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Tibetan Oracles and Himalayan Shamans

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Transcribed from a Lecture by Dr Fabian Sanders

I had the opportunity to do field research in the Tibetan areas of N.E. India, mainly in the Arunachal Pradesh area (roughly north of Assam and east of Bhutan). This region is very interesting for research because it is almost totally unspoilt, mainly due to political reasons.

It was closed to tourists and also missionaries, who are the most devastating influence in these areas. The main visitors were the military who were defending the border with China; as you may know, China claims Arunachal Pradesh as part of its territory.

The area is inhabited by a tribe we can call the Monpa, lit. ‘those who live in the lowlands’. Its main centre is in Tawang (rta dbang), which is nestled between Tibet on the north and Bhutan on the west. The area is famous as the birthplace of the 6th Dalai Lama, Tsangyang Gyatso, (tshangs dbyangs rgya mtsho)and since the 6th Dalai Lama was born in Tawang, the Chinese claim this territory.

During our research we had the opportunity of meeting a local oracle and witness a trance performance by him and his attendants. So I became interested in this topic and was able to meet also the current kuten of the Nechung (gnas chung) oracle. The Nechung oracle is the main state oracle of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile, and the Tibetan government when it was in Tibet. His name is Thupten Ngodup (thub bstan dngos grub) and he lives in Dharamsala, IndiaOracles: East and West

We might recall that in the classical Western world, specifically in Greece and Rome, oracles were considered normal. The most important of these was the Delphi oracle in Greece, and the Sybilles in Rome or in the Tuscan area. The Delphi oracle especially had characteristics which are very similar to those of the Tibetan oracles. This is why we can correctly use the term “oracles” to explain Tibetan oracles.

In the West, oracles became silent and the tradition ended around the 4th century C.E. From a Tibetan point of view, we can say that the tradition of communication between the gods and humans was interrupted.

Instead, Tibet was one of the few places where traditions continued virtually untouched and unspoilt right up to the 1950s and so Tibet was able to maintain the tradition of oracles to the present day. Originally there were hundreds of oracles in Tibet and the Himalayan highlands but over time the oracles became fewer and fewer while the shamans took over and became more widespread. We will talk about the difference between oracles and shamans, who are similar but also have certain peculiar differences. 

Oracles in Tibet

What is then the tradition of oracles in Tibet? Its history certainly goes back into the very remote past, before the advent of Buddhism in the 7th century. Oracles were a definite and precise feature of the Bon tradition, the pre-Buddhist Tibetan tradition.

This Bon tradition had a cosmology which divided the cosmos in three worlds. One is the upper world of the gods. Then there is the intermediate world of spirits, of subtle beings. And then there is the solid world they call the earth. So, there are these three worlds: one is that of the gods, one is the intermediate and one is the earth.

Human beings in short participate in these three worlds with their body, their so-called speech - in Buddhist terms, but this is applicable to Bon as well - and their mind or spirit. Just as the external world has a realm of the mind, so it has a realm of energy, of spirits - or whatever - and a solid, physical realm, so internally human beings have the same. And these three are not closed.

[[[Human]]] Beings are not closed and they are open to contact with the external. Just as we have contact with the physical world, for example with food, other people and so on, so the psychic level has contact with the outside. This gives the possibility of communication between the psychic level of the individual and the psychic level outside. So this kind of world was inherited by the Buddhist masters who brought Buddhist Dharma to Tibet, because they held the same world view. The world was in three parts: one solid, one psychic and one mental. So they could make use of the pre-existing tradition and use it for Buddhist purposes.

The Oracular Deity

The change happened when the famous tantric master Guru Padmasambhava came to Tibet and tamed the subtle world – the deities of the Bonpos - and bound them under oath to obey and defend the Bud-dhist teaching. He made these powers, which we can call deities, protectors of the Buddhist faith and of Buddhist practitioners. They became Cho sung (cho srung), protectors of the Dharma.

According to Ti-betan tradition, he tamed these beings through the powerful invocation of mantra, powerful spells, which bound them to obey those who held the power of these spells. Guru Padmasambhava tamed these beings. He made them protectors of the Dharma and obliged or convinced them to help practitioners of Buddha Dharma by communicating, giving advice, foretelling the future and even healing people.

Why is this the case? I spent quite a long time trying to understand what is the nature of these deities. The explanation generally is that they are sentient beings. They are beings, just like people or animals and anyone else, but without a body. Yet they do have two other aspects. They have a mind or spirit and a voice. Not having a body though, they cannot communicate with those who communicate with them on a bodily level.

