The Dalai Lama and the Nechung Oracle

Christopher Bell

328 pages, 2021, USD 99 (Hardback)

New York: Oxford University Press

Reviewed by Brenton Sullivan

This is a book about a god who enjoys eating the flesh, drinking the blood, and inhaling the life-breath of one’s enemies. This is the stuff of horror films, Halloween, and, of course, Tibetan religion and history. In The Dalai Lama and the Nechung Oracle, Christopher Bell has authored the first Western-language monograph on Pehar that analyzes the historical coming into being of the god’s cult. The book is an important contribution to recent scholarship on the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682) and the new era that he and his government commenced. Unlike some of that scholarship, however, Bell is not exclusively concerned with matters of state, state-to-state diplomacy, and conflict. Rather he makes the case that “belief in deities spurs action, which creates history. … Contrary to popular conceptions in the Euro-American sphere, myth and history are not mutually exclusive, and rooting out the former will not necessarily bring one closer to the latter” (211). Bell deftly traces the great attention and devotion that the Fifth Dalai Lama as well as his prime minister, Sangyé Gyatso (1653-1705), showed Pehar. He argues convincingly that the ties these two built between this deity and other sources of power across Tibet and across time contributed to the formation of both the first state deity cult in Tibet and “the Tibetan government’s national consolidation” (197).

Pehar is a protector deity, one of the personal protectors of the Dalai Lama. Much about Pehar is ambiguous or complex—his origins, his ontological status (as enlightened or worldly), his sectarian affiliation, his relationship to the other deities that typically appear with him—and Bell argues that this kind of ambiguity and complexity is what lends him power and makes him amenable to interpretation and redeployment (68). Chapters One and Two address the varying myths concerning the origins of Pehar and the influential work of the Fifth Dalai Lama in reconciling these so as to foster an image of the deity that is thoroughly tantric (and thus authentic and powerful) and thoroughly associated with his school of Buddhism, the Geluk School (without relinquishing the important legitimizing ties to other schools, especially the Nyingma). These chapters include lots of original translation, and Chapter Two begins with a translation of the Dalai Lama and Sangyé Gyatso’s narrative of Pehar’s origins and migration to Nechung along with Bell’s own fleshing out of and interpretation of that narrative.       

Chapters Three and Four deal with ritual at Nechung Monastery, the principal home of Pehar for perhaps the past five hundred years (133). Both chapters document the “accretion” of ritual over time, the earlier chapter (“The Central Rituals”) being focused on the principal textual collection of ritual devoted to Pehar at Nechung, and the later chapter (“The Liturgical Calendar”) being focused on the schedule of rituals for Pehar at the monastery. The Nechung Liturgy is what Bell calls the collection of “fulfilling and amending rites” (T. bskang gso) for the monastery’s protector deities (the full title is given on p. 73). It was compiled in 1845 at the request of the Nechung medium, but a substantial number of the texts included were the work of the Fifth Dalai Lama (ten of forty-two) and the Seventh Dalai Lama (1708-1757; nine of forty-two). The chapter drills down into the most important of the Fifth Dalai Lama’s contribution to the Nechung Liturgy, his Adamantine Melody (the full title is given on p. 75), which is also the longest text in the collection. Through a meticulous comparison of the Adamantine Melody with the Second Dalai Lama’s (1476-1542) sixteenth-century Offerings and Praises (full title on p. 76) and Nyangrel Nyima Özer’s (1124-1192) twelfth-century Ten Point Sādhana (full title on p. 75; this text is also included in the collection and is said to be the other most important text in the collection), Bell reveals the process through which the Fifth Dalai Lama, in particular, incorporated Pehar into the Geluk pantheon and into “a larger and more intricate Tantric Buddhist universe, one where Padmasambhava reigns supreme.”   

My only reservation about Chapter Three is that there is a confusion introduced at one point between the Nechung Liturgyand its most important element, the Fifth Dalai Lama’s Adamantine Melody. Whereas Bell’s analysis of the latter is very intriguing and convincing, the makeup of the collection as a whole and its “accretion” or “evolution” over time is less clear. Bell asserts that the “Nechung Liturgy vividly illustrates historical accretion, with the gradual addition of texts over time, especially by the Seventh Dalai Lama and Nechung Oracles in the eighteenth century. The collection is dated to the mid-nineteenth century, but the slow growth of texts prior to this time is clearly visible” (74). However, since we have only the one, 1845 collection—the Nechung Liturgy—it is not clear how one is to conclude that the collection itself (apart from the individual ritual manuals that make up the collection) had “accreted” or “evolved” prior to its compilation. Moreover, such an argument is a distraction from the more important one Bell succeeds in making in this chapter, having to do with Fifth Dalai Lama’s ingenuity in capturing and redeploying Pehar within his own ritual arrangement.

Chapter Four (“The Liturgical Calendar”) describes the schedule and makeup of Nechung utilizing modern sources, such as Urmila Nair’s observations of Nechung’s ritual in exile in 2007 and Lingön Padma Kelsang’s 1988 reconstruction of the pre-1950s Nechung ritual calendar. As such, it can only make enticing suggestions about the monastery’s liturgical calendar in earlier centuries. Therefore,  Bell’s argument concerning the “accretion” of ritual practices over time is less important than the other contribution he makes in this chapter, namely, tracing the extensive ritual network to which Nechung belongs. Nechung’s liturgical calendar is filled with rituals centered at Nechung and those centered elsewhere, such as Drepung Monastery’s Deyang College, a process that ties Nechung into supportive ritual networks. This subject is taken up more fully in Chapter Six.

