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THL Title Text

Re-Assessing the Supine Demoness:
Royal Buddhist Geomancy in the Srong btsan sgam po Mythology

JIATS, no. 3 (December 2007), THL #T3108, 47 pp.

© 2007 by Martin A. Mills, IATS, and THL

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Abstract: The myth of the Chinese princess KongjoKong jo’s geomantic divination of Tibet prior to the founding of the Central Temple of Lhasa (lhasa tsuklakkhanglha sa gtsug lag khang) – and in particular the striking image of the land of Tibet as a “supine demoness” – has been the object of considerable academic comment. Generally, it has been read as a metaphor either of monastic Buddhism’s misogynist tendencies, or of its superposition over putative religious precursors. In this article, the difficulties that attend these interpretations of the supine demoness image are assessed when examined within the context of the princess’s wider divination, as presented in Tibetan mythic histories such as the Mani KabumMa ni bka’ ’bum, The Clear Mirror of Royal Genealogy, and the Pillar Testament (kachem kakhölmaBka’ chems ka khol ma), and in particular when it is viewed within the context of the lha saValley’s actual topographic structure. In light of these, it is proposed that both the supine demoness image and the other elements of KongjoKong jo’s divination should be understood as it has always been presented by Tibetan sources – as part of an established tradition of Chinese geomancy, a tradition which has itself been reorganized as a medium for Buddhist themes of liberation.


The legendary account of Emperor Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po’s founding of the Central Temple (tsuklakkhanggtsug lag khang) in LhasaLha sa in the seventh century is perhaps one of the most famous of all Tibetan myths. Certainly, both his and the temple’s focal place within indigenous Tibetan histories makes a clear analysis of this legend crucial [page 2] to understanding Tibetan conceptions of political and religious identity, and of legitimate Buddhist governance.1

This hagiographic rendition of the foundation of the Central Temple of Lhasa – Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po’s primary ritual and regal act – is found in a variety of Tibetan texts emerging between the eleventh and fourteenth centuries, most famously the Mani KabumMa ni bka’ ’bum2 and the Pillar Testament (kachem kakhölmaBka’ chems ka khol ma). These were generally termagter ma, or “hidden treasure texts” – revealed during this period by visionary yogins who traced their own spiritual genealogy back to the time of the First Diffusion of Buddhism to Tibet, when the texts were said to have been initially hidden by the likes of Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po, Trisong DetsenKhri srong lde’u btsan, and his teacher and exorcist Guru RinpochéGu ru rin po che (padmasambhava). Out of these initial hidden treasure texts emerged later compilations such as The Clear Mirror of Royal Genealogy (gyelrap selwé melongRgyal rabs gsal ba’i me long; henceforth The Clear Mirror) by the SakyaSa skya hierarch Sönam GyeltsenBsod nams rgyal mtshan (1312-75).3 By the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-82), Sönam GyeltsenBsod nams rgyal mtshan’s text in particular was one of the most influential of state histories.

This legendary corpus presents a reasonably consistent picture. Under its first emperor, Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po, the political sovereignty of the YarlungYar lung dynasty expanded the borders of its power outwards from Central Tibet, incorporating new provinces through military conquest and diplomatic marriage, until its armies pounded upon the gates of imperial China and the Buddhist kingship of Nepal. Insisting upon royal marriage as a means to augment his authority within Asia, the Tibetan emperor demanded – and was eventually (if reluctantly) given – brides from the Chinese and Nepalese courts, both of whom brought Buddhist statues with them as part of their dowries. His first consort, the Nepalese princess TritsünKhri btsun, prompted the emperor to build a royal temple at LhasaLha sa, his regular nomadic feeding grounds. However, supernatural obstacles from the local spirits of Tibet conspired to destroy the temple, destroying in the night what was built in the day. In order to subdue them, Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po sought geomantic instruction from the Chinese princess Wengchen KongjoWeng chen kong jo, who divined that the land of Tibet was like a she-demon lying on her back, filled with inauspicious elements. All of these [page 3] required ritual suppression by subsidiary temples, chötenmchod rtens,4 and other ritual forms that had to subjugate the malevolent forms of the landscape and “pin down” the limbs of the demoness before the emperor’s temple could be completed. Following the Chinese princess’s advice, Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po managed to bind down the land of Tibet and complete the temple, built around a statue of his tutelary deity, Avalokiteśvara. The temple acted as the central state edifice (tsuklakkhanggtsug lag khang) for the emperor’s reign. In later years it became the home of the JowoJo bo statue of Śākyamuni that had been brought from China by KongjoKong jo, which became the basis of the temple’s most common soubriquet outside Tibet, the JokhangJo khang or “House of the Lord.”

