Saturday, September 11, 2010

Methods of Tibetan Divination

Fifteen years ago, in the March-April 1995 edition of Tibetan Bulletin, Dorje Tseten published a work entitled "Tibetan art of divination," which we now reprint here in its entirety. For a time, this work was available on the web, and was even posted on H.H. Dalai Lama's official site. However, the editorial policies of these sites changed, or at least the editorial focus, and the article was removed.

This is by no means a complete study of Tibetan divination -- it barely scratches the surface -- but it is a nonetheless useful introduction. You might also want to examine this scholarly study, at one of our favorite blogs: the redoubtable


Although means of telling the future were employed in Tibet, before the advent of Buddhism, they are not regarded as an alien remnant outside the Buddhist framework that it is occasionally convenient to call upon. Rather, they are used within the sphere of Buddhist concepts, functioning in accordance with Buddhist principles such as karma. There are no references to divination in the collections of sutras, but many can be found in the tantras.

By looking into someone's future, the diviner or medium can assess the particular situation and recommend how to respond or deal with it Remedial action, in the form of rituals, evokes positive forces and can result in a change in the person's fortune. Rituals will not change a person's karma, and those requesting and performing a divination are aware of this. However, they can induce latent positive potential to take precedence over that which is perceived as the cause of an impending misfortune.

The efficacy of a ritual involves the patron making offerings of food and money to the monks or adepts performing it. The merit acquired from this gift is used to trigger the forces of latent positive potential in oneself or others. Thus, one is not transferring merit and stepping outside the laws of cause and effect, but merely using merit to awaken the forces of one's own or other's good karma.

If, for example, someone's relative is ill, or his business is deteriorating, an individual may request a qualified practitioner's divination to discover what ritual would be most helpful in setting conditions right. The success of this ritual depends on the strength of one's own karma. However, if the karma or predisposition to be ill is stronger than the latent positive potential in the sick person's continuum, the effects of the disease will not be overcome and the ritual will remain unsuccessful.

Performing divination for the ill is often considered quite tedious. Khamtrul Rinpoche, a Tibetan lama, says, "If you tell a patient to take Tibetan medicine or Western medicine, and I have to conduct a divination for each question. I feel that whatever we do, it is important for us to make the decision ourselves, because there is less cause for regret afterwards. If we are unable to do that, or have tried, but still feel we need someone else's advice, the next step is to seek guidance through divination.

It is said that the invasion of Tibet by the Chinese had been predicted through various means and accordingly many rituals were performed. However, since the Tibetan people's negative karma was too strong to be countered by rituals, they remained ineffectual.

Divination In Tibetan Society
Divination is very much a part of life in Tibet and continues to be so among the exiled community. Major decisions concerning everyday life such as marriage or business agreements are made only after consulting some form of divination. In most cases, people have favorite lamas who they consult. In nomadic areas where the sparse population is subject to the whims of nature, divination, signs and omens are seriously examined. They generally interpret these themselves.

Qualifications needed
When performing a divination, an individual is relying on the power vested in him by a particular deity. This power may have been acquired through a connection with the deity in a past life, and reinforced through retreats involving recitation of a mantra as many as one million times, identifying himself with the deity with clear concentration and the generation of divine pride. There are many ways of performing divination related to the practice of various deities. For example, there are divinations dependent on Manjushri, Tara, Vajrapani, the Five Dakinis, Palden Lhamo, Dorje Yudronma and Tsering Chenga (the Five Long Life Sisters)

The motivation for performing divination must be pure. Although anyone can acquire a relationship with a deity through intensive mantra recitation and consequently acquire certain powers, if they are used for unwholesome purposes, they will eventually rebound and bring about an unfortunate rebirth.

