less beads on either side of the Guru bead. The number of beads left is then the oracular result (for example 0-0, a single bead to the left and right of the Guru bead; 00-0, two to left, one to right, and so on).

In Tibetan trengmo manuals these permutations are given specific poetic names and paint specific pictures which the diviner can then interpret. These combinations are often described as ngo, ‘faces’, ‘essences’ or ‘natures.’ In a similar fashion to geomantic figures, dominoes, yarrow sticks or cowrie shells, these configurations point symbolically to different interactions of forces and potentialities. As with dice oracles, each of these rosary bead combinations suggest different associations and speak different answers depending on the specific terms of the querent’s inquiries – favourable in one context, neutral, or negative for another. In addition to these results, the diviner will typically count in threes an additional two times, to produce a group of three results. Additional meanings are then enumerated depending on whether all three answers for the query are auspicious or good, all three are bad, two are good, one bad, and so on.


(A statue of the great 10/11th century Indian missionary to Tibet, Atisha)

I’ve done some (very rough!) translations of sections from three rosary divination manuals up on the Buddhist Digital Resource Centre to give readers here a taste of the kinds of procedures and information typically found in such texts. The first is a rosary divination connected with method said to have been transmitted by the Great 10th century Indian Buddhist master Atisha, the second is a rosary divination form a Secret Sadhana of the meditational deity Hayagriva as compiled by the 18th century Gelukpa master Thubkwan Lobsang Chokyi Nyima, and the third is from a treasure text revealed by the tantric prophet Namchoe (‘Sky/Space Dharma’) Mingyur Dorje which interprets the results of the oracle in terms of the Eight Manifestations of Guru Rinpoche or Padmasambhava, the tantric saint who ensured the flourishing of Buddhism in Tibet in the 8th century. I hope these will be interesting and illuminating! (I am only barely beginning my investigation of these rich subjects, and have yet to discuss many of these ideas and vocabularies with Tibetan lamas in any detail. Some of the terminology in these texts is rather cryptic – there are many terms of art here that are quite difficult to translate into English. Many of these terms (such as phywa) are very common in Buddhist divinatory contexts but clearly predate the arrival of Buddhism and its own terminology in Tibet, and representing as they do various indigenous ideas about ‘flows of fortune’ and auspiciousness fall into the category of cosmo-economics as described by anthropologist Giovanni Da Col. May others who are far wiser than I correct any misunderstandings as they see fit!).


For this rosary divination that came from a prophecy given to the Glorious Master Atisha by the Great Lady Tara meditate on a lunar mandala or wheel arising from an A syllable in your right hand, and a solar mandala or wheel arising from a RAM syllable in your left. Imagine your prayer-beads as the Arhant.

Invoke the oracle as follows:

Homage to the Three Jewels! Homage to the Gurus of the lineage! All you Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of the three times, let this oracle be revealed with sharpness and clarity! Homage to the glorious Master Atisha! Let this oracle be revealed with sharpness and clarity! Homage to the Lord of Supreme Knowledge, Noble and Glorious Manjushri! Let this oracle be revealed with sharpness and clarity! Homage to the Embodiment of Compassion, Noble Avalokiteshvara! Let this oracle be revealed with sharpness and clarity! Homage to the Lord of Magical Power Vajrapani! Let this oracle be revealed with sharpness and clarity! Homage to the Mistress of Enlightened Activity Venerable Tara! Let this oracle be revealed with sharpness and clarity! Distinguish between the good and the bad, the auspicious and detrimental! (Let answers) come down in an honest and straightforward way! Reveal your magical power truthfully!

Divide the rosary into two sections and then guide the fingers (of each hand) counting three beads at a time (inward and around towards the Guru bead).

0 – 0 If there is one bead behind the Guru bead and one left in front of it:

Dry, dead wood blossoms with leaves, a spring wells up in a dry, parched valley, a son is born to a barren woman, the poor man finds food and riches, driven off (animals) are regained, those who flee escape, affairs are accomplished, if the question is “will they meet?” they will, if it is “is it true?” it is, omens for friends, companions and friendships are great indeed, for demonic omens, there is harm from the East, to the layman’s wealth and resources from demons of the sky, theubrang and spirits lords of the earth, if you do business you will triumph, for enemy omens, there are none, whatever you attempt will be good and auspicious.