Interpreting the Myth

The myth, and the texts from which it derives, have received a very considerable quantity of academic attention, as much for the issue of their historical veracity (or lack thereof) as for their compelling mytho-poetic vision of the early Tibetan emperor’s battle to bring the land of Tibet under Buddhist sovereignty.5 As a depiction of religious conversion, much academic attention has been focused on how the supine demoness image should be interpreted.6 By and large, the tale’s dramatic imagery of vertical suppression has invited a series of analyses that have emphasized its role as a metaphor for wider truths about Tibetan religion and culture, primarily ones that emphasize social stratification and violence. Thus, the story has been read as covertly presenting either a misogynist view of Tibetan society,7 a fundamentally phallic understanding of kingly power8 or, in a theory more specifically contextualized to Tibetan understandings of history, a mythic enactment of Buddhism’s subjugation of Tibet’s pre-existing religious traditions.9 Since these are increasingly influential interpretations within western academia – but at the same time would rarely be admitted to within the Tibetan tradition itself – they require some careful critical discussion.

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Psychoanalytic interpretations of the Central Temple of Lhasa founding myth tend to emphasize the implicit sexual dimensions of the story, in particular the vertical pinning of the demoness. As Janet Gyatso comments:

Part and parcel of the relationship between the demoness land and the architectural structures upon her seem to be certain sexual innuendoes. If the srin mo is a Mother Earth, then the architectural structures that hold her down must be seen as overtly masculine. At one point in the srin mo myth this is quite explicit: one of the pinning structures is a śiva liṅga, to be set on the “earth-enemy” (sa dgra) in the east, a place which is “like the srin mo’s pubic hair.” Vertical buildings, imposing structures … erections; in contrast, the feminine earth is associated with fertility, nurturing, receptivity.10

By contrast, feminist interpretations of the demoness myth concentrate primarily on an assumed equation between the symbol of the demoness on the one hand and the institutional status of women (vis-à-vis a predominantly celibate male-dominated Buddhist tradition) on the other. Thus, for Ana Marko, the violence against women implicit within the myth is at the same time a metaphor for the genesis of the patriarchal Buddhist state within which Tibetan women must subsist:

A vast number of Buddhist myths are contained in hagiography, or sacred history stored in textual form, the authoritative property of the monastery. Since monasteries are predominantly male institutions they act to reproduce culturally constituted patriarchal power where categories of gender-based experience are contained in myth. Violence plays a specific role in recreating a mythic notion of wholeness through the body of woman the demon as fragmented territory, a site for the recreation of wholeness. The body of woman the demon becomes the mythic body of the state.11

Finally, culturalist arguments assert the myth’s metaphorical rendition of social change, a retrospective evocation of the relationship between two religious cultures – the Buddhist and the pre-Buddhist – during the time of the First Diffusion. Here, the fundamental argument is that the suppressed demoness in some sense represents the autochthonous religion of Tibet. Thus, for Keith Dowman, the supine demoness represents one of a variety of “earth mother” symbols that

reveal a primeval strata of religion, a prehistoric era of matriarchy, or, at least, a time when the female psyche, the primordial collective anima of the people, was the predominant religious focus … The supine demoness, gigantic in size, is herself vast in lust and bestial desire. But as order is imposed upon the chaotic, instinctive and intuitive feminine realm of the psyche by the disciplined intelligence of the masculine Buddhist will, so her desire is tamed.12

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By presenting this pre-existent tradition as “subjugated,” the Buddhist tradition is in turn seen as “stealing its thunder” and borrowing its very legitimacy in order to augment its own. As Gyatso comments:

It is a common pattern: the old site of the indigenous religion is associated with some sort of special configuration of the land, in which the powers of the deep are perceived as having particular force…The incoming religion seeks out those very sites, and builds right on top of them. The new structures obliterate the old places of worship, but gain instant history and sacred power thereby.13

