Where Science and Magic Meet
Tibetan Psychic Traditions
article describes the early stages of a research project in
India with Tibetan meditation practitioners, looking at the
relationship between meditation attainment and psychic awareness.
As this is an overview to give a flavour of the psychic traditions
of the culture, I shall mention several different traditions
quite briefly, rather than give an in-depth account of any one
of them. There is very little literature about Tibet’s psychic
traditions, so much of what follows is based on interviews with
Tibetan culture is renowned for its psychic practitioners, but
there has been no scientific research into their practices.
Tibetan traditions incorporate psi extensively, with three main
areas that appear to have ancient origins:
1) The oldest Tibetan traditions are those of the oracles, which
involves deity possession;
2) Mo divination, which often involves a Tibetan deity
called Palden Lhamo;
3) and the mahasiddhis.
There are two areas of more recent beliefs that relate primarily
to the monastic communities and derive directly from Buddhism:
attainment of psychic abilities through Buddhist meditation
practice, and a belief in consciously chosen reincarnation,
resulting in tulkus who are identified using a variety of psychic
Tibetan traditions are a unique mixture of original shamanic
Bon practices, Buddhism, which came to Tibet about 1,300 years
ago, and Indian Buddhist tantric traditions, which came to Tibet
about 1,000 years ago (Schlagintweit, 1999). The psychic aspects
of Tibetan tradition primarily date from the pre-Buddhist shamanic
period, though they are not inimical to Buddhism per se and
so have been extensively incorporated by the monks into their
practices. There are many different types of Buddhism, and that
in Tibet is renowned for its inclusion and development of psychic
has its own world-view. Exploring a different culture can often
shed light on our own belief systems and help us to see our
own concepts. Beliefs are an intrinsic part of one’s mental
make-up determined to a great degree by the culture in which
one grows up. We are, for the most part, completely unconscious
of our belief systems until they are pointed out to us, or we
go to a completely different culture where people hold very
Most Tibetan people accept the psychic as an every day part
of life. An example of the place divination has in everyday
life for Tibetans is their use of astrology. Their calendars
specify more than a dozen different attributes of each day,
e.g., whether or not it is auspicious to start a business, get
married, hold a funeral or even to have a party!
1. The Tibetan Oracles
have the tradition of oracles (kuten, which literally means
medium). These mediums go into trance, becoming possessed by
a deity, who then speaks through the medium giving advice and
prophecy, which is used to make decisions by people at every
level of society, e.g. Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government
consult the Nechung Oracle, who is recognised as the state oracle.
The oracle is held in high esteem as the following quote from
the Dalai Lama shows:
hundreds of years now, it has been traditional for the Dalai
Lama, and the Government, to consult Nechung during the New
Year festivals. In addition, he might well be called upon
at other times if either have specific queries. I myself have
dealings with him several times a year. This may sound far-fetched
to twentieth century western readers. . . . But I do so for
the simple reason that as I look back over the many occasions
when I have asked questions of the oracle, on each one of
them time has proved that his answer was correct. . . .
Surprising as it may seem, the oracle’s replies to questions
are rarely vague. As in the case of my escape from Lhasa,
he is often very specific. (Dalai Lama, 2002).
are numerous oracles. Many monasteries will have their own resident
oracle, who sometimes is a monk, as well as the more common village
following information about oracles was given by Kirti Tsenshab
Rinpoche (2005) in a series of private interviews. (see
picture 1) Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche was recommended as he
was a great authority on tantric aspects of Tibetan Buddhism.
I feel so grateful and blessed to have been able to spend time
in his presence – a truly holy man.
There are two factors involved in an accurate prophecy: the
ability of the medium and the faith of the participants. He
considered faith to be very important, and likened this participation
between the medium and the sitter to needing a crutch if you
have a bad leg — to be effective in walking you need both. Many
of the people I have spoken with have reiterated this point
of the importance of faith. For example, Penor Rinpoche (2006),
who is head of the Nyingma sect, said with regard to divination
that the diviner must have complete faith in the deity, and
the questioner must have complete faith in the diviner.