0 – 00 If one bead is behind and two in front of it:

Friend omens are good, for business, you will triumph, it is the face or essence of the three tutelary deities of the hearth, it is the face of pregnancy and auspicious for this, for omens of the life force it is the face of recovery (from sickness) and freshness or vitality, if the question is “will they come?” they will, there is harm from demonic influences, for enemy omens there are none, fear or agitating business/turmoil comes, if the question is “Should or will they go?”, the answer is ‘Don’t go’, to stay is best, what’s first started or encountered is ultimately good or auspicious in the future when later completed, if there are sick people performing the ‘all-vanquishing’ cleansing or ablution will be good.

0 – 000 If one bed is behind and three in front:

Enemies obscure the scene like darkness, it is the face of one’s hat and clothes being carried away by water, it is a castle whose foundations are made of or on sand, it is the face of sand being carried away by water, for omens of the life force it means transforming one’s body and changing one’s name [i.e. a ritual measure to disguise oneself from demonic influence and prevent catastrophe], it is the releasing and life-saving of sentient beings, it is a butter lamp alight in the daytime, whatever one attempts is bad, it is the face of casting off old clothes, it is bad for cloven-hooved livestock, it is gossip and hostility, for demonic omens there is harm from demons who follow after humans who walk barefoot and attack their wealth, there is harm from demonic spirits of water and of fire, one should do sahng incense offerings and ablutions for the gods, for those who ask “Will they come, will it be accomplished or attained, is it true?”, the answer is no, for enemy omens, one will encounter enemies, do sadhana or ritual practices against gossip and enemies, for friend omens there is harm from demons of hunger who carry away the nutrient essence or vitality of food and thereby incite hunger and poverty, for demonic omens there is some small harm, it is the face of failing in business.

00 – 0 If two beads are behind and one is left in front of the Guru bead:

Family and household omens are good, it is the face of the three (gods) of the hearth, it is auspicious for divinations involving thieves, for omens of friendship, there are friends, it is the face of meeting someone ‘like after’ or as precious as one’s own heart, it is the face of saliva (?) for friends, for omens of business it is good, a son is born for the woman involved in a dispute or litigation (?), for enemy omens there will be terror from enemies for up to five or six days, enemies should be (ritually) suppressed, delays are great, for demonic omens, the ritual pollution caused by women’s impurities strikes the gods, sang fumigations and cleansing ablutions should be done – it is a middling or average divination result.

00 – 00 If two beads are on each side:

Four meet and it is bad, it is the face of a four day or month long infectious disease, for omens of demonic provocation it is the curse of ‘haziness’ or ‘indistinctness’, it is harm from tsen, dud, black kye and red butcher or life-force executioner spirits following after one, it is the ritual pollution that arises from women grasping a handful of impurity, which the gods do not like, it is the face of quarrels and resentment, it is being afflicted with impurity by being around someone in black clothes or with black appearance (?), if a pure Bon priest prays to the gods and cleanses them this will help, do rituals against gossip and enemies in order to purify pollution and turn back foes – whatever you attempt will be bad.

00 – 000 If two beads are behind and three in front:

The green of fruits springs up in an auspicious field of gold, flowers of turquoise are born, a son is born to a sterile woman, (animals) which have wandered off are regained, those who have fled escape or are freed, for family or household as well as friend omens, if one does religious practices it will be good, for demonic omens if one is around people’s bad food or clothing there will be demonic influence, do cleansings, it’s said that if one has done business then great extravagant wealth will come into one’s possession – with this divination result whatever one attempts will be good.

000 – 000 If there are three beads on either side:

This is good for omens of politics and worldly affairs, of business and personal affairs, and of enemies, if there is a sick person the sickness will be great but they will not die, for omens of demonic influence, there is harm from tsen po, and gyalpo and gongpo spirits, affairs will be only slightly accomplished later, so this is a middle-upper/average-higher divination.

