Tibetan Ritual (Kvaerne 1988)

The Tibetan Ritual Illustrated by the Evocation of the ‘Lion of Speech’ in the Bon Religion

by Per Kvaerne

English translation of “Le rituel tibetain, illustré par l’évocation, dans la religion Bon-po, du ‘Lion de la Parole’” in Anne-Marie Blondeau and Kristofer Schipper (eds.), Essais sur le rituel I, Louvain/Paris (Peeters), 1988, pp. 147-158.

Most Tibetan rituals are performed by monks. During these rituals, gods who are supposed to have attained Buddhahood and who have, therefore, surpassed the limitations of this world are often invoked. Although lay people can take an active role and although certain rituals are often held in village houses, lay attendance is not normally required.

These rituals have an almost infinite diversity and complexity. This may be one of the reasons why they have attracted the attention of only a very small number of researchers. However, some general observations may be of use to orient oneself in the immensity, at first glance disconcerting, of this field of religious practices.

First observation: these rituals always depend on texts. It is evident that not only the invocations, the prayers, etc. are written, but also that this written form is indispensable, because the meaning of the ritual is expressed in recited texts.

Second observation: even the texts are only provisional. Their function is to serve as a support for the true content of the rite, which is the mental evocation of a deity—evocation in the form of concentrated visualisation. The sequence of mental images is accompanied by the recitation of the mantra, without which the ritual would remain ineffective. Consequently, it is not the external ritual action that holds our attention first and foremost. It is the sequence of invocations and visualisations that gives meaning and coherent structure to the ritual, and it is this that has to be studied.

Third observation: this coherence of structure is not found entirely in a single unique text. For a given ritual, there is normally a short text which serves, so to speak, as an aide-mémoire or a table of contents. Texts are added to this framework, and certain parts of these are recited. The officiant must therefore, in practice, have before him a number of different texts, all of which will be used. The references given in the aide-mémoire are very brief, supposing that the officiant has already acquired knowledge of the whole ritual, which, incidentally, makes it impossible to pursue the study of a ritual without being guided in reading texts by a Tibetan expert.

A ritual is therefore composed of a number of basic elements that are chosen, repeated, combined or elaborated according to the purpose and nature of the ritual to be performed. This leads us to a fourth observation: performances of the same ritual can sometimes exhibit significant variants, depending on the prevailing tradition in the school or the monastery that is officiating. As a result of visions, revelations or discoveries of apocryphal texts, new variants are added to the textual body already established.

The ritual we will examine more closely is an evocation of the deity sMra ba'i seng ge, the “Lion of Speech”. The corresponding Sanskrit form is Vādisiṃha. It is therefore Mañjuśrī, the great bodhisattva, the divinity of wisdom. The ritual belongs to the liturgical tradition of the Tibetan Bon religion.[1]

The purpose of the ritual is to evoke this divinity in order to obtain supreme wisdom and perfect mastery of the word, which he dispenses. The officiants therefore desire, for themselves and for any lay patrons they may have, talents that are particularly prized in Tibetan civilisation.

The ritual of the “Lion of Speech” is normally combined with another ritual, that of “Attaining Long Life”. Both rituals are fully entangled. At each stage of the ritual two verses are recited: one for the 'Lion of Speech', the other to express the desire for a long life. However, for simplicity, in this presentation of the ritual we will omit the elements relating to long life.

It is understood that “The Lion of Speech”, being the god of Wisdom, is honoured with active worship by those who pursue a scholastic career.

Nowadays, the monks of Menri, the Bonpo monastery in India (at Dolanji, in Himachal Pradesh) perform a great evocation of the “Lion of Speech” once a year. This ritual takes place between the 23rd and 30th day of the first month of the Tibetan year, which corresponds roughly to March.

In addition to this manifestation of the ritual life of the monastic community, this ritual can be performed by monks at any time, in a village house, and at the request of a layman. In this case, the ritual in simplified form lasts a day.

In October 1985 two monks from the Bon monastery in India, accepting me as a lay patron, agreed to perform the ritual for my benefit. The ritual lasted a day, including lunch time, tea drinking, etc. The two monks were helped by an assistant.

A Tibetan ritual of this type has three sections: the preliminary part, the main part and the conclusion. In the case of the “Lion of Speech”, the main part consists of twenty-one steps of which the first fifteen form a set that can be repeated several times. The duration of the ritual can therefore be varied according to the desires and means of the lay patron.