Thus, a medium requires complete faith in their abilities from
the sitter, and as there are both good and fraudulent mediums,
one must check their reliability over a long period in order
to increase one’s trust in them. He considered that it is essential
to check in order to know whether the oracle’s divination will
be successful. He likened Buddhists to scientists in that they
always check everything. He explained that if you have a precognition,
you can increase the certainty of your experience by asking
lots of other people what they think, and so check it out. He
said to make ratings for everything, e.g., for a 3 or 6 month
prophecy check the person who has given it: are they reliable?
How do they express themselves? What are their qualifications?
Education? The way they dress? Do they speak well? What is their
credibility? In similar vein he says we must analyse everything.
By analogy he said that someone can appear happy or sad, but
this may just be the appearance. He was very firm that things
of the senses can often deceive us, and that when we’re sick
our senses are faulty.
Kirti Tsenshabe Rinpoche also mentioned the Tibetan tantric
teaching that an oracle becomes possessed by a deity because
of the wind energy in their channels. This wind energy is conceived
in a similar manner to prana of the Yogic tantric tradition,
and the channels are equivalent to the nadis. He considers that
some people have the ability to see the future because of past-life
karma, which is related to their wind energy. Many other people
I spoke with have repeated this point.
2. Mo Divination
more common than the oracles, is the practice of Mo divination.
Nearly every monastery will have at least one lama who does
Mo divination. There are also many lay village people who “do
An article in a Tibetan magazine (Cho Yang) states that the
purpose of performing divination is to look into a person’s
life situation in order to:
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 karma. . . . . 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. . . . The motivation for
performing divination must be pure . . . the fundamental motive
for engaging in the practice of divination should be to help
sentient beings.”(Tseten et al, 1995, p. 111-112)
quote shows the typical Tibetan blending of shamanic with Buddhist
beliefs. As in the beliefs about the oracle, connection with
a deity is considered an essential part of the psychic act,
and also there is mention of the Buddhist teachings of karma
and altruistic motivation.
The Cho Yang journal article lists 11 different divination methods,
some of which are mentioned below:
Doughball divination is done by high lamas in order to help
find an important reincarnation, which means it is used only
rarely. The names of potential candidates are written on paper
and then rolled into a ball of dough. All candidate names are
in equal-sized balls, great care being taken to make sure that
all the balls are identical. These balls are placed in a sealed
bowl, which is put in front of a sacred object, such as a statue
in a temple, and for three days monks remain in the temple reciting
prayers day and night. On the fourth day the cover is removed
and a high lama rolls the doughballs round in the bowl until
one of them falls out. That is the ball containing the answer.
I was told that, in the case of the latest Panchen Lama who
has been imprisoned by the Chinese, this process was repeated
three times, and each time the same name came up.
The most common forms of divination are Dice and Mala divination.
In Mala divination the person holds the mala (a string of prayer
beads) with the fingers of each hand holding a bead at random.
The intervening beads are then counted out three at a time until
one, two or three beads are left, this giving the outcome of
In a similar manner, dice will be thrown, the diviner blowing
on the dice before throwing. Normally three dice are used.
In the above two forms of divination, the advice is specified
by books which tell you what the particular outcomes mean. For
example, in general with the dice, odd numbers are auspicious
whilst even numbers are inauspicious. With the mala the best
outcome is three beads.
Whilst doughball, dice and mala divination rely on a “random”
event having a meaningful relationship with the person’s question
(synchronicity), in the next most common forms of divination,
direct clairvoyance is used.
(ii) Mirror divination is special to a protector deity known
as Dorje (or Lhamo) Yudronmai. The mirror is placed ceremonially
and, as with the previous forms of Mo, rituals are performed.
