Sunday, October 07, 2007

By Request: Demons and Mental Illness

"With the rope of continuous mindfulness,
If you bind the elephant of mind,
All fears will become nonexistent,
And all virtues will come into your hands."

The following is by special request, excerpted from a larger work.
I now want to explore the most delicate aspect of mental illness. Some otherwise sympathetic commentators attempt to tip-toe their way around this aspect as if it were quaint superstition, but I want to approach it head on. This is the aspect of mental illness that arises from demonic possession or the malevolence of others.

Malevolence is a shared feature of temporal existence. In this context, demons and evil spirits do exist and black magic is possible. Demons and evil spirits exist in both this and other dimensions, and can travel between them. The effects of their malevolence can manifest as mental illness. While karmic cause and karmic ground are present, and definitely give rise to such conditions, we are here discussing an externally submitted case as distinct from an internally submitted case.

A celebrated psychiatrist of my acquaintance once asked me if, in the sense that the anxiety is the insanity, is the insanity the demon. This simple question deserves a simple answer. The answer is yes and no. The insanity may appear demonic, but not caused by demons. Conversely, the insanity may appear conventionally grounded yet it is in fact caused by demons.

Elsewhere, I have quoted my teacher’s remark that everything can be assigned either a divine or a demonic quality. In this context, demons or evil spirits are harmful and destructive actors in the play of life. Black magic involves harnessing these actors and directing their energies to a particular end.

Sometimes people ask if demons are fearsome creatures with terrible appearances. They can be, and then again, they can be quite attractive and seductive. They can manifest as both seen and unseen, rarely as the former and regularly as the latter.

People also ask if demons are germs or microbes. It would be convenient to say that they are, but I cannot truthfully answer that this is so in all or even any cases.

People ask if demons take human form, and if Hitler, or Stalin, or Mao, were demons. Demons can inhabit or assume human form. I do not know that any of these historical figures were so inhabited and I do not know they were not. I did not know any of these individuals personally. Regardless of whether they were or were not inhabited, demons and evil spirits are demons and evil spirits, and thus nonhuman.

Some people ask if demons and evil spirits are primordial evil. My answer is that while demons and evil spirits are an embodiment of evil, there is no primordial evil to spawn them. Demons and evil spirits are spawned in ignorance. The only primordial energy in this or any other dimension is primordial wisdom.

Finally, people sometimes ask me if I have ever actually seen an evil spirit. On a few occasions, I have seen what I thought were evil spirits but I cannot be certain this was in fact the case. I may have been looking at myself.

People of Christian background often question if demons exist because Buddhas exist, as if one were a necessary reflex of the other. The answer to that question is no. The question is frequently extended to ask why, if Buddhas exist, they do not simply subdue or otherwise eradicate demons. The answer is that they do, but just as Buddhas are continuously manifesting, so too are demons and evil spirits.

To the question of what manifests Buddhas and demons, the answer is almost surely that Buddhas are uncreated and self-manifesting, whereas demons are persistent illusions created by collection.

The question then becomes, if they are illusions, why do they persist. The answer is they are raw, evolving illusions, connected to us by the force of karma.

The question then becomes, if they are created by collection why are they not subject to dispersal, i.e. why do they endure? The answer is they endure through the power of collective intention and ignorance.

The question then becomes, if they are thus an aggregate in a field of non-dualistic purity, are they not also fundamentally pure? The answer is that they are fundamentally pure evil.

The question then becomes, if, in a field of non-dualistic purity, distinctions between good and evil are erased, how is fundamentally pure evil still possible? The answer is that it is not. The definition of evil is ignorance and ignorance is the nonrealization of purity, or appropriately, the obstacle to purity. An even simpler definition is that evil is a limited perspective that acknowledges only its own possibilities.

The question then becomes, why do we frequently read of discourse or interaction between Buddhas and demons, or of cases where supernormal beings or exorcists subdue demons. The answer is because demons: (1) are the embodied manifestations of persistent illusions, (2) are born of restricted perspective, (3) exist in this and other realms, i.e. they arise in collective unconsciousness and manifest in individual consciousness, (4) cause harm and afflictions, (5) are actually projections of our own mental processes, and (6) are thus fit candidates for intervention.

Mental illness caused by demonic possession or external malevolence is distinctive. Once you have seen it, you unmistakably recognize it. The condition is characterized by sudden onset, and is observable in both the patient’s urine and pulse.

An evil spirit pulse is fluctuating, uncertain, and unpredictable. It is subject to sudden changes not otherwise explainable by circumstances. This is also known as gdon rtsa [ghost pulse], felt as grossly irregular, or without pattern.

Diagnosis by urinalysis is predicated on observation of a particular type of bubble in the urine known as a fish eye. The bubble is so called because it looks precisely thus. A nine-chambered framework is imposed over the container of urine. Diagnosis is made based on the chamber in which the fish eye appears.

