The State Oracle of Tibet
Like many ancient
civilizations of the world, the phenomenon of oracles remains an
important part of the Tibetan way of life.
Tibetans rely on oracles for
various reasons. The purpose of the oracles is not just to foretell the
future. They are called upon as protectors and sometimes used as
healers. However, their primary function is to protect the Buddha Dharma
and its practitioners.
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.
Of these, the principal one is the Nechung
oracle. Through him manifests Dorje Drak-den (Nechung), the principal
protector divinity of the Tibetan government and the Dalai Lama. It is because of this that Nechung Kuten
is given the rank of a deputy minister in the exiled Tibetan government
In his autobiography, Freedom in Exile, His Holiness the Dalai
"For hundreds of years
now, it has been traditional for the Dalai Lama, and the Government,
to consult Nechung during the New Year festivals. In addition, he
might well be called upon at other times if either have specific
queries. I myself have dealings with him several times a year This
may sound far-fetched to twentieth-century western readers. Even
some Tibetans, mostly those who consider themselves ’progressive’,
have misgivings about my continued use of this ancient method of
But I do so for the simple reason that as I
look back over the many occasions when I have asked questions of the
oracle, on each one of them time has proved that his answer was
correct. This is not to say that I rely solely on the oracle’s
advice. I do not. 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. And sometimes, in
addition to Nechung’s counsel, I also take into consideration
"In one respect, the responsibility of Nechung and the
responsibility of the Dalai Lama towards Tibet are the same, though
we act in different ways. My task, that of leadership, is peaceful.
His, in his capacity as protector and defender, is wrathful.
However, although our functions are similar, my relationship with Nechung is that of commander to lieutenant: I never bow down to him.
It is for Nechung to bow to the Dalai Lama. Yet we are very close,
friends almost. When I was small, it was touching. Nechung liked me
a lot and always took great care of me. For example, if he noticed
that I had dressed carelessly or improperly, he would come over and
rearrange my shirt, adjust my robe and so on.
"Nechung has always shown respect for me. Even when his relations
with the Government have deteriorated, as they did during the last
few years of the Regency, he invariably responds enthusiastically
whenever asked anything about me. At the same time, his replies to
questions about government policy can be crushing. Sometimes he just
responds with a burst of sarcastic laughter. I well remember a
particular incident that occurred when I was about fourteen. Nechung
was asked a question about China.
Rather than answer it directly, the Kuten turned towards the East and began bending forward
violently. It was frightening to watch, knowing that this movement
combined with the weight of the massive helmet he wore on his head
would be enough to snap his neck. He did it at least fifteen times,
leaving no one in any doubt about where the danger lay.
"Dealing with Nechung is by no means easy. It takes time and
patience during each encounter before he will open up. He is very
reserved and austere, just as you would imagine a grand old man of
ancient times to be. Nor does he bother with minor matters: his
interest is only in the larger issues, so it pays to frame questions
accordingly. He also has definite likes and dislikes, but he does
not show them very readily.
"Nechung has his own monastery in Dharamsala, but usually he comes
to me. On formal occasions, the Kuten is dressed in an elaborate
costume consisting of several layers of clothing topped by a highly
ornate robe of golden silk brocade, which is covered with ancient
designs in red and blue and green and yellow. On his chest he wears
a circular mirror which is surrounded by clusters of turquoise and
amethyst, its polished steel flashing with the Sanskrit mantra
corresponding to Dorje Drakden.
Before the proceedings begin, he
also puts on a sort of harness, which supports four flags and three
victory banners. Altogether, this outfit weighs more than seventy
pounds and the medium, when not in trance, can hardly walk in it.
The Tibetan state
New Year prophecy of
"The ceremony begins with chanted invocations and prayers,
accompanied by the urgings of horns, cymbals and drums.
short while, the Kuten enters his trance, having been supported
until then by his assistants, who now help him over to a small stool
set before my throne. Then, as the first prayer cycle concludes and
the second begins, his trance begins to deepen. At this point, a
huge helmet is placed on his head. This item weighs approximately
thirty pounds, though in former times it weighed over eighty
"Now the kuten’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.
