Tibetan Zombies, Necromancers, and Demonic Possession
Zombies are currently riding a wave of popularity as the most fashionable iconic monster in Western pop-culture, featuring in everything from full-fledged gore fests through to comedies. Zombies, however, tend to desperately unfashionable in other geographic locations, where the indigenous population often finds them far too real to ever be in vogue. One such country where zombies blur the line between fact and fiction is in Tibet, where they are known as ro-langs. Ro translates as “corpse” and langs means “to rise up” making the ro-langs literally “a risen corpse.” Because the Tibetans have a belief that consciousness lingers after death (as is found in the Tibetan Book of the Dead), it means that identifying a ro-langs as a reanimated corpse is much more difficult than one would initially imagine.
A body which rises from the dead may not, in fact, be a ro-langs but a délog – “one who has returned from the dead.” A délog is thought to be one who has travelled through the bardos (in particular the sipa bardo), and has returned to life. The closest correlation to this we have in the West are people who claim to have had ‘out of body experiences’ when in a state close to death. The délog is simply a person who has returned to life with knowledge of the bardos or after death experiences. As such, they are desirable because of the valued information they can offer to monks.
The ro-langs however, is extremely undesirable and is a purely malevolent form of the undead. The ro-langs can be identified from the délog by abnormal facial colouration and malicious intent. Ro-langs, unlike other zombies, are also only active from dusk until dawn. When the sun rises, they are unable to move and remain motionless during the day. It is said that the sclera of the eye of a ro-langs is also blue instead of white.
The ro-langs themselves are classified into types based on the different substances with act as their fatal ‘Achilles Heel’. Tibetan oral traditions identify the following forms of ro-langs: lpags-langs (skin ro-langs), khrag-langs (blood ro-langs), sha-langs (flesh ro-langs), rus-langs (bone ro-langs), wülang (breath ro-langs), and the rme-langs (mole ro-langs). The method used to kill the ro-langs is the same as it’s form – a blood-ro-langs must be killed by bleeding, whilst the mole ro-langs is an especially difficult form to kill, being vulnerable only at the site of a specific mole on its body.
The six forms of ro-langs can again be divided into two types based on their method of creation. A ro-langs is either created by a human necromancer or sorcerer, or the ro-langs originates from a non-human, demonic origin. The ro-langs which are of a purely demonic manifestation are thought to be worse than those which result from human practitioners of the occult, and the demonic ro-langs is the type of zombie most commonly associated with the ‘infectious zombie plague’ motif in Tibet. It is, therefore, often not just one zombie, but a zombie apocalypse, as this form of ro-langs can infect others by touching them on the head.
When the ro-langs originates as a result of demonic possession, it often occurs because demonic entities exploit part of what is believed to be the process of dying in Tibet.
After death, rnam-shes leaves the body through the brahmanic aperture at the crown of the skull. Although this may vary in time, it usually occurs three days after death. Once “consciousness” leaves the body, the critical period begins, for it is then that a gdon, or bgegs, spirit may enter the corpse and reanimate it.
The victim is then said to be gdon zhugs-pa, or “one in whom a gdon-demon has entered.” The condition is usually fatal, but the entity can sometimes be exorcised.
Necromantic zombies, on the other hand, are man-made. The technique for creating zombies in Tibet is a secret process which is regarded as lost in the modern era. The necromantic method for creating a ro-langs originates from a perversion of mainstream Tibetan religious belief and has a prodigious history which begins as far back as the time of Tilopa (988-1069 C.E.) the first Guru of the Kagyu lineage, who received the teaching of Transference of Consciousness (pho-wa) from Nagarjuna. Naopa and his sister Niguma then received these teachings from Tilopa, which eventually became known as the Six Yogas of Naropa or the Six Yogas of Niguma. Though basic translations of these are quite widely available in print today, the precise details are omitted from the books.
The part of this set of teachings which gets subverted for necromancy is pho-wa. The original form of the teaching is used for the yogic practitioner to escape his mortal form at the time of death. This is a very advanced yogic technique within Tibetan Buddhism and those who subvert it for necromancy are usually ‘fallen monks’ who have abandoned the religious teachings in pursuit of siddhi (occult powers) and material pleasures. Given that a number of the texts within Tibetan Buddhism have a very old Tantric influence, as well as another one derived from Bön (an indigenous Tibetan religion), a number of occult teachings exist within Tibetan Buddhism, which are not present in other forms of Buddhism. For example, one of the Tibetan deities associated with inauspicious magic is Begtse (Beg-tse) whose services are required in the practice of maleficium. It is Beg-tse who empowers Tibetan magicians with the ability to curse others with illness, insanity, deformity, injury, catastrophe, or death. Magical acts are also cited in the Vajramahabhairava, and the Mahakala Tantra centres around a teaching on the achievement of eight powers, called the powers of sword, ointment, pill, the slipper, medicine, mantras, mercury, and long life. Given that some of the older texts in Tibetan Buddhism also involve mortuary practice, it is unsurprising that some unscrupulous practitioners experimented with necromancy.
The specific technique associated with pho-wa which is corrupted by necromancers is that of trongjug. This practice was originally intended for a living Tibetan master to continue his work on earth, and project his consciousness into the body of another prior to death. The corruption of this technique which is used for necromancy is to forcefully eject the consciousness from another or to reanimate them – as the ro-langs or zombie. Trongjug is, however, classified as a ‘lost teaching’ these days. Tronjug was allegedly taught to Marpa by Naropa, and Marpa transmitted the secret doctrine to his son Tarma Dode, who later died suddenly. The official line of transmission for tronjug concludes with Tarma Dode. If tronjug is still practiced, it is not within the framework of Tibetan Buddhism.
The ro-langs, however, are not always used by magicians for harassing villagers with zombies. Necromancers in Tibet also believed the tongue of the resurrected ro-langs was a great weapon of occult power…presumably some of them were attempting to resurrect corpses in order to kill them again for occult artefacts.
Many people in Tibet fear the ro-langs, and one can still find rural houses there which are designed to be zombie proof, in case a zombie epidemic ever breaks out. One of the unusual characteristics of the ro-langs is its inability to bend at the knees which renders it unable to pass through a small door. Houses are therefore built so that there is a large step at the foot of the door and the door itself is too small to enter without bending. The ro-langs cannot pass over the threshold without hitting itself in the head. Some households took this idea even further and included holes in the doors to poke any marauding zombies that came to visit.
It is obvious that the belief in zombies was very widespread in Tibet. The Sixth Dalai Lama is even rumoured to have related a story in which he subdued two ro-langs’ while travelling in the Mön region, by pinning them to the ground with his ritual dagger. There is as yet no explanation as to why the belief in zombies was so prolific in Tibet however. Like the lost technique of tronjug, the legends of the ro-langs remains a mystery.
 Wylie, T., Ro – Langs: The Tibetan Zombie in History of Religions, Vol. 4, No. 1. (Summer, 1964), p.73
 Ibid., p.73.
 Ibid., p.71.