000 – 00 If there are three beads to the left and two to the right of the Guru bead:

The realms of gods, men and demons make three, beasts of burden and cattle four, and approaching people of nobility five, it is the face of passing judgements and lawsuits, it is (quarry?) beaten with stones until it falls into one’s (the hunter’s?) hand, it’s the saddle rope unintentionally on the side falling into the reins (?), it’s taking without having taken, it’s being guilty without being guilty, it is the face of being falsely accused, for demonic omens it is harm that comes from food containing mamo spirits or demonesses or from ‘mole or blemish demons’ that follow after women, and harm from knife-bearing demons and demons of the hearth or kitchen, if there is a person who has been sick for a long time, then death is very near, and it is an especially bad divinatory result for male infants with srin disorders, there’s said to be demonic influence from being around or following after a debt-collector, chant the tsugtor prayer, pray to the gods, recite the yangkyab prayer (‘the refuge of g.yang auspicious energy or fortune’), since this is the face of enemies, prayer to the dralha or ‘enemy gods’, it is good for business and stone-masonry.

000 – 0 If three beads are to the left and one to the right:

Both present and future circumstances are good, it is especially good for the recovery of newborns, for the gods it is auspicious and so there is their support and protection, it is good for omens of the life-force (sog), for omens of demonic influence there is harm from tsen and dre spirits from walking barefoot, for enemy omens, there are none, if one is wondering whether to go or stay, one should not go, to stay is best, present concerns will subsequently be greatly realized, and things will thus be good in the ultimate future.

Indications for when one does the mo three times –

+++ If all three counts are auspicious:

Life force omens – it is a braided rope (?), friends and companions blaze with glory, since the gods and dharma-protectors cleave to you, things are auspicious, the gods of the life-force regain your wealth back from the hands of your enemies, omens for friends are good, as far as enemy omens, you will triumph and this is the face of their humiliation, you will find what’s lost, if you want to know if they will come they will, if you want to know whether they’ve gone, they’ve gone, this is the face of presently doing religious activities, you will meet with friends, although there will be enemies for beings, they will not cause harm, if you have made a request it will be granted, questions will be answered, you will triumph in business, for omens of politics and worldly affairs it is the face of the son…

etc etc.


The Prayer-bead Divination Method known as the ‘Mirror that Illuminates what is Hidden’, from the Dharma-Cycle of the Secret Sadhana of Hayagriva

I bow to the Guru Hayagriva, who is the mirror of the primordial wisdom of whatever can be imagined/in which all phenomena appear discretely/and write down this method of checking or divining with inter-dependent prayer beads/ Imagining yourself as the supreme Hayagriva/ recite the yidam’s root-mantra a little/ with light radiating from your heart-center/invite the five classes of Dakinis along with their retinues/ from the palace of the Five Wisdoms/residing in space before you/offer to the five classes of Dakinis and their retinues/collections of outer, inner, and secret offerings/filling the whole universe/Pray that they enjoy them, with great love and compassion/then, while offering the first/choice section of the mandala/torma, say:

/HUNG! Vajra family Dakini residing in the East/whose body is generated from the wood element/let the clear signs of inter-dependent connection arise (for me), I pray!/ Jewel family Dakini residing in the  South/whose body is generated from the fire element/let the clear signs of inter-dependent connection arise (for me), I pray! Lotus family Dakini residing in the West/whose body is generated from the metal element/Let the clear signs of inter-dependent connection arise (for me), I pray!/ Activity family Dakini residing in the North/whose body is generated from the water element/let the clear signs of inter-dependent connection arise (for me)! /Powerful Dakini of the activities of the four families residing at the four edges/whose body is generated from the earth element/let the clear signs of inter-dependent connection will arise (for you)!/(All of) you, string the signs or omens from past lives (on the thread of fate)! If these past life signs are not strung, human beings will not be happy at all! Annihilate the (bad) omens of future rebirths! If these are not vanquished, no people will be called back again! Make the tendril or auspicious connections of the present immediately appear! If these don’t immediately unfold, all of the Dakinis will be disturbed! Let the luminous drop of the tendril of the present come forth!/ Clearly assist me!/”

Then say this with fierce confidence:/

“Guru, yidam, the three jewels,/and you five classes of Dakinis in particular,/you assemblies of Dharma-protectors and oath-bound spirits,/spontaneously, innately arising and inter-linked patron deities,/gods of yearly, monthly and daily cycles,/as well as the yullha and shibdak, local deities and land-owning spirits,/be present at this divination by rosary and reveal yourselves and things clearly!/ Come forth via the immutable dharmadhatu, the limitless expanse of ultimate reality, and the unfailing truth of dependent origination and show yourselves clearly and directly in this prayer-bead divination without error!”

Next, divide your rosary into two portions/ Count three beads at a time on both side/to the end of both sections, to the ‘back and front’ (of the Guru bead).

