Saturday, August 04, 2007

A Case of Spirit Possession in Tibet

View of Old Delhi from Jama Masjid, courtesy of

The day before yesterday I took the train/bus combo away from the megalopolis Delhi, northwest into the mountain state of Himachal Pradesh. Upon arrival in Dharamsala, I discovered a non-discovery: my passport was missing. I had left it in the tiny sweaty Internet Cafe in Pahar Ganj, the budget tourist area of Delhi. In an attempt to retrieve it, I took a night bus from Dharamsala (11 hours) to Delhi last night, and was returned my little blue book of such great importance this morning. Back with the internet at a decent speed, and plenty of free time, I'll update a post I'd been mulling over for the last two weeks:

While leading the Passage Summer Tibet program through South/Central Tibet this summer, I brought my students to the ancient Samye Monastery. Samye was the first proper monastery erected in Tibet, in the 8th Century, by the Tibetan Dharma King Trisrong Deutsen, the Bengali Scholar-monk Shantirakshita, and the Pakistani/Afghani Tantric master, Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava. Although the mandala structured temple complex suffered heavy damage during the Chinese Cultural Revolution, it is still a sight of great historical and religious significance.

Nestled in a steep valley a few miles above the temple complex rests a large group of meditation caves, the Samye Chimphug Cave Complex. Great masters in the Nyingma lineage of Tibetan Buddhism (most notably associated with the Nyingthig cycles of practice literature), meditated in such caves, including the Tantric founder Guru Rinpoche, his realized consort Khandro Yeshe Tshogyal, the visionary Kunkyen Longchen Rabjam, and the Treasure Revealer Rigdzin Jigme Lingpa. While exploring the mountainside with the students, which is currently home to about two hundred monks, nuns and layfolk in meditation retreat, I got in a conversation with a nun about Pay.lo Rinpoche, one of the current heads of the Nyingthig lineage. I had previously met him at Rice University, where he came to 'teach a class' on the invitation of Professor Anne Klein. The nun informed me that he was concurrently in Lhasa, and that I should try to meet him. I agreed, but wondered how I'd manage to get the time, much less find out where he was staying.

The ancient monastery shaped as a mandala: Samye Gompa, courtesy

The next day we took a day trip to the politically notable nunnery, Shugsep Ani Gompa. The nuns there are quite charming (and daring in the face of Chinese occupation), and after a few of the students and I made a spectacular trek up to the ancient meditation caves above the nunnery (where Kunkyen Longchen Rabjam wrote his masterwork of poetry, the Seven Treasures), one of the nuns requested a ride back to Lhasa City with us. We agreed, and on the return journey she explained to me that she was going to Lhasa to meet her Guru, Rinpoche. She invited me to come along, and I heartily agreed.

The confusion of the modern Chinese city of Lhasa, courtesy

Back in Lhasa, I gave the students the evening off, and at about 7pm set out into Lhasa with my new nun friend, to try to find Lama Rinpoche's residence. After some confusion with the locals and the taxi driver, we found his compound in northeast Lhasa. He wasn't there; he'd taken a day trip to the holy sites of Trigung Til, a few hours west of Lhasa. The nuns there explained that he'd be back in a few hours, wouldn't we stay awhile and wait for him? I agreed, and proceed to pass the evening drinking buttery salty Tibetan tea. At some point a group of nuns and monks began chanting in a sort of main sitting room. I asked if it was alright if I joined to observe, and they invited me in.

Tibetan Buddhists are practitioners of the Vajrayana, the Diamond Vehicle, an offshoot of Mahayana Buddhism that gradually developed in the middle of the first millinium, in northern India and neighboring areas. Among many other things, Vajrayana Buddhists negotiate with the spirit-world on behalf their parishioners and rely on protection and guidance from benevolent deities, through the means of (often elaborate) offering rituals. If the particular deity is of wrathful character, they will not be satisfied with mere offerings of food, light, incense, water and music: they require at least some meat (not in the form of blood sacrifice like what is practiced by Tantric Hindus in ritual offerings to the wrathful forms of Shiva and the Mother Goddess, but rather ideally a bit of meat that comes from an animal that died a natural death) and alcohol.

