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Death Ransom - Soul Ransom:
A Bonpo Ritual to Extend the Life-span
and Restore the Life-force

  Explanation and Commentary by
Steven Landsberg
  

 

All of us wish for a long and purposeful life. Some of us have the good fortune to have such a fate whilst others suffer from a very short life, or perhaps a long one filled with sickness and a long downhill slide into the hands of death.  Others may enjoy inspired purpose but their lives may be cut short by sudden untimely death or an incapacitating illness.  So is the indelible nature of samsara that whatever is born must die.

    Notwithstanding this inevitable condition conjoined with its uncertain circumstances, we all instinctively try our best to enjoy meaningful lives for as long as we possibly can.  Even sick and dying people make every attempt to hold onto whatever life remains.  They seek out the best specialists, take medicine regularly, and necessarily tolerate painful examinations and surgery to extend their lives.  Sometimes medical science is successful; but there are numerous instances that even the best of doctors cannot resolve.

   In the Tibetan tradition there exist numerous rituals for recovering health, extending life, and recapturing any life force that has been lost due to external negative force, internal emotional suffering, or the secret obscuration of ignorance. The Tsewang Rikzin ritual, from the Tibetan Bon tradition, is just such a rite and includes supplementary sections for ransoming one’s life and soul from the bonds of negative influence.  This ritual or others like it are most effectively accomplished when one is healthy; however, in the event that one is weak or incapacitated, one can request the service of an accomplished master.  He and his assistants will make the necessary preparations, perform the offerings, and read the divinatory signs indicating the efficacy of the ritual.

    According to the Bon tradition there are six Tsewang Rikzin cycles named according to various places where the master Tsewang Rikzin practiced. Although he actually practised in eight different places, we can only find six texts related to six of these locations. These sacred sites are found in India, Takzig, Zhang Zhung, Jaritsukden, China, and Tibet.  The particular version upon which the following explanation is based was titled according to the name of a cave (Bya ri Tsukden) to the north of Mt. Kailash in the Garuda Valley. Accordingly, it is referred to as Tsewang Jarima.  Tsewang Rikzin’s  consort Thukje Kundrol composed the text entitled Rikzin Tsewang Chogdu Tseyi Drubpai Shongshugs during the time of the eighth king of Tibet Trigom Tsenpo. 

    Tsewang Rikdzin was the son of Drenpa Namkha and the brother of Pema Thongdrol who some Bonpos claim was the original Padma Sambhava. Obviously, there is a rather long gap between the time of this eighth king and King Trisong Deustan and the eighth century Padma Sambhava.  Either Padma Sambhava had a very long life, or as many Bon believe, the eighth century Padma Sambhava was an Indian sadhu who took the name of the earlier Lotus Born Guru. 

   In the thirteenth century Khopo Lodro Togme, in a pure vision spontaneously arising from his meditation, received an oral transmission of the long life ritual directly from Thugje Kundrol.  He then passed it on through the line of Menri abbots.  It was not until the time of the twenty-third abbot of Menri Kunkhyen Nyima Tenzin that the supplementary sections regarding the retrieval of the soul and the offering of the death ransom were added to the main ritual sadhana.

   Similar to the method associated with all rituals, the Tsewang Rikzin sadhana requires the preparation of torma.  The primary torma symbolizing the deity to be accomplished is made from flour and butter, ornamented with jewels, and surrounded by many small globes of long life.  It should be seated in a tray and then placed upon a white cloth which covers a swastika drawn with sesame or mustard seeds. A long life arrow, a mandala, and the usual offerings representing the five senses are also positioned upon the altar. A vase, which is filled with water, milk and seeds, is then sealed with peacock feathers and placed before the chief torma.  To this vase a string is attached which extends to all of those participating in the rite.  As the ritual is performed and thousands of mantras recited, the participants blow upon the mantra chain and thus empower the contents of the vase. 