"Next, he leaps up with a start and, grabbing a ritual sword from
one of his attendants, begins to dance with slow, dignified, yet
somehow menacing, steps. He then comes in front of me and either
prostrates fully or bows deeply from the waist until his helmet
touches the ground before springing back up, the weight of his
regalia counting for nothing. The volcanic energy of the deity can
barely be contained within the earthly frailty of the kuten, who
moves and gestures as if his body were made of rubber and driven by
a coiled spring of enormous power.
"There follows an interchange between Nechung and myself, where he
makes ritual offerings to me. I then ask any personal questions I
have for him. After replying, he returns to his stool and listens to
questions put by members of the Government. Before giving answers to
these the Kuten begins to dance again, thrashing his sword above his
head. He looks like a magnificent, fierce Tibetan warrior chieftain
"As soon as Dorje Drakden has finished speaking, the Kuten makes a
final offering before collapsing, a rigid and lifeless form,
signifying the end of the possession. Simultaneously, the knot
holding his helmet in place is untied in a great hurry by his
assistants, who then carry him out to recover whilst the ceremony
"Surprising as it may seem, the oracle’s replies to questions are
rarely vague. As in the case of my escape from Lhasa, he is often
very specific. But I suppose that it would be difficult for any
scientific investigation either to prove or disprove conclusively
the validity of his pronouncements.
The same would surely be true of
other areas of Tibetan experience, for example the matter of tulkus
The earliest account of Nechung can be traced back to his relationship
with the great Indian Spiritual King Kunchog Bhang, who was an emanation
of Arya Avalokiteshvara. In 750 AD, the Dharma protector had a special
connection with the Tibetan King Tri-Song Deu-Tsan.
However, it was only in 1544 AD that for the first time the spirit of
Nechung was possessed in a human being. Thus, Drag Trang-Go-Wa Lobsang
Palden became the first medium of Nechung. During the reign of the Great
Fifth Dalai Lama, Gangkyi-Pa Tsewang Pelbar was recognized as the fourth
medium of Nechung or Tibet’s State Oracle.
At that time, Nechung
monastery had around 50 monks.
Venerable Thupten Ngodup
(Medium of the State
After the passing away of
the Great Fifth Dalai Lama, the Regent Desi Sangye Gyatso (1653-1705)
ruled Tibet, and Kongpo Lobsang Gyatso succeeded the previous medium. It
was during this period that Nechung monastery flourished
The sixth medium, Ngawang Gyatso brought some major changes in the
liturgical tradition of Nechung monastery. He instituted the entire
cycle of practices comprising of the retreat, the accomplishment, and
the ritual tradition of Sog-Khang Drub-Pa Chen-Mo (Grand immutable Life
Shelter), a primary meditational retreat practice on Hayagriva and Gyal-Po
Ku-Nga (Five Dharma Kings), and the complimentary ritual fire offering,
invocation rite and the cross-thread rituals (Doe) and longevity rites,
as are explained in Shal-Treng Kar-Poi Gyud (White Crystal Tantra).
medium also introduced Sog-Khang Nam-Shad Lak-Pe Kun-Shay (Omniscience
Through Reading the Commentary of the Life Shelter) and others.
The Seventh Medium, Tsangyang Tamdin, also known as Lobsang Tashi,
instituted the rites of Dag-Dun Bum-Sum (Self-generation, Generation
In-front and Vase-generation) of the Thirteen Deities of Yamantaka, as
well as the grand consecration rite of Ge-Leg Char-Beb (Auspicious
Lhalungpa Shakya Yarphel became the eighth medium of Nechung during the
reign of the Tenth Dalai Lama, Tsultrim Gyatso (1816-1837) and remained
so, until the first part of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama’s rule. During
this time, Nechung monastery then had 115 monks.
This medium of Tibet’s
State Oracle restored Zhi-sum (Three Basic Rites) of the monastic
discipline. He also founded retreat cells on the hills of Lhalung, where
there used to be a meditation cell belonging to Lhalung Pelgyi Dorjee,
the Buddhist monk responsible for killing Lang Dharma, the anti-Buddhist
king. The medium Lhalungpa Shakya Yarphel built Pehar Chog (chapel) at
the old Me-Ru monastery.
It was during his time that Nechung monastery
received Dra-Chyis Phun-Rab estate and Min-Drug estate and others.
