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  • Writer's pictureEgytian Priestess

Demons in Tibetan Buddhism

Tibetan Buddhism is a particular type of Buddhism that emerged when Mahayana Buddhism from India merged with local Tibetan practices.

Demons were common in native Tibetan religion, and they were absorbed by Buddhism, which characterized them as negative powers and energies in the universe that both the individual and the community must overcome through ritual actions, offerings of appeasement, and meditative detachment.

Demons are not evil, as nothing in existence is purely evil, and everything in existence is interdependent, which is why people must engage with these demons on both an individual and community level, to move closer to Nirvana.

Shamans in Tibet are better able to see and communicate with the demonic world. As such, they can help individuals face their personal demons and support their local communities in the proper treatment of more universal demons.

World of Tibetan Demons
World of Tibetan Demons

Tibetan Buddhism Demons

According to the Sutras, there are four different types of demons. Three internal demons exist within a person, these are afflictions, illnesses, and death, then there are external spiritual demons.

While the number of demons in existence is countless, some of the most important are named and have their own mythologies and iconographies.

Yama - The Demon of Death

Yama, or Shinje, oversees the afterlife, where souls go after they are separated from their bodies. He is responsible for judging how good a person was in life and, therefore, their next step on the karmic wheel of reincarnation. He is wrathful and may send disease and disaster into the human world to remind everyone to behave.

Yama is often depicted as holding all the realms of existence in his jaws or his outstretched hands. He is often shown with the head of a buffalo or alongside a bull that is crushing a man. He has three eyes and a crown of skulls, horns, and flames. He holds a stick topped by a skull in one hand and a lasso in the other.

Yama Demon of Death
Yama Demon of Death

Mahakala - The Great Black One

Mahakala is the protector of education and Dharma and helps guide us on our best life path. He appears in many different forms depending on the different schools of Buddhism but always wears a crown of five skulls, which represents the transformation of the five kleshas, which are negative afflictions, into five wisdoms.

He is usually depicted as black or dark blue, which represents his ability to absorb and embrace all things in existence. He can appear with two, four, or six arms.

Mahakala The Great Black One
Mahakala The Great Black One

Yamantaka - Conqueror of Death

Yamantaka is believed to be on a mission to destroy death, Yama, who he believed interfered with karma by taking people before their time. It is Yamantaka's work that keeps Yama and the cycle of Karma honest.

He has a grotesque appearance that is meant to scare and mirror Yama. He has six faces, each with three eyes, six legs, and six arms, all of which hold various weapons. His faces are yellow, dark blue, red, black, white, and brown.

Yamantaka COnqueror of Death
Yamantaka COnqueror of Death

Vaisravana - Demon of Wealth

Vaisravana is one of the four heavenly kings and is considered the guardian of the northern quadrant of the world. He is associated with wealth but is the antithesis of greed. He represents wealth sufficient to allow a person to focus on their spiritual path and also generosity with what you have.

He is usually represented as a man with a yellow face holding an umbrella or parasol. He often rides a snow lion. He is sometimes shown with a mongoose spewing jewels. The Mongoose is the nemesis of the snake, which represents greed. He often appears with a citron, the fruit of the Jambhara plant, in one hand.

Vaisravana Demon of Wealth
Vaisravana Demon of Wealth

Hayagriva - The Horsenecked One

The name Hayagriva means horse-necked, and he was originally depicted with the body of a man and the neck and head of a horse but is also often depicted with three demonic heads. He is the protector of the realm of animals within existence.

He is the demon of passion at the heart of anger and represents powerful emotions, which are both a source of power and trouble. He can help Buddhists channel their frustrations to overcome obstacles.

Hayigrava The Horsenecked One
Hayigrava The Horsenecked One

Palden Lhamo - Wrathful Protectoress of Wisdom

Born a human woman known as Magzor Gyalmo or Remati, she was married to the evil king of Lanka. She vowed to convert the king to Buddhism and prevent him from killing Dharma practitioners or to end his line. She felt like she failed when her own son was raised to kill Buddhists. As a result, she killed her son, eating his flesh, drinking his blood, and making his skin into a saddle.

When she died, she found herself in hell, but she fought her way out by stealing a bad of diseases and a sword. When she escaped hell, she felt like she had no reason to live and prayed for guidance. The Buddha appeared to her and charged her with becoming the protector of Buddhism.

Palden Lhamo Wrathful Protectress of Wisdom
Palden Lhamo Wrathful Protectress of Wisdom

Ekajato - Dark Protectress

Ekajato is another protector of Buddhism, and she is believed to be able to remove the fear of enemies, spread joy, and remove obstacles on the path to enlightenment. She is the protectress of the most precious and secret elements of Buddhism.

She is depicted with one eye, one tooth, one breast, and her hair tied up in a bun, representing her one-ness with existence.

Ekajato Dark Protectress
Ekajato Dark Protectress

Begtse - Demon of War

Begtse has red skin and hair, two arms, three blood-shot eyes, and is wielding a sword and a human heart in his right hand. In the stock of his right arm, he holds a bow and arrow and a halberd with a banner. Dressed in chainmail, he wears a Mongolian helmet with a crown of five skulls and four banners in the back.

Begtse Demon of War
Begtse Demon of War

Tibetan Shamanism

Tibetan shamans are mediators who have a stronger connection with the spiritual realm and therefore are better able to understand and deal with the demons that dwell there. They are healers, often called on to perform healing like a kind of exorcism to help an individual throw off demons, and can perform other shamanic services such as divination. Individual shamans are known as Bonpo and are highly revered in Tibet.

Consulting a shaman is often an alternative to speaking to a Buddhist monk for assistance. But there is little conflict between the two, and both are considered of equal value in Tibet and Nepal.

A shaman can be possessed by a demon and then pass on important messages and teachings. The demons that possess them are usually lesser deities of a local place rather than the deities of the major pantheon, as these demons are too powerful and would overwhelm the Bonpo.

They can also use their vision to detect demons that may be negatively influencing and person and help that person to communicate with that demon to figure out what they want, and either come to an agreement with the demon or engage in activities to exorcize the demon.

They can also help a community identify negative energies that might be hurting them collectively and then recommend actions such as sacrifices to appease the demonic energies.

Demonic Shamanism

Buddhist philosophy, demonic religion, and magic and ritual practices coexist with little friction in the form of Buddhism practiced in Tibet. Buddhist practitioners on their path to Nirvana accept that demons are manifestations of negative energy and obstacles on the path to enlightenment. Shamans are individuals with a better vision of the spiritual and demonic realm and can therefore help guide others in their engagement with the spiritual, which is ever present in the physical realm.

While in English, we use the term demon to refer to the spiritual beings of Tibetan Buddhism, these deities are not evil. They are powerful and volatile and can push a person off their path if they do not have a good level of self-awareness and self-control.

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