Tibetan Buddhism: Ghosts, Demons, and Exorcism

While Buddhism is one of the most practiced religions in the entire world, it has become practiced in ethnocentric methods. Buddhism, as it is worshipped in Tibet, Bhutan, Mongolia, northern Nepal, and surrounding regions, is unique in its own way. Many of the Buddhist tenets remain the same, the core being that anyone can be a potential Buddha. However, there is a special reverence for the lama, or guru, who has both religious and political significance. In addition, there is a strong focus on meditations that include making visuals of deities, mantras, and mudras (hand gestures).

A general outlook on the existence of ghosts and demons in Tibetan Buddhism reveals a belief in multiple planes of existence, as summed up in the Bhavacakra. Humans, gods, ghosts, and demons each inhabit their own realm. When a person dies, they are in a state of limbo (known as bardo) between two states of existence. Thus, instead of experiencing rebirth, the spirit of a dead person may actually end up as a ghost still clinging onto physical desires.

A hungry ghost; one who lives a miserable, insatiable existence and in desperate need of rebirth

This is a case in which exorcism may be necessary. Alternatively, there is also the case that an actual demon from the realm of hell can possess an individual. Such beings, who are certainly malevolent, almost always require an exorcism (bgegs-bloz-chog).

A death demon. It is often depicted as black-colored.

There are some common exorcism methods in Tibetan Buddhist culture:

  • Ransoming (glud): make offerings and perform rituals to appease demons
  • Effigy (glud-tshab): effigy of sick person is made, contains rice, sugar/salt, butter, silver, person’s clothing. Then it is thrown in the direction from which the spirit arises from, or is burnt
  • Thread-cross ritual (mdos): mast-like structure is made with colored threads and put outside sick person’s house; demon is attracted to it and enters it
  • Spirit trap: yarn spindle put outside of house/tree, colorful threads attract spirits. Once spirit is captured in the trap, the trap is burned to destroy spirits
A spirit trap made of colorful threads, surely able to attract a spirit

A particular item of importance is the phurba, a ritual dagger that is often seen in exorcisms. Seen as an embodiment of sentience, the phurba finds its use in exorcisms as a way to either help a spirit move on, or destroy it completely. Stabbing it into a hungry ghost, for example, can help it to be reborn.

A phurba. On its top are three faces of the deity Vajrakilaya

Some of these methods (such as the spirit trap) are non-direct, and do not require actual “conversing” with the spirit in question. Others are direct and require the exorcist to be more involved. For example, here is one such “direct exorcism” procedure:

  1. Direct exorcism often begins with a spell/chant to see if demonic possession is genuine
  2. Construction of an effigy of the victim; blood/red wine is poured over effigy as an offering
  3. After demon enters effigy, it is shot with arrows and thrown over a cliff. In other cases, effigy is simply burned.
  4. To get rid of lingering demons:
    1. Small dough animal effigies are placed in a tray
    2. White ash is placed on tray, then covered by black ash
    3. A dog’s skull is placed to hold any trapped demons
    4. Chants are used to capture and lure out demons. The ash is checked to see if there are demon footprints.
    5. Once it is clear that demons are in the skull, the skull is destroyed
    6. A phurba is used to cut a hole into the ground. The exorcist “lowers” the demon into the ground so it may be successfully trapped underground

Many of the above-mentioned methods, even the direct exorcism method above, tend to be non-aggressive. This is to be expected of Buddhism, based on its principles of peace and non-violence. However, sometimes aggression is needed. This is more often the case when a demon, rather than a ghost, has overtaken an individual. The za-dre kha sgyur is a ritual to expel death demons, and the exorcist directly threatens the demon with harm from Buddha’s wrathful form. If the demon refuses to leave, the phurba is used to force it out. This ritual is seen to actually destroy the unwanted spirit.