Drapchi Phunrabpa Tsering Palden also voluntarily offered the exquisite
golden roof placed atop Nechung monastery and the 21 gold-coated statues
of Tara, a human-sized statue of Avalokiteshvara Sem-Nyid Ngal-So, as
well as a silver cascade altar containing two statues made of Sha-li
bronze and Zhi-Khim bronze.
For the assembly hall below, he offered a
special Guru Nang-Srid Zil-Non statue, and a pair of gold butter lamp
pots, known as Kal-Zang Chod-Kong (Auspicious Butter Lamp Pot) that
could each retain about four kilograms of butter.
In short, Drapchi Phunrabpa Tsering Palden offered all his wealth,
property and belongings to Nechung monastery as a resource for the
conduct of future ceremonial activities.
During the same period, Barn-Rim monastery in Kongpo region also came
under Nechung’s administrative control. The general masses serving the
government estates voluntarily offered a portion of their taxes to the
government as offerings to Nechung monastery and requested the monastery
to accept them as its subjects.
Besides, a small monastery known as Lha-Ri Zim-Bug or Pad-Me Zim-Bug of Phung-Po Ri-Bo-Che in the Tsang region and two nunneries located in Ki-Lung
area of Phenpo also became branch monasteries of Nechung monastery.
Lobsang Sonam of Kham became the ninth medium of Tibet’s Nechung Oracle,
and Lhalungpa Gyaltsen Tharchin became the tenth medium. Lobsang Sonam
was reinstalled as the eleventh medium. While he was in trance, the
State Oracle pronounced a prayer for the speedy return of the Thirteenth
After the demise of the Great Thirteenth Dalai Lama, Lobsang Namgyal
(ca. 1935) of Derbag, near Nechung monastery, became the twelfth medium.
He accompanied the Regent, Reting Rinpoche, to Samye monastery at the
Samye restoration ceremony.
When the Tibetan government requested him to perform a trance in the
presence of Guru Nga-Dra-Ma’s statue, the oracle through him made
prophesies regarding the search for the reincarnation of the Thirteenth
Dalai Lama. The oracle left a resource for the conduct of ceremonial
rituals at Nechung monastery, especially for the conduct of
Avalokiteshvara Dro-Wa Kun-Drol rituals.
In 1945, Lobsang Jigme of Lhasa was publicly proclaimed to be the new
and the thirteenth medium of Tibet’s State Oracle. He became the first Nechung kuten (medium) to rise from the ranks of Nechung monastery. His
predecessors had all come from else-where.
In 1949, during a trance performed at Tsom-Chen Nyi-Od (Sunny Hall), the
oracle gave clear prophesies concerning the spiritual and temporal
issues relating to Tibet.
Likewise, during a trance performance at the main hall of Drepung
monastery, it left clear-cut prophesies to remove obstacles and
hindrances to the life of the present Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso.
The medium also offered costumes and built a special altar for the
Thousand golden statues of the Buddha and the Twenty-one Taras housed in
Nechung monastery’s middle storey called Zam-Ling Zim-Chung (Universal
During the 1959 Tibetan national uprising against China’s invasion and
occupation of Tibet, the State Oracle, Nechung, communicating through
his medium Venerable Lobsang Jigme, left very clear prophesies about the
escape route to be followed by His Holiness the Dalai Lama into exile in
Venerable Losang Jigme, who also escaped to India, following the Chinese
occupation of Tibet, continued to serve as the medium of Tibet’s State
Oracle until he passed away in Dharamsala on April 26, 1984.
The present and the fourteenth medium of the State Oracle is Venerable
Thubten Ngodup. Born in 1957 in Phari, Tibet, he and his family fled the
country after the Chinese invasion. He came to Dharamsala in 1969 and
joined Nechung monastery in 1971.
The first time Venerable Thubten Ngodup was possessed by Nechung’s
spirit was on March 31, 1987. After this, His Holiness
the Dalai Lama privately had Venerable Thubten Ngodup perform a trance
in his presence, during which His Holiness tested him in accordance with
Later on, a number of trances were requested and he also went on a
retreat of Hayagriva, the meditational deity Padma Wangchen and of
Guru Rinpoche’s La-Drub (Self-generation) practice.
On September 4, 1987, Venerable Thubten Ngodup was recognized by His
Holiness the Dalai Lama as the new medium of the State Oracle of Tibet
and an official ceremony to this effect was held at Nechung monastery in
Dharamsala, the seat of the Tibetan government in exile.
