The pronouncements of trance oracles have long played a crucial role in Tibetan politics and continue to do so today in Dharamsala. Indeed, these oracles are so revered that the State Oracle Nechung has the rank of a deputy minister in the Tibetan exile government to- day. An excerpt from the Tibetan government’s official website reads:
‘In the Tibetan tradition, the word oracle is used for a spirit which enters those men and women who act as mediums between the natural and the spiritual realms. The mediums are, therefore, known as “kuten”, which literally means, “the physical basis”.
‘In early times it is believed that there were hundreds of oracles throughout Tibet. Today, only a few survive, including those consulted by the Tibetan government…. Nechung Kuten is given the rank of a deputy minister in the exiled Tibetan Government hierarchy.’13
To understand the Tibetan exile government it is necessary to understand the pervasive influence that oracles in general, and the Nechung oracle in particular, have on its decision-making. Loosely speaking, an oracle or spirit medium is a human being who believes their body can be used by a spirit; but the majority of people who claim to be oracles are merely pretending. They claim that the spirit puts their human mind into an unconscious state and then uses their body to speak directly to humans.
Nechung is a Bön (the pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet) spirit who was appointed by the Fifth Dalai Lama as the personal protector of the Dalai Lamas. In Freedom in Exile the present Dalai Lama extols the virtues of his relationship with the Nechung spirit:
‘I seek his opinion in the same way as I seek the opinion of my Cabinet and just as I seek the opinion of my own conscience. I consider the gods to be my “upper house”. The Kashag constitutes my lower house. Like any other leader, I consult both before making a decision on affairs of state.’14
The Dalai Lama explains that he is very close to the Nechung spirit, ‘friends almost’, but that he is essentially in command, ‘My relationship with Nechung is that of commander to lieutenant.’ As he says, despite objections from more ‘progressive’ Tibetans, he continues to rely on this ‘ancient method of intelligence-gathering’ because in his opinion the answers he has received from the spirit medium have over time proven to be correct.15
The Dalai Lama graphically describes how the oracle enters into trance:
‘Now the kuten’s [spirit medium’s] face transforms, becoming rather wild before puffing up to give him an altogether strange appearance, with bulging eyes and swollen cheeks. His breathing begins to shorten and he starts to hiss violently. Then, momentarily, his respiration stops. At this point the helmet is tied in place with a knot so tight that it would undoubtedly strangle the kuten if something very real were not happening. The possession is now complete and the mortal frame of the medium expands visibly.’16
While the medium is possessed, questions are put to the oracle first by the Dalai Lama and then by members of his government. In this way, just ‘like any other leader’, the Dalai Lama consults his upper house – a spirit – before making decisions on affairs of state. The Dalai Lama says that Nechung’s answers are ‘rarely vague … But I suppose that it would be difficult for any scientific investigation either to prove or disprove conclusively the validity of his pronouncements.’17
If any other politician in the world were to consult a spirit medium about matters of state he or she would be universally derided and dismissed from office.
At critical points in Tibetan history, experience has proven the spirit medium’s advice to be both wrong and harmful. For example, in 1904 the British invaded Tibet under Colonel Younghusband, but they had no intention of openly attacking the Tibetans who were poorly equipped militarily. As the British force marched on Lhasa the Nechung oracle was consulted as to the best course of action. As Jamyang Norbu writes:
‘The oracle declared that the “enemies of the Dharma” would be soundly defeated by a “heavenly army” which he would personally lead. The Tibetans were, of course, overwhelmingly defeated, around seven hundred peasant levies being massacred in a couple of hours at the hot springs near Guru.
‘… The next year during the New Year celebrations in Lhasa, when the state oracle came charging out of the Jokhang Temple in full trance, as was the annual custom, the exasperated citizens of Lhasa are reported to have booed the god – the women flapping their aprons, and the men shouting “Hey-le! Hey-le!” or “Shame on you!” ’18
The Thirteenth Dalai Lama was so displeased with Nechung at that time that he forbade further consultations for a number of years.