So they are samsaric beings and, as such, they are not higher gods, as we would understand the great gods of India or Tibet, for example Palden Lhamo (dpal ldan lha mo) or Kali. They are gods more linked to the land, the mountains, lakes and to the geographical features. We could in a way say that mountains and lakes are their bodily aspect. So they are the subtle aspect: the speech and mind aspect of mountains, valleys, rivers and lakes, especially mountains and lakes.

The Oracular Context

So what is the relationship between Guru Padmasambhava and these deities? Or with the high Tibetan lamas, such as the relationship between the Dalai Lama and Nechung, the state oracle. It is a relationship of master with slave. The master is Guru Padmasambhava or the Dalai Lama. The slave is the deity. This is because the Dalai Lama is the one with the knowledge, whereas the deity is the one who receives the knowledge. But the status of the deities allows them to perceive and have knowledge of information and intelligence that can be useful for human beings, who don’t have the same capacity.

The gods are in a position in which they can see the world from above (let’s say) and perceive time in a more expanded way. In a way this is similar to a dream. In Eastern cultures, you know that in dreams you can have a communication with the wider world, receive information and suggestions. So these gods sort of live in a permanent dream state and because they don’t have a body, they have a wider perception and can be useful for people.

So how can we get information from these deities to our world in order to use it? The way is through a so-called kuten (sku rten).In Tibetan ku is an honorific term for body, the physical aspect, and ten means ‘base’ or ‘support’. So, kuten, together, means physical support or physical base. What does this mean? First of all it denotes the complete passivity of the body. It is just a support. And then it denotes the fact that this body is sort of lent to the deity, in order to participate in the gross world which we perceive.

The Kuten: Discovery and Characteristics

What then are the characteristics of the kuten? The kuten is a person who has some problems, to be honest. He is someone whose psychic container gives an appearance of unity and being closed from the outside world. Most people also normally perceive themselves as closed from the world, from a psychic or mental point of view even though human beings comprise a psychic aspect.

It’s not a unity, not a whole. But the kuten are not sealed from the outside; they have an opening, a crack into psychic existence in which external entities can enter. So this is a handicap from a certain point of view and it is an anomaly, which can be understood as an illness as well. It can also be a cure but we will look at this later. In general these people, whether they are oracles or shamans have exactly the same characteristic. If they do have this open psychic aspect, then they can become either shamans or oracles, depending on different factors.

So how do they notice that they have this open psychic aspect? Generally between the ages of 10 and 20, they suddenly become very ill. They go through very severe illnesses, in which they have a number of bad dreams and are really in a state of prostration. People fear for their life but there is no medical diagnosis for their illness. They also have signs of craziness and madness.

Sometimes they go into the wilderness where they stay for many days, even weeks. They don’t really come out of the wilderness but slowly, slowly they are able to manage, somehow, this state of mind, and also their physical illness.

Generally, in a Tibetan Buddhist context, their families take them to a lama and the lama can see the problem. Once the lama can exclude illnesses such as epilepsy or other mental problems, he might look into the possibility that the ‘ill’ person is showing the signs of becoming an oracle or shaman. In this case, he also has to look into the family history because generally this kind of ability is hereditary.

So, it can be found in several generations in the same family. Either it can be transmitted from father to son or from mother to daughter. There are both male and female oracles and shamans as well. So if the father has passed away, and was an oracle or shaman himself, then the possibility is high that the son has been chosen for the same job. This is quite easy to understand.

In other cases such as the Nechung oracle, who is a monk of the Nechung Monastery, obviously he does not have offspring. So the kuten has to be looked for. There are these two different ways in which an oracle is discovered, once he has shown the signs of being an oracle. But there is also a third possibility for becoming an oracle. If necessary, a lama holding a particular office, can do this by inducing a trance in someone else; he is then able to transfer the deity into the body of the oracle.

Once someone is identified as being able to host the deity as a guest in himself, in a Tibetan Buddhist context, a number of rituals are performed in order to open up the channels of the subtle body. This is in order to facilitate the arrival of the deity and to make this experience easier for the kuten because to have the deity using your body is a very great strain. In general, once the trance is over the kuten just fall unconscious and can stay like that for one or two days, even. So the lamas perform some rituals on the kuten and teach him some exercises, mostly breathing so that he can find it easler to train himself to be a kuten.

