There is no general agreement concerning the definition of the term ‘ritual’. One extreme position even holds that the term may be applied to any kind of formalised or repeated activity: ‘ritualisation’ is something that can be done to any type of action or speech, without there necessarily being any religious connotation. For present purposes, the range of what is meant by ‘ritual’ will be limited to what is covered by the Tibetan term cho ga, which refers to certain structured procedures that are designed to have a spiritual effect, or else to transform the physical world by magical means.

As Samten Karmay has pointed out, there are, broadly speaking, two types of rituals in Tibet: those which belong to the Indian Buddhist tradition, and those which are probably indigenous to Tibet (Karmay 2010: 54). From a Bonpo perspective, all these traditions originated in the land of Zhangzhung with the teaching of Tönpa Shenrab, the legendary founder of Bon, and it may therefore be more appropriate to think of these categories as being of ‘Indian type’ or ‘Tibetan type’; after all, Bonpo scholars do concur that, even though certain teachings such as the Kalacakra, the Wheel of Time, were originally taught by Shenrab, one line of transmission passed through India and was filtered through Buddhism before reaching Tibet.

The most elaborate and diverse forms of these ‘Indian type’ rituals are to be found in the body of Bonpo or Buddhist canonical literature known as the tantras. Historically, tantric literature was produced over the entire span of the first millennium of the present era, but the stated aims and the complexity of the scriptures developed so much over the course of time that later systematisers of the material had to classify the corpus into different—usually four or five—separate categories. The earliest tantras, which appeared during the first century CE but continued to be produced for a long time thereafter—are really little more than elaborate spells for the control of the natural world, such as the weather. Over time these techniques merged with more elaborate Buddhist concepts and iconography and increased in complexity.

A crucial component of these later rituals was the motif of the mandala, which organises the higher and lower divinities into a schematically-ordered diagram representing a divine citadel. By identification with the central divinity of the mandala, the tantric practitioner could use that divinity’s powers to bring about changes in the natural world. As the tantras developed, however, this process of divine self-identification came to be used as a technique for harnessing the divinity’s powers in order to achieve not just material but also spiritual goals, notably the enlightenment of the practitioner him- or herself.

In the later tantras, the benign gods who had originally occupied the centre of the mandala were replaced by wrathful divinities, generally represented in embrace with their female consorts, a union that symbolises the all-important fusion of wisdom (female) with compassion (male). The state of immutability that was to be achieved by such meditation was expressed by reference to the epitome of hardness and clarity: the diamond or vajra. These late tantras came to form the core of the latest phase of Buddhism, which is accordingly known as the Diamond Way (Vajrayāna). It was the proliferation of female figures, both divine and human, in the mandala, and the fact that female divinities sometime occupied the central position in the mandala, that led to the latest tantras in the Diamond Way being designated as “Yogini Tantras”.

The type of tantric ritual in which the performer achieves identity with the central divinity in order to accomplish his (or her) goals is known in Sanskrit as a sādhana (Tibetan sgrub thabs). Most of the rituals that are performed by Bonpo and Buddhist lamas have this general structure: the ‘altar’ represents the mandala, and the dough-and-butter sculptures, tormas (Tib. gtor ma), placed on it representing the divinities who belong to it. The topmost level represents the centre of the mandala, the seat of the highest, transcendent gods, while the lower steps are home to more peripheral divinities, such as the protectors. At a certain point in the ceremony the divinities are invited to take their place in their respective receptacles, where they are received with offerings that include a simpler kind of torma representing food for the gods. These tormas are generally arranged on the lowest step of the altar.

In addition to such ‘Indian type’ sādhana performances, Tibetan culture features a very different category of rituals known as gto, which are particularly associated with the Bon religion. One of the frameworks the Bonpos use for organising their vast corpus of sacred literature and associated practices is a system of nine vehicles or ‘Nine Ways’. The classification is complex, and not always consistent. Thus gto rites belong to the first way, know as the Way of the Shen of Prediction. The second vehicle, the Way of the Shen of the Visual World, includes a class of offering rites know as mdos, but these are also sometimes identified as a form of gto; and at least one of these mdos rites is said to belong to the eighth vehicle, the Way of the Primaeval Shen.