The manifestations of madness or the overt symptoms of mental illness are secondary criteria. There are two important reasons for this. First, a mentally ill person may howl at the moon regardless of whether or not he or she is possessed or targeted by black magic. Second, and more to the point, assessing these cases represents an enormous cross-cultural challenge. You have to become familiar with the variegated ghost pantheons of the world, pick one that works for you, and then relate your pantheon to the operative pantheon of your patient’s culture. Therefore, I recommend the defining diagnostic criteria be observed in the urine and the pulse.

If, despite the above advice, you simply cannot resist the temptation to play with spirits, I offer a few samples from the Indo-Tibetan pantheon together with selected, illustrative diagnostic criteria. These samples are from the eighteen ‘byung-po’i gdon, or elemental spirits that create mental disorder, which are the familiar devas, asuras, gandharvas, nagas, yakshas, rakshas, and Brahma of Indian tradition. I also include a few indigenous Tibetan furies.

1. Lha’i gdon: God Demons. Typically male spirits, white in color, who usually do not care to trouble humans. In Indian practice these are known as devas. People afflicted by God Demons suffer from insomnia; they obsessively clean themselves, display good natures, and speak sweetly.

2. kLu’i gdon: Serpent-spirit Demons. Extremely powerful residents of water and trees, manifesting as serpent bodies with human heads, green in color, who guard subterranean treasures, and who control the waters of lakes and springs. If a person suffers from insanity because of possession he or she will occasionally slither on the ground, lick the corners of the mouth very rapidly, become very irritable, and will like candy, honey, and milk. The face will be glowing and the eyes will be bloodshot, with piercing stares. kLu are known as nagas in Indian practice. They are usually associated with skin diseases, such as leprosy.

3. gNod sbyin: Harm-giver Demons. Typically male spirits, red in color, who also guard treasure. They typically haunt mountain passes. Their king is Kubera, the god of wealth and guardian of the north, who is usually depicted with his left hand holding a mongoose disgorging jewels. If a person suffers from insanity as a result of possession, his or her eyes will become copper colored, the body will present a pleasant appearance, red clothing will be favored, there will be a serious demeanor, he or she will move very fast and speak very infrequently, he or she will be tolerant and display a radiant complexion, and will constantly think of giving things to people. He or she will also occasionally display hatred toward doctors and priests, chatter thoughtlessly, and will crave fish. gNod byin are known as Yakshas in Indian practice.

4. bDud. Male spirits, black in color, who are extremely wicked. They eat human flesh and require blood sacrifices. There are four, which are known as the demonic forces of the afflictions, aggregates, death, and the heavenly son. The latter is similar to a demonic Cupid.

5. Tsan. Male spirits, red in color, who are regarded as the restless spirits of ill-tempered monks.

6. Gyal po’i gdon. Male spirits, white in color, who wear shining armor and are regarded as the spirits of deceased kings and lamas who failed to reach liberation. These are also known as King Evil Spirits and are known for their mischievous and violent nature.

7. Mamo. Female spirits, black in color, who require blood sacrifices. They are generally evil but are sometimes employed in a protective capacity.

8. gZaa yi gdon. A class of male planetary spirits, usually black in color, who assume various forms, such as a black dog, a monster with a dragon’s tail, a phoenix, or a man on horseback. They are regarded as extremely malevolent, and are associated with epilepsy, sudden paralysis, and strokes.

Black Magic.

Black magic, sorcery, or witchcraft represents a particular form of malevolence quite separate and apart from demons and evil spirits. Although demons and evil spirits may be employed by the black practitioner as instruments of affliction—these are called Byad stems, or curse ghosts—this is not always the case. A sorcerer can tinker with causal conditions and wreak the same if not more damage.

The first question people always ask is whether black magic is effective. I assure you that it is. I know people who practice black magic, and I have seen them achieve results. I have no doubt that black magic is not only effective, but also efficient. The thing, of course, is to separate real black magic from folk belief, autosuggestion, superstitious mumbo-jumbo, and fraud.

In some respects, explaining black magic earns the same karma as practicing black magic, so I do not want to delve into the subject too deeply. Suffice to say that directed malevolence is technically possible for the same reason that directed benevolence is possible.

The practice of black magic is a grievous offense that earns the most severe karmic results. A life-long practitioner may enter a pact with a demon and literally volunteer for hell, promising to serve the demon as a hell being in all future lifetimes. This forges a powerful bond and unleashes puissant energy. Conversely, a person may practice black magic, repent their deeds and, by achieving enlightenment, escape the result of their actions. Tibet’s famous yogi Milarepa provides us with an example. To avenge an offense to his family, the young Milarepa cultivated black magic and caused considerable damage to his enemies. Repenting this deed, he assiduously practiced Vajrayana and thereafter provided benefit to all sentient beings.

