AN ORACLE IN LADAKH
"They are old acquaintances. They are hallucinations only if you cannot control them." 'The Earth Will Shake' Robert Anton Wilson
We met Tashi on the road back from Sabu. The five of us. Jayme, Carla, Tora, Uki and I had hired a jeep and driver for the day. We were Gompa Stompin'.
Exploring the Ladakhi and Tibetan Monasteries around the outskirts of Leh. I had heard rumors of a well known local Oracle who lived in the vicinity and was anxious to find her.
I came to Ladakh from Manali. Came for the Hemis Festival. Hemis Gompa holds an annual Buddhist Shindig for Tibetans and Ladakhis nee Tibetans.
A weird and wild two day bash, full of dancing, chanting, traditional costumes, blessings and rituals. Families gather for the event and old friends are reunited.
All the locals dressed in their high-mountain finery. Rough tie-dyed sheep wool coats, sheep and yak skin capes. Long hair braided women dripping turquoise and coral. Their skirts a kaleidoscope of psychedelic color.
And this is a special year. Once every twelve years (with two extra days for the fete) a 15-foot thanka (those ornately painted silk hangings) of Padma Sambhava, the Tantric Guru who brought Buddhism to the Tibetans, is unfurled.
Add to that an exclusive engagement and viewing of the 'Jewels Of Naropa', ancient sacred ornaments worn by a high Rinpoche, an incarnated Tulku. This could be as psychedelic as a Grateful Dead Concert!
Just viewing the sacred ornaments worn by the Tulku will bring lifetimes of merit. The Lama stays busy, everyone wants to be blessed!
The occasion brings people from all over the world. This year the Gompa held around ten thousand crowded into the small courtyard. At times making viewing difficult, the crowds themselves are a spectacle.
Getting caught up in the pageantry is more than just looking for a photo opportunity. Rainbows of colored costumes, masks and brocaded finery are everywhere I turn. There is a constant aroma of incense, fried mutton and rice. Bells and horns blare with urgency as performers enact a historical play or dance.
The Ladakhis are peaceful, and even with such overwhelming numbers in a small Monastery, calm prevails.
The ride from Manali, through ice-covered 5000-meter passes, became one of the all-time Bus-Rides-From-Hell.
Ganja cake saved me, riding on top of the bus with baggage and bald spares, deep into the mystic, hangin'-on and swallowed into thousand-foot overlooks into valley and river. When all else fails, try reverie. I was taken on a cyclone, feeling the wind and expanding into the majesty.
What should have taken two days ended up four. I had booked the first bus allowed through the Manali-Leh Pass just after it had opened for the summer. This route is closed for nine months out of the year due to ice, snow and disaster.
Travel agency irresponsibility, altitude sickness, bad food and worse lodgings on freezing tundra created an ordeal full of despair and turmoil.
There was a time after being stuck at the top of one 5000-meter pass for a whole day that I was ready to turn back to Manali. Starving, freezing, nowhere to go, no shelter. I became dismayed, bored and angered. Even the passengers on the bus became a trial to endure.
The Indian Army saved us more than once during the journey. Repairing our vehicle, and providing transportation and medical aid to the sick. Oxygen helps at these altitudes. So does a warm dry shelter.
I felt grateful and impressed with their dedication and efficiency. Quite a surprise really. I recovered in Leh, after a time.
As I saíd, Tashi was with some other children playing around a mountain stream near the dirt road out of Sabu. We stopped to ask the kids if they knew the Oracle, and how we could find her.
Karma was working that day. The Gods were smiling. We had stopped in the perfect spot. Tashi's grandmother was the Oracle!
She explained to us that her grandmother only worked in the early morning, that we would have to come back tomorrow at 8:30 a.m.
We prevailed upon her. 'Lonely travelers, tired, leaving soon, need to see the Oracle, it is very important.' The young woman, at 16, was adamant yet kind. We were relentless. She finally agreed to take us, and no promises of the Oracle working.
Tashi hops into the back of the jeep, the driver is looking at all of us weirdly. This may not be the easy day he had planned.
We roar off, amidst blue exhaust, road dust and pitched gravel.
A mile down the road our guide instructs the driver to hang a left, off the road, into the desert. No track, no asphalt, no signs, no road, big boulders. Our driver stops, turns head and a heated conversation in Ladakhi ensues.
It is obvious, the gist is: "I ain't takin' this pony across that wasteland!"
