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Background of Soul Retrieval in Ancient Tibetan Tradition

From a Tibetan point of view, the ‘soul’ asserted by theistic religions is an essential self
of a person, which survives death, goes to heaven, and so forth. This is like the self of the
person which reincarnates according to Tibetan tradition. What is meant by ‘soul’ in the Tibetan
tradition, however, is different. In the Tibetan view there are various life-forms in six realms of
existence. These are what we identify as the ‘living being’ who reincarnates, such as when we
say, ‘you’ or ‘I’. Soul, on the other hand, is a term by which our Tibetan tradition identifies a
temporary support for life, a kind of life-energy inside every living being. It is not identified as
matter or consciousness, or even as the person themselves.1 It has varying types and degrees
 

of energetic potency similar to consciousness or form, but it does not reincarnate like a being
with consciousness, nor can it be seen in shape or color, or measured for size, like a form. It is
more like a reflection of form, a reflection of consciousness, a reflection of the person. The soul,
in this context, is similar to the person’s place of residence, their base. In this sense the soul is
the support for life. This holds true not just for human beings but for all living beings, including
invisible beings that we cannot see with our eyes. There are many such beings!
In relation to this, ancient texts speak of a three-fold category: mind or consciousness —
‘sem’, in Tibetan; thought or intellect — ‘yi’ in Tibetan; and soul — ‘la’ in Tibetan. The analogy
given for the relationship between these is that the mind is like fire, the intellect is like firelight,
and the soul is like smoke. The fire is in one place, the firelight reaches a great distance, and
the smoke can travel even farther. In this context, mind or consciousness could also be said to
be like the ocean which stays in one place, thought or intellect, like the waves and movement of
the ocean, and soul, like mist or clouds rising from the ocean.

About Lost Soul

The soul is very vulnerable because it is often attacked and hurt by negative spirits
during a person’s lifetime, and after death almost always faces such attacks. Therefore, in the
Tibetan tradition, during the funeral or death ceremonies for a person, their loved ones will try to
support and bring relief to the dead person’s soul by means of rituals. During a person’s life, the
soul supports their life; it creates stable energy in the person’s physical and mental systems.
When the soul is not weakened, when it is undefiled, unspoiled, uncorrupted, the balanced soul
will rest calmly in the body. This is because there is a deep balance between the soul, the mind,
and the body. Activities such as business, education, relationships, etc, will develop fruitfully
because fewer obstacles will be encountered when the soul rests calmly in the body with a
stable mind.
Soul, however, can very easily become separated from the body. When a person
experiences a serious accident or emotional trauma such as intense fear, losing a loved one, or
having a sudden life-altering experience, soul may become separated from the body. Negative
spirits can sometimes take a person’s soul when they are sleeping, have low energy, or when
they are sick. This is because when you are sleeping, low in energy, or sick, your mind cannot
pay attention; there is not enough energy to awaken it. People who suffer from depression for a
long time may experience ‘pieces’ of their soul being taken away by spirits. In such cases the
soul wanders away from the body.

1In Tibetan philosophy there is a three-fold categorization of impermanent phenomena — form,
consciousness, and impermanent phenomena that are neither form or consciousness. What
Tibetan tradition refers to as ‘soul’ falls into this third category.

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When soul separates from the body, a person’t energy declines, and many unfortunate
events may occur. It is like a flower suddenly wilting, losing its color, shape, and scent. In
extreme cases, a person’s energy can become so depleted that they die. After death, the soul
stays near the body, usually in one of three locations: where the person first got sick, where the
person passed away, or where their body was laid to rest.
The soul will tend to come back to visit what was important to the deceased person,
such as clothing, personal belongings, or anything that was special to the person during their
life. The souls of people who were very powerful, such as kings, may remain in such places for
seven generations. The soul of a normal human being will remain for about nine years in the
graveyard, near the home, etc. Animals’ souls will remain near where they passed away for at
least a few days.

Location of the Soul

The main location of the soul in the body is the heart. The soul moves to 32 different
locations in the body each month. The female soul circles to the right, making the rounds
through these locations, while the male soul circles to the left. Ever since ancient times, Tibetan
doctors know where the soul is at any time, and do not treat the area where the soul is resting.
They consult the Tibetan calendar to know where the soul resides that day. The soul is
supported by these 32 locations. When the soul is very peaceful, comfortable, and relaxed, the
soul ‘battery’ is fully charged. This is beneficial for both the person and their soul.
There is a special soul-channel in the body. When the soul weakens or gets lost, it
cannot find the soul channel. Some people use a special bracelet to protect their soul. These
bracelets are made of iron and have mantra blessings. They can protect against attacks from
negative spirits.