The wrathful Buddhist Dharma protector Palden Lhamo (Shri Devi), courtesy

If they don't have a special temple and practitioner designated specifically for the task, certain members of most Tibetan Buddhist communities generally gather in the evenings for offering rituals to the protector deities of their lineage, monastery and location. It is believed that these deities have power over the mundane world, and can prevent calamity or clear obstacles for the community. The gathering of about forty nuns and ten monks at Pay.lo Rinpoche's residence was at first no different at first from any of the dozens of protector rituals that I've observed in India, Nepal or Tibet.

The room in the modern building was quite spacious, with nice wooden floors, and sparsely furnished. The nuns sat on the floor in a tight group in the middle of the room on the side of the door, with most of the monks separated on the far wall, while five senior monks sat on cushions in the front of the room. One played the cymbals while another beat a portable ritual drum. No one, not even the head lama (a sagely looking man of about sixty, with a classic kung-fu style wispy mustache, that grew and came down only in the sides of his mouth), made any indication about my presence. I was the only layperson, and sat down next to the door a few feet behind the nuns.

After about forty-five minutes of continuous chanting, one of the nuns in the front of their group began rocking back and forth and wheezing with increased intensity. I thought she was possibly hyperventilating or having some kind of seizure, perhaps set off by the how tightly close the nuns were sitting or from chanting constantly for the better part of an hour, and wondered why no one made an attempt to bring her outside. After a few minutes of heavier gasping and more intense jerks, she suddenly stood up, both the middle and ring fingers of her hands seemed to be locked to her palms with the other fingers outstretched. One of her knees was bent, and her other leg and foot were rigidly extended. One nun and one monk took off their upper robe and tied it around her torso, in order to support her and to control her. Her face displayed an extremely angry countenance, and her eyes were glaring around wildly. She began to spin and jump around the center of the room.

At this point, another nun stood up in the back, who I hadn't noticed. She was shaking irregularly, and seemed to be on the verge of tears. Her hands were also locked in the same gesture, and a nun next to her also bound her by the waist with her robe for support. She gradually moved into the center of the room. Someone got up and closed and locked the door.

I must admit I was quite frightened at this time. I felt an extremely cold sensation briefly a few times, and although I didn't actually think anything was going to happen to me, I noticed a great amount of apprehension rising in my stomach. Rinpoche's sister, who is a teacher in her own right and lovingly referred to as Jetsun-ma, came to me and said in Tibetan, "Our protectors (srungma) have decended!" I said that I understood, and she nodded reassuringly. The head monk then addressed the room, towards a group of younger nuns who seemed as shocked as I felt. He said matter-of-factly in Tibetan, "Don't be afraid, our protectors have come to tell us our obstacles."

The first nun that stood up began yelling exasperatedly to the crowd of nuns. I couldn't understand her very well, but she seemed to be warning the group about the importance of practicing the Dharma well, and of upholding their particular lineages well. After a few minutes of this, the head monk said loudly and clearly to the inhabited nuns, "If you are truly our protector deities, then you will identify yourselves and tell us our future obstacles." The first nun said that she was Palden Lhamo, and the second, although talking very softly, identified herself as Dorje Yudronma. The monks and nuns continued chanting the protector offering ritual prayers. The translator Richard Barron, in a footnote to the book Delog: Journey to Realms Beyond Death (the amazing autobiographical account of the notable visionary Delog Dawa Drolma), writes: "Dorje Yundronma is one of the twelve tanma goddesses who have sworn to protect the Buddhist religion and the Tibetan nation."

