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We hope you enjoy reading the article. Nicholas Breeze Wood (editor)
Phurbas are shamanic
demon daggers used
widely in Nepal & Tibet
for healing and other
energy working
Peggy Malnati
Explores their history,
symbolism and use

HIMALAYAN
THUNDER NAILS

One of the oldest types of 'medicine tools' The transformative the most malevolent of entities and
from the shamanic traditions in the overcoming the greatest of challenges.
Himalayas is the phurba (phurbu or phurpa). property of the phurba These include plagues, pestilence,
Known variously as a demon dagger, invasions and wars, drought, famine,
magical knife, thunder nail, or diamond is a subtle but important and all manner of problem-causing
spike, this three-sided blade is a powerful aspect of its function. forces.
ritual implement used by shamans, These forces can be internal - like
magicians, tantrikas (tantric practitioners), By its design, fear, obsession, depression, an overly
and lamas of different ethnic backgrounds active internal dialogue, or emotions that
and spiritual orientations.
it is able to absorb, escape the control of the conscious mind
Considered the 'centre of the transmute and divert - or they can be external entities, mental
shamanic universe' for practitioners in projections, or damaging psychic fields.
Nepal's Katmandu Valley, phurbas are negative energies. Used properly and respectfully, the
widely used among peoples such as the phurba is a powerful ally that can remove
Tamang, Gurung, and Newari Tibeto- Phurbas have become more widely or transform that which inhibits our well-
Burmese tribes. They are also used by known in the West over the past few being and spiritual growth.
Sherpas, and Tibetans living in exile in years and can now even be found for Actually, the transformative property
Nepal ( Bhotyas ) or elsewhere in the sale with merchants offering various of the phurba is a subtle but important
world. Hence, these implements are a types of historical and fantasy knives, aspect of its function. By its design, it is
product of thousands of years' influence swords, axes, etc. able to absorb, transmute and divert
by Hinduism, Buddhism, Bon 1, and the negative energies. In shamanic belief
earliest shamanic traditions. TOOLS OF TRANSFORMATION systems, such energies cannot be killed
In turn, their power and very So what exactly is a phurba, what is it or destroyed, as they are an integral
existence has forever coloured the made of, what does it symbolise, and aspect of Creation. However, such
religious and spiritual traditions that how is it used? So powerful a magic do energies can be immobilised, then re-
have absorbed them and made them they represent that phurbas are often directed elsewhere.
their own symbol. used in rites associated with subduing Unlike a sword or knife, which

