Tibetan Oracles: Fact or Fiction?

Tibetan Oracles: Fact or Fiction?

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Tibetan Oracles

The miraculous feats of the Tibetan oracles are well known sources of mysticism. Stories of men who can bend metal swords with their bare hands, dance wildly and proclaim the future have piqued the curiosity and fascination of many. However, most rationale people will question, how real is the Tibet oracle? Are these men really visited by the deities who they claim to be visited by or are they merely masters of illusion? “The desire to know the future is probably as old as the human race. Early cultures all over the world have left fragments of evidence telling us that divination was of paramount importance in their daily lives.” (Housdan, 7) This desire causes most Tibetans to fervently believe in the power of these oracles. Like most other cultures, the Tibetans are curious about the future and use the methodology of the Oracle as a means for divination. The Tibetan oracles are highly respected members of the community whom the Tibetans consult to find out the future of their own lives as well as the future of the Tibetan country.

Despite the Tibetan’s belief in the spiritual nature of the trance, anthropologists who have studied it have been able to come up with other explanations for the trance state that do not involve the religious belief in spirit possession. These explanations often involve subjects such as psychology and neurology that look at the physiological state of the body during the trance. Through scientifically analyzing the trance state, it raises the question of whether or not the oracles who enter into these trances are able to do so intentionally and if an oracle can willfully enter into a trance, then how does an oracle become valid? The Tibetan oracles are both sources of mysticism but they have also been sources of great controversy in Tibet for these questions involving the authenticity of the oracle.

The traditional Tibetan belief is that Tibetan deities will take possession of men or women in society who act as mouthpieces of the gods. “Spiritual possession is defined as an altered state of consciousness that is characterized by desertion of a person’s original personality, followed by temporary replacement of another.”(AvRuskin, 286) The god enters into the body of the medium and the medium will enter a trance-like state during which the deity is using the mediums body as a tool.

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The first trace that a medium experiences is often at the onset of puberty. The fit is spontaneous and usually sends the person into a state of alarm. Due to the intensity of these trances, few of the Tibetans that experience this initial fit ever become oracles. The trance-like states that the oracles enter into are physically taxing and cause pain that lasts for weeks after the trance has ended. Because of this unavoidable pain associated with becoming an oracle, it is doubtful if anyone would put their body through this process intentionally. The trance sessions were described by one monk as a “strain in his nerves.” (Crook, 25)

Although the trance is what characterizes a person as a medium for the gods, the trance can be classified as being a true possession by a god or by a wondering spirit of a deceased member of society. The Tibetans have a ritualistic process to determine the nature of the possession and follow a procedure of inquiring the deity within the medium. Usually, the inquirer will question the deity’s identity and the reason for which he or she possesses the medium. If it is deemed that an actual deity is indeed possessing the medium then the medium may be asked to fill a vacant spot for an oracle in the monastery. If the person refuses to be an oracle or if there are no vacant spots available in the monastery then the spirit will be dissuaded from entering the mediums body.

In order to become an oracle there is an extensive training process in the monasteries. The young oracle is taught by an ordinary monk the principles of yogi training in order for the oracle to be able to dedicate his body for use by the deity which will possess him. The young oracle must also be taught the skills involved in controlling his inner energies, charkas and the nervous system. A medium must have a special energy and nervous system in order to be a useful oracle. The more sensitive an oracle’s nervous system is, the more pure the trance will be. After going through the training process, the mediums of the highest order must pass tests in order to become oracles to validate their possession. One particular test involves a summons to the Nechung oracle, the medium of Pehar. This test involves the medium of Pehar to enter into trance and blow seeds at the candidate. If the seeds fall directly in front of the medium in question then it is believed that he or she is possessed by a high deity. Besides the tests given to an oracle by the Religious authorities, the government will also give an oracle a test to authenticate prophesies made by the oracle. One oracle priest received a letter from the Tibetan government that said, “Somebody, who had been born in a sheep-year is very sick. What should be done with him? Please give a clear answer.” (Nebesky-Wojkowitz, 420) The oracle gave this answer to the letter while in his next trance; “If possible, buy new ones. If not, then get them repaired and you will be able to use them still for some time.”( Nebesky-Wojkowitz, 420) This answer validated the oracles ability to prophesize as the original question was about a pair of bellows made of sheep-skin.