    If the practice has been successful, outer and inner signs of accomplishment will manifest according to the level of the practitioners.  Boiling of the water and milk inside the vase and the appearance of water droplets on the torma are outer signs which are particularly auspicious.  Favorable inner signs which manifest in one’s dreams include listening to one’s master, having a long beard or hair, wearing armor, climbing mountains, entering rooms where there are heaps of food and jewels, hearing musical instruments, crossing a narrow passageway, eating certain kinds of foods such as honey, molasses, brown sugar, yogurt, butter and milk, witnessing flowers bloom or the sun and moon rising, and blowing a white conch.  It is necessary to dream of at least one of these signs as an indication of one’s successful practice.

    Signs of incomplete or unfavorable practice include moving in a descending direction, being followed by people who wish to harm you, observing the sun and moon setting, going to an unfamiliar place, observing dried or dying flowers.  An example of a negative external sign is the drying or cracking of the torma.  These indications do not fare well and suggest that the ritual has not been properly accomplished.

    This sadhana may be practiced at any time according to the inclination of the practitioner and completing it is clearly the best preparation for performing the supplementary sections; however, it is not strictly a prerequisite that this tantric sadhana be accomplished before engaging the ‘death ransom’ rituals.  In terms of the Nine Ways of Bon, the Tsewang Rikzin practice belongs to the tantric vehicle of transformation while the ransom sections belong to a lower causal vehicle known as ‘Rites and Rituals’.

    Before one performs the ritual of reinforcing the life force (chi bslu)  and retrieving the soul  (bla bslu) for the benefit of an individual whose life is threatened or whose health is suffering, the practitioners should gather and proceed through the recitation and visualization sections of the sadhana.

   Both positive and negative forces control the life force of every being.  In this death ritual these negative energies are personified as the devils of death who seek to steal the life force of sentient beings.  The principal fiend in this pack, Sokdak Tsedu Nakpo (Srog bdag tshe bdud nag po),  is black in color and holds in his right hand a wooden stick ornamented with crossed lines in the shape of the letter ‘x’.  In his left hand he wields a lasso.  It is considered that when he marks any being with the image of the crossed lines, the life force of that individual is removed and death ensues.

    Surrounding the chief lord of death are his four partners representing birth, old age, sickness, and death.  In front is the devil of birth, Trakdok Phungpo Lulendu (Phrag dog phung po lus len bdud), white in color, wearing a tiger skin and holding the stick marked with crossed lines and a hook. Since he bestows birth on sentient beings, he is considered negative from the enlightened perspective because birth is a primary symptom of samsara’s web. The second of the Death chief’s cohorts is yellow in color, wears a snake skin and holds the wooden wand with the sign of the cross and a snake lasso His name is Ngargyel Gyuma Zuknyendu (Nga rgyal sgyu ma gzugs bsnyen bdud) and he represents old age. The third associate, Dochak Khornyon Mongdu (’Dod chags ’khor nyon mongs bdud), wears an alligator skin, is red in color; and aside from holding the wooden cane with intersecting lines, clutches a bag filled with the diseases that afflict sentient beings.   Whenever he opens his bag, he unleashes illness upon those who are susceptible to his influence.  The fourth member, representing death, is called Zhedang Chidak Letsendu  (Zhe sdang ’chi bdag las btsan bdud). He is black in color, bears a frog skin and holds the baton of x’s and a net.  Practitioners who act on behalf of the dying person, will make models of this host of beings and will then command their presence and petition them with words and offerings.

   After demanding the demons of birth, old age, sickness, and death to be present, the master will remind them of their previous promises to enlightened beings not to harm anyone. The master orders them to recall their pledge and asks them to accept a ransom in preference to harming the bodies of sentient beings and particularly the one on whose behalf the rite is being performed.

   The ransom includes fifteen different offerings.  The number of times each offering must be made depends on the age of the petitioner, who in this case is a sick or dying person.  Therefore, if the petitioner is 60 years old, each class of offering must be made 60 times. This means specifically that the material offering must  be made 60 times and the ritual text recited 60 times.