But exorcism is hardly a personal ritual. In fact, a giant public exorcism is held annually as part of the Tibetan region’s celebration of the New Year (known as gutor). On the 29th of the 12th lunar month, temples and monasteries hold religious dance ceremonies, prepare foods for hungry ghosts, and chase away demons. It is in the evening that the official exorcism starts. Every household in the celebrating region is cleaned physically and spiritually (typically by a priest) to get rid of misfortune and ghosts, with each family offering a collective prayer. An effigy made in the likeness of a fierce god is run around the village, then carried out to be “cast out.” Inhabitants carry torches and chant the words of the exorcism. The “casting out” of the effigy is seen to be a purging act cleansing the community of spirits, demons, and misfortune in preparation for the new year.

Dancing in celebration of gutor

In light of this research, I find what I learned very intriguing. There is something to compare between this Eastern religion’s practices and that of more Western religions, such as Christianity. Certainly, there are parallels; for example, the “holy water” of Tibetan Buddhism can be seen as the phurba, and special Buddhist mantras are used instead of Biblical passages. What I found very interesting was the apparent distinction of what was considered a non-aggressive exorcism and an aggressive one. The desire to not inflict harm is strong, so much so that even exorcists of Tibetan Buddhism do not wish to damage non-human entities unless they absolutely need to. How different is this from more Western ideas and practices of exorcism? What’s more, either a priest (who is ceremonially anointed) or a shaman is capable of performing exorcisms. How do shamen find their credentials?

I also find it interesting that exorcism is so imbedded into the culture of Tibet that it is part of their own New Year festival (I would love to hear of more annual public exorcisms). Furthermore, the expulsion of non-human entities is not simply to get rid of demons and spirits, but also to safeguard health. A very interesting practice indeed, and one that deserves plenty of study.

Sources:

  • Clifford, Terry. Tibetan Buddhist Medicine and Psychiatry: The Diamond Healing. York Beach, Me.: S. Weiser, 1984. Print.
  • Ramble, Charles. The Navel of the Demoness Tibetan Buddhism and Civil Religion in Highland Nepal. New York: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.
  • The Tibetan Book of the Dead [English Title]: The Great Liberation by Hearing in the Intermediate States [Tibetan Title]. New York: Viking, 2006. Print.
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8 thoughts on “Tibetan Buddhism: Ghosts, Demons, and Exorcism

  1. I really enjoyed the instructions you listed about how these exorcisms actually take place. I am also fascinated by the fact that they don’t desire to harm the demon unless they need to. Are there any other branches of Buddhism that have other practices that are similar to this?

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    1. Thanks!
      Buddhist principles in general are not supportive of acts of aggression. A main tenet is to alleviate suffering of humans and non-humans alike, as well as to purify negative karma. Thus, for example, when there is a hungry ghost about, I believe the Buddhist exorcist looks upon it with more sympathy than repulsion. This is quite different from, say, a Catholic perspective of a possession, which is more fearful and hostile.

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  2. I find the parallels within the christian beliefs quite astonishing. When limbo was mentioned I immediately pictured purgatory holding the hungry ghost who is desperate for rebirth or spiritual completeness, but instead leads a miserable life (awaiting the cleansing of the sinner). Also as mentioned the exorcism ritual that uses a parallel of holy water and biblical passages to reveal the demon possessing an individual.
    I also admire the fact that harming the spirit is the last option in the process. It reflects an eightfold factor of right action which states to not act in a harmful way.

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    1. To throw a small wrench into this comparison – could these parallels with Christian exorcism be present due to the way that the information is presented by scholars who are working from within a Christian ritual framework? What I mean is that when we use a term like ‘limbo’ to describe something in Buddhism, we import not only the term, but all the conceptions that come along with it. In that limbo is from the Latin for ‘edge’ or ‘boundary’ and comes by way of Augustine and the medieval Christian theologians, do we unwittingly place this grid onto the Tibetan Buddhist material, and ‘make it fit’ so to speak?

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      1. I feel like there is a lot of that going around, such as the Second Coming of Jesus and the arrival of Maitreya on Earth in eschatology and comparative religion.

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  3. Just a comment after reading just the beginning of this article. I am a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism for 25 years. Your picture of a “death demon” is actually a picture of Ekajati, a protector.
    She is absolutely NOT a demon.

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