Even the most prestigious oracle, the Chief State Oracle is not selected by a committee or by the Dalai Lama but is instead an ordinary monastery monk who also must be verified. It is believed that the god Pehar selects his own medium and when a monk in a monastery suddenly goes into trance then he is monitored as a potential medium of Pehar. This along with a series of intense tests is used to find oracles such as the one who resides at Nechung.. For example, if more than one person claims to be the medium of Pehar then the mediums are challenged into twisting a metal blade into a spiral with ones bare hands. Another test to determine the true medium of Pehar is to analyze the salvia found flowing out of the mouth at the time of the trance and a true Pehar medium would have blood present in the saliva. Characteristic of the Pehar medium is also the ability to roll the tongue backward and pressed against the upper palate while speaking. An outline of a thunderbolt on the scalp is another sign of Pehar. If a medium makes it past these tests then the final challenge is to answer questions concerning the past, present and future.

When a medium has been considered valid then in a ritualistic way it will enter into trances in which prophecies are made about the state of affairs. For example, the Oracle of skar ma shar in Lhasa will once a year give a prophecy about the future of Tibet . In the divination ceremony in which these prophecies are made, the oracles pass through about 7 main stages. The first stage involves the laying out of ceremonial attire and instruments. Then offerings are made of ritual instruments to the pronouncement of six mantras. The deity is incanted and asked to take possession of the oracle and then a litany is sung to praise the possessing deity. After the god is reminded of the oath he took to become a guardian of Buddhism he is offered tea and then questioned through the mouth of the medium. Last the medium will collapse and it is at this point which it is considered the deity has left the medium’s body and the ceremony ends with a prayer of thanksgiving. The purpose of these ceremonies with the oracles is to gain insight into the likelihood of an action coming true. It is assumed that the oracle can give a preview into the future events. On a personal level it is through consulting the oracle that people can avoid perpetrating negative patterns that are consistent throughout their lives as the oracles contain a sight that goes beyond what that of the ordinary person can see. The oracle has a special ability to see into the karma implications attached to a person’s actions.

In the case of the state oracle the ceremony is much more elaborate and it is after blowing seeds at the audience that the trance quickly ends. If a prophecy must be delivered to the Dalai Lama, the state oracle will deliver it personally. If the oracles words were written down by a secretary, then they will first be interpreted and later the answer which is often very vague is given in writing with the official seal of the state oracle attached to the letter. However, the oracles claim to not remember anything that goes on in the trance-state of mind. But if this is the case then how can it be insured that the secretary who is writing down what the oracle says is not interpreting the oracle, or simply writing down what he personally desires. Lobsang Lama says, that of the secretary, “He has to write down exactly what he hears.” (Lipsey, 262) However, can one be sure of the content of these questionnaires when the oracle does not remember what he said during a trance? It could easy be questioned whether or not the true prophecies of the oracle come from the oracle himself or whether or not they are simply manifestations of the secretary who happens to be recording the words. There are alleged cases in which an oracle can be bribed to give a favorable prophecy, but does the bribery involve the oracle or the secretary since there is no way to check the validity of what he records.

Despite the questionable validity of the prophecy, according to outside accounts of the state oracle possession, the following are the observable main stages in which the oracle passes through during a trance. Initially the oracle sits on the throne with his eyes closed and then suddenly his eyes open so wide to the point that they appear to come out of the sockets. As the fit grows stronger, the face of the oracle becomes bright red, filled with pain and the medium begins to sweat profusely. The oracles eyes close again and his face becomes a yellow color and spasms take over his body. A slow dance performed by the medium follows and then the dance becomes wild and his face again turns red. As the oracle is questioned, his face becomes sad and his cheek-bones and chin protrude underneath the parchment-colored skin. A wild dance follows and the eyes of the oracle open, with the white of the eye-balls becoming visible.

While in this trance the mediums lose consciousness and are unable to recall what happened to them while the deity was in possession of their body. In July of 1952 a group studying the Tibetan oracle tape recorded the trance session. When later playing back the tape to the oracle himself “he claimed that this was the first time he was able to hear himself delivering a prediction since he regularly looses consciousness as soon as the deity descends upon him.” (Nebesky-Wojkowitz 439) This claim of ignorance of actions during possession makes the medium blameless in all actions that occur during the trace state. If in a trance a medium causes accidental deaths during the divination process, the medium himself is not blamed for the action but instead the claim is that the god possessing the oracle was angry and that the person’s death was the will of the deity.