Here, the sites enumerated in KongjoKong jo’s divination of the Tibetan landscape are treated as pre-existent genii loci, spirits of place that were worshipped (or feared) prior to the arrival of Buddhism. The story of the “supine demoness” thus becomes a symbolic cornerstone of a debate between two religious traditions in early Tibet. In this form, it speaks of two possible historical transitions:

  • A cultural transition, in which the myth is a symbolic (and partial) integration of two previously distinct cosmological systems: one a pre-existing system of earthly and local deity cults (encapsulated en masse in the image of the demoness); the other the subduing ritual force of a transcendent Buddhism.14
  • A political transition, in which the myth is a metaphor for the factional debates between adherents of the local ancestral and aristocratic religious traditions that preceded Buddhism’s arrival, and impeded its growing hegemony within the dynastic court.

The first of these two interpretations implies an endeavor to legitimize the incorporation of indigenous cosmological systems into Buddhist ritual forms. It speaks primarily to the argument that Tibetan Buddhism is actually a combination of Buddhist and tantric philosophical and ritual systems on the one hand and indigenous Tibetan shamanism (in particular the worship of local and mountain deities) on the other.15

These kinds of interpretation are ones in which the cosmological and mythic are primarily metaphorical representations of the socio-cultural. Attractive though such views of myth might be, there are several respects in which – as Gyatso admits – “the pieces don’t quite fit together.”16 Indeed, I would argue that the pursuit of various theoretical agendas within the socio-political sciences has caused many [page 6] such arguments to misconceive this myth, either by doing violence to the integrity of its narrative as it appears in its various formulations (generally by emphasizing certain elements of the story whilst eliding others) or by underestimating the polemic intentions and narrative sophistication of its authors (this is particularly the case with Sönam GyeltsenBsod nams rgyal mtshan). In both these regards, insufficient attention has been paid to the clear (and explicitly recognized) Chinese origins of Tibetan geomancy, and to the place that such geomancy had within a wider Buddhist vision of religious liberation and state legitimation.

The Historical Dynamics of Tibetan Geomancy

The myth of the building of the Central Temple of Lhasa speaks to a highly complex science of geomancy within Tibetan culture, either at the time of Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po himself or developed in the subsequent centuries and “reflected back” to the YarlungYar lung emperor’s rule by later Tibetan historians. Whichever of these was the case (and there is some evidence that both were true to varying extents), the impact of the myth on subsequent architects of Tibetan governance (such as the PakmodruPhag mo gru dynasty and, later, the Ganden PotrangDga’ ldan pho brang government) was clear: to model one’s own government on that of the early imperial period was also to adopt an established understanding of rule as geomancy.

The science of geomancy is both one of the most ubiquitous and yet obscure traditions in Tibet. Often called sachésa spyad or jungtsibyung rtsis, many Tibetan historians are fairly explicit that the traditions of elemental – that is, earthly – divination were inherited from China, as opposed to the Kālacakra-dominated astrological system, which was imported from India. Texts such as The Clear Mirror clearly depict the geomantic arts as primarily being brought to Tibet by figures from China (with the principal exception of Guru RinpochéGu ru rin po che), and linked to the creation of royal religious space as a basis for auspicious rule.

Over the course of the post-dynastic, local hegemonic, and medieval periods, however, geomantic traditions seem to have become widespread throughout Tibet, becoming a standard prerequisite for the sitting of important houses, castles, and, above all, monasteries and temples. Tibetan geomancy developed several important and distinctive features during this long history that separated it in particular from the practice of imperial feng shui in China: in place of the central Chinese concern with the correct placement of ancestral funerary sites came a focus on the vitality-place (lanébla gnas) of the living;17 in place of imperial regulation came a much [page 7] more devolved concern with auspicious placement; and in place of a relatively public and professionalized system of divination, a marked institutional reticence – indeed secrecy – surrounding geomantic divination within the institutional folds of Tibetan monasticism.18 Above all of these, however, is to be found a pronounced incorporation of geomantic relations with the landscape into the structuring of Buddhist ritual life, as opposed to feng shui’s general domestication to the imperial Confucian paradigm.19

Nonetheless, despite these later developments, the image of geomancy’s importation during the grand dynastic period of Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po and his successors remains an important literary template for both the form and cultural place of this divinatory art in Tibet, lending a certain stability to some of its key features. In what follows, I would like to turn the examination of the entire demoness myth in a direction concomitant with an awareness of the key place that geomancy has in Tibetan cultural and religious history. While certain writers – most notably Elisabeth Stutchbury – have highlighted the importance of the geomantic traditions (including their Chinese historical origins) to the local formations of Tibetan religious life,20 we have yet to look more deeply at what those geomantic formations themselves tell us about how eleventh- [page 8] to fourteenth-century Tibetan Buddhist religious thought understood the “conversion” of the dynastic state at LhasaLha sa.