0 – 0 /If a single bead of the rosary remains on both sides of the Guru bead,/this is  the face/face of connecting once again what has been severed,/of what is unwell (becoming) well,/of a (fresh) branch growing out of a dry, dead tree,/of a spring welling up in a parched valley,/of the poor and hungry finding food and wealth,/of what has been lost being found and those who have escaped and fled/ being led to and arriving at a place of stability and refuge -/ simply put, whatever may happen, it will be good./

000 – 00 If three beads are left behind (to the left of) the Guru bead, and two remain in front of it/it is the face of separating oneself from gossip/it is designated as the power of gods, men, demons and nyen spirits,/it is the face of lifting the finger raised to the sky (?)/of half the face and half the hair visible (?)/

00 – 000 If two beads are left behind the Guru bead/and three in front of it/it is turquoise-green growing in a yellow/golden meadow/a cows finding companions and men finding food/whatever you ask about this oracle is good/

0 – 000 If one bead is left to left and three to the right/it is the face of a man’s face being struck by an impure woman/seeing as the gods and protectors don’t enjoy this impure affliction/one should perform auspicious sang smoke offerings and ablutions/

0 – 00 If  one bead remains to the left of the Guru bead and two to the right/ it is the face of the polluting odour of inappropriate things burned (thab gzhob) in the hearth of the three brothers/ it is the face of impurity unliked by the gods and protectors/of being stricken by an impure woman/

00 – 0 If two beads are on the left and one on the right/ this means hearing good news and guests arriving/ finding what’s lost and recovering from sickness/

00 – 00 If two beads are left on each side of the Guru bead/ this is the face of darkness appearing/ of men and cattle being carried away by water/ of death by drowning and stabbing and of harm caused by ghosts or demons (‘dre)/it is the face of extremely great sickness/

000 – 0 If there are three beads to the left and one to the right/ one is protected or looked after auspiciously by the guru, gods and protectors/ it is the face of patients meeting up with (the necessary) medicine/ of meeting with good relatives and friends/

000 – 000 If three remain on each side/ regardless of how many losses or defeats one has experienced previously, one will subsequently triumph/ if one goes to do business one will come out with a profit/ it is the face of triumphing over gossip and talk/ the sick will be freed from their sickness and all will be good/

Repeat your count in this way three times/

If all three results are good/then the omens of family and household are good and auspicious, having been beautified with the mutak ‘rainbow-cord’ of the gods/and by the magnificence of having friends/the mouths of quarrelling couples have been covered up/the gods and righteous beings cleave to you and all is extremely good and auspicious/For omens of friends and companionship, whatever you do will come to pass as you wish/For omens of enemies, you will be able to overcome them and it will come to pass that they will definitely not be able to strike back at you/ If making inquiries, good news is forthcoming/If the question is “Have they departed?” They have departed with companions/If the question is ‘Go or not go?’, the answer is Go!/But if you remain, no bad will come of it/If making requests they will be granted. For omens of sickness/if you read sutras and make tsa tsas (?) you will obtain longevity/ This is an auspicious and not negative divinatory result in any instance/For political or secular matters there is harm from thieving demons/offer ransom offerings and torma.

Or alternatively:

If the first two are good but the last one bad –

For omens of the threshold and the household there are spiritual obstacles/ This is a divinatory result of losses and sickness appearing/For omens of the vital life force, this is the face of (harm by) weapons and so one should be careful/For sickness, the illness will last a long time but the patient will not die/For omens of friends and companions, your friends will be taken away by others/If you attack others harm will come back to you/ but for enemy omens, if enemies have already started attacking you, it’s good/If the question is “Will it or they come?” they will, if it’s “Will I find it?” you will find it after a few days or it will be greatly delayed/For business omens, what you have launched will yield average or middling results/For omens of illness, read the Kama/Do the sutra of Mamo Lenghsi and of the Mahram, Gyaldo/ Erect representations of the black bird, dog and sheep protectors and do propitiation rituals to them/or alternatively read the Bum mam nyitri. For a woman, relatives on her father’s side should build a stupa and relatives on her mother’s side should take care to protect themselves when travelling…”


And the following is the initial invocation from the Eight Names or Aspects of Guru Rinpoche Manual:

The Rosary Divination of the Eight Names or Aspects of Guru Rinpoche

“HO! Let all the precious gurus and jewels descend! Let all the precious Buddhas descend! Let all the precious Dharmas descend! Let all the precious Sanghas descend! May all the gods and demons throughout apparent existence delight in this divination and rejoice in these omens (pra)! Let all the twelve (stabilizing protector) Tenma Goddesses descend! Let all the thirteen tutelary ‘throat-gods’ and all the owners of the charnel-grounds descend! Let this divination reveal its answers and significance clearly! May I be happy in the face of confusing results! I ask you to answer what I cannot know or understand, through your great power! Speak swiftly what is hidden! Open the gates of my blistered, cataract-covered eyes! Illuminate the lamp of keen and clear seeing!” 


Readers will notice the emphasis here on initial invocations and appeals to divine aid and non-human, spiritual agencies. Diviners both call upon (apparently but not ultimately) external spirits even as they generate themselves and parts of their body as Buddhas and pure, divine forms. Fellow diviners from other traditions will no doubt related to this stress on invocation and illumination – as Italian-American folk magician and spiritualist Mallorie Vaudoise commented recently in an online discussion, it seems like the more experienced a diviner gets the less they worry that the divination may be wrong or unreliable and the more focused they become on whether they as the diviner are reading the signs clearly or correctly.

dorje yudronma

(A statue of the Tibetan tantric protector goddess Dorje Yudronma, one of the most common divinities ritually petitioned for the bestowal of mirror scrying abilities and oracular pra familiars) 

To be sure, divination depends heavily on intuition, clairvoyance and spiritual aid. While the average Tibetan on the street may use methods and manuals like those described above in the course of daily lives, it is generally expected that individuals who divine regularly have undergone intensive retreats focused around the Buddhas or tutelary deities associated with the oracle systems they are using. This entails sadhana practice, as part of which the practitioner will spend time in isolation accumulating mantra recitations and visualizations associated with particular deities. This procedure is often referred to as pra sgrub or ‘ritual procedures for accomplishing (the calling down of) a pra spirit’. Pra (pronounced tra) is a complex subject. Pra signifies a class of familiar spirits who are sent down by a particular deity, of whose retinue they are a part (the term is also used to refer to the visions and signs produced by such spirits as well as the overall processes used to call them). This oracular spirit is induced to descend through various ritual procedures: practitioners undergo a retreat at home or in an isolated place during which they ritually purify themselves, dress in white, make elaborate offerings, anoint their eyes and thumb-nails with special blended clairvoyance-amplifying unguents, and consecrate themselves by performing visualizations and recitations intensively and repeatedly. As a result of these measures, one or more pra spirits will be sent to appear in a specially prepared pra rten or ‘pra spirit support’ or ‘physical medium’. This is most often a small polished brass scrying mirror but in some cases may take the form of a child-seer or virgin woman. With the former, the practitioner stares into the mirror to see visions of people, places, locations, beings and symbols, while with the latter, the pra communicates through the seer. Pra can also appear in the surface of the operant’s painted thumb-nail. The particulars of the process should be remarkably familiar to students of Western grimoiric spirit summoning procedures, as well as Chinese ritual tradition (for a thorough historical analysis of the pra sgrub and its likely Sanskrit Indian genealogies, see the excellent chapter ‘Tantra and the Diaspora of Childhood Possession’ in Frederick M. Smith’s wonderful 2006 book ‘The Self Possessed: Deity and Spirit Possession in South Asian Literature and Civilization’). While pra is different from ‘phreng mo, if practitioners want to truly empower themselves in the practice of the latter, they can choose to perform similar bsnyen sgrub (‘attending to/drawing nearer and accomplishing’ mantra recitation and visualization accumulation) practices for the relevant deities, and if one has obtained one or more oracular spirits there’s no reason those beings cannot help the diviner more generally.