Before an oracle undergoes a trance there are often preparatory actions taken. The oracle will sometimes spend hours or even days in meditation before undergoing a trance. It is also a ritual for an oracle to undergo ritual purification of the body by fasting, and abstaining from alcohol, smoking, snuff, and meat. These ritualistic actions also provide a means for testing the validity of an oracle. Imposters will often use a combination of Indian hemp, and Guinea pepper to induce a state of excitement that is magnified through the rhythmic chanting used to induce the trance-like state. In order to ensure that their prophecies are authentic, Tibetan ecclesiastical authorities will test candidates for intoxicants present in the body.

Despite attempts to ensure the accuracy of a prophecy, there have been reports of high-ranking oracles taking bribes to give predictions that are favorable to a particular party. However, due to the great influence that chief oracles have on affairs, if predictions are found to be false then the oracle will be punished and dismissed. Although some oracles are found to be fraudulent when they give out false prophecies, there are instances in which the false prophecies can be attributed to being possessed by a malignant spirit. During the time of the thirteenth Dalai Lama there was an oracle who would give a questionable prophecy every time he went into trance. It was later determined that the oracle was being used by the spirit of the deceased lama who had been involved in a plot to overthrow the government. This is evidence that sometimes the Tibetans are able to explain possible corruption of the oracles by providing a religious explanation for what happened.

The state oracle holds a particularly strong responsibility in ensuring the accuracy of his predictions because it is known “how great the influence is which the chief oracle-priests exercise on the internal as well as the external affairs of the Land of Snows .” (Nebesky-Wojkowitz 449) The Nechung medium frequently “becomes the playbill of political intrigues.” (Nebesky-Wojkowitz 449) An instance of the Oracle being used to express its political views is apparent prior to the Chinese occupation of Tibet to “literate” the country. The Council of Ministers asked the Chief State Oracles about the future of the country and its relations with China . Each time the council asked the oracle the reply would be very angry and was overtly foreboding about the future of Tibet . The oracle did imply each time that the situation was hopeless and “They would ask what should be done.” And the reply would be “Nothing.” (Lipsey, 275)

Instances in which people fake a trance or going into a trance are not absent from Tibetan history. According to the Tibetans the oracle is unable to play any role in the trance and if the medium is able to play any function in the trance process than he or she is faking. One way in which to test for this is the heavy gold helmet which the oracle must wear while in trance. During the trance the medium has strength and energy greatly multiplied from the ordinary strength that the oracle possesses. If a medium was to fake being in a trance than the helmet would be too heavy to be carried. The thirteenth Dalai Lama was especially concerned about the validity of the oracles so he ordered a state wide test to authenticate the oracles. One woman went into trance for the committee and answered all the questions asked of her however, when she was finished she took off her hat and said, “You see, this is how I make my living. I wasn’t in trance, I was making it up.” ( Delphi , 271) Even the most intense commissions of the Dalai Lama are at times unable to determine if an oracle is real or fake.

This idea of the trance being independent from the person himself brings out a discrepancy in describing the oracles. The Tibetans will determine which deity has possessed a particular medium by identifying characteristics about a deity and recognizing those characteristics in the medium. One Tibetan monk, Lobsang Lama says, when describing the speech of the Chief State Oracle that, “I have compared some of the sayings or answers of Chief State Oracles. One was so eloquent, so beautiful- really poetic. Others were poetic, but not to the same degree. Individual traits do come out.” (Lipsey, 263) If this potential for individual traits to come out in the oracles then how does one discern between the individual traits of a particular oracle and the individual traits that are present in the medium which is supposedly expressing the words of the deity?

One can argue that the Tibetan oracle is also able to provide answers to questions which seem right due to the vagueness of the response. For example, the fifth Dalai Lama was facing a Mongol invasion and the regent asked the State Oracle what to do about the situation. The oracle said, “Ride the blue horse, go quickly.” The regent did not understand that what was meant by the statement was that he was to cross the river and go beyond it to escape. However, unfortunately for the regent, he did not understand the meaning of the prophecy and was captured and killed by the invading Mongols. Another instance of this type of ambiguity was documented relating the story of a local pregnant village woman. She went to the oracle to find out the sex of her baby and the oracle told her, “Girl no. boy.” After she delivered a girl she returned to the oracle where his aide told her that she has misinterpreted the oracles information as he was trying to say, “Girl, no boy.” ( Delphi 275)