    The first offering is an effigy of a male figure.  It is presented to the demons so that they  will not disturb any male being.  Similarly, an offering of a symbolic representation of a woman is made.  Thirdly, armor, swords, and other weapons are proffered so that the demons will not feel threatened or insecure. The idea here is that the demons will be able to armor and protect themselves and thus will not become fearful. Clothes and other ornaments are then given as the fourth offering and the demons are requested not to rob or steal the belongings of beings.  The fifth, sixth, and seventh offerings are flesh, bones, and blood which the demons are asked to accept in place of the flesh, blood and bones of living beings. 

    The eighth offering concerns protection against premature or untimely death.  Although we generally consider that we will live according to average standards of life expectancy, there are unusual cases in which the secondary causes for premature death manifest; and in order to avert that instance, a torma with crossed lines (tham shing) is offered to the devils. They are requested to accept this torma instead of taking the individual’s life.

   The negative thoughts and curses of human beings that are directed towards others can oftentimes result in sickness and even death.  In order to protect against such negativity, the ninth offering consists of three things presented to avoid any harmful results from ripening in beings unprotected from such curses.  One is a handful of small seeds (yung kar).  The second is some seeds that have been broken in half (sgong shag), and the third is a plant similar to ephedra (mtshe).  All three of these substances are placed in a torma plate and organized with the other offerings.

    According to astrological calculation based on one’s year of birth every human being is associated with a particular animal who resides in one of the eight directions.  This animal represents the individual’s god (lha).  The sign directly opposite to one’s birth animal represents one’s devil (bdud). The god and devil  maintain accounts of one’s respective positive and negative actions.  The tenth offering is made up of an equal number of white and black stones equivalent to the petitioner’s age.  These stones symbolize one’s positive and negative karma.  The white stones are collected from the direction of one’s birth year animal and the black stones are collected from the opposing direction.  For example, if one is born in a dragon year which is associated with the southeast, then the white stones will be collected from the southeast and the black stones will be gathered from the northwest, the direction associated with a dog year. As these stones are offered to those who would steal one’s life, the master requests that they ignore weighing the individual’s deeds and leave everything in its authentic unmodified condition.

   The eleventh offering consists of globules of butter with some blood presented to negative spirits in order to contain the spread of contagious diseases.

    There are often instances when the negative vision or the bad wishes or thoughts of beings results in the sickness or death of one’s domestic animals.  As a method of avoiding this result, the devils are requested to accept effigies of animal figures (birds, deer, wild animals, and domestic pets) in lieu of taking their lives. This is the twelfth offering that protects from the effects of these negative curses.

   The thirteenth and fourteenth offerings are two tormas made by squeezing the hand around some dough and creating an imprint upon it.  Five indentations are made upon the dough which represent the five paths of sentient beings. Although both Buddhist and Bon cosmologies mention six realms of sentient beings, in this case  the asura realm is not included amongst these as it is considered part of both the deva and Noijin (gnod sbyin) realms.  These tormas are offered to male and female spirits to protect the beings of the five realms from obstacles that might result in disease or death.  The ritual master is petitioning these male and female classes to be satisfied with this torma rather than create any difficulty along the five paths of sentient beings.

   The final offering is a twisted two pointed torma offered to flesh-eating spirits who take enjoyment from devouring the flesh of the diseased or dying person.  This torma serves to protect the life of the sick person and all sentient beings. This is a very non-specific offering and includes many of the functions of the previous offerings.

