The legal foundations of Tibetan religious thought

The Legal Foundations of Tibetan Religious Thought*

Charles Ramble

Almost all Tibetan legal codes from the post-imperial period explicitly derive their legitimacy from the Buddhist values they purport to enshrine. The source to which the later Tibetan accounts refer is the Mi chos gtsang ma bcu drug, attributed to Srong btsan sgam po and said to be based on the sutra of the Ten Virtues, and lawmakers ever thereafter have presented their tracts as measures for the realisation of these basic principles. In fact, the account of the Mi chos gtsang ma bcu drug appears relatively late, in the literature of the post-Imperial period. Following an examination of two later law codes, Dieter Schuh concludes than an assessment of their content

does not allow us to recognise a concrete relationship between the law that is formulated therein and Buddhist principle, in the sense of one being derived from the other. Rather, the claim of some connection, in Tibetan historiography,  as well as in the introductions to the lawbooks, is a later, purely fictitious construction on the ideological safeguarding of the law. (1984: 300)

Whatever the historical evidence may indicate to the contrary, the conviction among Tibetans that the legal system of the Ganden Phodrang government was founded in Buddhist tenets remains deeply entrenched. An idea of the tenacity of this belief may be obtained from the work of Rebecca French, whose study of the Central Tibetan legal system conveys the conviction of her principal informant, a diaspora Tibetan who had practised law in the pre-1959 era, concerning the religious underpinnings of his profession. In fact, law and religion in Tibet may have more in common than some critics have suggested. Far from this being a superficial association concocted for the purpose of legitimising a legal system, there is a case to be made for the existence of shared structural properties. In order to explore this possibility further, however, we need to adopt a more comprehensive understanding of both religion and law.


Ritual may not be an intrinsic part of religion - indeed, several studies have been devoted to establishing the validity of the idea of secular ritual[1] - but it nevertheless forms a significant part of it. It also forms an important part of Tibetan law. Among the different types of rituals that feature in both domains, perhaps the most salient is the use of procedures that manifest the will of a divine agency. These aleatoric techniques may be used in the selection of officials, in determining the outcome of a dispute, or for assessing the efficacy of a ritual. Here I shall compare the use of two such devices as they are used in judicial and religious contexts.


In their study of Sakya principality, Cassinelli and Ekvall state that there were “three standard methods resolve stalemates” in legal cases (1969: 175). It is the second and third of these methods that are of particular interest here. One, “involving least tension and apprehension for the contestants,” entailed taking a stone out of a jar of opaque oil:


The jar contained one white and one black pebble. The accused drew a single pebble and then replaced it; then his accuser drew a single pebble. The drawing continued until one draw one man drew white and the other black. The issue was then incontrovertibly resolved in the favor of the man who had drawn white. (ibid.: 176, fn. 15)


The other procedure involved rolling dice, and the authors illustrate its application with reference to a particular case from the 1940s. A man was found murdered in a village, and his brother accused a neighbour of being the perpetrator. Since the case involved a homicide it was taken to the capital for trial.


The Law Officials ordered that a yak be killed and its hide spread, bloody side up, on the courtroom floor. The accused, without clothes and with his hair let down knelt on one edge and his accuser, normally attired, knelt facing him on the other edge. ...The total of the accused’s roll was higher than that of his accuser, and so he won the first round. He lost the second round, but won the third, and was thereupon declared innocent of the killing. (ibid.: 176)


In both these cases gods are invoked not as judges, much less as agents of retribution, but rather to vindicate the position of the respective parties; they are summoned as witnesses.


The use of black and white stones and also the rolling of dice are an integral part of certain Tibetan religious ceremonies, notably the ritual for the retrieval of lost souls (bla ’gugs). In the course of the ceremony, a representative of the patient performs certain procedures to determine whether his or her soul has been restored.[2] A copper cauldron is set on a stand and filled with water to which milk and calendula petals are added. The officiant places at the bottom of the cauldron six white and six black stones that are referred to respectively as “soul stones” (bla rdo) and “demon stones” (bdud rdo). At a certain point an assistant plunges his hand into the murky water and extracts a stone. A white stone signifies that that soul has been retrieved, whereas a black one means that this part of the ritual must be performed again.