The presence of black magic is detected by palpation of what is known as the enemy pulse. The enemy pulse is employed individually, to predict if an enemy may be overcome by attack. If the lung and kidney pulses are strong, the attack will be successful. If the spleen pulse is strong, the enemy will prevail. Conversely, if the enemy attacks, the opposite holds true. Therefore, in the case of a female patient, the physician would take her right wrist, and using the upper half of his left index finger would assess the lung. The upper half of his left ring finger would assess her right kidney. He would next take her left wrist, and using the upper half of his right ring finger, assess her left kidney. Finally, the upper half of his right middle fingertip would assess the spleen. By noting anomalies, he would be able to determine if black magic afflicted her.

There are numerous forms of black magic around the world, with the most virulent found in Central and South East Asian cultures. Cambodian black magic is particularly strong.

Counteracting true black magic is no easy task, and absolute relief from its effects is often elusive. On some occasions, it may become necessary to locate the sorcerer involved, and negotiate with him directly.

Some of you may read the above account of demons, sorcerers, and think, “This author is ridiculous! Such things do not exist!” I am neither credulous, nor superstitious, nor am I prone to unquestioned belief in anything. In professional terms, this is not a possibility finding. This is a probability finding. This is not a “more likely true than untrue” determination. This is an absolute certainty.

Having said this let me now agree with you. Demons and black magic do not exist for you. The thing is, they do exist for some people. They exist for me because I allow them to exist; because, I admit their existence and deal with them as such. This is not as simple as thinking they are produced by belief; rather, this is a perspective that admits their probability. One often hears, “If you believe in ghosts you see ghosts. If you do not believe in ghosts you do not see them.” That is ridiculous. By believing in the existence or nonexistence of ghosts you have already erected a ghost framework, so naturally they exist. You have given a label to a proposition, so naturally that proposition is going to manifest itself at one time or another.

Let us take this discussion apart using other terms. I had a dear friend who absolutely believed that grains of sand grow into mountains. I discovered this when we walked along a beach, and she paused to remark, “Isn’t it mysterious? All this life is coming from the sea. All these little grains of sand will grow up to be mountains.” I protested that it was the other way around. I argued all the geological evidence that mountains eventually weather away to become grains of sand. No matter how I argued, I could not shake her belief.

The thing is, we both were right. If you think about it, grains of sand do grow to become mountains. I was imposing my limited perspective on her perspective. I was arguing a theory of destruction, while she was presenting a theory of creation. I was the destructive demon in her evolutionary garden.

How, then, do we treat a person with mental illness caused by such external forces? We cannot use the transactional methods described (elsewhere in the original text). They simply will not work. In most cases, we have to call in specialists such as exorcists, or highly realized lamas.

I am not particularly skilled as an exorcist because I lack sufficient knowledge and any accomplishment. I have no supernormal powers and my inner practice is incompetent. Nevertheless, I know people who are exorcists, who enjoy wide knowledge and accomplishment, and have a highly developed inner practice. I have seen them work and I have seen the results of their work.

There are numerous exorcising rituals in the Tibetan tradition—far more numerous than many suppose—but they all fall into either one of two classes: peaceful or wrathful. The peaceful methods involve appeasement by means of offerings, use of effigies, and substitution methods, where the spirit is drawn to magical structures, such as thread crosses or traps. Wrathful methods involve trapping the spirit in a container that is buried, fire rituals, and trapping the spirits in offerings, which are then thrown.

There are also other, highly sophisticated forms, which are the province of advanced tantric practitioners. On one occasion, in Nepal, I observed an exorcist work with a legitimate case of possession involving a young Englishwoman. This woman was quite haggard, mad, and unkempt. She was unable to care for herself, and babbled constantly, speaking incoherent nonsense in a language that only she understood. She would have fits of crying, and singing, and could neither form nor answer normal conversation. On occasion, she would fall to the ground and start eating grass. She urinated and moved her bowels in her clothes, and was afflicted with open sores. She had been this way for about three months, and everyone feared for her life.

The setting was a meadow and the time was noonday. The sky was clear and cloudless, and the weather was uncomfortably warm. I witnessed the ensuing scene together with several other people, all of whom saw what I saw.

The exorcist directed the young woman to sit in the center of the meadow. At precisely twelve o’clock, he took up his position at the edge of the meadow, in the shade of a tree. We observers occupied a position some twenty-five feet away from him. He began reciting mantras, and used a damaru drum. After an interval of some fifteen minutes, a black cloud suddenly began to take form over the young woman’s head. This cloud was about five feet in diameter, and appeared at a height of about twelve feet from ground level. As we watched this remarkable sight, the cloud began to emit small bolts of lightening, and then rain, which fell only upon the young woman.

