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From the Tibetan burial ground to the Mongolian steppe. A new life for Buddhist ritual practice in post-socialist Mongolia

Du cimetière tibétain à la steppe mongole. Une nouvelle vie pour la pratique rituelle bouddhique dans la Mongolie post-socialiste
Alevtina Solovyeva et Karénina Kollmar-Paulenz

Résumés

Cet article traite d’un rituel bouddhique né au Tibet il y a près de mille ans et devenu populaire en Mongolie avec l’introduction du bouddhisme de style tibétain. Au cours de sa longue existence sur les terres mongoles, il a subi de nombreux changements. Pendant la période socialiste, il est devenu invisible dans le paysage religieux ; dans les années 1990, il est réapparu et au xxie siècle, il prospère sur une vague de popularité renouvelée. Cet article traite de l’histoire tibétaine du rituel, de son contexte philosophique et de ses formes textuelles, rituelles et sociales dans la Mongolie contemporaine, avec un accent particulier sur ses caractéristiques, significations et fonctions individuelles, qui ont été influencées et enrichies par de nombreuses traditions. En outre, les stratégies utilisées par les différentes parties prenantes dans la lutte pour la souveraineté interprétative de ce rituel sont examinées, ainsi que le rôle que jouent la culture narrative, les pratiques rituelles et discursives dans ce processus. Afin d’étudier ces questions complexes, nous explorons les différentes perspectives des acteurs rituels (à la fois les différents spécialistes des rituels et les fidèles laïcs) impliqués dans les traditions rituelles contemporaines.

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Texte intégral

The research work carried out to obtain the results has been funded by the EEA Financial Mechanism Baltic Research Programme in Estonia (EMP340).
This work was supported by the Estonian Research Council grant (grant PRG670) “Vernacular Interpretations of the Incomprehensible: Folkloristic Perspectives Towards Uncertainty”.
The authors would like to express their special gratitude to Prof. Caroline Humphrey, University of Cambridge, and Prof. Grégory Delaplace, École Pratique des Hautes Études, and to editors of EMSCAT for their valuable comments on the article.

Introduction

  • 1 A couple of biographical accounts exists which, although differing in some details, tell her life s (...)
  • 2 The valley of Lab lies in the northern part of E yul.
  • 3 For a short history of the Zangs ri mkhar dmar retreat up to recent times see Akester (2016, pp. 37 (...)

1One night in the 1080s, at the temple of E yul in Central Tibet, a young woman walked out of the temple compound into the wilderness, to a field where at a tree stump a wild nāga, a serpent deity, lived. At this spot (which every Tibetan in his or her right mind would certainly avoid because it was prone to be full of ghosts, demons and other unpredictable and potentially harmful beings) she went into meditation and “offered her body as a gift” to the nāgas, as her Tibetan biography tells us (Jigs bral, 24v)1. The woman’s name was Ma gcig lab sgron ma, “Single Mother, Light of the Lab [Valley]2”. Born in 1055 in central Tibet to the east of the Yar klungs Valley, this woman led the life of an itinerant lay religious woman, a wandering yoginī, travelling through South and Central Tibet before she founded a retreat3 in Central Tibet, where she lived until her death in 1149. She led a very unconventional life, not concerned about the social rules of her community and more than once denying the authority of religious orthodoxy. Ma gcig lab sgron ma and her main guru, Pha dam pa sangs rgyas (a South Indian yogin), preferred the lifestyle of wandering yogins to that of the settled monastic community. This lifestyle, typical also for later Tibetan practitioners who follow her religious path, always carried the stigma of the outsider, the heterodox ascetic, and therefore was looked down upon by the more conservative Buddhist monks.

  • 4 Over the centuries, every tradition produced its own literature on gcod. For the dGe lugs pa tradit (...)

2Ma gcig lab sgron ma is credited with the development of the only indigenous Tibetan meditation system, the so-called gcod, which draws on the Mahāyāna Buddhist teachings of the Prajñāpāramitā and Mahāmudrā, which are widespread among different Tibetan Buddhist traditions. In the history of Tibetan Buddhism, this teaching and the accompanying ritual practice occupies an important position as perhaps the most pervasive single ritual practice ever developed within the religion. The gcod teachings started out as an independent tradition, but soon lost this status. The ritual and its underlying teachings were incorporated into every existing Tibetan Buddhist tradition, including the non-Buddhist Bon religion4. The gcod adepts, the so-called gcod pa, after having received meditation instructions from a qualified gcod master, practiced the ritual in solitude, often taking up residence in the wilderness, in haunted houses, near cremation grounds outside any institutional framework. To be a wandering yogin, living on the fringes of society, however, is not that rare in Tibet, and such persons are usually highly revered by the lay people, although less so by the monastic establishment. The gcod pa who lived outside settled communities in the wilderness and practiced the gcod ritual were feared and respected at the same time. Being credited with successfully overcoming the fear of death, and death itself, they were often employed to tend to people afflicted with infectious diseases or to dispose of their corpses.

3In later centuries, the hugely successful gcod ritual underwent a process of domestication. It was no longer practiced in the wilderness, but instead was performed sitting comfortably in a monastery. The American scholar Michelle Sorensen aptly characterised this process:

Although gcod traditions have managed to survive to the present, the heterodox environment in which they originally flourished was gradually replaced by a culture of male dominated orthodox institutions that have been effective in limiting women’s participation. (Sorensen 2013, p. 42)

4However, there have always been practitioners who preferred the meditation and ritual practice in the wilderness, at cremation grounds or other haunted places. That is still the case today, as we will see in the renaissance of the practice in Mongolia.

Origins of gcod

5What, then, is gcod? Ma gcig lab sgron ma developed her teaching based on the “perfection of wisdom” (Skt. prajñāpāramitā). It is called, among other things, “the object of cutting off” (Tib. gcod yul), or “the object of cutting off the demons” (Tib. bdud kyi gcod yul). The names centre around the term “cutting off, cutting through”. Therefore, it makes sense to explore Ma gcig’s central teaching by answering the question what exactly has to be cut off. In gcod terminology, “cutting off” points to setting the mind free from all mental defilements, that is, from the illusion of saṃsāra and from wrong attachment to the self: in sum, from everything that hinders the realisation of the true nature of the mind. The realisation of the true nature of the mind and all phenomena – that is, the realisation of emptiness and non-duality – is the path to Buddhahood in Mahāyāna-Buddhism. This realisation will manifest naturally and immediately.

  • 5 “Bdud kyi rtsa ba rang gi sems” (Ma gcig, 4r).
  • 6 Ma gcig lab sgron ma is generally considered to be an emanation of Khros ma nag mo. For an iconogra (...)

6Whereas the goal of gcod is firmly situated in Mahāyāna Buddhism, the way towards this goal is unconventional. The knowledge of non-duality is realised through meditation and visualisation of wrathful deities, and particularly the visualisation of the rich array of other-than-human beings that Tibetan vernacular religious traditions have to offer (Bell 2020). Other-than-human beings, or, to be more precise in the particular context of the gcod-teaching, demons (Tib. bdud) are considered metaphors for the condition of our mind. They express different aspects of our unenlightened mind. This metaphorical use of the image of the demon is itself not an invention of the gcod tradition but goes back to Indian Buddhism. In the “Great Speech” (Tib. bKa’ tshoms chen mo), the most important root text of gcod, the basic statement about the nature of demons is very short and precise: “The root of the demons is one’s own mind”5. The most powerful of them, the source of all outer and inner demons, is the holding to a real and permanent self. To achieve the state of realisation of the true nature of mind, the adept has to “transform the aggregates into an offering of food”, that is, one offers one’s own body to the deities, demons and spirits as if throwing it away to feed the dogs. Only through this experience can the realisation of emptiness dawn. In order to achieve this goal, the adept goes to the chosen meditation place, equipped with a trumpet (Tib. rkang ling), a small two-headed drum (Tib. a ma ru), and a ritual dagger (Tib. gri gug). He or she then performs the technique of pho ba, consciousness transference, separating the consciousness from his or her body. The adept visualises the transformation of his or her consciousness into either Vajravārāhī (Tib. rDo rje phag mo) or the Wrathful Black Lady (Tib. Khros ma nag mo)6, two deities prominent in the gcod tradition. With her ritual dagger she cuts up the bodily remains of the adept, which lie lifeless at her feet. Through a series of visualisations, the corpse is transformed into various offerings called “banquet” or “dispersal”, the Tibetan word for which, ’gyed, conveys both meanings. There are in total four banquets: the white, the multi-coloured, the red and the black banquet. They are dedicated to various other-than-human entities, deities and beings such as the masters of the location, bodily spirits, water spirits, and cannibal demons. Inviting them to the banquet, the meditator (identified with the black goddess, or Vārāhī) offers them heaps of flesh, blood, fat, intestines. The offering of the body is reminiscent of the perfection of giving (Skt. dāna-pāramitā) of a bodhisattva, and indeed Buddhist literature includes an abundance of tales in which a bodhisattva offers his body to animals or other creatures out of compassion. The gcod offering, however, does not aim at the perfection of giving, but at cutting through fears and attachments.

7One of the early gcod ritual texts written in the 14th century by the Third Karma pa Rang byung rdo rje (1284-1339) contains a detailed description of the red banquet, which we present here in translation:

  • 7 The work is published in gcod tshogs rin chen ’phreng ba (1986), but here a copy preserved at the L (...)

One’s own consciousness is a red ḍākinī that holds a ritual dagger (gri gug) and a skull cup (kapāla) filled with blood; the forehead is imagined to be the kapāla of knowledge, and is white on the outer side and red on the inner side; in this kapāla the flesh, blood and bones are crushed using the gri gug; the content is cooked and thus transformed into an ocean of knowledge-ambrosia.
The body of illusion is imagined as a mountain of flesh, an ocean of blood, a skeleton, a collection of bones; this body fills out all the directions of the earth. Now the following ghosts and demons should be assembled:
The lha and dre of the visible world; the eight classes of lha and srin of the world; the white classes of lha; the black classes of bdud; the red classes of btsan; the many-coloured classes of gza’; the blue classes of klu; the yellow classes of gnyan; the purple classes of dmu; the green classes of sa bdag; the raka-classes of the srin po; the btsan who wander about over the three mountain passes; the ’dre mo, who wander about in the three settlements; the gdon, klu, and sa bdag that live below [the earth]; the gdon, gnyan and the’u rang that live in the middle; the lha that watch over enemies; the za ’dre and the shi gshed.
Come here, assemble here! Eat flesh! Drink blood! Because you love flesh, eat flesh! Because you love blood, drink blood! Because you love bones, crunch the bones to pieces! Because you love the skin, put on the skin!
You snang zhing, lha and ’dre of the visible world, you hasty ones, eat the raw [meat]! You not hasty ones, eat the cooked [meat]! Eating the meat, they make the smacking sound di ri ri. Drinking the blood, they make the slurping sound ho ro ro. Crushing the bones to pieces, they crunch with their teeth khra la la. Breaking the legs and sucking out the marrow, [they make the sound] ljibs se ljibs. Laughing happily [they make the sound] sha ra ra. Singing songs happily [they make the sound] kyu ru ru. Dreadfully smacking their lips [they make the sound] thags se thag. bDud rgyal po, the upper intestines above, eat them! bDud srin mo, the lower intestines below, eat them! sNang srid, lha and ’dre, eat the middle! You outer lha and ’dre, eat the six outer kinds of illness! You nine ’dre of the visible world, eat the liver! You ten gtsug lag gdon, eat the kidneys! (rJe rang, 26r-27v)7

  • 8 In Tibetan-Buddhist taxonomy gcod as a ritual belongs to the so called “higher actions” (stod las) (...)

8In the early days of its spread in Tibet gcod adepts practiced the ritual8 in solitude, moving from one cremation ground to the next, taking up residence in haunted houses or in the wilderness. However, religious traditions whose proponents live well away from society and its religious institutions are handicapped with regard to the preservation and transmission of their teachings. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that gcod teachings did not survive long as an independent tradition. The preservation of gcod – and to a certain extent also its codification – relied on its gradual integration into an institutional setting. This was done by domesticating the ritual, which took place in the form of reducing performance of the ritual to recitation of the gcod ritual texts in the monastic community during the daily liturgijincal practice, although this at least ensured that gcod survived and even thrived. Interestingly, the reverse is true for Mongolia. It is the independent practice of lüizhin, represented by individual non-monastic specialists, that ensured its survival against the repressive regime.

  • 9 Interestingly two of the gcod texts in Yunli’s library were authored by Rang byung rdo rje and his (...)
  • 10 See, for example, the miniature painting (tsaali) from 19th century Mongolia (Meinert 2011, pp. 180 (...)
  • 11 Since the 17th century in Mongolia the three Tibetan Buddhist schools of the rNying ma pa, Sa skya (...)
  • 12 In Mongolia the dGe lugs pa school is usually addressed as the “yellow tradition” or the “yellow ha (...)
  • 13 Due to its marginal status and, apparently, popularity among lay people, lüizhin has been berated a (...)

9In Mongolia, we have circumstantial evidence that the gcod tradition was already present in the 14th century (Kollmar-Paulenz 2020), and concrete evidence for the 18th century through the extensive library of Manchu prince Yunli, who treasured a couple of gcod texts in Mongolian translation (Uspensky 1999, pp. 395-398, nos. 724-728). According to one colophon Yunli was initiated into the practice of gcod when he was between 26 and 28 years old, and on that occasion instigated the translation of these texts into Mongolian (Uspensky 2011, p. 215)9. The practice was apparently well known in the Tibetan Buddhist circles of Beijing. Moreover, there are numerous Mongolian and Buryat-Mongolian thangkas detailing Ma gcig lab sgron ma and her retinue10, attesting to the presence and popularity of the gcod ritual, which in Mongolia is called lüizhin/lüüzhin, from the Tibetan lus sbyin, “offering of the body”. The gcod/lüizhin, is considered to belong to the so called “red tradition”11 (ulaan shashin), which in Mongolia has been marginalised since the early 17th century. However, lüizhin has also been partly incorporated into the “yellow tradition”12 (shar shashin), and until the beginning of the 20th century was periodically allowed, although performance in dGe lugs pa temples and monasteries13 has also been repeatedly banned (Havnevik et al. 2007). Despite the general dominance of dGe lugs pa in Mongolian religious life before socialism and its attempts to domesticate the lüizhin, this practice still existed in various forms. It was performed by “red” and mixed monastic communities (Havnevik et al. 2007) and also by individual practitioners (Pozdnèèv 1887). Due to the last group, in Mongolia, lüizhin not only successfully survived the period of militant atheism but also developed and flourished in local rural communities, achieving remarkable popularity in the post-socialist period.

“Breaking wild”: gcod and the authority of folklore

  • 14 The most intense and violent periods of repressions against religion in Mongolia occurred in the 19 (...)
  • 15 This led to the folklorisation of some popular and well-known “professional” rituals, such as the d (...)
  • 16 Though in his article Ippei Shimamura uses the disputable term “magic” and “magicalized” about this (...)

