Ro-langs: Zombies and Dark Sorcery in Tibet

Halloween 2022

The walking dead have recently been riding a wave of popularity as iconic monsters in Western pop culture, featuring in everything from full-fledged gore fests to black comedies. Zombies, however, tend to be desperately unfashionable in other geographic locations, where the indigenous population often finds them far too menacing to ever be in vogue. One such country where zombies blur the line between fact and fiction is Tibet, where they are known as ro-langs. Ro translates as “corpse” and langs is “to rise up,” meaning that the ro-langs is literally “a risen corpse.” Moreover, because the Tibetans believe that consciousness lingers after death (as found in the Tibetan Book of the Dead), identifying a ro-langs as a reanimated corpse is much more complex than one would initially imagine.

For example, a resurrected corpse that 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 have traveled through the bardos (in particular, the sipa bardo) and returned to life. A délog is closer to an incident of ‘astral projection’ in European vernacular than it is to the resurrection of the dead. The most immediate correlation to this found in the West is people who claim to have had ‘out-of-body’ experiences when they were in imminent peril of death. The délog is simply a person who has returned to life with the knowledge of the bardos or after-death experiences. As such, they are desirable because of the valuable information they can offer monks. Furthermore, a délog is perceived as a positive spiritual manifestation, whereas a ro-langs is always malign.

Therefore, the presence of a ro-langs is highly undesirable and purely malevolent. Fortunately, the ro-langs has a distinct physical appearance that distinguishes them from the benevolent délog. The ro-langs have a unique pallid countenance, and – like the White Walkers in Game of Thrones – the eye’s sclera is always blue. The ro-lang is also nocturnal. When the sun rises, they cannot move and remain motionless during the day.

Additionally, the ro-langs are classified into a taxonomy based on the different substances that function as their fatal ‘Achilles Heel.’ Tibetan oral traditions identify the following forms of ro-langs:

  1. lpags-langs (skin ro-langs)
  2. khrag-langs (blood ro-langs)
  3. sha-langs (flesh ro-langs)
  4. rus-langs (bone ro-langs)
  5. wülang (breath ro-langs)
  6. rme-langs (mole ro-langs)

Identifying the subtype of the ro-langs is paramount to dispatching it, as the technique used to eradicate the ro-langs differs for each of the six forms. For example, a blood-ro-langs must be killed by exsanguination, while the mole ro-langs is a highly challenging form to destroy, for it is only vulnerable at the site of a specific mole on its body.

The six forms of ro-langs can also be divided into forms based on their method of creation. A ro-langs is either created by a human sorcerer or originates from a demonic source. Ro-langs that have a demonic origin are considered more horrific than those that result from human practitioners of the occult. Furthermore, the demonic ro-langs is the type of zombie most commonly associated with western cinema’s ‘infectious zombie plague’ motif. The diabolical ro-langs is not just a single corpse; it is the harbinger of the apocalypse. This type of ro-langs can infect others simply by touching them on the head. As such, the demonic ro-langs functions as the herald of a zombie plague that can reach genuinely epic proportions.

When this type of ro-langs manifests is always caused by demonic or spirit possession, which occurs due to supernatural entities being able to exploit the natural process of death by entering and occupying the mortal flesh from which the spiritual essence has departed.

Following death, the rnam-shes leaves the body through the 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 entity can enter the corpse and reanimate it.[1]

The victim is then said to be gdon zhugs-pa, or “one in whom a gdon demonhas entered.”[2] The body eventually rots and perishes, but the entity can sometimes be exorcised.

The other form of ro-langs has a necromantic origin and is entirely human-made. The technique for creating zombies in Tibet is a secret process that is believed to be lost in the modern era. Despite this, it is known to originate from a perversion of mainstream Tibetan religious belief. It has a prodigious history that harkens back to 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. Naropa 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 essential translations of these are widely available in print today, the precise details are omitted from the books.

The aspect of these teachings that occult processes can subvert is pho-wa. The unviolated teaching of pho-wa was used for the yogic practitioner to vacate the physical body at the time of death. Pho-wa is a very advanced yogic technique within Tibetan Buddhism and is associated with the process of reincarnation. Those who subvert it for necromancy are usually ‘fallen monks’ who have abandoned religious teachings in pursuit of siddhi (occult powers) and material pleasures. Given that a number of the texts within Tibetan Buddhism have a Tantric heritage and a spiritual legacy derived from Bön (an indigenous Tibetan religion), several 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 for maleficia. 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. Older Tibetan Buddhism texts also contain evidence of mortuary practice. Therefore, it is unsurprising that some unscrupulous practitioners experimented with these techniques in the quest for occult power.

The specific technique associated with pho-wa, which is corrupted by sorcery, is that of trongjug. This practice was initially intended for a living Tibetan master to continue his work on earth and project his consciousness into the body of another prior to death (reincarnation). The corruption of trongjug theoretically enabled a necromancer to forcibly evict human consciousness from the body or reanimate them – as the zombie ro-langs. Trongjug is, however, classified as a ‘lost teaching’ these days. If it did still exist, it would only be known to the upper echelons of power within the Tantric Buddhist Tradition, as teaching was only passed via oral transmission from a dying master to his appointed successor. 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.

The ro-langs, however, were not always deployed by magicians to harass innocent villagers with noxious zombies. Necromancers in Tibet also believed the tongue of a resurrected ro-langs to be a highly potent weapon of occult power,[3] which suggests that some resurrections were performed to obtain magical artifacts.

The belief in ro-langs was so prevalent in Tibet that the Sixth Dalai Lama is even rumored to have subdued two zombies while traveling in the Mön region by pinning them to the ground with his ritual dagger. Even today, some people still fear the ro-langs, and one can still find rural houses designed to be ro-langs proof in the advent of a zombie epidemic. 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. Thus, the ro-langs’ cannot cross the threshold without hitting themselves in the head or becoming wedged there. Some households took this idea even further and included holes in the doors to poke any marauding zombies lurking surreptitiously on their threshold.

However, there is no explanation as to why the myth of the ro-langs was so prolific in Tibet. Like the lost technique of tronjug, the widespread belief in the ro-langs remains a mystery.

[1] Wylie, T., Ro – Langs: The Tibetan Zombie in History of Religions, Vol. 4, No. 1. (Summer, 1964), p.73

[2] Ibid., p.73.

[3] Ibid., p.71.

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