PAGE 12 SACRED HOOP ISSUE 41 2003


essentially cleave things, the phurba Adamantine Dagger and who represents
can neutralise an energy or obstacle by primordial awareness. In the older Tibetan Uses of the Phurba
nailing it down or imprisoning it, thus traditions, he is a wrathful manifestation2 Phurbas are used for many
rendering it incapable of causing further of the water element and an important important and powerful
problems. protector who pierces the ignorance that
In the Buddhist worldview, the lies at the heart of all anger, hatred,
tasks, including...
phurba represents the active, masculine aggression, fear, and pride. A weapon for subduing
principle, penetrating the heart of the Later Buddhist traditions absorbed
and exorcising spirits
problem, transforming it in a process Dorje Phurba's attributes and represented
that can be likened to fighting fire with him as a wrathful form of and demons.
(enlightened) fire. Padmasambava, the Tantric Buddha who A meditative tool to pin
first brought the teachings to Nepal and down the distractions of
CONSTRUCTION Tibet. In this form, the phurba's spirit is greed, desire, and envy.
Phurbas are found in various seen as helping all beings remove the A means to banish,
materials and sizes. They may be deep-seated blocks that hindered their
neutralise, or
made of wood, iron, metallic alloys path to Enlightenment. Hence the
(e.g. brass, bronze, and copper), phurba came to represent a wrathful transform negativity.
quartz, or precious metals form of the compassionate A ritual object to
(sometimes encrusted with activities that are fundamental symbolically slay enemies
jewels). Structurally, they can to all Buddhas, and to play and remove obstacles.
be freestanding or attached a central role in meditative A therapeutic process
(as a handle) to drums or practices.
for healing physical,
other objects. They may be In Nepal Dorje Phurba
as small as an amulet or as large as a is seen as an important mental, emotional,
staff. helper spirit for shamans. or spiritual dis-ease.
The first items that humans used A vehicle for pinning down
as phurbas were 'found' STRUCTURAL the ego, one of the main
objects from the natural world SYMBOLISM obstacles to enlightenment.
around them, such as plant Much could be
stalks and animal horns. These written about the
earliest phurbas were believed to densely layered This section, plus other stylistic markers,
have been replaced by symbolism can provide clues to the cultural group
representations of the original associated with 'demon that produced a given ritual tool. For
natural forms made of clay. daggers' across so many example, phurbas produced by Kirati
Himalayan shamans are said to successive spiritual shaman usually feature bird figures,
favour wood over other materials traditions in the while the Tamang use three faces, and
because it is easy to work with, Himalays. What follows Lamas favour a Buddhist chorten3 shape
plentiful, and affordable - important is intended to provide the at the top.
criteria for practitioners living in remote briefest of overviews In phurbas which show three faces of a
villages. In many later traditions, iron regarding the metaphorical deity, these are said to represent the three
(especially from meteorites) was a significance of this ancient aspects of the Divine4, and the three basic
favoured material of construction - at medicine object. emotions5.
least for blade and inner shaft - because Each phurba is segmented When there is only one face present, it
of the metal's widely attributed ability to into three parts on both the is said to represent Dorje Phurba himself.
combat demons. horizontal and vertical axis, and The faces often display fearsome
this tripartite division has expressions to frighten demonic forces and
HISTORY AND MYTH tremendous symbolic remind humans to consider carefully what
The roots of spiritual practices using significance. requests they put to the gods.
phurbas are very ancient. To a Himalayan In the vertical axis (i.e. from A phurba's middle section or shaft
shaman, everything approximating a the top of the handle to the tip of can also differ depending on which
phallic form can be thought of as the blade), a phurba is comprised religious and ethnic group designed it.
symbolising a phurba, including the actual of three separate segments - the In Tantric Buddhism, for instance, this
shaman. In turn, all phurbas can be traced head, the shank, and a triangular middle section is a Vajra - the stylised
back to the creator-god Shiva's sacred blade. lightning bolt representing sudden
phallus or lingam, which represents the These represent many things enlightenment or the breaking through
primal energy of the universe. (see page 14). The top section of of insight.
The deity most commonly associated the phurba, which offers the On the bottom section of the phurba
with and invoked by the thunder nail is greatest design diversity, is usually lies a blade with three sides and three
Dorje Phurba , whose name means in the form of the head of a deity. 'cutting' edges that run together at the tip

SACRED HOOP ISSUE 41 2003 PAGE 13


means nail or wedge, which gives some
Symbolism of the Phurba idea how this medicine tool is actually used.
Most practices begin with the practitioner
Phurbas are divided into three sections getting centred and inviting the deity
both vertically and horizontally represented by the phurba to physically
come into the blade. Thus empowered, the
Head VERTICALLY these three practitioner then imagines that he or she is
sections simultaneously capturing or driving out obstacles by
represent each of impaling them with the blade.
the following: In shamanic traditions, the practitioner
may dance around and wave the demon
The human body
dagger, eventually capturing the
(head - torso - legs). obstacle with one or two
The central aspects phurbas and ramming the
of Hindu and Buddhist energy into the earth.
spiritual beliefs. When treating a sick
The structure of the person, the shaman strokes the patient
with the phurba, point facing downward,
shamanic universe
beginning with the head and moving
(Upper World - Middle toward the feet. As the shaman touches
World - Lower World). the parts of the body needing healing
with the tip of the blade it attracts and
Shank HORIZONTALLY the three absorbs the ailment. When the phurba
sections represent: reaches the floor, the shaman rams the
malevolent forces or obstacles into the earth,
West, Center, East.
pinning and transmuting them.
Left eye, third eye, right eye. In the case of exorcisms, the phurba is
Male, neutral, female. used to remove the intruding energies,
Desire, neutrality while simultaneously replacing them with
or indifference, repulsion. healing. The energy being removed can
Past, present, future. often be trapped in a container or
transmuted by the flame of a sacred fire.
In Buddhist traditions, monks
Phurba on the left: performing rituals, either singly or in
Blade the top shows Dorje groups, gesture with the phurba to
Phurba and this phurba enforce the effect of mantras (pointing
has a vajra (dorje) shank. with the phurbas in the directions where
the energy should be directed) and to
Phurba on the right: complete ceremonies.
at the top is a horses head Meditators often hold the phurba while
reciting a mantra or liturgy, or imagining an
identifying it with the deity obstacle whose removal is desired. When
Hayagreva, who is always the obstacle is clearly perceived and
portrayed thus. The blade is understood, the meditator waves or stabs
coming from the mouths with the phurba as a symbolic threat.
of three Makara and is Jhankri shamans visualise the phurba
wrapped around by Naga spirits. in order to heal, regardless of whether
they hold an actual one in their hands. A
Kirati shaman explained, Without the
to form a single point. This triangular winged bird-like creature), the blade phurba inside himself, the shaman has no
blade is said to resemble the old- seeming to spit forth from their mouths. consciousness. The shaman becomes
fashioned nails and tent pegs used by Pairs of Nagas (snake spirits) usually the phurba and takes on its form to
nomadic tribes in the region. The blade's twine around the blade, and other journey shamanically, flying to the other
unique structure represents the symbols such as moons, stars, and worlds and other realities.
transformation of Desire, Attachment, triangles can be present. The tip may be They begin their shamanic journey with
and Ignorance, and the destruction of reinforced with iron for forceful planting their spirit, in the shape of the phurba,
Attachment, Aversion, and Delusion. into the earth. leaving their body and travelling to the
The joint of the shaft and blade is sacred water container on their altar
often wrapped about by a Makara (a HEALING USE (bumpa). This container is filled with water
mythical water creature) or a Garuda (a The Sanskrit name for the phurba, kila,