10The heyday of Buddhism in Mongolia came to an end with the beginning of the socialist era. The following seventy years of socialism and militant atheism in Mongolia (1924-1991) have obviously had a huge effect on religious life, leading to simultaneous changes as well as delayed consequences. The persecution of religious specialists and the prohibition of religious expression14 led to substantial transformations in all religious traditions and practices. Some rituals, especially those that required a specific professional environment for their performance, were interrupted and only revived (or reinvented) after the collapse of the communist regime. Other practices changed their form. They were performed irregularly and occasionally under different circumstances and new conditions, often by individuals or professional specialists who carefully concealed their activities. As there was an acute shortage of religious specialists after the persecutions of the socialist state, they were often performed by laypeople. It was inevitable that the complex changes in the arrangement and circumstances of ritual practices affected not only their forms but also their contents in many ways. The lack of an institutionalised religious authority opened the door to more intense interaction between individual oppressed practices based on different traditions, often folk traditions15. In this situation, the rich diversity of performative and oral vernacular forms provided a strong resource to replenish the lack of professional and organised religious expression (Shimamura 201916; Solovyova 2021). It also led to a remarkable resurgence in the roles of “individual” and local “communal” perspectives on religious life. Under­standings, interpretations and variations based on vernacular belief affected many different practices, spontaneously adapting them to the current spiritual and ritual needs of local communities. The processes briefly outlined here not only influenced the ritual traditions in different ways, but also changed the earlier balance of the various authorities that had determined Mongolian religious life. They were important triggers for its vigorous resurgence and subsequent existence.

  • 17 Fieldwork data was collected by Alevtina Solovyeva during annual expeditions to various parts of Mo (...)

11That period in Mongolia became for lüizhin a remarkable moment of “breaking out”, from a closed shell of institutionalised forms to the vivid and variable surroundings of vernacular belief17. An immanent closeness of this practice to folk and individual perspectives, already codified in the biographical narration of its founding figure Ma gcig lab sgron ma (Kollmar-Paulenz 1998), allowed the Mongolian tradition of gcod to survive and adjust during socialism and prosper after its collapse. Thus, after hundreds of years of domestication, gcod moved closer to its early status of independent ritual practice. It revived some significant original features and acquired new and unexpected forms, meanings and functions.

  • 18 Starting from the 1990s, the lüizhin ritual was also propagated among Mongolian com­munities outsid (...)

12It is fair to mention that also, on the contrary, lüizhin became a unique form of religious expression in this turbulent time of substantial and rapid change. This practice proved to be remarkably flexible and comprehensive in taking on multiple tasks, both spiritual and social, for different Mongolian communities. This flexibility led to an intensive spread of the practice among various Mongolian communities18. Today lüizhin is still one of the most popular, sought-after and widespread ritual practices, known to everyone and performed everywhere in rural and urban space, in almost every Buddhist temple, “yellow” or “red”, and even outside any specifically defined religious space – in the steppe, in traditional houses (ger) and in the flats of modern multi-storey blockhouses. Its fame and popularity as a special, very powerful and influential ritual, helpful for different purposes, takes an indisputable place in the everyday religious life of the lay population.

13In addition to its remarkable popularity, another significant feature of this ritual practice today is a persistently high variability that manifests itself in various dimensions – textual, ritual, social. This heterogeneity is based on the original features of the ritual and its previous forms of existence. In the current situation, it also indicates its vivid and dynamic position and involvement in different traditions (Primiano 1995).

  • 19 The term “folk tradition” denotes here a unity of beliefs/views shared by a certain communal or loc (...)
  • 20 Oral stories devoted to lüizhin include a wide scope of topics, concerning the origin, name, meanin (...)

14One of these traditions is Mongolian folklore (a diversity of local and communal folk traditions)19. Lüizhin is one of the most popular ritual practices and has been a beloved object of folk narration in Mongolian traditions20 at least as far back as the second half of the 20th century (Damdinsürèn 1991, p. 21). Many of the motifs in these narratives show a strong influence on the “updating” of meanings and functions of lüizhin in contemporary Mongolian religious life and are represented in the current discursive and ritual practices of lüizhin.

  • 21 This discussion might be considered from several points of view, on the one hand as a collective di (...)
  • 22 This situation is also reflected in everyday religious life, in a range of actual “experts” to whom (...)

15As mentioned before, during the period of religious repression, many ritual traditions apart from lüizhin changed, becoming subject to new conditions of practice, flourishing in great diversity supported by local folk traditions. However, in the post-atheist period, for most of these traditions the situation started to change very quickly towards reunification and re-professionalisation. This was reflected, inter alia, in popular public discussions about “right” and “wrong” customs21, and started with the process of the “religious revival”. In a steadily fading polyphony of different voices and opinions, the authority of religious professionals, espe­cially institutional, became palpably dominant22. In practice, many rituals are now performed by professionals, “corrected”, or replaced by suggested organised forms of religious expressions.

16In this context, current features of lüizhin show its continuing resistance to “correcting”, unifying and “monopolizing”. Substantial credit for this belongs to independent lay performers and “red” lamas, who often practice individually and outside of institutional religious settings. They are the main transmitters and adapters of folk beliefs and interpretations. Their status as “marginal-specialists” opens up some unique possibilities: they can be more sensitive and responsive to the spiritual needs of the local communities to which they usually belong, and with regard to the demands, they can swiftly include and legitimise new aspects in practice. In turn, the “yellow tradition”, which in Mongolia again became very interested in lüizhin over the last few years, adapts some features of this practice from independent performers and suggests its own monastic versions of the ritual and its understanding.

17Thus, various participants in religious life enact their authority by contributing to the confluent image of the living tradition of lüizhin, “created” jointly in ritual and discursive practices. However, the current balance between these authorities is fragile and represents a recent result of different actions and reactions from agents competing for the practice, struggling to gain the influence it has to offer as it expands beyond just a ritual space.

Texts and their oral receptions

  • 23 Nom, literally “book”; in the religious context means “teaching”, “sacred text”, book of sacred tex (...)
  • 24 In Tibetan, “foundational root texts” (Tib. gzhung rtsa ba), texts of a philosophical nature. In th (...)
  • 25 The main transmission lineages of gcod starting from early Tibetan traditions include the male pho (...)
  • 26 Some of these texts are identified and described (Havnevik et al. 2007). Our interlocutors mentione (...)
  • 27 A practical inclusiveness of the gcod/lüizhin ritual might be regarded as its immanent feature in T (...)

18The textual diversity of lüizhin is represented by the large number of texts, including ritual (nom)23, and foundational (zhud)24 texts, referring to the different schools and personalities who are believed to have established lineages in the transmission of this practice25. Among the most popular lines of transmission in contemporary Mongolia are Noyon Hutugtu’s lüizhin, Hüühèn Hutugtu’s lüizhin, E-lama’s lüizhin, Zhagar lama’s lüizhin, and Bogd lüizhin26. All of their texts are composed in Tibetan. They refer to one or the other honourable Buddhist hierarchs and are recognised by different authorities. Today, the Bogd and Zhagar lam versions of lüizhin seem to be the most popular among “yellow” and “red” lamas, generally representing the monastic traditions. Lay performers and individual “red” lamas embrace all other versions (including Zhagar, but excluding Bogd lüizhin)27.

  • 28 Tsongkhapa himself composed the gcod text Zab lam gcod kyi khrid yig ma ti bha dra ki rtis sbyar ba (...)
  • 29 The 9th Bogd gègèn and his disciples played a notable role in re-establishing institutionalised Bud (...)

19The tradition of Bogd lüizhin ties in with the figure of Je Tsongkhapa (Tib. rJe Tsong kha pa), the founder of the “yellow”, dGe lugs pa school28. Apparently, its popularity in contemporary Mongolia was influenced by the activity of the 9th Bogd gègèn, Jebtsündamba Hutugtu (Zhavzandamba hutagt, 1933-2012)29, supported by the Dalai Lama:

  • 30 Vajradhāra.
  • 31 After fieldwork quotations, the data in brackets indicate: initials of the name and surname of the (...)

Recently, due to the 9th Bogd gègèn and his disciples, Bogd lüizhin, the lüizhin of Je Tsongkhapa, is spreading. There are also other traditions and lineages of transmission of lüizhin, but all of them originate from ḍākinī Ma gcig lab sgron ma and Buddha rDo rje ’chang30. (G. L., 1967, lüizhinch, lama of the “yellow school”, monastic performer, Ulaanbaatar, 2019)31

  • 32 This type of lüizhin was popular before the revolution and was practiced in Ih Hürèè’s red gèr temp (...)

20The Zhagar lam tradition of lüizhin is connected to the figure of Zhagar Molom32, a representative of the “red schools” (rNying ma pa, Sa skya pa, bKa’ brgyud pa):

  • 33 Mongolian “Zhagar” derives from the Tibetan rgya gar, “India”.
  • 34 Wutaishan – one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains, situated at the headwaters of the Qingshui i (...)

The teacher Zhagar Molom was a Mongol, he was born more than 200 years ago in Halh, in Daichin Beisiin hoshuu, now it is Dèrèm District (Dèrèm sum) of Dundgov’ aimag. For the first part of his life he was just an ordinary layman. But then he met a miraculous divine ḍākinī and became a itinerant lama. He went to Tibet and India and was initiated in various tantric practices, there he was also initiated in lüizhin practice and brought to Mongolia the sacred texts nom. That is why he got this honourable nickname, Zhagar, it means “Indian”33. On the way back to Mongolia, he went through China and, while meditating on Mt Wutaishan34, saw the cleanest lands of dragons (luu) and divine ḍākinīs. From them he got his spiritual name – Ish Molom. (N. L., 1973, male, lüizhinch, lama of the “red school”, monastic performer, Ulaanbaatar, 2019)

  • 35 For example, in the written biographies of Buddhist figures, the namtar (Tib. rnam thar).
  • 36 According to one of her biographies, Ma gcig lab sgron ma herself originally received the teaching (...)
  • 37 According to Tibetan written tradition the bKa’ tshoms chen mo as well as the Yang tshoms were comp (...)
  • 38 The oral narrative here alludes to the “renowned treasure” (Tib. gter ma) practice which has been i (...)
  • 39 The discoverers of the “renowned treasure” (Tib. gter ma) are called “treasure teacher” (Tib. gter (...)
  • 40 Fieldwork data 2018-2019.

21The contemporary narrative tradition, which evidently represents a vivid example of interactions between oral and written traditions35, contributes to the image of lüizhin, focusing on mystic and supernatural motifs of its origin. One of the popular versions connects the origin of the ritual text, the inspiration and initiation of a future practitioner of lüizhin with the narrative of the chance encounter with a mysterious ḍākinī (as in the text above). This female image in the stories is often vaguely reminiscent of the figure of Ma gcig lab sgron ma36, the “mother” of this practice, and the Buddhist deities (rDo rje phag mo and Khros ma nag mo) of her transmission lineage. According to another oral testament, the sacred texts of lüizhin are the words of Ma gcig lab sgron ma, transcribed by some of her closest disciples37. Their manuscripts were hidden in secret places38 and stayed there for a long time until a subsequent founder of gcod teaching in Mongolia (or Tibetan mentors) discovered them39 and resumed the practice for the sake of all people40. Such narratives are shared by various ritual performers and lay adepts. Functionally, they present the time-honoured story of a mysterious and powerful practice, on the one hand, and determine the legitimacy of a particular school or performer, on the other.

  • 41 It may well be that the Tibetan concept and practice of the “renowned treasure” was transmitted to (...)

22The motif of hidden sacred lüizhin texts in the contemporary narrative tradition41 correlates with another popular motif, that of religious books hidden during socialism. This topic raises the earlier historical context, when religious literature was tracked down and confiscated by official representatives of the atheistic ideology. Stories about religious books, concealed and kept by older relatives back then are often found in the family biographies of many Mongolians today. However, in the discursive practice of independent performers, these narratives occupy a central part of the oral introduction of the lüizhin tradition to which they belong (as an addition to, or often replacement for, the story about the founder of the transmission lineage). In this context, the motif of hidden books reinforces the status of these performers as specialists of lüizhin. This motif also emphasises the heroic continuity of this practice during socialism and the personal connection with the sacred texts, rescued by the family of the performer.

Grandmother has hidden a few of the most valuable old books, hidden lüizhin; people from the party сommittee searched all over, but could not find them. She did not tell anyone where they were, later she told my mother and then one day we found them. Grandmother remembered them by heart, and often whispered tarni (dhāraṇī) and mani (prayers) from them in Tibetan. Mother was listening to her, and this way learned, nobody taught her. Then I also learned these words, learned to read these books, they are kept in our family. Before people were coming to burn them, later people started to come to buy them, but we never gave them up. (G. M., 1967, female, lüizhinch, lama, independent performer, Ömnögov’, 2014)

  • 42 In Buddhist Mongolian culture the attitude to the written word, especially Tibetan, is very respect (...)

23The exclusive diversity of lüizhin versions is an important trait and one of the strongholds of its resistance against appropriation by monastic specialists. So far it allows other traditions of lüizhin, represented by independent and especially lay performers, to establish their legitimacy, bypassing the quite strong monastic textual (and language) monopoly42 of the Buddhist Mongolian society.

  • 43 The famous “lama of the Gobi”, Dulduityn Danzanravjaa, who was Mongolian; see Sardar 2007.
  • 44 Here we can detect some specific features of popular Mongolian nationalism, based on the historical (...)

24In this situation, competitive strategies between various traditions and authorities of lüizhin include ideas of “right” and “wrong”, “fake” and “true” – patterns that differ from other religious disputes. For example, one of the recent developments involved in this struggle ties in with current ideas of nationhood and nationalism and the concept of Mongolian Buddhism and how it correlates with contemporary public and political tendencies. Thus, in discursive practices, the best and most effective version of lüizhin is interpreted as “the most/purest/only” Mongolian one (zhinhene/zövhön mongol). This concept gained popularity and is today embraced by different traditions. However, it is mostly used for the lüizhin of the Noyon Hutugtu (connected to the figure of the 5th Noyon Hutugtu43) and the Bogd lüizhin (prescribed by the 9th Jebtsündamba Hutugtu)44.

25The competition between different versions of lüizhin takes place in everyday life and involves various constituents of this practice, including features of its ritual performance and performers.

Rituals

26High diversity characterises not only the textual body of lüizhin, but also its ritual side. In the contemporary Mongolian context, it might again be considered more a case of a very popular individual ritual, but represented in various forms, including those that retain closer traces with earlier original patterns of lüizhin as a distinct practice. In general, lüizhin today is represented by two quite different groups of rituals: initiation rituals (zharzè) and rituals for the benefit of customers – therapeutic rituals.

  • 45 One of the symbolic numbers in various Buddhist traditions, the most frequent in popular Buddhism, (...)

