Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Emergency Death Meditation Known as Changing Your Dwelling

Daoist internal alchemists from the Tang Dynasty up until the 15th century or so were, under some circumstances, recommended to practice something called Changing Your Dwelling (yishe). This practice is remarkably close to the Tibetan Buddhist practice of Drongjug, and of course also Rampa's Transmigration. I learned about this from reading a new article in the journal T'oung Pao (vol. 92 [2006], pp. 373-409) entitled "Emergency Death Meditations for Internal Alchemists," by Stephen Eskildsen of the University of Tennessee (if you are linked through a subscribing institution I could recommend downloading this article via www.brill.nl).

It is quite clear that these Daoists were in some degree in debt to Buddhist sources that had been translated into Chinese in previous centuries (and no doubt in debt to ideas that were "in the air" thanks to Chinese Buddhists), particularly to Vajra Vehicle ideas that were introduced during the Tang. It is true that as far as the earlier Buddhist sources on the Intermediate State (Bardo or Barmado) are concerned, one might benefit from a knowledge of karmic causation in the sense that one could do well to perform actions during the present life that would result in an upgraded experience in the post mortem state. But the Taoist and Vajra Vehicle sources agree that different strategies could be used at the point of death or even in the post mortem state itself to control, transform or otherwise manipulate the karmic forces. Karma isn't denied. It's recognized and, in some manner and degree, evaded.

There are differences, naturally. Buddhism knows nothing of the incubation of the Spirit in the shape of a developing embryo, located first in the stomach and later on in the head. Neither does it know of the Three Corpses, Nine Worms and Seven Po Souls, all negative forces that reside in the three elixir fields of the head, chest and lower abdomen. Most Buddhists would find fault, too, with the goal of some Chinese alchemists to eternalize the physical body.

From a Tibeto-logical point of view, I see only two small faults in Prof. Eskildsen's paper. I think he doesn't entirely comprehend the significance of the Daoist passage on how to enter a womb that he translates: "What is [the method for] entering a womb? Its essence lies merely in recognizing one's external surroundings. If you see large houses and high buildings, these are dragons. Thatched shacks are camels and mules. Wool-covered carts are hard- and soft-shelled turtles. Boats and carts are bugs and snakes..."

Nanda Entering the Womb Sutra, which Eskildsen himself notes was first translated into Chinese during the Western Jin Dynasty (265-316 CE), and in other sources at least comparable in age, karma induces visual clues to the nature of the womb (and hence the body) one will enter: "When the consciousness without good merit enters the womb, it feels fear and has the idea it is running to hide in a grass house, a leaf house, a walled place, a thick mountain forest, a cave etc. If it has great merit, it has the idea it is climbing on top of a tower or high roof, or is entering a palace to sit on a throne." (Norbu article, p. 58). Of course the Daoist account is more detailed and varied. But in general, as in the Buddhist Sutra, the womb itself is conceptualized as a dwelling, a house, a walled place, or a conveyance of some kind (in the Daoist passage we even find clothing and armor, which does make sense). The Buddhist sources sometimes suggest that the Bardo entity is driven to take refuge in these "houses" by loud and alarming sounds or other environmental annoyances.

Here is a long passage from the
Nanda Entering the Womb Sutra (Derge Kanjur, vol. 41, leaf no. 312): "Previously accummulated karma induces mistaken conceptualizations. There are the conceptions of cold, a strong wind, a great rainshower, an overcast landscape, the cacophony of a great crowd of people. Then there are ten imperfect conceptualizations that depend on the highness or lowness of karmic causes. These are: 1. I am now entering inside a house. 2. I am now climbing on top of a multistoried building. 3. I am entering a temple. 4. I am climbing on a throne. 5. I am entering a grass hut. 6. I am entering a house made of leaves. 7. I am entering a dense thicket. 8. I am entering a forest. 9. I am burrowing into a hole in a wall. 10. I am entering a crack in a woven bamboo mat. Depending on these thoughts, Nanda, at that time the intermediate entity, even while thinking such thoughts, enters into the womb of its mother."

It should at least be clear that these are not just 'visions' but rather deluded conceptualizations with a basis in 'fact' at least to the degree that they indicate more and less fortunate rebirths.

The other fault is just a fault of omission. Eskildsen does indeed look into and recognize a number of parallels with Tibetan Buddhist completion stage processes (in particular those associated with the Bardo), but he never once mentions the existence of Drongjug practice in Tibetan (or Indian) Vajra Vehicle Buddhism. An opportunity is missed.

As far as India is concerned, it may be that the idea was a bit more widespread than has been generally recognized. There is of course the well-known story of Shankara's entry into a dead woman's body to learn, in an eminently practical way, the arts of love in order to win a debate (Antarkar's article...obviously as a monk Shankara was not prepared to debate on the subject, and as a man, certainly not from a woman's perspective). There are other indications in Indian sources that certain non-Buddhist esoteric groups knew of it. For hints to possible reasons why Drongjug might be called such, see what Hartzell says in his dissertation, p. 717: "[The Trika system.] This is a further step in the type-identity hierarchy whereby the group of cosmic principles or planes intersecting with the individual bio-psyche (tattvas) is called a grāma or village— since the tattvas refer to both the constituent elements of the individual and those of the cosmos." White's book, p. 378, n. 73, mentions an Ayurvedic rejuvenation technique called kuṭī-praveśa, 'entering the hut,' and notes that there is a close Daoist parallel. We know that sometimes Sanskrit grāma was translated into Tibetan with the drong (grong) of Drongjug, so it is very possible that the Buddhist Vajra Vehicle texts written by Indians could have used the term Grāma-praveśa, since this would explain the Tibetan translation much better than other possibilities, like Parakāyāpraveśa ("Entering Another's Body"). The Drong might be a shortened version of drongkyer (grong-khyer), which means 'village.' Our problem is that the main Indian Buddhist texts that describe the practice are preserved in Tibetan translations, and no Sanskrit originals are now available (I surely could be proven wrong on this point).