gTo rituals are concerned with curing illnesses and healing more general natural afflictions by propitiating the supernatural powers that have been identified—usually through some form of divination—as being responsible. An important feature of these rites is the recitation of a long narrative that recounts the myth of the first occasion on which the ritual was successfully performed. It is this evocation of the archetypal event, of which the present performance is seen as a repetition, that guarantees the efficacy of the ritual. To this extent, gto rituals are structurally more similar to Vedic rituals or the healing ceremonies of the Himalayan shamans than they are to tantric sādhanas, through there is no evidence of any historical connection between tradition. While gto rituals surely existed in Tibet as an independent practice, in most Bon performances they are now carried out within the broader framework of tantric rites. The officiating lama will therefore invite the gods to take their designate places within the mandala, as is the normal procedure for a sādhana, and then perform the gto ritual before the gods are asked to depart at the end of the performance. Certain rituals, such as exorcisms, entail the ‘destruction’ of harmful demons, and the framework of the sādhana, with the presence of the high tantric divinities, ensures that the ritual is carried out in an environment that preserves the essential principles of the Bon religion. The ritual entails not the mere killing of demons but the transference of their consciousness to a higher realm that that which they are condemned by their karma to inhabit. Far from being an act of black magic, then, the ritual is consonant with the ultimate goal of Bon: the liberation of all living beings from the cycle of suffering.

The narratives contained in the gto rituals often reveal the influence of Chinese elemental divination, a development of the I Qing that has come to occupy an important place in Tibetan astrology. For the Bonpos, the sage who promulgated these doctrines is Kongtse (regarded by some as being based on Confucius), who appears as the priest and hero of the corresponding accounts. A case in point is one of the rituals that feature here, known as the “Three-Headed One from the Black gto Rituals” (gTo nag mgo gsum). According to the narrative, an old man associated with the divinatory trigram Khen (male), corresponding to the Chinese concept of yang, couples with an old woman of the trigram Khon, linked to the element earth and the concept of yin (female).  The offspring is a terrifying chimera with three animal heads, a human body, birds’ talons, a monkey’s tail and a belt consisting of a serpent. It proceeds to destroy and devour everything in its path until it is tamed by Kongtse, who assumes a form identical to it, but with superior powers. The monster is subjugated, bound by an oath, and imprisoned in a black iron pan—and this, indeed, is how the effigy, built mainly from black clay, is represented in the performance.

Surrounding the central effigy, within its pan, is a mass of small images made by pressing dough into a variety of different wooden moulds. The images represent the years, the planets and other celestial bodies, humans, animals and birds—in fact the entire cosmos. The effigy, then, has multiple functions; it is a destructive monster that, once tamed, overcomes all evils. The text tells us at the outset that “There is nothing that cannot be repulsed by this gto ritual: curses and slander, high taxes, lust, and all illnesses and epidemics might appear in a community”; but insofar as it is a mdos, it is not just a powerful weapon but also an offering of the universe-in-miniature to the gods. This is a relatively simple example, but it illustrates the point that effigies in these sorts of rituals have multiple functions and identities, and that the ‘grammar’ that gives meaning to the different components is often far from straightforward.

The language of these mythic narratives recited by the priest has an epic beauty, rich with images from the natural world, that is not often found in the more conventional religious literature of Bon or Buddhism, and one senses a kinship with oral bardic poetry that is such a ubiquitous feature of Tibetan civilisation. In the mythic narrative that accompanies the ritual for the subjugation of vampires (sri), in which Shenrab Miwo himself has the role of the priest-hero, there is a disturbing episode in which a young mother loses nine children in succession. After each one is born, her closest female relations—her mother, her sisters, her aunts and so on—each offers in turn to take care of the newborn. But they fail to do so, and the babies succumb to neglect. The archetypal tragedy of child-death is expressed after each occasion in the poignant refrain: “The baby was not reared into childhood, but died in infancy; the barley did not ripen into grain, but withered as green shoots; the fledgling did not hatch out, for the egg was broken; the buds did not ripen into fruit, but dried on the branch in the summer.”

The spectacular ritual for the subjugation of vampires contains not one but several myths; and indeed, this multiplication of archetypal cases in the narrative is characteristic of the earliest known Bon rituals. In many instances the texts do not recount the myths in full, but make a brief allusion to them, as if by way of a reminder that this ritual has a good record of successful outcomes in the mythic past. The narration of multiple case histories, so to speak, invites another observation about the nature of gto rituals: that their structure is strongly reminiscent of Tibetan legal literature, particularly manuals of mediation. The role of the mediator was—and still is—a highly respected one in Tibet, especially in areas with little centralised authority where disputes between tribal chiefs carries the risk of degenerating into protracted vendettas. The lengthy preamble to the mediator’s intervention is effectively a litany of past disputes in the divine and animal world, and how these have been successfully resolved. Thus the role of the priest-hero in the gto mythic narratives is essentially that of a mediator, who puts an end to the conflict between the human and supernatural worlds that underlies our physical and social misfortunes.