Tashi hangs tough. I remind the driver this is what we paid for, this is an off-road jeep, the looks of which indicate he's been down this track before. With a grumble he steers left, we lurch off-road toward Grandma's house.
Fifteen bumpy minutes later we round a military encampment to the west, farther on, desert shrub east of us, eventually picking up a small road leading into the yard of a mansion under construction. The house, a brand new three-storey castle is truly impressive. This Oracle business must be profitable out here in the further reaches.
Tashi explains that the house is being built for a big Lama, a Rinpoche. I conclude the Rinpoche business isn't so bad, as she leads us out of the yard through a side gate in the stone wall overlooking a dry rock-filled riverbed. I see in the distance an old small stone-and-mortar house set on the far bank of the now-dry river. That is where we are headed.
The Oracle, or Lhamo, as she is called (a term of respect), is sitting outside, washing dishes, as we approach. She looks up with a smile. "Tashi Delek, Lhamo!", I bid Good-day in Tibetan, looking into Lhamo's eyes. The face, a brown, lined, roadmap of years, of ages.
Kindness in the eyes and something else, a toughness born of experience. Though lean in stature, she has the unmistakable presence of a mountain woman, solid.
We all sit around her, by the well outside the house, as she finishes the dishes, and implore her for a ritual and prophecy.
"We have come a long way, we need guidance. Blind wanderers in search of answers, in search of healing. We hear she is the best Lhamo this side of the Himalayas."
She just looks at us, speaks through her grand-daughter: "Come back tomorrow." We sit some more.
Finally, Tashi speaks on our behalf, or so it seems. Lhamo slowly rises, then walks inside the house. I have a sinking feeling she is retiring for the day. Feeling deprived I prepare to depart, back to the jeep. Five minutes later, Tashi invites us inside.
Stooping to enter through a small frame door, I remove my shoes and leave them in the stone-floored hallway, then proceed down the corridor to a room where Tashi beckons.
Stepping across the threshold, I am struck by the cleanliness. A large wood-floored room, high wood-beamed ceiling, light streaming through two windows. The floor oiled from years of dripping yak-butter. On one side, a wooden cabinet faced in glass, holding dishes, cups, saucers, china and silver.
In front, an old, large, iron stove, spotlessly clean. Along two walls, beneath windows, a raised dais with carpet squares for cushions. In the corner, a small table. I take a seat on one of the Tibetan cushions, and wait for Lhamo to enter.
She comes in quietly, places a few objects on the table. Seven small butter lamps, a larger one, and a can holding a cloth-bound ritual dagger. A Dorje-Dagger (in Tibetan, a phurba). Then she steps out.
Returning a moment later, cloth bag in one hand, a pitcher of water in the other. Bending over she pours water into her palm then, invoking a prayer, she takes this and draws it up into her nose. An odd gurgling sound. This is a cleansing, and the beginning of something more.
Curiosity and excitement pounding on my ribs. I can feel an odd tingling like the passage of a mild electric current through my spine.
More water, more gurgling, odd sounds coming from deep in her throat, and it already seems to me the solid, real, common materiality of the room is changing into something else.
Chanting now, Lhamo picks up her bag, moves toward the table.
I've seen this before, in different settings, different lands, different people. In high mountain plateaus like Bolivia, deep jungle Amazon, on islands in Indonesia.
And it never fails to move me, to draw me into that space, with anticipation, longing, some fear. That state where Time becomes inconsistent and the shape of Reality is subject to whim or fantasy. The other side, subjective and filled with novel possibility.
The Oracle, kneeling before her table, chanting, reaches into her bag, brings out a ceremonial apron and dons a silk raiment. The chanting proceeds, slowly rocking, she continues to bring forth other articles. A cape, crimson silk, a headdress, beads, a necklace, a red bandanna to cover her face, hiding all but her eyes.
When all is in place, she is adorned. Covered from crown to foot in ceremonial garb. Only her eyes, glowing strangely, ethereally, can be seen.
She sits on her haunches, in red, rocking and swaying back and forth, chanting, a gutteral sound emerging, shrouded in rippling folds of crimson, ancient images. A wheel of life, symbols for wisdom, prosperity, Buddha image, swastika and older more primitive imagery displayed in detail.
Her hands wield a synchronism of magic and music and movement as ringing bell, swinging Vajra Thunderbolt and hand-drum weave a spell in their interplay.
I feel an electric silence in the air. A kind of stillness filled with potential about to erupt. We are out of ordinary time and space.
