What Are Oracles?

Introduction

 

Tibetan Buddhism evolved from the authentic and ancient tradition of the great Indian monastic university of Nalanda, a tradition that His Holiness the Dalai Lama often describes as a complete form of Buddhism. Its unbroken lineages from Shakyamuni Buddha embody the original teachings, which have developed through the deep insights of many great Buddhist masters.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama consults the Nechung Oracle

Tibet has also developed a rich cultural heritage, containing very advanced systems of medicine and astrology, art and craftmanship, language and grammar, and amongst many other things, a unique and sophisticated method of consulting oracles over matters of national importance.

 

When referring to the relationship with oracles, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, who sees it as an ancient form of intelligence gathering, strongly points out, "These are mundane spirits, so we should not consider them as a refuge. But unfortunately, due to some people's lack of knowledge of Buddhism, they consider them to be almost like a Buddha. That is totally wrong."

  

An oracle is a spirit, a being from a more subtle plane of existence than ours, that enters and takes possession of a human medium. The Tibetan word for medium is 'kuten', which literally means 'physical basis'. Once possession has taken place, the oracle then speaks through the kuten, offering advice to those present. There can be different kutens for different oracles, and each kuten usually has no memory whatsoever of what the oracle said through him or her.

 

His Holiness the Dalai Lama consults the Nechung Oracle, the State Oracle of Tibet, during an annual meeting, and at other times when important issues arise. When talking about the advice that the oracle offers, he says, "If you are entirely relying on an oracle, then that is extreme. But if you entirely dismiss them, then that is also extreme."

Pehar

Pehar, and Dorje Drakden,

the State Oracle of Tibet

 

Tibet's oracles are often associated with its Dharma protectors, such as the powerful spirit Pehar, who in the eighth century was bound to oath by Padmasambhava, to head an entire hierarchy of other protector spirits.

 

At the time of the Third Dalai Lama, Pehar began manifesting as an oracle, possessing and speaking through a kuten. The Fifth Dalai Lama appointed Pehar as the State Oracle for the newly established Tibetan government and commissioned a new monastery, Nechung, as the oracle's seat. When the monastery was completed for Pehar in 1683, he became known as the Nechung Oracle, or simply as Nechung.

Dorje Drakden

Pehar refers to a group of five protector spirits, or to just one of them. Pehar's principal emissary is Dorje Drakden, who is also known as the Nechung Oracle, and it is usually he, and not Pehar, who possesses, and communicates through the Nechung kuten.

 

Dorje Drakden is similar to a wise elder and has a forceful persona of an ancient lord. He speaks in poetic verse, and in symbolic actions.

 

On formal occasions, keeping with tradition, and out of respect for Dorje Drakden, the Nechung kuten will dress in the ceremonial garb of ancient times before the possession takes place.

The Nechung Kuten

 

After the passing of Lobsang Jigme, the previous Nechung kuten, in April 1984, there was a gap of three years when there was no presence of a kuten for the Nechung oracle. The Nechung monks and the Tibetan community requested for the rapid appearance of a new Kuten in daily prayers.

Previous kuten, Lobsang Jigme

On March 31st, 1987, the Venerable Thupten Ngodrup entered into his first spontaneous trance, during an annual offering ceremony to the protector at Nechung Monastery. He displayed signs that he may indeed be the next Nechung kuten.

 

His Holiness the Dalai Lama advised that he conduct an extended retreat and engage in special meditations and rituals to ripen and stabilize his abilities. On September 4th, 1987, he was fully recognized to be the kuten of the Nechung oracle. To this day, the Nechung kuten engages in extensive meditation, rituals and retreats to maintain the profound connection he has with the Nechung oracle.

The Nechung kutens are always fully ordained monks. In the past, they have come from various monasteries in Tibet. In recent times, however, he has been a monk from Nechung Monastery itself.