27The first group of rituals should be performed once by a candidate. It focuses on the main part of the practice – “the offering of the body” of the performer, and defines someone’s abilities to become a specialist (lüizhinch). These rituals remain close to the original Tibetan “wild” forms of the practice and serve equally in all contemporary Mongolian traditions as part of the preparation and initiation of a future performer. This group includes a multistage performance of lüizhin in different places, including wilderness, burial grounds, haunted and wrathful (dogshin) places. During these performances, it is assumed that a communication with menacing deities, spirits and demons takes place. The length of the preparatory practice, its structure and complexity, and the number of initiation performances and locations vary greatly according to the particular tradition of lüizhin chosen by the candidate. The most popular duration of these rituals is from 28 to 108 days45. The diversity of places prescribed for the performance can also be reduced and the initial tasks simplified. Usually, the performance is specified within the options of monastic practices, from a range of the most dangerous places to a combination of a few types of loci – a house, the open steppe, or a monastery.

There might be full and shortened versions of the initiation. When I had to take it, I was allowed to use a short version. It is prescribed to read lüizhin in different surroundings – I was reading lüizhin one week at home, one week at the monastery, one week out in the steppe, and then one week at home again. (Z. D., 1976, male, lüizhinch, lama of the yellow school, monastic performer, Ulaanbaatar, 2018)

28The same symbolic replacement or reduction might apply to other components of the practice. For example, a special initiation ritual for “the most Mongolian” lüizhin of the Noyon Hutugtu, called “108 springs” (108 bulag), is supposed to be performed in 108 locations with springs. In its simplified version, springs might be replaced by 108 vessels filled with spring water (N. L., 1973, male, lüizhinch, lama of the “red school”, monastic performer, Ulaanbaatar 2019). Initiation rituals, as the original tradition of lüizhin prescribes, are supposed to be performed in solitude. Monastic lüizhin traditions are enriched by modern institutional forms of learning and the exchange of experience, including the collective training of candidates and invited master classes led by older lüizhin performers, which gather dozens of participants.

  • 46 In Tibetan-Buddhist taxonomy, gcod as a ritual service belongs to the “four actions” (las bzhi), th (...)
  • 47 According to independent performers and customers, this is regarded as a form of lüizhin performanc (...)

29The second group of rituals characterises lüizhin as a ritual service for people46. It is extremely diverse, being performed regularly as well as occasionally, by a single person or a group of specialists-lüizhinch, for an individual or a group of customers. Depending on the particular tradition, it might include more domesticated monastic forms of a daily liturgy or rather mobile and independent forms of the ritual, performed according to people’s needs in a variety of locations and conditions (in the living space and in the wilderness, with diverse participants and for different purposes). The place, frequency and time of the lüizhin performance depend on the type of performer. Today, institutionalised lamas usually perform lüizhin in the sacred space of monasteries and temples (hiid)47. More recently, lüizhin has begun to be performed regularly, on certain days of the week, in the mornings or during the day, separately or together with other ritual services. This can be considered a step further in the domestication of the ritual practice by the dGe lugs pa monastic community in the current period.

30Individual specialists, mostly of the “red” Buddhist tradition and lay Buddhists, may perform lüizhin at their place, welcoming visitors at private home-temples (in a gèr [yurt] or a flat, where the performer lives). With the same frequency, they perform at customers’ chosen loca­tions and in open areas, being more responsive to private requests, providing an individual approach and attention to every peculiar case where lüizhin is needed. Some of them even practice performing lüizhin remotely, by phone or messenger, which is particularly pertinent these days:

  • 48 The interview with this unique specialist was conducted by the scholar Julija Liahova, the authors (...)

–[Interviewer] Grandma, when you perform lüizhin, what exactly are you doing? [While] performing lüizhin, [do you] connect to souls? [Do you] send souls to another world?
–[Interviewee] Of course! Sometimes I do connect, to perform lüizhin by phone, sitting reading here. So, here I am with a mobile phone, outside [at another place] there is also [someone with] a mobile phone, both are nicely connected. When a person in England orders the lüizhin ritual: “Do you hear this, [I’m reading] lüizhin? – Yes, I hear! [And now here is] a smell of juniper”. It smells very good with juniper [smoke] here, (s)he [that person] said, sweetheart. (D., 1919, female, lüizhinch, lay, independent performer, Dundgov’, 2019)48

  • 49 Similar other-than-human entities are addressed in the Tibetan gcod ritual; compare also the transl (...)

31In this instance, the performance of the ritual often has an arbitrary character and is based on people’s requests. These traditions of lüizhin are also more responsive to the habits of supernatural communicators. Thus, as a rule, such performances take place at twilight when wrathful, ambivalent and demonic entities are believed to be most awake and active. During a performance, the ritual may be specifically addressed to the lords of the locality (lus savdag), the souls (süns) of the deceased, restless spirits (chötgör), who occasionally occupy particular locations (güidel) or objects (büg), to different kinds of demons (ad, almas, shulmas, tiiren) and all that is bad (muu yum), “blocking the way” to good49.

32Because of these mandatory demonic participants of the ritual communication, lüizhin is considered as an exceptionally powerful (èrhtèi, huchtei), harsh (hatuu) and wrathful (dogshid) practice. It is highly governed by categories of danger (ayultai) and fear (aimshigtai), which are deeply rooted in Mongolian folklore and vernacular beliefs (High 2017; Oberfalzerova 2012; Solovyeva 2020).

  • 50 The “bloody banquet” is the “red banquet”, one of the four great banquets of the Tibetan gcod tradi (...)
  • 51 In various traditional cultures, the strength of religious specialists is often evaluated through t (...)

33The core motif shaping this image through various kinds of narrations is linked to interpretations of the central part of the original practice, the “offering of the body”. In discursive practice, the “bloody banquet”50 is introduced as a famous and cruel initial task for candidates who wish to become a lüizhinch specialist, regardless which tradition they wish to pursue. It is usually given in depersonalised descriptions and represented as a peculiar multistage struggle, with a dramatically dual outcome: the one who manages to come through becomes an outstandingly strong ritual specialist51, one who does not die by “being eaten by demons” (N. L., 1973, male, lüizhinch, lama of the “red school”, monastic performer, Ulaanbaatar, 2019).

So, the person invokes them, the wrathful nature-spirits, so the person invites all of them, the demons, from all over the area to come. So, the person offers them his or her own body, giving away flesh and bones, viscera and skin, blood and hair, and everything, sharing and spreading among them. And then it is the most important to take it all back from them, to stay brave and strong to be able to take the body back, piece by piece. If the person is strong enough, he or she takes back his or her own body, takes flesh and bones, viscera and skin, and blood, then stays alive, then becomes a lüizhinch. If the person is not strong enough to get it back, demons get and eat it all, the flesh and bones and everything, and the person dies. (Zh., 1944, female, lüizhinch, lay, independent performer, Hèntii, 2008)

  • 52 This is a traditional folk motif of body transformation, from a weaker human being to a stronger, s (...)

34Narrative culture develops original ideas about the spiritual struggle with fear and transformation of the practitioner’s mind, engaging popular folk motifs. The narration intensively “materializes” metaphorical images of the performer’s body and of supernatural entities. It transforms the feeding of demons into a battle over the bloody offering and the mental transformation into the persuasively more “physical” form of change. Having successfully gone through this experience, the candidate finally reassembles a kind of superior body, the body of the ritual specialist-lüizhinch52.

35Similar escalations of anxiety concern other aspects of the lüizhin initiation ritual. Another very popular topic is connected to the traditional location of the practice, i.e. a burial ground, which in the narration is often turned into the more condensed motif of the candidate reading lüizhin while sitting on a corpse:

  • 53 The name of this “lüizhin sutra” or “lüizhin nom” was not specified by our informants.

When a performer of lüizhin is initiated, she or he sits in darkness the entire night on a corpse, facing its legs and reading lüizhin. A true good lüizhinch should sit and read the “lüizhin sutra on 100 corpses”53. (B., 1946, male, adept, Ömnögov’, 2009)

To become a strong performer someone should read lüizhin for 108 days, sitting on a corpse. (D., 1948, male, lüizhinch, lama of the “red school”, independent and monastic performer, Dundgov’, 2009).

  • 54 A pelvic bone is an extremely demonised object of Mongolian folklore, identified in different forms (...)

In former times lüizhin specialists were very skilful; to get strong they sat on the pelvic bones of corpses reading lüizhin54. (G. G., 1976, female, adept, Ulaanbaatar, 2016)

36In discursive practices, this motif often stresses the frightening and exceptionally difficult nature of the lüizhin ritual. It also includes an assessment of current performers, and thus probably reflects some simplifications of the ritual, along with a general mistrust towards contemporary traditions in comparison with older ones.

  • 55 In Tibetan ritual performances of gcod the trumpet (Tib. rkang ling) is always made of the thigh bo (...)

A lüizhinch plays a trumpet made of the pelvic bone of an 18-year-old girl55; blowing in a human bone (s)he invokes the bad ones; they hear sounds of a human pelvic bone and come. Then the lüizhinch calms all the bad ones down using a drum and handbell and sends them away in the correct direction. Only those who spent 108 nights sitting and reading [lüizhin] on a corpse can manage it. Today many lamas do not do it, they prefer to sit at home. Such lamas start to perform lüizhin, calling all the bad ones to assemble, but being too weak they cannot send them away, so many of them die. (B., 1946, male, adept, Ömnögov’, 2009)

37The motif of being too weak, popular among independent performers and cus­tomers, is also included in the discursive practices of institutional specialists:

Practitioners should be very well prepared, so that during the lüizhin ritual they do not succumb to fear and be distracted by various illusory visions caused by the ego. Otherwise, there is great danger of coming into direct contact with something bad [muu yum], demons and spirits (lus, chötgör, süns), or even worse, the practitioner could fall under their influence. In any case, the physical and mental health of an untrained practitioner is at great risk, so in gcod, great importance is given to the initiation ceremony and preliminary practice, when a candidate travels alone for 108 days, performing lüizhin in increasingly unconventional places. (D., 1951, male, lüizhinch, lama of the “yellow school”, monastic performer, Ulaanbaatar, 2018)

  • 56 In rare cases (two examples from more than a hundred interviews) when the “bloody banquet” motif is (...)
  • 57 A usual set prescribed in detail by a ritual specialist includes vodka (arhi), boiled meat without (...)
  • 58 Data of the 2018-2019 fieldwork.

38During regular lüizhin performances for customers, the “bloody banquet” is usually not so highlighted, often being represented only implicitly56. During the ritual, the body of the performer is symbolically replaced by material objects provided by the customer as an offering for the demonic meal57. If, during the initial ritual, the performer gets his/her body back with new qualities, so lay adepts get back a portion of their donated meal “charged” with the power of lüizhin and endowed with the ability to heal and protect58.

39When the ritual is performed for customers, the position of the performer remains extremely vulnerable and dangerous. The reason for this lies in the intense communication and pressure that comes from the side of the supernatural representatives – “Lüizhin soothes demons and the souls of the deceased, but they always push back” (A., 1969, male, adept, Ulaanbaatar, 2015). This is illustrated in various narratives about performers feeling the presence of spirits and demons during the lüizhin ritual, something that is found across various Mongolian folk genres. Oral stories with such motifs have a prominent place in discursive practices among individual specialists and customers. They are tolerated by representatives of the “yellow” school institutions, who sometimes also resort to such a “reification” of the ritual process by involving local folk beliefs about the supernatural. Such stories include descriptions of various sensations (visual, aural, tactile), emphasising the intensity and risks of the close communication between human and non-human agents during the ritual. Along with other themes, these narratives establish a public reputation and a specific oral “resumé” of a particular ritual specialist – lüizhinch.

When I perform lüizhin in difficult (hètsüü) places, [I feel] as if something invisible like air pushes me in the back. Blowing in my feet. As if something is leaking “shor-shor”. Some strange frightening sounds. [My] entire body hurts. Lüizhin is not for a random reading. Young people try to read it whenever they want. Usually people over 40 [are supposed] to read lüizhin. It is really hard. (Zh., 1944, female, lüizhinch, lay, independent performer, Hèntii, 2008)

Once I was reading lüizhin after the death of one young man, who lived here, in the north. Suddenly, I felt one of my arms go weak and tingling, could not hold a harebell. Then I asked: “How was your son’s left arm? Was it injured?” “Yes”, [they] answered. “He got into a fight once and lost his arm”. It [what I felt] meant that his soul (süns) was hiding there [at home]. (G. G., 1951, female, lüizhinch, lay, independent performer, Övörhangai, 2012)

In Galshar a boy broke his hands and legs. When I was reading lüizhin there, my hands were hurting. Then I was coming back from there and my car overturned. It happened because I was reading lüizhin at a place where there is a very frightful lord of the locality (savdag). My teacher said that I should not read lüizhin again at such places. Everything depends on the strength of a lüizhinch performer. It is possible to read lüizhin in temples and everywhere. (G. M., 1967, female, lüizhinch, lama, independent performer, Ömnögov’, 2014).

When reading lüizhin about a deceased one, often [I] have to see [his or her] soul as if [it is] a living person. In an area with a high concentration of dark energy, I feel a piercing cold and after the ritual I get very tired. In general, the invisible world is as real as the visible one, although both exist as an illusion, being empty of the self-existent. (A., 1964, male, lüizhinch, lama of the “yellow school”, monastic performer, Töv, 2016)

  • 59 In narratives even ritual objects, which are regarded as very specific marks of the performance and (...)

40Apparently, the motifs of these oral stories preserve semantic and functional connections with the concept of the “bloody banquet” and may therefore be considered as its reduced models. These models stress the mediating and “communicative” features of the ritual59, which are more in demand in the contemporary period.

  • 60 The same rule applies to some other rituals and wider performances of particular oral and written t (...)

41Thus, far from everyone can perform lüizhin. Even those who have managed to become specialists and are properly initiated and experienced live in constant danger. This perception is present in some other motifs that refer to a lüizhin ritual and its consequences for participants. For example, accidental mistakes and interruptions of the ritual are regarded as very dangerous60 and might cause serious harm to the performer:

Today, many lamas who read lüizhin die. To perform lüizhin one should be very strong and very careful. If one makes mistakes, mixes the words, is interrupted or for some reason does not read to the end, it is very bad and dangerous for that person. All bad things might happen to that person. (G. L., 1952, female, lüizhinch, lama, mixed school, monastic performer, Ulaanbaatar, 2019)

42In some narratives, the theme of “everything bad” coming to a performer who does not properly perform the ritual, or who accidentally makes mistakes, is realised fully in the motif of demonic transformation, in which the unfortunate specialist is turned into a malevolent entity himself/herself:

If a lama reads lüizhin badly or does not finish it, he will suffer a lot. In Mongolia, there were few lüizhinch before, now [there are] many of them. Many lamas die young, reading lüizhin incorrectly. After the revolution, one strong lama lived here, he was a local. He died because he read lüizhin badly, and then his soul turned into a demon (büg). Talks about this demon who occupied the area reached the capital and one famous lama was sent to fight the demon. That lama and his disciple came to the mountain Gang and prepared their tools. When the disciple saw a stranger coming on a black horse, he told the teacher. The lama rang his handbell and that demon disappeared, only a pelvic bone was left there. (T. B., 1940, male, adept, Dundgov’, 2009)

43In addition, lüizhin is believed to be potentially dangerous not only for performers, but also for the customers present at the performance. This is reflected in the rather strict rules that they too must follow. There is a common prohibition on interrupting the ceremony either by coming in or leaving, or by talking or making other noises. These rules are also applied in monasteries and temples as one of the conditions of attending the ceremony, although there are local rules and beliefs that vary with the traditions of different performers and according to the perceptions of their customers.