    Along with these fifteen offerings, verses are chanted requesting that the devils and spirits relinquish their hold on the dying person and accept the offerings of taste, smell, sight, sound, and touch; or whatever it is they need to satisfy themselves

                  Ransoming the Soul (bla bslud)

    The Tibetans believe that the soul of every man and woman can be represented by a particular symbol and the lalu (bla bslud) ritual requires such a designation. Generally, the sign will contain the body of a human being and the head of either a god or animal such as a deer depending on family ancestry.  If one cannot establish this ancestry, then it is all right to use a clay figure with the head of a deer. The soul’s effigy holds a long life wand (Dadar) in the right hand and a turquoise in the left hand.  Resting in a light copper plate, the effigy floats in a large vessel of milky water and is designated at the heart with the letter nri.

    Preparation for this aspect of the ritual requires making a white and red torma, two dice--one black, the other white--made from flour and butter. White and black stones are also necessary.   They should be collected in the manner described previously in the Chi bsLud and dropped into milky water. 

   The master and assistants will then invoke the enlightened ones and request that through the power of their prayers, the soul (bla) of the individual that has escaped from the body due to illness or loss of energy enter into the turquoise stone as well as the effigy itself.  The material-quantitative aspect of one’s life-span (tshe) is called back into the long life arrow. Furthermore, prayers are made to collect the dissipated life-force (srog) of the individual into the letter nri.

   Signs will manifest indicating the success or failure of the invocation.  If the rite has been successful, the effigy that has been placed on the copper plate floating in the water will turn towards the master, the dying person or the mandala and the altar.  If not, his back will be turned upon the congregation or the dying person.  In the case of a negative sign, further attempts to retrieve the life force into its corporeal abode will ensue. A maximum of nine attempts can be made.

  If there is no confirmation indicated by the movement of the soul’s effigy, three attempts will be made to draw a white stone from the vessel containing the milky water.  In the event that no affirmative conclusion is reached at this point, the master will wager the lord of death in a game of dice, challenging him with the following proclamation:  If you are really going to take the life of this individual, then show me a sign by defeating me in this game of dice. Then one assistant plays with the white dice and another assistant acting on behalf of the lord of death takes the black dice.  This gambling duel is limited to three rolls; however, each time the challenger (in this case, the master acting on behalf of the dying individual) loses, the likelihood of the extension of  life is diminished.  Prayers are made after each roll and sometimes divination regarding the possible benefit of doing the whole ritual again is sought.  If the challenge is successful on the first roll, no further spins are necessary.  This is the best sign. A second attempt will be made, and if that fails, a third try will be done. Even a third roll success is modestly auspicious.  However, if after three unsuccessful spins of the dice and divination regarding further supplication reveals a futile result, a postponement of the soul’s encounter with the lord of death becomes increasingly unlikely.

 At the conclusion of the ritual, the black stones and di are placed before the devils.  The master explains to them that they have now received everything that they need and there is no reason for them to be dissatisfied. He orders them to accept a three sided torma made from some plant substances, some wine and black tea, as well as a butter lamp as signs of their promise not to disturb the ill or dying one. The triangular torma cake is arranged upon the central devil’s head; the wine and tea are fed into his mouth; the butter lamp is set in his hand. Having received these offerings, the demons are reminded of their pledge taken before the Bon Ku Kuntuzangpo, the Dzokku Sangwa Dupa (rDzogs sku gSang wa ‘dus pa) and the Tulku Tsewang Rikzin (sPrul sku Tshe dbang rig 'dzin).  

   The master then cuts the rope the main devil held in his hand indicating that his grip upon the threatened soul has been relinquished. The crosses are erased signifying that the individual is protected from imminent death. Then the effigies of the five devils as well as all the fifteen offerings are gathered together and disposed of in the direction opposite the dying persons astrological direction. The congregation chants some words requesting the demons not to harm others.   The master admonishes the devils to continue in the direction of their abode and warns them not to return. Bidding farewell, he constructs  an impenetrable  boundary through which the devils cannot pass.  

   A blessing cord along with a turquoise stone is given to the dying person as  symbolic protection and the white stones are set in the direction of his astrological animal.  To conclude the congregation invokes auspicious wishes and the dedication, without which the ritual loses its ultimate efficacy.  

 

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