 

Not only is the Nechung kuten seen as an important figure for the Tibetan people, but he also holds a position in the Tibetan government, as the Nechung oracle's opinion is sought in the same way as a member of the cabinet.

Present kuten, Thupten Ngodrup

Interview with Thupten Ngodrup,

the Present Nechung Kuten

 

Interviewer: Can you tell me about the first time you were possessed by the Nechung spirit?

 

Thupten Ngodrup: You get this feeling that the oracle is inside you. A sudden feeling. In 1984, the previous medium passed away. For three years, during which I worked as chief of rituals for the monastery, offering incense and tea, we didn't have a Nechung kuten. On March 31, 1987, I was spreading incense, and I felt an electric shock through my body: I was in a total trance, and couldn't remember anything.

 

Question: Did you need specific qualifications?

 

Answer: My predecessors all came from different backgrounds: some were very high officials, some were lamas, and some were lay people. At that point [when I went into a trance], Nechung had made a choice. Two days later, His Holiness the Dalai Lama had a special audience for me and asked me what happened. Whatever dreams or signs I had, I told His Holiness. And His Holiness asked me, 'If you become the kuten, are you okay with that? Would there be any difficulty for you?' Sometimes when you become the kuten, it's difficult for your physical body. You get sickness. I told His Holiness, 'If my becoming the kuten helps Tibetans and all sentient beings, then of course I am ready.'

With meditations, the Nechung kuten prepares for the possession

Question: Did they have to conduct certain tests to ensure that the spirit that entered you was not a different one?

 

Answer: His Holiness tested me while I was in trance. It was through rigorous testing that I became the Nechung kuten.

 

Question: The Nechung spirit is described as forceful (wrathful). Buddhism is associated with non-violence and compassion, yet here we have this deity who is full of force.

 

Answer: All of the oracles are in forceful form.

 

Question: Why?

 

Answer: A useful comparison is the family: If the children don't listen to the compassionate mother, the father sometimes has to be forceful so the children will listen. The motive, which is compassionate, is for the children to listen to good advice from their parents. Likewise, we have well-behaved human beings, and not-well-behaved human beings. The oracles are in forceful form so people will actually listen to them.

 

Question: I believe the oracle was consulted very recently. What were you asked and what were the prophecies?

 

Answer: His Holiness the Dalai Lama, members of the government, and high lamas were there. But I don't know what I said, because I was in trance.

Just before the trance, I see and sense what is going on around me. But then my senses dissolve, and I do not correctly remember what has happened and been said.

Question: How many times are you consulted in a year?


Answer: There's no fixed number. Whenever His Holiness needs, he asks me to go into a trance. And the Tibetan government consults with me two times, once in summer and once in winter.


Question: How many times did His Holiness request you last year?


Answer: Around seven or eight times.

Question : And you never know what you're asked and what answers you give?

 

Answer: Many people ask that question. I tell them it's like last night, you had a dream or many different dreams, and in the morning you can't remember them clearly. It's that kind of feeling. The first time I saw myself on video, I thought: That's not me.

 

Question: So you wouldn't know what you've been consulted about?

 

Answer: I don't know. But let me make this clear: They don't simply rely on the prophecies of the Nechung oracle. We follow a democratic process. Everything is discussed in the parliament and the cabinet, and if they are not clear, or want to hear the opinions or prophecies of the oracle, they will consult. Ultimately, the decision depends on them, not the oracle.

 

Question: So you wouldn't know what you've been consulted about?

 

Answer: I don't know. But let me make this clear: They don't simply rely on the prophecies of the Nechung oracle. We follow a democratic process. Everything is discussed in the parliament and the cabinet, and if they are not clear, or want to hear the opinions or prophecies of the oracle, they will consult. Ultimately, the decision depends on them, not the oracle.

Excerpt From the Autobiography

of His Holiness the Dalai Lama

 

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 intelligence gathering. 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 Cabinet 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 certain prophecies.

 

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.

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 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, 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 of old.

 

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 continues.

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