A Rain Ritual in the Tibetan Book of Spells from Dunhuang

Buddhist Magic

An Excerpt from Buddhist Magic


Some of the earliest ritual scriptures in Buddhism are dedicated to rainmaking. The most widespread and influential of these is the Great Cloud Sutra. Appearing in India in the fourth or fifth century, this ritual text was translated into Chinese in the mid-sixth century and became deeply embedded in local rainmaking practices in China, where it is still popular today.12

In the Great Cloud Sutra, the Buddha is asked by the king of the dragons to provide a way to bring rain. The Buddha replies that the best practice to end suffering and ensure happiness is the “single dharma” of kindness. However, he also offers a dharani, to which is appended a ritual manual on how to put this spell into practice. The ritual involves setting up a blue canopy and constructing a mandala beneath it, ornamented with flowers and other offerings, with vases of water and images of four dragon kings at the four entrances. Then the ritual master sits facing east and recites the spell for a day and a night. In extreme drought, the ritual should be continued for a full week.13

The Great Cloud Sutra became the key text for the Chinese imperial state ritual during the reign of Empress Wu (683–690), partly because it could be interpreted as prophesying the rule of a Buddhist empress. At the same time, and for centuries afterward, this sutra was at the center of the regular rainmaking rituals at the court of Japan. By convincing the aristocracy that their rituals were effective in coercing local dragon kings, Buddhist monks in East Asia were able to gain themselves a place in court ritual.14


Weather control has been one of the mainstays of Buddhist monastic practice from early in the history of Indian Buddhism. This is reflected in the popularity of the Great Cloud Sutra and the extension of its rainmaking ritual across Asia.

The brief rain ritual in the Tibetan book of spells is clearly based on the one in the Great Cloud Sutra. The basic ritual environment, including the use of the color blue and the layout of the mandala with the images of the dragon kings, is the same. The ritual master is also instructed to read the Great Cloud Sutra aloud. However, the Tibetan text also adds elements not in the original sutra, including the use of visualization and mantras. The instructions give details on what to do if the initial ritual fails, and these additional methods become increasingly wrathful in nature. One involves beating the images of the dragons while reciting the kīlaya mantra, associated with the wrathful deity Vajrakīlaya.90

Translation of the Rain Ritual in the Tibetan Book of Spells


This is the ritual for bringing rainfall. By a clear lake or pool, put up a clean pavilion or tent. Inside and to one side, build a mandala eight cubits wide. It is best to have the dragons of the four directions already painted on cotton or paper to place at the four directions. If not, then without mixing up south, north, east, and west, draw a white dragon with five heads at the east, draw a blue dragon with nine heads at the south, draw a red dragon with seven heads at the west, and draw a green dragon with eight heads at the north.91

Then purify the tent with the five precious things, five seeds, and five medicines.92

Take the top portion of the food offerings for the dragons of the four directions and scatter it. Do the same for the protectors of the four directions.93

Plant four arrows in the four corners. Tie the mantra na ga dzdza to the notch of each arrow. Then perform puja with the five kinds of offering.

The vidyādhara mantra expert’s robe, cotton banner, and crown are all to be blue.94 Having completed the great cleansing ritual, look toward the scripture of the Great Cloud on the cotton banner and read it continuously, while at the same time offering torma as follows.95

Recite na ma sa man ta bu ta nan, ōm sa rba ta tha ga ta, a ba lo ki te sam ba ra sam ba ra hūng, and with this mantra, scatter the offering cakes for the general offering. Summoning the dragons with the mantra na ga dzdza, visualize their presence and offer the puja. Using flowers and up to a bre of milk, perform the purification of poisons, and scatter it at the head of a stream or pond. At the same time, continue to recite and maintain this visualization: imagine that a mountainous cloud, filling the sky, comes from the mouth of the great dragon, and rain continously pours down from it. Recite this mantra: hūng na ga hūng.

Then, if rain does not fall in three to seven days, take a dark blue vase to the middle of the mandala and scatter water in the ten directions. Recite the mantra sa rba na ga a a. This causes a hum to press down on the dragon’s head.

If rain still does not fall, use a rod made of willow or cherry, or whatever is possible, and beat the dragons while saying the kīlaya mantra 108 times.If that does not suffice, dig a semicircular fire pit, and in the middle of the pit, write hum na ga hum. At the two corners of the pit, write phat phat. Light the fire using thorny wood, and burn salt, black mustard, and flowers. Imagine that all of the dragon realms are consumed in a great blaze and rendered barren, and strike the dragons with your sleeves or hat, while reciting the syllables hūṃ na ga hūṃ.

If that does not suffice either, burn all the effigies of the dragons. If that does not suffice, then it is impossible.


Rituals in the Sutras

12. This is evident from the observations of Daniel Overmeyer (2009, 18–31), though he does not make the connection explicit.

13. Bendall 1880.

14. Ruppert 2002.


Controlling the Weather

90. Cantwell and Mayer 2008, 203.

91. Various paper slips depicting dragons (klu) are found among manuscript collections in Mustang (personal communication from Agnieszka Helman-Wazny, January 2019).

92. On cleansing substances, see Bentor 1996, 110–11.

93. “Food offerings” translates the Tibetan bshos, which are similar to, or may be synonymous with, the offering cakes (gtor ma).

94. Compare the Great Cloud Sutra (Bendall 1880, 309): “a blue canopy and blue dress, blue banner and all the offering is to be made blue.”

95. Here kha sha, which can mean a deer, parchment, or cotton, is translated as “cotton banner.”


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Sam van SchaikSAM VAN SCHAIK is head of the Endangered Archives Programme at the British Library. He is the author of many books including Tibet: A History, Tibetan Zen, The Spirit of Zen, and The Spirit of Tibetan Buddhism. Learn More.