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Christopher Bell

Tibetans engage with a panoply of divinities and spirits in their daily lives and ritual activities. The word “demon” does not capture the sheer breadth and diversity of these beings because there is a rich assortment of distinct spirit types that cause illnesses, guard against calamities, or possess human mediums to provide clairvoyant advice. While comprehensiveness is impossible, a representative demonology is valuable by offering a foundation for further exploration. Most Tibetan spirits are capricious or overtly pernicious and require oracles, diviners, tantrikas, and other religious specialists to ward off or harness their power. The gods and spirits of Tibet also fit loosely into ontological categories along a larger spectrum that includes enlightened beings, transcendent deities, worldly gods, and fierce demons. The boundaries between these categories are often porous, especially when it comes to aligning certain spirits with buddhas, bodhisattvas, or wrathful deities of the land. For Buddhism and Bön, the two major religious traditions of Tibet, there are specific protector deities with robust mythologies and liturgical corpora that are frequently propitiated and revered in order to maintain these religions both materially and spiritually. Interacting with such divinities often takes the form of oracular ceremonies or image consecrations and offerings. The practices may vary dramatically between spiritual lineages and regions, but the overall concept is rooted in interacting with these powerful forces to effect social, communal, and individual change. In Tibet, spirits are potentially dangerous, but they also offer diverse opportunities for personal advancement and religious enrichment.


The Tibetan Buddhist monastery of Nechung (Gnas chung) is home to a powerful protector deity and historically housed the human oracle he would possess to give prophetic advice. Located on the outskirts of the Tibetan capital of Lhasa and downhill from the famous Geluk (Dge lugs) monastery of Drepung (’Bras spungs), Nechung has existed since at least the 16th century and had close ties to the lineage of the Dalai Lamas since the second incarnation. It is the Nechung Oracle, possessed by the deity Pehar (Pe har) or his ministerial emanation Dorjé Drakden (Rdo rje grags ldan), that the Dalai Lama has consulted on matters of state for centuries and continues to do so as part of his government-in-exile. This deity is likewise important for having once been the guardian of Tibet’s first Buddhist monastery, Samyé (Bsam yas). However, it was under the auspices of the Fifth Dalai Lama in the 17th century that Nechung Monastery was renovated and greatly expanded, and the Nechung Oracle took on the mantle of Tibet’s head state oracle. Nechung’s narrative and liturgical pedigree nonetheless extends back even to the 12th century and includes Nyingma (Rnying ma) and Sakya (Sa skya) influences that have allowed it to maintain an especially ecumenical character. As the institutional setting for rich mythic and ritual activity for nearly 500 years, Nechung is an important site for understanding Tibetan oracular practices, the Dalai Lama’s administration, and Tibet’s vibrant religious heritage.