the oracle

the Tibetans believe in oracles, helpful spirits that can be summoned to give information and blessings. there are many of them, but one of the most important ones is Dorjee Drakden, the dalai lama’s personal protector spirit. this spirit has been contacted many times by the dalai lama when he needed advice on making important decisions. it is Dorjee Drakden that is summoned when a dalai lama dies in order to find out where the next dalai lama will be born (reincarnated). and also, it was Dorjee Drakden that told the dalai lama when he must flee Tibet and even gave explicit instructions on what route the dalai lama must take for his escape.

the oracle is talked to through a human medium. there is a long intricate ceremony where the abbot of the Nechung monastery, while wearing a huge ornamental headdress goes into a trance. as he gets deeper and deeper into his trance, the spirit enters him, which causes his face to transform and he starts hissing!! at this point, Dorjee Drakden, by using the abbot’s body, can give blessings or tell the future. if you’re interested, you can read an interesting article about the Nechung oracle here.

i’ve always had this huge fascination with the supernatural, and although i’m too grounded in physics to believe pretty much any of it, i’ve always had this hope that someday i’d be able to witness at least something that can’t be explained by science. all of a sudden, it seemed that i might finally get my chance when a friend told me that in a few days they would be summoning the oracle down at Nechung monastery. i couldn’t believe it… how exciting! the only thing left to find out was when it would happen. this is something that can be incredibly tricky in India. hardly anyone ever knows the exact date or time of anything. any info you get on pretty much any event is usually second hand, and often, even if you directly ask people who are organizing an event, even they wont be able to tell you when. scheduling things isn’t India’s strongpoint. a few days later i finally got the word… the oracle would be summoned the following morning at 6:30AM. and i was told to get there *early* cause the monastery is small and it fills up quickly.

should i go? the problem was that this day would be my one and only day off to sleep in. the one free day i had between the Buddhism class and the dalai lama teachings. i was also planning on volunteering for Jamyang that day too, but i wouldn’t have to get up at 5am for that!! i so badly wanted to sleep in! plus, what if i had gotten wrong information and this was not the actual date/time and i got up for nothing? or, what if i got there and they don’t allow non-monks inside? but i just had to see this oracle. definitely something not to be missed, so i decided to go for it.

the next morning at 5am, i got up in the freezing cold and pitch black. it was going to be a long walk in the dark to the monastery, and i was all alone since caryn wasn’t going to go. i set out down the crumbling dark road w/ a tiny almost useless flashlight. at this point, my main goal was to not fall off the cliff and also not to get run over by the few taxi vans that would barrel by me every once in a while. as i was walking, suddenly someone hissed at me. i swung my flashlight towards the person but they just stood there and didn’t say anything. oh crap. what did this person want? why were they standing alone in the dark on this road waiting for me? well, as i got a little closer, it turned out that the “person” was actually a tree, and the hiss had come from a broken water pipe. oops! as i continued walking eventually i would run into small groups of Tibetans walking down the road. they all were elaborately dressed up and muttering prayers as usual. nice! this was a good sign that there was actually something going on at the monastery today! after a bit i saw a large boulder in the middle of the road. why was there a boulder in the road? i kept walking towards it, keeping my flashlight on it the whole time… when i finally realized… it was actually a Tibetan woman squatting to pee. doh!! and i had been shining my flashlight on her for a while now!! smooth.

eventually i finally got to the monastery. it was still completely dark and there didn’t seem to be too many people around. pretty much all of them monks. was it ok for me to be here? finally i asked someone about the oracle and was told that the oracle was actually the following day!!! there was supposed to be a “long life ceremony” there this day and that’s why people were coming. DAMN IT!! i had gotten so little sleep for nothing!!! for a minute i thought about staying for the other ceremony, but the idea of sitting down here in the dark for 2 hours waiting was really unappealing, so i went back to the hotel room.