The patient must then play a game of dice with the soul’s demonic captor. A representative of the patient rolls a pair of white dice on a white mat, using his right hand. The demon is represented by a dough figure, and a pair of black dice are rolled on a black mat on his behalf by a woman, using her left hand. Each side has three throws, but the patient has only to win one round in order for the ritual to be considered successful. Before the dice are thrown, various supernatural powers are invoked:


Hey! May the lama and the tutelary divinity be impartial witnesses; may the divine protectors of Bon be impartial witnesses; may the dakinis and the treasure guardians be impartial witnesses; and may the territorial gods, the earth lords and the eight classes of demigods act as impartial witnesses today! (Ramble 2010: 215)


Far from being entreated to take the side of the patient and to coerce the demon into giving up the soul, the divinities are being asked to remain neutral and simply to bear witness to the outcome of the game.


The procedures described above for establishing the guilt or innocence of a suspected criminal are similar to the protocols for certain oaths. John Claude White describes the measures for swearing an oath that entail the use of hot - rather than simply opaque - oil. A black stone and a white stone of similar size were put into a pot containing boiling oil, and the pot arranged so that the stones could not be seen. The person on trial would extract one stone. If he removed the white stone without any burning, he was declared innocent, and guilty if he picked the black stone (cited in Schuh 1984: 294). There is no suggestion that any divinities are to be invoked here as enforcers.


The procedure is a trial by ordeal, but as Schuh has pointed out, Tibetan does not distinguish between oath-swearing and undergoing an ordeal. The treatment of the murder suspected described by Cassinelli and Ekvall also finds its parallels in an oath. A document from south Mustang, undated but probably from the 19th century, records the procedure whereby an agreement was reached over the pasture boundaries of four contiguous territories.


Having invited [lacuna] as witness(es), in order to establish their pasture boundaries.... [representatives of] the four commmunities spread out a fresh hide as a seat; they wore red copper vessels on their heads, and came out naked, with black yak-hair ropes tied around their waists/necks, and after swearing an oath, they established the boundaries as follows.... (Tibetan Sources 1: HMA/Te/Tib/56)


There is no mention either here, or anywhere later in the document, of any divine enforcers, only the opening reference to calling someone or something as witness.


An oath is a declaration of truth; that is to say, an actual state of affairs. The etymological and conceptual connection between the Sanskrit terms for truth and being have been discussed by the recipient of the present volume, Matthew Kapstein, with whom it has been my privilege to work in close association at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes for almost a decade.  It is the importance of this correspondence, as he points out, that has led some authors to render the term satya, truth, as “reality” (Kapstein 1998: 421). For Giorgio Agamben, it is precisely in this adequation between the signifier (the word) and the signified (the reality) that the force of the oath lies. Suggesting that language originated pari passu with ethos, he argues that “the oath expresses the demand...for the speaking animal to put its nature at stake in language and to bind together in an ethical and political connection words, things and actions” (2011: 69).  A component of many Tibetan rituals is the procedure knowns as bden pa bdar, the “invocation of the truth”, or “truth telling”. This is an illocutionary act in which the priest ensures the efficacy of the rite he is performing by formally declaring the truth of certain divinities whom he names, or indeed of the doctrine itself. Here is an example of such an invocation from a nineteenth-century Bonpo work. 


The Invocation of the Truth: relying on the power and might of the truth of the Buddha’s word, the truth of the word of Bon, the truth of gShen rab and of the Eternity-beings (i.e. Bodhisattvas)...may all [harmful beings] instantly be summoned into this effigy as helplessly as if they were sparrows pursued by a hawk. (Yang snying: 478)


Here, the force of the ritual derives from the truth of Bon and its divinities, and it is this that renders demons compliant with the intention of the ritual. The Tibetan procedure of bden pa bdar has antecedents not only in Indian Buddhism but in Indian religion more generally, where it appears under a variety of names such as satyavacana, satyavādya, satyavākya and so forth (Brown 1972: 252). In a classic study of the subject, E.W. Burlingame makes the important point that, although the power of truth is often closely associated with the power of righteousness (goodness, merit and so forth) and also - as in the extract from Yang snying cited above - with “the superhuman might of spirits, deities and Buddhas,”


such mention does not mean, however, that the Act of Truth in any way depends for its efficacy upon the co-operation of these other forces, powerful though they are. Truth, in an by itself all-powerful and irresistible, is essentially distinct from them, and operates independently of them. (Burlingame 1917: 432)


