Thursday, July 15, 2021

Christopher Bell's "The Dalai Lama and the Nechung Oracle"

Christopher Bell is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Stetson University in Florida. His research focuses on Tibetan ritual and deity cults, as well as Asian models of divinity.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Dalai Lama and the Nechung Oracle, and reported the following:
While my book focuses on the centuries-old relationship between incarnations of the Dalai Lama and human oracles for an important Tibetan god, page 99 is much more granular. The page is found near the beginning of my fourth chapter, which concerns the expansive and rich ritual calendar for the Tibetan Buddhist monastery of Nechung, which has historically housed the famed medium of the Dalai Lamas. After briefly discussing the general ritual activities that Tibetan monks engage in, the page focuses predominantly on the work of an anthropologist named Urmila Nair, whose ethnographic research among Nechung monks in exile recorded the major liturgical programs of the monastery. The pages that follow continue to summarize Nair’s observations before the remainder of the chapter describes Nechung Monastery’s annual calendar of ritual and festival engagements. The core observation of page 99 – and the chapter as a whole – draws from another scholar, José Cabezón, who describes Tibetan ritual structure as “modular in nature, in that ‘subritual’ elements can be pieced together in different permutations and orders to suit different liturgical ends.”

The Page 99 Test does not work very well for my book, unfortunately, and I doubt a browser would be able to pick up on the larger arguments and focus of the monograph as a whole. I suspect as well that the casual reader would be daunted by the seemingly sudden and inexplicable names and titles that crowd page 99 – such as Pehar, Tsongkhapa, Yamāntaka, Nebesky-Wojkowitz, and Dhasa Nechung – all of which require the prefatory explanations in the book’s introduction and previous chapters to make full contextual sense. There are some obscure references as well to ontological statuses, epistemologies, and politics of spectacle. Optimistically, however, the esoteric nature of these figures and concepts, and the mystery behind their significance, may spark curiosity rather than frustration, and spur the browser on to explore the larger complex of elements that make the Nechung Oracle and the god who possesses him so important to Tibetan Buddhist history.

Despite its very particular focus, page 99 does continue an important conversation about the nature of liturgical practices and their foundational importance to the identity and annual activities of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. While the previous chapter focuses even more minutely on Nechung Monastery’s core ritual manuals, these chapters together are part of the larger structure of the book, which explores the mythologies, rituals, and institutional histories tied to the Nechung Oracle, and by extension the Dalai Lamas past and present. The book is rife with examples of how the Dalai Lama’s own incarnational history is permeated by the presence of the god Pehar, who possesses the Nechung Oracle. Furthermore, the introduction and conclusion include vivid ethnographic vignettes of how this deity and others close to him permeate Tibetan belief and practice today, and other observations collected on site in Tibet and India punctuate the chapters. Despite its nuance, page 99 and the surrounding fourth chapter nevertheless present a detailed snapshot of the dense ritual understanding needed to engage with a Tibetan god, and it alludes to the robust mythos and history out of which such spirits sprung.
Learn more about The Dalai Lama and the Nechung Oracle at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue