The Shadow of the Dalai Lama – Part II – 8. Magic as a political instrument

© Victor & Victoria Trimondi






Since his flight from Tibet (in 1959), the Fourteenth Dalai Lama has negotiated the international political and cultural stage like a sensitive democrat and enlightened man of the world. As a matter of course he lays claim to all the western “virtues” of humanism, freedom of opinion, rational argument, belief in technical and scientific progress, etc. One gains the impression that he is an open-minded and modern president of a modern nation, who masterfully combines his cosmopolitanism with an elevated, spiritually based, ethical system. But this practical, reasoning facade is deceptive. Behind it is hidden a deeply rooted belief in supernatural powers and magic practices which are supposed to exercise a decisive influence upon social and political events.


Invocation of demons

Since time immemorial ritual magic and politics have been one in Tibet. A large proportion of these magic practices are devoted to the annihilation of enemies, and especially to the neutralizing of political opponents. The help of demons was necessary for such ends. And they could be found everywhere — the Land of Snows all but overflowed with terror gods, fateful spirits, vampires, ghouls, vengeful goddesses, devils, messengers of death and similar entities, who, in the words of Matthias Hermanns, “completely overgrow the mild and goodly elements [of Buddhism] and hardly let them reveal their advantages” (Hermanns, 1965, p. 401).


For this reason, invocations of demons were not at all rare occurrences nor were they restricted to the spheres of personal and family life. They were in general among the most preferred functions of the lamas. Hence, “demonology” was a high science taught at the monastic universities, and ritual dealings with malevolent spirits were — as we shall see in a moment — an important function of the lamaist state. [1]


For the demons to appear they have to be offered the appropriate objects of their lust as a sacrifice, each class of devil having its own particular taste. René von Nebesky-Wojkowitz describes a number of culinary specialties from the Lamaist “demon recipe books”: cakes made of dark flour and blood; five different sorts of meat, including human flesh; the skull of the child of an incestuous relationship filled with blood and mustard seeds; the skin of a boy; bowls of blood and brain; a lamp filled with human fat with a wick made of human hair; and a dough like mixture of gall, brain, blood and human entrails (Nebesky-Wojkowitz, 1955, p. 261).


Once the gods had accepted the sacrifice they stood at the ritual master’s disposal. The four-armed protective deity, Mahakala, was considered a particularly active assistant when it came to the destruction of enemies. In national matters his bloodthirsty emanation, the six-handed Kschetrapala, was called upon. The magician in charge wrote the war god’s mantra on a piece of paper in gold ink or blood from the blade of a sword together with the wishes he hoped to have granted, and began the invocation.


Towards the end of the forties the Gelugpa lamas sent Kschetrapala into battle against the Chinese. He was cast into a roughly three-yard high sacrificial cake (or torma). This was then set alight outside Lhasa, and whilst the priests lowered their victory banner the demon freed himself and flew in the direction of the threatened border with his army. A real battle of the spirits took place here, as a “nine-headed Chinese demon”, who was assumed to have assisted the Communists in all matters concerning Tibet, appeared on the battlefield. Both spirit princes (the Tibetan and the Chinese) have been mortal enemies for centuries. Obviously the nine-headed emerged from this final battle of the demons as the victor.


The Chinese claim that 21 individuals were killed in this enemy ritual so that their organs could be used to construct the huge torma. Relatives of the victims are supposed to have testified to this (Grunfeld, 1996, p. 29).Now, one could with good reason doubt the Chinese accusations because of the political situation between the “Middle Kingdom” and the “Roof of the World”, but not because they contradict the logic of Tibetan rites of war — these have been recorded in numerous tantric texts.


Likewise in the middle of last century, the Yellow Hats from the Samye monastery were commissioned by the Tibetan government with the task of capturing the army of the red tsan demons in four huge “cross-hairs” in order to then send them off against the enemies of the Land of Snows. This magic instrument, a right-angled net of many-colored threads, stood upon a multistage base, each of which was filled with such tantric substances as soil form charnel fields, human skulls, murder weapons, the tips of the noses, hearts, and lips of men who died an unnatural death, poisonous plants, and similar things. The repulsive mixture was supposed to attract the tsan like a moth to a candle, so that they would become inescapably caught in the spells said over the spirit trap (Nebesky-Wojkowitz, 1955, p. 258). Following the seven-day deep meditation of a high lama it was ready and the demons could be given the command to set out against the enemy.


Such a ritual is also said to have summoned up a terrible earthquake and great panic in Nepal in earlier times, when Tibet was at war with the Nepalese. Experience had shown, however, that it sometimes takes a long time before the effects of such harmful rites are felt. It took two decades after the successful occupation of Tibet by the English (in 1904) before there was an earthquake in the Indian province of Bihar in which a number of British soldiers lost their lives. The Tibetans also traced this natural disaster back to magical activities which they had conducted prior to the invasion.


“Voodoo magic”

The practice widely known from the Haitian voodoo religion of making a likeness of an enemy or a doll and torturing or destroying this in their place is also widespread in Tibetan Buddhism. Usually, some substance belonging to the opponent, be it a hair or a swatch from their clothing, has to be incorporated into the substitute. It is, however, sufficient to note their name on a piece of paper. Even so, sometimes hard-to-find ingredients are necessary for an effective destructive ritual, as shown by the following Buddhist ritual: “Draw a red magic diagram in the form of a half-moon, then write the name and lineage of the victim on a piece of cotton which has been used to cover the corpse of a plague victim. As ink, use the blood of a dark-skinned Brahmin girl. Call upon the protective deities and hold the piece of material in black smoke. Then lay it in the magic diagram. Swinging a magic dagger made from the bones of a plague victim, recite the appropriate incantation a hundred thousand times. Then place the piece of material there where the victim makes his nightly camp” (Nebesky-Wojkowitz, 1955, p.260). This induces the death of the person. [2]


The same ritual text includes a recipe for the inducement of madness: “draw a white magic circle on the summit of a mountain and place the figure of the victim in it which you have to prepare from the deadly leaves of a poisonous tree. Then write the name and lineage of the victims on this figure with white sandalwood resin. Hold it in the smoke from burnt human fat. Whilst you recite the appropriate spell, take a demon dagger made of bone in your right hand and touch the head of the figure with it. Finally, leave it behind in a place where mamo demonesses are in the habit of congregating” (Nebesky-Wojkowitz, 1955, p. 261).


Such “voodoo practices” were no rare and unhealthy products of the Nyingmapa sect or the despised pre-Buddhist Bonpos. Under the Fifth Dalai Lama they became part of the elevated politics of state. The “Great Fifth” had a terrible “recipe book” (the Golden Manuscript) recorded on black thangkas which was exclusively concerned with magical techniques for destroying an enemy. In it there a number of variations upon the so-called gan tad ritual are also described: a man or a woman depicting the victim are drawn in the center of a circle. They are shackled with heavy chains around their hands and feet. Around the figures the tantra master has written harmful sayings like the following. “the life be cut, the heart be cut, the body be cut, the power be cut, the descent be cut” (Nebesky-Wojkowitz, 1993, p. 483). The latter means that the victim’s relatives should also be destroyed. Now the menstrual blood of a prostitute must be dripped onto the spells, the drawings are given hair and nails. According to some texts a little dirt scraped from a shoe, or some plaster from the victim’s house are sufficient. Then the ritual master folds the paper up in a piece of cloth. The whole thing is stuffed into a yak’s horn with further horrible ingredients which we would rather not have to list. Gloves have to be worn when conducting the ritual, since the substances can have most harmful effects upon the magician if he comes into contact with them. In a cemetery he entreats an army of demons to descend upon the horn and impregnate it with their destructive energy. Then it is buried on the land of the enemy, who dies soon afterwards.


The “Great Fifth” is supposed to have performed a “voodoo” ritual for the defeat of the Kagyupa and the Tsang clan in the Ganden monastery temple. He regarded them, “whose spirit has been clouded by Mara and their devotion to the Karmapa”, as enemies of the faith (Ahmad, 1970, p. 103). In the ritual, a likeness of the Prince of Tsang in the form of a torma (dough cake) was employed. Incorporated into the dough figure were the blood of a boy fallen in the battles, human flesh, beer, poison, and so on. 200 years later, when the Tibetans went to war with the Nepalese, the lamas had a substitute made of the commander of the Nepalese army and conducted a destructive ritual with this. The commander died soon after and the enemy army’s plans for invasion had to be abandoned (Nebesky-Wojkowitz, 1993, p. 495).


Among other things, Tibetan magic is premised upon the existence of a force or energy possessed by every living creature and which is known as la. However, this life energy does not need to be stored within a person, it can be found completely outside of them, in a lake, a mountain, a tree, or an animal for instance. A person can also possess several las. If one of his energy centers is attacked or destroyed he is able to regenerate himself out of the others. Among aristocrats and high lamas we may find the la in “royal” animals like the snow lion, bears, tigers, or elephants. For the “middle class” of society we have animals like the ox, horse, yak, sheep, or mule, and for the lower classes the rat, dog, and scorpion. The la can also keep alive a family, a tribe, or a whole people. For example, Lake Yamdrok is said to contain the life energy of the Tibetan nation and there is a saying that the whole people would die out if it went dry. There is in fact a rumor among the Tibetans in exile that the Chinese planned to drain the entire lake (Tibetan Review, January 1992, p. 4).


If a tantra master wants to put an enemy out of action through magic, then he must find his la and launch a ritual attack upon it. This is of course also true for political opponents. If the life energy of an enemy is hidden in a tree, for instance, then it makes sense to fell it. The opponent would instantly collapse. Every lama is supposed on principle to be capable of locating the la of a person via astrology and clairvoyance.


Magic wonder weapons

In the armories of the Kalachakra Tantra and of the “Great Fifth”, we find the “magic wheel with the sword spokes”, described by a contemporary lama in the following words: “It is a magic weapon of fearsome efficacy, a great wheel with eight razor-edge sharpened swords as spokes. Our magicians employed it a long time ago in the battle against foreign intruders. The wheel was charged with magic forces and then loosed upon the enemy. It flew spinning through the air at the enemy troops and its rapidly rotating spikes mowed the soldiers down in their hundreds. The devastation wrought by this weapon was so terrible that the government forbade that it ever be used again. The authorities even ordered that all plans for its construction be destroyed” (Nebesky-Wojkowitz, 1955, p. 257).


A further magic appliance, which was, albeit without success, still put to use under the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, was to be found in a Yellow Hat monastery near Lhasa (Kardo Gompa). It was referred to as the “mill of the death demons” and consisted of two small round stones resting upon each other, the upper one of which could be rotated. René von Nebesky-Wojkowitz reports how the lamas started up this killing machine in 1950 at the beginning of the conflict with China: “The 'Mill of the Death Demons' was employed by the Tibetan government to kill the leaders of the opposing party. A priest who was especially experienced in the arts of black magic was appointed by the authorities to operate the instrument. In meditations extending over weeks he had to try to transfer the life energy (la) of the people he was supposed to kill into a number of mustard seeds. If he noticed from curtains indications that he had succeeded, then he laid the seeds between the stones and crushed them. .... The exterminating force which emanated from this magic appliance is supposed to even have had its effect upon the magician who operated it. Some of them, it is said, died after turning the 'Mill of the Death Demons'" (Nebesky-Wojkowitz, 1955, pp. 257-258).


The “Great Fifth” as magician and the Fourteenth Dalai Lama

The Fifth Dalai Lama was a enthusiast and a master of magic ritual politics. A distinction was drawn in the ceremonies he conducted between continuous, annually repeated state events, and special, mostly enemy-combating events. His “rituals [were]  concerned with power; spiritual and political”, writes Samten Karmay, “... we stand in the arena of the dawn of modern Tibetan history” (Karmay, 1988, p. 26).