As an old undergraduate lecturer of mine on African traditional religions in the Religious Studies department at the University of Cape Town Dr Sibusiso Masondo used to put it in an arch and subtly decolonizing way, divination produces insights on pressing questions about human behaviour and society through ‘non-rational ways of knowing, just like economics’. Notwithstanding the centrality of clairvoyance and ‘non-rational’ ways of knowing in divination, oracular systems, like languages, can be learned, possess internally consistent logics and structures that are not random, that make sense. While a number of technical and historical scholarly survey articles about Tibetan forms of divination have been written in both Tibetan and other languages over the years very few studies have been produced in any language that explore in more detail the on-the-ground social and inter-subjective realities of training in divinatory procedures, of engaging with the oracle and interpreting results, the embodied experience of ‘non-rational knowing, and the dynamics of interacting with clients and serving communities as a diviner (some important exceptions include the extensive ethnographic work conducted on Tibetan and Himalayan spirit mediums, and also perhaps Barbara Gerke’s ethnography on Tibetan longevity enhancing ritual practices, medicine and astrological divination in Darjeeling and smaller articles like Tanya Zivkovic’s chapter on a female Tibetan diviner also in Darjeeling in Todd Lewis’ edited volume ‘Buddhists: Understanding Buddhism through the lives of practitioners’) Likewise, as Alexander K. Smith notes as well, in his brief but valuable ethnographic analysis of pebble divination (lde’u ‘phrul) as practiced in a contemporary Bonpo majority Tibetan refugee settlement in North India, little attention has been paid in Tibetan Studies to the ‘symbolic complexes evoked in the performance of divination.’ What Smith is referring to here is the internal symbolic logic, the broader cosmological frameworks that provide contexts and internal associations which allow diviners to produce complex answers to individual inquiries. None of this will be news to actual diviners, but as Smith tells it, academics – at least in Tibetan Studies – have apparently largely ignored these dimensions, which any prognosticator could tell you right off the bad are the bread-and-butter of their interpretative process:

“With regard to the interpretation of lde’u ‘phrul, it is now clear that the diviner possesses a vast reservoir of culturally specific symbolism from which to craft the divination’s product: a response to the client’s query. In its similarity to bricolage, the technique of divinatory interpretation is as much an art as a science. As such, a full exegesis of the diviner’s analytical methods is well beyond the scope of the present paper. Nonetheless, this article has attempted to cast light upon lde’u ‘phrul divination’s content and creative potential. In addition to conducting a study of the divination’s performative dimensions, it has been argued that lde’u ‘phrul texts outline a number of symbolic configurations that provide a temporal, social, and cosmic framework within which to correlate the results of each casting. While such devices are by no means unique to the performance of lde’u ‘phrul, their presence demonstrates the richness of divinatory symbolism within the Bon milieu.”

It should be clear from the translated manual excerpts above that the categories and configurations of rosary divination provide similar symbolic content, vocabularies and grammars through which more or less detailed answers can be languaged. For any diviner reading this Smith’s comments might feel a tad ‘No Shit, Sherlock’-y. Of course divinatory systems operate through rich and internally consistent symbolic configurations and content, of course diviners learn to think and articulate answers through the medium of such a language. Smith’s comments are on point and welcome but betray perhaps how little scholars in Tibetan Studies have engaged with the process of actually learning divination up until now, with the processes through which oracles ‘speak’ and diviners come to speak through them.

Overall, anthropologists have done a much better job of exploring divinatory languages and how these relate to personhood, time, truth and human meaning (Barbara Tedlock’s work on Mayan divination, Nadia Seremetakis’ writing on death rituals and women’s divinatory practices in Greece, Katherine Swancutt’s ethnographic research on fate, fortune, and temporality in Buryatia and Mongolia, Philip Peek’s work on African divinatory systems and Martin Holbraad’s ontological turn-y take on Afro-Cuban divination methods are a few ethnographies that spring immediately to mind).  My aim for this post is not to offer any extensive reflections on either emic (insider) or etic (outsider) theories of divinatory language and procedure, however. For now, I’d rather just share some of the flavour of these Tibetan systems through primary sources for interested readers. Rather than me talking further I’ll close then with some commentary by two great Tibetan lamas, reflecting on their personal experiences with Tibetan divination and on how the results produced by these methods might be squared with both Buddhist and contemporary scientific visions of reality.

