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Back to the Future
Enduring Phobias and Superstitions in Tibetan Society (Part 2)

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Saturday, Jan 4, 2003
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In Satyajit Ray’s film, Ganashatru, an adaptation of Ibsen’s play, Enemy of the People, a doctor discovers that leaking sewers are contaminating a water source which is regarded as holy, and which attracts large number of pilgrims. The doctor concerned by the sudden rise of water borne diseases tries to warn the town people of this danger. But the mayor and others, with a vested interest in the pilgrimage site, attack the doctor for what they see as his anti-Hindu views, and soon with all manner of demagogic rabble-rousing tactics turn the entire town against him.

For the few Tibetans who fancy themselves as rational and progressive, and further suffer from the need to express such views, life in the Tibetan community in Dharamshala often takes on much of the absurdities, frustrations and hazards as those faced by Ray’s doctor / hero. Even on such a basic issue as public health it is easy to put oneself in a false position by merely doing the sensible thing. In 1983 there was a nasty outbreak of rabies in Dharamshala. At the Tibetan Children’s Village over a dozen children were bitten by rabid dogs and two boys died. I was director of the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) at the time and, despite opposition, had all the dogs around the area removed somewhere far away. In spite of my efforts a woman whose husband worked at TIPA was bitten by a stray. I wanted her to get rabies shots immediately but her husband insisted on her being treated by a shaman. There was little I could do except rail against the futility of shamans and oracles. The woman died, of course, and it was a horrible lingering death. But that in no way seemed to convince the husband, or his friends and relatives, that they had done anything wrong. All it did was add to my reputation as an “unbeliever”, which eventually got me into the kind of hot water that Ray’s doctor experienced.

I am no advocate of Victorian style rationality and progress, and I certainly do not see myself as shepherding the ignorant masses out of their superstitious darkness onto the sunlit path of empirical facts. Yet in the exile Tibetan world even a moderately progressive position runs up not only against the conservatism of the older generation and the church, but often against the whimsies of Western “Dharma types” enamoured with everything “traditional” or “mystical” in the Tibetan world. The advantage for Westerners in love with shamans, spiritual healing and what not, is that unlike the natives, if things go wrong they can fall back on the technology, wealth and security of the Western world.

Of course, even in the so-called developed world, irrational beliefs still persist — as Miss Cleo the TV psychic, and the UFO phenomenon demonstrates, at least on one level. Then we have fundamentalist Christians attempting to replace education on evolution in American classrooms with “creationism”. The latest version of “creationism”, stripped of the more awkward bits (God creating the universe in six days and resting on the seventh) and renamed “Intelligent Design”, is being promoted as a Christian but scientific challenge to evolution — but I digress.

Bernard Shaw in his introduction to Saint Joan went so far as to declare that modern man was as credulous as someone from the Middle Ages. Shaw was exaggerating (Orwell points this out in one of his “As I Please” columns for the Tribune) but he did have a point. Still, even if modern man is not all that wonderfully rational a being as was hoped he would be become by such pioneering promoters of reason and science as H. G. Wells, he is, nonetheless, miles ahead of the average Tibetan in this respect.

Nearly every traveller to old Tibet, even the friendliest, has unfailingly commented on how auguries and magical beliefs dominated the lives of the people. Such observations, in books and documents from around the period of the Younghusband expedition (Waddell, Landon, Candler et al), are more pronounced and hostile, with Tibetans being described as a brutish people mired in ignorance and exploited by a degenerate and xenophobic priestly class. But it is not an uncommon practise to demonize those you are going to subjugate or massacre. Chinese propaganda about old Tibet being a backward barbaric society under the yoke of a “man eating” ruling class, is qualitatively no different from British publications of the Younghusband expedition era. Just a couple of years ago Beijing once again revived its 1960s and 1970s style vilification of the Dalai Lama “charging him with having used human heads, intestines and skin in sacrificial offering.”

This kind of crude propaganda, of course, needs no refutation. And it does seem particularly thick coming from a country where ritual cannibalism was being enthusiastically practised in the 1960s (one ate the liver of the class enemy to show ones devotion to Chairman Mao), and where the national belief prevailed that the pedestrian quotations of a power-mad dictator who never brushed his teeth or washed his genitals (according to his personal physician) could inspire cabbages to remarkable feats of spontaneous growth. Even now, at public executions in China, spectators rush to dip steamed buns in the fresh blood of victims, in the belief that the consumption of such blood is a powerful tonic. But that’s all by the by.

