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Tibetans welcome mountain spirits in faith ceremony

August 26, 2009

By Christina Hu and Lucy Hornby
Reuters
August 25, 2009

REBKONG, China (Reuters Life!) -- Every summer
the green hills of Rebkong are home to unique
celebrations during which local Tibetans believe
the mountain gods visit villagers -- and each other -- through human mediums.

Rebkong, known in Chinese as Tongren in Qinghai
province, has dozens of monasteries that practice
Tibetan Buddhism, in which monks and nuns strive for enlightenment.

But the region's traditions also stem from the
animist Bon religion that Tibetans practiced before Buddhism was introduced.

During the festival of Lurol, which falls during
the sixth lunar month, worshipping villagers
believe the spirits descend from the mountains
and enter the bodies of mediums who have inherited the role from their fathers.

Dressed in special clothes, his long hair
carefully cut and braided, Damtsengbon waits for
his spirit, Amyesrmachen, the most sacred
mountain god in the region. Other villagers call
the spirit's name while Damtsengbon, who like
many Tibetans only goes by one name, enters a trance, twitching and jerking.

"I am the third generation to channel this god,
so it is not just about me. For three generations
the god has manifested himself through us, and
even living Buddhas recognize this," Damtsengbon
told Reuters. A "living Buddha" is a Tibetan monk
who is considered to be an exemplary holy figure.

"I think it's a way for me to serve my people. It
keeps us together and protects us, so it's an honor to serve them.

What may seem unfathomable to Westerners, even
those versed in Tibetan Buddhism, is central to
the folk religion practiced by many Tibetans in traditional communities.

"Tibetan Buddhism has a very clear distinction
between what they call lha-choe and mi-choe,
godly religion and person religion," said Robbie
Barnett, a Tibet expert at Columbia University in New York.

"The first refers to the form of Buddhism done
mainly by monks and adepts to pursue
enlightenment, and the second means the form done
mainly by ordinary lay people to improve behavior
and get a better rebirth," Barnett said. "Most
Tibetans are primarily focused on the second."

Mediums like Damtsengbon purify themselves for
seven days, by listening to senior holy men chant
scriptures, and avoiding alcohol, cigarettes and women.

Normally a quiet man and a graceful dancer,
Damtsengbon dances with rapid, awkward movements during his trance.

Although other Tibetan areas also have famous
oracles, the Rebkong region is unique for its
dances, in which the whole village participates.

When another medium receives the spirit of
Amyesyullha, the local warrior spirit, he cuts
his forehead with a knife and smears the blood on worshippers to heal them.

Men from the villages have their cheeks pierced
with steel needles to excise disease from the
mouth, a painful ritual that involves little blood.

"The act of piercing the mouth and back is a part
of the blood sacrifice ritual," said Nanjia
Cairang, a researcher at the China Tibetology Research Center in Beijing.

"Villagers sacrifice to the gods through their
own bodies. This act represents sincerity and excitement."

After the festival, Damtsengbon returns to his
normal self with no memory of the trance. He
works on the grasslands and has married a Han
Chinese woman, the first in his village to do so.

(Writing by Lucy Hornby; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Miral Fahmy)
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