Varieties of Divination

i) Doughball Divination: This method is practised mainly in the monasteries or by individual lamas when an important decisions needs to be made, such as in the search for the reincarnation of very high lamas. A number of possible answers to the enquiry, such as the names of likely candidates for a reincarnation, are written on slips of paper. These are then encased in equal sized balls of dough. Great care is taken to weigh the dough balls to ensure that they are exactly the same size. The doughballs are then placed in a bowl, which is carefully sealed and placed in front of a sacred object, such as the Jowo statue in the main temple in Lhasa, images of Dharma protectors or the funerary monuments of great lamas, requesting their inspiration in deciding the outcome. For a period of three days monks remain in the temple reciting prayers day and night. During that time no one is allowed to touch the bowl. On the fourth day, before all those present the cover of the bowl is removed. A prominent lama rolls the doughballs round in the bowl before the sacred object until one of them falls out. That is the ball containing the answer.

ii) Dice Divination: Palden Lhamo dice divination is conducted with three dice with a number from one to six indicated by dots on each face. Divination associated with other deities can be conducted with dice marked with letters. The dice are made of bone, wood or conchshell. Khamtrul Rinpoche described his own procedure for doing dice divination as follows:

For a divination to be successful, it is essential that the diviner should have a pure motivation and the person who came for advice believe in the diviner. It is important that they both pray to the Three Jewels, their root and lineage lamas and their deities, chiefly Palden Lhamo and other Dharma protectors, for a clear answer. If I didn't hear the request clearly, I ask again. Then, I visualise myself as my personal deity Dorje Shonu or Vajra Kilaya and call on Palden Lhamo. Through my long familiarity with her, I can clearly visualise her before me and I request her to give a perfect answer to the person who came for advice. Then 1 throw the dice and according to the numbers indicated on the dice, I refer to a divination book. There are many such hooks written by great lamas and they provide all the possible answers, though once you are familiar with divination techniques reference to texts is no longer necessary".

iii)) Divination on a rosary: The person doing the divination prays to the deity he is invoking for the correct answer and recites that deity's mantras. He then holds up the rosary horizontally in front of him, with the fingers of each hand grasping a randomly chosen bead, leaving half the beads of fewer between them. Then the fingers of each hand move towards each other counting three beads at a time. The outcome of the divination depends on the number of beads left. The procedure is repeated three times.

When only one bead remains, the result is called `falcon'. When two beads remain, it is called 'raven'. When three beads remain the result is called 'snow lion'. The outcome on the first attempt indicated the extent of the deities' support and the quality of the divination in general. A falcon at the first attempt would indicate support from protectors, luck in a new enterprise, success in a lawsuit.

A raven on the first try means the protectors are not on your side. There will be no accomplishment, lawsuit will be unsuccessful and there are enemies present. Such a divination would caution against starting on any new enterprise. A snow lion on the first round would indicate support from the deities, slow but stable accomplishments and weakness on the part of enemies. If the question concerned successful business, this would be regarded as a neutral result.

At the second attempt, the outcome indicates conditions to take place in one's immediate environment. The falcon indicates good luck in general, but not much success for those wishing to have children. The risk of thefts and illnesses in general would remain small. The raven indicates serious illness, obstacles to health and a decline in the life force. There will be a tendency for things to get lost or stolen. However, in the case of an ordained person, these negative aspects would be reduced.

On the third occasion, the number of remaining beads gives clues about an expected person arriving from elsewhere. This was a very important aspect of life in Tibet, for people travelled constantly and there was no communication system. A falcon with regard to an expected visitor indicates imminent news or arrival. With regard to illness, it would indicate finding the best way to cure it.

A raven represents a bad indication concerning expected travellers. They are likely to encounter obstacles on the way will not arrive at all or will be robbed. The sick will not be cured and possessions will be lost or stolen. The snow lion indicates that travellers will arrive late, but come to no harm. Problems with health will be few, although there will be difficulties in finding the right treatment.

The best divination would be three consecutive falcons. This would indicate that travellers will arrive quickly, patients will recover and accomplishments will be swift.

iv) Bootstrap Divination: This form of divination is popular among nomads. The flat, one inch thick bootstraps are folded over each other into squares and suddenly pulled apart. if the bootlace unfolds freely and clearly it indicates positive signs, while a tangle would be negative.

Interpretation of Incidental Signs
When a practitioner is setting up or preparing the field for a retreat, certain occurrences in his environment can be interpreted as indicative of his future accomplishments. These can be either positive or negative.

