Tibetans engage with a panoply of divinities and spirits in their daily lives and ritual activities. The word “demon” does not capture the sheer breadth and diversity of these beings because there is a rich assortment of distinct spirit types that cause illnesses, guard against calamities, or possess human mediums to provide clairvoyant advice. While comprehensiveness is impossible, a representative demonology is valuable by offering a foundation for further exploration. Most Tibetan spirits are capricious or overtly pernicious and require oracles, diviners, tantrikas, and other religious specialists to ward off or harness their power. The gods and spirits of Tibet also fit loosely into ontological categories along a larger spectrum that includes enlightened beings, transcendent deities, worldly gods, and fierce demons. The boundaries between these categories are often porous, especially when it comes to aligning certain spirits with buddhas, bodhisattvas, or wrathful deities of the land. For Buddhism and Bön, the two major religious traditions of Tibet, there are specific protector deities with robust mythologies and liturgical corpora that are frequently propitiated and revered in order to maintain these religions both materially and spiritually. Interacting with such divinities often takes the form of oracular ceremonies or image consecrations and offerings. The practices may vary dramatically between spiritual lineages and regions, but the overall concept is rooted in interacting with these powerful forces to effect social, communal, and individual change. In Tibet, spirits are potentially dangerous, but they also offer diverse opportunities for personal advancement and religious enrichment.
Kathryn A. Edwards
In the 15th- and early-16th-century German-speaking lands, reports circulated of spirits shaking the walls of houses, comets presaging imminent doom, and dwarves warning miners to leave their tunnels. Widely accepted, such accounts point to a worldview in which the natural was believed to encompass a far broader swath of beings and activities than modern definitions of the term. Humans were enmeshed in a world where forces beyond human experience and, at times understanding, were active; they accepted their place in it and manipulated it, if necessary. When studying such attitudes and the practices surrounding them, scholars of late medieval and early modern religious movements must move beyond truisms about “magical” or “enchanted” worlds to understand the impulses driving both reformers and those they wished to reform. Certainly 15th- and 16th-century Germans accepted that the divine permeated all creation, as creation was a product of God, and they saw divine manifestations throughout their world. Based on this truism, scholars have debated the extent to which pre-modern Europe was an enchanted world for approximately a century. Yet the powers imbuing that world had a more complex relationship to divinity than the somewhat romantic connotations of “enchanted” found in various modern works. Magicians, witches, devils, and other entities were all created beings who could access powers beyond the normal ken but were certainly not divine, despite any claims they might make to the contrary. Because such powers were imbued into nature itself, they were accessible to ordinary humans as well. And access them humans did! They were invoked to protect a village, cure ill children, and ward off injuries to livestock. They could also be used for evil, and archival and print documents attest to the practice of maleficent or demonic magic by learned clergy and illiterate peasants alike. When Protestant reformers demanded recognition of God’s omnipotence, they implicitly condemned this applied, occult magic and, in the process, practices that reflected a complete cosmology, that is, an understanding of how this world and the heavens operated. In this circumstance, it is not surprising that even the early reformers themselves could seem reluctant to abandon this immanent occultism.
Chöd (gcod), “severance” or “cutting,” is a Tibetan term referring to a cycle of Tibetan Buddhist practice and to the lineage initiated by the Tibetan woman Machik Lapdrön sometime in the 11th or 12th century. It is primarily based on the teachings of the perfection of wisdom (prajñāpāramitā) that represent the second phase of Buddhist texts that developed in India. In Tibet itself, Chöd was one of the many new sects that flourished in the second dissemination of Buddhism from India from 950 to 1350ce. Chöd has been classified as a branch of Zhijé (zhi byed) or “Pacification,” one of the eight great practice lineages that trace back to India, though no actual text on Chöd has been discovered in the early texts of Zhijé. Despite this quandary, its classification has afforded a kind of validation in being connected with the sources of Buddhism through the Indian master Dampa Sangyé. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that Machik Lapdrön herself is the sole progenitor for the teachings and the lineage. This woman from the area of Lap in central Tibet was known as Lapkyi Drönma, “the Light of Lap.” The respectful title of Machik, “One Mother,” was added later and is shared with several other important women of the time, often leading to confusion. Lapdrön showed remarkable abilities from an early age, and later gained mastery of speed reading. This led to a job as a chaplain in a patron’s house, where she met her future partner, providing her biographers with a fascinating narrative revealing the problematic status of female masters in Tibet. The recitation of prajñāpāramitā sūtras also led to her epiphany around the parts on māra, “devil,” “demon,” or (spiritual) “death.” This, along with her visions of the bodhisattva Tārā and the important connection with the Indian master Dampa Sangyé, were the inspiration for what became one of the most widespread practices in Tibet. The early Chöd teachings represent aspects derived from both sūtra and tantra sources. The focus is on the understanding of emptiness that severs fixation on the reification of the self and the resultant conduct based on compassion for others. The impediments that prevent such realization, called māras in Sanskrit, were a point of departure. As time went on, specific techniques and methods of practice (sādhana) accrued to this philosophy. While the main practice has remained the cultivation of insight and the enactment of separating the consciousness from the body, the post-meditation practice known as lü jin (lus byin) “giving the body” developed elaborate visualizations and ritual accouterments that came to dominate popular practice. Renowned as a charnel ground practice due to the visualized offering of one’s corpse as food for demons and other beings in situations that are intended to provoke fear, it is this that has become known far and wide as Chöd. The sources for this aspect are obscure and may well come from the surrounding culture of the Tibetan plateau, harking back to Bön and other pre-Buddhist practices. Some elements associated with shamanic practices are enacted in the Chöd rituals, despite its Buddhist soteriological assertions. With its beautiful melodies and lurid visualizations, Chöd quickly became popular in Tibet for exorcism, healing, and other practical usages. Its followers did not establish monasteries, as the lifestyle of roaming mendicants was emphasized, but Chöd was incorporated into most other schools in Tibet. Their liturgies are drawn from the works of Lapdrön’s descendants, or from visionary experiences, or found as treasure texts (terma). As of the early 21st century, Chöd has gained popularity worldwide, with many iterations in 21st-century practice.