Faith and the...
In the United States, we pride ourselves on our objectiveness, our
ability not to get caught up in religious fervor. We often think that
people who believe deeply in their religion and involve it in all
aspects of their lives are "fanatics"—that they are somehow beneath us,
less deserving of our respect.
We are taught almost from birth that the
scientific method is the only way to look at the world. We learn the
steps of the scientific method (observation, hypothesis, test, and
theory) in elementary school. This philosophy then colors how we think
of everything after that. Faith is seen as an undesirable quality and
has no place in our culture. Nothing is real unless it can be proven.
In Tibet, on the other hand, the Tibetan people have a profound respect
for their religion. Buddhism permeates every aspect of their lives.
As Harrer says in Seven Years in Tibet,
The daily life of Tibetans is ordered by religious belief. Pious texts
are constantly on their lips; prayer wheels turn without ceasing; prayer
flags wave on the roofs of houses and the summits of mountain passes;
the rain, the win, all the phenomena of nature, the lonely peaks of the
snow-clad mountains bear witness to the universal presence of the gods
whose anger is manifested by the hailstorm, and whose benevolence is
displayed by the fruitfulness and fertility of the land.
(Harrer, 1953 p 187)
Religion had a part in everything from politics to when they were
allowed to change clothing for the season.
One day the summer season was officially declared to have begun, and
summer clothes might be worn. One had no right to leave off one’s furs
when one wanted to. Every year, after considerations of the omens, a day
was fixed on which the nobles and monks put on summer dress…Summer dress
must be worn from that date only.
(Harrer, 1953 p182)
Because religion is such an integral part of their lives, Buddhism
unites the Tibetan people.
I propose that the State Oracle in Tibet
symbolizes the Tibetan people’s ability to exist in the modern world
they have been thrown into since their exile, while at the same time
retaining the intense religious faith that defines them as a culture.
Section 1: The
Historical Role of the Nechung Oracle
The historical home of the State Oracle of Tibet was Nechung
Monastery. Before the Tibetan diaspora in 1959, Nechung was located
four miles west of Lhasa and had since the time of the Thirteenth
Dalai Lama supported 115 monks. Nechung, however, was one of the
approximately 6000 monasteries destroyed when the Chinese invaded
Tibet in 1949.
The Tibetan people have begun to partially rebuild
the monastery in Chinese occupied Tibet, and fortunately,
Of the approximately 70,000 Tibetans who successfully followed the
Dalai Lama into exile in 1959 and 1960, an estimated 5,000-7,000
were monks, a tiny fraction of the monastic population of Tibet. But
a disproportionate number of the monks who escaped (and remained
monks in exile) were from the ranks of incarnate lamas and the
scholarly elite, and they worked to reestablish their monastic
institutions (of all sects) in exile.
(Lopez, 1999 p151)
Six monks from Nechung Monastery
survived its razing in the Chinese Cultural Revolution and preserved
the monastery’s complex rituals and traditions. Nechung
was rebuilt in Dharamsala, India and currently is home to about
seventy monks including the present Medium of the State Oracle,
Venerable Thupten Ngodup.
Nechung’s Oracle, or Kuten as he is called in Tibetan, has
traditionally been one of the main advisors to the Dalai Lama and is
also consulted during the search for his reincarnation. Upon the
death of the Dalai Lama, the State Oracle is immediately consulted
about where the Dalai Lama is going to reincarnate. He gives the
search party their first indication of where to begin looking.
Some time before his death, in 1933, the thirteenth Dalai Lama had
given intimations regarding the manner of his rebirth. After his
death, the body sat in state at the Potala in traditional Buddha
posture, looking toward the south. One morning, it was noticed that
his head was turned toward the east. The State Oracle was
straightaway consulted, and while in his trance the monk threw a
white scarf in the direction of the rising sun.
(Harrer, 1953 p298)
The regent then went to the sacred lake,
Chö Khor Gye to ask for a
vision to help in finding the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation. When the
search party set out in 1937, they traveled east, in the direction
all of the signs had pointed. When they finally found the child
incarnation, it was in the east, in China.
The oracle also plays a role in welcoming the newly recognized
leader into Lhasa.
Also present was the medium of the chief State Oracle, surrounded by
his attendants. As the Dalai Lama’s palanquin arrived, the
protective deity abruptly took possession.