The gods, then, are not integral to the efficacy of the Act of Truth, however much they may appear to be in certain, especially later, works. There are two possible mechanisms whereby both ritual and the Act of Truth operate: one - purportedly later - is through the agency of gods who are induced or coerced into action by the ritual; and the other spontaneously, through the intrinsic force of the performance itself, which is “powerful in its own right.” Now, what is of particular interest here is the intriguing suggestion, to be found in several works, that the impeccable execution of a ritual is itself no guarantee of its efficacy, either through the power of the performance or through the secondary agency of the gods. Two examples will serve here by way of illustration of a strikingly different understanding of the ritual dynamic. The first is from the mythic narrative (smrang) section of a ritual for the subjugaton of “vampires of loss” (god sri), a category of demon that preys on livestock.


First, secure the support of the gods; invoke them as witnesses, then summon the vampire of loss and diffuse it [into the effigies]. If there is an assistant,་perform the invocation of the truth and then say as follows: one day all the gods and demons of the phenomenal world ... failed to appreciate this as the truth. The eight haughty ones of the phenomenal world did not support it. At the beginning of the world ages, in the sky, the demons caused hail to fall, and on earth many creatures died. ...From the bones of horses that were left in the houses, the following year there came vampires of loss of horses. (God sri fols 1v–2r)


The disturbing implication of the passage seems to be the following: neither does the utterance of the truth have any intrinsic power, nor does it have the ability to coerce the gods who are present into implementing it. The role of the gods is to act not as enforcers, but as witnesses to the truth that has been enunciated, and it is their derelection of this duty that has resulted in the rise of vampires.


The second example, from the collection of Bonpo funerary texts known as the Mu cho’i khrom dur, reinforces the notion that the ritual has no intrinsic power.


Protect the near and dear of our benefactor, and witness that we have performed the repulsion of external adversities. If we perform the ‘driving away’ of our enemies and they do not leave; if we perform the ‘repulsion’ and they are not repelled; if we perform the ‘subjugation’ and they are not tamed but continue to harm us, fulfil your role as mediators and witnesses! (ref!)


Just as in the previous example the gods were at liberty to endorse or to ignore the declaration of truth, in the present case the proper execution of the rite does not automatically elicit the compliance of the demons that are to be expelled. They may decide not to comply, but in this case, the text seems to say, they are in transgression of the law, and it is the duty of the gods—who are, again, present as witnesses—to testify that the ritual was performed as it should be, and that the priest is in the right.


The two examples given here are not anomalies, but manifestations of a cultural understanding of ritual as a legal process. The following section will pursue this line of enquiry by exploring a principle that has been underestimated in discussions of Tibetan law, and is also crucial to our understanding of ritual. This is the notion of precedent.


Res judicata and stare decisis


To make a claim for the importance of precedent in Tibetan law may seem surprising in the light of Rebecca French’s insistence that the legal system made no provision for it, and that each case was considered on its own merits. This claim invites closer scrutiny. French suggests that Tibetan law did not observe the principles - present in British and American legal systems, for example - of stare decisis and res judicata (1995: 139). Leaving aside the the latter, let us consider the status of stare decisis. The formulation, an abbreviation of the phrase stare decisis et non quieta movere, “to stand by decisions and not disturb the undisturbed”, supports the principle that cases should assessed in the light of comparable examples from the past.


If the examples of actual cases that will be cited below categorically contradict Rebecca French’s argument, I do not think that that is because her claim is wrong. The legal universe from which French derives her conclusions is the official judiciary connected with the Ganden Phodrang government, and the premises underlying this institution were not ubiquitous. In her study of legal anthropology, Fernanda Pirie reminds us that a single nation or even a small-scale society may be host to a multiplicity of legal systems, even without the spurious extension of the label ‘law’ to systems of social regulation such as kinship (Pirie 2013: 14). The example cited below are from Mustang, in Nepal, but they are not significantly different from similar documents from Central Tibet. In both cases, we know that local communities tried to settle disputes internally, without recourse to national structures, since such engagements were invariably costly and intrusive, and often brutal.