Positive signs indicating that the practitioner will receive the Buddhas' and Bodhisattvas' blessing include: seeing cranes, geese, ducks, swans, pheasants and other auspicious birds flying overhead or hearing their calls; overhearing the sounds of drums, of stringed instruments, flutes, gongs, bells; people reciting auspicious stanzas including such words as victorious, accomplished, excellent, happiness, success, give it, take it, fruitful, great, numerous and glorious.

Negative signs indicating impending obstacles include: hearing the chatter of monkeys, squeaking of mice howl of wolves, bray of donkeys; low of buffaloes; having one's path crossed by snakes or scorpions; encountering people in mourning, hearing them express words like defeat, decline, die, sick, get rid of something, alas, difficult, unsuccessful and meaningless. In such instances, the practitioner should interrupt his practice and move to another site.

In general, when setting out on a journey or some other enterprise the following would be considered good omens, or signs of success: meeting elaborately dressed men, women and children; pregnant women, cows with their calves properly dressed bhikshus, illustrious people, Brahmins dressed in white, beautiful bejewelled women, young girls playing together, elephants, smart carriages, and people holding religious symbols such as the wheel, vase, garland, lotus, umbrella, or banners.

Signs of failure would be indicated by the following: losing luggage; encountering wicked, frightful, worn out or ragged persons; having one's road blocked; seeing collapsed houses, something catching fire, or having things break.


Certain individuals are gifted with clairvoyant dreams which they can use as means of predicting the out-come of future events. These dreams usually take place in the latter part of the night, before dawn, and are characteristically very clear. Like other forms of divination, they usually occur as the result of a special relationship with a deity and use either established symbolism that which is particular to the dreamer and easily recognised by him or her.

For a practitioner, the following are established symbols of high accomplishment: seeing Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, one's personal deities, and receiving teachings from them; dreaming of being enthroned, putting on a crown, taking a bath, being given vajras and other religious implements; dreaming of having become king, of reading scriptures, of being in temples with holy objects, tigers, dragons, lions, garudas, horses, or ascending into the sky close to the sun and moon; rotating the four continents, easily swimming across the sea, seeing the sun or moon rising, ploughing a field, eating dairy products, and of sitting on a lotus; dreaming of being respected and praised by the gods, by one's parents, spiritual masters, beautiful ladies, and friends; dreaming of wildflower parks, rain, ripe fruit, kings, ascetics, Brahmins, wealthy people, virtuous masters, geese and other auspicious birds.

Overcoming obstacles is indicated by dreaming of gold, treasure, precious stones, sound weapons, food grains, ornaments, armour, and of killing one's enemy.

The following dreams, although apparently negative, actually indicated good results, and symbolise the surmounting of obstacles: cutting off one's head, eating human flesh, washing one's body in blood, drinking alcohol, shaving off one's hair, burning one's body, immersing oneself in sewage, surrounding the town with one's entrails, and making love during the day.

The following dreams indicated obstacles created by harmful Spirits: meeting tigers, leopards, cats, dogs, pigs, donkeys, mice, scorpions, weasels, snakes, vultures owls, dwarfs, dark, naked thin people, butchers, pale and skinny children, tall naked men, and struggling with any of the above; dreaming of wells becoming dry, of heaps of bones and skulls, and of ruined houses.

In general bad dreams are those including the following indications: being chased by soldiers, applying vegetable oil to one's body, talking with crippled or hunchbacked individuals, seeing the sun or moon going down, climbing mountains of sand or twigs, seeing red flowers or camel's back, passing through narrow passages, wandering in a swamp, running downward, breaking the parts of one's body or of things, being defeated by others and engaging in unwholesome actions. These dreams indicate that an individual has very little merit and will have a short life. In such cases, a lama would advise that the person should accumulate merit, meditate on emptiness, and perform peaceful fire ritual offerings before resuming any activity he or she was engaging in.