When Tibetans first came into exile the catastrophic turn of events back home were still immediate and traumatic enough to convince even the most blinkered among them that they had to drop the more reactionary aspects of their culture and learn from the outside world. I have dealt with this in a couple of articles before so perhaps it is not necessary to recount once again the somewhat muddled experiments in democracy, science and modernisation that took place in the Tibetan refugee community in our first decade of exile.

But besides our own rocklike conservatism, there were other obstacles on our road to modernisation. Even in exile the Dalai Lama and the refugees lived in considerable intellectual isolation from the rest of the world, and in a sense, even from the rest of India. Dharamshala had few visitors except for hippies lured there by Tibetan esoterica or the local hashish. Furthermore, the town was an exhausting twelve-hour bus journey from Delhi. Many Tibetan settlements were located in remote and inaccessible parts of India and Nepal.

Though a number of Indian intellectuals and national figures of that period did meet the Dalai Lama, it does not appear that there was any attempt to maintain some regular dialogue with them. It is a real pity. Such leaders as Jayaprakash Narayan, Acharya Kripalani, and the journalist and writer Frank Moraes were not only enthusiastic supporters of the Tibetan cause, but men of considerable experience, wisdom and democratic vision, who could have made a valuable contribution to His Holiness’s political education.

We must remember that the Dalai Lama was then in his form-ative years, politically speaking at least, and that the only formal political or civic education he had received till then was a Chinese Communist one — one of his teachers being Liu Keping of the Nationalities Affairs Commission. But once in exile, His Holiness’s initial enthusiasm, even to study English, gradually appears to have dimmed as administrative, but predominantly religious, routine once again took over his life.

The Dalai Lama also faced considerable humiliation and obstacles in attempting to travel outside India. Most countries refused him a visa outright. Yet the impetus of modernism was strong enough in the Dalai Lama, at least in those early years, for him to speak out against the conservatism and materialism of the old Tibetan church. He also took the initiative in discouraging a number of traditional practises and superstitions. But these were unfortunately only symbolic (as in not wearing silk robes) or short-lived.

In 1964 an actor at the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA) was possessed by a spirit. The possession seems to have been genuine enough. Three separate eyewitnesses gave me identical accounts of how the possessed man ran himself through with a long dagger (one eyewitness even remembered seeing the tip of the blade sticking out from the man’s back). He was not only unharmed by this performance, but was not marked by even a small scar. Such paranormal feats by Tibetan and Mongol oracles have been reported from early times by such travellers as Marco Polo and the Lazarist priest, Abbé Huc. More recent accounts by Nebesky Wojkowitz and Joseph Rock describe personal encounters with Tibetan oracles who twisted steel broadswords into spirals.

But getting back to our TIPA story; after his somewhat dramatic prelude with the dagger the possessed man proclaimed that he was the mountain god, Nyechenthangla (of the Trans-Himalayan Range) and blessed all those present. He finally came out of his trance and fell in a dead faint. The matter was reported to the Religious Department of the exile government and probably to the Dalai Lama as well.

Some days later the mediums of one of the state oracles came to TIPA accompanied by his monk servitors. The monks performed the invocatory rituals and the medium went into a trance, at which moment the Nyechenthangla deity spontaneously possessed the actor again. The state oracle greeted his fellow deity by touching foreheads, and from what I was informed, passed on to him instructions from the Dalai Lama. These were that since Tibet was on its way to becoming a modern country, the business of gods and spirits possessing human mediums could not be permitted anymore — or words to that effect. The two state oracles were, however, exempt from the decree.

There was definitely a new-wine-in-old-bottles quality to most of the modernisation efforts of the period.

I was a child of six in Kalimpong, when I was dragged before a terrifying red-faced oracle to receive his blessing. Childhood terror evolved to fascination as I grew up and heard numerous stories of the supernatural marvels of Tibet. Especially fascinating were accounts of the state oracle, which for a history buff like myself had the added appeal of a romantic connection to ancient Greece and Rome — to seers like the Pythoness at Delphi and the Sibyl of Cumae. The whole business was, however, hard to square with our supposed goal of creating a modern Tibet. It was even more difficult to ignore the state oracle’s dismal track record of failed prophecies.

Just before the British invasion of 1904, the Tibetan government consulted the state oracle in Lhasa. The oracle declared that the “enemies of the Dharma” (ten-dra) would be soundly defeated by a “heavenly army” (lha-mak) which he would personally lead. The Tibetans were, of course, overwhelmingly defeated, around seven hundred peasant levies being massacred in a couple of hours at the hot springs near Guru. The British marched into Lhasa on the third of August 1904.

