Tibet and the Dalai Lama – away from home for 50 years

Dalai Lama Leaving Tibet

H.H. the Dalai Lama Leaving Tibet

Today is the 50th anniversary of the flight of His Holiness the Dalai Lama from Tibet. There are expected to be a full range of demonstrations, protests and probably violent responses from the Chinese authorities. There is much on the web and elsewhere already about all this, so all I would like to do here is to encourage everyone to spend some time in meditation reflecting on this situation and praying for the Tibetan people and all oppressed people and refugees everywhere. You may want to chant or intone the traditional mantra of the Boddhisattva of Compassion, who incarnates as His Holiness: OM MANI PADME HUM.

I find the rapid expansion of Tibetan Buddhism and its acceptance in the west very interesting. Much of it is down to His Holiness himself, who must be one of the most revered spiritual leaders of modern time. Even if people do not ‘follow’ Tibetan Buddhist practices they still tend to admire and respect the Dalai Lama. His tours are supported financially by groups as diverse as hippies and secular Jewish intellectuals.

Most of these non Buddhist supporters approve of and support the Dalai Lama’s stance on non-violence and promotion of compassion – which other spiritual leaders talk about all the time as well. What is unique about the Dalai Lama is that he is fully part and parcel of a tradition that is so at odds with modern western secular ideology, yet still fully appealing. I suspect most non Buddhists who love the Dalai Lama  do not know about, for want of a better word, the ‘magical’ aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, which nonetheless are crucial and integral to its practice.

For example, Tibetan Buddhism fully recognizes the existence of Gods, ghosts, spirits and demons. Many modern western Buddhists, particularly the brittle intellectual ‘Oxford Buddhists’ as my teacher described them, ascribe these beings an archetypal existence in the Jungian sense. However, it is very clear that Tibetan’s themselves view theses beings as real – at least as real as you or I. As Stephen Batchelor correctly states in ‘Letting Daylight Into Magic‘:

“…however persuasive this kind of Jungian interpretation may be, it is not how most Tibetan lamas understand the world they inhabit. For gods to be empty of inherent existence does not mean that they cannot be autonomous beings capable of making choices and existing in their own heavenly realms. In this sense they are no different from humans, who are likewise empty but perfectly capable of making decisions and living their own unique and fallible lives.”

Green Tara

Green Tara

I have spoken to a few men (who while not quite Oxford Buddhists were certainly along those lines) who upon visiting Tibet or Sikkim or other countries were amazed that people there believed deities like Green Tara really existed. ‘They actually seemed to worship her’ one of them said to me in confusion. My magical and pagan youth has preconditioned me into expecting and accepting that Gods are real, so it was no great surprise to me.

Tibetan Buddhism however takes this belief in the real existence of deities (which in some ways can roughly be equated with Catholic saints) up a few notches. Demons and other spirits also exist. Occasionally these need to be pacified and subdued and exorcisms are performed which are not seen as psychological in any way at all. Land spirits, deities of mountains, rivers and rocks are all worked with and treated with respect.  These are things most modern westerners have relegated to fairy tales or the weirdos among them.

Tibetan Buddhist leaders also pay great attention to what modern psychology disarmingly calls their ‘inner life’. Many a decision has been made or confirmed, sometimes affecting the whole Tibetan state, following strong or significant dreams. If western leaders, both secular and spiritual are occasionally making decisions on a similar basis they are keeping very quite about it. 🙂

Tibetan Tantric Buddhism is as far removed from the neo-Tantra beloved of the new age movement as you can get. A deeply profound vehicle for the transformation of consciousness in the service of all beings, Tantrayana is beyond simple description. However, following its core beliefs the Dalai Lama teaches some things that go beyond the pale for most westerners:

“… there are certain occasions when we experience the subtle level of clear light, naturally. These occur during sleep, yawning, fainting and sexual climax. This shows that we have within ourselves a certain potential which we can explore further. And among these four states, the best opportunity for further development is during the sexual intercourse. Although I am using this ordinary term, sexual climax, it does not imply the ordinary sexual act. The reference here is to the experience of entering into union with a consort of the opposite sex, by means of which the elements at the crown are melted, and through the power of meditation the process is also reversed.  A prerequisite of such a practise is that you should be able to protect yourself from the fault of seminal emission.” (click here)

And then there are the Oracles or kuten, meaning “physical basis”. These are men and women who are literally the medium between non incarnate spirits and deities and this physical world. Functionally they can be equated with new age channelers and spiritualist mediums, though the actual practice and import of their communications is vastly different. Tibetan Oracles traditionally trance dance themselves into a state of possession in elaborate costumes and headdresses, swords flailing and heads rocking like a manic Voodoo priestess. They are consulted on and answer questions far more significant than how Mrs Lewis’ dead hubby is getting on now he’s on ‘the other side’.

The Dalai Lama has his own personal kuten, the Nechung Oracle who is given the rank of deputy minister in the Tibetan government. Yep, that’s right – a non-incarnate spirit is in the government. The Dalai Lama considers the Gods, one of which manifests through the Nechung Oracle, his “Upper House” to the Lower House of the Tibetan Cabinet. The Oracle is consulted several times a year and the Dalai Lama has always found his advice and “prophecies” to be helpful and fully accurate. 

While these aspects of Tibetan Buddhism are not clearly presented in the media, they are never hidden at all and references to them appear throughout the literature, even books like His Holiness’ autobiography. I suspect the love affair the western media has with the Dalai Lama, based on his clear and obvious special presence and compassion, has meant that much is not reported because the media does not want to know about the more ‘medieval’ or magical aspects of the Dalai Lama and Tibet. Personally, it is these aspects that I find confirming, special and wonderful about Tibetan Buddhism and why it seems more real, whole and complete to me than other Buddhist paths.

Gang ri ra wä kor wäi zhing kham dir
Phän dang de wa ma lü jung wäi nä
Chän rä zig wang tän dzin gya tsho yi
Zhab pä si thäi bar du tän gyur chig.

In the land encircled by snow mountains
You are the source of all happiness and good;
All-powerful Chenrezig, Tenzin Gyatso,|
Please remain until samsara ends.



  1. Murray · March 11, 2009

    Another great post, thank-you. I assume you have seen the post by HH?

    It’s interesting to note that his “How To Practise” ( I’m currently reading it) doesn’t talk about the aspects of Tibetan Buddhism which you refer to. Packaged for it’s intended audience? Very worth a read (and practise!) either way 🙂

  2. Peregrin · March 11, 2009

    Hi Murray,

    yes, thanks for the link though.

    Mmm…yes the packaging is good, eh?

    However, from another take, as I’ve said some place somewhere that there are several sides to the Dalai Lama. His publications reflect two main sides as do the public talks and the tantric teachings. The first focuses on compassion, justice, responsibility and above all possibility that we can change, that we are able to become better than who we are, more loving, more free.

    The second, including the tantric teachings is form of highly developed spiritual instruction and what we in the magical west call, “transmission of currents”.

    Now this may be packaging, but it does also reflect the very clear message of Sakaymuni Buddha that different people, depending on their mental state and interests, need to be be taught the Dharma in very different ways. Maybe, being generous, this is what is happening? 🙂

  3. Murray · March 12, 2009

    I think I can forgive HH a little packaging if that is what it is but I’m also prepared to wear that he may have reasons and motivations beyond my kenning 🙂

    My curiousity is definitely drawn to the esoteric aspects (always!) but it is the teachings on compassion, justice and responsibility that really move me about the Dalai Lama and Tibetan Buddhism. And also sad that, as you have often said here, the western traditions focus so much on the esoteric at the expense of what it could/should be of service to.

    Maybe I’m just another secular hippie 🙂

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