The room seems to be veiled from the outside world, clad in it's own raiment. A counterpoint to the clothes worn by the Sorceress. What was once an ordinary kitchen is now another dimension. There is no turning back. Mystery is a powerful garment!
Her trance state began during the water cleansing. She is sinking deeper, moving farther into the void with each breath, shifting her frame of perception with each mudra, and shifting the reality in this space, as she lights the butter lamps, spoons rice, tosses this over the table, makes offerings of ghee to the statue image of the Buddha, pouring offerings into butter lamps and carrying us along into another state of being.
The Oracle is chanting over the ritual table (my shaman friends in South America would call this a Mesa).
Here, ritual daggers, butter lamps, saucers filled with ghee, the ceremonial clarified butter, used as a feast for the gods, and statues of the deities lie atop the altar.
In other lands, human skulls, smooth river stones, flowers, sea shells, Eagle feathers or Human thigh bones are the tools of the trade.
Tashi walks in, charcoal brazier swinging from chain, circles the room then places this in front of Lhamo.
Smoke billowing in mystical clouds, the aroma is unmistakable: Copal! That heady aroma gathered from the sap of an ancient tree.
And I am immediately transported through that cloud of incense to the jungles of the Amazon. To nights of danger and revelation, of ritual, madness and communion with the animal spirits.
Lhamo turns to face each of us. Her chanting is finished, she abides in an altered state as she inquires if we have any questions or problems we need answered.
Tora asks about her sister. The Oracle replies that her sister is alright - there is nothing to worry about. Next is Yuki. She looks at him quietly for a moment and queries: "Do you believe?"
Yuki answers "No", and therefore does not have any question. To Carla's query, the Oracle asks if she has received a letter from her mother recently, if not, Carla must call her mom.
As she works her way around the room, to each of us in turn, I am pondering about what to ask her. What is it I truly need to know? As she turns to face me, suddenly the image arises and I realize what it is that has been gnawing at me for so long.
I tell her I am looking for someone, a teacher. I don't know where I will find this person, or who this teacher is. Will I find what I am so desperately searching for?
"Am I a Buddhist?", Lhamo searches my face as I answer.
I imagine she is reaching into some place out of time, where she now has keys to doors usually barred. She pauses, then continues in a solemn voice: "When the time is right, you will most assuredly find the Lama that is right for you. He will teach you."
Even in trance, I came to view Lhamo, the Oracle as pragmatic. A clear common sense grandmother. She talks with the tone of wisdom. Even though the words are another tongue, I feel their vibration and feel assured. Her advice, even her prophecy has a certain plausibility, what she says feels solid. It just sounds right.
When local people come to see her with illnesses, Lhamo will cure them from this trance space. She sucks out the diseased objects or poisons wherever she may find them on a body. None of us had illnesses, she did not need to cure us. We came only for prophecy.
She blesses each of us in turn. Using her Dorje-dagger, a sacred 'Bonk' on our crowns, a handful of rice, we must swallow three grains that day, and a red blessing cord for prosperity.
The ritual is over, Lhamo is slowly returning to this world, shedding her ceremonial garments even as she re-enters a more common and recognizable reality.
The room is coming back into normal bounds of geometric dimension. There is a certain quality of cohesion, of solidity that I feel once more surrounding me. Return to the planet, back to a more identifiable space/time continuum. Back to Earth!
I chat with her and granddaughter Tashi, then shortly leaving them with expressions of gratitude and a gift.
That day I visited Shey and Thikse, two old Gompas. Buddhist monasteries, crumbling, built in ages past. The views from these high mountain aeries capturing magnificent summer lushness and snow-covered peaks. Inside, tranquil, filled with the Tibetan imagery of the heart and spirit.
I meditated in Thikse, reflecting on the Lhamo and her advice as an old monk sat quietly next to me, absorbed in his private reverie. Even the crumbling paint on the old deity images lining the walls an evocative presence.
The energy of hundreds of years of Meditation in the hall invites a deeper Samadhi within me. I feel assured now, a comfortable trust that when the time is right, I will be blessed. My teacher will find me!
Thinking about what the Oracle told me, I am headed back through Kashmir, on to Dharmsala. Perhaps back in the hills of the Dalai Lama's Home In Exile I will find that Teacher. Then what?
"These were merely the instruments used to focus Faith ....... Anything would do as a lens to harness the Soul's fire." 'A Messiah At The End Of Time' Michael Moorcock
Copyright 1994 Steven Gilman
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