The god-king was firmly convinced that he owed his political victories primarily to “the profound potency of the tantric rites” and only secondarily to the intervention of the Mongolians (Ahmad, 1970, p. 134). According to a Kagyupa document, the Mongolian occupation of the Land of Snows was the work of nine terror gods who were freed by the Gelugpas under the condition that they fetch the Mongolian hordes into Tibet to protect their order. “But in the process they brought much suffering on our land”, we read at the close of the document (Bell, 1994, p. 98).


The visions and practices of the magic obsessed Fifth Dalai Lama are -as we have already mentioned — recorded in two volumes he wrote: firstly the Sealed and Secret Biography and then the Golden Manuscript. This abundantly illustrated book of rituals, which resembles the notorious grimoires (books of magic) of the European Middle Ages, was, in the master’s own words, written “for all those who wish to do drawings and paintings of the heavens and the deities” (Karmay, 1988, p. 19). [3]


Magic drawing from the Golden Manuscript of the Fifth Dalai Lama


We have no direct knowledge of any modern “voodoo practices” performed by the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, who has chosen the magician prince from the 17th century, the “Great Fifth”, as his most important model. Here, the Kundun has just as skillfully succeeded in laying a veil over the shadowy world of his occult ritual life as with the sexual magic initiations of Tantrism. But there are rumors and insinuations which allow one to suspect that he too deliberately conducts or has conducted such tantric killing rites.


In one case this is completely obvious and he himself has confirmed this. Thus we may read in the most recent edition of his autobiography of how he staged a rite connected to the Kalachakra Tantra on the day of Mao Zedong’s death. „On the second the ceremony’s three days, Mao died. And the third day, it rained all morning. But, in the afternoon, there appeared one of the most beautiful rainbows I have ever seen. I was certain  that it must be a good omen” we hear from the Dalai Lama’s own mouth (Dalai Lama XIV, 1990, 222). The biographer of His Holiness, Claude B. Levenson, reports of this ritual that it was a matter of “an extremely strict practice which demanded complete seclusion lasting several weeks combined with a very special teaching of the Fifth Dalai Lama” (Levenson, 1990, p. 242). Recalling the strange death of the Empress Dowager Ci Xi and her imperial adoptive son described above, one may well ask whether this “strict practice” may not have been a killing rite recorded in the Golden Manuscript of the “Great Fifth”. In Buddhist circles the death of Mao Zedong is also celebrated as the victory of spiritual/magic forces over the raw violence of materialism.


In such a context, and from a tantric/magic viewpoint, the visiting of Deng Xiaoping by Gyalo Thondup, one of the Dalai Lama’s brothers and himself a tulku, to may also have a momentous significance. Thondup negotiated with the Chinese party head over the question of Tibet. Deng died a few days after this meeting, on February 12, 1997 (Playboy [German edition], March 1998, p. 44).


Mandala politics

In contrast, the Fourteenth Dalai constantly and quite publicly conducts a magic practice which is less spectacular, but from a tantric point of view just as significant as the killing of a political opponent — it is just that this is not recognized as a act of magic. We are talking about the construction of mandalas, especially the Kalachakra sand mandala.


We have already reported in detail on the homologies between a tantric mandala, the body of a yogi, the social environment, and the universe. Consistently thought through, this equivalence means that the construction of a mandala must be regarded as a magic political act. Through a magic diagram, a tantra master can “energetically” occupy and lay claim to the location of its construction and the corresponding environs. People within range of the power of such a magic architectural construction are influenced by the mandala’s energy and their consciousness is manipulated by it.


The Kalachakra sand mandala thus serves not only to initiate adepts but also likewise as a magic title of possession, with which control over a particular territory can be legitimated. Accordingly, the magic power of the diagram gives its constructors the chance to symbolically conquer new territories. One builds a magic circle (a mandala) and “anchors” it in the region to be claimed. Then one summonses the gods and supplicates them to take up residence in the “mandala palace”. (The mandala is so to speak “energized” with divine forces.) After a particular territory has been occupied by a mandala (or cosmogram), it is automatically transformed into a sacred center of Buddhist cosmology.[4] Every construction of a mandala also implies — if one takes it seriously — the magic subjugation of the inhabitants of the region in which the “magic circle” is constructed.