The diviner sees appearances, reflections of writings and letters
from the deity. When I visited a lovely old Tibetan lady called
Amathaba, (see picture 2) living in one
of the Tibetan settlements in south India, she saw a misty dawn
scene which gradually cleared, and interpreted this as there
being an initial difficulty which would then get resolved. She
recommended asking the local nuns to say special prayers, and
to hang prayer flags to help overcome the obstacles. This is
a very common practice.
She says it was a gift she was born with and which ran in the
family, she being the seventh person in the family to have inherited
this gift. In her case she uses three mirrors, placed upright
in a bowl of rice. In two of them she sees the deities connected
with the divination, and in the front mirror the actual reading.
She is thought of very highly in the community and many people
In Thumb nail divination you look into the thumbnail and blow
on it in order to receive the vision. When the Mo is done via
mirror or thumbnail reading, the diviner will tend to see particular
symbolic visions, which are then interpreted in the light of
the querent’s problem.
Also in this category come precognitive or clairvoyant dreams.
Again, as with most Tibetan methods, these are related to a
particular deity. Specific things are attributed to different
symbols as in mirror divination (Tseten et al, 1995, p.114).
I was told of a local woman who consulted a lama and was told
by him to have a dream about her problem. The lama also noted
their own dream that night. The two dreams were then compared
and predictions made by the lama, which turned out to be correct.
Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche (2005) corroborates this saying that
prophecies can appear as visions in dreams, but considers this
less reliable because not all dreams are prophetic, so one is
never completely sure whether or not it is an accurately prophetic
(iii) The next group of practices tend to be done by the querent
themselves. Until 1959, 80% of Tibetans were semi-nomadic to
varying degrees. Their practices are accordingly much simpler
than the previous methods, and the information required is primarily
whether or not it is auspicious to do a certain task.
Bootstrap divination is popular among nomads. The straps, which
are wide pieces of webbing tape, are folded into squares and
suddenly pulled apart. If they part easily, this is a positive
sign — if they tangle, this is considered to be unlucky. Several
people have mentioned this form of divination to me and it is
apparently very popular in Tibet.
Tibetans commonly take note of omens such as certain birds being
seen, overhearing certain music, or people saying auspicious
words, which are all positive. There are numerous negative signs
as well, such as the chatter of monkeys, or interestingly, having
a black cat cross your path before you set out on a journey.
Why a black cat should have this mystique both in Britain and
Tibet is very strange!
Examining flames in a ritual fire or observing a butter lamp
is also a form of divination. In this case one invokes the fire
god and then observes the flame. Different types of flames mean
In interviews with diviners, apart from the importance of faith,
which is always mentioned, the other aspect that is considered
absolutely vital is that of prayers to Buddha, or a protector
deity, most commonly to Palden Lhamo, who is the main protector
deity of Tibet and of divination. Dice and mala divination in
particular are normally associated with the deity Palden Lhamo.
All of the diviners I have spoken to have reiterated that they
are not psychic, they are the channel for the deity who thereby
through them controls the fall of the dice, or whatever method
they use. They do not consider that they do anything other than
mediate between the querent and the deity.
Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche (2005) says that when you do the Mo,
if your supplication to the deity is good, then you will have
a good Mo. In general a good relation with the deity increases
your ability. He also says that those who have good faith in
Buddhism are better at doing the Mo, and in time their ability
increases. It is also considered important that the diviner
has purified their “energy” channels (Kirti Tsenshab, 2005;
Topgyal, 2005). One Rinpoche I interviewed (Drakser, 2006) had
undertaken three months of purification practices, chanting
mantras specific to the deity, doing prostrations and pujas,
before he was considered fit to practice Mo divination.
can be seen from this list of different types of practices,
divination ranges from the most simple “good or bad luck” omens
through to highly developed clairvoyant skills, and from practices
that anyone can do to those normally performed only by monks.
aspect of Tibetan psychic tradition is the form most related
to Buddhist teachings. In Buddhism there are two meditation
disciplines: the shamatha discipline of one-pointed concentration
and the vipassana discipline of contemplative insight. Developing
shamatha (calm-abiding or mental quiescence) is considered to
be an essential first step. Many traditional Mahayana and modern
Tibetan Buddhist texts (e.g. Conze, 1990; Lamrimpa, 1995, p.63)
relate meditation attainment to development of psychic powers,
as do Yogic teachings.