A lüizhin ceremony is supposed to be held at night, in darkness. Everything inside [the space where the ritual takes place] is closed very tightly, to come in or go out is forbidden and it is necessary to think about only good things otherwise something bad might happen: lüizhin is a very wrathful practice. (A. A., 1960, female, adept, Ulaanbaatar, 2017)

When the lüizhin ritual is happening, the one who reads the book known as “lüizhin nom” should concentrate completely on the words, they are very powerful and wrathful and should be read very well and very carefully. That is the first [point]. Secondly, it is forbidden to tremble or be scared, whatever happens. The person who performs lüizhin periodically makes very loud sharp sounds, you know. At those moments, for example a small child could be scared, tremble, start to cry. Whatever happens, to go out is forbidden, it is just too bad. Someone who sits and starts to listen to lüizhin must remain seated until the end. (S. D., 1969, male, adept, Töv, 2018)

44That is why despite the popularity of the lüizhin ritual, which is reflected in the number of people coming for the ceremony with older and younger relatives, and despite the narratives about the benefits it brings, the notion of the solemnity and wrathfulness of lüizhin is still vivid among lay people and has specific inside perspectives. It is believed that a serious reason is required to attend a performance of the ritual (D. G., 1943, male, adept, Ulaanbaatar, 2018). This also shows that people have a clear respect for lüizhin.

45A comparison of “male” and “female” narrations of lüizhin reveals some general differences in motif and image and therefore in the character of lüizhin practice and its influence on the performer and on customers. Male narratives tend to concentrate on initiation rituals, their difficulty and the damaging side effects.

–Recently one lama was sharing with me some interesting details. In general, the lüizhin nom aims to send away various demons (ad chötgör). But today some lamas who perform lüizhin are unable to do this. Because of this inability [they] hurt themselves, that is why so many lamas who perform lüizhin die nowadays. But nevertheless [they] still read [lüizhin]. This matter demands a high level of skill and ability. Many people do not think like this, but when [they] face it for the first time, they are very afraid. Now [people who perform lüizhin] are very afraid of the deceased. That is why now to get up the courage, they also drink a bit of vodka.
–[Interviewer] Performers of lüizhin?
–Yes yes, as I know, vodka is necessarily included in the lüizhin ritual. First of all [the performers] necessarily drink it themselves. Then, vodka is necessarily included in the lüizhin ceremony. When there are funerals, there should always be vodka. That is why the lüizhin also has it. That is why one lama who is younger than me died recently. He said all this. He died because of vodka. He was permanently scared and got hard into vodka. (N., 1957, male, adept, Arhangai, 2012)

46Today this narrative includes a popular motif linking death by vodka (someone who is scared drinks vodka to be brave, then drinks too much and dies) with the lüizhin performers who tryto perform the ritual but are mentally/spiritually incapable of doing so. This motif is usually restricted to male specialists, although vodka is included in the ritual as a general offering by most performers.

47In their turn, the female narratives generally focus on visionary experiences and the con­structive influence of the ritual.

Once I read lüizhin after the death of one person. The image of this person started to be invisible, like a mist stretching before my eyes. This is because that person was reincarnated. (T. L., 1912, female, lüizhinch, lay, independent performer, Hèntii, 2008)

After the performance of lüizhin, it is possible to ask a lama whether that person got a re-birth or not. When [I] perform lüizhin, sometimes something arises in my mind, like that person had this kind of re-birth or that kind. So, once I said: “Do not worry, your dead child was born in the north-west at your older sister’s”. And it exactly matched the words of the lama-fortune teller (zurhaich). (Zh., 1944, female, lüizhinch, lay, independent performer, Hèntii, 2008)

If a child gets sick, people sometimes come to me asking for help. It happens when harm is coming to a child, out of fear, from outside, from something bad. Then I read the lüizhin nom and the child recovers, my sweetheart. (D., 1919, female, lüizhinch, lay, independent performer, Dundgov’, 2019)

  • 61 As reported by Pozdnèèv (1887, p. 473) talking about the old school of Mongolian lüizhin.

48So far, the oldest known lüizhin performer is a 101-year-old woman, who uses black and white spring water in the ritual instead of vodka61 (Fig. 3).

  • 62 The division into pho gcod (male) and mo gcod (female) goes directly back to Ma gcig lab sgron ma. (...)

49The comparison of narratives linked to male and female performers of the ritual62, including the risks and side-effects they face (such as death from a wrongly performed ritual or death from alcoholism, both of which are more specific to male performers), shows that the lüizhin is more lenient and merciful to female specialists. Along with another opinion popular among adepts, that women are stronger and better lüizhin specialists, this highlights how one of the emic perceptions of this practice is connected to its legendary founder mother and the womanhood represented by all female performers today. It draws on features of self-sufficient and independent roles of females in religious and wider social life, provided by this practice as a form of specific liberation. Whether or not Ma gcig lab sgron ma should be recognised as the founder of this practice was debated for centuries in written sources by the male monastic authors (Kollmar-Paulenz 1998). In addition, today in discursive practices representatives of the dGe lugs pa male monastic community, who try to take control of the female tradition of independent lüizhin performers, hold an alternative view, i.e. that the ritual is too strong and dangerous to be performed by women (see below for more).

Performers

50The diversity of lüizhin ritual traditions demonstrates its vibrancy in contemporary Mongolian life as well as its ties with the original Tibetan tradition and local folk belief. The respect and popularity lüizhin has among communities reveals its capacity and flexibility and how the practice is able to meet different needs and requests. In this context, lüizhin is characterised by a strong horizontal competition between practicing performers. The respective discursive practices of specialists and customers include popular folk motifs about strong and weak performers, the danger and fear connected to the ritual, and the exceptionally wrathful character of the practice. It is very difficult to manage the ritual, be worthy of it and, finally, to stay alive. Thus, the answer to the question “which version of the lüizhin ritual is the most effective” is usually “its power and abilities depend not just on words or actions, but on the strength and skill of the performer” (B. H., 1983, male, lama of the “red school”, independent performer, Ulaanbaatar, 2019). In practice, the customer’s evaluation and choice of a particular performer, apart from his or her repu­tation, strongly depends on the performer’s personal and social traits, including age, gender, education, biography, “affiliation”, and life conditions.

  • 63 The personalities of the performers we met and who kindly agreed to be our interviewees, as well as (...)

51In the following, we look at lüizhin performers with regard to the diversity of images and social features they bring to lüizhin. As mentioned above, lüizhinch specialists might be divided into two broad groups of independent and institutional performers63. Independent performers represent that peculiar social ground within which lüizhin was preserved and updated during the period of official atheism. These performers as a group, despite internal diversity, have a range of significant core characteristics and are dominated by a rural, lay, female agenda.

  • 64 Among the most popular professions of performers from this group are doctors/paediatricians, teache (...)

52According to the fieldwork data, rural spaces with groups of pastoral camps and small administrative centres/settlements were the primary sanctuary for lüizhin until the mid-2000s. Its main protagonists, famous within (and sometimes even beyond) their local communities, were middle-aged and elderly women. They are lay or self/semi-ordained as lamas and combine the performance of lüizhin with other civil and ritual duties64. Despite differences in the life experience of these people, their biographies as specialist lüizhinch have some meaningful similarities. These are represented in their self-introductory oral narratives (which are also shared and known in the local community) and focus on themes that relate to personal family ritual traditions, and the learning and transmission of lüizhin.

  • 65 This term does not appear in dictionaries and was not explained by our informant. According to a co (...)

My mother Badamsürèn lived in Ömnödèlgèr settlement. She was a lüizhin performer in the monastery of Hüühèn Hutugtu; she has the rank of laidar65. She kept performing the ritual for that whole period, sometimes secretly, helping people when they came to her. In the 1980s, mother said: “You must start to perform lüizhin. You should read Hutagt lüizhin [lüizhin of the hutugtu], otherwise the tradition will be lost”. Mother died at the age of 87. I’m 65 years old now. Mother had been getting weaker and weaker, day by day, and could not perform lüizhin anymore. I thought about her words, and finally decided to take over her knowledge of how to perform lüizhin. I have 5 sons, but they would not be able to do it, and I don’t have a daughter, so I had to take it over myself. I went to Ulaanbaatar to learn lüizhin, became a disciple of Banzar-bagsh lüizhinch, in the red monastery in the district of Bayan hoshuu, was initiated by him to perform lüizhin. I also went to the Tibetan lama Dambatsèvel, in Bakula-bagsh monastery [in Ulaanbaatar], to learn the Tibetan language; I studied the Tibetan language for two months. Like my mother I became a lüizhinch, I learned to perform Hutagt lüizhin. In the year 2000, I asked my mother to examine me. She said: “It goes quite well. Now I have someone who will read lüizhin after me, above my head”. Thus, I started to perform lüizhin. Thus, I have been per­forming lüizhin without interruption since 2000, actually from the year 1996. (Zh., 1944, female, lüizhinch, lay, independent performer, Hèntii, 2008)

  • 66 The role of these female relatives in the practice of contemporary lay female performers correlates (...)

53One of the features regularly stressed in various examples of these autobiographical accounts is the continuity of ritual practice and the performance of lüizhin by older female members of the family (mother or grandmother) in the socialist period. In the narratives (and, apparently, in the tradition of lüizhin which they represent), the roles and statuses of these figures are high66. As in another example below:

  • 67 Handmaa is regarded in popular Mongolian Buddhism as a kind of nun, holy woman and the reincarnatio (...)

My mum started to read [lüizhin] following in the footsteps of my grandma, who lived to be 100 years old. My maternal grandmother was a true handmaa67. They were spending nights in the steppe in a rural space (hödöö), I was also sent there, they were mentoring me. I followed them. Due to handmaa I have spent nights everywhere in a countryside. Moving from one hill to another, from one mountain to another, reaching the next one, staying there for a night. Then I was falling asleep. If I were to say how I learned lüizhin. I was beside my mother, listening to her reading [lüizhin], [asking] what and why – this way I learned. Then [one day] my mother [said]: “Well, you learned, now go and spend your nights in the steppe”. Then I spent many nights in the steppe, sweetheart. I think my mother was not an ordinary person, she was outstanding (lut). That is why I have done so well, fol­lowing those great people. (D., 1919, female, lüizhinch, lay, independent performer, Dundgov’, 2019)

54Another feature typical to this kind of narration is the description of the practitioner’s lifelong learning, telling how he/she observed, helped and discussed the lüizhin ritual with family performers from childhood, “following and learning” (D., 1919, female, lüizhinch, lay, independent performer, Dundgov’, 2019).

55One of the most meaningful topics in this context is a confirmation of the readiness of the practitioner to become a specialist lüizhinch, taught by an older kinswoman performer. Even though some stories might also include the study with a lama from a monastery and an official initiation given by a teacher, in most cases for these performers the final exam is supposed to be evaluated by the older female blood relative lüizhinch. Her last word, “well, you are learned now”, is the final act of transmitting the practice to the younger specialist, confirming and legitimising the candidate and her right to perform the ritual. Thus, in this particular lüizhin tradition, the practice is considered a family heritage that should be passed on within the female line – “I have five sons, but they would not be able to do it, and I don’t have a daughter, so I had to take it on myself” (Zh., 1944, female, lüizhinch, lay, independent performer, Hèntii, 2008). This particular group of female lüizhin performers represents a continuity with the old tradition, dating back to Ma gcig’s times.

  • 68 In the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a general tendency to trust the religious specialists in th (...)

56Institutional traditions of lüizhin are characterised by a different social environ­ment that is predominantly urban, monastic and male (fig. 1). In comparison with the earlier periods of socialism and revival, when local communal rural specialists represented the strongest authority, today cities (and especially the capital Ulaanbaatar) have strengthened their position and influence in religious and social life68. A similar devel­opment can be noted with regard to old and significant monasteries, which revived their practices and are now regaining their former spiritual and social influence.

57In this group, the reputation of a particular lüizhin performer is built on monastic traditions of ritual practice, the status of the institution (monastery or temple) to which a specialist belongs, and the education, rank and merits of the teacher who confirmed the abilities and skills of the specialist.

58Such lamas usually carry out a range of other ritual services, although their professional image is shaped by their speciality in lüizhin and preserves aspects of distinctive and exclusive skills, stressed by the vernacular tradition and folk narra­tives. Apparently, today to have such a specialist is regarded as a matter of prestige for a monastic community:

Of course, we have our own lüizhinch specialist here. He is very skilful and very educated; he learnt in Nepal and underwent a range of initiations there, and here also. Now he is going to Tibet. Lüizhin is a very complicated practice, it is a rare man who can conduct it properly. Many people would come to his ceremonies. (Z. D., 1976, male, lüizhinch, lama of the “yellow school”, monastic performer, Ulaanbaatar, 2018)

59In comparison with independent specialists, who have to shape their professional image on their own using the traditional toolkit of narration, institutional lüizhin performers have noticeably less stable oral autobiographical scripts. Their self-introductory narratives often inscribe future lüizhin practitioners as being within the general frame of monastic life and religious learning. Such personal stories emphasise the performer’s enrolment in a monastery, which usually involves references to traditional customs and optionally some more vague motifs of family heritage:

I came to the monastery at six years old. It is an old Mongolian custom to send one of the children to a monastery to learn the sacred teaching of Buddha [Burhan bagsh] and to be a spiritual support to the family. Or perhaps I was just the stupidest kid, that is why they sent me away [laughing]. Children are like children, playing, running, messing about. As I got older I turned more and more towards studies. Now I can perform various services and read various nom. I have been learning lüizhin for two years. During the initiation I went away to perform lüizhin outdoors, at difficult places with the wrathful nature spirits (dogshin lus savdag). My teacher is a very knowledgeable and honourable lama T.; the teacher of my teacher was the famous lama Luvsandanzan from Arhangai. He was in­credibly knowledgeable and a strong lama, could do things we cannot do now. My teacher gave me confirmation that I could perform lüizhin: that is an honour for me. Lamas were always in my family; my father was also a lama, it is a strong inspiration for me now, I think. (D., 1951, male, lüizhinch, lama of the “yellow school”, monastic performer, Ulaanbaatar, 2019)

60In comparison with the female tradition of lüizhin performers, motifs relating to family religious traditions are represented in generalised and implicit forms. The narrative reflects the idea of the social motivation and legitimisation needed to be a religious specialist, although there is a large overlap with the intellectual (education) and hierarchical (the authoritative figure of the teacher) principles of the monastic institution. The social legitimisation of a lüizhin performer in this group is realised by a confirmation given by a monastic mentor.

  • 69 More particularly, of the rNying ma pa, Sa skya pa, and bKa’ brgyud pa. Often specialists (especial (...)