Before beginning the ritual, two preliminary activities must take place: the making of ritual cakes (tormas; gtor ma) and the preparation of the altar.

The tormas are of two categories: those symbolizing a deity, and those that are offerings to deities or demons.

For the ritual performance under discussion, a total of nine tormas belonging to the first category were made, symbolizing (1) the Lion of Speech, (2) the deity of long life, (3) the assembly of the peaceful gods and (4 - 9) the six protective gods of good religion. These tormas are very complex from the point of view of their symbolism. As an example, let us take the 'long life' torma (Fig. 1).



((Figure 1. ‘Long life’ torma))


1. The jewel

2-5. The four elements = the four modes of action of the Buddha

     2. Fire = fierce

     3. Air = powerful

     4. Earth = vast

     5. Water = calm

6. The “vase” (placed on the maṇḍala)

7. The symbols of the four divine families:

     East = swastika

     North = wheel

     West = lotus

     South = jewel

8. Long life pills

9. The maṇḍala

The central part of the torma is called the “vase”, while the base is called “maṇḍala”. However, placing a vase in the centre of the maṇḍala is the most important action of the first part of the ritual, as we shall see. The torma therefore presages, by its very structure, the ritual to come. In addition, the torma is a cosmogram, imitating in its form and structure the Tibetan stupa.

A fairly large variety of torma belonging to the second category are prepared. Symbols of divine families, offerings, etc. are formed from dough using small wooden molds and attached to the torma.

On the altar, erected in one corner of the room, the cult objects are grouped on two levels. On the upper level are the tormas of the deities. On the lower level are the offerings, including other tormas.



((Figure 2. Altar arrangement))

A-I: Deities (represented by torma)

     A. Lion of Speech

     B. Divinity of long life

     C. Assembly of the peaceful gods

(D-I: The protective gods of Bon)


     D. Mi bdud

     E. Hur pa

     F. Nyi pang sad


     G. Srid rgyal

     H. Yum sras

     I. sGra bla ma


1-12: The offerings

     1. Libation (gta' chen)

     2. Libation (tsan mar)

     3. Tormas dmar lam)

     4. Maṇḍala (symbol of the universe)

     5. Tormas (rgyun gtor)

     6. “Medicinal” water (sman)

     7. Offering of fruit, etc. (tshags)

     8. Tormas (gtor ma)

     9. “Medicinal” beer (sman chang)

     10. Libation (gser skyems)

     11. Libation (rakta, “blood”)

     12. Lamps (mar me)


We will now turn to the description of the ritual.

I. The preliminary part (sngon 'gro):

     1. Aspiration (tshan khrus)

     2. Fumigation (spos bsang)

     3. Libation (gta' chen)

     4. The offering of the white torma (dkar mchod)

     5. (The offering of) the ransom torma (glud gtor)

     6. Demarcation of the outer limit (phyi mtshams bcad pa)

     7. Binding with string (maṇḍala) (thig gdab)

     8. Grating (colours for the maṇḍala) and their application (chag chag tshon bkye ba)

     9. Preparation of the vase (bum pa bca' ba)

     10. Placement of ornaments (rgyan bkod pa)


II. The main part (dngos gzhi):

     1. Demarcation of the inner boundary (nang mtshams bcad pa)

     2. Refuge (skyabs 'gro)

     3. Production of the “thought of enlightenment” (sems bskyed)

     4. Confession of sins (sdig bshags)

     5. Performance (of the offering gestures) of the maṇḍala (mandal btang)

     6. Triple mental concentration (ting 'dzin rnam gsum bsgom pa)

     7. Meditation of the invitation (spyan drangs pa'i ting 'dzin)

     8. Greeting (phyag 'tshal ba)

     9. Confession of sins (sdig bshags)

     10. Presentation of the five offerings (mchod rnam lnga 'bul)

     11. Offering of medicine (sman mchod)

     12. Torma offering (gtor ma 'bul ba)

     13. Recitation (of the mantra) ('dzab pa)

     14. Meditation of “the combined offering” (tshogs kyi ting 'dzin)

     15. Meditation of praise (of the divinity) (sku bstod pa'i ting 'dzin)

     16. Acquisition of perfections (dngos grub blangs pa)

     17. Fire offering (me mchod)

     18. (Offering of) leftovers (lhag ma)

     19. Vow (dam bca’)

     20. (Offering of) the torma (gtor ma)

     21. Prayer (smon lam)


III. The conclusion (rjes kyi bya ba):

     1. Invocation of happiness (bkra shis gsol ba)

     2. Abolition of distinctions (dbye bsdu)

     3. Great perfection (of thought) (rdzogs pa chen po)


The purpose of the preliminary part is the construction of the maṇḍala of the divinity. It consists of ten elements or stages that are grouped into two series of actions. The first series of actions includes purifications and offerings to the gods and demons to create a safe and auspicious space: aspersion (1) and fumigation (2) to purify the place; the libation (3) and the offering of torma (4) to the four guardian gods for their protection; and the offering of a ransom, also in the form of a torma, to the demons (5) to appease them.

