Phowa: Consciousness Transference


Phowa literally means transference. In phowa practice, the consciousness of a person is transferred to enlightenment or a higher state of being. It is often practiced or applied by spiritual people at the time of death. Phowa is generally associated with the transfer of consciousness to Sukhavāti or Dewachen, the happy and peaceful realm of Buddha Amitabha or Öpakmé, where it is believed to be easy to reach enlightenment.

Phowa is based on the Buddhist beliefs of righteous Buddha worlds where spiritual enlightenment is easy and fast and on the tantric Buddhist concept of the psycho-physical human anatomy made up of energy channels, vital energies and flexible nature of consciousness. When one practises phowa, one must first visualize Buddha Amitabha (or some other Buddha) surrounded by his retinue in the very pleasant, happy and peaceful realm of Dewachen. One must also visualise one’s own inner energy channels, particularly the central channel called uma, and one’s consciousness in the form of a buoyant luminous ball of light in middle of the central channel on a small lotus at the level of the heart.

Using the power of mantras, one must visualize that all the orifices including one’s eyes, ears, mouth, nostrils and private parts are blocked so that the consciousness does not leave the body from these openings. Only the pure opening on the crown of one’s head remains open. Then, one makes earnest prayers to Amitabha and other deities to help transfer the consciousness. Chanting the syllables hik, ka, phat, etc., which works as meditation aids, the practitioner visualizes pushing the consciousness upward through the central channel and out of the crown to Amitabha’s presence. The practitioner practises this by throwing the mind up to the crown as many times as he or she can before the consciousness is fully propelled out of the body to the presence or heart of Amitabha. The practitioner carries out this training until there is a sign of success. There may be itching sensation on the crown or blood or pus oozing out to indicate the effect of the practice. Often a blade of kusha grass is pierced through the crown to check if the trainer has succeeded in phowa.

If one is not dying and carries out the practice only as training, then after successfully finishing the training, one must block again the crown of one’s head through meditation with a vajra or some other aids. Otherwise, phowa practice destabilizes one’s life. If someone carries out phowa at the time of death, one would not have to block the crown. When a person dies, lamas are often asked to conduct phowa for the deceased person. In this case, the lama summons the consciousness of the deceased person and engages in phowa to propel the consciousness of the deceased person using the same meditation technique. To check if the phowa is effective, the lama will pick the hair from the deceased person’s crown. If it comes out easily, it is said to be successful.

While doing phowa practice, it is important to have strong devotion to Amitabha and also carry out clear visualisation. If one is doing for another person, then one must additionally have experience in meditation to be able to have some control on the minds of other people. The main purpose of phowa is to reach enlightenment directly or a higher state of existence in which enlightenment is easy to obtain.

Karma Phuntsho is the Director of Shejun Agency for Bhutan’s Cultural Documentation and Research, founder of the Loden Foundation and the author of The History of Bhutan. The piece was initially published in Bhutan’s national newspaper Kuensel in a series called Why We Do What We Do.


Transference of consciousness (of a dying or deceased person) Bhutan Cultural Library Bhutan



Phowa literally means transference. In phowa practice, the consciousness of a person is transferred to enlightenment or a higher state of being. It is often practiced or applied by spiritual people at the time of death.

This piece was initially published in Bhutan’s national newspaper Kuensel in a series called "Why we do what we do".

Collection Bhutan Cultural Library
Visibility Public - accessible to all site users (default)
Author Karma Phuntsho
Editor Bradley Aaron
Year published 2015
Original year published 2014