Dressed in thick silk
robes, a polished silver mirror across his chest and a massive
flag-festooned helmet weighing almost a hundred pounds on his head,
the Protector rushed forward, hissing, cheeks puffed, eyes bulging,
rhythmically kicking his legs in the air and bending them at the
knees in the deity’s honorific dance. In his hands he held a long
white scarf or kata to offer the child.
Bowing abruptly from the
waist, he snapped his neck down with no difficulty, despite the
helmet’s weight, touched his forehead to the boy’s and presented the
scarf, which, calmly accepting, Lhamo Dhondrub then draped around
the oracle’s neck in blessing.
(Avedon, 1997 p11)
In addition to participating in the search for the reincarnation of
the Dalai Lama and welcoming him to his capital, the Nechung Kuten
is also often consulted by the Dalai Lama about important matters
such as whether the Chinese were going to invade and whether he
should then leave Tibet.
As early as 1945,four years before the end of China’s civil war and
with it the inevitable renewal of aggression against Tibet by the
victor, the State Oracle had faced eastward in a trance, wildly
shaking his head in warning. In 1947, he had prophesied that in the
Year of the Iron Tiger—1950—Tibet would face "great difficulty."
(Avedon, 1997 p25)
And as the Dalai Lama said,
Nechung was asked a question about China. Rather than answering it
directly, the Kuten turned towards the East and began bending
forward violently. It was frightening to watch, knowing that this
movement combined with the weight of the massive helmet he wore on
his head would be enough to snap his neck. He did it at least
fifteen times, leaving no one in any doubt about where the danger
These prophesies, combined with other perceived signs from the gods
of danger for Tibet, such as the earthquake in 1950 in the south of
the country, and a second prophesy by the Oracle a few months before
the appearance of Chinese soldiers close to the Norbulingka (Avedon,
1997 52) precipitated the Dalai Lama’s flight to India in 1959.
Though there were obviously other factors affecting his decision,
the Dalai Lama must have no doubts that he is really hearing the
voice of Dorje Drakden when the Oracle speaks in trance, if the he
believed the prediction enough to leave the country because of it.
This is symbolic of the Tibetan people in general. Even though they
were unprepared for being forced into the outside world since they
had cut themselves off from it for so long, the Tibetans show no
signs of being overwhelmed by the wonders modern science.
have the complete and utter faith in Buddhism suffusing their lives
that Harrer noticed during his stay in Tibet.
In all these years I have never met anyone who expressed the
slightest doubt about the truth of the Buddha’s teaching…One cannot
close one’s heart to the religious fervor that radiates from
(Harrer, 1953 p188)
The same feeling is still evident in
Dharamsala today, expressed in
the same ever-present prayer flags and prayer wheels that were to be
seen in Lhasa.
Testing the Oracle’s Validity
As was mentioned above, the Nechung medium is believed to be
possessed of the spirit of Dorje Drakden when he enters his trance.
When they have to find the a new medium following the Oracle’s
death, therefore, it is very important for the Tibetans to be sure
that the medium they choose is the one that the god has chosen to
speak through. For this reason, there is an extended series of tests
that the prospective Kuten must go through before being confirmed as
the Nechung Oracle.
The way in which the mediums are discovered is not the same every
time, though in each case it appears that Dorje Drakden takes
possession of the new medium he has chosen. For example, the
Thirteenth State Oracle, Lobsang Jigme developed a strange "illness"
around his tenth birthday, in which he would sleepwalk and go into
seizures where he would shout and thrash about. Then, when he was
fourteen, during one of his trances he began to perform the
honorific dance of Dorje Drakden.
This, however, was not enough to
put him up as a candidate for being the new medium since he was an
unknown, adolescent monk. Normally candidates are well known mediums
of other deities. The Gadong medium, however, insisted while under
possession by Shinjachen that Lobsang Jigme was the chosen medium.
The monks of Nechung monastery tested this proclamation extensively
by putting Lobsang Jigme’s name, along with the names of all the
other candidates into a vessel and spinning it until one of them
came out before they accepted this prophecy. Lobsang Jigme’s name
was always the one that was ejected. (Avedon, 1997 p203-210)
The present State Oracle, Thupten Ngodup, was also possessed by
Dorje Drakden before being recognized as the chosen medium, though
he experienced no sleepwalking or seizures. During the ceremony to
ask for the blessing of Nechung monastery, which was being performed
without a medium since Lobsang Jigme had died and a new medium not
yet been found, Thupten Ngodup found himself possessed of by the
spirit of Dorje Drakden.