61Between these two groups of specialists, who tend to be located in different areas of the social spectrum, there is a diversity of performers of lüizhin who belong to various “red” and mixed schools69, often being independent or semi-institutional. They harmoniously coexist with the lay tradition of lüizhin, also being flexible and interacting closely with folk versions and interpretations of the ritual. This heterogeneous group of performers represents a motley buffer, linked to different traditions and partly sharing the principle features of their organisation and practices. It includes independent and monastic “red” male and female ritual specialists, collective and single performers, specialists from monasteries or performers with monastic mentors. They may be self-initiated, exclusively specialising in lüizhin practice or combining it with other ritual specialties and services. Their ways of legitimization usually include general references to Buddhist family traditions combined with the strong role of a teacher, customary for the Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhist environment, and defined by the dGe lugs pa school.

  • 70 Zoch is a special title for lamas who take care about the order of the rituals’ performance.
  • 71 Sahius is the term for Buddhist and non-Buddhist protector spirits.

I am zoch70, I adhere to all the lama’s vows. I have a female patron, sahius71. When to pray and read the sacred books (nom), then a lay person can perform lüizhin. (T. L., 1912, female, lüizhinch, lay, independent performer, Hèntii, 2008)

The right to perform lüizhin comes from a teacher. Today teachers who can give this right are rare. One of them lives in Ulaanbaatar, in Bayan hoshuu. He is 96 years old. There is also Tagarvaa-bagsh teacher, he is known under the name Goviin-bagsh, he is a reincarnation of Hüühèn Hutugtu and he lives far away. To get the right to perform lüizhin means to offer a maṇḍala and to get from the teacher a trumpet, a drum and a handbell. (Z. H., 1957, female, lüizhinch, lay, independent performer, Töv, 2019)

  • 72 Again strings of social and cultural manifestations through centuries tie together the life of the (...)

62Examples of narratives integrated into contemporary discursive practices of religious specialists show that the legitimation of a lüizhin performer, in addition to its ritual and spiritual part in the form of the “bloody banquet”, also has a very strong social dimension. Today the type of social initiation and confirmation of the right to perform (ban/èrhig avah) represents one of the key points in the competition between the traditions of lüizhin. The process of re-professionalisation of religious life is headed by the “yellow tradition”, which asserts institutional forms of confirmation by lama(s) and is represented by par­ticular monasteries and teachings. Today their increasing authority and ability to confirm or disqualify candidates affect lüizhin performers, including lay female spe­cialists. Here again, the lines of a centuries-old social antagonism reappear72.

My grandmother performed lüizhin, I was always interested in this. I started to learn three years ago. I studied in order to read lüizhin nom, attended training and was initiated. In addition, I once performed lüizhin for a family. But then lama N said that I shouldn’t perform it, he is like my teacher (bagsh), he said this ritual is very strong and very hard, it is not suitable for me and I should stop. So, I don’t do it anymore, I work at school. But I am still very interested in Buddhism. Perhaps by learning about the religion I do in another way what I was supposed to do in following my grandma’s tradition… (T. M., 1971, female, lüizhinch adept, does not perform, Ulaanbatar, 2019)

63A rough comparison of personal narratives from contemporary practicing individual specialists, including a significant number of lay lüizhin performers whose practice is in addition based on older patterns, shows certain contextual and generational dynamics. Thus, most performers under the age of 90 have self or family ritual education and initiation; most people under the age of 60 combine the dominant family education and initiation with additional elements of professional education and monastic mentoring; most people under the age of 30 predomi­nantly have a monastic education, mentoring and initiation, combined with general ideas of family religious heritage.

64Competing strategies of monastic traditions also include discursive forms, adopting traditional narrative models:

If, when reading lüizhin someone doesn’t think about his or her teacher but thinks about other random things, he or she could attract all the bad [things] from the person for whom the ritual is being performed. (Z. H., 1957, female, lüizhinch, lay, independent performer, Töv, 2019)

Lüizhin is a very strong ritual. It is forbidden to perform lüizhin if the performance is not strengthened [confirmed] by a teacher. If [someone] reads lüizhin without learning from a good teacher who has been reading it for many years, then the mind and character of the lüizhin performer will be affected negatively. When such a person reads lüizhin in a family [of customers] he will take on himself all the bad from this family. (T. T., 1976, male, lüizhinch, lama of the “yellow school”, monastic performer, Ulaanbaatar, 2019)

65Contemporary folk narratives describe some other significant aspects of lüizhin performers, partly adopted and included in discursive practices by religious spe­cialists, partly restricted to the genre of oral legends.

66The oral narratives of adepts and lüizhin customers also talk about ritual performances that took place during the socialist period, and families and single performers who continued the tradition despite the danger of being persecuted. Particular narratives add to this folk discussion some undertones specific to the past and present religious life in Mongolia: “Some people became lüizhinch specialists during the socialist period, some of them were officials of the communist party at the same time, so they performed lüizhin secretly” (B. T., 1942, male, adept, Hovd, 2014).

  • 73 This is a vivid example of how in the folk narration a negotiation with the souls of the deceased i (...)

67In general, folk beliefs and narratives about lüizhin performers do not stress differences between the lay and other lüizhin traditions. However, a lüizhinch is usually called a lama, and more often he is from the “red school”, as it is regarded as a more wrathful (dogshin), powerful (huchtei) and miraculous (id shid) teaching: “The red religion is very old and very strong. Red lamas have very wrathful protector deities (sahius), and can do all kinds of unusual things. Although they have lüizhin, “yellow” lamas are not strong enough to hold it” (A. D., 1951, male adept, Dornod, 2010). Vernacular beliefs endow lüizhin specialists with great power and supernatural abilities: “Lüizhinch are very strong, they can sacrifice themselves to the gathering, can revive the dead73, can do all kinds of wonderous things” (M. Ch., 1973, adept, Hèntii, 2012).

68However, folk narration distinguishes different images and motifs connected to female and male lüizhin performers. One of the images of a female lüizhinch in contemporary Mongolian folklore is blended with a popular female figure – the handmaa: “This is the kind of person who dies without suffering, indeed, she did not suffer at all. [She] was a true handmaa. If children have been dying in a family, she was reading her sacred book (nom) and made them survive” (A. L., 1948, female, adept, Hèntii, 2010). In narratives, the determining features of such lüizhinch-handmaa are kindness and mercy. This is also reflected in the ritual practices of female lüizhin performers who, for example, often help with the treatment of children’s diseases.

Handmaa Zhamaa lived in the monastery of Hutugtu (not identified) in Hèntii province. Once when handmaa Zhamaa was practicing a meditation (zharzan) an epidemic of fever arose and many people were dying. Then [they] called handmaa Zhamaa.
“Who calls me?” she asked.
“Your teacher asked you to interrupt your three-month meditation and come”.
What to do when a teacher calls. She agreed, interrupted her meditation and came. That evening handmaa Zhamaa got ill and passed away. Her body was put in a special house (ger) with a guard. Her body started to get smaller and smaller until finally only a bone from the hand to the elbow was left. The bone was put in a stūpa. Then the epidemic of fever ended and the stūpa remained. Such true reincarnations of Dar’ Èh, who brings mercy to living beings, are called handmaa. Nowadays the [wrestling] champion Baterdene renovated that stūpa and worships it. (Zh., 1944, female, lüizhinch, lay, independent performer, Hèntii, 2008)

  • 74 The similiarities between the biography of Ma gcig lab sgron ma and the motifs of the folk tales ar (...)
  • 75 Such stories about lüizhin performers accumulate motifs from different genres and narrative traditi (...)

69Another version of the folk image of a female lüizhinch involves motifs of spiritual strength and miracles, correlating with the legendary deeds of the woman mystic Ma gcig lab sgron ma, who demonstrated her supernatural abilities during a drought (Kollmar-Paulenz 2020, p. 20)74. Motifs of miracles include healing and searching for lost/stolen cattle, bringing rain, removing obstacles and blessing the way for travelling. Apart from miracles, fearlessness is another defining feature of the female lüizhinch, who negotiates with wrathful spirits and scares away annoying demons75:

  • 76 The meaning of the story is based on a play of words with a similar sound – “huu” and “buu”. Probab (...)

The old lady Möngönchimeg lived here. She was a lüizhinch, by the power of her teaching and sacred books (nom), by the strength of her patrons (sahius) she could do various wondrous things (id shid) for the people who came for her help and support. Once a demon (chötgör büg) appeared here and started to walk around at night, coming to families, frightening and disturbing people. Once that woman made a fire and started to boil tea in a copper kettle (huu dombo). The demon (chötgör) looked in the door of her house and said: Möngönchimeg, is it a copper (huu) or is it a gun (buu)? The woman answered: “Who knows, it might be a gun (buu)”.
She took some salt and threw it into the fire. The salt sparked and flashed, the demon (chötgör büg) was scared and did not show up again in this area. (D. G., 1965, adept, Övörhangai, 2016)76

70The image of a male lüizhinch in contemporary folklore is represented in the figure of a daredevil wizard lama. Such narratives are part of the wider tradition of storytelling about the lamas of the old days, very powerful men endowed with supernatural abilities. These stories often also include some motifs particular for lüizhin specialisation, stressing themes of the frightening, the demonic and the deceased:

In former times there lived one good lama, Zochi. He had seven or eight disciples. Once they decided to make a joke and test the strength of their teacher. One of them pretended to be dead and the others went to the teacher crying. Zochi heard that his disciple had died and said: “Aha!” Two or three times he struck his drum and handbell and asked, “is he not alive?”
“No no, teacher! Surely dead!” said the disciples.
“Well…” The teacher believed them and started to read his book (nom). Then the disciples went to the young lama who was pretending to be dead, but he really was dead. His soul (süns) flew away to the divine land (burhny oron) [he died]. Thus, the teacher sent his soul away. (G., 1975, adept, Hèntii, 2008)

  • 77 From Tib. dge slong, a fully ordained Buddhist monk.

Here we had a gelen77 called Adar Sumbulgiin. He was a lüizhinch specialist. Once, in winter, he read lüizhin riding upon a man. That man had frozen to death, even his clothes were frozen on his body, but after this he thawed and returned to life. That lüizhinch Adar had this kind of strength. People talk like this. (N. J., 1917, adept, Övörhangai, 2006)

There was one specialist lüizhinch. He had the habit of walking 100 steps and staying there for the night. He saw various kinds of demons (chötgör) and souls (süns) and showed them the way [to rebirth]. He usually went away in spring and came back in autumn. He would make 100 steps and calm everything down at that place by reading his Tibetan books (nom). In the autumn of 1937, he performed lüizhin and came back and he was captured and killed. He was a high lama from the Naidan hiid monastery. (N. N., 1945, adept, Hovd, 2014)

71The stories of lüizhin performers involve various motifs and genres from Mongo­lian folk traditions, adapting and updating motifs and features from the original traditions (ritual and narrative) of gcod. All of these images are close to the old and new functions of the ritual being defined by, and at the same time determining, lüizhin meanings in contemporary Mongolia.

Meanings and functions

72Interpretations of the meanings and functions of lüizhin also vary greatly and preserve the traces of different traditions. For example, folk interpretations give significant importance to such practical aspects of the ritual as “what is it for”, “why does it help”, or “in what situations can it be used”. Many understandings and explanations of lüizhin are based on folk interpretations of popular narratives along with well-known features of the practice (such as the name, elements of the ritual, popular motifs of oral and written narrative traditions). These diverse interpretations of the use of lüizhin form the basis of its popularity. They illustrate the peaceful coexistence of different religious specialists, who mutually recognise different understandings of the functions of the ritual put forth by themselves and by their customers. The most popular functions of the lüizhin ritual since its revival to the present day include exorcistic, rectifying and protecting meanings. They are widely reflected in discursive practices (prescriptions, explanations, descriptions, advice) and narratives of religious specialists and customers and illustrate their personal experiences of the beneficial power of lüizhin.

73Lüizhin as an exorcistic ritual is still the most popular common perception of this practice (probably with the most noticeable impact of folk beliefs) and represents one of its much sought-after functions in post-socialist Mongolia. In this function, lüizhin generally is used to deal with various places that have a bad reputation and are haunted and dangerous for people. It focuses on particular supernatural entities that are connected to diverse emic conceptions of death and the deceased, and it aims to bring peace to a particular place for the sake of the living. It also navigates lost souls to their next rebirth.

  • 78 Literally, with an “air body”.

A lüizhinch goes to the place with spirits and demons (büg chötgör) and suppresses them. It is possible to drive away demons by reading lüizhin. A demon(chötgör) is a being without body (hii biètè)78 that occurs when a person cannot find a rebirth and so harms people. (A. D., 1963, adept, Ömnögov’, 2009)

Lüizhin is for the sake of living people to be well. For the sake of the deceased to find a good rebirth. (Ch., 1947, female, lüizhinch, lay, independent performer, Hèntii 2019)

There are lamas who fight evil. Their [sacred] book (nom) is lüizhin, they have trumpets made of the bone of an 18-year-old girl. By performing lüizhin nom they calm down the raging lords of the locality (lus savdag), remove desecrations and harm (buzar), clean haunted places (güidèltèi gazar) and places where something bad happened. (R. Z., 1948, adept, Hèntii, 2019)

  • 79 In Mongolian folk traditions a large class of supernatural beings is connected to the vernacular co (...)
  • 80 This interpretation of the functions of lüizhin is noticeably different from the original and conte (...)

74This interpretation of lüizhin is connected to its most popular name in Mongolia, “lüizhin” – from the Tibetan “lus sbyin”, the “offering of the body” and its central concept, which is lived out in the initial task of the performers. The “bloody banquet”, richly represented in Mongolian narrative culture and discursive practice, turns the performer of lüizhin into an exceptional expert in dealing with malevolent representatives of the supernatural. The performance of lüizhin at burial places triggers supernatural figures of Mongolian folklore, most of which can be grouped together under the heading of “wrong after-death existence”: the souls of the deceased are unable to find their way to the next rebirth and are doomed to stay on earth as harmful entities79. In this context, the exorcistic dimension of lüizhin is enforced by two interpretations of closely linked ritual actions: (1) the lüizhinch performer sends away malevolent supernatural entities, spirits and ghosts that occupy the space of the living80, and at the same time (2) he/she guides them to their next birth. Thus, the main aim of lüizhin is to protect the living from the malevolent influence of the deceased and, moreover, to save the souls of the deceased from a negative existence in the form of evil demons.

75The concept of the “stuck soul” and, respectively, the exorcistic function of lüizhin have a very wide application, affecting a significant number of situations and contexts. Within small groups (families or small local communities), lüizhin regulates and solves occasional troubling situations when the souls of deceased members of the group are suspected of staying in the area.

When old Amaa passed away, it started to get uneasy in this area, some people were saying that they saw her as if alive, going behind the paddock with a bucket for milking, at night there were strange sounds and lights. She was a good person, kind, but before her death she was very ill, everybody was helping her as much as they could. Then her younger sister called a lüizhinch, a woman lama with a drum, she lives in Arhangai. She performed the ritual and then everything calmed down – it means our Amaa was re-born somewhere. (D. Ch., 1978, adept, Hèntii, 2019)

76Apparently in such cases, lüizhin also serves as a form of ritual to help people overcome loss and fear, ensuring the future wellbeing of someone who has passed away, and of the living members of the community.