Legal decisions and undertakings are not always made on the basis of precedent. However, when there is a departure from established models, we find a clause stating that this is the case. Explicit breaks with the past are uncommon, and are situation-specific rather than the ‘default’ procedure. Two examples may be cited. In 1910, a family of priestly rank was ordered by the council of the commoner village on whose territory it lived to provide one member for public labour. The family contested the levy by citing an earlier incident when the local lord had requisitioned labour for building his palace, and demanded a representative from each household. The same family had argued that, as priests, they had always been exempt from corvée, and the lord had accepted their position. In 1910 they were able to use this case as successful grounds for exemption from public labour (Tibetan Sources 2, HMA/LTshognam/Tib/07).


In another case from 1890 two villages had a dispute about usufruct of a salina that they had traditionally shared. The document reasserts the right of both communities to use the salt. The basis for this decision entails two established precedents. First, there is an appeal to deep antiquity - the resource has been shared “since ancient times, and this shall endure till the end of the world age”. The second precedent is more recent, and refers to the confirmation of this traditional arrangement by the King of Jumla. Since Jumla’s hold over Mustang was broken by the Gorkhas in 1789, the point of reference must be prior to this date. The fact that here, as in the previous example, several precedents are invoked is significant, and by no means unusual (Tibetan Sources 1: HMA/Te/Tib/43).


These cases will serve to underscore the point that Tibetan law, as represented by these documents from a culturally Tibetan enclave, set a high value on the need to “stand by decisions and not disturb the undisturbed”; courses of action were legitimised by reference to similar procedures that had been followed in the past.


Tibetan ritual

There are, as Karmay says, broadly two types of Tibetan ritual, sādhana (sgrub thabs) and gto. The gto ritual, which is concerned with curing illnesses and healing more general natural afflictions by propitiating gods and demons,


was often concerned with the everyday life of the people. It functions to create social cohesion and moral obligation among the members of the village community. It encourages communal organization centering upon the cult of the local spirits connected with water, soil, rocks, and mountains.


The defining feature of these rituals is the mythical antecedent, smrang or rabs. Thus gto rituals


generally begin with a reference to a preceding action or a sort of event that is supposed to have taken place in the distant past. It appears that without this precedent, the ritual itself does not seem to have much significance regarding the effect that it is intended to have. (2010: 54)


The evocation of precedents in mythic narratives is particularly striking in the ritual literature from Dunhuang. For now, let us consider the particular example of numerous precedents in one text, PT1285. The text, relating to a ritual for healing victims of poisoning, consists of an extensive narrative, the smrang, which contains examples of how the ritual has been successful in the past. There is not just one story but at least nine. It is, as Rolf Stein says, a sort of jurisprudence: it lists all the examples of resolution in the history of this type of case (1971: 504). The point is that, in archaic rituals, successful outcomes are achieved if the procedure followed accords with the established precedents.


Gto rituals are formulated according to the idiom of bringing harmony where there was discord, and the crucial figure in all this is a priestly figure who acts as mediator.


Priests and mediators

As in the case of the documents cited above, signatories to the resolution of disputes invariably include mediators, known as bar mi. Minor matters may feature just one person in this role, whereas more serious issues are likely to list several. The importance of the mediator in Tibetan law has been pointed out in several publications, including a recent study, by Fernanda Pirie, of a law code in which an entire section is devoted to the principles according to which mediators should act (Pirie forthcoming).


As is well known, the character of Gshen rab mi bo, the legendary founder of the Bon religion, is most developed in three hagiographical works dating from about the 11th to the 14th century: the mDo ’dus, the gZer mig and the gZi brjid. Gshen rab also appears in a few Bonpo works that are earlier than these biographies, as well as in ritual texts from more recent times. In these accounts, he is presented not as a Buddha figure, but as a hero who resolves disputes. One cache of such texts found in dGa’ thang ’bum pa, a large stupa in Lhokha, has been studied by a number of researchers (Pa tshab Pa sangs dbang ’dus and Glang ru Nor bu tshe ring 2007). Of particular relevance to us here is the mythic narrative (smrang) of a byol, a type of ransom ritual. In this case, it concerns a story about the resolution of a murder case involving non-human protagonists. A young klu, Klu Rab bzang to re, falls in love with a woman of the sMra category, Smra lcam Si le ma. Her brother, Smra then pa, kills Klu Rab bzang to re, and the latter’s father Klu rje zin brtsan vows to take revenge. Because of Smra then pa’s magical powers Klu rje zin brtsan is unable to kill him, and he is forced to resort to adjudication to claim compensation for his son’s death. The figure is set at 770,000 srang of gold, an impossibly high figure that sMra then ba is unable to pay. In desperation, Smra then pa turns to Gshen rab myi bo to save him from his enemies. Gshen rab agrees to do this, and invites two other figures to join him in performing the byol ritual whereby Klu rje zin brtsan accepts substitues for the 770,000 srang. These substitutes include a monkey, a sheep and a bird. The text informs us that this event was the historical precedent for both the ransom ritual and the custom of blood money (Bellezza 2010: 72–90).