The second series covers the creation of the maṇḍala: this entails first the creation, by means of mental concentration, of a space protected by the four guardian deities of the four directions (6), then drawing the lines of the maṇḍala with threads (7) and tracing the contours of the maṇḍala along the threads with coloured powder (8).

The consecration of the vase (9) is the essence of the preliminary part and constitutes its culminating point. This consecration is accomplished by reciting a dozen sacred formulas. Then the vase is filled with precious substances, placed in the centre of the maṇḍala and, finally, sacred pills are added to its contents. The divinity can then be invited to manifest.

Two remarks are necessary. First of all, it is the recited text that reveals the meaning of each stage of the ritual. No analysis of Tibetan ritual can neglect the written text.

Second, the text shows us that the first five steps are doubled by, or compared to, actions at the noumenal level of the deity. Thus, the pure water of aspersion (1) is likened to “the rain of nectar coming from the clouds of grace” of divine compassion. The next five stages take place at the mental level, the level of meditation, as well as at the physical level. For example, the creation of a purified space is achieved through mental evocation and concentrated visualisation, although the only visible actions are recitation, use of musical instruments and offering tormas.

One should note that in the abridged version of the ritual conducted for the author the maṇḍala was not drawn, and instead the vase was simply placed on the altar, without which the ritual would have been considered less effective. The relevant part of the text, however, was recited.

We now move on to the main part of the ritual. This part is characterised by great complexity.

One can nevertheless discern some consistent traits. First, although there are always visible, physical actions, most of the ritual unfolds on an inner plane, on the mental plane of meditation and concentration. The progression of these inner events is based on recited texts which always contain a detailed description of the meditation to be performed at each stage. Here, again, it is worth noting that the texts are indispensable to any attempt to describe and especially to analyse and understand a ritual.

Second, this meditation establishes identity between the person performing the ritual and the divinity evoked. It is by actualizing this identity that the performer obtains the qualities or the perfections he desires—eloquence, omniscience, wisdom.

The main stages of the main part of the ritual begin with preliminary acts, namely:

     – protecting the sacred space by transforming it, through meditation, into a ferocious deity (1);

     – a series of mental purifications including the formula of refuge (2), the production of the thought of enlightenment (3), the confession of sins (4) and the symbolic offering of the maṇḍala (5).

The main stage is the mental construction of a maṇḍala (6) corresponding to the maṇḍala already built on the physical plane. This mental maṇḍala is the result of a series of transformations: from the heart emanate sacred syllables from which proceed the five forms of the “Lion of Speech”; each divinity in the series of five being multiplied by eight yields the number of forty, that is, the complete manifestation of the “Lion of Speech”.

In addition, each deity corresponds to a syllable or letter of the Tibetan alphabet. The divine manifestation, which is, if we recall, identical with the noumenal nature of the ritual performer, is therefore a manifestation of language. Then, the deities are all reabsorbed mentally into the body of the performer who identifies with them in this way.

The mental construction of the maṇḍala is followed by a series of ritual actions directed towards the divinities thus evoked: an invitation (7), a greeting (8), a confession of sins (9) and the presentation of five offerings to the deities (10), namely a lamp, water, incense, food and flowers. The offerings, which are represented physically by a single torma, are transposed to the mental or noumenal plane: it is about “the lamp of limitless vision”, “the water of behaviour deprived of actions”, “the incense of the meditation of spontaneous thought”, etc. One makes an offering of medicine in the same way, conferring all the perfections (11) and an offering of a torma (12) that is assimilated at the same time into the universe with the cosmic mountain in its centre and into “the spontaneous light of meditation”.

At this stage of the analysis it should be noted that the ritual is composed of elements that are sometimes repeated, possibly with small variations. Thus, the next step, “the recitation of the mantra” (13), is merely a repetition of the meditation that we have just described but this time accompanied by the recitation of a series of mantras that contain the forty letters or syllables of the Tibetan alphabet. The rest of the main part of the ritual (14-21) consists of prayers and offerings that do not differ considerably from those that have already been described.

