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The Shamanism Magazine You may share this article in any non-commercial way
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Sacred Hoop is an independent magazine about Shamanism and Animistic Spirituality.It is based in West Wales, and has been published four times a year since 1993.
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www.SacredHoop.org/offer.htmlWe hope you enjoy reading the article. Nicholas Breeze Wood (editor)
SH ISSUE 79 2013www.sacredhoop.org 15
Left: a Lhamoin Ladakh
Below: WrathfulTibetan Buddhistprotector beings.
These are partof the retinue ofa more powerful
spirit. Many ofthese retinue
beings wereonce local
shamanic land orprotector spiritswhich Buddhism
uddhism came to Tibet in theeighth century, mostly from India,
although with influences from China,which received Buddhism from Indiabefore it arrived in Tibet. Before thatTibet had a rich shamanic tradition,which it shared with much of CentralAsia. This pre-Buddhist tradition isgenerally known as Bn, but Buddhismquickly started to persecute these pre-Buddhist traditions, and they havechanged over the years to fit in, somodern Bn now bears littleresemblance to the historic pre-Buddhist traditions of the region.
However many of these pre-Buddhist elements are interwovenwithin modern Bn and Buddhism,especially in the oldest schools ofBuddhism known as the Red Hatsects, which were established in theearly Buddhist days of Tibet.Subsequently Buddhism was cleanedup by later reformers who becameknown as the Yellow Hat sects. TheDalai Lama is a member of a YellowHat sect.
Tibet was a land of spirits, and it stillis. When Buddhism arrived it broughtwith it many of the spirits and gods thathad evolved from the Indian gods ofthe Buddhas homeland, but it alsoconverted a great many of the originalTibetan shamanic spirits, and turnedthem Buddhist - in much the same waythat early Christianity took pagan godsand goddesses (such as Brigid) andmade them into saints.
Many of these ancient spirits weresaid to have been fought andconquered by Padmasambhava - apowerful Indian Buddhist mystic andmagician - who was reported to havetravelled all over Tibet, fighting theancient spirits and binding them withan oath to thereafter defendBuddhism. These beings are known asdharmapala (chos skyong in Tibetan)which means protectors of theBuddhas teachings (dharma).
SH ISSUE 79 2013www.sacredhoop.org16
This mix of ancient shamanictraditions and spirits, and thetransformed Indian Gods broughtto Tibet, make Tibetan Buddhismunlike any other form of Buddhismin the world - and it shares so littlewith the forms of Buddhism foundin places like Southeast Asia orJapan, that some anthropologistscall it Lamaism to distinguish itfrom the other forms of Buddhismfound across the world.
One of the most shamanicelements remaining in Tibetan
culture is the role of oracles.These are people who are takenover by spirits to bring messagesfrom the spirit world, and who givehealings. These may be nationallyimportant figures - such as theDalai Lamas own oracle, the
Nechung (Tibetan State)Oracle - who is taken overby a mighty, nationallyknown spirit called Pehar(Dorje Drakden) [see aninterview with the current
State Oracle in SacredHoop Issue 47], or
they might be local oracles servingrural communities, who are takenover by local protector spirits or landspirits, unknown outside of a smallgeographic area.
Generally known as lhapa(male) or lhamo (female) [lhameaning spirit or god, with pa ormo added after to denote if it is aman or a woman], these areTibets shamans.
Being a lhapa is a seriousbusiness; there is an account of onemonastic oracle who did not respectthe protector spirit who camethrough them. The spirit took theoracle over, and in trance made himdisembowel himself and place hisown entrails on the altar as offerings.
The lhapas of Tibet have notfared very well since the Chineseinvasion, and although there aresome still within the country itself,many fled to Nepal, although thetradition there is in danger of passingaway. In other Himalayan Tibetancultural lands outside of Tibet proper- such as Bhutan, Ladakh, Sikkimand Mustang - where the Chineseinvasion did not happen - thetradition can still be found.
Most lhapa are lay peopleworking in the villages, although afew are ordained and work inmonasteries. They mostly work intrance, having been taken over by aspirit or spirits, and it is these spiritswho are seen to be the ones givingthe information or doing the healing.In Ladakh the word lus-gyar meansa person in trance, Ius meansbody and gyar means borrowed.