Possible scientific explanations that have been offered to explain the nature of the trace-state have involved the use of biomedicine, cognitive psychology, personalistic accounts in terms of identity and social stress. (Crook, 39) Things such as co-dependency, multiple personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder have been posed as possible rationalizations for why certain people go into trance. The article by AvRuskin, explores the various reasons for why possession trance occurs. One such reason is stated by Raymond Firth who points out that “spirit possession trance may function as a way in which people express personal anxieties and conflicts or ideas and feelings about changes in social statues and expectations.” (AvRuskin, 292) Correlations have been drawn between the people who are marginalized the most in society and the number of these people who become part of possession trance experiences. Along with questions of trance as a method to increase one’s social status, there are also ideas about whether or not specific personality types are more susceptible to becoming possessed. Anthropologists question whether or not the mediums of the deities are rational people with a certain category of personality traits or if the people who partake in trance are somehow neurotic. The people who experience trance can be classified as being part of a more fantasy and imagery oriented group. “In trance, Oracles utilize highly creative discourse and direct dialogues with the possessing spirit…” (Crook, 26) The explanations that are provided for the trance can be divided into the group of psychological explanations, those who ascertain that there are individual characteristics attributed to the trance. The other group of explanations claim that the trance is a more politically based motive with goals of gaining power and prestige, with the idea of being able to distinguish oneself and influence a great deal of people.

The neurological explanations of trance are based on several factors that go along with the trance state. A trance takes place after a person has been subjected to a period of limited food intake, as well as being subjected to the rhythmic beating of the music and the increased motor activity. The physical state of the body during the trance provides a set of evidence to support a neurological explanation. The tremors of the limbs, head convulsions and the inability to convey to others what has happened during the period of the trance would indicate that there is some type of brain alteration occurs during the trance stage. After a trance is over the person will return to a “normal” state of consciousness and besides exhaustion and pain, the oracle will be able to function on a normal level. According to Tart, the techniques designed to induce possession trance involve a destabilization of the ordinary arrangement of subsystem components to create a different arrangement of cognitive, perceptual and behavioral subsystems.” (AuRuskin 293)

Besides just the state of the body during trance, much of the emphasis in studying the trance state has been placed upon the effects of rhythmic chanting and music on the brain. There have been hypotheses surrounding whether or not these long intense rhythmic periods that go on during trance induction can set up a rhythm within the cortex of the brain that will affect the muscle activity mediated by the central and peripheral nervous system. Nehar performed tests in which the amplitudes and frequencies of snare drums were tested in comparison to the alpha rhythms of the brain. He found that these rhythms caused an increase in amplitude of resting rhythms which can be correlated to the type of intense auditory sensations that the trance initiation undergoes.

To physically test the likelihood of these theories it is necessary to test the brain activity during trance induction and possession by means of a machine such as an electroencephalogram. Also, it would be helpful to study the changes in left hemisphere behavior as the brain responds the auditory stimulation. One study that has been done with the EEG and meditation has found that during meditation, there is an increase in the amplitude of the cortical alpha waves. The enhancement of these waves is paired with autonomic changes like decreased heart rate, respiration, skin conductance and relaxation of skeletal muscles. This study is important for the study of the trance because it shows a direct relationship between the state of the mind and the physical changes in the brain that occur with it. It also sets up a direct link between these neurological processes and the responds of the body to changes in the neurological state. Another EEG pattern that was identified in relation to meditation was an increase in beta-wave activity which reportedly is indicative of focused feelings of mysticism and transcendentalism. Despite the positive correlations from these studies, they are not able to state the causation of any of these events but merely correlations between them.

Ellingson does not support this belief that the trance state is caused by an induced state of brain-waves which slows the mind. Nehar proposed that the alpha rhythms in the brain are synchronized with the rhythmic drum beats that are present during the trance. This hypothesis by Nehar requires a drumbeat rhythm of eight to thirteen beats per minute. The music that occurs during the trance rituals occurs at the rate of one beat every 35 seconds. Another reason why this hypothesis does not work to explain Tibetan trance is that Tibetan trance music is asymmetric and continuously variable. There is not a continuous beat to satisfy the hypothesis of Nehar.

Trance has also been explained by Ornstein (1972) who believes that the trance state is caused by creating a shift of consciousness to the right hemisphere of the brain by occupying the left side with things such as incantations and chanting. The left hemisphere which is taken up by these activities then leaves the right hemisphere free to engage in the dancing, singing and responses to auditory stimuli which characterize the trance experience. It is the right hemisphere’s inability to process the motion activity in a verbal manner as well as the left hemisphere which explains why the mediums are unable to articulate the nature of their experience throughout the trance. The unintelligible dialects of the trance participant can also be explained by this right-hemisphere dominance during trance because the right hemisphere is unable to attain the skills for logical, sequential verbal skills. However, this explanation may be a culturally biased in that it relies on the explanation that one hemisphere is used more than another. Also, EEG studies do not study the left vs. right hemisphere wave activity.