after getting a tiny bit of sleep, i went to go help Jamyang some more w/ his finance spreadsheets. all day i kept thinking about how bummed i was that the oracle thing wasn’t that morning. should i really get up the following day a second time at 5am to see this oracle?? i decided i had to do it.

the following morning, waking up was even more difficult. ouch. fortunately though, since i had already made the trip once, now i knew that the taxis actually run at 5am, so this time i was able to catch a cab down the hill. when i got to the monastery, there was already a long line of people waiting to get inside. the line wrapped around a huge courtyard and then continued up some stairs and away from the monastery. there is a Buddhist tradition where you are supposed to give a Kata (a long white piece of silky fabric) as an offering and people in line were buying them, so i got one too.

everyone there seemed to be incredibly excited to witness the oracle and the atmosphere was quite electric. there were monks dressed up in special headdress who would every once in a while blow these 7 foot long horns. one of the horns was high pitched and the other made a very low and ominous sound. the monastery itself was very beautifully painted. it was all just so eerie to be standing there in the murky dark, listening to the ominous horns, and waiting for this spirit to descend. unfortunately, i had left my camera at home, and didn’t get any photos of all of this.

after a while, the doors to the monastery were opened and then a few special people from this office were allowed to enter. this is when the insanity started. as soon as the waiting mob saw that a few people had entered, others started to run towards the temple to get inside. all of a sudden, chaos ensued. everyone started running for the monastery doors. the line all but vanished. and then people on the stairs started shrieking as they were crushed forward and pushed down the stairs by the eager people behind them.

it wasn’t yet time for people to go inside, and so the few monks around frantically tried to stop the crazed crowd. but it was hopeless. every time a monk would catch someone, 20 others would run by him. little old ladies were scrambling around dodging monks and running as fast as they could for the monastery doors. people were yelling, trying to get control of the situation, but the mob wouldn’t listen. i stood there trying to decide what to do. should i join the people who were abandoning the line and screwing everyone over by running to the front? or should i try to be good and wait it out? i decided that cutting in front of others who were waiting in line would be pretty much the same as stealing, and that stealing at a monastery just wasn’t quite right. then the monks managed to shut the doors to the temple and blocked off the stairs w/ benches so no more people could come through.

i waited to see what would happen, and hoped that all those people that had rushed in from the back of the line would be kicked out, but they weren’t and when i heard the ominous horns sound again inside the building, i knew that the ceremony had started. i was pissed. really pissed. i had gotten up at the crack of dawn *twice*, and now i would have to miss the ceremony because a ton of people ran in front. i couldn’t even imagine how the people at the front of the line must have felt!! they might have been here for hours now waiting, and now they couldn’t go inside. grrrr! luckily, it turned out that all was not lost. the people inside would get to witness the ceremony, but after the ceremony, the oracle would come outside and hand out seeds that were blessed (since the oracle had touched them).

so, it sucked about the ceremony, but at least i would see something! as time passed, people outside started getting impatient. people here and there would run and cut into the line. others would just start shoving ahead. the monks struggled to control the crowd. there were parts where there would be a “wall” of monks 5 or 6 deep bracing themselves and trying to hold back people who shoved forwards. it was completely ridiculous. and still, every once in a while, there would be screams from the stairs when huge groups of people would be pushed down the steps. at this point i started worrying that people would get hurt. there was a railing around the place where the line was, but there was also a courtyard which had no barrier between it and the 2 story drop into the cement moat below. often monks would stand near the edge and when the crowd would surge forwards, i was sure they’d get pushed off. luckily, as far as i saw, no one fell in.

a while later, the doors to the monastery swung open. it was time for the oracle to come out. and so, all hell broke loose. the crowd went absolutely nuts. everyone surged in all directions and the desperate monks were completely overrun. there wasn’t even a trace of a line anymore, just a crazed mob pushing up the stairs towards the oracle. you couldn’t move in any directions other than the direction where the hundreds of people behind you were pushing you. it was hard to breath. your ribs were being crushed and you were constantly in danger of losing your step as you moved this way and that. i’ve been in lots of crowded situations… packed concerts, mosh pits, but i’ve never experienced anything like this. where you literally didn’t have an inch of space to move and had absolutely no control over where you stepped.