In his study of this text, Bellezza points out that Gshen rab is not a Buddha-figure so much as a priest. He certainly is a priest, to the extent that he performs the ritual that restores harmony between parties who are engaged in an epic dispute. More specifically, however, his position is that of a mediator, who restores peace between warring groups of non-human beings – the sMra on one side and the klu, the srin, the bdud, the yi dwags and the ltas ngan on the other. He achieves this by negotiating a reasonable figure for the blood money demanded by the injured party; a figure that, in the performance of the ritual, is represented by certain animals and substitutes.


Although the primary role of Gshen rab as a mediator has been superseded in the later Bonpo literature, it is interesting to note that some Buddhist works document the role of the Bon hero as being primarily one of ritual and mediation. A passage in one text states that the corresponding figure “could mediate in disputes between humans on the one hand and gods and demons on the other...” (Nyang: 160–61). The role of the priest as a legal figure is also alluded to in a work by ’Jig rten mgon po (1143–1217), which was the basis for the much better known treatise on Bon by the dGe lugs pa scholar Thu’u bkwan Blo bzang chos kyi nyi ma (1737–1802). According to this account, the figure who corresponds to Gshen rab was abducted by demons and instructed by them for up to to twleve years, before being reintroduced to the human realm. Following the death of King Gri gum, he was invited to perform the gri gshid (recte: gshed) ritual to counter the effects of a violent death, but replied, “Although I know a great many of these rituals, they can be reduced to three categories: pressing down demons and vampires; making offerings to the revered gods on high, and reciting the methods of the law in the middle” (Dam chos fols 20r–20v).


The examples given so far reveal two themes that are common to legal and ritual procedures: the importance of precedent in establishing the legitimacy or efficacy of the procedure, and the role of the mediator in restoring harmony. In legal texts, the harmony is social, and in the ritual texts it concerns relations between humans and non-humans or between different categories of non-humans.


To conclude, I would like to draw attention to one of the very few texts of which I am aware that deals with the actual application of the law. Only four folios - found in a cave in Mustang, Nepal - are available, and since they are numbered from 34 to 37 they were clearly part of a larger work. The language is archaic and difficult to understand, with many words that are not found in dictionaries. The work relates to a society in which there is no supreme authority that can enforce laws. This, I believe, was characteristic of most of Tibet for most of its history, either because there was no such authority or else because people preferred to sort out their issues without approaching official judicial authorities.


How, then, were the two parties to come to an agreement about the extent of the compensation to be paid; or, if the sums in question are actually specified in the missing part of the text, how is the guilty party to be persuaded to pay it? The text in question is a remarkable one because it is a legal manual that has features of archaic ritual texts. First of all, it establishes a series of precedents for disputes and reconciliation that are said to have occurred among humans, gods and animals:


Once upon a time, the gods and titans fought because they did not reach an agreement over the wish-fulfilling tree; the serpent-spirits fought because they did not reach an agreement over a jewel; ... the emperors fought because they could not agree over their dominions; dogs fight over food. Generally, then, there is conflict even in the realm of the gods, while resolution may be achieved [even] in the realm of the demons. If there is no possibility of reconciliation, that is because the enemies are karmic enemies: the snake and the weasel are karmic enemies, as are the crow and the owl, the sparrowhawk and the sparrow, the sheep and the wolf. The fault is due to the fact that they have inferior intelligence. But we humans have intelligence, and, even if there is conflict, we must reconcile.


