Spirit-Possession in Theory and Practice :

Se'ances with Tibetan Spirit-Media in Nepal

Per-Arne Berglie


p. 151 "se'ances and trance-performances of ... Tibetan spirit-mediums (dpa> bo) from a refugee-camp in Nepal." [The the 1st spirit-medium, at least, is apparently of a rN~in-ma lineage.]

pp. 151-2 a spirit-medium from Eastern Bod

p. 151

"Before he let himself be possessed at a se'ance, he had to send away his rnam shes, "consciousness". This had to be effected immediately before possession took place, as the moment when the body was "empty", i.e. without rnam shes and before it was possessed by a god, was considered extremely dangerous. ... In this case a demon could very well seize the opportunity to enter the medium's "empty" body, ... and thereby create great dangers for the spirit-medium as well as for those seeking help.

It was considered equally dangerous if the dpa> bo let his rnam shes remain in his body after he let the god in. Then he would be "half god, half man" ... .

{In Vodun, however, this is deemed a major religious achievement.}

[The spirit-medium] sent his rnam shes to the mirrors placed on the altar through the "channel", rtsa, opening at the top of the skull. These mirrors

{By certain accounts, a mirror can function in a dream as an entrance into another world.}

p. 152

are considered to be the most important parts of a dpa> bo's equipment, as the gods are thought to reside in them during the se'ance.

His rnam shes is then taken care of by Padma >byung gnas (Padmasambhava)."

{Perhaps the name "Padma-sambhava" is in this context intended to indicate some particular lotus-born deity (a Brahma or the like).}

p. 152 "united at the base of the genitals" : the channels (nad.i / rtsa) in the subtle-body (Stablein 1976:57 sq)

Samskr.ta name




Bodish name




ascent to __

apex of head

right nostril

left nostril





Stablein 1976 = W. Stablein : "Tantric Medicine and Ritual Blessings". TIBET J 1:3/4:55-69.

p. 152 "unite in a point in the middle of the chest" : the channels of the subtle body (description by this spirit-medium from Eastern Bod) {Eastern Bod is largely Bon. Is this variant description of Bon provenience?}

Bodish name




ascent to __

apex of head

tip of 4th finger [ring-finger] of left hand

tip of 4th finger [ring-finger] of right hand





door-guardian deity category




pp. 152-3 possessing-deities' relationship to channels & to doors of the subtle-body; guardian-deities of doors and of channels

p. 152

"It is through these "channels" that the possessing gods enter the body of the dpa> bo.

Each channel has at its opening a door (rtsa sgo), which can be opened to let the possessing god in. ... The deities mentioned in this connection functioned as guardians of the rtsa-doors with an obligation to make it impossible for demons to enter. During the se'ances they were called

rtsa lam sang mkhan, "cleaners of the rtsa-road" ... .

{There are likewise deities described as "sweepers of the road", in the Books of Chilam Balam.}

Furthermore there were other gods present to guard these "channels".

p. 153

... They were gnyan chen Thang lha mi dkar rta dkar, here carrying the title rtsa bdag, "Master of the rtsa" and

Ma sangs rkyang khra mchor bo, with the title rtsa rogs, "Helper of the rtsa(-master)".

These gods [the spirit-medium] had inherited from elder spirit-mediums in his family."

{Inheritance of a spirit-guide from a shaman-ancestor is usual in Siberian shamanism.}

p. 153 other deities guarding regions of the spirit-medium's body during a se'ance

"a number of supernatural beings arrive at the se'ances and place themselves by certain parts of the body of the dpa> bo, from where they guard asnd control proceedings. ...

The five parts of the body thus serving as abodes were : the top of the skull, the right and the left shoulder, the back (... between the shoulder-blades), and the chest ... . ...

{These 5 locations are likewise the sites of the 5 "external souls" peculiar to Bodish Vajra-yana (and praesumably of originally Bon provenience).}

These gods were not the same at every se'ance."

pp. 154-7 description of a particular spirit-mediumship se'ance by the medium from Eastern Bod

p. 154

"He has laid out a g.yung drung (svastika) of rice on ... his altar. ... In the bowl in the middle, he then places a round metal mirror and, behind it, a stick to which ... small tsagle-pictures are attached. ... A bunch of white feathers is placed to the far left of the altar and two white conch-shells on either side of the middle bowl. ...