In the case of the Kalachakra sand mandala the places in which it has been built are transformed into domains under the control of the Tibetan time gods. Accordingly, from a tantric viewpoint, the Kalachakra mandala constructed at great expense in New York in 1991 would be a cosmological demonstration of power which aimed to say that the city now stood under the governing authority or at least spiritual influence of Kalachakra and Vishvamata. Since in this case it was the Fourteenth Dalai Lama who conducted the ritual as the supreme tantra master, he would have to be regarded as the spiritual/magic sovereign of the metropolis. Such fantastic speculations are a product of the ancient logic of his own magic system, and are incompatible with our ideas. We are nonetheless convinced that the laws of magic affect human reality proportional to the degree to which people believe in them.


Further, there is no doubt that the magic diagrams evoke an exceptional fascination in some observers. This is confirmed, for example, by Malcolm Arth, art director of an American museum in which Tibetan monks constructed a Kalachakra sand mandala: “The average museum visitor spends about ten seconds before a work of art, but for this exhibit, time is measured in minutes, sometime hours. Even the youngsters, who come into the museum and run around as if it were a playground — these same youngsters walk into this space, and something happens to them. They're transformed” (Bryant, 1992, pp. 245-246). The American Buddhist, Barry Bryant, even talks of an “electric kind of energy” which pervades the space in which the Kalachakra mandala is found (Bryant, 1992, p. 247).


However, what most people from the West evaluate as a purely artistic pleasure, is experienced by the lamas and their western followers as a numinous encounter with supernatural forces and powers concentrated within a mandala. This idea can be extended so far that modern exhibitions of Tibetan artworks can be conceived by their Buddhist organizers as temples and initiation paths through which the visitors knowingly or unknowingly proceed. Mircea Eliade has described the progression through a holy place (a temple) in ancient times as follows: “Every ritual procession is equivalent to a progression to the center, and the entry into a temple repeats the entry into a mandala in an initiation or the progress of the kundalini through the chakras” (Eliade, 1985, p. 253).


The major Tibet exhibition “Weisheit und Liebe” (Wisdom and Love), on view in Bonn in the summer of 1996 as well as at a number locations around the world, was designed along precisely these lines by Robert A. F. Thurman and Marylin M. Rhie. The conception behind this exhibition, Thurman writes, “is symbolically significant. It ... draws its guiding principle from the mandala of the “wheel of time” [Kalachakra], the mystic site which embodies the perfect history and cosmos of the Buddha. ... The arrangement of the individual exhibits reflects the deliberate attempt to simulate the environment of a Tibetan temple” (Thurman and Rhie, 1996, pp. 13–14).


At the entrance one passed a Kalachakra sand mandala. The visitor then entered the various historical phases of Indian Buddhism arranged into separate rooms, beginning with the legends from the life of Buddha, then Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. The simulated “initiatory path” led on to Tibet passing through the four main schools in the following order: Nyingmapa, Sakyapa, Kagyupa, and then Gelugpa. After the “visitor/initiand” had so to speak obtained the secret teachings of the various sects, he or she stepped into the final “hall” of the exhibition temple. This was again, like the start, dedicated to the Kalachakra Tantra.


Through the construction of this exhibition the history of Buddhism and of Tibet was presented as a mystery play played out over centuries. Every single epoch in the history of the Buddhist doctrine counted as a kind of initiatory stage in the evolutionary progression of humanity which was supposed to culminate in the establishment of a global Shambhala state. The same initiatory role was filled by the four Tibetan schools. They all stood — in the interpretation of the exhibitor — in a hierarchic relation to one another. Each step up was based on the one before it: the Sakyapas on the Nyingmapas, the Kagyupas on the Sakyapas, and the Gelugpas on the Kagyupas. The message was that the history of Buddhism, especially in Tibet, had had to progress like a initiand through the individual schools and sects step by step so as to further develop its awareness and then reach its highest earthly goal in the person of the Dalai Lama.


