Lên Đồng 6: Methodology of Exorcism


(Continued from Lên Đồng 5: Possession of the Frightful Kind)

In my previous posting, Lên Đồng 5: Possession of the Frightful Kind, I talked about the fact that possessions occurred in all areas of the world, to all groups of people, from all walks of life.  I also said I was going to talk about the various ways people engage in exorcisms, but that was before I realized just how many groups of people actually engage in spiritual warfare against the darkness, and for a very good reason.

Demons are EVERYWHERE!!!

As I stated previously, these spirit warrior groups span every single region of the world, and comprise of every type of people, every race, every ethnicity, and every socio-economic level. It would seem then that the criteria for possession is not any specific religious beliefs or any unique place and time. It is simply thus:

Possessions occur in the presence of humans.

That’s right. We are the trigger points.

Here is just a partial listing* of the most popular religious groups that actually do exorcisms on a regular basis, throughout ancient times, all the way to present-day:

  • Taoism
  • Buddhism
  • Christianity
  • Hinduism
  • Islamism
  • Judaism

*Note:  I did not include all the folk religions of the African continent, Indian subcontinent, Southeast Asian area including Pacific Islands, South American and Native North American religions. If I did, this post would balloon into a huge volume of dense and detailed research on the matter. Also, since I am not familiar with how Hindus, Muslims, and Jews perform exorcisms, I will leave that exploration to those more qualified, and will instead, focus in on the ones I am more familiar with.

Under the category of Christianity, many Christian sects such as Orthodox, Lutheran, Baptists, Mormons, Mennonites, Methodists, Anglicans, and Pentecosts do exorcisms, but due to the proliferation of high budget movies such as The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Exorcist, and The Last Exorcism that show Catholic priests dealing with spiritual warfare, they are, therefore, the most famous for doing exorcisms. 

Let’s take a look at the procedures that Catholics have in place to do battle for a person’s soul.

Catholic Exorcisms


Catholicism is the religion that is based upon the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, as well as the beliefs and practices that are outlined in the Christian bible.  As far as exorcists are concerned, even though Jesus was not the first exorcist documented in the Holy Bible, he was certainly the most famous Exorcist of all time.

Jesus did not leave behind an alphabetized, indexed manual, or step-by-step instructions for the exorcism of demonic presences.  There are, however, at least eight separate documentations of his exorcisms in the bible that we can look at and study in depth. 

You can go to the appropriate bible sections to read them, but I have linked a wiki page to each of them for you to look at in more detail.

  1. Exorcism at the Synagogue in Capernaum,
  2. Exorcism of the Gerasene demoniac
  3. Exorcism of the Syrophoenician woman’s daughter
  4. Exorcising the blind and mute man
  5. Exorcising a boy possessed by a demon
  6. Jesus exorcising at sunset
  7. Exorcism of Mary Magdalene
  8. Exorcism of devils

Jesus set these exorcism examples so that his followers would have a methodology by which to follow.  In order to transfer this information down to future generations, his disciples also wrote down various methodology to deal with the demons.

This method to the madness was, in due time, transferred to a specific group of clergy especially trained in exorcisms so they would have at least a fighting chance to combat against demonic possessions..

Here is a brief outline of the methodology.

To perform the rite, the official exorcist usually first go to confession, offer the holy Sacrifice of the Mass, and pray for assistance from God.  Then he will dress in his “armor’, which is his white surplice and a purple stole.

The stole itself is a symbol of authority, similar to the badge that you would see on a police officer today.  It is purple because the color purple is seen by the Christian Church as the color of healing, and so is used in exorcisms to not only heal the possessed, but also the demon.

The exorcist will also have with him, a crucifix, a bible, and some holy water.  These are his weapons and shields that he will take into any spiritual battle.

After physically binding the victim down with restraints (this is done for everyone’s safety, including the victim), the exorcist will trace the sign of the cross over himself and everyone else in the room (including the victim).

Then he sprinkles holy water over everyone.  At the point where the holy water touches the victim, there should be some visible effects on the victim.

Here are the typical stages of an exorcism, as outlined by Malachi Martin, a former Jesuit priest, in his ground-breaking book Hostage to the Devil:

  1. Pretense – The demon hides within the victim, creates symptoms that look as if the victim is mentally ill.
  2. Breakpoint – The demon reveals itself after having been harassed by the exorcist for an extended amount of time.
  3. Clash – After revealing its true nature, the exorcist fights with the demon for the soul of the victim.
  4. Expulsion – If the exorcist wins the battle, the demon leaves the body of the possessed.