The next year during the New Year celebrations in Lhasa, when the state oracle came charging out of the Jokhang Temple in full trance, as was the annual custom, the exasperated citizens of Lhasa are reported to have booed the god — the women flapping their aprons, and the men shouting “Hey-le! Hey-le!” or “Shame on you!”.

The death of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama can definitely be attributed to a wrong medicine forced on his Holiness by the state oracle. The case has been fairly well documented and there seems to be no doubt that, at the very least, the state oracle’s action was a criminal blunder 1.

In an article, “Tibetan Oracles”, in the Tibet Journal, Summer 1979, Prince Peter of Greece and Denmark mentions another fatal intervention by the state oracle in a crucial moment in our history:

During the flight of the Dalai Lama to Dromo (Yadong) in the Chumbi Valley at the time of the invasion of Tibet by the Chinese in 1950, the Nechung Oracle was consulted repeatedly as to what course of action the Tibetan ruler should take. Should he take refuge in India or should he stay in Tibet? Twice the oracle said that he should stay in Tibet despite attempts by the government to get him to say the contrary. It is said that it was eventually discovered that he had been bribed to deliver his message by the pro-Chinese monks of Sera…

The Dalai Lama himself recalls in his autobiography, Compassion in Exile, that when he was considering not returning to Tibet at the end of his 1956 visit to India, he consulted the Nechung and Gadong oracles:

Lukhangwa (the prime minister relieved of office due to Chinese pressure, and then living in Kalimpong) came in during one of the consultations, at which the oracle grew angry, telling him to remain outside. It was as if the oracle knew that Lukhangwa had made up his mind (to try and stop the Dalai Lama from returning to Tibet). But Lukhangwa ignored him and sat down all the same. Afterwards, he came up to me and said, ‘When men become desperate they consult the gods. And when the gods become desperate, they tell lies.’”

In exile, despite the initial fervour of modernisation, Tibetans, because of the very uncertainty of their predicament, soon became caught up in the thrall of prophecies and auguries. One year, I think it was in the early sixties, there was a report in the Tibetan language newspaper Tibetan Freedom that a bird had been sighted at the Tibetan school in Happy Valley, Mussoorie, cooing “Bhod rangzen thop”, or “Tibet will gain its independence”, over and over again. Everyone became terribly excited.

The state oracle would also regularly deliver prophecies that Tibet would be free the next year, or the year after that, and so on. Now and then he would be more circumspect and suggest that a major international change would take place in the near future, which would benefit Tibet. On a few occasions he was even emboldened enough to claim that his “heavenly army” was poised to do its stuff against the Chinese. What is mind-boggling in retrospect is the absolute faith of the public and even the Dalai Lama in these predictions that never even came remotely close to being realised.

The Dalai Lama also invested much time, energy and resources in the performance of magical torgya rituals, to defeat China. These were elaborate and portentous affairs that usually concluded with the dramatic burning or the destruction of an effigy, giving McLeod Ganj wags the opportunity to make jokes about the Tibetan atom bomb.

Select Western guests of the Tibetan government were treated to performances of the oracle and they were invariably impressed by the mysterious rituals and the dramatic physical changes the medium displayed when going into a trance. Photographs and accounts of the oracle began to appear in a number of books and magazines. The Tibetan government’s English language journal, Tibetan Bulletin, once featured an interview with the medium. In the cover of the same issue they had the photograph of a fully costumed oracle in a dramatic martial-arts kind of stance, that to my profane eyes, seemed more inspired by Bruce Lee than any Buddhist deity.

Chö-Yang, the glossy full-colour journal of the Religious Department (and the Norbulingka Institute), edited by Western Buddhists, also came out with chatty interviews with the medium and reports on the oracle’s lifestyle. Somehow, all that this exposure and publicity seemed to do was strip away the mystery and exclusivity of an ancient institution and turn it into another spectacle for novelty seeking Westerners.

In this unhealthy climate of fashionable and profitable spiritualism, some unhappy and troubled young women, especially newcomers from Tibet, began to claim they were possessed by this or that deity, sometimes with unfortunate consequences. In another of Ray’s films, Devi, a young bride comes to believe she is the manifestation of the Mother Goddess, and her father-in-law, obsessed with her delusion, brings tragedy to her home.