It is commonly known that the Nechung oracle made a fatal error when prescribing wrong medicine to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama which resulted in his untimely death. It is believed that it was this medicine that worsened the Dalai Lama’s condition and led to his death.19 The Tibetan historian K. Dhondup, citing the testimony of the doctor present at the crucial diagnosis, tells us that due to fever the Dalai Lama’s condition had become extremely critical:
At that moment, I, Kuchar Kunphela, the medium of the Nechung Oracle and the Dalai Lama were the only persons present. The Nechung Oracle asked me if I had Chamjom Pawo 14, a medicine for cold disease. As this medicine was very strong, I could not risk giving it to the Dalai Lama. Therefore, I told the Nechung Oracle I did not have this medicine at all. Then the Nechung Oracle told us to ask his own attendant. Kuchar Kunphela quickly went outside and most probably met the attendant and obtained the medicine as he returned with a medicine bag with a spoon ready in it and offered the bag to the Nechung Oracle. The Oracle took a spoonful of medicine and offered it to the Dalai Lama. I did not know whether that medicine in that bag was Chamjom Pawo 14. Then the Oracle lost his trance. From that night onwards, the fever rose higher than before and the Dalai Lama was delirious. The illness went from bad to worse and on the 30th of the 10th month, [the next day], the Dalai Lama passed away.’20
Knowledge that this fatal error was made by the spirit medium – Nechung oracle – is also supported by the testimony of a clerk who worked for the Dalai Lama, as cited by Bell:
‘That same night, between 1 and 2 a.m., the medium gave the Precious Protector some medicine in the form of a powder. When the medium came out, Champa La, the Presence’s regular doctor, said to the medium, “You have made a mistake in the medicine” (Men di norra nangzha).’21
There is also an account in Bell that this mistake was the result of the Nechung oracle being taken over by an evil spirit. The spirit was the reincarnation of a tulku (incarnate lama) who some years before had been repeatedly flogged for alleged involvement in a plot to kill the Thirteenth Dalai Lama and had then taken his own life:
‘At the end of February 1934, Palhese [Bell’s great friend and informant], coming for his daily talk, asked me with suppressed eagerness, “Has Rai Bahadur Norbhu told you about recent happenings in Lhasa concerning the passing of the Precious Protector to the Field?”
‘[Bell replies:] “He has told me about the medium of the Nechung Oracle giving the Precious Protector medicine which injured him.”
‘Says Palhese, “It is about the medicine that I wish to speak. It was given at the instruction of a tulku from Nyarong (a province in Eastern Tibet), who has been reborn as a devil. It did indeed do injury; in fact, it made the Precious Protector [the Thirteenth Dalai Lama] an ‘Is Not’ [i.e., a dead person].” ’22
Palhese gave Bell further details about this ‘tulku’ and his violent death, his rebirth as a ‘devil’ and of the failed attempts to subdue him, concluding ‘Later on, it was noticed that the prophecies issu- ing through the prophet of the Nechung oracle were wrong and harmful.’23
Goldstein presents an even more damning indictment of the Nechung oracle’s role in the Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s death:
‘On this occasion, the Nechung oracle said that the Dalai Lama should take a medicine known as ‘the seventeen heroes for subduing colds’ (chamjom pawo chupdün) and himself prepared the medicine in a cup with water. Most respondents report that the Dalai Lama refused the dose and that the state oracle had literally to pour it into his mouth. The Dalai Lama’s condition immediately deteriorated, and by noon he was unconscious. He never said another word.’24
The Nechung oracle also had a negative role during the Chinese invasion in 1950:
‘During the flight of the Dalai Lama to Dromo (Yadong) in the Chumbi Valley at the time of the invasion of Tibet by the Chinese in 1950, the Nechung Oracle was consulted repeatedly as to what course of action the Tibetan ruler should take. Should he take refuge in India or should he stay in Tibet? Twice the Oracle said that he should stay in Tibet despite attempts by the government to get him to say the contrary. It is said that it was eventually discovered that he had been bribed to deliver his message by the pro-Chinese monks of Sera, …’.25
