Discover The Bhutanese Ritual Of Lui, Conducted To Clear Karmic Debts


The Bhutanese ritual of offering lui (གླུད་) is a way of appeasing harmful spirits by making offerings.

Effigies are offered as 'ransom' to ward off bad karma during a lui ritual in Bhutan. (Source: Bhutan Cultural Atlas)


By Karma Phuntsho (PhD) Kuensel

In the Buddhist theory of life, we believe that we have lived many lifetimes in the past. Therefore, if we do not reach enlightenment, we will have to live endless lifetimes in future.

Throughout this process, we accumulate a lot of karmic debt – which refers to our actions which will lead to rewards or retributions. This explains why we have many human and non-human beings with whom we have karmic debts to settle.

Some of these sentient beings will come to harm us or cause misfortunes as a result of our negative actions towards them in the past. In order to avert the misfortunes caused by such malevolent spirits, people appease them by conducting various rituals and techniques of pacification.

Moreover, there are many non-human forces with whom we share this existence and it is important to maintain a good relationship with these forces for harmony in the world.

To make up for the acts of intrusion and harm which we may have committed towards them knowingly or unknowingly, and to please them and win their favour and protection, Bhutanese Buddhism recommends carrying out ‘offering rituals’ to the non-human denizens of the world.

More about the lui rituals

The Bhutanese ritual of offering lui (གླུད་) is a way of appeasing such harmful spirits by making offerings to non-human spirits.

The offering is made normally in the form of an effigy, which serves as the scapegoat. Although the theory of karmic retribution comes from Buddhism, the actual practice of the lui ritual is a custom which Buddhists adopted from the pre-Buddhist religious systems in Bhutan and the Himalayas.


Effigies made out of dough for lui rituals.

Photo: Intangible Cultural Heritage in the Asia-Pacific Region


In the lui ritual, the spirit is paid a ransom or substitute gift so that the person is spared of any harm. The substitute gift or scapegoat is normally an effigy of a person and/or animal made out of dough. Samples of food, cloth and all kinds of ‘riches’ are included in the offering with the effigy.

The Dhoe (མདོས་) ceremony is a type of lui ritual in which the offering is enshrined in a structure made of intricate thread works.

Process of the Sipa Chidhoe

The Sipa Chidhoe (སྲིད་པ་སྤྱི་མདོས་), or the dhoe of the whole existence, is the most elaborate form of the dhoe ritual.

During the ritual, the priests will create a small representation of the whole universe. The structure is built with a central pillar, beams and poles which are wrapped and decorated with colourful threads in intricate designs.

The dhoe represents Mount Meru and the four continents. In some cases, it can also represent a microcosm or just a mansion or a house, depending on the ritual.

The structures are then filled with offerings such as nine kinds of cereals, fruits, clothes, jewelleries and precious metals etc. It also includes replicas of men, women and children, nine birds which fly in the sky, nine wild animals which roam in the forests, nine amphibians which live in the earth and nine carnivorous beasts.

The effigies of the people are made from dough and those of animals and birds are normally printed from wooden blocks using the dough.

Having created this grand structure, which represents the world, mansion or house, the priests will then conduct religious rituals. They will use their power of meditation and mantras to visualise the offerings as real things.


A Pamo performs a ritual for a sick lady in Bephu village, Bhutan.

Photo: Bhutan Cultural Atlas


With the full conviction that they are real riches, the offering is made to various non-human spirits such as the eight classes of gods and devils known as the lha srin degye (ལྷ་སྲིན་སྡེ་བརྒྱད་).

Specific offerings are made to the malevolent spirits and to those whom we owe karmic debts as forms of repayment. With these as parting gifts, the spirits are then sent off to distant lands.

According to some accounts of ancient history, even real people are said to have been sent off as scapegoats beyond the border. The ritual is essentially a method of placating non-human spirits in general and the malevolent spirits in particular, by giving a wide range of offerings.

It is important that the person/s for whom the ritual is conducted give generously. This is to satisfy the spirits so that his or her karmic debts are fully paid off.

Short of many ‘real’ things, the priest basically uses the power of the mind to make the effigies and token substances appear as great wealth in the eyes of the spirits. Thus, it is important for the priests to carry out the visualisation and meditation effectively.

The lui and dhoe rituals are expedient ways of practising giving and a skilful way of appeasing and pacifying non-human spirits. It is a good way to establish order and balance in the world by pacifying non-human forces and redistributing wealth accumulated by the people.

Through this practice, one also repays one’s karmic debts. Thus, such rituals are well known for averting sickness, misfortunes, warfare, natural calamities and harm caused by evil spirits.


This article first appeared in Kuensel and has been edited for Daily Bhutan.


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