(I originally made the following post on my Facebook page on April 7th. I reproduce it here, along with some clarifications and further reflections at the end. This picture collage shows the Nechung kuten in trance at the top, the Tsering Chenga goddesses possessing their medium on the bottom left, and Security and Welfare minister Mr Ngodup Drongchung is on the right, during an interview with Tibetan exile media immediately following his resignation)
Tibetan social media and exile society have been alive of late with commentary about the recent pronouncements and actions made by some of the Tibetan state oracles here in India. The state oracles, who are known in Tibetan as ཆོས་སྐྱོང ༼chökyong༽ or བསྟན་སྲུང་ ༼tensoong༽, i.e. ‘dharma-protectors’, are powerful and ferocious spirits – supernatural bouncers or ‘fixers’ – who are oath-bound to serve the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan government and the Tibetan people by providing prophetic advice on religious issues and affairs of state. The various སྐུ་རྟེན་ kuten, the ‘body-supports’ or monastic and non-monastic human mediums that have been chosen by the protectors as their mouthpieces, regularly enter into exhausting amnesiac trances during which the gods come down briefly through possession to fulfill their promises. In exchange for this service, mediums hold honorary government positions.
Following the conclusion of the recent democratic elections for the new Prime Minister or Sikyong, the highest elected political official in the current Tibetan exile administration, the winner, re-elected official Lobsang Sangay and his opponent in the final leg of the elections Penpa Tsering went to receive blessings and prophecies from the oracles. In what subsequently turned into a widely shared and commented on film clip, the Tsering Chenga mountain goddesses took hold of their female medium and proceeded to rain blows and hiss criticisms upon the bowed heads of the two men. The force of this spiritual scolding was further heightened by the simultaneous circulation of the interpreted prophecy of the primary state oracle Nechung, who berated Tibetan politicians and citizens in exile for recent petty and divisive behavior. The protector stressed that unity was the only option and that all Tibetans should give their full support to the Middle Way approach, the special brand of genuine autonomy non-violent compromise with China that the Dalai Lama devised decades ago as a way forward in Tibet-China dialogues. The Tibetan exile administration continues to advocate for this approach, despite it having had little traction and having generated pretty much zero fruit with China. Supporting Middle Way is widely perceived as synonymous with supporting the Dalai Lama. Despite the Dalai Lama’s vocal support for political diversity as a part of robust democracy, those who advocate for the earlier position of the Dalai Lama and exile government, namely that of Rangzen or of full independence from China are frequently villianized, and branded as dangerous, seditious or worse. This last election cycle was the first time in recent years that a candidate ran on a Rangzen platform, and the election period saw a whole range of vicious and polarized reactions.
The fact that the gods could be so blatantly politically partisan was for some already longtime Tibetan critics of the institution of oracles maybe not so much of a surprise. Still, recent events have triggered a wave of responses and re-articulations of longstanding debates about the state of Tibetan secularism, democracy and ‘modernity’ in exile, as well as the role of religion and spiritual forces in Tibetan society and politics more generally. While some Tibetans railed against the shameful perpetuation of base and easily exploitable superstition and irrationality in Tibetan society, others expressed sadness and concern that their countrymen had so readily turned their backs on their spiritual heritage and allies, that Tibetans were as quick as Chinese colonizers to demonize and dismiss their own religious practices.
There’s been loads of really thoughtful and funny commentary and satire recently on all this (esteemed Tibetan blogger and critic Jamyang Norbu was also moved to recirculate an old essay series of his from over a decade and a half ago. The piece offers a uniquely wide-ranging and scathing critique of what Jamnor identifies as Tibetan irrationality and retrogressive superstition – yet ends on an interestingly nuanced note. The following excerpt from one Tibetan’s op-ed online (called, ‘The Gods are Angry’) sums up a lot of recent commentary quite nicely. In their opening paragraphs this commentator points out that protectors and oracular procedures predate the advent of Buddhism in Tibet. The writer then goes on to note that everyone should be free to practice or believe in religion as they see fit, but identifies three reasons why the institution of government oracle consultation should cease:
“Whether or not individual people or families place their faith in deities, diviners, astrologers and the like, whether or not they practice religious rituals is up to them. But I maintain that making use of these things in the realm of contemporary politics isn’t appropriate. There are three reasons for this: 1) Once politicians entrust all of their ultimate responsibilities which they ought to be taking charge of themselves to immaterial dharma-protectors then the people are left with nothing to hold onto 2) Tibetan exile society has committed itself to implementing democracy; since everyone (considers) His Holiness the Dalai Lama a great leader, and people are reciting manis (i.e. In reverence for him, are singing his praises), if we’re still investing politically in deities, diviners and astrologers and so on today in the twenty-first century, the perception of the world will be that Tibetans really are endlessly stupid or ignorant. 3) Given that the Dalai Lama has already devolved political authority, the time has come for Nechung, Gadong, and the Goddesses and so on to hand over their status as government officials and return to society.”