It seems that this “clairvoyancy” is more akin to what in the
West we would define as omniscience, rather than the clairvoyance
we research in parapsychology, since the Buddhist clairvoyancy
includes what we consider to be miraculous powers. Traditional
Buddhist scriptures talk about the six superknowledges which
you gain on attaining perfection of concentration, and make
it very clear that practice of concentration meditation brings
both enlightenment and psychic awareness, and that you cannot
have one without the other.
In interviews with various monks, it was stressed over and over
again that only a few people attain samadhi and clairvoyant
abilities, and even then the clairvoyance is no more than 80%
reliable. Omniscience arises only with full enlightenment. Not
everyone who practices meditation will attain samadhi, so not
everyone who practices meditation will become psychic. In other
is a genius for enlightenment;
is a genius for meditation;
is a genius for psychic awareness;
can all learn anything but not everyone has a talent. Only a
few have genius.
My recent research at a yoga ashram and with Tibetan Buddhist
monks supports this teaching, in that those who had practised
meditation for longer, in terms of decades of practice, do seem
to show more reliable psychic awareness as measured by a picture
test for precognition and clairvoyance. However, this research
is still in the early stages, so it can at present only be considered
that the teachings have been suggestively confirmed. (2)
B. Warnings about Psi
seems that most cultures have some sort of reservation around
psychic phenomena. We find stories of psychic abilities being
used for negative purposes in most cultures, and, in an apparent
paradox, this is also prominent in Tibetan culture.
Fear of Sorcery
already mentioned, Tibetan culture is still very close to its
shamanic roots. Shamanic cultures accept the psychic as part
and parcel of life (Eliade, 1923). What is very apparent in
shamanic cultures is the awe and the fear that surround the
Demons, and the fear of them, are apparently very common in
Tibet. For example, amongst the Tibetans, disease is often thought
to be caused by a bad spirit (Jhongur, 2006). A story was told
how someone fell ill when a tree in the garden was cut down,
and this was related to the spirit of the tree. This is a classic
shamanic belief. Sickness is often related to a sorcerer who
sends the bad spirit, or hex, at someone’s request. This is
not to say that shamans only use their psychic abilities for
negative purposes, but it is to say that they have been used
sufficiently often in this way for people to develop a fear
of the psychic. The well-known stories about Milarepa, who was
said to have killed lots of people at a distance, exemplify
the fear of “bad” magic and the belief that people can do such
In an interview with an astrologer (Jhongur, 2006), I was told
that there is a belief in sickness resulting from people talking
about the person (“Mikha-Suk”). This corresponds to the ‘evil
eye’ in Western culture, and basically means harm due to excessive
praise for any kind of success or accomplishment, such as owning
a specially beautiful object, or a newly built house which has
become talk of the town (Nyima, 2007). Very young children are
felt to be prone to this and need special protection
There is also fear of a spirit called a “disa” (literally smell-eater),
which is a kind of trapped spirit which runs after food and
is supposed to be satisfied with the mere smell of the food
placed for it (Nyima,2007).
There is a belief in possession by a spirit that may be from
a dead person or may come from someone who is still alive, often
contained within an object that used to belong to that person.
An amulet is an object worn around the neck as charm against
evil or injury. It is always used for protection from unknown
harm. One sort of amulet, called a “ga’u,” is a small silver
casket which will contain, relics, photos of holy people etc.