Then there is evidence in an Indian play by Bodhāyana entitled Bhagavadajjuka (see Clasquin's article). Since this drama is mentioned in a 7th-century inscription, it must be at least that old. Here there is a story involving just what Tibetans call Drongjug. A holy man takes over the dead body of a prostitute. When the death lords want to return the prostitute's soul to her body they find it already occupied, so they place the soul in the holy man's body instead. This story seems of interest for two main reasons apart from its relative antiquity. First of all, it supplies a remarkable account of a mutual or 'double' Transmigration. The two consciousnesses end up completely exchanging bodies. This is unusual. The second reason: Here we might be able to see with some clarity one of the more troubling ethical issues associated with the practice, which is that the deceased consciousness might return to her or his body after death (in Tibetan they call such persons 'das-log, 'returnees from the beyond'). If a stranger's consciousness were to step in at that moment and take over the body, it would prevent the consciousness of the deceased from returning. It might look like stealing (disregarding the "finders keepers" excuse which doesn't hold much water here), in the sense of taking over a body without the agreement of its former inhabitant. But more important, it could look something like murder, in the sense that someone who otherwise might have returned to live on still longer is prevented from doing so.

One Daoist text (Eskildsen, p. 395) recommends the body of a young man who "had not been ill from wind and coldness, and whose essence was firm and full." The health of the corpse, while an important issue for the "walk-in," is of little ethical consequence. The Daoist author further suggests that it should be the corpse of an acquaintance, perhaps implying a bit of prior consent from the deceased or the deceased one's family. The Daoist texts very rarely broach the possibility of entering another person's body before that person has died, and even then only to express abhorrence at the very idea. Eskildsen suggests that Changing Your Dwelling was phased out of Daoist practice precisely because of the potential for ethical ambiguities and abuses. The same may be true of the phasing out of the practice in Tibetan Buddhist esoteric traditions. I doubt if any time soon we will hear of people carrying in their wallets "walk-in consent cards" in addition to their organ donation cards. First we would need to have more adepts capable of making use of the opportunities so generously provided. These cards could clear away some of the ethical qualms. As the western alchemists used to say, "Life is short and the Art is long."


Read more:

W.R. Antarkar, The Incident of Parakāyāpraveśa in the Life of Ādiśaṅkarācārya, Bhāratīya Vidyā, vol. 58 (1998), pp. 1-20. Antarkar argues that the episode of Shankara's Parakāyāpraveśa, since it is found in most biographies, is an essential and not an apocryphal one.

Michel Clasquin, Real Buddhas Don't Laugh: Attitudes towards Humour and Laughter in Ancient India & China, Social Identities, vol. 7, no. 1 (2001), pp. 97-116.

James F. Hartzell, Tantric Yoga: A Study of the Vedic Precursors, Historical Evolution, Literatures, Cultures, Doctrines, and Practices of the 11th Century Kasmiri Saivite and Buddhist Unexcelled Tantric Yogas, PhD dissertation, Columbia University (1996).

Thubten Jigme Norbu, The Development of the Human Embryo According to Tibetan Medicine: The Treatise Written for Alexander Csoma de Körös by Sangs-rgyas Phun-tshogs, contained in: Christopher I. Beckwith, ed., Silver on Lapis: Tibetan Literary Culture and History, The Tibet Society (Bloomington 1987), pp. 57-62. Freely available in PDF format at THDL website.

David Gordon White, The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India, University of Chicago Press (Chicago 1996).


  1. Hi Dan,

    Thought you'd like to know this: The original for grong 'jug is attested as parapurapraveśa. I recall seeing this several times in Vajrayāna texts, but the only one I am certain about is the last chapter of the Raktayamāritantra (of which only one accesible ms. survives as far as I know). The origins of the parapurapraveśa should be sought - I believe - in Śaiva tantras, as the term occurs in this sense with at least one of the early Saiddhāntika exegetes (Sadyojyotis' Nareśvaraparīkṣāprakāśa, cca. 8th century). It occurs in a number of Kaula and Trika sources as well.

    Thanks for this wonderful blog!



  2. Thanks for the info and good words, Peter. I'd just like to add that I have been told by P.D., a researcher at CIHTS in Sarnath, that the word is used in the Sanskrit text of the Mahâmâyâ, and have been looking into this. May report more on this later.


  3. The section you were discussing the "Nanda Entering the Womb Sutra", I would like to point out that your analogy of the piece was incorrect. It actually explains himself reincarnating into different species. Growing smaller and smaller in the process. Becoming less and less significant.

  4. Dear Anon.,
    Thanks for writing! I take it that you meant to say analysis in place of analogy, but still I'm not sure how what I said was incorrect. After seeing wombs conceptualized in those different ways, different rebirths take place. Notice the words "indicate more and less fortunate rebirths." But it's entirely possible I've missed the point of your criticism, once again hopelessly enamored of my usual sets of misconceptions. Oh no, now I feel myself getting smaller and smaller (did you ever see that ancient movie "The Invisible Man"?) Please do elaborate.

  5. Sorry, Anon., I meant "The Shrinking Man," not "The Invisible Man." The shrinking man finally diminishes into nothing at all at the end of the movie, as you can see here:




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