people everywhere were screaming as they were pushed either up the steps where they tried not to trip on each upward step, or pushed down the steps as the people up top pushed back and people would almost fall down having to grasp the people in front of them. there were people actually climbing the stairs *on the outside of the railing*, pulling themselves along with their arms and trying to climb over as monks frantically tried to push them back. utter chaos. i slowly worked my way up the steps as the crowd pushed me forwards. it was really freaky, and lots of times i lost my footing, but luckily didn’t fall.

finally, i got to the top where people were forced into a single file line by the monks, and pushed towards the oracle. in order to keep the crowd moving so as to prevent an accident, the monks hastily grabbed the Katas from people’s hands and tossed the quickly into a huge sack. and then i saw him. an elaborately costumed Tibetan, sitting on a throne. his face was all twisted and angry looking and he was hissing at people in an animalistic fashion. it was pretty crazy… but i only got to witness it for like 2 seconds before i was pushed ahead, he dumped a small handful of sacred seeds into my palm, and then i was whisked ahead.

i then stood around for a while, trying to peer over people’s heads to try and get another glimpse of the oracle. it was tough to see since he was sitting down, but every once in a while he would stand up, hiss, and throw handfuls of seeds out into the crowd. lots of people were dropping to their knees and crawling on the ground trying to gather each little seed they could find. after the last person passed, the oracle jumped up, and went back in the monastery. the mob surged forward, but the monks were able to slam the doors before anyone got in.

and that was that. as the crowd dispersed, certain monks walked around and would hand out sacred ribbons to people, but as soon as anyone saw these given out, that monk would be swarmed w/ people not leaving him alone. people were actually reaching up under the monks’ robes trying to snatch a ribbon. the monks literally had to *run* from the crowd. appalling.

i left the experience feeling really sad. Katas, which were supposed to be ceremoniously handed over, had instead been hastily thrown into bags. instead of slowly walking by the oracle and honoring him, people in the end had to just run by him quickly to make more room for those behind. this was supposed to be a beautiful ceremony. something really special, and spiritual. instead it was turned into a hysterical mob scene.. as if it was a rock concert or a celebrity autograph session. these people’s religious devotion that had seemed so pure and beautiful the day before, had shown a darker more manic side. how could these people not respect each other, the monks around them, and even the oracle itself? was it that crucial to be the first to get a handful of seeds? and *luckily*, no one was hurt. on the news just last month, almost 300 people died in a stampede at a Hindu temple. in India these things are common place. *sigh*

but anyways, despite being really disappointed w/ the crowd, and being disappointed at missing the ceremony, i was really excited that i at least witnessed something. seeing the oracle was really cool. and the blowing of the horns and costumes and everything before the ceremony had been quite a sight. i don’t really believe in oracles. the few seconds that i got to see this one, didn’t really give me much of a chance to change my opinion. it could easily be an act, right? but still…. there definitely was something really exciting about it all. the atmosphere surrounding the ceremony (sans mob), was so eerie and unnatural, that in many ways i felt as if i had seen something out of this world. often, it’s the people’s perceptions of a thing that give it its power.. not the thing itself. if people see the oracle as a magical spirit.. in a way he is magical. if they see the seeds as sacred, they are sacred. and now… i’ve got a small handful of sacred seeds. my luck is on the upswing.


2 thoughts on “the oracle”

  1. those days when your body tells you one thing…and your mind and heart says another. it’s so cool that you listened to your heart and mind. the physical body can always recover fatigue. but regret won’t and usually sticks around for a long time. i’m glad you got to see the oracle! – raymond (hi caryn, thanks for the b-day wishes!)

  2. yeah, i totally thought about that. you always end up regretting things you *dont* do than things you do.

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