A great number of gods belonging to various classes are mentioned by name and asked to come to the place. ... The invocations are now concluded, the gods having arrived and installed themselves. ... He then puts on a special se'ance-shirt and

hangs a thin metal mirror around his neck and ties a piece of red cloth around his head. ...

{As are usual in "red-head" Taoist spirit-mediumship se'ances.}

He lifts his headdress with both hands and holds it up in front of him, singing the names of the five mkha> >gro mas (d.akin.is), who ... are associated with the five lobes of the rigs lnga {mitre}. ... He fastens his headdress to his head with two strings and then starts to sing, accompanying himself with his small drum and his

flat bell, gshang.

{This is a Bon instrument.}

The drumming is steadily becoming more intense and violent and he

jumps several times on the bench where he is sitting cross-legged. ...

{This is sometimes attributed to levitation.}

He now sings about the gods in the mirror and about the cave at

p. 155

Mount Targo (on this cave and its importance to the dpa> bos, see Berglie 1980). After some time, a kha btags is put over [his] headdress,

as a greeting to the possessing god, in spite of the fact that no one in the room has heard the god introduce himself.

{InAfrican spirit-possessions, the spirit-medium will feel the entry of the deity and then, before the deity will deign to speak (through that spirit-medium), must be attired in the robe appropriate to that deity; and likewise for Vietnamese spirit-possessions of spirit-media.}

[Treatment of the 1st woman-patient :] The task he has to carry out is then presented to the god by the man appointed as intermediary. ... [The spirit-medium] is now going to perform rtsis, which is the dpa> bos' designation of the method of drum divination they commonly used. ... When he asks the gods to carry out the divination, the grains move with sudden jumps on the drumskin. After that ... he asks the gods to make the grains rotate on the drumskin. The grains accordingly started to rotate clock-wise ... . ... The god ... starts to drum. ... [ The spirit-medium] ... now mentions several of the supernatural animals which can possess the dpa> bo to effect the actual removal of the illness from the patient. ... The curing animal now takes possession ... . ...

p. 156

He drums violently. Then he proceeds to suck ... . ... Then he tells us that it was a bird, mtho nam mkha>i Khyung chen + dernga, who sucked out and thus cured the illness. ...

[Treatment of the 2nd woman-patient :] The god then ... says ... that he is going to send for Zangs spyang dmar po. ... Thereupon he sucks twice through the drum [on her back] ... sucks through his horn from a point between the woman's breasts. ... Then the animal leaves him and the god returns. ...

p. 157

The task has now been carried out and the gods are ready to leave. ... He sings that he is going to ask the leaving gods to tear feathers from their mounts, the thang dkar-birds, as they fly away. Soon small white feathers are falling in the room".

Berglie 1980 = P.-A. Berglie : "Mount Targo and Lake Dangra". In :- M. Aris & Aung San Suu Kyi (edd.) : Tibetan Studies in Honour of Hugh Richardson. Warminster. pp. 39-44.

pp. 158-9 description of a particular spirit-mediumship se'ance by a medium from North-Eastern Bod

p. 158

"In each of the gtor mas is a stick to which tsagle-pictures are attached.

Padma >byung gnas to the left,

Guru drag po in the centre, and

mGon po ber nag to the right. ...

In the centre bowl there are two metal mirrors of circular shape, a smaller one in front of a larger one. ... All the gods

p. 159

arrive in due order to the mirrors on the altar. ...

Suddenly he laughs derisively; the god has taken possession of him. ... Then he jumps up to a standing position and executes a slow dance, standing on one leg at a time. ... The man appointed as intermediary now puts my questions to the god, Chos skyong + chag med. ... During the questioning the intermediary puts a kha btags over [the spirit-medium]'s headdress. ... The god now says that a drum divination has to be performed in order to find the answers to my questions. ... From the configurations of the grains on the drumskin he receives the answers. ... Among other things he ... gives some details about the first four dpa> bos in Tibet, living in the time of Padma >byung gnas. Then the gods prepare to leave the place."

p. 160 statements by a spirit-medium from Northern Bod

"the members of the lha-class always use the rtsa opening in his left hand, while

members of both the btsan- and klu-class use the rtsa to the right. After entering,

the members of the lha-class move upwards to the upper part of his body and the head,

the members of the btsan-class stay in the middle part, while

the members of the klu-class move downwards to his legs."

pp. 161-3 description of a particular spirit-mediumship se'ance by the medium from Northern Bod

p. 161

"he begins to sing accompanying himself with drum and gshang. ... He takes a piece of red cloth and ties it around his head. ... After this he starts the violent drumming ... . He dances in front of the altar ... . ... In the meantime, the intermediary ... now takes a kha bdags and holds it in the smoke from the [incense-]sticks before he puts it over [the spirit-medium]'s headdress. ...