77Another circumstance when lüizhin can be used is when the difficult souls of “strangers”, non-relatives, or unknown or “foreign” deceased are involved. In present-day contexts, these traditional motifs provide a productive form of narration, delivering collective statements on noteworthy public issues and social concerns.

78In the rural space, the most popular place for a lüizhin performance is güideltei gazar (“a place with circulation/run”, “a restless place”). This is a special figure within Mongolian supernatural beliefs, represented as a particular demonic locus where people and their transport (animal and mechanic) suddenly and without reason stop and cannot move further (Solovyeva 2022). In contemporary narratives such places are believed to have multiplied during the socialist period (Solovyeva 2020) and are interpreted through ideas of long-term neglect of traditional rules and the vio­lation of taboos such as wrong (in other words, harmful) spiritual and ritual behaviour.

Now there are a lot of such bad places [güideltei gazar], during 70 years lamas were forbidden to read sacred texts (nom), to perform lüizhin, [also corpses have been] put in the ground [inhumation burials], so they spread. Now lamas are invited to such places to read lüizhin, several years in a row good lamas need to read to clear the place. (O. B., 1949, adept, Övörhangai, 2016)

79In this context, the lüizhin ritual is intended to deal with the accumulated negative consequences of past misconduct, which was long-term and collective and represented by atheist ideology, in order to liberate the spiritual hostages of ritual neglect and wrong customs reflected in images of stuck and exhausted souls and spirits. In this way lüizhin corrects and improves the situation and the spiritual and social environment for the living in the present.

80In urban space, the main figure that demands the attention of the lüizhin ritual is the chötgör, representing unknown restless souls and haunting ghosts of equally unknown origin who abide in rented flats and apartments, in rooms of public institutions, back streets and roads, abandoned houses and second-hand goods (Solovyeva 2017).

I am often asked by families to come and read lüizhin in apartments here [in Erdenet] when people move in or a bit after this; once I even read lüizhin for a car. People want to be sure that all the bad that happened before is driven away. Lüizhin helps to clean all around. (D. Zh., 1950, male, lüizhinch, lama of the “red school”, independent and monastic performer, Erdenet, 2016)

When we bought the flat where we live now, in the 11th district, my parents called a lama they know from Bayan hoshuu to perform lüizhin. We had some troubles with our flat, and my younger sibling was often sick there, after that [the lüizhin performance], everything got better. (Ts. G., 1991, adept, Ulaanbaatar, 2018)

  • 81 The Mongolian urban population at the beginning of the 20th century was only about 5% (Maiskii 1959 (...)

81The demonisation of an unknown soul of a space or objects is a defining feature widely addressed in international ghost lore (Jones 1944, pp. 237-254). Among other messages, it conveys concerns and fears about uncertainty, with an unknown future manifesting itself in disturbing entities. Largescale ongoing post-Soviet urbanisation has forced many people in Mongolia to experience unfamiliar and unwanted conditions as part of urban living81. Apparently, this experience was reinforced by traditional Mongolian beliefs and attitudes towards strangers and their property together with the relatively young urban culture and customs, and the generally unstable living conditions during the post-socialist “transition” period. Hence in this context, the lüizhin ritual has acquired the additional meaning of helping a newcomer adapt to a strange place, set up new belongings, “neutralize” previous unknown inhabitants and establish new ownership.

  • 82 The concept of death in a foreign land as the cause of a restless spirit or demon is widespread in (...)

82Both in rural and urban place lore the motif of stuck or lost souls is often connected to various images of foreigners who have passed away and thus stayed in Mongolia as restless spirits (Delaplace 2012; Solovyeva 2017). Narratives about places haunted by such “ghosts” (chötgör süns) introduce folk memories about foreign presence that is related to different eras and events of the past. Such areas are also included in a range of locations recommended for the occasional performance of lüizhin. For example, city districts and settlements inhabited in the past by foreigners, such as Bayan hoshuu in Ulaanbaatar, known as a Chinese traders’ area, former locations of Russian military units and spots where Japanese POWs were detained. Thus, the lüizhin ritual brings peace and sends away the lonely restless spirits of strangers who died far from their homeland82. It calms down collective memories like the shadows of historical events that stick to a particular locality and disrupt life today.

83Another kind of folk figure tied in with historical memories are the souls of the victims of purges and religious repression during the socialist period. These victims were officially recognised and rehabilitated in the 1990s. The places of their reprisals and burial recently became important locations of regular lüizhin performances, held by monastic communities. These historical memories usually refer to religious specialists, lamas, and some other historical figures. One such example is Queen Navaanluvsangiin Gènènpil, the last wife of the 8th Bogd Gegèn recognised as an incarnation of White Tārā, who was arrested and executed by the communist government in 1938. A few years ago, lüizhin started to be performed annually at the stela 30 km from Ulaanbaatar marking the place of the violent death of Queen Gènènpil (fig. 4). Thus, the souls of people who have died tragically receive ritual support to help them find peace, liberation and public justice. In this context, the performance of lüizhin also acquires the meaning of a collective recognition and negotiation of the past for the sake of a peaceful present.

  • 83 However, recently some places where victims of revolutions and socialist repressions are buried rec (...)

84This exorcistic function is connected to the space and particular location and relates strongly to the collective. It deals with a wide range of social issues as found in various smaller and larger communities. It is generally performed by independent lüizhin specialists and has a random character83.

  • 84 Literally “tongue-mouth”. The function of lüizhin to “cut off” and protect against slander has a cu (...)
  • 85 In Mongolian tradition, people capable to curse (haraalch) others are believed to have (literally) (...)
  • 86 Literally “eyes with worms”. The image that is probably closely connected with iconographic images (...)

85The rectifying, protective and prophylactic functions of the contemporary lüizhin ritual are yet other aspects that are becoming popular today. With regard to these functions, the performance of the ritual focuses not on the place but on the personality of a living human being, the spiritual and physical bodies of the customers and thus has a more individual design. Lüizhin rituals deal with personal concerns, and include healing, cleansing and protection. An evil slander (hèl am)84, everything bad, obstacles (ad zètger), a “black tongue” (har hèl85), and the “evil eye” (horhoit nüd86) can all be reversed and rectified through the performance of lüizhin. “People who have been jinxed, who are not good at work, who suffer from gossip and slander visit me” (G. L., 1952, female, lüizhinch, lama, mixed school, monastic performer, Ulaanbaatar, 2019).

When the vital strength (hiimor’) of a person deteriorates or when a soul (süns) [of a living person] leaves, lüizhin improves it, draws it back. When a soul leaves, a person gets sick. (M. D., 1946, male, adept, Dundgov’, 2009)

When everything is bad and unfortunate in life, or when a person is defiled (buzarsan), or sinful, then for his or her sake a lama reads lüizhin. (I. N., 1957, female, adept, Hèntii, 2009)

Lüizhin cuts off everything bad, cuts the black trail path (har mör), rectifies the path of the life. It is for the removal of obstacles and for the enhancement of virtues. Sometimes I perform the ritual for a particular person or family, or a work team when there is a need to solve a complicated life situation. (T. G., 1989, male, lüizhinch, lama of the “yellow school”, monastic performer, Ulaanbaatar, 2019)

86These contemporary meanings of the lüizhin ritual are based on vernacular interpretations of another feature of this practice, which alludes to its Tibetan name and one of its original meanings, gcod, “cutting, cutting through”. The original idea of the cutting was cutting through the base of sasāra, in this way also cutting off delusions, wrong habits and attachments – in a broader interpretation, all the “bad things” (muu yum) that one acquires. Lüizhin can cut off everything bad that obstructs wellbeing, including various kinds of malevolent influence and supernatural obstacle.

As the ritual suppresses and sends away all the bad from a place, so in the same way it sends away all the bad from life. It gives great support in all things a person wants to achieve. People understand it wrongly, well not wrongly, but too narrowly. We explain to them that it is not against ghosts and demons only, it is also for good living. Lüizhin cleans up our mind. The entities who have become a concomitant condition of our negative karma and have caused evil because of their unenlightened consciousness are pacified. (B. H., 1983, male, lüizhinch, lama of the “yellow school”, monastic performer, Ulaanbaatar, 2019)

Lüizhin is performed on all occasions when it is necessary to strengthen positive karma and get rid of dark energy, whether it is caused by malicious actions of beings of the subtle world and spirits of nature, by a black curse, frequent deaths in the same family. It might be performed for a deceased person so that his/her restless soul can find a good rebirth. In general, lüizhin helps to cut off the black stripe of failure and open the door to gain spiritual and material goods. (Sh. T., 1987, male, lüizhinch, lama of the “yellow school”, monastic performer, Ulaanbaatar, 2019)

  • 87 According to the particular version of the lüizhin ritual and the list of offerings required by the (...)

87Lüizhin’s protective and prophylactic functions aim to prevent possible malevolent influences on life and smooth the path to personal health, wealth and success. This is achieved by a person being present at a performance and is thereafter prolonged by consuming the offerings “charged” with the power of the ritual87 (Fig. 5). These meanings and forms of practice are intensively developed by institutional religious specialists who gather dozens of people for each regular performance in small and large temples (Fig. 2). In this context, a performance of lüizhin means to deliver personal relief, liberation from fears of misfortune and failure, spiritual support and assurance against the endless worries of contemporary everyday life.

  • 88 This was a comment of one my interviewees, who accompanied me to the ritual and provided additional (...)

Now you are fine, take it and keep it, this is vodka with juniper inside, charged with the sacred power of the lüizhin ritual. I take a sip when I don’t feel good, or I’m too tired, or before some important events and decisions. It helps. If you have a sore throat and you take a little sip before sleeping, then in the morning you will be fine and will not get any virus. There are also sweets, they are the same, very useful, and a juniper twig to give smoke, the lüizhinch gave it to you, now you are safe and fine, all your work will succeed. (D. G., 1949, male, adept, Ulaanbaatar, 2018)88

88Lüizhin’s updated meanings and functions fill ancient ritual forms with the meanings of Mongolian vernacular beliefs and current spiritual and social needs. Lüizhin has a very wide range of applications and can be used for various purposes connected to the general ideas of “sending away all the bad” and “invoking all the good”, removing obstacles in a particular place and in the continuity of a life, for the benefit of the living and the deceased. Lüizhin includes strong collective and individual elements and deals with public and personal issues. Ironically, single specialists with an individual approach focus more on the exorcistic functions of lüizhin connected to communal and collective issues and worries. Meanwhile institutional specialists develop collective forms of the ritual for the mass delivery of personal support.

Conclusion

89Despite its diversity, the unifying meaning of the lüizhin ritual remains the same – mitigation of fear and liberation for the living whatever form this may take. In post-socialist Mongolian communities, the period of transition, rapid change and multiple crises, which are seen as manifestations of the malevolent and frightening through the lens of traditional folk entities and motifs, often take on “social faces” (Valk 2018) although they relate to disturbing issues from the past and present. These entities are the souls of persecuted victims seeking historical justice, or ghosts reminding the world of previous and current social and geopolitical tensions. They are nature and ancestral spirits, irritated, impatient, forgotten and confused, waiting for people to find their way back to their traditional roots, or unknown demonic owners of strange places, rented apartments, second-hand goods, etc. In this contemporary context, lüizhin advanced to a particularly requested ritual tool with which to deal with all these concerns, bringing peace to groups and individuals and supporting their struggle against both the tragic shadows of the past and the uncertainties of the present. This case study of the gcod/lüizhin ritual shows how in periods of instability (such as the repressive Soviet-style regime and national revival, as well as current challenges in Mongolia), a ritual tradition persists in a variety of forms and with a variety of functions to deal with social concerns and crises, and evolves as a result of the competing and reconciling interactions of different actors, their needs and impacts.

90The current forms of lüizhin in Mongolia have revealed numerous links with the early gcod tradition and active interactions with its ideas, often encountered and reinterpreted in local contexts and vernacular practices. According to the original central concept of the practice, the main function of the ritual is to cut off all thoughts of an independent self in order to realize emptiness. This concept is translated in popular religious understanding in the sense of eliminating negative, “bad” thoughts, or “badness” itself. Thus the original intentions of the ritual are adjusted to the needs of today.

91Rural gcod practitioners serve for collective liberation and protection from malevolent influences, while urban practitioners work for individual, family or company liberation and protection. The notion of the malevolent in the context of the ritual includes a variety of spiritual and social forms of harm such as the malevolent influence of supernatural entities, the effects of human evil power such as envy, the evil eye, gossip, disease and misfortunes. They are all personified active agents or the consequences of demonic or evil social actors.

92It is important to emphasise that the social meaning of the gcod ritual in rural areas entails the purification and protection of one’s native land (nutag), i.e., the collective land inhabited or owned collectively by the local community, from a variety of malevolent influences such as demonic and wrathful entities. In urban areas the meaning of the ritual centers on the purification and protection of one’s individual home, office, car, etc., from “stuck souls”, i.e. demonic souls attached to one’s possession (Humphrey 2002).

93As we have seen, in addition to individual and communal perspectives, gcod in Mongolia also deals with national concerns such as the rehabilitation of the souls of political victims, and serves social justice in the sense of “cleansing” the evil socialist past.

94In Tibet the gcod ritual has been integrated over the centuries from an outsider position into the monastic institutions, and in this way became successfully domesticated. Its domestication and integration was continued in Mongolia during the pre-socialist period. Today, after the trials of that period, the ritual is experiencing a new lease of life in that it is being adapted to the newly defined religious demands of the people. It nevertheless retains an element of what could be called social disobedience by attracting more female followers, a group that in the pre-socialist Buddhist society of Mongolia used to be outside institutional religion.

95Our analysis of the continuities and changes regarding lüizhin in contemporary Mongolia has highlighted the authority of folklore and narrative culture, bringing to life original patterns and new meanings. However, this power declines with increasing social stability, with some functions being taken over by institutional religious actors.

96In this way, gcod/lüizhin moved from the Tibetan burial ground to the Mongolian steppe to become, in the post-socialist period, a remarkable form of religious expressions and effective practice in dealing with collective and individual concerns, overcoming the anxieties of the past and present to become again “a jewel ornament of liberation” (Kollmar-Paulenz 1993), in the spiritual, social and vernacular sense.