The ties with the aforementioned processes can all be connected with the diet and stress associated with the trance activities. Stress releases endogenous opiates which act on opiate receptors in the spinal cord which can inhibit and reduce the amount of pain that the body experiences. These endorphins not only act on the spinal cord receptors but also can induce feelings of euphoria and ecstasy. The endorphin release during a trance is the best explanation for the inability of the trance participant to feel pain as he or she performs feats such as walking over hot water. The deprivation of valuable nutrients is another one of the explanations for trance possession. In South Africa , in a study by Jitch Gussler in 1973, the foods that were deprived of certain individuals contained the neurotransmitter serotonin. Being deprived of this particular neurotransmitter can cause hallucinations as well as cognitive disorders.

Political explanations point to the fact that if a person has control of these trance states then they are no longer social outcasts but then become useful within the society. Erika Bourguignon points out the similarities between two individuals who have alternate personalities that live in two different cultures. In the Brazilian culture, the alternate personas are seen as “other spirits…” who are “socially accepted, culturally “real entities, not personal split-off parts.” (Bourguignon, 376) In the world of Brazilians, there is “an organized effort to teach novices how to enter trance states and “how to be possessed by, and control the behavior of four spirit types.” (B, 376) However, for the other individual who lives in New York City , she is said to suffer from a psychopathological disease known as multiple personality disorder. These two individuals share a similar problem however the way they are viewed within

“The Oracles’ trance induction remains a problematic, and necessarily so: if he could tell us of his experience then it would not be an authentic possession according to the standards of his own culture.” (Ellington, 66) However the question of authenticity is often on the minds of many of the outside views of the Tibetan oracles. When reading about the way in which the oracle is chosen it is makes one wonder whether or not a person of great acting ability could fool the various committees which interview it as in the case of the woman who later confessed that she was faking. Also, associated with the Oracle position there is a great deal of power and influence, especially in the case of the Nechung oracle that is able to directly influence the Dalai Lama himself. After a person is recognized as medium they go through a period of training within a monastery in which the medium will learn to control his inner energies. It cannot, however, be definitively said whether or not this period of training does not also teach the medium to become better at his own mastery of faking the trance. There have been reported instances within the history of Tibet of fraudulent activity involving the oracles so there are presumably more instances of fraud that have not yet been identified.

Regardless of whether or not a person is legitimately acting to be in a trance or if the person actually is in the trance, the idea of the oracle as a medium to the gods is highly unlikely. There is a direct link between the body and the state of the mind which Tibetans are known for channeling. In the oracles monastery study, he goes through a training process of learning to meditate and to channel his energies. This ability to channel the energies of the body is likely to be the source of the trance itself. Along with this, the various studies that have been done on meditation and the functioning of the brain in meditation support the idea that the physiology of the body changes as the energy is channeled. Although the Tibetans would say that this physiological change is caused by the possession, it is more likely that the physiological change of the body causes the possession state as opposed to merely reflecting it. Although the Tibetan oracle is something to be respected, it is likely that it is merely a means for the Tibetans to try and make sense of their future as opposed to a legitimate possession by a deity.

Works Cited:

AuRuskin, Tara. “Neurophysiology and the curative possession trance: the Chinese case.” Medical Anthropology Quarterly 2 (1988): 286-302.

Bourguignon, Erika. “Multiple personality, possession trance, and the psychic unity of mankind.” Ethos 17 (1989): 371-384.

Crook, John., “The indigenous psychiatry of Ladakh, part II: narrative and metanarrative in the cultural control of dissociative states in the Himalayas .” Anthropology and Medicine 5 (1998): 23-42.

Ellingson, Ter. “Arrow and mirror: interactive consciousness, ethnography, and the Tibetan state oracle’s trance.” Anthropology and Humanism 23 (1998): 51-76.

Housden, Roger., and Stephen Hodge. The Tibetan oracle: ancient wisdom for everyday guidance. New York : Harmony Books, 1998.

Lipsey, Roger. Have you been to Delphi? tales of the ancient oracle for modern minds. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Nebesky-Wojkowitz, Rene de. Oracles and demons of Tibet the cult and iconography of the Tibetan protective deities. Gravenhage: Mouton, 1956.
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