Right now there is a glut of oracles in Dharamshala. Over and above the two state oracles there is the deity Dorjee Yudonma, one of the twelve Tenma goddesses, whose medium is a mild looking old amala. There is also the oracle Lamo Tsangba, a local protective deity of Lhasa. His medium is a somewhat corpulent gentleman who was a trombone player in the Chinese military orchestra in Lhasa.

Then there are the five Tsering-chenga mountain goddesses (of the Everest range) whose collective medium is a fruity young woman from Eastern Tibet. She was very much en vogue some years ago, even pronouncing on the arrangements for a welcome ceremony for the Dalai Lama on his return from a US tour. She selected the songs that TIPA artistes were to sing on the occasion, and also their costumes. On a more sinister note, she twice attended services at the main temple in Dharamshala, and, in the style of the witch Gagool, in King Solomon’s Mines, proceeded to “smell out” those monks, nuns and lamas, who, in contravention of the Dalai Lama’s orders, were secretly propitiating the deity, Dorgee Shugden.

Which brings us to the pre-eminent spiritual, or more accurately, “spiritualist”, controversy in the Tibetan world. A few years ago when this affair first blew up, it was covered fairly widely in major international newspapers, magazines and television programmes, but the initial hue and cry has, thankfully, died down somewhat, though it always seems to be threatening to resurface. It has created, for the first time ever, an open and vocal opposition to the Dalai Lama from within his own people. The controversy has also been the cause of a terrible triple murder in Dharamshala, and numerous other fights, purges, and one full scale riot.

It would be impossible to discuss the affair in just an article and I am not going to try. The entire business is so convoluted and, frankly, so depressing that I find it requires all my will power to just focus my mind on it for more than a minute or two. Furthermore the polemics on the subject — including the diatribes of Western supporters on either side — are so brainless and so ferociously partisan that any appeal to good sense and even common humanity would probably be lost on them. It is not my usual belief but I think that in this case the old wives’ homily “least said soonest mended” would probably apply.

This dispute has all the stupidity and viciousness that attend-
ed the pointless theological controversies in the Eastern Roman Empire under the Emperor Justinian. The entire population of Constantinople, including even such unlikely sections of society as prostitutes, chariot-drivers and street hooligans, instead of attending to their own businesses, pleasures or depravities, became intensely involved in theological disputes, such as the nature of Christ’s divinity, which more often than not led to brawls, murders, massacres and the infamous Nike riot.

Beijing has been quick to capitalise on this rift in the Dalai Lama’s following and to adopt a moral high tone in the matter, so perhaps they should be reminded of their own “god or ghost” controversy that attended the reform of the Beijing opera in early Maoist China. According to the late Richard Hughes of the Far Eastern Economic Review, “a ‘moderate’ Marxist school of thought sought to distinguish between ‘ghosts’ and ‘spirits’, arguing that there could surely be ‘progressive spirits’, and citing as an example a play (1959) which depicted the return to the modern world of an eminent ancient statesmen to read the works of Mao”. The chances are excellent that these ‘moderate’ Marxists eventually ended up doing “Reform Through Labour” in some frozen Manchurian wasteland.

Of course, people must be allowed their beliefs no matter how ridiculous or wrong we may perceive them. I believe people have the right to worship Shugden or any other deity they want, while the Dalai Lama as a spiritual leader certainly has the right to object to this on theological grounds and ask people to refrain from such practises. But that is not the problem.

The trouble is that the Tibetan government has been inducted to implement the Dalai Lama’s proscription of Shugden worship. The Tibetan government claims it has not issued any orders or appeals to people to harass or fight Shugden worshippers. Yet it has produced and distributed literature and videos demonizing Shugden worshippers. It has furthermore made no effort to dis-courage or condemn attacks on Shugden groups. Furthermore, His Holiness’s statement that the worship of Shugden is harming his health and life (which I have a problem accepting) is definitely inflammatory, considering the kind of blind fanatical loyalty he draws from many simple Tibetans.

The Shugden supporters are, of course, are more than exaggerating when they claim that the Dalai Lama’s actions are similar to China’s repression of religious freedom in Tibet. Such statements belittle the genocidal tragedy that the Tibetan people have suffered under Communist Chinese occupation.

Now more than ever, Tibetans absolutely need to move away from the world of superstition, oracles and magic into the real world of the twenty-first century. There are overwhelming crises in the Tibetan world that not only require the full attention and energy of our leaders, but also an enlightened and up-to-the-minute appreciation of realities. In the matter of public health alone we are facing an emergency that borders on disaster, but to which His Holiness and the Tibetan government have paid scant attention.