In more recent times the Nechung oracle has made repeated prophecies that Tibet would gain independence within a few years. He also said on a number of occasions that he would send a ‘heavenly army’ to drive out the Chinese.26 Of course these god- soldiers have failed to materialise and Tibet is still as firmly as ever under Chinese control. It is also well known that the Tibetan uprisings in Lhasa in the 1980s took place due to Nechung’s advice. The results were devastating, many Tibetans lost their lives and the Chinese cracked down even more harshly.27 The political bungling surrounding the recognition of the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama is also attributed to Nechung. He advised that the identity of the boy chosen by the Tibetans should be announced before the boy was officially recognised by the Chinese.28 This decision infuriated the Chinese and the young Panchen Lama has been under virtual house arrest ever since, with very little chance of being allowed to leave Tibet.29
As Jamyang Norbu comments:
‘What is mind-boggling in retrospect is the absolute faith of the public and even the Dalai Lama in these predictions that never even came remotely close to being realised.’30
It is primarily due to advice from the Nechung oracle that the present Dalai Lama has banned the worship of Dorje Shugden. It is known by many that the spirit medium of Nechung grew increasingly jealous of the Dalai Lama’s reliance on Dorje Shugden.31 Trijang Rinpoche, the Dalai Lama’s own Spiritual Guide and principal advisor for many years, relied on Dorje Shugden and encouraged all his students to do the same.
However, in recent years a number of other oracles have emerged in Dharamsala that are of even more questionable authority than Nechung but upon whom the Dalai Lama nevertheless relies to make crucial political and religious decisions:
‘Right now there is a glut of oracles in Dharamshala. Over and above the two state oracles there is the deity Dorjee Yudonma, one of the twelve Tenma goddesses, whose medium is a mild looking old amala [elderly woman]. There is also the oracle Lamo Tsangba, a local protective deity of Lhasa. His medium is a somewhat corpulent gentleman who was a trombone player in the Chinese military orchestra in Lhasa.’32
An event that occurred in November 1996 illustrates the confusion that these oracles are bringing to Tibetan society. In the main temple in Dharamsala, the Dalai Lama was attending the last day of six weeks of practices in connection with the invocation of a Deity known as Tamdrin Yangsang, the day on which the rituals including the ‘taking out of the tormas’ are performed. Those present included 75 monks from Sera Monastery, monks from Nechung Monastery, and also six or seven oracles of spirits chosen by the Dalai Lama. These oracles proceeded to go into trance, and a female oracle of the long-life protectoress Tsering Chenma, who had previously made virulent statements against the practice of Dorje Shugden, began attacking the Deity Dorje Shugden, saying that ‘even within this congregation there are still those who practise Dorje Shugden.’ Then:
‘Another female oracle, Yudonma, then pointed to Jangmar Rinpoche from Drepung Loseling monastery, a Lama in his late 60s who was originally from Gyalthang province of eastern Tibet, and started shouting, “This Lama is bad, he is following Dorje Shugden, take him out, take him out!” She then starts pulling his robes and grabbing his head. The Lama gets up and slaps her twice. There was uproar in the temple: all taking place in front of the Dalai Lama. Jangmar Rinpoche was pushed out of the Temple, and the scuffle continued outside, with Jangmar Rinpoche being heard to say, “It is you spirits who are causing all this mess. It is you who are causing disharmony. You spirits cannot be trusted.” Later, he threatened to take the medium to court, but was persuaded not to by the Dalai Lama. When he reported this incident to the Dalai Lama directly the next day the Dalai Lama says, “You have no fault, I know very well that you are not a practitioner of Dorje Shugden. Sometimes these oracles are a little too much. It is good you gave a slap.” ’33
So even the Dalai Lama himself, who relies upon the spirit medium of Nechung as his ‘deputy minister’ of government, recognises that oracles are not reliable sources of qualified information.
The oracle of the Deity Tsering Chenma is regarded so highly by the Dalai Lama that she was even allowed to live in his palace in Dharamsala. When she first arrived from Tibet, she was a young and attractive woman, and the Dalai Lama listened carefully to her pronouncements.34 Unfortunately, she is just as unreliable as the other alleged spirit mediums.