Examining Flames
Observing the flames of ritual fire offerings is also a form of divination. First, one invokes the fire god and then observes the flame. A bright, golden, orange colour, a smokeless and soundless quality, the flame burning strongly and turning to the right, or burning upward in a single point, the fire lasting long and giving off a pleasant smell are general positive signs, and indicate that whatever questions one had in mind will be answered in a positive way. When the colour of the flame is Snow white and the fire burns very gently, it mean that one has been cleansed of imprints left by unwholesome actions. The flame turning yellow means that one will become powerful and wealthy. Its turning bright red signifies success in any undertaking and its becoming a clear, smokeless blue colour symbolizes sound health and that one will develop one's lineage.

Signs of illness and other misfortune are indicated by the fire blazing fiercely and the flame turning dark smoky, the colour of human flesh, green, that of vegetable oil, dull, pale, having two or three points and a foul smell. When performing a fierce fire offering ritual, though, the above signs are considered to be positive. Signs that are considered to be negative in the case of either peaceful or wrathful rituals are sparks and smoke afflicting the performer of the ritual. Dark flames moving in all directions and blazing in an unsteady way indicate the termination of one's lineage.

Observing a Butter Lamp
The butter lamp used for divination should be faultless and made of gold, silver or another precious metal. It should be thoroughly cleaned. A wick should be made from a dry and odourless piece of wood, which is neither too thick nor too thin, with a height reaching the brim, and placed in the centre of the lamp. Barley should be heaped on it, and melted, purified butter poured over it. Then recite: Om ah hum vajra guru dhe vadakki nihum' od' od li sarva ah lo ke praha dhe naye svan bah a hundred times and think of the question you wish to ask.

Then light the butter lamp and observe the shape of the flame. A globular point means safety, a conch shape represents fame, a bright yellow flame indicated no obstacles, a lotus and jewel like flame denotes wealth. A flame with a hook shaped tip means that one will become powerful and one with two points signifies that the person will leave for another place. If the light of the lamp is dim and the flame gutters, it means someone will become one's enemy or that he or she is about to receive a guest from a distant place. The flame separating Into two parts indicates separation within one's family. A dark red flame means the eldest son will die, the middle of the flame turning red and smoke coming from the wick indicates loss of property and the lamp going out without apparent reason means death. Spilling of the melted butter stands for the length of an undertaking.

Mirror Divination
Performance of the Dorje Yudronma mirror divination should be done in a quite and peaceful place. The mirror is placed in a container filled with grain, itself standing on top on a clean felt cushion. The diviner then sprinkles vermilion powder (Sindura) and recites the mantras of the ritual. In front of the mirror is placed a small crystal stupa or a piece of crystal, and at the back, a five coloured flag (representing the Buddhas of the five families) is attached to an arrow. On the right, is a ritual cake offering decorated with butter ornaments and on the left a red coloured cake offering. Around these are arranged offerings of drink, roasted barley flour (tsampa) mixed with butter, incense and various kinds of wood.

In front of himself or herself, the diviner places a vajra, a bell and a damaru (drum), some barley and vermIlion powder to sprinkle in the drink, as well as an arrow to which is tied a white scarf. He or she then generates himself or herself as a deity and performs the preliminary ritual for removing obstacles according to the ritual of Tam.

Following this, invocations are made to Dorje Yudronma, one of Tibet's chief protectors, who holds an arrow with the five colours in her right hand and a white silver mirror in her left. The diviner then requests the goddess to give a correct answer to the questions asked.

The minor is not read by the diviner but by a virgin boy or girl no more than 15 years old. The child, who must be clean and well dressed, sits on a cushion under which has been drawn a swastika, symbol of stability. He or she is asked to pick up a stone, wrap it in a pieces of red cloth and place it under his or her knee and is made to drink the orange tinted libation. Blessed ears of barley are placed on the child's head, which is the wrapped with a turban.

The diviner cleans the mirror and lights the butter lamp. The child looks into the mirror and, depending on the type of divination which has been requested, sees either pictures, like sequences in a film or letters. Letters require written questions, which have been given to the diviner. The child describes the visions to the diviner who interprets and explains them in terms of the questions which have been asked. The reader of the mirror has no knowledge of the questions asked and the diviner does not see m the mirror; however, they are complementary and mutually dependent for this type of divination. The child's ability to read the mirror disappears at puberty, and thus the diviner may use different children at different times.

