Political Theology

Biopolitics and Vajrayana Buddhism, Part 3 (Padraic Fitzgerald)

The following is the third and final installment in a three-part series.  The first installment was published on May 27, 2016 and can be found here.  The second installment was published on June 13.

Despite the longstanding presence of the Dhamra in the Vajrayana cultural area, in particular Tibet, belief in what could be compared to a soul or some form of higher aspect of the self is prevalent. The soul, or the “la” as it is known in the Tibetan language, is part of a triad of vital energies extant within every human being. The word is similar in structure and pronunciation to the word “lha”, which denotes a high spirit or god in Tibetan.

The fact that an individual possesses a la is accepted throughout Tibet, but the understanding of what it is differs slightly from region to region within the Tibetan Cultural World. Some hold that it is an individual’s personal deity, or the deified soul of the person[1]. Others claim that it is simply the soul aspect of a person’s energy triad and that a person is born with five individual gods that are associated with different parts of the body and watch over that person for their entire life[2].

The La is a vital part of life, but so too are the other components of being, respiratory breath and vital force, known as “uk” and “sok”[3]. Out of these three, the vital force is the only one that can be thought of as being a permanent fixture in the human body.

Respiratory breath and the soul are impermanent in the sense that they are not constants within a human body; the breath for its constant depletion and replenishment, and the soul in the sense that it can potentially take flight from the body at various times due to various stimuli such as prolonged illness or external forces such as spirits or traumatic events the victim bore witness to.

After fleeing the body as the result of one of these events, the soul can take up residence in environmental features such as trees, rocks, and streams without endangering itself. In some parts of Tibet, a family will plant a juniper tree when a child is born that will be the symbolic house of the newborn’s la. As such, when soul flight occurs, the la will then reside in the tree planted for it[4].

That being said, if the soul wanders outside of the body or any of these temporary dwellings, it is at risk of degenerating or being captured by gods or demons, and despite the soul’s natural tendency to leave the body, prolonged absence can result in weakening and the eventual death of the individual whose soul has absconded[5].

As such, summoning the soul back to the victim’s body is paramount and of equal prominence are the material components necessary to perform the ritual. Of great import in the Lalu ritual is the sacrificial offering. The specialist overseeing the ritual must gather valuable materials to craft effigies vital to the rite; one of the victim of soul thievery, and others corresponding to the spirits involved and the beings involved in the ritual’s origin myth. Of paramount importance are gold and turquoise due to both material’s supernatural properties and what they represent within Tibet.

Within Tibetan culture, as in many others, gold and turquoise are highly sought after, particularly the latter. Turquoise is believed to represent the soul and as such, is used in many rituals. In Lalu, turquoise is tied around the devotee’s neck by the ritual officiant, symbolizing his or her own soul. After the ritual is over, the devotee must forever care for the turquoise implement, as damage or loss of it may have ill effects to the owner, as the soul will have a greater chance of being lost once again[6].

Apart from the gold and turquoise, the materials associated with the performance of the ritual are varied by region, but there are many correlates, particularly in terms of ritual effigies. Figurines of tsampa dough that differ based on gender and age of the devotee are necessary for the ransoming of the soul of the individual, as well as similarly composed figurines representing the gods and demons being beseeched by the ritual’s performance as well as their respective entourages.

In addition to these figurines, a separate must be made that corresponds to the clan of the devotee. This figurine is central to the ritual, as it is given a piece of turquoise to hold and is placed within a bowl of water filled with fragrant herbs, medicine, two stones, white and black representing the “lake of the soul”[7].

Of necessity are two altars, one white and one black, as they are necessary for the corresponding figurines to be placed upon, as well as the symbolic offering of tsampa dough known as gtorma, for each group of supernatural entities. A white, square treasure is used for the gods, and a red, triangular treasure is used for the propitiation of the demons. Furthermore, the officiants utilize drums, cymbals, and bells throughout the rite, and make use of white and black dice to determine whether gods or demons are responsible for the devotee’s illness and to determine whether certain points within the ritual are effective, such as the propitiation of the gods or demons responsible[8].

The Lalu is performed by three specialists, often monastics that have been initiated into the performance of the ritual. The monks actively meditate and perform the ritual simultaneously, beginning with a visualization practice very much akin to Deity Yoga. The leader of the ritual must visualize himself as the sage, now the enlightened deity Tsewang Rindzin, whose magical powers that have been transferred down through the ages by way of his lineage are now inherent in the ritual practitioner.

Now effectively Tsewang Rindzin, the head officiant now possesses his Shiba_Kokan_-_Lohanpowers and may summon the spirits responsible for the misfortunes of the devotee who requested the ritual. The officiating and assistant monks must maintain this meditation throughout the entire process for it to have any effect. In addition to this active visualization meditation, the monks utilize drums and chant an opening invocation in which their lineage to Tsewang Rindzin is made clear, and by his teachings and powers they are granted power over the offending spirits[9].

This invocation possesses a coercive quality in addition to defining the lineage back to the great sage. A noteworthy portion of the opening formula is quite aggressive, “If you do not return the soul and do not take leave, remember that I am Tsewang Rindzin; one hundred thousand wrathful deities, emanations of my mind will fill the air. Armed with dreadful weapons, they will reduce you to dust. It thus behooves you to leave and return to your abode!”

