The Long View: Tantric Rituals and Tibetan Zombies?

Do you have what it takes to create a ro-lang? Imagine being alone at night with a corpse, placing your head upon it as you chant a magic formula in your head. The body begins to twitch, and you reach into its mouth and bite out its tongue. To a western ear this may sound like the beginning of a grotesque horror film. But in Tibet this ritual has been carried out in an attempt to gain arcane power. The undead creature is a Tibetan ro-lang, comparable to the zombie now so famous in the West, whose tongue could be turned into a powerful magic object. As Alexandra David-Neel (who first described for the Western reader the particular ritual detailed above) declares in her 1929 book Magic and Mystery in Tibet, ‘failure… means certain death for the sorcerer’. Do not try this at home (for so, so, so many reasons!!). But according to Tibetan occult lore, not all ro-lang have a human hand in their creation. As in so many modern incarnations of the undead in Western fiction, belief in the existence of ro-lang also includes belief in a variety that can rise of their own accord to hunt the living. There are important differences between these ro-lang and the zombies of Western popular culture, but more on that later. 

Zombies are now an integral part of Western popular culture. Their popularity has boomed in recent years, with more and more of the ‘undead’ gracing our screens and book pages. You would be hard pressed to find someone in the Western world unfamiliar with the idea of a zombie. They’ve even made their way into Jane Austen, with the riotously popular Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. These walking dead have their roots in the zombies of the Haitian variety of the Voodoo religion (which is an animated corpse bound as a mindless slave by a bokor sorcerer), but many other cultures also have the idea of ‘living’ corpses within their religion and/or folklore. We’ll be exploring the Tibetan version of this phenomenon, the ro-lang, a creature that often features in various aspects of Tibetan religion and folkore, and shares many clear similarities with the aforementioned Voodoo zombie. This has led to them being compared, as in Turrell Wylie’s 1964 article Ro-langs, The Tibetan Zombie. But is this an accurate analogy? Numerous important differences exist alongside the obvious similarities. But the fact remains that the phenomenon of a ‘living corpse’ appears in multiple cultures. Exploring the ro-lang and the significance of their similarities to Haitian voodoo zombies can, perhaps, lead us to why these figures retain their enduring cultural significance.

What is a ro-lang?

The Tibetan ro-lang (རོ་ལང) literally translates as risen corpse. It bears an obvious superficial similarity to the voodoo zombie, in that it is the corpse of a dead human being, animated through spiritual practice/intervention. In both cultures the risen corpse does not retain anything of the person it used to be (apart from their physical body); their corpse becomes an entirely different entity. But arguably this is where the similarities seem to end.

The ro-lang exist in various different guises but two broad categories exist one category the ‘Tantric ro-lang’, and the other ‘Demonic ro-lang’. Although Wylie is responsible for these useful terms for the categories types of ro-lang, his distinction between these two types is not entirely original; Alexandra David-Neel also makes the distinction between the ro-lang which is created and then used in a tantric ritual and that which rises without human intervention to pursue its own agenda. There is extensive variation in belief even within the two types (individual beliefs probably varied according to regional variations and social status), but these broad classifications are an effective way of differentiating between the most common types that seem to appear in Tibetan belief.

The Tantric ro-lang is arguably more similar to the zombie found in the Voodoo traditions than the demonic ro-lang; they both share the same origin in that they are created by a human master for his or her own gain. In one of David-Neel’s many stories of her adventures in Tibet she meets a Ngakpa (a non-monastic tantric Buddhist priest) who claims to have performed this ritual. However the reasons for the creation of these creatures are very different in the Tibetan and Haitian cultures; as in the Voodoo tradition the zombie was often believed be created as a ‘mindless servant’ bound to its creator, whereas the ro-lang found in Tibetan culture is created and then destroyed in a complicated (and supposedly very dangerous) ritual as a means to create/obtain a powerful occult tool from the body of the creature. This often seems to focus on the tongue of the creature, as described above. Wylie claims that the accounts of the Tantric zombie are rarely encountered outside of the specialist literature, but David-Neel’s account of her meeting with the Ngakpa is evidence that this rite continued to be practiced at least until the 20th century.

The demonic ro-lang has a number of key differences to its tantric bretheren, but arguably the most important is that rather than being raised by a human through an occult ritual, this type ro-lang is raised by the corpse being inhabited by an (uninvited) gdon spirit without any human agency. The fascinating thing about this type of ro-lang is that belief in the gdon existed in Tibetan religion prior to the introduction of Buddhism from India (and were recorded as supposedly taking possession of human bodies). Therefore it’s possible that belief in this type of ro-lang was native to Tibet, and pre-dated Tibetan Buddhism. This demonic ro-lang has some similarities to the ‘zombie’ that appears in modern western popular culture; but interestingly it bears little resemblance to that which exists within the voodoo religion. This is because the demonic ro-lang is not controlled by anyone, and seeks to turn kill other human beings and raise them in its image. In contrast to the zombies one finds in modern popular culture which usually carry out this process with a bite, the ro-lang carries out its attack by placing its palm on their head.

