Soul-retrieval (bla 'gug) rituals: an introduction

Rituals for recapturing lost souls are well known among the Tibeto-Burman populations of the Himalayan region, but few studies have been carried out on the related textual traditions. The pioneering work in this field is Ferdinand Lessing’s ‘Calling the soul: a lamaist ritual’.[1] Lessing’s study is based on a text composed by the 18th century Tibetan scholar Thu’u bkwan Chos kyi nyi ma. He did not have access to the Tibetan original, but depended instead on a Chinese translation. As he points out, the text ‘provides a good illustration of how a “pagan” practice was disguised as an orthodox Buddhist rite and integrated in a body of Buddhist ceremonies’.[2] Lessing cites an excerpt from Thu’u bkwan’s introduction:

This is one of the rites instituted through the grace of the Buddhist religion for the benefit of those who maintain such superstitious beliefs in spirits harassing mankind. For them this ritual is designed in order to set their fear-tortured hearts at rest.[3]

This excerpt suggests that Thu’u bkwan’s project was not a matter of disguising a pagan ritual so much as appropriating it and re-identifying it as a lowly Buddhist practice. The process is analagous to the Buddhist (and Bonpo) strategy of recognising local divinities as minor proctectors in the mandalas of central tantric tutelary gods, dignifying them through conversion while diminishing them in the new hegemonic scheme. Lessing’s article contains a number of misunderstandings that have been pointed out by Samten Karmay[4] but it nevertheless provides information that has comparative value for the texts presented here.


​​​A Mongolian soul-retrieval ritual is one of two works considered in Charles Bawden’s ‘Calling the soul: a Mongolian litany’.[5] Taken together, the two ‘form an interesting illustration of the process of adaptation of shamanism to lamaism resulting from lamaist missionary activity’.[6] Nevertheless, it is clear that the second of the two, which is concerned specifically with summoning the soul, is relatively free of Buddhist influence. Further reference to this litany will be made below, since it shares certain interesting features with one of the two Tibetan works presented.[7]

The fullest and most important study to date of the Tibetan concept of the soul and associated rituals is Samten Karmay’s ‘The soul and the turquoise: a ritual for recalling the bla’ (Karmay 1998a). This work addresses the Tibetan concept of the soul and the notion of soul loss through a range of Buddhist and Bonpo sources, including texts from Dunhuang that contain some of the earliest-known occurrences of the term bla. The texts are supported by the author’s account of a soul-retrieval performed at the Bonpo monastic settlement of Dolanji in north-west India. The texts that formed the main scriptural component of the performance were two compositions by the 19th-century Bonpo scholar Nyi ma bstan ’dzin, who ‘wrote the first after he had a vision and the second at the request of a devotee.... This suggests that the Bonpo may have lost the original texts’.[8] In the conclusion I shall consider the matter of the sources on which Nyi ma bstan ’dzin’s composition may be based. Among the numerous other soul-retrieval texts mentioned by Karmay is one by Padma gling pa (1450-1521), in which the Buddha, the original officiant, tells his patient:

Since you have made no offerings to the gods,
They were unable to protect you.
By inviting ’Phrul gyi rgyal po
You must give a ransom for your soul.[9]

Karmay expresses his conviction that this text is a Buddhist adaptation of an older Bonpo work: one of the clues lies in the name ’Phrul gyi rgyal po, an epithet that commonly refers to legendary Bonpo sage Kong tse.

Lama Tshultrim of Lubrak (Mustang, Nepal), the owner of the texts presented here, does not usually perform the soul-retrieval in isolation but combines it with the exorcistic ritual known as the mi nag (or gto nag) mgo gsum. The gto nag and the bla ’gug make a convenient combination insofar as both can be performed with the invocation of just two tutelary deities, whereas some rituals, such as the g.yang ’gug (retrieval of good fortune), require three.

The ritual texts[10]

Lama Tshultrim of Lubrak uses two main texts. One is entitled Kong rtse ’phrul rgyal gyis mdzad pa’i bla glud, ‘The soul-ransom ritual that was composed by the wise king Kong tse’; and the second: Bla bslu snang srid zhi bde chen mo: ‘Great peace and happiness in the phenomenal world: [a ritual for] the recovery of souls [by means of deception]’. Both texts form part of the Compendium.