Once the invocation is completed in its entirety, the spirits or parts of their collective essence are seen to be confined within soul ransom effigy, which is then thrown outside of the home or the ritual space by an assistant acolyte of the ritual practitioners[10].

Upon the soul ransom effigy being disposed of, the monks begin invoking the gods and saints of the land. The monks will chant sutras associated with these figures, as tradition holds that the offending spirits will be repelled by the power of these words. In between recitations, the offending spirits will be reprimanded and the leading monk will demand the soul be returned to the devotee, which usually occurs in the face of a sonic onslaught of divine mantra.

To prevent the relinquished soul from straying back into the clutches of spirits, it is evoked into one of the tsampa effigies constructed for the ritual in order to house it until the rite’s end. The recitation of the mantras of the gods and the invocation is performed without the accompaniment of instruments, presumably for the power of the words to resonate[11].

The summoning of the soul into the tsampa effigy is dependent on the power of divine invocation. The deified sage’s name is invoked, as are the names of the local gods, in order to compel the soul to dwell within the turquoise pendant held by the ritual figurine. This has varying degrees of success, as the soul may not be ready to respond to the invocations. Depending on whether the soul has inhabited the figurine or not, the effigy is placed facing a certain direction; right for soul inhabitation, and left if the soul has not decided to inhabit the figurine.

The invocation of the great sage and other deities is accompanied by bells, cymbals, and the drum, which all the monks will play. Eventually, the cymbals and bells will cease and only the drum will remain constant. At this point in the ceremony, the acolyte of the monks will stir the water within the sacred bowl representing the soul lake, and will place the figurine within the moving waters.

The figurine will be propelled around the bowl and depending upon which side it stops, the invocation was either successful or ineffective. If ineffective, the invocation and the stirring of the figurine within the soul lake may be repeated up to nine times until the figurine stops moving on the auspicious side of the ritual bowl[12].

Upon the figure coming to rest on the auspicious side of the ritual bowl, the names of the sage and the deities will be invoked once more as the devotee who called for the ritual is summoned to reach into the bowl and produce one of the stones within the bowl, white or black. Depending on the stone that is drawn from the water, the ritual may proceed.

If the white stone is drawn, then the soul is indeed within the figurine, if not, then the black stone will be fated to be drawn by the devotee. If the devotee draws the black stone, then the invocation and stirring of the soul water may be repeated up to three consecutive times until positive results are achieved[13].

Depending upon whether or not the drawing of the soul stones was successful, the pairs of white and black ritual dice will be made use of to determine the ultimate success of the ritual or whether a subsequent ritual must be performed to propitiate Yama, the Lord of Death, in the devotee’s name. Both the devotee and the acolyte of the presiding monks will go before the white and black altars erected for this ritual. The devotee will throw the white dice upon the white altar of the gods, and the acolyte will throw the black dice upon the altar of demons and malignant spirits.

Before the devotee and the acolyte begin throwing dice, the monks will chant a prayer which Kong-tse, or Confucius, supposedly recited when he confronted demons. The fact that Confucius is invoked in this ritual serves to show how much external influence has allowed the evolution of the Bla Bslu ritual into what it is today. After the chant, the devotee and the acolyte will roll their respective pairs of dice at the same time, and if the white dice show a higher number, then the ritual was successful, if not, then the dice may be rolled an additional three times. If after these three times the black dice continually show a higher number, then Yama must be propitiated[14].

Upon the success of the rolling of the dice, then the ritual will begin to come to a close. The presiding monks will drum and chant an invocation to the demons and the lords of death, commanding them to return from whence they came. During this chant, the lead monk will remove the turquoise from the ritual tsampa effigy, and the acolyte will throw the effigy outside of the ritual space. After the effigy has been disposed of, then the lead monk will take the turquoise and drape it around the devotee’s neck, symbolizing that his or her soul has been returned. The devotee must take utmost care with this turquoise, as if it is lost or damaged, then their soul may be once again in danger.

temple-kyauk-taw-gyi-pagoda-yangon-myanmar-burma-public-domain-treasure-buddhism-famous-place-57957848During this time, the lead officiant continues to envision himself as the grand sage Tsewang Rindzin. He invokes “the blessings of the Buddha, the magical power of the protective deities, the strength and magic of the eight kinds of gods and demons” all of which will coalesce into a “white syllable A, which will then dissolve into the body of the devotee and unite with his or her consciousness, which is symbolized by the syllable “RNRI”. Upon this visualization, the devotee is gifted with the boon of long life and spiritual immortality.

Upon the lead monk completing this visualization, he will ring a ritual bell and bless the devotee who called for the ritual, saying “May the life of this donor, which is exhausted, weakened, or lost, be recalled by Tsewang Rindzin.” Upon this pronouncement, the chief monks will then perform a prayer addressed to the gods for the benefit of the donor and all sentient beings to end the ritual[15].