After the medium has been discovered, he must still be tested before
he is proclaimed as Nechung’s new Oracle.
The test consists of three
In the first part, which is considered easy, the
prospective Kuten is asked to name the contents of sealed boxes.
Next, he is required to be able to recite verbatim prophecies that
he had given on a previous occasion the monks specified. All of the
Oracle’s prophecies were transcribed in massive written texts. This
test was considered nearly impossible to pass unless Dorje Drakden
is actually present, as his prophecies are very cryptic and poetic
Thirdly, the medium’s breath is checked to see if it has
the faint odor of nectar that is characteristic of possession by
Tibet’s Protector. This last test is considered to be the most
accurate and the most definitive.
A final sign that reveals that
spirit of Dorje Drakden had actually possessed the medium is the
appearance of the imprint a dorje on the top of his head for several
minutes after the trance has ended. (Avedon, 1997 p211-212)
Section 3: The
Extensive preparation and ceremony surround the trance in which the
spirit of Dorje Drakden possesses the Nechung Oracle.
entered by Kutens, Tibetan deities,
Become incarnate in male and female mediums, who lose consciousness
and go into a trance: the human ego is blotted out, and the medium’s
body is used as a support for the deity who fills him and speaks
through his mouth.
(Stein, 1972 p187)
Before attempting a trance,
the Oracle must purify both his mind and
body. To purify his body, he has stopped eating pork, garlic, onions
and other impure foods and eaten off of his own separate set of
plates for two days before the trance. (Avedon, 1997 p191) To
complete the preparation, the Kuten must prepare also prepare his
mind through practicing deity yoga and meditation techniques to get
it into the right state for Dorje Drakden to take possession.
order to reach the level of trance in which the deity is able to
achieve complete control of the medium and transmit his message
clearly, the medium has to make sure that,
"the 72,000 psychic
channels upon which, according to tantric theory, consciousness is
mounted in the human body [are] clear of all obstructions."
If he is new to the practice or is not fully prepared,
the Kuten can find,
"the process of clearing the psychic channels or
tsa by which the Protector will enter him, extremely painful."
1997 p 198)
In addition, the disposition of the possessing deity
also determines whether the trance experience is painful or not. The
Gadong Kuten is possessed by Shinjachen, who is a "manifestly
wrathful spirit," and so his trance is always more painful. (Avedon,
The power of the deity possessing the Kuten also
determines whether the experience is painful for him.
On only two occasions a
year did Lobsang Jigme experience serious discomfort in his
occupation. At these times, two of the Five Kings, the superiors of Dorje Drakden and Shinjachen, would come with the ministers and very
briefly take possession of the Nechung and Gadong mediums. In the
case of the Nechung kuden, Trinley Gyalpo, the Northern King of
Action, would follow Dorje Drakden into the medium’s body…
the intervening energy of Dorje Drakden to modulate the current of
White Pehar, as Trinley Gyalpo was often called, the medium would
immediately die… At the moment of entry, the medium’s body, already
swollen from Dorje Drakden, would become rigid, arms and legs outstretched, blood
gushing from his nostrils.
(Avedon, 1997 p213)
The reason that Trinley Gyalpo caused the
Nechung medium so much
pain, even though he is not a "wrathful spirit," is because he is
the "superior of Dorje Drakden" and so is much more powerful. The
Kuten’s body is just not really capable of containing him.
After the Nechung medium has completed his preparations and before
he actually goes into trance for a formal occasion, he must first
put on an elaborate costume. The costume consists of embroidered
robes with flags and victory banners flying from his back:
The Kuten is dressed in an elaborate costume consisting of several
layers of clothing topped by a highly ornate robe of golden silk
brocade, which is covered with ancient designs in red and blue and
green and yellow. On his chest he wears a circular mirror which is
surrounded by clusters of turquoise and amethyst, its polished steel
flashing with the Sanskrit mantra corresponding to Dorje Drakden.
Before the proceedings begin, he also puts on a sort of harness,
which supports four flags and three victory banners.