Shoulder-blade Divination
It is said that divining from shoulder blades was first done by brown bears who, after killing weasels and mice took out the shoulder blades and examined the lines on them to know whether they were being pursued by hunters. This was observed by hunters, who noticed that the bears sometimes ate the body of their prey and sometimes abandoned it uneaten with only the shoulder blade extracted. Gradually, this form of divination came into use among hunters themselves, as well as among robbers and thieves. It was also very popular among village people.

The bone used in the divination must be the right shoulder blade of a slaughtered sheep, as opposed to an animal which has died from disease or been lulled by wild animals.

To begin with, the shoulder blade must be cleaned of meat and washed in clean water. The diviner than fumigates it with juniper and holds it up with his or her right band to be reflected in a mirror. Next, he recited 'Ye dharma' three to seven times and invokes the deities requesting them to give a clear answer. The shoulder blade is then burned in a smokeless fire, Out of the sight of strangers.

During the burning, if the shoulder blade makes a rattling sound it means evil spirits are haunting the house. Accompanying clucking sounds would indicate that they are causing harm and discord in the family. The spine of the shoulder blade falling away very quickly would mean that the above troubles could be dispelled with a appropriate rituals.

The shoulder blade is divided into different areas which enable the diviner to make quite detailed predictions. These are: one's protector's, Naga's enemy's and kindred's areas. Between the protector's and the kindred's areas are five sections known as the king's, the lord's, the minister's, one's own and the servant's areas. These should be separated by a distance of one finger's breadth.

Bubbles in one's own area are a good sign, although if they recede the implications are negative. A crack in the lower part of one's own area indicates weakness in that year, and in the middle part, misfortune and regret. however, a rack on the back signifies invincibility in he face of enemies and evil spirits. A rack in the shoulder blade socket indicate loss of property, though its fullness indicates impending wealth. The shoulder remaining white is a positive sign of imminent action, while its turning to an ash colour is negative and indicates high winds that year. Black stands for heavy sin and yellow for a warm year.

The shoulder blade's cracking in many lines indicates a loss of path or an unsuccessful future. Generally speaking white cracks are good indications, black ones are bad and slightly dark ones are of middling negativity. White cracks in one's protector's area indicate that the protector is helping you and black ones show the necessity of performing purifying rituals, lamp offerings, incense burning rituals, hoisting prayer flags and chanting prayers of confession.

If the Nags's area or the cracks on it become black one must perform a Naga cake offering beside springs and lakes. A crack appearing in the upper part of one's enemy's area means that he will become powerful and if it is black, it is a bad sign and one must recite sutras and the ritual of the white Umbrella (gDugs dkar), which has the power to clear obstacles. If the kindred area is black one must perform ransom life rituals (Tse sgrub). The division between the king's area and the servant's area are examined in the same way. The shoulder blade's cracking in vertical lines denotes illness and in horizontal lines, that one will be a victim of theft and robbery or that it will take a long time to achieve a goal or accomplish a task.

Hearing Divination
This type of divination is done in the nomadic areas of Tibet and other isolated places, where there may not be a diviner available to consult. Before proceeding with the divination, a piece of juniper is tied to a shoulder blade with wool, white cloth or string. The diviner then places the shoulder blade in the left pocket of his cloak and walks out of his dwelling. The first word he hears outside will indicate the turn of events. If this divination is being performed with regard to someone who is ill, then negative words such as 'long' would suggest a protracted recovery. On the other hand, words such as 'good' will indicate a quick recovery. These words can be applied to any other circumstances about which the diviner is seeking an answer with the word 'good always having a positive connotations while others like 'nothing' having negative significance.

From among the above, Dough ball divination is regarded as the most reliable. But due to the length of the preliminary rituals, it is only conducted 9n very important occasions. Some lamas are able to make predictions using no overt means of divination, but through direct inspiration from the deity. Though the result is the same, they would not usually claim to be performing divination.

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1 reader comments:

Anonymous said...

Very helpful,thank you.