[The spirit-medium] first tells us about the gods, whom he can see in the mirrors.

{cf. Perseus' seeing the Gorgones in his reflective shield}

He then proceeds to describe the cave of Mount Targo in which there are the three copper-ladders that play such a

p. 162

significant role in ... the initiation procedure of spirit-mediums (cf. Berglie 1980:40). The god then says that he has now borrowed a body that is like a hollow tree ... . ... He puts the drum on a small table ... and places the rice on the drumskin. ... When he then starts to sing and tinkle with the gshang, the grains start to move towards the altar. ... The god says he is going to expel a demon, >dre, from the body of the patient. ... . ... the god summons Zangs spyang dmar po. Soon [the spirit-medium] starts a violent drumming and begins to growl and howl. ... Then he sucks through his drum ... . ...

p. 163

Then the god, singing and talking alternately, gives him good advice. He then takes another ribbon ... giving it to the patient to keep and wear around his neck as a blessing. ... The cure has now been effected ... . ... The gods are now leaving the place."

pp. 163-4 spiritual experiences common to the spirit-media themselves during the se'ances

p. 163

"When they sang the invocations, which mostly consisted of names of gods interspersed with urgings and pleadings for them to come to the place, they could see the gods arrive, some of them riding on birds, others on horses. They also saw them dismounting, putting away their saddles, weapons, etc. and arranging themselves according to rank. ...

p. 164

When all the gods summoned have arrived, possession took place by the god most suited to carry out the task".

"The actual change ... of the spirit-medium is marked by the putting on of the headdress. From now on, until ... the end of the se'ance, it is the god who speaks and acts through the medium, who afterwards ... has no recollection whatsoever of what then passes. ...

After dancing the god usually sits down, introduces himself and asks, often in very rude and offensive language, why he has been called."

"when a dpa> bo has passed the period of calling and has been tested and has received the necessary training, ... genuineness is proved (cf. Berglie 1976:88-93)."

Berglie 1976 = P.-A. Berglie : "Praeliminary Remarks on Some Tibetan "Spirit-Media" in Nepal". KAILASH 4:1:85-108.

p. 164 spiritual experiences distinct to each of the 3 spirit-media during these se'ances

"[The spirit-medium from Eastern Bod] said that he then saw all the colours of the rainbow in the mirrors and that all became very bright when the gods arrived. When then the god was to take possession of him, his body felt enlarged and as if filled with air.

[The spirit-medium from North-Eastern Bod] said that when his rnam shes was going to leave his body,

he saw a glowing fire of many colours . This fire grew bigger and bigger and finally entered his body ... .

{With this "fire of many colours", cf. supra, p. 126, on "the heat ... almost unbearable" to the Saami soul who at "the time will be surrounded by colours like those of the rainbow".}

After that, everything went black and he remembered nothing further. At the end of the se'ance all this happened in the reverse order.

[The spirit-medium from Northern Bod] ... Every time he sang the invocations, ... saw three stars in the mirror : one white, one red, and one blue. They corresponded to the three classes of gods : the lha-, the btsan-, and the klu-class respectively. During the introductory part of the se'ance ... The people in the room seemed to become smaller and smaller, while their voices became thinner and squeakier. Their eyes became brighter and glittered and shone. The mirrors on the altar, on the other hand, grew larger and larger and finally filled his entire field of vision."


SCRIPTA INSTITUTI DONNERIANA ABOENSIS, XI = Nils G. Holm (ed.) : Religious Ecstasy : Symposium on Religious Ecstasy held at Oabo, Finland, 1981. Almquist & Wiksell Internat., Stockholm, 1982. pp. 151-66.