They do not generally enjoy highstatus in Tibetan society - with a fewexceptions such as lhapas of highrank like the Tibetan State oracle -
as Buddhist monks and rinpochesare seen as being more spirituallypotent. Village lhapas generally workunder the guidance of their localmonastery, and they are examined bymonks when their shamanic talentsfirst manifest, to see if they are trulya fledgling lhapa or simply a personpossessed by a harmful spirit.
Monasteries maintain their controlover the lhapas because lhapas enterinto what they consider to be anuncontrolled, unprescribed Buddhisttrance state, and also because thespirits that possess them areconsidered to rank low in theBuddhist pantheon - generallybecause they are the pre-Buddhistlocal nature spirits. Village lhapasalso rank lower than monasteryoracles for the same reasons, astheir spirits rank lower than themonastic oracle spirits, and villagetrance practice is even less controlledthan that of ordained oracle monks.
TOOLS OF THE LHAPAWhen practicing, a lhapa wears aset of god clothes, which aresimilar to those worn by monks onspecial occasions such as funerals.These clothes represent theclothes of the Buddhas and highspirits, and include a ringa (ritualcrown). This headdress is the mostimportant item of dress and it isput on last (or second to last assometimes a scarf is tied over themouth so that the spirit speakingthrough its human is not polluted.
This crown represents thecomplex Buddhist cosmology; onthe simplest level it represents thefive Buddha families, but it alsorepresents five types of spirits, thefive elements (air, water, earth, fireand space) which each Buddha
Oracles are peoplewho are taken overby spirits to br ingmessages. They maybe nationallyimportant figures,such as the TibetanState Oracle, ororacles serving ruralcommunities whoare taken over bylocal land spir its
Above: FormerTibetan StateOracle in fullregalia
Top right: AyuLhamo, a famousvillage lhamofrom Ladakh
Below:TibetanBuddhist bell(dril-bu) andthunderbolt(dorje). Thebell representsemptiness - thefemale principal,while thedorjerepresentsform -themaleprincipal
Below: Tibetanritual dagger
Below: TantricCrown with
images of thefive Buddha
Below: AyuLhamo performs
a healing on ayoung woman
SH ISSUE 79 2013www.sacredhoop.org 17
family are associated with, as wellas the four points of the compassand the centre, with which theyare also associated; in effect it isshorthand for a deep, multi level,incredibly rich map of creationwhich holds deep wisdom aboutthe way aspects of the universeinterrelate and are connected. In away it is very similar to the NativeAmerican medicine wheel.
Lhapas also generally wear acape and an apron, and often covertheir heads with another scarfbefore putting on the ringa crown.
The sacred items a lhapa usescan be quite extensive, depending ontheir specialisation, but they willnormally have close to hand a doublesided damaru drum, which can varyin size from a few inches to around afoot across, a Buddhist bell (dril-bu)or a Bn bell (shang), a ritual bronzethunderbolt (dorje), prayer beads(tenga), an metal extraction pipe forsucking out poison (puri) and a ritualdagger (phurba).
BECOMING A LHAPAOften the role of lhapa runs in afamily, but this is not always thecase. However, it is not uncommonfor a relative of a recentlydeceased lhapa to inherit thecalling, and this is explained as theneed of a spirit to find a newvessel to come through. But asalways, even before a close relativelhapa is recognised, they will stillhave to undergo exactly the sametesting as someone from a non-lhapa family who develops thesymptoms. Men and womenbecome village lhapas or lhamos inroughly equal numbers.
The untrained lhapa will be aperson who experiences a violentloss of control, which in Westernculture we would call an episodeof mental illness. In local termshowever, this means that theperson is weak and a spirit cantake them over easily.
A diagnosis will be made, eitherby an established lhapa ora monk, and if thediagnosis is that theaffected person is really afledgling lhapa, (rather thansomeone who is mentallyill), this diagnosis mustthen be ratified by a highranking monk or rinpochebefore it can be accepted.
As mental illness is considered tobe spirit-caused anyway, it isessential for the monastery todetermine which spirit is invading. If
it is a hostile and harmful spirit it willbe driven out in exorcisms, but if it isan appropriate spirit for a lhapa, theywill be encouraged to learn to controlthe spirit and use it for the benefit ofthe local community.
However because themonasteries generally disapprove ofthese low local spirits, a validationfrom a monastery also invites some- at best unspoken - disapproval,and some fle