The end of the ritual is not linked in a specific way to the chosen deity. It can be concluded in different ways, the simplest of which, described in the text, consists in the dissolution of divinity in the noumenal void, assimilated into the mind of the ritual performer.

The conclusions reached here are fully in line with the propositions made by Kristofer Schipper in his summary “Towards a Theory of Ritual”.[2] The correctness of his remarks about texts are evident, namely that “it is impossible to study a ritual without taking into account ... the content of the texts ... which are part of it”. In contrast to many other rituals, the evocation of the “Lion of Speech”, as indeed all Tibetan rituals belonging to the category of sādhana or evocation of a deity, conveys “a doctrinal discourse ... a determined belief”.

We find especially that Tibetan rituals constitute a great liturgical tradition that is still alive today. Their importance towards a common goal, though still distant, of formulating a global theory of ritual is that they allow one to “rely on specific examples, from the observation of a set, and the complete inventory of the elements that constitute it”.



Figure 3. The “Lion of Speech” (sMra ba’i seng ge) in his ritual five-fold form.

Photo: Per Kværne.

Figure 4. Torma symbolising the peaceful gods (left) and long life (right).

Photo: Per Kværne.

Figure 5. The ritual – Blessing the offerings.

Photo: Per Kværne.


  1. ^ 1. Two texts were used during the ritual; they were printed in the same volume, with uninterrupted pagination, in India between 1960 and 1970.

    The first text (pp. 41-84), which serves as a basic text (sgrub gzhung), contains the invocations of the god sMra seng used in the ritual. The title is Shes rab smra ba'i seng ge'i sgrub gzhung ma rig mun sel, “The book of the evocation Lion of Speech, God of Wisdom: (book) which dispels the darkness of ignorance”. According to the colophon, the author of the text is gNam bon Shes rab dong rgyal, also known as sSod nams blo gros (1784-1835), the twenty-second abbot of the monastery of sMan ri, the most important monastery of the Bon religion. He received the ritual from the mouth of sMra seng himself during a vision in a Wood Bird year (1825), on the 15th day of the month of the dragon; however, it was only five years later, in a male Iron Tiger year (1830), on the 15th of the fourth month (sa ga'i zla ba), that he wrote it down “at the request of the scholar Blo gros 'od zer”.

    The second text (pp. 1-39) is entitled Shes rab smra seng gi phyag bzhes rtsi bcud snying po'i rgyun bzang, “The practice (of the ritual) of the Lion of Speech, God of Wisdom: the good flow of the quintessence of the nectar”. Most of this text (pp. 7-38) contains the zin ris, the “aide-mémoire”, of the ritual. The zin ris gives only brief references to the sgrub gzhung, indicating, for example, the first words of a verse to recite.

    According to the colophon of the zin ris, the author is sKam btsun Drung mu nyi wer, also known as g.Yung drung nyi rgyal. Of the latter we know that he was the uncle of Nyi ma bstan 'dzin (born in 1813), the successor of bSod nams blo gros, and that he was from Sde dge. The text was written in an Earth Horse year (1858) in the monastery of sMan ri during a ritual dedicated to sMra seng. The author reports that he was inspired by Blo gros bsod nams himself, who said that the basic text should be explained by using a systematic aide-mémoire.

    The first part of the text (pp. 3-7) contains a summary of the history of the ritual, “the explanation of the story that inspires confidence in the ritual” (yid ches par by pa'i lo rgyus bshad pa). Here we find some additional information: in general, all the abbots of sMan ri are emanations (sprul pa) of sMra seng, but the omniscient bSod nams blo gros is one of the “four great emanations of sMra seng” (sMra seng rnam sprul che bzhi). He came from the clan of the dBra, whose members are “Bonpo of the sky” (gnam bon dbra yi gdung las grol ba). The vision of sMra seng in which bSod nams Blo gros had received the ritual occurred in 1825, on the morning of the 15th day of the “month of the dragon”, in the abbey residence of sMan ri monastery.

    The author finishes the colophon by stating: “The basic text, ... with all the initiations, teachings and permissions have been passed on to me, the ignorant Drung mu nyi wer, from mouth to ear, in the same way that one fills an empty vase. He (bSod nams blo gros) told me that I had to write a systematic explanation of each visualisation, etc. (belonging to the ritual). In accordance with this order, I have written this systematic explanation”.

  2. ^2. Summary distributed at the symposium.