Here we see a striking case of the human world of legal reparation being compared to disputes in non-human realms, including both animals and gods. The dispute that is currently taking place is nothing new; it is a feature of life in the world. But just as disputes are natural, so too is their resolution, even among demons. In the absence of a supreme ruler, resolution is achieved by a mediator, called bar spyi. On the one hand the mediator must try to persuade the aggrieved party not to demand an impossibly high compensation. He is advised to say: “Something that has caused no more harm than the point of a needle doesn’t demand recompense as great as a sword.” And at the same time he must persuade the offender that peace can only be achieved if he actually pays the compensation: “there can be no reconciliation without discussion, or without the payment of the compensation.”


The mediator is not more powerful that the disputing parties, and he even acknowledges this fact, warning them that they have nothing to gain from harming him:


If you kill me, you are the one who will suffer tormented feelings; if you beat me, your laughter will be in tears; if you scratch me, it’s your nails that will hurt.... Since you are proud and powerful, and I, the mediator, am weak, the two of you should not compete in strength.


There is even a hint that the role of the mediator is a priestly one, since his healing role is compared to that of the Buddha:  “We are feeling unwell as if we were in a sickbed; we are as if in a prison-pit. If you are arrogant and unwise, I, the mediator, would be like the Buddha whose medicine has little benefit when he comes.”



There are several well-known sets of laws and systems of legislation in Tibetan literature, as well as established procedures for trying criminal cases. Both for the purpose of legitimising these law codes, and also to establish standards for making legal judgments, it was essential to have precedents. In order to achieve such resolution it was, and is, important to have mediation. The examples of case records we have seen shown that disputes were resolved not by the judgment of a higher authority, but thanks to the mediation of a respected outsider who could persuade people to heal their own social problems.


Having established that this is a basic principle of Tibetan legal thinking, we can see that indigenous Tibetan rituals are understood in exactly the same way: social and physical ills are the result of disharmony between humans or non-humans, and the purpose of the ritual is to restore this harmony. The central figure in these myths is not the tantric practitioner, who subjugates demons and forces them to do his bidding.  He is explicitly compared with a legal mediator, who persuades the warring parties that there is nothing to be gained from their conflict; that compensation for wrongs committed must be paid in the form of sacrificial offerings, but that this compensation must be reasonable. The assurance that the mediation will be successful is provided by a history of cases, whether in this world or in a supernatural realm, in which a similar process of conciliation has led to the restoration of harmony.





Works in Tibetan

Dam chos

’Bri gung ’Jigs rten mgon po. Dam chos dgongs gcig pa’i rtsa tshig rdo rje’i gsung brgya lnga bcu pa dang/ lhan thabs gsung bzhi bcu ba/ chings rnam pa bzhi/ tshoms bdun go rim gyi rnam dbye dang bcas pa. Drikung Kagyu institute, Jangchub Ling.


God sri

God sri mnan pa bzhugs pa legs so. Manuscript of 5 folios owned by Lama Tshultrim of Lubrak, Mustang.



Nyang Nyi ma ’od zer. 12th century. 1988 edition. Chos ’byung me tog snying po sbrang rtsi’i bcud. Lhasa: Bod ljongs mi dmangs dpe skrun khang.

Thu’u bkwan Blo bzang chos kyi nyi ma, 1985 edition. Grub mtha’ thams cad kyi khungs dang ’dod tshul ston pa legs bshad shel gyi me long. Lanzhou: Kan su’u mi rigs dpe skrun khang.


Yang snying

Gsang sngags gling pa (b. 1864). Yang snying gsang ba’i thugs sgrub las / bsad pa dgra srog spu gri. G.yung drung bon gyi bka’ brten, vol. 38, W30498, ed. Dkar ru grub dbang sprul sku bstan pa’i nyi ma, Lhasa, 1998, pp. 465–93.


Works in European languages

Agamben, G.  2011[2008]. The Sacrament of Language: An Archaeology of the Oath. Stanford: Stanford University Press.


Bellezza, J.V., 2008.  Zhang Zhung: Foundations of Civilization in Tibet: a Historical and Ethnoarchaeological Study of the Monuments, Rock Art, Texts, and Oral Tradition of the Ancient Tibetan Upland, Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften.


Bellezza, J.V. 2010. gShen-rab myi-bo: his life and times according to Tibet’s earliest literary sources. Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines, 19, 31–118.



Brown, W.N. 1972. Duty as truth in India. Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 116, 252–86.


Burlingame, E.W. 1917. The Act of Truth (Saccakiriya): a Hindu spell and its employment as a psychic motif in Hindu fiction. JRAS 1917, 429–67.


