Tibetan Oracles: Ghadong Monastery, Past and Present

The following article is from the Spring, 1990 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.

It is said that when the Indian tannic master Padmasambhava came to Tibet in the 8th century, he glutted the populace with miracles and vanquished the recalcitrant spirits, pledging them to henceforth protect the new religion. Popular stories recount how spirit after spirit was subdued and a hierarchy among them established. The five most ferocious ones became the Five Embodied Kings, also known under the collective name of Pehar Gyalpo. Two of these kings function as the so-called oracle deities who give advice through a particular human medium in trance. These trance mediums are also referred to as the ministers of the kings of superior qualities.

Before the founding of the three largest monastic seats of learning in the Geluk tradition (Drepung, Sera, and Ganden), the monasteries of importance in the Lhasa area were Ghadong, Kyormo Lung and Zurphu, all following the Kadampa tradition established by the Indian master Atisha in the 11th century. Ghadong became a sacred place because one of Tsong-Khapa's teachers, Lama Umapa, had lived there and because Tsong-Khapa himself had had his famous vision of Manjushri there. Within the precincts of the Ghadong monastery there is a well that was held as the seat of the vital force of the oracle-deity. In time the monastic complex grew up around it, housing the oracle as well as the human medium.

The monastery known now as Ghadong previously was referred to as Shingjachen or the one with the wooden bird, so called after the vehicle upon which Pehar Gyalpo first descended. At the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-80) Ghadong Monastery together with Nechung Monastery came under the wings of the Geluk order, and the two have since acted as the two main oracles consulted by the Tibetan government and by a number of monastic institutions.

In their daily and seasonal rituals, Ghadong Monastery follows Nyingma as well as Geluk traditions. Whereas Nechung's medium is always a celibate monk, the Ghadong mediumship is inherited from father to son, and as such has remained a family affair for many centuries. The oracle's counsel is requested by individual persons, by the closely connected Drepung monastery and by many others. The oracle-deity at Ghadong is believed to have special powers over rain and water, and it is called upon for help in times of drought and flood to prevent damage from hail and to control the weather.

Prior to the Communist invasion of Tibet in the 1950s the Ghadong Monastery contained some 70 monks. During the Chinese takeover all were either killed or forced into labor camps or civil life. The oracle's medium, together with his family, fled into exile in India. The monastery itself and adjacent buildings were completely destroyed during the tumultous years before and during the Cultural Revolution.

It was not possible to rebuild Ghadong Monastery during the early years of the exile when other temples were slowly being reestablished. The medium was elderly and his sons were serving in the Tibetan government-in-exile. Since much of the Ghadong rituals were the same as those of Nechung, the latter's monks assisted for a period of time, but the special ceremonies, customs, ritual dances and so on could not be maintained. In 1975 the medium passed away and one of his sons became his successor. One year later the Tibetan government-in-exile allotted a plot of land at the Gangchen Kyishong area in Dharamsala for the eventual re-establishment of Ghadong Monastery. In 1979 with a more relaxed border situation, four elderly monks familiar with the Ghadong tradition made their way to India. Through their effort and the work of the present medium, the monastic institution has begun to be rebuilt. Seven young boys have since become new monks at the monastery and are being trained. A small, modest temple has been erected together with monk's quarters for eight, plus a kitchen and living area for the oracle's medium and his family. Funds have come from private donations and loans, but since these are very limited in nature the Ghadong Monastic Institute is proposing a few projects by means of which it hopes to become self-supporting and independent. Financial assistance in the form of donations or loans is needed to resurrect the old traditions.

One proposal for generating funds is to establish a school and production center for traditional Tibetan pictorial applique work. Tibetan applique is an art that uses pieces of silk fabric, cut into shapes and finely stitched, to form pictures of bodhisattvas or celestial beings. The stitch work is a time-consuming and exquisite craft that requires strong dedication. This pictorial applique is traditionally produced by specially trained monks.

So far Ghadong Monastery has been able to secure the help of a 79-year-old master who served both the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Dalai Lamas as a tailor. He had been imprisoned until 1979 and then came to India. Given his advanced age, it is essential to transmit his unique knowledge quickly to those young monks who show interest and aptitude for this work. However, the biggest problem is the absence of a working place for trainees, a storeroom, dining room, and living quarters.

A second project through which the Ghadong Monastic Institute hopes to become self-maintaining is through publishing story books based on parts of the Kangyur depicting the life of the Buddha. At present these teachings are only accessible to scholars because of their highly philosophical language. The Ghadong team would first simplify the Jataka and Kyer-ab tales and the Do-Zanglon stories for Tibetan children and next translate the Tibetan versions into other languages.

For more information please contact Tibet Resource Centre, Ms. Ida Th. Salis, Director, P.O. Box 831, Larkspur, CA 94939. Tel. 415-924-9193. Ghadong Monastic Insitute, Mr. T. Wang-dak Ghadong, Gangchen Kyishong, Session Road, Dharamsala, H.P. 176 219 India.

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