In the 5 March 1997 issue of The Journal of American Medicine, Vol. 277, No. 9 there was a study of tuberculosis among Tibetan immigrants from India and Nepal resettled in Minnesota. The conclusion was that tuberculosis infection was “nearly universal among Tibetans settling in Minnesota.” It does not require undue perspicacity to realise that the conclusions of this particular study could logically be extended to cover all Tibetans in India and Nepal. Also, why is it that so many Tibetans in exile seem to be dying of stomach cancer and that Tibetan monks in South India have some of the highest incidents of peptic ulcers in the world, as another medical study has shown?

Inside Tibet half the child population suffers from stunted growth and impaired intellectual development due to malnutrition, according to a study in The New England Journal of Medicine, 1 February 2000. Catriona Bass’s, Education in Tibet: Policy and Practise Since 1950 (TIN 1998) reveals that Tibetans suffer from what is probably the lowest literacy rate in the world, with as much as seventy per cent of the rural population unable to read. All these near-overwhelming problems require immediate investigation and effective response, not prayer nor prophesy.

There is a tendency these day among many of our more admiring Western friends to ascribe to the Tibetan people extraordinary qualities, not only of serenity and peacefulness, but even a special wisdom, not merely traditional but proto-scientific — a characterisation which is so flattering and advantageous that quite a few of our leaders and lamas are avidly endorsing and promoting this view. I do not intend to deny or belittle the more admirable qualities of the Tibetan people and our civilisation, and there are many, but perhaps the appeal of these have to some extent concealed the more backward and unhealthy aspects of our culture. We are frankly, a people still in the thrall of ignorance and superstition, which far from declining with the years seems to be gaining new life and impetus with foreign sponsorship and encouragement.

Among the elite, especially among lamas who have centres in the West, there is an appearance of modernism that never fails to impress their Western disciples and friends. Terms from quantum physics, cognitive science and pop psychology flow easily in their conversation, but genuine interest in science is absent. More crucially, the scientific outlook is non-existent. Tibetan lamas view science from a reverse Fritjof Capraean perspective. All they are looking for in science are possible similarities or parallels in Buddhist philosophy, essentially, it seems, to prove to themselves and their followers that they are as modern as is necessary and do not need to change.

There is, furthermore, a proclivity to seeing modern knowledge as primarily utilitarian — as techniques that could be grafted on to traditional values and institutions, which could then remain immutable. China at the end of the nineteenth century had reacted in much the same way to the challenges of the modern world, with Confucian bureaucrats espousing Zhong xue wei ti, Xi xue wei yong — or “Chinese learning for essence, Western learning for utility”. Which is also what the Communist mandarins in Beijing are, in essence, espousing right now.

Many older Tibetans, especially geshes — like Hindu fundamentalists who go around saying that atom bombs and aeroplanes were invented by ancient Indians in Vedic times — are not shy of informing you that the Kangyur and Tengyur contain the secrets to the making of nuclear weapons, or that in the Great War of Shambala, tanks and nuclear weapons would be used. His Holiness himself, in an interview in an Italian journal, declared that he did not regard the account of Shambala as symbolic or legendary and believed that the apocalyptic events prophesied would actually come to pass.

One would expect that in Tibet itself, after so many year of Communist occupation, some modern ideas, no matter how distorted, would have taken root. It has happened with some of the youth, but with the larger section of society the years of living under Communism seems to have driven them ever more backwards to their old beliefs and ways. Because nearly everything to do with Communist Chinese ideology and rule in Tibet was so permeated with lies and half-truths, Tibetans viewed even basic information provided in Chinese educational material with suspicion and hostility. For instance, a historian friend of mine, interviewing an old monk who had been imprisoned for many years, told me that the monk refused to accept that the world was round, because he had been given this information by the Chinese. In exile these days, the more fanatical and reactionary Tibetans can be found among new-arrivals from Tibet. Yet it must be said that many of the younger new-arrivals are much better-read and more interested in modern literature and secular culture than Tibetan youth in exile.

Even Tibetans born and raised in the West do not seem to be entirely free of conservative traditional thinking. In their case the influence probably comes in a roundabout way from New Age Buddhist influences. Looking at some of the internet chat-sites and email discussion groups frequented by young Tibetans one is struck by the number of communications that are signed off with a “Peace and Love” and “Om mani padme hum”. More significantly, there appears to be a near complete absence of any critical examination of Tibetan beliefs, spiritual or political, among these young people.