The visitor entered the exhibition through a room which contained a Kalachakra sand mandala (the “time palace”). This was supposed to proclaim that from now on he or she was moving through the dimension of (historical) time. In accordance with the cyclical world view of Buddhism, however, the journey through time ended there where it had begun. Thus at the end of the tour the visitor left the exhibition via the same room through which he or she had entered it, and once more passed by the sand mandala (the “time palace”).


If the Tibet exhibition in Bonn was in Thurman’s words supposed to have a symbolic significance, then the final message was catastrophic for the visitor. The final (!) image in the “temple exhibition” (before one re-entered the room containing the Kalachakra sand mandala) depicted the apocalyptic Shambhala battle, or (as the catalog literally referred to it) the “Buddhist Armageddon”.[5] We would like to quote from the official, enthusiastically written explanatory text which accompanied the thangka: “The forces of Good from the kingdom of Shambhala fight against the powers of Evil who hold the world in their control, centuries in the future. Phalanxes of soldiers go into combat, great carts full of soldiers, as small as Lilliputians are drawn into battle by huge white elephants, laser-like (!) weapons loose their fire and fantastic elephant-like animals mill together and struggle beneath the glowing sphere of the kingdom” (Thurman and Rhie, 1996, p. 482). With this doomsday vision before their eyes the visitors leave the “temple” and return to the Kalachakra sand mandala.


But who was the ruler of this time palace, who is the time god (Kalachakra) and the time goddess (Vishvamata) in one? None other than the patron of the Tibet exhibition in Bonn, His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. He destroyed the Kalachakra sand mandala in Bonn in the ritual we have described above and then absorbed its energies (the time gods residing in it). If we pursue this tantric logic further, then after the absorption of the mandala energies the Kundun assumed control over the region which had been sealed by the magic diagram (the sand mandala). In brief, he became the spiritual regent of Bonn! Let us repeat, this is not our idea, it is rather the ancient logic of the tantric system. That it however in this instance corresponded with reality is shown by the enormous success His Holiness enjoyed in the German Bundestag (House of Representatives) after visiting his “Kalachakra Temple” in Bonn (in 1996). The Kohl government had to subsequently endure its most severe political acid test in relations with China because of the question of Tibet.


Scattered about the whole world in parallel to his Kalachakra initiations, sand mandalas have been constructed for the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. What appears to a western observer to be a valuable traditional work of art, is in its intentions a seal of power of the Tibetan gods and a magic foundation for the striven-for world dominion of the ADI BUDDHA (in the figure of the Kundun).



[1] The discipline is indebted to the Austrian, René de Nebesky-Wojkowitz, for the most profound insight into Tibetan demonology, his great work, Oracles and Demons of Tibet. His early death, and his wife’s suicide shortly afterwards are seen by the Tantra researcher, John Blofeld ,as an act of revenge by the spirits whom he described.

[2] Of course, these killing practices stand in irreconcilable opposition to the Buddhist commandment to not harm any living being. To gloss over this discordance, the lamas have a clever excuse on hand: the ritual master prevents the victim from perpetrating further bad deeds which would only burden him with bad karma and bring him certain damnation.

[3] The Golden Manuscript is considered the precursor of the black thangkas, which otherwise first emerged in the 18th century. They were especially developed for the evocation of tantric terror gods. The background of the images is always of the darkest color; the illustrations are sparsely drawn, often in gold ink — hence the name of the Golden Manuscript. This technique gives the images a mysterious, dangerous character. The deities “spring out of the awful darkness of cosmic night, all aflame” comments Guiseppe Tucci (Karmay, 1988, p. 22).

[4] Such a magic occupation does not even need to be performed via an external act; a specially trained lama can mentally execute it through the power of imagination alone.

[5] The catalog text did indeed use the Hebrew term armageddon, just as the doomsday guru Shoko Asahara also spoke of “Armageddon”.


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