The Lalu as a healing ritual doesn’t necessarily dispel the notion of the biopolitical or help the practitioners or victims truly realize no-self and the accompanying liberation, but it does serve to highlight the extant biopolitical matrices within rural Tibetan life, particularly those constructed at the religious level. The notion of the soul fleeing the body can be seen to point towards the prospect of impermanence, but the process of luring it back to its home body and the belief that it is necessary for a healthy body can be seen as a correlate to Western, liberal democratic biopolitical sensibilities.

However, what the Lalu can serve to accomplish is the construction of a miniature biopolitical matrix within an already existing one, which is found in the devotion and reverence to the spiritual leader who performs the Lalu and heals the victim of soul loss. If able to successfully complete rituals benefitting the community, such as Lalu, the practitioner could thus construct a microbiopolitical field centered in the doctrine and ritual practices of Vajrayana, complete with a spiritual economy centered on karma, production of merit, and the notion of the ideal body as dividual, impermanent, and capable of liberation and subsequently unbound from an overarching secular biopolitical regime.


The biopolitical is extant in all spheres of society; from the halls of political power to the sacred cloisters of religious authority, aspects of the umbrella term that is biopolitics are extant. Biopolitics in this way refers to the treatment of human beings as capital, viewing and analyzing their ability to benefit a given nation or power through an economic lens. This capital must thus be preserved and encouraged to propagate to ensure the continued economic supremacy of a given power.

In short, biopolitics can be seen to encompass the subtle machinations of ruling powers utilized to influence the continued economic and biological reproduction of citizens, to encourage the populace to utilize their bodies in ways that will ensure that the ends of the ruling power are met.

This biopolitics, the system in which human beings within a given matrix are influenced to utilize and view their bodies, is not local to the modern secular governmental power. Contemporary religions exhibit their own form of biopolitics on adherents that can be in line with a ruling power or can circumvent it. Through the doctrines and ritual practices propagated by respected spiritual leaders, this religious biopolitics is spread and sustained by regular action within a given community, particularly in the regular performance of sermons and rituals.

Such religious action is apparent in the Vajrayana cultural area, where Chod, Deity Yoga, and Lalu are visible to varying degrees, as are the specialists that perform them. These rituals, developed over time from syncretic sources such as indigenous Central Asian shamanism and Vedic tantra and infused with the Dharma of Buddhism, propagate a bodily and world view that is antithetical to more Western influenced systems of biopolitics held by neighboring global powers such as the Russian Federation.

The teachings propagated by Vajrayana doctrine and associated ritual practice encourage the view that the body is a divisible, impermanent construct made of various aggregates arranged in such a way due to previous karma that houses the consciousness. This bodily construct is impermanent, and will be shed for a new construct upon death unless, through ritual practice and religious adherence, the “dividual” person is able to break free from Samsara, the cycle of re-birth and re-death, by way of achieving realization and subsequent liberation.

Through the strict practice of Vajrayana ritual, an individual may break out of this cyclical existence and thus escape being reborn in an earthly biopolitical regime. Simultaenously, in a given lifetime, the doctrine associated with these rituals which espouses impermanence and the idea of a temporary dividual body that will pass away and the idea that liberation from Samsara is possible within a single lifetime is its own version of biopolitics propagated to communities by charismatic religious and ritual leaders within the Vajrayana context by successful execution of ritual performances such as Chod, Deity Yoga, and Lalu; the performance of which convey blessings and merit upon not only the individual practitioner, but the surrounding community as well.

This Buddhist biopolitical sphere espouses a worldview that does not focus on the preservation of the body, but one that focuses on the eventual abandonment of the physical form in the achievement of liberation from the cycle of re-birth and re-death. This form of religious biopolitics is thus directly opposed to the biopolitics of many Western powers which places great emphasis on the preservation and propagation of the human body in order to retain economic supremacy in the global political arena.

Padraic Fitzgerald received his MA degree in religious studies from the University of Denver.   His interests, according to Facebook, include “fitness, heavy metal, the esoteric and occult content of religions, wizardry, and casual nihilism.”


[1] Geoffrey Samuel, “The Folk Religion and Pragmatic Orientation,” in Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies, ed. Geoffrey Samuel (Washington D.C.: Smithsonian Institute Press, 1993), 186.

[2] Geoffrey Samuel, “The Folk Religion and Pragmatic Orientation,” 187.

[3] Karmay, “The Soul and the Turquoise,” 311.

[4] Samuel, “The Folk Religion and Pragmatic Orientation,” 187.

[5] Karmay, “The Soul and the Turquoise,” 315.

[6] Karmay, “The Soul and the Turquoise,” 318.

[7] Karmay, “The Soul and the Turquoise,” 327-328.

[8] Karmay, “The Soul and the Turquoise,” 329.

[9] Karmay, “The Soul and the Turquoise,” 330-331.

[10] Karmay, “The Soul and the Turquoise,” 331.

[11] Karmay, “The Soul and the Turquoise,” 332.

[12] Karmay, “The Soul and the Turquoise,” 332.

[13] Karmay, “The Soul and the Turquoise,” 333.

[14] Karmay, “The Soul and the Turquoise,” 334.

[15] Karmay, “The Soul and the Turquoise,” 334-335.

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