Probably this would be a good time as any to mention that I personally do not reject the existence of deities, ghosts and oracles. I think that what people regard as real are to a great degree conditioned by the worldview of the period they live in. When ancient Greeks believed in gods and titans they probably did exist, and not merely as pale symbols of moral qualities or forces of nature as later European readings of the Greeks mythologies and epics would have us accept, but as living powers and entities that interacted in the lives of the people.

Throughout his life Einstein worried about the striking and, to him, suspicious manner in which observed reality conformed to the laws of mathematics. Why he wondered, should the natural world be amenable to man-made rules? Could it be that we can grasp only that stratum of reality that is measurable by our limited methods.

There is a theory that material phenomena, even physical laws, are conditioned by the belief systems of the period. While if we enter the world of quantum physics even the most bizarre event that we can think of has a chance of happening. Even something like the molecules of my body falling apart and assembling again in the next room. And it can be proven mathematically. Of course it will probably take a few billions years for the event to take place, but the possibility is there. And I am going to stop right here, before I entirely succumb to the error I earlier accused Tibetan lamas of committing.

Still, whenever I read the biography of Milarepa I cannot but be convinced that the great yogi did practise black magic, and did perform those miracles described in the book; and that these weren’t just allegories or parables. Yet with the same absolute conviction I know that now, in this day and age, lamas can’t do these things. I do not doubt Marco Polo when he writes with amazement that Tibetan lamas levitated the Great Khan’s cup to his lips. But these days lamas are patently unable to levitate anything. When they have to fly, they do it in aeroplanes, like the rest of us. The only miraculous thing being that they do it first class.

We must also bear in mind that even in the past, back in “medieval” Tibet, people were not blind to the drawbacks and limitations of oracles and prophecies. The Great Thirteenth Dalai Lama issued a directive to district officials nationwide, to investigate oracles and fortune-tellers, and make sure that they did not exploit the common people. In the Tibetan opera Sukyi Nima, there is a satirical scene of a drunken state oracle, repeatedly beating his long-suffering hunchback secretary, in between delivering such brainless prophecies as: “It will snow in winter” and “It will rain in summer”.

Stories of fake oracles and rigged prophecies are not unusual in Tibetan folklore. One of the popular folk heroes of Central Tibet is Lama Methon Phangbo, a merry con-man who delights in hoodwinking the pious and gullible. On a more sinister note there is the story of Shagdun Sangye (Seven Day Buddha) of Ghungthang, a religious charlatan and mass murderer who promised people who undertook a seven day retreat under his guidance a complete dissolution of their corporeal self and a direct entry into nirvana. He accomplished this by dropping them into a bottomless pit normally covered by the retractable floor of his meditation cave. He was eventually exposed by the “divine madman” Drukpa Kunleg, who arranged for him to receive a poetic sort of justice. In fact such popular Tibetan saints as Drukpa Kunleg, Aku (Uncle) Tompa and even Milarepa essentially taught people to disregard appearances, ritual, superstition and even conventional thinking and to seek spiritual (and sometimes worldly) truths through good sense, direct experience and their own efforts.

Our forebears may have often been superstitious and credulous, but they did not lack common sense. And better educated people in the past were constantly given to railing against superstition, namthok, as being against the spirit of Buddhism.

A former resistance fighter and CIA agent, Lithang Athar Norbu (who died last year in New York City) told me this story. Shortly after the outbreak of the fighting in Eastern Tibet in 1956, a local resistance group laid siege to a Chinese garrison. The Khampa fighters did everything they could to crack its defences but failed. During deliberations among the fighters on a fresh course of action, one of their number went into a spontaneous trance, what Tibetans call thonbe, and announced that he was the local protective deity and that he would personally lead the charge to wipe out the “Red enemies of the Dharma” (tendra-gyamar).

Everyone was excited, and morale, which had dropped in the last few days, soared again. Next day at dawn, the fighters got ready for the attack. The medium, now in full godly regalia (borrowed from a nearby monastery) and armed with a sword, trembled and shook as monks performed the chendre or invocatory rites. As soon as the deity took possession of the medium, he rose, snarling and hissing, from his seat and climbed up on the rampart and brandished his sword in the air.

“A single shot rang out — tak-ka!” Athar told me, “and the oracle fell over backwards on the ground. Right on his forehead, dead centre, was a hole. And that was that. No, he wasn’t a fake. None of us there had any doubts about the genuineness of the oracle. Perhaps it’s just that their days are over, and its another sort of world now.”

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