In July 1996 during the preparations for a Kalachakra Initiation to be given by the Dalai Lama in Lahul Spiti, this same oracle, Tsering Chenma, alleged that thirty members of the Dorje Shugden Society from Delhi would attack the Dalai Lama during the initiation. Elaborate security measures were taken but no weapons were found, no plot was uncovered and it was discovered that there was no one even present from the Dorje Shugden Society!35
Oracles have played a role in Tibetan history for a long time. Their influence, however, has never been as dominant as it is now in Dharamsala. Many ordinary Tibetans and distinguished lamas are concerned about this growing influence. Gonsar Rinpoche has been quoted on German television as saying:
‘These days the State and other oracles – there are about four other oracles in India – play a great role in the different decisions of our exile government. Many of us think that this is somewhat of a risk.’36
The question naturally arises: if the Dalai Lama is an enlightened being – as some believe he is – why does he have to rely on the advice of spirits channelled through trance-oracles? An enlightened being would necessarily be able to make his or her own decisions based on omniscient wisdom, and would not have to turn to such questionable methods. If other politicians in the world were to ely upon trance-oracles they would be laughed out of office. As Lukhangwa, a former Tibetan prime minister, told the Dalai Lama in 1956: ‘When men become desperate they consult the gods. And when the gods become desperate, they tell lies.’37
These however are not the only dubious means by which the Dalai Lama makes his decisions. He openly admits that he uses dough balls, dice and dreams to help him come to important decisions,38 for example, he is quoted as saying:
‘I conducted a dough-ball examination and dice divination, which were so convincing that since 1975 I have completely stopped this practice [of Dorje Shugden]. I have not even had a portentous dream to make me wonder if the deity is vexed.’39
Considering that his political activities are based on these methods of discrimination we should not be surprised that in all these years he has not accomplished anything substantial for the Tibetan people.
In an interview for the Spanish magazine Más Allá Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, the Founder and Spiritual Director of the New Kadampa Tradition – International Kadampa Buddhist Union, was asked:
‘It is said that the Dalai Lama has more oracles (mediums) than ministers, that he is surrounded by oracles and that he does not take a step without consulting them. What do you think about such reliance? Do you think that there is a hidden power at the palace in Dharamsala?’
Geshe Kelsang Gyatso replied:
‘This reliance is inappropriate. These methods of divination are often the source of many problems, conflicts and quarrels, and give rise to superstition. The person who gets into the habit of relying upon these methods ends up losing self-confidence, and there comes a time when he becomes incapable of making a single decision by himself based on logical reasoning and using his own wisdom, or relying on the wisdom of other experts who could advise him. Buddha did not teach these methods, they are not Buddhist practices.’40
It is interesting to note the Fourteenth Dalai Lama himself is on record as saying that oracles have ‘nothing to do with Buddhism … they should be looked upon as a manifestation of popular superstition’41, but on the other hand he still sincerely relies upon them to make important decisions on political and religious matters that affect the lives of millions of people. For him spirit mediums are more important than his root Spiritual Guide, and Buddha Shakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism. In 1971 the Dalai Lama was quoted as saying about oracles:
‘This has nothing to do with Buddhism. The oracles are absolutely without importance. They are only small tree-spirits. They do not belong to the three treasures of Buddhism. Relations with them are of no help for our next incarnation. They should be looked upon as manifestations of popular superstition which is deleterious to the health of human beings.’42
This is just one of many examples of the Dalai Lama contradicting himself – saying one thing but doing another. What is clear is that in relying upon the Nechung oracle the Fourteenth Dalai Lama is following a spirit with a history of false prophecies. The Dalai Lama is free to listen to a spirit-oracle when deciding his personal affairs, but it is clearly inappropriate, if not outrageous, that the fate of the Tibetan people and of millions of Buddhist practitioners should be decided in this way.
To understand the destructive nature of the union of religion and politics as practised in Tibet, and how it continues to have a deeply harmful effect on Tibetan society, it is necessary to look briefly at an overview of Tibetan history and the role of the Dalai Lamas in it, in particular at the roles of the Fifth, Thirteenth and Fourteenth Dalai Lamas.