Cassinelli, C.W. and R.B. Ekvall. 1969. A Tibetan Principality: The Political System of Sakya. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.


French, R.R. 1995. The Golden Yoke. The Legal Cosmology of Buddhist Tibet. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.


Kapstein, M. 1997. Buddhist perspectives on ontological truth. 420–32. In E. Deutsch and R. Bontekoe (eds) A Companion to World Philosophies. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 420–33.


Moore, S.F and B.G. Myerhoff (eds) 1977. Secular Ritual. Amsterdam: Van Gorcum.

Karmay, S.G. 1998. The soul and the turquoise: a ritual for recalling the bla. In S.G. Karmay, The Arrow and the Spindle: Studies in History, Myths and Beliefs in Tibet. Kathmandu: Mandala Books, 310–38.

Karmay, S.G. 2010. Tibetan indigenous myths and rituals with reference to the ancient Bön text: the Nyenbum (Gnyan ’bum). In J.I. Cabezón (ed.) Tibetan Ritual. New York: Oxford University Press, 53–68.

Pa tshab Pa sangs dbang ’dus and Glang ru Nor bu tshe ring, 2007. Gtam shul dga’ thang ’bum pa che nas gsar du rnyed pa’i bon gyi gna’ dpe bdams bsgrigs, Lhasa: Bod ljongs bod yig dpe rnying dpe skrun khang.

Ramble, C., 2007. The Aya: fragments of an unknown Tibetan priesthood. In B. Kellner, H. Krasser, H. Lasic, M.T. Much and H. Tauscher (eds) Pramāṇakīrtiḥ. Papers Dedicated to Ernst Steinkellner on the Occasion of his 70th Birthday, vol. II, Wien: Wiener Studien zur Tibetologie und Buddhismuskunde, 681–718.

2008a  The Navel of the Demoness: Tibetan Buddhism and Civil Religion in Highland Nepal. New York: Oxford University Press.

Stein, R.A. 1971. Du récit au rituel dans les manuscrits tibétains de Touen-houang. In A. Macdonald (ed.) Études tibétaines dédiées à la mémoire de Marcelle Lalou. Paris: Adrien Maisonneuve, 479–547. 

2008. The Navel of the Demoness: Tibetan Buddhism and Civil Religion in Highland Nepal. New York: Oxford University Press.

2010. Playing dice with the devil: a Bonpo soul-retrieval ritual attributed to Kong rtse ’phrul rgyal and its interpretation in Mustang, Nepal. In Samten Karmay and Donatella Rossi (eds) Bon: the Indigenous Source for Tibetan Religion. Special issue of East and West, vol. 59, nos. 1-4.

Pirie, F. 2013. The Anthropology of Law. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pirie, F. Forthcoming. The making of Tibetan law: the Khrims gnyis lta ba’i me long. In J. Bischoff, P. Maurer and C. Ramble (eds) On a Day of a Month of the Fire Bird Year. Festschrift for Peter Schwieger on his 65th Birthday. Kathmandu: Lumbini International Research Institute.

Schuh, D. 1984. Recht und Gesetz in Tibet. In L. Ligeti (ed.) Tibetan and Buddhist Studies Commemorating the 200th Anniversary of the Birth of Alexander Csöma de Körös. Budapest: Akadémiai Kiadó, 291–311.


Snellgrove, D.L., 1967. The Nine Ways of Bon, repr. Boulder: Prajñā, 1980.


Stein, R.A., 1971. Du récit au rituel dans les manuscrits tibétains de Touen-houang. In A. Macdonald (ed.) Études tibétaines dédiées à la mémoire de Marcelle Lalou. Paris: Adrienne Maisonneuve, 479–547.


Tibetan Sources 1

Ramble, C. 2008. Tibetan Sources for a Social History of Mustang, Nepal. Volume 1: The Archive of Te. Halle: International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies.


Tibetan Sources 2

Ramble, C. 2016. Tibetan Sources for a Social History of Mustang, Nepal. Volume 2: The Archives of the Tantric Lamas of Tshognam. Andiast: International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies.





* Owing to limitations of space, the Tibetan text of passages cited here has not been included. For an extended version of this article, see

[1] See, for example Moore and Meyerhoff 1977.

[2] For two descriptions of this ritual, see Karmay 1998 and Ramble 2010.