Then begins the grueling work of saying the Litany of the Saints and a series of other prayers meant to invoke such powers that will affect the demon.  These prayers start off by asking God to free the victim from the demon that is in possession of the victim’s body. 

If that doesn’t work, then they use the imperative formula, where the priest demands, in the name of God, that the devil leave the victim’s body.

This regiment is repeated for as long as necessary until the demonic presence leaves the body.  Depending on the severity of the situation, this can be fairly brief. It could also require a huge amount of time and dangerous, grueling effort (often several days) to complete. It is almost as if the priest is simply wearing down the presence until it can no longer take the constant harassment and leaves out of sheer frustration.

Traditionally, the Catholic Church does not announce that an exorcism will be taking place.  They also do not announce if the exorcism is successful or not, so success rate of Catholic exorcisms are unknown.

Buddhist Exorcisms

Buddhists have been doing exorcisms for thousands of years.  Given the ample time frame, they have noticed a couple of important things that are consistent with most possessions.. 

There are two types of spirit possessions: Human, and Non-human.

Human Spirit Possessions

In the Human circumstance, which covers the vast majority of possessions, victims are possessed by earth-bound ghosts who were previously humans. 

However, after their untimely demise, these poor souls have not been able to move onward to the next stage in their soul’s journey due to some form of psychological trauma.

These earth-bound spirits are then coaxed into leaving the victim and taking up residence at the Buddhist temple where the exorcist lives. 

After a period of time in treatment, these ghosts can then be led to freedom by gentle counseling, following the Buddhists’ compassionate-treatment-for-all methodology.

I outlined this procedure one of my previous posts, Hungry Ghosts 2: Cầu Siêu Ritual.

To keep the number of exorcisms down to a dull roar, Buddhist monks also hold huge annual public exorcisms to anticipate possessions. 

Depending on the country and the customs, at a certain designated time of the year, temples and monasteries will offer religious ceremonies complete with preparations of food for hungry ghosts, as well as dancing and music. 

It is very much like a festival for the general populace, but they will also do ceremonial exorcisms in the evening time to chase away demons. I wrote about this in one of my previous posts, Hungry Ghosts 4: Temple for Spirit Imprisonment.


Each family is encouraged to join in the ceremony and subject their homes and work places for physical and spiritual cleansing to remove misfortune, ghosts, not to mention a good deal of grime and clutter which helps to tamp down physical ailments due to either ghosts OR dust and germs collecting on surfaces (take your pick).

Then, a representative will carry an effigy made in the likeness of a fierce god and run around the village, presumably to chase away demons and cast out ghosts, even as the crowd carry torches and chant exorcism words that works as a purging act to cleanse the community of spirits, demons, and misfortune.

Unfortunately, sometimes, this type of exorcism does not work.  It cannot work because some of these otherworldly entities are not human.

Non-Human Spirit Possessions

This is the second circumstance, whereby the entity possessing the victim is not, and has never been human.  These entities are not ghosts.  They are demons that originated and exists in a realm that Buddhists and Christians call HELL.


According to the exorcists, these demons are utterly and horrifyingly malevolent.  They cling to their victims with unbelievable tenacity and exhibit superhuman strength, posing serious danger to the victim, the exorcist, and his team. In most cases, the demon(s) is/are expelled only after many days of rigorous combat and divine assistance has been called on forcefully and repeatedly.

Buddhism is based on its principles of peace and non-violence. However, sometimes aggression is needed. This is more often the case when a demon, rather than a ghost, has overtaken an individual.

The za-dre kha sgyur is a Tibetan Buddhist ritual to expel death demons, and the exorcist directly threatens the demon with harm from Buddha’s wrathful form. (1)

If the demon refuses to leave, the phurba is used to force it out. This weapon ritual dagger is a three-sided peg, stake, knife, or nail-like ritual implement that is often seen in exorcisms.

The phurba is viewed by the exorcist as an embodiment of sentience. It is used in exorcisms to actually destroy the unwanted spirit completely, by stabbing it into the demon.

There are many sects of Buddhism, and each sect has its own methodology for exorcism, but the methods, in general, have a number of these steps.