Alexandra David-Neel in Tibet, 1933

But the distinction between these categories is hardly clear-cut. As with other aspects of people’s beliefs and culture, belief in the ro-lang varied according to a variety of factors, including regional variations and type of education that the believer had received. In her description of the ro-lang, David-Neel explains how Lamas (Buddhist/Bon religious teachers and ritual specialists) who took part in funerary rituals know the ‘magic words and gestures’ required to defend against the ro-lang, should the corpse suffer the misfortune of becoming a demonic ro-lang. By contrast, in photographer Fosco Maraini’s account of his journey through Tibet he describes that his local assistant stated that ‘oddly shaped rocks’ bore some resemblance to ro-lang. His defensive weapon of choice was a shoe, believing that throwing a shoe at a ro-lang would defeat it. These contrasting accounts perhaps reflect the difference between the people who were the source of this information. In her travels David-Neel mostly encountered and studied with religious officials, whereas Maraini’s relied more on local Tibetan people, and may reflect a more popular belief in the ro-lang. But these are merely a couple of isolated examples of variations in belief in the ro-lang. In reality, there is probably a far greater range of beliefs.

So is a ro-lang a zombie?

I think that the analogy between ro-langs and zombies only works on a very superficial level. It is definitely worth noting at this point that the Haitian Voodoo zombie bears little resemblance to the ‘zombie’ of modern Western popular culture that now bears its name. Also, like with the ro-lang in Tibetan religion and folklore, there are multiple types of zombie in Haitian Voodoo belief, and some types such as the ‘zombie astral’ do not bear any similarity whatsoever to the Tibetan ro-lang (in fact, a zombie astral seems closer to a ghost than to what most Western people would understand as a zombie).

Numerous differences also exist in how the ro-lang and the Haitian zombie are said to behave. In Tibet numerous precautions were built into society to defend against the ro-lang; for example architecture was often influenced with the defence against ro-lang in mind. Many buildings were constructed with low ceilings — as many people believed that the ro-lang was incapable of bending down. This seems primarily to be a defence against the demonic ro-lang which, when it rose, could travel and attack people at will. This belief in the risen corpse attempting to hunt and kill human beings seems to bear more resemblance to the zombie of modern Western popular culture than that found in traditional Haitian belief. In Wade Davis’ book on Haitian zombies there is an account of how people carried charms when calling on Baron Samedi (who is the deity associated with the zombification process) in order to protect themselves from the deity; although this seems to be more to be to appease Baron Samedi than to provide any effective defence against the zombie itself. Interestingly Haitian zombie seems to be more like an enslaved creature than the murderous creature found in modern Western popular culture (in fact, the zombification ritual was often seen to be a punishment in Haitian culture). 

So there are only really quite superficial similarities between the ro-lang and the zombie. Likewise, there are remarkable differences between the Haitian zombie and that found in modern Western popular culture. Perhaps most significantly, most incarnations of the zombie in modern Western popular culture remove the human’s role in raising the corpse as a zombie; often the existence of zombies is often blamed on some pathogen, or is unexplained. It is incredible just how popular the zombie has become in in various fictional representations; a curious display of this is the ‘Zombie walk’ festival found in Ontario where thousands of people dress up as zombies and parade down the streets!

So while the ro-lang and the Haitian Voodoo zombie may have some similarities, calling it a ‘Tibetan zombie’ seems like a complicated (and possibly confusing) oversimplification of what is in reality a complex set of beliefs. But might this belief in ‘risen corpses’ arise in different cultures which do not seem to have had any contact with each other? One possibility that could be brought from the field of psychology is Carl Jung’s theory of the Archetype. Belief in both ro-lang and zombies could be seen to be an emanation of the same aspect of the human unconscious. Or simply an incarnation of the human fear of death. Of course, another possibility could be that such a phenomenon exists, and has existed in some form in both Tibetan and Voodoo communities; it is very difficult to conclusively prove a negative!

Joe Dixon

Joe is currently studying for an MPhil in Tibetan and Himalayan studies. Although most of his time is currently spent studying the Tibetan language, he hopes to write a dissertation on a subject related to Vajrayana Buddhism. He did his undergraduate degree in Archaeology at Durham University, and is also interested in the history of Buddhism.

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