Kong tse bla glud

The first text is seven folios long, and though it has no colophon the title attributes its authorship to Kong tse ’phrul [gyi] rgyal [po]. I shall refer to it henceforth simply as Kong tse or Kong tse bla glud. According to Karmay, ‘Confucius is the prototype of Kong-tse ’phrul-gyi rgyal-po, whom the Bonpo tradition makes...the inventor of divination....’.[11] It may be the case that the emphasis given in this work to divinatory devices relating to soul loss is a particular feature of its attribution to Kong tse. The structure and content of the text may be outlined briefly.

The opening lines state that the rite comprises four parts: the arrangement of the ritual items (yas); the bestowal of blessings; the invitation of the divinities, and the dedication of merit (fol. 1b). The first three parts are all dealt with by the end of fol. 2a, and there is no further mention of the final part, the dedication of merit. Most of the text, therefore, is occupied with the third section, the invitation. There is a preliminary invocation of just six lines (fols 2a-2b) in which the following categories of gods and demons are summoned: 1. gods of the elements; 2. gods of the trigrams (spar kha); 3. gods of the nine numerical squares (sme ba); 4. gods of sciences and astrology (gtsug lag rtsis); 5. the eight categories of haughty gods and demons (sde brgyad dregs pa’i lha ’dre); 6. obstructive demons (bgegs); 7. gods and demons of the phenomenal world (snang zhing srid pa’i lha ’dre).

This section is followed by a brief set of directions for summoning the soul and determining whether or not it has been recovered (2b-3a). The remainder of the text is occupied with more elaborate entreaties to seven sets of divinities to release the soul in exchange for the ransom that is being offered. These sets are evidently meant to correspond to the seven categories invoked in the preliminary invitation.

1. The five elements: each group is invited to return the part of the patron that corresponds to its respective element, in exchange for an appropriate component of the ransom. The corresponding ‘outer’ and ‘inner’ elements are as follows: rock/[12] bone; earth/flesh; water/blood; fire/bodily warmth; wind/breath.

2. The eight trigrams: the section lists eight combinations of circumstances in which the soul might have been abducted. In most cases the conditions that caused the affliction are cited in pairs, in which case one of the pair entails an offence or solecism and the other an event that may have rendered the patient vulnerable.




KhonUnclean stove or other pollution (mkhon)? rol po kha nag dus
DaFratricide[13]Walking in frozen meadows
KhenIncestSitting on a green hill or in a green valley
KhamsFratricide and widowhoodOpening an irrigation canal
Gin Sitting on frozen earth or rock
ZinBeing quarrelsomeSitting in a meadow where flowers were opening (?)
ZonSleeping in a frightening placeThe solstice
LiPolluting the stove with burned cookingBeing on a meadow with a yellow surface

 3. The directions




Grul ’bumSouthYellow
gNod sbyinNorthGreen
Dri zaEastWhite
Me lhaIntersticesVaricoloured
Sa bdagBelowBrown/orange

4. The bdud, dmu, btsan, rgyal po and klu.

5. Eight categories of gods and demons (snang srid lha srin ’dre sde brgyad thams cad).

6. The chud: these are ‘a special category of spirits’ associated ‘with the lower sphere’.[14]

7. Again, the eight categories of gods and demons of the phenomenal world.

sTong rgyung bla bslu

This comprises 18 folios and has the following brief colophon: ces slob dpon stong rgyung mthu chen gyis / gnam mtsho’i do la mdzad pa’o /: ‘this work was composed by the Teacher sTong rgyung mthu chen on the promontory at Lake gNam mtsho’. sTong rgyung mthu chen is regarded by Bonpos as the first of Four Translators (lo tsa bzhi), the other three being his disciples. He is variously placed either in the 8th century or in the reign of sPu lde gung rgyal, the heir of the ill-fated Dri gum btsan po. As the colophon suggests, he is associated with gNam mtsho, particularly the long promontory known as bKra shis do.

Note that the ritual requires the use of tormas. Among these is a torma represent the protector Kyerang Trakme. Excerpts of a process of making the torma that the support for him may be seen here.