Figure 1. A performance of lüizhin by a male monastic specialist (on the left), in a “temple” temporarily located on the first floor of a residential multi-storey building in Ulaanbaatar

Figure 1. A performance of lüizhin by a male monastic specialist (on the left), in a “temple” temporarily located on the first floor of a residential multi-storey building in Ulaanbaatar

© The photo was taken by Alevtina Solovyeva during fieldwork in 2019 with permission of the participants

Figure 2. A performance of lüizhin by female monastic specialists in a temple in Ulaanbaatar

Figure 2. A performance of lüizhin by female monastic specialists in a temple in Ulaanbaatar

© The photo was taken by Alevtina Solovyeva during fieldwork in 2018, with permission of the participants

Figure 3. A performance of lüizhin by a female independent specialist at her home in Dundgov’

Figure 3. A performance of lüizhin by a female independent specialist at her home in Dundgov’

© The photo was taken by Julija Liahova during fieldwork in 2019, with permission of the specialist

Figure 4. The stela located 30 km from Ulaanbaatar marking the place of the violent death of Gènènpil hatan, where the performance of the lüizhin ritual takes place annually

Figure 4. The stela located 30 km from Ulaanbaatar marking the place of the violent death of Gènènpil hatan, where the performance of the lüizhin ritual takes place annually

© The photo was taken by Alevtina Solovyeva during fieldwork in 2019

Figure 5. Offerings (idee – a plate with sweets and cookies; meat and vodka) brought for the performance of lüizhin by clients to be “charged” by the power of the ritual

Figure 5. Offerings (idee – a plate with sweets and cookies; meat and vodka) brought for the performance of lüizhin by clients to be “charged” by the power of the ritual

© Photo taken in a temple in Ulaanbaatar by Alevtina Solovyeva during fieldwork in 2019

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Notes

1 A couple of biographical accounts exists which, although differing in some details, tell her life story in a consistent narrative. An overview of the available Tibetan language sources is provided by Karénina Kollmar-Paulenz (1993, pp. 20-24). For a short biographical account of Ma gcig lab sgron ma’s life see: Kollmar-Paulenz 1998, pp. 11-32.

2 The valley of Lab lies in the northern part of E yul.

3 For a short history of the Zangs ri mkhar dmar retreat up to recent times see Akester (2016, pp. 377-378).

4 Over the centuries, every tradition produced its own literature on gcod. For the dGe lugs pa tradition see, for example, the gCod tshogs 1986, for the Bon religion see Drung mu 1973.

5 “Bdud kyi rtsa ba rang gi sems” (Ma gcig, 4r).

6 Ma gcig lab sgron ma is generally considered to be an emanation of Khros ma nag mo. For an iconographic description of Khros ma nag mo on the basis of Tibetan ritual texts see Kollmar-Paulenz (2005, pp. 215-218).

7 The work is published in gcod tshogs rin chen ’phreng ba (1986), but here a copy preserved at the LTWA, Dharamsala was used.

8 In Tibetan-Buddhist taxonomy gcod as a ritual belongs to the so called “higher actions” (stod las) that aim to liberate from the cycle of rebirths.

9 Interestingly two of the gcod texts in Yunli’s library were authored by Rang byung rdo rje and his later successor Mi bskyod rdo rje (1507-1554). Both do not contain colophons mentioning that the translations were prepared at the initiative of Yunli (Uspensky 1999, p. 398, nos. 724, 25 and 724, 26). They could be older translations. However, at the present point of our investigation this is entirely speculative as we did not have the opportunity to consult the texts.

10 See, for example, the miniature painting (tsaali) from 19th century Mongolia (Meinert 2011, pp. 180-181, nos. 84 and 85). gCod was also popular in Buryatia (Ochirov 2008). Even in the 20th century, thangkas depicting Ma gcig lab sgron ma were painted in Buryatia (Badmazhapov 1995, p. 110, no. 46).

11 Since the 17th century in Mongolia the three Tibetan Buddhist schools of the rNying ma pa, Sa skya pa and bKa’ brgyud pa were lumped together under the designation “red hat”. Among them, the Karma pa, a sub-school of the bKa’ brgyud pa, “may well be considered one of the most important gatekeepers of the gCod tradition” (Kollmar-Paulenz 2020, p. 412).

12 In Mongolia the dGe lugs pa school is usually addressed as the “yellow tradition” or the “yellow hats”.

13 Due to its marginal status and, apparently, popularity among lay people, lüizhin has been berated as a “distracting practice” that diverts the lamas’ attention away from the philosophical depths of Buddhist teaching to the practical ritual that serves the laity and so also profit-making. (The authors are thankful for comments on this topic provided by Dr. Agata Bareja-Starzyńska, University of Warsaw). Ambiguous attitudes in dGe lugs pa institutions towards lüizhin, which at the same time is an object for competition, a struggle for control and an object for elimination and rejection, continue to exist today. A vivid example is represented by the central capital Gandantegchènlin monastery, where local monks try to resist the lüizhin ritual that takes place annually in one of its temples, the Gungaachoilin datsan. In addition, despite official denial of such a practice by the high administration of the monastery, it is even possible to order a lüizhin ritual for an individual or a group client (this possibility was proved by fieldwork experience in 2019).

14 The most intense and violent periods of repressions against religion in Mongolia occurred in the 1930s (including the suppression of the revolt of the lamas and the subsequent tightening of the anti-religious campaign and repression of religious specialists) (Kuzmin & Oyuunchimeg 2014) and the 1960s (during the Cultural Revolution, accompanied by a campaign against “superstition”) in Inner Mongolia (Kaplonski 2002; Sandag & Kendall 2000).

15 This led to the folklorisation of some popular and well-known “professional” rituals, such as the dedication of animals to deities and spirits (sètèrlèh), and to the increasing role of folk rituals such as charms (dom shivshleg).

16 Though in his article Ippei Shimamura uses the disputable term “magic” and “magicalized” about this phenomenon, which would be more productively elaborated by the term of contemporary folklore studies as “vernacular religion”, and denies the fact of “privatisation” of religious life in Mongolia during socialism, he nevertheless shows the process of continuity and transformation of religious practice based on individual and communal interpretation reenforced by local folk tradition.

17 Fieldwork data was collected by Alevtina Solovyeva during annual expeditions to various parts of Mongolia during the 2007-2019 period (continued digitally in 2020). The interviews were conducted with 108 lüizhin specialists and more than 200 adherents.

18 Starting from the 1990s, the lüizhin ritual was also propagated among Mongolian com­munities outside Mongolia in Kalmykia and Buryatia, Russia (Ochirov 2008).

19 The term “folk tradition” denotes here a unity of beliefs/views shared by a certain communal or local group of people and manifested in various forms, including verbal and performative (actional) ones. In this context, we can talk about narrative traditions, ritual traditions, religious traditions. The use of the term “folk tradition” allows to consider a variety of such “belief-units” separately and in relation with each other.

20 Oral stories devoted to lüizhin include a wide scope of topics, concerning the origin, name, meanings and abilities of lüizhin practice, its texts, circumstances of the ritual performance, figure(s) of teachers and performer(s) and even particular objects, which are involved in the ritual. These topics might be represented as self-sustained narratives focused on lüizhin as the main theme or they are included in legendary biographies of old lamas, narratives about the local landscape mythology, and ghostlore.

21 This discussion might be considered from several points of view, on the one hand as a collective discursive reflection on the changes, worries and problematic issues, concerning the past and future of Mongolian traditions, and the process of religious revival itself. On the other hand, starting from a certain moment, this discussion was partly taken over by religious specialists and became one of the tools of asserting their positions in daily ritual life.

22 This situation is also reflected in everyday religious life, in a range of actual “experts” to whom lay people refer and delegate their ritual concerns. If previously, in discursive practices more often various authorities were mentioned, including non-professional figures, like “old people” (huugchuud), “our olders” (manai huugchuud, huugchuudaa), or a “wise man” (mergèn hün), nowadays speakers most frequently refer to professionals (lamas or shamans).

23 Nom, literally “book”; in the religious context means “teaching”, “sacred text”, book of sacred texts of various genres, foremost a Buddhist sutra, tarni (dhāraṇī), and mani.

24 In Tibetan, “foundational root texts” (Tib. gzhung rtsa ba), texts of a philosophical nature. In the gcod tradition the foundational texts are believed to have been written by Ma gcig herself.

25 The main transmission lineages of gcod starting from early Tibetan traditions include the male pho gcod and the female mo gcod lineages of the practice. For the multitude of transmission lineages in different gcod texts see Kollmar-Paulenz 1993, pp. 223-288.

26 Some of these texts are identified and described (Havnevik et al. 2007). Our interlocutors mentioned around twenty different texts. This number, however, still constitutes only a small part of the textual representations of lüizhin traditions. For example, the bibliographical corpus, collected by Karénina Kollmar-Paulenz, includes more than 200 different ritual texts.

27 A practical inclusiveness of the gcod/lüizhin ritual might be regarded as its immanent feature in Tibetan and Mongolian traditions. In addition, some contemporary monastic communities do not strictly identify their affiliation to a particular school or even in general to the “yellow” or “red” traditions, and claim to combine various teachings in their spiritual and ritual practice (for example, we came upon such communities in Ulaanbaatar, most of them are headed by a female abbess). However, in both contexts, “red schools” of Vajrayāna are recognised as the determining environment of the ritual (Kollmar-Paulenz 1998, p. 412).

28 Tsongkhapa himself composed the gcod text Zab lam gcod kyi khrid yig ma ti bha dra ki rtis sbyar ba bzhugs so (gCod tshogs 1986, pp. 1-48).

29 The 9th Bogd gègèn and his disciples played a notable role in re-establishing institutionalised Buddhism in Mongolia, providing recommended patterns for various spheres including ritual services.

30 Vajradhāra.

31 After fieldwork quotations, the data in brackets indicate: initials of the name and surname of the interviewee, the year of his or her birth, gender, affiliation to adepts or specialists, the general type of Buddhist school (“red” or “yellow”), independent or monastic type of performance.

32 This type of lüizhin was popular before the revolution and was practiced in Ih Hürèè’s red gèr temples, where lamas from dGe lugs pa temples were also present during lüizhin ceremonies (Havnevik et al. 2007, p. 226).

33 Mongolian “Zhagar” derives from the Tibetan rgya gar, “India”.

34 Wutaishan – one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains, situated at the headwaters of the Qingshui in Shanxi Province, China (Charleux 2015).

35 For example, in the written biographies of Buddhist figures, the namtar (Tib. rnam thar).

36 According to one of her biographies, Ma gcig lab sgron ma herself originally received the teaching of lüizhin from ḍākinīs (Kollmar-Paulenz 2020, p. 23).

37 According to Tibetan written tradition the bKa’ tshoms chen mo as well as the Yang tshoms were composed by Ma gcig herself.

38 The oral narrative here alludes to the “renowned treasure” (Tib. gter ma) practice which has been introduced to Tibet by the rNying ma pa very early on. The “renowned treasure” has been discovered since the 11th century and continues to be discovered even today (Powers 1995, pp. 330-334). This practice was also taken over by other schools.

39 The discoverers of the “renowned treasure” (Tib. gter ma) are called “treasure teacher” (Tib. gter ston).

40 Fieldwork data 2018-2019.

41 It may well be that the Tibetan concept and practice of the “renowned treasure” was transmitted to Mongolian folk narration through Tibetan written sources. Mongolian literary texts are abundant with Tibetan-language gter ma texts.

42 In Buddhist Mongolian culture the attitude to the written word, especially Tibetan, is very respectful, even sacred: “The Tibetan ‘book’ (nom) is the highest ‘book’ to read!” (A. B., 1946, male, adept, Hèntii 2011). Respectively, lamas are regarded as those who professionally possess this sacred knowledge. This perception is reflected in common references of lay people to the authority of lamas, in regard to a great variety of themes: “Lamas check books and know”, “lamas read books and fix”, “lamas read books and say” (A. B., 1978, female, adept, Ulaanbaatar 2019). This “textualizing” principle in the Mongolian context of vernacular beliefs is somewhat balanced by the folk perception of shamanic traditions: “If lamas are powerful through their texts and sacred words, shamans [böö] are powerful through their spirits-helpers [ongod] and nature spirits [lus savdag]” (B. M., 1956, female, adept, Hövsgöl 2007).

43 The famous “lama of the Gobi”, Dulduityn Danzanravjaa, who was Mongolian; see Sardar 2007.

44 Here we can detect some specific features of popular Mongolian nationalism, based on the historical ground and contemporary political tendencies: the Mongol is better than the Tibetan, but the Tibetan is almost a Mongol in comparison with the Chinese.

45 One of the symbolic numbers in various Buddhist traditions, the most frequent in popular Buddhism, where it is connected to the 108 steps of Gautama Buddha on his path to Enlightenment.

46 In Tibetan-Buddhist taxonomy, gcod as a ritual service belongs to the “four actions” (las bzhi), the four categories of mundane rites, (1) pacification (zhi), (2) augmentation (rgyas), (3) subjugation (dbang [empowerment]), and (4) ferocity (drag). They are distinguished not by their ritual performance but by their specific intended goals. As these vary according to the demands of people, gcod as ritual service can be subsumed under each of the four categories.

47 According to independent performers and customers, this is regarded as a form of lüizhin performance that is safer for specialists.

48 The interview with this unique specialist was conducted by the scholar Julija Liahova, the authors are grateful to her for sharing it.

49 Similar other-than-human entities are addressed in the Tibetan gcod ritual; compare also the translation of the summons to participants in the red banquet in the Introduction.

50 The “bloody banquet” is the “red banquet”, one of the four great banquets of the Tibetan gcod tradition, as mentioned in the Introduction.

51 In various traditional cultures, the strength of religious specialists is often evaluated through the ability to deal with malevolent supernatural entities.

52 This is a traditional folk motif of body transformation, from a weaker human being to a stronger, superior, one. It is very popular in Mongolian folklore and is represented in different genres, including epic and shamanic narratives (Hangalov 1958; Hamayon 1990; Humphrey 1996).

53 The name of this “lüizhin sutra” or “lüizhin nom” was not specified by our informants.

54 A pelvic bone is an extremely demonised object of Mongolian folklore, identified in different forms either as a demon belonging to the body and residing in that particular bone, and being able to anthropomorphise; or as a random demon or spirit (chötgör büg), that has a habit to occupy various kinds of empty spaces, including holes in pelvic bones and skulls (Solovyeva 2017). Mongolian folk traditions give an interesting perspective of mystical ways of learning: “If someone would sit on the pelvic bones of a corpse, he or she will become a very skilful lüizhinch” (B. D., 1949, male, adept, Bayanhongor, 2016); “To become a good musician playing the morin huur [traditional Mongolian stringed instrument], one should sit on the skull of a horse at a crossroads” (H. G., male, adept, Hèntii, 2008).

55 In Tibetan ritual performances of gcod the trumpet (Tib. rkang ling) is always made of the thigh bone of a corpse; for different types of this trumpet see Scheidegger (1988, pp. 23-25). The most efficient trumpet is regarded as one made of the thigh bone of a sixteen-year-old girl (fieldwork notice of Karénina Kollmar-Paulenz from the 1980s).
There are also three special types (apart from the standard) of this trumpet which are named: (1) a trumpet made from the thigh-bone of a bodhisattva, which helps one to realise
bodhicitta; (2) a trumpet made from the thigh bone of a dead pregnant women, which redirects the love that the mother can’t give to her unborn child towards the protector deities; (3) a trumpet made from the thigh bone of a warrior who died in battle. As his mind was full of violence, his energy is transmitted by his thigh bone and used to subdue evil spirits. This trumpet is used during wrathful rituals, however, it is usually not mentioned in the gcod texts. Contemporary Mongolian traditions usually claim that the lüizhin trumpet is made specifically of a bone (thigh, humerus, pelvis) from an 18-year-old virgin or nulliparous female, or from a young woman who died giving birth.