Gelek Choesang (dge legs chos bzang)

Specifically, I would like to tell you the story of the kuten we found in a village in the Arunachal Pradesh area. He used to perform for the local community mostly in order to diagnose illnesses for which no one had a clue and also to give advice on important decisions in ordinary people’s lives. This kuten’s name is Gelek Choesang and he is the son of the previous kuten of the same oracle. His father passed away when he was in his adolescence and after that he started to have very strange and wild dreams, frightening nightmares and became psychically very restless. Basically he fell ill.

Knowing his father was the previous kuten, he sought advice at a local Nyingmapa monastery, a monastery of the old school, the Sarong Gompa (sa rong dgon pa) , which lay 4 or 5 hours east of Taiwan. The Tulku (sprul sku) at this monastery recognised that Gelek Choesang was being possessed, not by the deity of the previous oracle (his father has been the oracle), but by his own father.

The father had come to knock on his son’s door and wake him up to the possibility of being the next kuten of the deity. The tulku then performed a number of rituals on the boy and instructed him on the techniques and practices he had to perform in order to ease his job. He also appointed one village lama who lived close to his home to be the ritualist in charge of performing the rites necessary to call the deity.

This is very important as before the deity is called, the kuten is completely passive. The kuten just (sort of) offers his body to the deity. The important task is performed by the official, a Lama, who reads out a text while playing music with cymbals and drums. So this is more or less how the ritual takes place.

The Significance of the Text

To return to Guru Padmasambhava: when Padmasambhava tamed the subtle world of Tibet, literally step by step, covering the whole of Tibet, he formulated texts that were powerful to invoke these deities. Some of these were passed onto his students and others he hid as terma (gter ma) teachings.

Terma teachings, as you know, are those teachings which are hidden for some time and later on, when the time is right, a Terton (gter ston) i.e a discoverer of terma, is supposed to find the teachings and revive their use ritually in the world. So the texts which are used to invoke the oracles are all mostly, according to tradition, attributed to Guru Padmasambhava.

These texts have a number of functions and are really the key of the oracular performance and existence. They are structured, more or less, like general sadhana texts. Sadhana texts are those texts which practitioners follow and recite for their meditation.

Generally they visualise what is written in the text. These invocation texts describe the deity, its iconography, dress and characteristics.

They help the Lama go into a state in which he evokes the place where the deity resides, and then they invoke the presence of the deity. The same voice, rhythmically speaking, together with the cymbals chimbas and the drums, provokes a state of trance in the kuten. And then the third active aspect of the text is that the deity itself is called and is really compelled to come by the recitation of the text.

So on one hand, the Lama does the visualisation according to the text, the kuten goes into his trance and then the deity comes. According to Tibetans, the text is really the key for the presence of the deity to be real.

Another important aspect is the rhythmic music that is usually played with the drum and the cymbals. In the case of our kuten, there was only one single lama. In the case of the state oracle, for example, there are more than a dozen players and reciters. So the rhythmic sound sort of facilitates the trance of the kuten.

In the field work we have done in Arunachal, we were able to take pictures of the text. The Lama allowed us to take pictures of the text. I have translated it and it will appear as subtitles in the short film I will show later. But unfortunately I had no time to translate it into English and it is in Italian. I hope it is not a big problem and I will try to translate parts of it if you like.

The Experience of the Kuten

So what is the experience of the kuten, the one who is the receptacle of the divine presence? I was able to interview the present kuten of the Nechung oracle in Dharamsala. There are four oracles, in major state performances, that go into trance together in big festivals in Dharamsala.

There are two male and two female oracles. The Nechung and Gadhong (dga’ gdong) oracles are the main male ones. And Dorje Yudronma (rdo rje g.yu sgron ma) and Tsering Chenga (tshe ring mched lnga) are the two female oracles. So I asked Thupten Ngodup, the present kuten, what is his experience during the trance … during what is described as his trance by the people who look on.

And he said that when the music starts and the text is recited, he is overwhelmed by what can be described as a kind of exhaustion. The object of the senses, that is forms, colours, sounds and so on start becoming more and more distant as if they were behind screens or in water.

They become further and further from his perception. At a certain point he loses his consciousness and presence completely and falls in a state similar to deep sleep as if he is sleeping but with no dreams. And that’s it. He doesn’t have any other experience or any other personal contact with the deity that comes through him. After the deity leaves he collapses and then wakes up.

The length of time waking up differs and the kuten can’t remember anything. He has completely forgotten what happened and the time that’s past is reduced to just a few minutes in his mind. The trance can be thirty minutes, although it can also take only ten minutes or twenty minutes.