Just today, the desung kalon or Tibetan exile security minister tendered his resignation, stating that recent ‘heavy’ or severe public admonitions from both the Dalai Lama and the protectors had made a great impression on him, had made him feel burdened in his mind, and that he could no longer ethically fulfill his responsibilities. I have no idea if the minister is someone who has always taken the words of the protectors so much to heart, or if this resignation might also correlate with other recent changes in government. Just a few weeks ago another minister resigned as well – rather than citing the ire of deities she mentioned instead her discomfort with the current prime minister.
There are a lot of different strands and developments here. The Nechung oracle’s recent proclamation, just like the resignations, feels more pointed, but such events are not exactly unprecedented either. When was the last time, if ever, that more than one exile minister resigned in quick succession though, I wonder?
Particular events and histories overlap but also potentially veer in different directions here. What’s clear though is that these sorts of debates and uncertainties tie into broader questions about Tibetan modernity. Over the years, the Dalai Lama has promoted the development of secular democracy in Tibetan exile, has advocated for the separation of church and state. As the above commentator notes, the religious leader took the monumental step some years ago to devolve formal political authority. And yet at the same time the Dalai Lama is no textbook or hardline Buddhist modernist or secular Buddhist. His vision of modernity appears to still leave significant room for key features of Buddhist esotericism like reincarnation, spirits, and clairvoyance. Is there such a thing as ‘tantric modernity’ then? What exactly would or should it look like? Should we even be talking about ‘alternative’ modernities at all?
Whether or not the protectors end up resigning or retiring, Tibetans and their interlocutors (human or otherwise) will continue to debate the question of Tibetan modernity and/or modernities as a vital part of imagining both diasporic and re-in-stated futures (see a well-timed opening up of the conversation here from my colleague Dawa). The Desung minister’s resignation today shows at the very least that ‘immaterial’ protectors can influence very material personal decisions. It remains to be seen exactly how conversations about these topics will unfold, the extent to which they will be ‘democratic’ or will engage different demographics simultaneously. Whatever the case though it seems like they will inevitably be linked to some pretty weighty issues of overarching significance for Tibetans.
*I made this post in response to and as a summary of different views and links which had been posted by Tibetan friends of mine regarding recent events involving the Tibetan state oracles in exile. The original post was not intended to represent any personal argument of mine about the relative merits or demerits of oracles, or about the success or lack thereof of Tibetan democracy in exile – you’ll notice I say nothing about this at all. Still, the content is controversial, and I wanted to make clear my intentions in posting it.
I decided to make a digest of views that were showing up in my feed, along with some framing thoughts because I thought it might be interesting or useful to friends online, to show the diversity of opinions on the matter that were coming up among Tibetans. The post was subsequently shared in tibetexpress.com’s online opinion section, which I’m grateful for, but have mixed feelings about because I am aware of the trickiness of re-contextualizing a Facebook post in a very different forum .When the original post was shared, some readers seemed to interpret this as me airing my own personal criticisms of the institution or value of the state oracles, or felt that I had done so indirectly by not supplying enough of a supportive counter-postition in my post. When it comes to all this, I don’t think that my personal views as a non-Tibetan on this matter are of particular interest, importance or relevance. I do not necessarily agree with or support all of the views expressed in the links, excerpts and so on. The post was not intended to provide my own judgments, but to merely point out that this is a complex issue that Tibetans are debating among themselves for themselves in a variety of sometimes contradictory ways, which is only natural.
It’s important to note that even Jamyang Norbu’s piece, which is probably the most blatantly critical or scathing about the political use of oracles, doesn’t disavow the possible power and insights of spirits. For many Tibetans I know, the issue seems to be less about ‘are the spirits real?’ and more about ‘should we be consulting them for matters of state in our current system?’. The focus of the discussions was debates about secularism and the extent that religious phenomena and considerations should be included within political process. The short video below from Tashi Phuntsok’s Facebook page provides some footage of the oracles in trance and offers some more context for Tibetan divinatory systems in a really nice way.
We see how the Dalai Lama’s role as a spiritual leader and cherished teacher extends beyond the human realm to the realm of spirits. We see the very tender and rich relationships lamas like him have with the deities as agents in the world. The Dalai Lama also explains very clearly how consulting oracles and other divinatory methods is treated as only one, supplementary part of decision-making in a epistemologically pluralist context – a situation where multiple different forms of knowledge are taken into account in relation to each other to guide human affairs. Consulting oracles is not meant to undermine human agency or responsibility, but to empower and enable it. The video also gives a succinct explanation of how a deeper understanding of the Buddhist notion of the interdependent, self-less arising of all phenomena can explain why divination – the apparently arbitrary movements of balls of dough in a bowl (or the fall of dice, or what have you) – can provide true insight and have great meaning. Well worth a watch!
In Britain we have the unelected house of Lords which performs a similar role to the Tsering Chenga mountain goddesses and also seems to work mainly on magical principles.
And the incorrigible British media of course, which is also largely irrational in its behaviour and approach to reporting.
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