The circular mirror on the Oracle’s chest is where he is supposed to
see what is in the future for Tibet for the coming year. As
says, the mirror is inscribed with the Sanskrit word khri, which
Having finished the necessary meditations, the Oracle is ready to
begin the trance. After he is completely possessed by the spirit of
Dorje Drakden, attendant monks place upon his head a massive helmet
which is tied so tightly that, were the medium not in trance, it
would immediately strangle him.
This is why it must be removed
immediately after the Protector releases the Kuten. The helmet that
was used when the ceremony was performed in Tibet weighed eighty to
ninety pounds, though the one used today only weighs approximately
thirty pounds. The helmet is just as elaborately decorated as the
rest of the Kuten’s costume.
It was decorated with peacock feathers, cock feathers, and vulture
feathers (especially the fluffy feathers from the legs of the
vultures—but when these were not available, cotton was substituted),
gold, precious stones, and in the center of the crown, an odd piece
of red glass said to have an unearthly glow when the oracle was in
full trance. The entire headdress was attached to his head by
leather cords wrapped in silk…Its enormous weight could break his
neck in a normal state.
(Tung, 1980 p200)
Each part of this costume: the robes, the headdress, weighs a
considerable amount. As mentioned above, the helmet weighs around
thirty pounds. The robes themselves weigh over one hundred pounds. (Avedon,
That means the Kuten is supporting approximately
one hundred and thirty pounds of extra weight when he is in
trance. In previous times, with the additional weight of the heavier
headdress, the outfit the oracle would have been performing in would
have amounted to over one hundred and eighty pounds of costume. When
the medium is not in trance, he is barely able to walk in this
costume and must be helped to the stool on which he is seated at the
start of the ceremony.
The traditions surrounding the consultation of the Nechung Oracle
during the Tibetan New Year festivals are very involved.
Dalai Lama says,
The ceremony begins with chanted invocations and prayers,
accompanied by the urgings of horns, cymbals and drums. After a
short while, the Kuten enters his trance, having been supported
until then by his assistants, who now help him over to a small stool
set before my throne. Then as the first prayer cycle concludes and
the second begins, his trance begins to deepen.
At this point, Dorje Drakden takes control of his body. When he has
completely taken control, several changes take place in the medium.
These signs must be present before questioning of the Oracle takes
place. The signs that the monks look for are the swelling of the
medium’s body up to two inches, support of the heavy costume with
ease, and the tinkling of bells attached to the helmet’s top and the
bouncing of the mirror on his chest due to increased heartbeat. (Avedon,
As soon as the helmet is fastened upon the Oracle’s head, Dorje Drakden shows that he is fully in possession of his body.
Leaping up, he swings a long sword in his right hand and begins to
dance. His movements are martial, wrathful, dignified. They are
executed with supernormal precision… Bending straight down from the
waist, he bows low, crossing both arms over his chest, then
instantly springs back, the helmet’s mass counting for nothing.
Waving the heavy sword in the air, he first lifts his right leg and
arm, the knee and elbow bent, and then his left. This is the basic
step of the cham or ritual dance, interspersed with bows offered out
of respect for the Dalai Lama.
Spinning from side to side, he
repeats the gestures with such alacrity that the attendants,
hovering two feet away, appear to be in another dimension of time,
their steps sluggish, their movements coarse in comparison to the
frenetic agility before them.
(Avedon, 1997 p195)
The Protector then
offers scarves to the Dalai Lama and the other
main images around the room before hearing questions. There are
normally three questions asked of Dorje Drakden. The questions are
asked in verse about the Tibetan government’s, Tibetan people’s or
Dalai Lama’s future.
The questions are about such things as,
appointment of a new governor, the discovery of a new Incarnation,
[or] matters involving war and peace."
(Harrer, 1953 p202)
questions are normally spoken out loud, but when greater secrecy is
required, they are written on slips of paper and given to the
medium. He then puts them under his helmet and answers them without
looking at them. The deity first performs another dance, then
responds through the medium offering council, his answers also in
verse. His responses to the questions are recorded by a secretary
monk and preserved in Nechung monastery’s records.
After the questions are answered, spirit departs, and the helmet is
removed immediately, before it chokes the Kuten.
According to the
replies to questions are rarely vague…he is often very
Following the ceremony,
the Kuten is taken somewhere where he can
rest and is divested of his heavy costume while he recovers. He
remembers nothing of what happens during the ceremony.
