The 8th International Conference Buddhism & Australia
Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia Illustrations
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''Possessed'' Himalayan Oracles Said to Suck Disease From Patients
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A Buddhist man ailing from liver problems, a Muslim woman suffering from depression, and a Judeo-Christian New Zealand trekker needing spiritual guidance have all come to the region seeking the healing powers of a lha-mo, or female oracle.
In front of them, Ayu Lha-mo—also called the Oracle of Sabu, after her village—is dressed in a multicolored robe and a golden hat with sharp edges. Shrouded in a veil of juniper incense she is praying and chanting loudly, rocking back and forth on her knees, beckoning a spirit to enter her body so it can heal patients through her.
She's known for taking a knife from a fire and burning her tongue with its tip to show patients her powers and invulnerability," said Frank Kressing, a cultural anthropologist at University of Augsburg in Germany.
Generally, the oracle works with several patients simultaneously and talks with each about their ailments before going into a trance. It is said to take about 15 minutes of chanting, ringing bells, praying, and beating drums for a spirit to enter an oracle's body.
Spirits that possess oracles during trance states are usually said to be from the pantheon of Buddhist deities. But sometimes lesser known or unknown spirits, even those from other religions, can control the oracles, they say.
Oracles also use straws or pipes for sucking out substances from patients, placing them directly against ailing body parts—for example, the chest of a patient suffering from asthma. Seeds, cups of blessed water (and sometimes alcohol), incense, and other instruments assist in the ritual.
The oracles also play the role of exorcist—expelling or controlling malign spirits believed to be in patients. Newcomers witnessing the rituals are often startled by oracles in violent trances wielding weapons.
"Oracles sometimes fly into a rage and chastise patients while in a trance. It's not uncommon for oracles to blame patients for their diseases and shout at them for not following the tenets of Buddhism properly," said Elan Golomb, a psychologist with a private practice in New York City.
Patients Come For Healing, Regardless of Background
"In Ladakh, where traditional Islam is still practiced, Muslims sometimes go back and forth [across] religious boundaries—this includes some Muslims visiting Buddhist oracles," said David Pinault, a professor of religion at California's Santa Clara University.
Pinault has studied Muslim-Buddhist relations in Ladakh.
Patients, if they can afford it, pay oracles for their work.
The amount is meager. With just a couple of patients each day, Ayu Lha-mo is no wealthier than the average Ladakh farmer—earning the equivalent of a few U.S. dollars a day for battling spirits and healing the sick.