PAGE 14 SACRED HOOP ISSUE 41 2003


and in it they
meet their
helper
spirits
(often
108, a
sacred
number).
From the
bumpa they
then fly rapidly to
one of the three
worlds of the shaman's
universe to complete their shamanic mission.
A person who commits to work with the phurba
honourably must be willing to invest the effort to
create and sustain a spiritual connection with it that
connects back to the very power from which the
universe was created. Then they can turn a physical
object into a powerful instrument for removing
obstacles, a vehicle to travel through time and space,
and a transformative force to affect true healing.

Peggy Malnati lives in the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan;


America's Great Lakes State, where she works in industrial
communications, is a political activist, caters to her feline
masters, and lives on an old farmstead replete with lots of
wildlife, trees and magic.
She is also an ordained minister of the church of Tzaddi, a
teacher, ceremonialist, spiritual counsellor, and works in
several energy-based healing systems. It is important to
Peggy to walk softly on this planet.
She can be reached at:
p.malnati@sbcglobal.net
(see also advert on page 46 of this issue)

Sacred Hoop Magazine would like to thank Paulin and Tom


Pool for their help with this article.

FINDING YOUR OWN PHURBA:


eBay, the internet auction house is a very good place to find
phurbas, new, old and antique. New phurbas can also be
obtained from many Tibetan Buddhist centres and shops
such as:
In the UK - Garuda Trading.
Tel: (01872) 241 813 www.garudatrading.com
In the USA - Tibetan Spirit.
Tel: (888) 327 2890 www.tibetanspirit.com

NOTES:
1: Bon is the original pre-Buddhist shamanic tradition of
Tibet. The Bon traditions still exist but have been heavily
influenced by later Buddhist ceremonial traditions and artistic
expression. (See Sacred Hoop Issue 7).
2: A wrathful manifestation is one of the ways
compassionate Buddha energy shows itself, the others being
Peaceful and Joyous. For more information on these, see
the articles on Wrathful, Peaceful and Joyous beings found
in the Tibetan traditions in Sacred Hoop Issues 18, 19, 20,
& 21.
3: A Chorten is a symmetrical monument which represents correct mudra (finger position) to hold the time to attach the energy of the illness to it,
Buddha awareness. phurba with in. and finally discharging the illness upon contact
4: Male aspect, female aspect, and gender-neutral aspect. PAGE 14 (left): An old vajra handled copper into with the ground.
5: In this worldview, all emotions are reduced to three basic Dorje Phurba Phurba. (Right): An antique (Bottom of page): an antique iron and
values: desire/joy, neutrality/indifference, and repulsion/hate. Silver Hayagreva Phurba. bronze phurba tied with red and white silk
PAGE 15 (top): Antique Shamans drum with streamers which represent male and female.
PHOTOS: phurba handle.
PAGE 12: Brass vajra handled phurba tied with a silk Page 16: The phurba is taken from the
streamer. patients head (top), down their whole body
PAGE 13: An antique Iron Nepalaise phurba showing the (centre) and finally down to the earth
(bottom), the healer using her intent all the

SACRED HOOP ISSUE 41 2003 PAGE 15