Tibetans often carry a ga’u in their coat. And of course the
usual of a man using a charm to make a young girl fall in love
I found it very interesting that, in my interviews with Kirti
Tsenshab Rinpoche (2005), he again and again reiterated the
importance of Buddhism for creating a moral sphere within which
one could use one’s psychic abilities. In many ways Buddhism
is being strongly affirmed in order to morally “move on” from
some of the problems that one encounters within a shamanic culture.
fear is that if you talk about psychic phenomena you might attract
a spirit to you, and that might not be beneficial. For example,
there is a belief that if you are possessed by a spirit, as
with the oracles, you yourself stop developing at the level
of the spirit that possesses you — or you just stop developing
Tibetans consider that all ghosts can harm us. There are many
stories of a special sort of ghost they call “hungry ghosts,”
and of others who will lure you to your death. Kirti Tsenshab
Rinpoche said to beware of obstacles from ghosts when doing
the Mo divination. They, or other beings, can obstruct the ability
and can harm us. He considers that we gain protection from praying
to the protector deity at the onset of the divination, from
positive karma and from merit (Kirti Tsenshab, 2005).
He also says that there are two directions for personal development
— going into the unconscious and going for super-consciousness.
Psi abilities are normally considered to be related to the former,
e.g. oracular trance, dreams or hypnosis, and in spiritual development
one is going for the latter. Spirit connection, as in mediumistic
practice, is definitely connected with the unconscious aspect
For Tibetans this is a complex, paradoxical subject because
as Buddhists, the high lamas do Mo divination on request by
people, who come to them for a variety of reasons. They also
do divination for the tulku identification. And there are many
oracles, some of them official state oracles. So the practice
of psi is everywhere. The need for protection is acknowledged,
and the prevalence of fraudulent practitioners, but not a taboo
on practising. My translators have all said that Tibetans are
very comfortable with this apparent contradiction.
Detrimental Effects on One’s Spiritual Development
fear of an immoral use of psi is a very obvious surface fear;
the fear of pride is a subtler level of fear. In the Indian
subcontinent and amongst the Tibetan people it is considered
wrong to pay any special attention to psi. Manifesting psychic
abilities is thought to have detrimental effects on one’s spiritual
development. It is stressed that having attained Enlightenment,
one is no longer disturbed spiritually by attainment of psychic
abilities, whereas, for unenlightened people, psychic abilities
are seen as very tricky indeed, associated with deception, with
glamour and with pride.
His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, in his book “Freedom in Exile”
(2002), expresses a wish for Western science to explore Tibetan
psychic traditions. However, when I met Geshe Samten (2005),
the director of Sarnath Institute, he told me that, whilst Tibet
has a rich tradition of psychic abilities, even those with a
reputation of psychic awareness would deny their abilities.
He stated that it is taboo to say that you are psychic or to
“show off” your abilities. There must be a genuine purpose for
doing the psychic practice. Even to say one has reached a certain
level of meditation is considered an obstruction on the path
to enlightenment. Humility is considered essential for one’s
spiritual development. For example, the Dalai Lama repeatedly
says that he is a simple monk and is not clairvoyant.
is a Tibetan tradition about not speaking of things because
they are secret teachings. For example, the Dalai Lama writes
of Herbert Benson’s research (Benson et al, 1982) with Tum-mo
a strong believer in the value of modern science, I decided
to let him proceed, though not without some hesitation. I knew
that many Tibetans were uneasy about the idea. They felt that
the practices in question should be kept confidential because
they derive from secret doctrines.” (Dalai Lama, 2002,
monks and nuns who are working with techniques that are thought
to be related to development of psychic awareness, make vows
that they will not speak about their practice or reveal their
capabilities. Practitioners take their vows first and then they
do the study and practice.
This level of fear, that acknowledging one’s psychic abilities,
which are considered to manifest at one level of development
on the path, is an obstacle to one’s spiritual growth, is a
quite subtle understanding of psi and its manifestation from
which we could learn.
aspect of the fear of the psychic is the knowledge that power
corrupts, and glamorous psychic abilities are seen as very powerful.