Just before the trance, I see and sense what is going around me. But
gradually even my senses dissolve and then in a kind of sleep-state I
become totally absorbed, and do no t correctly remember what has
happened and been said. Normally, when I am seated on the throne
with my costumes on, I do my meditations while reciting the mantras
Slowly, I get possessed through a deeper state of
absorption, and then gradually feel distant from my own identity and
surroundings. It is like having a dream and not remembering it the
The same is the case with me before and after I come
out of trance.
The Nechung Oracle going into a trance in Kundeling
The Nechung Oracle in trance during the Lugong ceremony,
The Nechung Oracle, Lhasa
It is preferred that he
attempt to get into the deepest trance, in which he is completely
possessed and unconscious because,
As the most delicate policies of state, both domestic and foreign
were involved with the oracle, the possibility of a leak, either
from a malignant spirit taking possession (and subsequently,
relating information via another medium) or from the medium himself
retaining some trace memory of the trance, was ever-present.
(Avedon, 1997 p211)
The reasoning behind this precaution is obvious, in that, since
Oracle’s prophecies would be used for everything from deciding
matters of foreign affairs to determining where a powerful Lama had
reincarnated. Just as with any other nation’s matters of state, it
would be very disadvantageous if the information obtained from the
Oracle was made public knowledge.
The prophecies made by the Nechung Oracle are often of great service
to Tibet. For example, as mentioned before, the Oracle plays an
important role in the search for the Dalai Lama’s reincarnation. He
also prophesied the invasion by the Chinese in 1947, and advised the
Dalai Lama about when he should leave Tibet.
When, in 1951, the
United States convinced the Dalai Lama that he should go to the US
for sanctuary, he changed his mind and decided to remain in Tibet
"The State Oracle was consulted and on two occasions
instructed Tibet’s ruler to return."
It wasn’t until 1957, after the
Oracle had advised that it was time for him to leave did he actually
flee to India (Avedon, 1997 p36, 52) following the path
advised by the Oracle Dorje Drakden also foretold when and how his medium should leave
Tibet as well.
When asked what his Oracle should do,
Dorje Drakden replied that after
Lobsang Jigme recovered form
possession, he should leave Drepung immediately and begin walking
south. He was to follow the same route the Dalai Lama had taken.
Protector guaranteed that nothing untoward would happen, and then,
wrapping blessed barley grains in a white scarf which he gave to the
attendants, he instructed them to burn a single grain whenever
difficulty was encountered.
Whatever thoughts occurred to them at
the moment, he said, they should immediately act on.
(Avedon, 1997 p216)
The Kuten followed his deity’s instructions and, after narrowly
escaping capture on numerous occasions, made it to Mussoorie, where
the Dalai Lama was staying, safely.
He then continued to serve as
the State Oracle of Tibet until his death in 1984.
Conclusions and The Future of the Oracle
The Dalai Lama is very interested in modernizing his country while
at the same time preserving the traditional Buddhist culture. He has
supported the establishment of many organizations dedicated to this
A few of these organizations are
the Library of Tibetan Works
and Archives, which holds ancient cultural objects and Tibetan books
the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, which
preserves musical, dance, and theatrical traditions from Tibet
the Norbulingka Institute, which attempts to preserve the roots of
Tibetan culture while in exile.
In addition, the Amnye Mahcen
Institute and the soon to be completed Center for Higher Tibetan
Learning are actively studying the Tibetan culture both inside and
outside of Tibet as well as translating Western literature and
culture into Tibetan so the Tibetan people can learn about it.
For this reason, I think that the State Oracle of Tibet will
continue to be an influential figure in Tibetan culture, though he
many not forever continue to play such an important role in decision
making. The Dalai Lama is attempting to make the government of his
country more democratic. At the same time, Tibet is becoming more
Westernized and, at least in the younger generations, more secular.
As these young people grow up to become the new political leaders of
the country, they are going to bring with them more doubts about the
place of religion in government. If the Dalai Lama succeeds in
making his country democratic, eventually, I see the State Oracle
taking on a more symbolic role in the future.
course, will take a very long time. A tradition that has been in
place since 1544 AD does not become
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Splendors of Tibet. SINO Publishing Company: New York, NY, 1980.
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