The mural of the divinity in question can be seen here



Works in Tibetan

dKar ru Grub dbang bsTan ’dzin rin chen (1801-1861). The Autobiography of dKar-ru Grub-dbang bsTan-’dzin rin-chen: dPal snya chen rig ’dzin mchog gi rnam sprul bāi’u ldong btsun grub pa’i dbang phyug bstan ’dzin rin chen rgyal mtshan bde chen snying po can gyi rnam par thar pa rmad ’byung yon tan yid bzhin nor bu’i gter (Dolanji: Tibetan Bonpo Monastic Centre 1974).

Kong tse

Kong rtse ’phrul rgyal gyis mdzad pa’i bla glud dbus phyogs, manuscript in dbu med, folios 1a-9b.

sTong rgyung

Bla bslu snang srid zhi bde chen mo, manuscript in dbu med, folios 1a-18b.

Works in English

Bawden, Charles R. (1962) Calling the soul: a Mongolian litany. Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, vol. 25, nos. 1/3 (1962), pp. 81-103.

Blondeau, A.-M. (2000) The mKha’ klong gsang mdos: some questions on ritual structure and cosmology. InSamten G. Karmay & Y. Nagano, eds., New Horizons in Bon Studies. Osaka: National Museum of Ethnology, pp. 249-88.

Huizinga, Jan (1955) Homo Ludens. Boston: Beacon Press.

Karmay, Samten G. (1972) The Treasury of Good Sayings: A Tibetan History of Bon. London: Oxford University Press.

Karmay, S.G. (1998a) The Soul and the Turquoise: a ritual for recalling thebla. In Samten G. Karmay, The Arrow and the Spindle: Studies in History, Myths and Beliefs in Tibet. Kathmandu: Mandala Book Point, pp.310-38.

Karmay, Samten G. (1998b) The interview between Phyva Keng-tse lan-med and Confucius. In Samten G. Karmay, The Arrow and the Spindle: Studies in History, Myths and Beliefs in Tibet. Kathmandu: Mandala Book Point, pp.169-89.

Lessing, Ferdinand D. (1951) Calling the soul: a lamaist ritual. In Walter J. Fischel, ed., Semitic and Oriental Studies. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, pp. 263-84.

Ramble, Charles (1982) Status and death: mortuary rites and attitudes to the body in a Tibetan village. Kailash vol. 9, pp. 333-59.

Ramble, Charles (1998) The classification of territorial divinities in pagan and Buddhist rituals of south Mustang. In A.-M. Blondeau, ed., Tibetan Mountain Deities, their Cults and Representations. Wien: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, pp.123-44.

Ramble, Charles (2008) A nineteenth-century Bonpo pilgrim in Western Tibet and Nepal: episodes from the life of dKar ru grub dbang bsTan ’dzin rin chen. In Jean-Luc Achard, ed., Tibetan Studies in Honour of Samten Karmay, Revue d’études tibétaines. vol. 15, no. 2, pp. 481-502. (

Sárközi, Alice (1996) Calling back the soul of the dying. Texts from the St Petersburg collection,Études mongoles et sibériennes. Actes de la 37e PIAC conférence internationale permanente des études altaïques, Chantilly, 20-24 juin 1994, pp. 275-85.

Sárközi, Alice & Alexey G. Sazykin (2004) Calling the Soul of the Dead, 1: Texts of Mongol Folk-religion in the St Petersburg Institute of Oriental Studies. Silk Road Studies 9, Turnhout: Brepols.

  1. ^ Lessing 1951.
  2. ^ ibid.: 264.
  3. ^ ibid.: 264.
  4. ^ Karmay 1998a: 310-11.
  5. ^ Bawden 1962.
  6. ^ ibid.: 84.
  7. ^ More texts concerning the Mongolian tradition of soul-retrieval have recently been published by Sárközi (1996) and Sárközi & Sazykin (2004), but they will not be considered here.
  8. ^ Karmay 1998a: 321.
  9. ^ ibid.: 323.
  10. ^ I am grateful to Lama Tshultrim for permitting me to photograph the texts, and to Khenpo Tenpa Yungdrung for helping me with difficulties of translation.
  11. ^ Karmay 1998b: 176, fn. 5.
  12. ^ We would rather expect to find wood than rock here. For a similar list, see Karmay 1998a: 332.
  13. ^ smes = dme/ rme. It should be noted, however, that in Mustang the term dme signfies incest, not fratricide. On the relationship between the terms dme and nal see Ramble 1998: 130-31, fn. 14.
  14. ^ Karmay 1998a: 325 fn. 65.​​​​​​​