56 In rare cases (two examples from more than a hundred interviews) when the “bloody banquet” motif is presented explicitly in the context of performing the ritual for other people, the customer is involved in the ritual as an “object”, to be replaced by the performer, who conducts a self-sacrifice by offering his or her own body instead: “A specialist lüizhinch calls the lords of the locality such as lus savdag, saying that he or she will give them everything – [his or her own] hair, bones, flesh and blood. Then he or she asks that the ritual’s patron be left alone. It is very important at this point that the lüizhinch has the strength to take back his hair, bones and blood from lus savdag. If the lüizhinch lacks this strength he or she will lose his/her bones, hair and blood and die” (B. S., 1953, male, lüizhinch, lama, mixed school, independent performer, Bayanhongor, 2016).

57 A usual set prescribed in detail by a ritual specialist includes vodka (arhi), boiled meat without fat and a plate of snacks (idee). After the ritual, the customer gets back the vodka and some of the snacks together with juniper powder (soaked in vodka); he or she is also separately given a small roll of paper.

58 Data of the 2018-2019 fieldwork.

59 In narratives even ritual objects, which are regarded as very specific marks of the performance and performers of lüizhin, are often interpreted according to their “communicative” use and purpose. Thus, the trumpet is believed to attract supernatural entities, the drum and the handbell – to send them away, and the special hat with a blind for the eyes – to protect a performer from seeing/being seen and this way being hurt by demons (the same folk interpretation applies to similar elements of hats of the choizhin lamas and shamans).

60 The same rule applies to some other rituals and wider performances of particular oral and written texts, which are regarded as sacred and wrathful (devoted or connected to wrathful supernatural figures) in the tradition, including, for example, epic storytelling.

61 As reported by Pozdnèèv (1887, p. 473) talking about the old school of Mongolian lüizhin.

62 The division into pho gcod (male) and mo gcod (female) goes directly back to Ma gcig lab sgron ma. Despite the complexity of the picture conveyed by the written sources (reflecting various social, gender and ideological aspects of the recognition of lüizhin and its authorship), these sources provide evidence about the existence of “female” and “male” types of lüizhin in early Tibet, with the strong dominance of the female tradition (Kollmar-Paulenz 1998).

63 The personalities of the performers we met and who kindly agreed to be our interviewees, as well as their life stories and experiences are indisputably worth separate consideration. However, these will be kept for a follow-up article. Here we will focus on the common features of the performers in order to analyse representations of lüizhin in its various traditions today. Despite the high heterogeneity and inevitable generalisation of experiences within divided groups, such a division is grounded in the current social context. It allows us to discover and consider some important social features of contemporary religious life reflected in the peculiar position and role of contemporary lüizhin practices. Such themes include institutional and individual perspectives, urban and rural authorities, gender representations, acquired and inherited legacies, communal choices relating to prestige and trust, relations and the principles of coexistence of different actors in religious life.

64 Among the most popular professions of performers from this group are doctors/paediatricians, teachers, and herders.

65 This term does not appear in dictionaries and was not explained by our informant. According to a consultation with Prof. Dulam Sendenzhav (21 January 2023 – the authors express a special gratitude for his valuable comments), regarding its phoneme, the term might mean “the one who withdraws all the bad, all calamities”. It also might be a mistake for “laichin”, which designates a lama who is possessed by/channels sahius and ongod spirits, like a shaman.

66 The role of these female relatives in the practice of contemporary lay female performers correlates with episodes in the biography of Ma gcig lab sgron ma, where her mother and sister assumed the important role of supporters and helpers when she was studying and searching for a method of liberation (Kollmar-Paulenz 1998, pp. 14-15).

67 Handmaa is regarded in popular Mongolian Buddhism as a kind of nun, holy woman and the reincarnation of Dar’ Èh (Tārā). Ma gcig herself was considered a handmaa, although in the Tibetan sense. Handmaa derives from the Tib. mkha’ ’gro ma (Skt. ākinī), trans­lated literally as “sky goer”. Handmaas have special abilities and are often considered to be enlightened beings in the Tibetan folk tradition. Handmaa are also the divine consorts of tantric yogins.

68 In the 1990s and early 2000s, there was a general tendency to trust the religious specialists in the countryside, who were seen as the true guardians of the ancient, genuine traditions, which later shifted to the specialists from the cities and the large, prestigious monasteries with highly educated lamas. This is clearly reflected in the discursive practices and the choice of clients.

69 More particularly, of the rNying ma pa, Sa skya pa, and bKa’ brgyud pa. Often specialists (especially individuals) do not distinguish between the different sub-schools or schools, or even claim to belong to both the “red” and “yellow” traditions alike.

70 Zoch is a special title for lamas who take care about the order of the rituals’ performance.

71 Sahius is the term for Buddhist and non-Buddhist protector spirits.

72 Again strings of social and cultural manifestations through centuries tie together the life of the “mother” of lüizhin, represented in written traditions, and contemporary traits of the practice and its representatives. In biographies of Ma gcig lab sgron ma prominent place takes an episode about her conflict with an arrogant abbot and a manifestation of her remarkable power, spiritual and ritual superiority, which reveals social and gender issues of the Tibetan society at that time (Kollmar-Paulenz 1998, pp. 20-21).

73 This is a vivid example of how in the folk narration a negotiation with the souls of the deceased in the ritual turns into the motif of reviving the dead.

74 The similiarities between the biography of Ma gcig lab sgron ma and the motifs of the folk tales are striking. In pre-modern Mongolia, the Tibetan-language biography of Ma gcig circulated in numerous block prints, as evidenced by a number of texts in Russian libraries, but also, for example, in the Swiss Ernst Collection. The influence of Tibetan biographical traditions on folk narratives about lüizhinch needs to be studied separately.

75 Such stories about lüizhin performers accumulate motifs from different genres and narrative traditions within Mongolian folklore, including popular legends about outstanding lamas, nuns (chavgants) and shamans (böö). In general models of these narratives are more familiar to the oral storytelling tradition than to the written culture, and are often involved in discursive practices to determine the image of this particular kind of specialist as lüizhinch. Thus, for example, descriptions of lüizhin performers, both female and male, sometimes include features and motifs from folklore about shamans: “There are female shamans, they are called udgan. There are women who learned Tibetan teachings/books (nom), they are called lüizhinch, they can make wonders [id shid]” (L. R., 1942, male, adept, Hövsgöl, 2007); A lüizhinch is a lama dancing with a drum like a shaman, but is not a shaman” (D. B., 1950, female, adept, Sühbaatar, 2017).

76 The meaning of the story is based on a play of words with a similar sound – “huu” and “buu”. Probably for this purpose the storyteller used “huu dombo”, a less widespread word for copper kettle in Mongolian, instead of the more popular “zes dombo”. The description of the action with the salt correlates with the traditional apotropaic and healing practice (dom), which aims to protect small children from fear and any other malevolent influences (Solovyeva 2019).

77 From Tib. dge slong, a fully ordained Buddhist monk.

78 Literally, with an “air body”.

79 In Mongolian folk traditions a large class of supernatural beings is connected to the vernacular concept of the bad/lost soul, the soul which, for various reasons (fear, worry, or sins), remains on earth, unable to leave and find any form of rebirth and so disturbs the living people. Various names for such a soul are muu süns, büg, chötgör, güidel, ad zètger.

80 This interpretation of the functions of lüizhin is noticeably different from the original and contemporary Tibetan examples. Nonetheless, it represents a developed form of traditional functions, switching from dealing with the bodies of the deceased (in early Tibetan traditions) to their spiritual, ghostly emanations; from the purification and protection from the malevolent influence of the deceased on people who participated in funerals (in pre-revolutionary Mongolian traditions; see Pozdnèèv 1887, p. 473), to the purification of the space and guiding souls.

81 The Mongolian urban population at the beginning of the 20th century was only about 5% (Maiskii 1959). During socialism Mongolian urban culture experienced a notable development, although under specific conditions. One of them was the strong control of the state, which distributed apartments and limited mobility for urban citizens, meaning that most people had to remain in the same apartment for life. After the collapse of the socialist regime multiple causes, including strong economic and social factors, led to Mongolia facing a significant migration to the cities (especially Ulaanbaatar) (Badaraev 2012, pp. 62-67). In addition, a widespread movement from one district to another, renting and changing apartments, started in the cities in the 1990s when people were given freedom to move. These factors brought new perspectives on collective and individual property ownership (Humphrey 2002) and on the home space. In rural areas the traditional dwelling, the gèr, is often conceived of as a sort of public place, while in urban conditions home-apartments are recognised as an individual property and often demonized, providing ground for the concept of the haunted house which previously has had little reason for existence in Mongolia (the authors are thankful for the discussion and comments on this topic provided by Prof. Caroline Humphrey, University of Cambridge).

82 The concept of death in a foreign land as the cause of a restless spirit or demon is widespread in Asia and is reflected in various social practices. For example, before the revolution, Chinese families (who could afford it) spent enormous amounts of money and went to great lengths to repatriate the bodies of relatives who had died in Mongolia (traders and official representatives of the Chinese administration) in so-called “death caravans” (Maiskii 1959, p. 80).

83 However, recently some places where victims of revolutions and socialist repressions are buried received care from monastic communities of the “yellow school” and turned into places where there is a regular annual performance of lüizhin.

84 Literally “tongue-mouth”. The function of lüizhin to “cut off” and protect against slander has a curious parallel with another episode from the biography of Ma gcig lab sgron ma, when she faced condemnation and gossip from her community for the lay lifestyle she preferred (Kollmar-Paulenz 1998, p. 17).

85 In Mongolian tradition, people capable to curse (haraalch) others are believed to have (literally) a black tongue (har hèl), which is based on folk etymology (linguistically unfounded). This image is old and has a Tibetan connection. A “sūtra” with the title Qara kelen neretü sudur (Qara kelen aman yala-yi amurliγulun üiledügči neretü yeke kölgen sudur) is a 16th century translation by the famous translator Ayushi Güüshi of the Tibetan text titled ’Phags pa kha mchu nag po zhi bar byed pa zhes bya ba bzhugs so. Even though it was not included in the Ganjuur, this text was popular in Mongolia and was printed several times; in the 19th century it even circulated in a pocket edition.

86 Literally “eyes with worms”. The image that is probably closely connected with iconographic images of Buddhist hell.

87 According to the particular version of the lüizhin ritual and the list of offerings required by the specialist, the client takes part or all the offerings he brought. For example, if meat is included, which is common in the monastic version, it remains on the temple altar, while “charged” vodka with juniper and sweets are given back to the client. Individual specialists often use vodka or water, juniper and rice and give everything back to the client.

88 This was a comment of one my interviewees, who accompanied me to the ritual and provided additional explanations afterwards, generally repeating the instructions given by the specialist-performer.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Figure 1. A performance of lüizhin by a male monastic specialist (on the left), in a “temple” temporarily located on the first floor of a residential multi-storey building in Ulaanbaatar
Crédits © The photo was taken by Alevtina Solovyeva during fieldwork in 2019 with permission of the participants
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/emscat/docannexe/image/5948/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 348k
Titre Figure 2. A performance of lüizhin by female monastic specialists in a temple in Ulaanbaatar
Crédits © The photo was taken by Alevtina Solovyeva during fieldwork in 2018, with permission of the participants
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/emscat/docannexe/image/5948/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 706k
Titre Figure 3. A performance of lüizhin by a female independent specialist at her home in Dundgov’
Crédits © The photo was taken by Julija Liahova during fieldwork in 2019, with permission of the specialist
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/emscat/docannexe/image/5948/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 970k
Titre Figure 4. The stela located 30 km from Ulaanbaatar marking the place of the violent death of Gènènpil hatan, where the performance of the lüizhin ritual takes place annually
Crédits © The photo was taken by Alevtina Solovyeva during fieldwork in 2019
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/emscat/docannexe/image/5948/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 845k
Titre Figure 5. Offerings (idee – a plate with sweets and cookies; meat and vodka) brought for the performance of lüizhin by clients to be “charged” by the power of the ritual
Crédits © Photo taken in a temple in Ulaanbaatar by Alevtina Solovyeva during fieldwork in 2019
URL http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/emscat/docannexe/image/5948/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,3M
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Référence électronique

Alevtina Solovyeva et Karénina Kollmar-Paulenz, « From the Tibetan burial ground to the Mongolian steppe. A new life for Buddhist ritual practice in post-socialist Mongolia »Études mongoles et sibériennes, centrasiatiques et tibétaines [En ligne], 54 | 2023, mis en ligne le 06 juin 2023, consulté le 18 juin 2024. URL : http://0-journals-openedition-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/emscat/5948 ; DOI : https://0-doi-org.catalogue.libraries.london.ac.uk/10.4000/emscat.5948

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Auteurs

Alevtina Solovyeva

Alevtina Solovyeva is researcher, head of the Center for Oriental Studies and director of the Mongolian Research Laboratory in the Institute of Cultural research, University of Tartu (Estonia). She received her first PhD in Philology and Asian Studies in the Russian Academy of Sciences and the second in Folklore studies at the University of Tartu. Her professional competences and interests include the fields of Historical and Social Anthropology, Folklore studies, Religious studies, Asian studies, and in particular Mongolian studies and Chinese studies. She has been conducting annual field work in various parts of Mongolia, China and Russia starting from 2006 till now. Her publications include Reawakening Spirits in Post-Socialist Mongolia. Vernacular Theories and Practices (University of Tartu Press, 2020); “‘A miracle walking tree’. The supernatural in the landscape mythology and social space of contemporary Mongolia” (Acta Mongolica, 2021); and “Faces of Mongolian fear. Demonological beliefs, narratives and protective measures in contemporary folk religion” (Journal of Ethnology and Folkloristics, 2020).
alevtina.solovyeva@ut.ee

Karénina Kollmar-Paulenz

Karénina Kollmar-Paulenz is full Professor of the Study of Religions and Central Asian Studies at the University of Bern. She studied Tibetology, Mongolian Studies, Religious Studies, Indology and Central Asian Turkology in Bonn, and conducted field research in Northern India, Nepal and Mongolia. Her current research interests include the cultural history of Tibet and Mongolia, religion and politics in Inner Asia, Mongolian manuscript culture, a global history of religion, and method and theory of religion. Her publications include “Ma gcig lab sgron ma’s many lives. Some remarks about the transmission of the Gcod teachings in Mongolia” (in Aspects of Mongolian Buddhism 2. Buddhism in Practice, L’Harmattan, 2020); “Negotiating the Buddhist future. rDo rje shugs ldan in Mongolia” (in On a Day of a Month of the Fire Bird Year. Festschrift for Peter Schwieger on the occasion of his 65th birthday, LIRI, 2020); and “The transmission of the Mongolian bKa’ `gyur. A preliminary report” (in The Many Canons of Tibetan Buddhism. PIATS 2000: Tibetan Studies: Proceedings of the Ninth Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Brill, 2002).
karenina.kollmar-paulenz@unibe.ch

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