Sometimes if it’s longer than half an hour, this is a long time but when he wakes up it’s just as if a few minutes had passed in a way that is typical for sleeping or dreaming states. And when the deity leaves, the kuten’s state is really of physical exhaustion and prostration. This is because the god/deity who is possessing him, is straining his body a great deal. It is said to be like that.

In fact, while in trance he displays an incredible power and energy. You must understand that his dress with all the iconographic features like the sword and so on, weigh at least sixty pounds or more. The particular hat he has now weighs about thirty pounds.

In the past, it used to weigh around eighty pounds. So that is really heavy to carry on your head.

And if you see how he moves about and dances, when he is not in trance he can hardly stand up. He needs two assistants to help him up. When he starts moving, the first manifestation of the presence of the deity is that he stands up very quickly and starts a dance of reverence towards the lamas who are present. So he prostrates himself deeply and dances very solemnly with great dignity.

And then, after this offering of the dance, he makes other offerings to the lamas, like torma (gtor ma) and whatever is given to him. Then he starts to speak and answer questions. That is also very interesting because if you hear him, his voice sounds just like a hiss: a very long and rhythmic series of hissing sounds like this.

Of course no words can be understood by someone who is not specifically trained to understand these sounds. For example in the case of the Nechung oracle, the Dalai Lama understands his language. In case of our oracle in Arunachal Pradesh, he was said to speak in a medieval Khampa dialect. Kham is the eastern part of Tibet. His language was understood by one lady who was his interpreter and translated his answers to questions. So this is the experience of the kuten, which is nothing. He just gives his body and is completely passive.

Shaman or Oracle?

Interestingly for our research in the Arunachal area, we were able to do this over a period of seven years, going three times to the same place. The second time we went there, which was after 3 years, we interviewed Gelek Choesang again, the kuten of this oracle.

It was very interesting to witness his change of attitude towards being the kuten.

The first time we met him, he was in his early or mid twenties and was not very experienced. He had not done many trances and was a little frightened of the potential of his office. It was rather overwhelming for him and he could not quite bear it.

The second time he was much more sure of himself and self-confident. He didn’t think for a long time about his answers as he had done before. He was just speaking straight. We asked him, “So how is your work, your job going?” If you can call it a job. And he said, “I want to stop. I don’t want to be the kuten anymore”. He then told us why he had decided not to be the kuten any longer.

After one session of trance, he was really exhausted and decided to stop. So he went to see the Dalai Lama in Dharamsala and asked the Dalai Lama for advice. His answer was “Yes. You can stop. Rituals can be performed in order to close this crack you have that allows the deity to enter, so that you don’t get possessed anymore, neither by the deity nor by other spirits”.

But the Dalai Lama said, “But I strongly advise you that as this is an important service you do for the people of your area, you can train and get more sound advice, better than the advice you have had up to now. You can make things easier for yourself but please still go on performing your task”. Then we asked again, “But what is the reason for you wanting to stop?”. And he said, “I want to be a politician”.

Apparently the two things were not compatible. He wanted to enter politics in the local area to become something like the mayor of Dirang, the local town. On the other hand he owed his reputation, on which he would like to base his election as mayor, on being a kuten. I don’t know if people would have voted for him if he was not a kuten anymore.

Anyway in the end he decided to carry on as the kuten. I don’t know about the politics but he stopped politics when he decided to go on with his job. Anyway, he went to some tulku, a master living in the Kullu, Himachal Pradesh area, who helped him to get better control over his trance.

As you might remember, I told you that his first possession was by that of his own father. He experienced visions of his father who generally presented himself to his son in three forms: one was as an animal, the second was as someone dressed like a monk, and the third was his father’s real appearance as he remembered it.

This was highly disturbing for him because he didn’t know what happened or what to do. But his father gave him advice on how to deal with his energy.

Later, when he went to the lama in Kullu, the lama performed some rituals which closed down the possibility of him being possessed by spirits other than his oracular deity. These other spirits or bhut as they are called in India are the psychic remains of human beings, of dead people. But the kuten said, “This is also a drawback because my father helped me a lot”. He gave us an example.

Once he was riding on a motor bike in Siliguri in West Bengal, and all of a sudden he had a strong urge to get off the bike. He was sitting on the back seat and made the driver stop. He got off the bike and heard later that the driver had had a deadly accident. He ascribed that sudden urge to get off the bike to his father. The fact that he was possessed by his father also is a very interesting element because this is a sort of bridge between the oracular world and the shamanic world.