The apathy and superstitions of modern Tibetans are just as destructive to their country as romantic Western misconceptions, warns Jamyang Norbu.
In Satyajit Ray’s film Ganashatru, an adaptation of Henrik 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 townspeople 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 Tibet. 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, 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 [of Europe]. Shaw was exaggerating, but he did have a point. Still, even if modern man is not all that wonderfully rational a being as was hoped, 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 demonise 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 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.
Introducing state oracles
In 1964 an actor at 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, Abbe 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 into 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 Nyechentangla 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.
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. In the early 1960s, 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. 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.Choyang, 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.
There is a tendency these days 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 Capra-ean 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 19th 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.
“Another sort of world”
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 13th 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, Agu (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) 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 Chinese 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 it’s another sort of world now.”