[1] See Georges Dreyfus, “Proto-nationalism in Tibet,” in Tibetan Studies: Proceedings of the 6th Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies, Fagernes 1992, ed. Per Kvaerne, vol. 1 (Oslo: Institute for Comparative Research in Human Culture, 1994), 205-18.
[2] See Leonard W. J. van der Kuijp, “Tibetan Historiography,” in Tibetan Literature: Studies in Genre, ed. José Cabezón and Roger Jackson (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 1996), 39-56. See also Janet Gyatso, “Drawn from the Tibetan Treasury: The gTer ma Literature,” in Tibetan Literature, 147-69.
[3] See Per K. Sørensen, Tibetan Buddhist Historiography: The Mirror Illuminating the Royal Genealogies: An Annotated Translation of the XIVth Century Chronicle rGyal-rabs gsal-ba’i me-long (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 1994). For a less scholarly but more accessible treatment, see McComas Taylor and Lama Choedak Yuthok, trans., The Clear Mirror: A Traditional Account of Tibet’s Golden Age (Ithaca: Snow Lion, 1996).
[4] A chötenmchod rten (San. stūpa) is a monumental reliquary – often containing the remains of dead lamabla mas, old texts, or other relics – and is one of the most characteristic pieces of religious architecture in the Buddhist Himalaya.
[5] See Matthew Kapstein, The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism: Conversion, Contestation and Memory (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000).
[6] See Michael Aris, Bhutan (New Delhi: Vikas, 1980); Keith Dowman, The Sacred Life of Tibet (London: HarperCollins, 1997); Janet Gyatso, “Down With the Demoness: Reflections on a Feminine Ground in Tibet,” in Feminine Ground: Essays on Women and Tibet, ed. Janice D. Willis, 33-51 (Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion, 1987) and in Alex McKay, ed., The History of Tibet, vol. 1 (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003); Ana Marko, “Civilising Woman the Demon: A Tibetan Myth of State,” in The History of Tibet, ed. Alex McKay, vol. 1 (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), previously published in Social Analysis29 (1990): 6-18; Robert Miller, “‘The Supine Demoness’ (Srin mo) and the Consolidation of Empire,” Tibet Journal23, no. 3 (1998): 3-22; and Robert Paul, The Tibetan Symbolic World (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1982).
[7] See Marko, “Civilising Woman.”
[8] See Paul, Tibetan Symbolic World.
[9] See Gyatso, “Down With The Demoness.”
[10] Gyatso, “Down With The Demoness,” 43.
[11] Marko, “Civilising Woman,” 6.
[12] Dowman, Sacred Life of Tibet, 19-20.
[13] Gyatso, “Down With The Demoness,” 43.
[14] For example, Anne-Marie Blondeau and Yonten Gyatso, “Lhasa, Legend and History,” in Lhasa in the Seventeenth Century: The Capital of the Dalai Lamas, ed. Françoise Pommaret (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 19 n. 3.
[15] For lengthier discussions of this topic, see Martin A. Mills, Identity, Ritual and State in Tibetan Buddhism: The Foundations of Religious Authority in Gelukpa Monasticism (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003) and Geoffrey Samuel, Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies (Washington: Smithsonian Institute Press, 1993).
[16] See Gyatso, “Down with the Demoness.”
[17] Regarding burial sites, we know that the burial sites of the old Tibetan kings are still seen – like their Chinese counterparts – as having an ongoing geomantic influence. Thus, Rene de Nebesky-Wojkowitz, Oracles and Demons in Tibet: The Cult and Iconography of Tibetan Protective Deities (Kathmandu: Tiwari Pilgrim’s Book House, 1993), 482, reports how LangdarmaGlang dar ma’s burial site on bya skya dkar po ri is said to continually threaten the well-being of LhasaLha sa. However, the emphasis appears now to be more on the positioning of chötenmchod rtens containing the remains of high lamabla mas, although to my knowledge no research has been carried out on the geomantic sitting of such chötenmchod rtens. Clearly, some degree of astrological knowledge is employed at funerals (see for example Stan Mumford, Himalayan Dialogue: Tibetan Lamas and Gurung Shamans in Nepal [Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989], chap. 10), but it remains unclear to what extent this shades into the specifically geomantic.
