My first experience with an altered state of consciousness as a cultural ritual will forever be etched in my mind. In 1994 I traveled to Dharamsala, India to photograph for my book Tibetan Portrait. While there I met Mick Brown a journalist for the Daily Telegraph in London who had an appointment to interview the State Oracle of Tibet, the Nechung Oracle, who is often consulted by the Dalai Lama on important issues. The Nechung predicted the invasion of Tibet and his consult assisted in the reestablishment of the Tibetan people during the diaspora.
The Nechung Oracle is channeled through a Medium, called the Kuten. At the time we met him, the Kuten was a 30-year-old monk named Thupten Ngodrup. During our interview Thupten told us his story about becoming the Kuten. He said, as a young monk he began to hear voices, became sick and disoriented, and thought he was perhaps dying. An older monk took him aside to tell him he had a gift and could be very useful to the Nechung Monastery.
We were invited to return to observe Thupten go into trance in a location quite near the Dalai Lama’s residence. In a large room with 50-60 monks, Mick, a friend, and I were the only Westerners present that day. The Kuten was led into the room wearing an ornate ceremonial robe that weighed about 80 pounds. We watched intently as he sat in a ceremonial chair and the monks put a large pointed hat on his head that weighed about 80 pounds. It was so heavy that the monks had to tie it down and he could barely hold his head up. The monks began chanting and beating drums and as they were beating the drums Thupten stood up, swaying, with closed eyes and began speaking in an entirely different voice from the one he used when we interviewed him. The monks wrote down every word. After 10 min Thupten slumped over and was carried out of the out of the room.
This dramatic experience was one of two events that began my interest in non-ordinary states of consciousness. I was able to briefly interview and photograph Thupten a few days later and he told me that he did not remember what happened after he fell into the trance state. He felt weak and exhausted for several days afterward.
It is now 19 years later and I find myself wanting to re-interview Thupten, the Kuten. He is nearly 50 now and has experienced many profound years channeling the State Oracle of Tibet. Looking back there are important questions I neglected to ask him. Specifically how was he calmed down and nurtured by the older monk after his ‘psychotic break’ or ‘spiritual emergency’ as a boy? What was he taught in order to become the Kuten?
Next week I share with you the second event that lead me to explore this subject further, the story of Sukulen.