Once the rain began to fall, she slumped to the earth and lay motionless. The exorcist ceased his mantras and the cloud disappeared. He collected his belongings and simply walked away.

We ran to the young woman, who raised herself from the ground as if she were awakening from sleep. She asked us, “What is going on? How did I get here?” We asked her how she felt, and she replied, “I feel fine. Now, tell me what is going on!”

We took her to the village, cleaned her up, and explained the situation to her. Upon hearing our explanation, she exhibited disbelief. She thought someone had drugged her and played a malicious prank, covering her in excrement. She wanted to call the police to investigate the matter and arrest the culprit. When we finally convinced her what had happened, she could only express astonishment. I saw her on numerous occasions after her experience, and although she remembered nothing, she was otherwise perfectly normal. She was quite personable and attractive. She was a gentle-spirited student of literature from Cambridge.

Before we leave this topic, I want to offer an aside about religious practitioners. Because of the people I see, I always differentiate between ordinary mental illness and cultivated mental illness. The former is ubiquitous, while the latter—if genuine—is rarely encountered. People who practice the higher meditations and the higher yogas occasionally appear to be insane. In some cases, they quite literally go insane on purpose. In other cases, they go insane because of a flaw in their practice. Given enough time—and by diligently following the instructions of a qualified teacher—a skilled practitioner can recover himself, but a less gifted practitioner will be in a wilderness. In either case, the manifestations of illness are full blown because the individual has deliberately engaged them, and is working with them. Inveterate egotists, drug addicts, alcoholics, and other obsessive personalities occasionally exhibit similar, but not identical, characteristics.

Suppose the police discover a woman sitting naked in a grave-yard at midnight, munching on dirty food. Were such a thing encountered in India, law enforcement’s immediate concern would be that the woman not be disturbed. In America, the police would demand an explanation. The person might explain that she is engaged in the non-dualistic contemplation of impermanence, which is a perfectly wholesome and altogether rational activity. Nevertheless, it is probable that she will be hastily covered, taken to the nearest psychiatric assessment unit, and like as not, will thereafter be criminally charged.

If you are practicing higher yogas, it is important to take personal responsibility. If unseemly behavior arises, do not become attached. Just keep meditating.

The issue of social account, while not particularly germane to medical matters, does play a current role in assessing mental illness. Suppose an advanced tantric practitioner becomes intoxicated and decides to beat someone. Whether in India or America, the police may be summoned, and the matter is sure to provoke controversy. While there may be an adequate religious explanation, this may not be sufficient to address legal concerns and the practitioner may be held for psychological evaluation. I also want to mention that governments are clearly not above using psychiatry for political purposes. We find evidence with the French in Viet-Nam and their forced psychiatric detention of the Vietnamese Buddhist prophet Huynh Phu So, and with the current Mainland Chinese persecution of Buddhists.

Another thought, in passing, is that there are some people in this world who are inherently, albeit ignorantly, wicked and who rejoice in their wickedness. Sometimes this makes them appear possessed, demonic, or insane. One of the worst cases I ever encountered involved a practicing psychologist—an otherwise cultured, well educated, and well-spoken Chinese woman—who deliberately, systematically, and efficiently led her patients to absolute ruin. She regularly had sex with her patients, both male and female; would encourage and even procure alcohol for alcoholics and drugs for drug addicts; concocted elaborate lies to have patients arrested and imprisoned, and on one notable occasion provided a homicidal patient with a loaded pistol.

As it happened, she was secretly in therapy for a multiple personality disorder, and there was some speculation she might be possessed. My assessment was that she simply enjoyed ruining people. When confronted with this assessment, she cheerfully admitted that it was accurate. She stated that the only reason she stayed in therapy was to gain an alibi in case she was caught, and she congratulated herself for deceiving her therapist.

Some would say she was mentally ill; a sociopath in the grip of madness who set out to do harm. Actually, she was just a thoroughly unpleasant human being.

Finally, I want to mention that there are also highly evolved beings—Bodhisattvas, in fact—who display unusual or controversial behavior that is beyond our judgment. You can get the flavor of this from Vimalakirti’s verses to the Bodhisattva Sarvarupasamdarsana, wherein Vimalakirti describes the “true bodhisattvas,” saying, in part: “They intentionally become courtesans, in order to win men over; and, having caught them with the hook of desire, they establish them in the buddha-gnosis.” Here, Vimalakirti describes a Bodhisattva adopting the role of a prostitute, and then dancing with passions in order to inculcate the seed of liberation from suffering, or what Vimalakirti elsewhere calls the “transcendence of morality, which is consummated in the moral development of immoral beings.”

This, too, is medicine.
Do you understand?

Copyright (c) 2002, 2004, 2005, 2007 by Tulku Urgyan Tenpa Rinpoche. all rights reserved. Used by permission.

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