The first is a short clip featuring an interview with the Dalai Lama in which the leader talks about his own divinations and his experiences with calling upon protector deities who possess human mediums as a source of guidance (a process which has been formalized as a part of state bureaucracy in the Tibetan context). As I commented in an older blog post on debates among Tibetans about whether to ‘retire’ state oracles from government service in which I first posted this video, the footage (which is a snippet from David Cherniack’s documentary ‘The Oracle: Reflections on Self’) makes clear “…how the Dalai Lama’s role as a spiritual leader and cherished teacher extends beyond the human realm to the realm of spirits” and  demonstrates “the very tender and rich relationships lamas like him have with the deities as agents in the world.” Moreover,

“…the Dalai Lama also explains very clearly how consulting oracles and other divinatory methods is treated as only one, supplementary part of decision-making in a epistemologically pluralist context – a situation where multiple different forms of knowledge are taken into account in relation to each other to guide human affairs. Consulting oracles is not meant to undermine human agency or responsibility, but to empower and enable it. The video also gives a succinct explanation of how a deeper understanding of the Buddhist notion of the interdependent, self-less arising of all phenomena can explain why divination – the apparently arbitrary movements of balls of dough in a bowl (or the fall of dice, or what have you) – can provide true insight and have great meaning.”

Take a look:

In a book chapter from a couple of decades ago now, Lama Chime Radha, an early Tibetan refugee lama to set up shop in the U.K. (and incidentally the same teacher we apparently have to thank for dissuading David Bowie from becoming a Tibetan Buddhist monk and giving up his career as a performer), offers some personal anecdotes and reflections on pra scrying as well as Buddhist theories of divination in general. In his discussion Lama Chime Radha appeals to Jungian psychology and contemporary science as possible etic frameworks for validating or at least making sense of precognition and clairvoyance, while reminding us, like the Dalai Lama does too, that the possibility of generating meaningful results from divination is more reasonable when understood from the perspective of the emptiness and dependent origination of all perceived phenomena:

“Other Examples of the Use of Tra:

A lady well-known to me in East Tibet told me that before her marriage she consulted a trapa to discover how many sons would be born to her. Using a mirror, the trapa had a vision of three flowers: one red, one yellow, and one white; the white one was slightly damaged. He explained that she would have three sons, one of them being a reincarnate lama, represented by the yellow flower, since yellow was the colour associated with the Buddha and also the distinguishing colour in the robes worn by tulkus. The red flower represented a son who would become an ordinary monk, since red was the colour of the robes worn by Buddhist monks in Tibet. The third son was represented by the imperfect white flower; he would not enter the religious life, as white was associated more with the dress of the laity, and was probably destined to suffer from ill-health and physical affliction. All these prophecies were in fact fulfilled. Her second son was recognised as a tulku; and of his two brothers the elder became a monk, and the younger was disabled through being hit in the knee by a Chinese bullet during their escape from Tibet in 1959; he also suffered serious illness which at one time put his life in danger.

During the conquest of Tibet by the Chinese, many lamas fled across the Himalayas to India to escape imprisonment or execution. The use of tra became an important aid on these difficult and dangerous journeys. One well-known lama from my own region of East Tibet was travelling with a party of companions through completely unknown territory to the north of the Tibetan border with Assam. The way was almost entirely blocked by dense forest and large boulders, and there seemed no hope of further progress. Most of the party spoke in favour of turning back, but the lama decided to have recourse to his power of tra. He gazed into the sky, and received the vision of a path further ahead. Encouraged by this, his companions were persuaded to struggle on, and in a short while they emerged from the rock-strewn forest on to a definite roadway, altogether unsuspected in that desolate area.

I travelled from East Tibet to Lhasa during the latter stages of the Chinese take-over of the country and from there I escaped to India. A lama of my acquaintance similarly made the journey from Lhasa to freedom and safety in India.Before setting off, he consulted his cousin, a very expert trapa, about his journey. Using the ball of his thumb in the way I have described earlier, his cousin had a vision of three dogs playing happily together. The three dogs then became one dog, and this dog crossed a bridge over a wide and deep river; the bridge was perilous and narrow, and the dog had to proceed warily and with great caution. The trapa explained the symbolism of his vision thus: the lama, fleeing from the evil times which had ended the former period of peace and happiness, would lose most of his companions on his way to safety and would go through great dangers, but if he exercised the utmost vigilance his journey would at last be safely accomplished. According to my lama friend, his cousin’s prophecy proved to be an entirely accurate description
of the flight of his party to India.

Evaluation of the Phenomenon of Tra.

These examples of the application of tra to a number of different problems and
questions perhaps will give the reader some idea of the variety of circumstances in which this method of divination might be invoked. In fact the power of tra might be made use of in any matter of uncertainty, religious or secular, personal or public, where a need was felt for guidance as to the outcome of present or future events. One can scarcely expect that these examples will be totally convincing to someone who has never experienced the reality of divination in his own life, and whose culture conditions him to an almost instinctive and unthinking rejection of everything relating to magic, mystery and the operation of forces and principles which are not at present recognised by modern Western science.