[18] Prominent exceptions to this reticence include Sanggyé GyatsoSangs rgyas rgya mtsho’s Baidurya KarpoBai ḍūṛYa dkar po and Tupten GyatsoThub bstan rgya mtsho’s much more recent Tenpé Tsawa Chögor Zhuktang dang, Tappé Tiné Tsuklakkhang ZhektapBstan pa’i rtsa ba chos sgor zhugs stangs dang / bstab pa’i bsti gnas gtsug lag khang bzhegs thabs (see Thubten Legshay Gyatsho, Gateway to the Temple, trans. David P. Jackson, Bibliotheca Himalayica, series 3, vol. 12 (Kathmandu: Ratna Pustak Bhandar, 1979). In a recent set of talks on the topic given by the current Twelfth Situ RinpochéSi tu rin po che, he differentiated between the generic tactics of household and temple geomancy (which he discussed in some detail) and the fundamental principles at work in personal geomancy – those principles which link a person’s known place and date of birth to the very elemental forces which keep them alive (see also Nebesky-Wojkowitz, Oracles and Demons, 481). In particular, the science of knowing a person’s lanébla gnas or “vitality-place” – a feature of the landscape that contains their life-force (bla) – was one which could be employed to assassinate that person, and thus was to be carefully guarded by lineage holders (Situ Rinpoche, “Geomancy,” Audio Z91 [Eskdalemuir: Samye Ling Tibetan Centre, 1988]). An oral tradition popular in Buddhist Ladakh spoke to this very principle. During the reign of the “heretic king” LangdarmaGlang dar ma, the Buddhist siddha Pelgyi DorjéDpal gyi rdo rje sought to end his persecution of Buddhism by assassinating him. Seeking to avoid a direct confrontation, Pelgyi DorjéDpal gyi rdo rje sought instead to cause the king’s death magically. Bribing the king’s diviner, he found out that the king had three lanébla gnas – in a mountain, a tree, and a sheep. He was successful in digging up LangdarmaGlang dar ma’s life-mountain and cutting down his life-tree, and the king fell gravely ill. However, the king had cunningly hidden his “life-sheep” amongst a flock of five-hundred other similar sheep. Rather than kill so many animals, Pelgyi DorjéDpal gyi rdo rje was forced to confront the king in person.
[19] That is not to say that the Tibetan context produced a unique set of changes in this regard, but rather that they developed further in specific directions. As I will argue below, certain strains of geomancy in China had already taken on a distinctly Buddhist flavor. Moreover, the Indic context of tantric rites of subjugation – many of which were clearly focused on ritual relations with the land (see Robert Mayer, A Scripture of the Ancient Tantra Collection: The Phur-pa bcu-gnyis [Oxford: Kiscadale, 1996]) – were the clear origin of the kīla-rites mentioned in most of the Songtsen GampoSrong btsan sgam po hagiographies as the ritual prelude to the founding of the Central Temple of Lhasa.
[20] Elizabeth Stutchbury, “Perceptions of the Landscape in Karzha: ‘Sacred’ Geography and the Tibetan System of ‘Geomancy,’” in Sacred Spaces and Powerful Places in Tibetan Culture, ed. Toni Huber (Dharamsala: Library of Tibetan Works & Archives, 1999).

Note Citation for Page

Martin A. Mills, “Re-Assessing the Supine Demoness: Royal Buddhist Geomancy in the Srong btsan sgam po Mythology,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 3 (December 2007): , http://www.thlib.org?tid=T3108 (accessed ).

Note Citation for Whole Article

Martin A. Mills, “Re-Assessing the Supine Demoness: Royal Buddhist Geomancy in the Srong btsan sgam po Mythology,” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 3 (December 2007): 1-47, http://www.thlib.org?tid=T3108 (accessed ).

Bibliography Citation

Mills, Martin A. “Re-Assessing the Supine Demoness: Royal Buddhist Geomancy in the Srong btsan sgam po Mythology.” Journal of the International Association of Tibetan Studies, no. 3 (December 2007): 1-47. http://www.thlib.org?tid=T3108 (accessed ).