After dancing and twirling around the center of the room a bit, they began making prophesies to the head monk. It was difficult for me to understand what they were saying, but I could make out some phrases like, "I and obstacle, I see something red, something large and red, in the road..." and so forth. At one point Dorje Yudronma began talking quickly in a low voice, and the head monk got up, putting his head beside hers, listening intently to what she had to say. This continued for about ten minutes, as everyone else sat in silent observation. After they had been inhabited for about twenty-minutes, the head monk began telling the deities that it was time to go, by saying things like, "be careful on your journey ahead," and "thank you, go slowly." He hung a long white ceremonial scarf around each of the nuns's necks, which symbolizes a positive connection, and sat back down. The protector deities, in the bodies of the nuns, made three long slow prostrations to the head monk, re-offering their allegience and taking refuge in the Three Jewels (the Buddha, his teachings, and his community of practitioners). They then gave the scarves back to the head lama, and continued to shout and dance sporatically.

After a few more minutes, the head monk abruptly told everyone to leave. People seemed confused. He had decided the obstacle-prediction and clearing ritual was over. The monks and nuns filed out the front door, and they took Dorje Yundroma away out the front. Some Tibetans that had been waiting outside bowed reverently to the embodied protector deity. Some other nuns brought Palden Lhamo upstairs to retire.

I was struck how most of the older nuns and monks were totally unsurprised by this whole affair, as if it were a rather common thing.

I ate a hurried dinner, and left the compound to meet some of the students at a local Tibetan stage show bar. I didn't want to leave, but they begged me to accompany them (these places can be quite seedy). I found them after some time, but couldn't get that interested in the show. After an hour and a half, I left them at the show, as they seemed quite comfortable and were only about a five minute walk from our hotel. I returned to Rinpoche's compound to wait for his arrival.

His car finally arrived in Lhasa after 2am that night. I was allowed in his room to meet him personally at about 2.30am, since I was a foreigner. The nun I came with probably waited much longer to see him. I experienced the typical fear and apprehension I have when going to meet realized masters, but after a few moments of introducing myself I calmed down, and allowed myself to relax into his amazingly powerful presence. When he realized my Tibetan was good, and that I'd been a student of meditation for a few years, he sent everyone else out of the room and we had a very intimate and affectionate conversation for about ten minutes. He kept telling me how happy he was to meet me, and I almost started crying a few times. He gave me some advice about prayer and meditation, and a new name, and we exchanged some small gifts a few times. He had an incredible amount of youthful energy, for such a large middle-aged man in the middle of the night. Pay.lo Tulku Rinpoche, from Kham, Tibet. Photo courtesy of Dawn Mountain, the Buddhist Center in Houston Texas.

I was tired, but very sad to have to finally leave him. I wanted to sit in his room all night, just catching his vibe, but he had to leave at 6am the next day, and still had a long line of Tibetan nuns, monks and layfolk to meet before maybe catching an hour or two of sleep. I felt guilty about taking so much of his time, so excused myself, finally.

It was a day filled with great adventure, on a trip that was not altogether easy or hassle-free. I look forward to having the great blessing of meeting Pay.lo Rinpoche again in the future, and perhaps even to meet the very real and powerful benevolent protector spirits. I'm also grateful to my first teacher of Tibetan Buddhism, Anne C. Klein, for initially allowing this blossoming connection to arise.


Dan Tierney Smith said...

i'm glad to hear you met Adzom Rinpoche. I also was able to meet with him privately in Chengdu. My friend Drako translated, and it was pretty amazing to be in his presence, though I was really nervous. The connection is strong. Drako and my friend Lisa work for Rinpoche, and I only met them because Olivia met Lisa randomly one day on a Chengdu bus.
It's like that.

Tom said...

Manual Backtrack: This post has been nominated for a 2008 Blogisattva Award, Best Post of the Year, 2007.

Sean said...

Hey Michael--I happened upon your old post on "A Case of Spirit Possession in Tibet." Pretty cool account. I was intrigued about your visit to Samye, since that's where my teachers are originally from (Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche and Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche), whose main headquarters is up in NY at Padma Samye Ling. I myself am out in Nashville, and was fortunate enough to visit India and Nepal in September. I was mainly going for work, so my private time was somewhat limited, but aside from Kathmandu, I did make it up to Pharping. If you ever make it up to Nashville sometime, you should give me a shout.

Take care,