The sceptical reader will perhaps turn automatically to concepts such as coincidence and mass hysteria as a way of accommodating the phenomena I have been describing within his existing view of the world. But such explanations would seem inadequate and unconvincing to a Tibetan brought up in a culture which accepts mind and mental phenomena as the underlying basis of all reality, and surrounded from birth by manifestations of powers such as divination which, although far from commonplace, are regarded as a normal and natural part of everyday life.

Of course similar powers have survived here and there in remote and undisturbed communities in the Western world until quite recent times: one thinks immediately of the well-known gift of second sight in the Scottish Highlands. Perhaps Jungian psychology, with its concepts of the supra-individual reaches of the unconscious mind, and of intuition as a function of equal validity to that of reason, offers the easiest way for the modern sceptic to arrive at an intellectually respectable position. This would allow him to come to terms with these disturbing phenomena, produced as they are by people who at one and the same time live in the same world as himself and yet experience a quite different reality, without either dismissing the validity of their experience or abandoning his own scientific view of the world. For it is noticeable that the signs and visions of tra possess an oblique or indirect quality similar to that which characterises dreams and other manifestations into consciousness of the unconscious. They do not speak to us directly in reply to the conscious questions which evoke them, but in terms of symbols and hidden meanings, often apparently unconnected with the subject in hand, which have to be interpreted by a skilled practitioner.

Tibetans share the traditional Eastern view that sense, experience and reason form only part of our means of knowing reality. The totality of mind is seen as including modes of being and functioning from which the power of reasoning itself derives, and which it can therefore never succeed in encompassing or understanding. From this point of view there must of necessity always be more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in any rationalist philosophy. But with such reflections we pass from the field of secular scholarship into the intuitive domain of poets, the sphere of religion with its truths accessible only to revelation and faith, and the world of mysticism with its knowledge gained in immediate apprehension transcending the dualistic relationship of subject and object…”


(A small polished brass Tibetan scrying mirror)

* Another form of Tibetan divination that arguably parallels ‘phreng mo is the phenomenon of ‘finger divination’ (mdzub mo), some manuals for which are ascribed to the Shije/Chod master Padampa Sangye, and which Dan Martin has briefly discussed here. TBRC has two scans of finger divination manuals but in typical grimoire fashion these just list a bare-bones outline of what each finger result indicates, with a brief colophon, and offer nothing in the way of broader context for the method or any other operational details, such as preliminary invocations and visualizations or mantras which would undoubtedly be a part of the practice.

In her recent book on divination ‘The World is Your Oracle: Divinatory Practices For Tapping Your Inner Wisdom’, (a sentiment which reminds me of this very old essay I wrote on omens and oracular thinking/living incidentally) feminist the(a)logian and spiritual teacher Nancy Vedder-Shults includes the following description of His Holiness the Dalai Lama performing an on-the-fly ‘arm/finger dowsing divination’ to determine his escape route to India.

dalai lama finger divination

dalai lama fingers

I don’t remember this anecdote from any versions of the Dalai Lama’s autobiographies, and Google Books won’t let me see Vedder-Shult’s reference. If any readers know the source for the above anecdote about the Dalai Lama, or if anyone can tell me more about the method described I’d be most grateful. Vedder-Shults moves on from it to provide a kinesiology style muscle-testing finger chain oracle technique which derives from non-Tibetan sources or practices, and I’m curious if any of my Tibetan or Tibetan Studies friends have witnessed finger divination happening, have performed it themselves, or know anything else about it. Tibetans have a range of ways for counting up and down the sides of their fingers in non-divinatory contexts. There are also established, differential values and symbolic gestures associated with the thumb and four fingers which non-diviners and pretty much everyone knows, and Tibetan traditional medical pulse diagnosis both makes use of the fingers as diagnostic tools and feels for pulses on different locations on the fingers and wrists of patients and so on, but I have yet to encounter much at all about finger divination in practice, and so any leads would be most welcome!

Thumbs and Fortunes Up!


1 thought on “Telling the Future: Some Thoughts on Fortune, Fingers and Tibetan Rosary Divination

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