Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Literary Sources for 'The Transmigration'?

As a footnote to my earlier weblogs, I've been wanting to take up the matter of what T. Lobsang Rampa calls 'the transmigration.' It fairly corresponds with something the Tibetan Kagyüpas starting in the 11th century (then, from 15th century on, Gelugpas), mainly, but sometimes also Nyingmapas call drongjug (grong 'jug). Drongjug is the correct word for it rather than phowa/po-wa ('pho ba), although one does often finds them mixed up in popular literature.* There are more instances of it happening than those Lopez mentions in his Prisoners of Shangri-La book. The two practices are not entirely unrelated. Still they ought to be distinguished. Phowa means a 'transference' into a higher plane, generally a Pure Land of the Buddha of Infinite Light (Amitabha) or some other Buddha. Drongjug means literally 'to enter a/the house (village? hut?)' although there is a little problem with interpreting why & how it ends up meaning what it means. And what it means is to deliberately inject ones consciousness into a body that has already been vacated by its previous inhabitant. Which is just what Rampa means by his 'transmigration' (again, leaving aside the molecular replacement Rampa claims went along with it). Something very like drongjug occurs in Indian, mainly Hindu, sources as well, although I won't go into this now. I've also tried finding out if there is anything in western traditions similar to drongjug, but so far the search has fairly failed (but do notice the intriguing statement by H. Blavatsky below). Perhaps there is something like it to be found in the works of Proclus? Or in some old apocryphal tales about Nebuchadnezzar and the fiery furnace?

Rampa's account of his taking over the body of the Englishman Cyril Hoskins has been told and retold a number of times (see especially the book by Karen Mutton, pp. 54-59). He first made public testimony to its occurrence in 1958 (for an online version,
see this), and told the story in detail in his third book, The Rampa Story, published in 1960. In these earliest sources Rampa doesn't seem to use any name at all for what happened (perhaps 'the takeover'?), he just describes it. The tree limb snapped as he was attempting to photograph an owl. His wife found him lying on the ground. Now possessed of a telepathically gifted Tibetan mind in an unhealthy English body, he was soon forced to deal with the public unemployment office, the Employment Exchange. I'm reminded of the title of a book I haven't read, After Enlightenment the Laundry. Man, what a come-down.

Is it possible TLR read about drongjug somewhere? the skeptics are bound to ask. Well sure. W.Y. Evans-Wentz (actually not him but Lama Kazi Dawa Samdup, who knew excellent English) translated the Milarepa biography into English in 1928. Jacques Bacot translated into French the biography of Marpa, published in 1937 with the title
La vie de Marpa le Traducteur, which has an even longer section in it about how Marpa's son Darma Dodé fell off his horse and entered the body of a dead pigeon, etc. (the same story you can read in the books of Mutton and Lopez). I think Giuseppe Tucci wrote about it in Italian in an article called Dell'arte di risuscitare i morti, in the journal L'Economia Umana (March-April 1951), pp. 23-27, and even before that in another article, L'Arte di far rivivere i cadaveri secondo la tradizione tibetana, in the journal Sapere, vol. 12 (1940), pp. 105-7 (if you can find these two Tucci pieces send me photocopies right away! I've never seen them so I'm not even sure they are precisely about drongjug, although I believe they are). If you're ready to dig deep into the dusty stacks of some huge library you might be able to come up with Sarat Chandra Das, "The Story of Darmadote" in Journal of the Buddhist Text Society, vol. 5, pt. 3 (1897), definitely the oldest thing I can come up with in English. Then there is an article by Mary Shih-Yü Yü, "A Tibetan Story of the Transferring of One's Soul into Another Body," Journal of American Folklore, vol. 62, no. 243 (January-March 1949), pp. 34-41, which might seem significant, but it is little more than a nicely retold version of the story as found in Evans-Wentz. Did TLR read one of these? Did the story, as told in one of these publications, of Darma Dodé falling off his horse inspire him to go out on that limb? I have no idea, really. 'Could have' isn't good enough. That's too much like speculation. You simply have to have better reasons for coming to your conclusions than just your belief tendencies if you want me to feel inclined to go along with them. That's the challenge. Any takers?

*Note: There is an article by Madame Alexandra David-Neel entitled "Phowa," published in the journal France Asie (June 1952), pp. 239-244. It was republished in a book entitled Textes Tibétains Inédits, Editions Pygmalion (Paris 1977), pp. 145-150. I don't have it at hand, and I doubt if it is really relevant.

Some intriguing reading on drongjug:

H.P. Blavatsky, A Modern Panarion: A Collection of Fugitive Fragments from the Pen of H.P. Blavatsky, The Theosophical Society (Los Angeles 1981), reprint of original edition of 1895, at p. 346: "Life once extinct can never be recalled, but another life and another soul can sometimes reanimate the abandoned frame, if we may believe learned men who were never known to utter an untruth."
Available here.

Tsang Nyön Heruka, The Life of Marpa the Translator: Seeing Accomplishes All, tr. by Nâlandâ Translation Committee, Prajñâ Press (Boulder 1982). Chapter Four, on pp. 156-198 tells the story of Darma Dodé ("Tarma Dode") in the most detail.

Gtsang-smyon He-ru-ka (1452-1507), The Life of Milarepa: A New Translation from the Tibetan, tr. by Lobsang P. Lhalungpa in collaboration with Far West Translations, E.P. Dutton (New York 1977), at pp. 81-83, but see also footnote 11 on p. 215.

Joseph K. Langerfeld, The Dead Arise: Cases of Death and Return in Tibet, School for International Training, Study Abroad Program (Spring 2000), pp. 51-52. Available on the internet here.


  1. Though not a professional scholar I have a long-standing academic interest in this unusual - and as you have noted emphatically Asian - practice. What sort of rumors circulate in Tibetan community grapevines re its contemporary utilization? Are reputed adepts acknowledged at any level; if so, how are they regarded? Thanks much for your time, kind consideration, and wonderfully informative online resource!

  2. Dear Anon., Sorry not to have answered your very legitimate inquiry after, what's it been? Six years? I've heard stories that some modern Nyingmapas consider themselves to have the teachings (if not the ability) coming down through lineages not ever broken as the Kagyü lineage was... There is also some textual evidence in Nyingma texts, but I'm not ready to go into that evidence or pursue those leads further right now or in the future. I hope that starts to answer your question. Yours, D


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