In an introduction by Francis Story to a book on early Buddhist
Pali Canon, he says:
is true that certain psychic faculties capable of a worldly
application, such as the Dibba-cakkhu (clairvoyance), Dibba-sota
(clairaudience), Mano-Maya-Kaya (projection of the ‘astral body’)
and other paranormal powers are developed in the course of Buddhist
meditation. . . .The Buddha and the Arhats possessed such powers
and when need arose they exercised them for the sake of the
ignorant who demanded ‘signs and wonders.’ But in general the
Buddha deplored their use, preferring to spread the Dhamma by
the ‘miracle of teaching’ and the self-propagating power of
truth. To those not yet fully emancipated from worldly delusion
they can become attachment-forming faculties, and as such have
to be guarded against and overcome in the struggle for Nibbanna.
In the Buddhist view, one who embarks on concentration exercises
to obtain supernormal powers (Iddhi) is doing so with the wrong
intention and at great danger to himself. If all power corrupts,
supernormal power can corrupt superlatively. (Mahathera,
is a very real fear and I am sure that most people can think
of examples of this facet of human experience.
Distinguishing Fact from Fantasy and the Problems of Attracting
of the Buddhist precepts is not to claim to possess powers you
do not have. Already noted above, in my discussions with Kirti
Rinpoche (2005) were his frequent references to checking that
the practitioner is not a charlatan, for example when talking
about the oracles. He also said that it is most important to
check the appearances of the psychic practitioner: don’t be
caught by appearances, see what is really being taught. He reiterated
not to look at the outer appearance, and to check for the meaning.
He used an analogy of a poem, and warned against being misled
by beautiful words.
is it that we are so fascinated by psychic abilities? Why do
we so easily venerate those who possess them? This is the root
cause behind both the fraudulent pretence of psi and the ego
glorification people experience when demonstrating psychic abilities.
am aware that this is just a beginning, a first touch on the
surface of a deep and complex culture and its traditional beliefs
about the psychic realm.
What I find really fascinating is His Holiness, the Dalai Lama,
is encouraging scientific research into this topic. And he is
doing this with full awareness of the difficulties:
am well aware, however, of the danger of tying spiritual belief
to any scientific system. . . . This is not to say that I consider
things like the oracle and the ability of monks to survive nights
spent out in freezing condition to be evidence of magical powers.
Yet I cannot agree with our Chinese Brothers and sisters, who
hold that Tibetan acceptance of these phenomena is evidence
of our backwardness and barbarity. Even from the most rigorous
scientific viewpoint, this is not an objective attitude. At
the same time, even if a principle is accepted, it does not
mean that everything connected with it is valid. . . . . Great
vigilance must be maintained at all times when dealing in areas
about which we do not have great understanding. This, of course,
is where science can help. After all, we consider things to
be mysterious only when we do not understand them. . . . . Through
mental training, we have developed techniques to do things which
science cannot yet adequately explain. This, then, is the basis
of the supposed ‘magic and mystery’ of Tibetan Buddhism. (Dalai
Lama, 2002, pp. 230-243)
is a major obstacle on the path. The scientific method has “truth”
as its aim. Does a real and deep understanding of the process
of psi enable one not to fall into the traps surrounding the
development and use of psychic abilities? I think it does and
I think that this is one of the best reasons for undertaking
parapsychological research within the Tibetan culture.
gratitude to His Holiness, Dalai Lama for inspiring this project
and to his secretary, Tenzin Geyche Tethong, for his support;
to the Perrott-Warwick Fund and Bial Foundation (grant no. 64/04)
for supporting this research; to Geshe Jampel Dakpa for all
his help and for affiliating this project to Sarah College,
Dharamsala; to Khangser Rinpoche for enabling the research to
take place at SeraJey monastic university, Bylakuppe; to Yaki
Platt and Gen Andu for their excellent translator skills and
unfailing good spirits; and last, but not least, to all those
interviewed who gave of their time and wisdom.
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1: Kirti Tsenshab Rinpoche
2: Gen Andu (translator) with Amathaba (mirror diviner)
earlier and more complete version of this article was published
in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research, 2006.
yoga studies have been published (Roney-Dougal & Solfvin,
2006) and the first Buddhist study has been presented at a conference
and submitted to a journal, but is not yet published,