Supports of Soul

‘La’ — this ‘soul’ or ‘life energy’ of beings, is primordial. It has always been possessed by
every sort of being, everywhere, whether they are a deity, human being, animal, or spirit, no
matter whether they are good-natured, bad-natured, weak, powerful, whatever. This life energy
of beings must have a place to stay. During life it stays with a person, and may for some time
remain with their corpse after their death, but during their life and afterwards, especially for
powerful beings, it may also stay in a special mountain, lake, tree, animal, or anything that is or
was important to that person. The residences of soul can come in many sizes, from a small bird,
to a huge mountain or ocean. In Tibet, some people have a tradition of planting a tree for a
person’s soul. This tree is a protector for the soul because the soul moves about, can, indeed,
be in multiple places simultaneously, and may sometimes encounter negative spirits. These are
obstacles for the soul, so the soul needs strong support, and that tree is the support. In ancient
times it was recognized that kings, leaders, and powerful people’s souls resided in certain lakes
or trees. If the tree died or the lake dried up, it was a sign that the person would die, or if this
happened after their death, it was a sign that their soul had finally departed.
In ancient Tibet it is said that there were originally five brothers with families from whom
derived five family-lineages of people. The names of these families are Dra དbr, Dru འgru, Dong ldོང,
Ga sg, and Go sgོ. Each of these five has their own soul-animal. For the Ra family it is the wild
horse. For Dru it is the yak. For Dong it is the deer. For Ga it is the sheep. And for the Go family
it is the goat. These animals are recognized as the supports of the souls for each lineage.

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Tibetan astrology can indicate which of these five lineages a person belongs to. The way a
person speaks, how their lips pronounce words, can also indicate which lineage they are.
From ancient times in Tibet, the stone, turquoise, was considered an important gift to
give to friends and loved ones. It was used as a marriage gift and as a symbol of love. Thus, it
came to be regarded as an important support for the soul of human beings. The blessing of
turquoise through a soul retrieval ritual will help keep the soul at home and in the body. If the
soul has problems, the color of the turquoise will change and become darker.

Signs of Lost Soul

There are ten different categories of negative spirits associated with the ten directions
(the four cardinal directions, four intermediate directions, above, and below2) which may attack
 

living beings from any direction and steal their souls. Even after someone has passed away
these spirits can attack their soul. There are various signs that someone has lost their soul.
When the soul has weakened or has been taken away from someone, their face has a different,
sad appearance, and they become weak. Others, or they, themselves, may dream that they are
naked, without shoes, clothing, or anything to protect themselves. They may dream that their
soul-tree is cut down, or that their soul-animal has been hurt or killed, etc. They may wake up
from sleep, suddenly frightened. The mind of a person who has lost their soul becomes unstable
and unfocused.

Ritual for the Ransom of Soul

In ancient Tibet, a simple soul retrieval ritual was performed as follows: when a
person lost their soul, someone would bring a ritual arrow decorated with five-colored
ribbons and circle their house three times calling the person’s name to come back
home. Then they would raise the arrow above their head and call for them to come
home right now. This is an example of part of a soul retrieval ritual. The ritual arrow is
very important in ancient Tibetan culture and has much symbolism associated with it.
There are three types of people who need soul retrieval: men, women, and
children. One important part of the soul retrieval ritual involves making a sculpture in the
shape of a man, woman, or child, depending upon who the ritual is for. Symbols of
objects pleasing to the five senses are then placed around it, representing beautiful
color for the eyes, delicious food to taste, wonderful music to hear, pleasant scents to
smell, and nice clothing to touch. Also arranged around it are pieces of clothing from the
person, offering cakes called ‘torma,’ dirt from the person’s body, and some of their
leftover food. This arrangement is called ‘lu,’ meaning ‘ransom.’ It is given to the
negative spirits who robbed the soul, to please them so that they give the soul back.
The soul retrieval process has other parts, as well. Longevity ritual of a Deity of
Long Life is performed, along with a feast-offering, called ‘tsog,’ meaning ‘accumulation,’
in order to accumulate positive energy. Various divinations are also performed to
determine the degree of success. The performance of this longevity ritual with mantra
and meditation easily returns your soul to you.

2 East, ghandarvas, South, yamas, West, naga kings, North, yakshas, Northeast, indras,
Northwest, wind devas, Southwest, rakshas, Southeast, agnis, Above, devas, Below, earth-
lords, nagas, and nyen — mountain and forest spirits

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