To this reviewer, Chapters Five (“Nechung Monastery”) and Six (“Institutional Networks”) represent the high point of the book. This is not just because I have spent a great deal of time thinking about monasteries but rather because of the variety of ways in which Bell researches Nechung Monastery and its affiliates and the thoroughness with which he does so. Combining rigorous historiography with ethnography, Bell first documents the layout of Nechung, its statues, and murals. His attention to the spatial and material dimensions of the monastery allow him to observe, for example

on a two-dimensional plane, there is an axis of tantric power, moving from the head of the monastery to the bottom. The most powerful figure is the tutelary deity Hayagrīva, situated as he is at the deepest and most central position … Under his watchful and subduing gaze—placed in the very middle of the chapel—is a statue of the Nechung Oracle … Three-dimensionally [vertically], there is a hierarchy of enlightenment. The worldly deities of ambiguous enlightened ontology are the first floor; the enlightened bodhisattva, embodied by the Dalai Lama, presides over them from the second floor; and the tantric Buddha Padmasambhava watches over them all from the third floor (127).

The spatial relationships drawn between the capricious, indigenous powers of Tibet and tantric Buddhas, between eminent figures from Imperial Tibet and the Dalai Lama, serve to enhance the status of both Pehar and the Dalai Lama and the latter’s government. In this chapter Bell also documents important historical moments for the material layout and composition of the monastery, such as when the goddess Nyima Zhönnu was added to the monastery’s Central Chapel in the eighteenth century (125) and when Makzor Gyelmo (a form of the important protector goddess Pelden Lhamo) took over one of Nechung’s chapels in the eighteenth century in order to strengthen ties between Tsel Gungtang, itself tied to former rulers of Tibet (145; see also 128 and 137).

Chapter Six presents the reader with the “Nechung maṇḍala” of sites and institutions that have historically come to be closely associated with Nechung. Bell gives close attention to the layout, iconography, the makeup of the rituals, and the liturgical calendars of each of these to demonstrate the patterns of shared religious experience, such as Meru Nyingpa’s structure mimicking that of Nechung (151) and Tsel Yangön’s liturgy being clearly synchronized with Nechung’s (147). And while variation still occurs within this network and between these institutions, the variation itself is a source of power. Bell writes, “by advocating a [local] popular cult and superscribing its narrative, ritual, and institutional representations, the Fifth Dalai Lama’s government tapped into a strategic means of unification through standardizing popular beliefs and practices” (163). The Nechung maṇḍala was a “pragmatic” one, after all, having been constructed of sites and institutions in proximity to centers of power (161).

Chapter Seven, “The Nechung Oracle,” documents the history of one of the lesser-known and more mysterious aspects of Tibetan culture. The human medium of Pehar appears to have been active since the time of the Second Dalai Lama (168-175). However, his position did not become a persistent or reliable “office” or a “state oracle” until after the formation of the Fifth Dalai Lama’s government. In particular, the longevity of the medium known as Sepo Sönam, who served from 1647 to perhaps 1677, “likely helped to secure the relationship between the Great Fifth and Pehar” (185) and thus the office itself.          

Bell represents the rare scholar who pursues the historical subject not just from the armchair but also from art historical, material, and ethnographic angles. In doing so he is able to demonstrate the manner in which Pehar became an important symbol of and agent for the Dalai Lama’s claims to legitimacy, as the heir to the earlier figures who exercised control over Tibet, such as Padmasambhava and Lama Zhang. Bell does not discount the time and energy the Dalai Lama devoted to nurturing the cult of Pehar, and nor should we in the twenty-first century discount the power of divine figures, their narratives, and the ritual devotion they demand when considering political and historical change (consider the hundreds of millions of dollars we happily devote to movie franchises of superheroes).    

Although this book is most appropriate for scholars and advanced students of Tibet, I intend to assign certain sections of it to my own undergraduate students enrolled in “Tibetan Buddhism,” particular the entertaining story of Pehar’s origins and migration to Nechung and the chapter on the oracle of Nechung. Both of these things—the story of a god and the important role of oracles in traditional Tibet—are conspicuously absent from my current syllabus. Finally, the only thing seriously lacking in the book—and this is not really a fault of the book—are images. Bells’ Ph.D. dissertation includes nearly a hundred photographs of monasteries, chapels, statues, murals, inscriptions, and more taken during his extensive travel through Tibet and India. This rich body of material, which greatly informs the present book, should be published alongside commentary in order to aid the rest of us in better comprehending material culture in Tibet and its importance for fully understanding Tibetan history.

Brenton Sullivan is Associate Professor of Buddhism and East Asian Religions at Colgate University. His research is on the role of monastic institutions in the formation of Tibetan Buddhist schools and identities and on the history of Sino-Tibetan relations. He is the author of Building a Religious Empire: Buddhism, Bureaucracy, and the Rise of the Gelukpa (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2021).