  • Direct exorcism often begins with a spell or chant to see if demonic possession is genuine. Once verity has been confirmed, an effigy of the victim is created and either blood or red wine is poured over effigy as an offering to entice the demon to leave the victim and possess the effigy. After the demon has entered the effigy, it is stabbed with the phurba and then burned or thrown over a cliff.
  • Another method to get rid of lingering demons would be to use small dough animal effigies. These items are placed on a tray covered with two distinct layers of ash. The bottom layer is composed of white ash, upon which a second layer of black ash covers over. Chants are then used to capture and lure out demons, and a dog’s skull is used to trap and hold the demon. Then the ash is checked to see if there are demon footprints. Once it is clear that the demons have been trapped within the dog skull, the exorcist will use the phurba to dig a hole into the ground. He then places the skull with the trapped demon into the ground and buries it, thereby trapping the demon underground

Taoist Exorcisms

Taoists have been doing exorcisms for a very long time, and are not particular when it comes to determining who is able to perform exorcisms. As long as you know what you are doing, you can perform an exorcism.

Usually, this is done by Taoist priests, but the unordained ritual specialists called Fashi, are also able to conduct particular rituals for exorcism. (3) For the sake of expediency, I am going to call both priests and ritual specialists, ‘exorcists’.

Rather than using a small phurba, full-sized swords were used in Taoist rituals to purify the sacred altar of negative energies. One side of the blade are usually inlaid with the image of a very important asterism, the Big Dipper. This is believed to be a powerful Taoist symbol of exorcism.

There are also ritual dances during exorcism rites that resembled sword-wielding martial arts movements. Here is an example of an exorcism dance. Notice all the diagrams that are hung all around the exorcist.

Another ritual item used in an exorcism is the bell. There are two purposes of using bells: One is to move spirits, the other is as a signal for Taoist priests to conduct rituals.  The bells come in varying sizes and shapes, from gongs and huge heavy bells all the way to tiny kagura suzu bells, all with unique properties and purposes.

Taoist Exorcism Methodology

The exorcist starts the show by calling forth the soul of Lôi Công, the Thunder god, and effectively becomes the Thunder god. (2) Let me be perfectly clear.  The exorcist is NOT POSSESSED by the Thunder god—he IS the Thunder god.  His strength comes from within himself.

This is one of the most crucial aspects that separates folk religion ceremonies from real Taoist exorcisms.  Folk religions believe in powers that are extant (external) from oneself. 

The real Taoist exorcist pulls the power from within himself and becomes the god of Thunder, who has the power to punish both earthly mortals guilty of secret crimes and evil spirits who have used their knowledge of Taoism to harm human beings. 

Once the exorcist has fully transformed into the Thunder god Lôi Công, specific magic Taoist exorcism diagrams are drawn.

These diagrams are powerful in that they can capture malevolent entities such as demons inside the diagrams themselves.

To capture the demonic entities, the exorcist must also recite a series of chants as well as perform ritual sword dances.

Once the demon has been captured, the diagram is then burned, which sends the evil spirit to the Court of the Jade Emperor (The King of all Taoist Gods) for judgement or retribution.

Wait! Why are they sent off to somewhere else? Why aren’t they simply destroyed so there’s less of these malevolent entities that we have to deal with?

The answer is: Taoists do not destroy malevolent entities because the Tao also flows through them, just as it does through us. This would be akin to carrying out a death sentence for a human being who has done atrocious deeds to other humans.

As I previously noted in my post, Sympathetic Consideration for Demons, “Men, animals, ghosts, demons— all deserve sympathetic consideration.  Formed from the great Tao, Matrix of the Universe, all are equally necessary to nature’s purposes.  If we destroy any being without good cause, how can we expect our fellows to treat us less belligerently?  Let live, leave well enough alone, abstain from exaggerated reactions and one may be sure of remaining on good terms with all the hosts of heaven, earth, and hell.  Even corpse-devouring demons are capable of gratitude.” — John Blofeld.

In the end, whether it is the neighbor next door or the entity on the other side of the dimensional veil, how we treat others, be they humans, animals, ghosts, or demons, will determine our karmic payout, and how far along we have evolved on our journey towards enlightenment.

  1. Himalayan Dialogue : Tibetan Lamas and Gurung Shamans in Nepal
  2. The Prison of Fire for Demons: A Study of Taoist Exorcist Devices
  3. Banishing Chaos Through Order

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