Monday, December 17, 2007

Tibetan Sacred Dance Part II

This is continued from Part I...

Padmasambhava came to Tibet in the eighth century C.E. and is often revered by Tibetans as the second Buddha. He established Buddhism on a firm basis and built and consecrated Samye, the first monastery. Under his direction Tibetan scholars translated innumerable tantras, commentaries, and ritual texts. The lineage of Padmasambhava is called the Nyingma Tradition and was the sole guardian of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition from the ninth to the eleven centuries. Other lineages prospered as well, from the eleventh century onward on the basis of new translations of Sanskrit texts. It is said that Padmasambhava entrusted his disciples with secret teachings in the form of parchments written in symbolic language that he hid in the sky, the earth, a rock, a lake, or a sacred image. The tradition of “revealed treasures” (terma) has played an important role up to the present day. Such revealed teachings are considered to have particular potency because they are specifically adapted to the epoch in which they appear (Govinda, 1996).

A number of these treasures contain instructions for new forms of sacred dance. The best known is that of Guru Chowang (1212-1270). In a vision he found himself riding a white horse that carried him aloft through the air to the glorious copper-colored mountain, the paradise of Padmasambhava. There he met Padmasambhava’s eight manifestations and received teaching from them on the nature of mind (Trungpa, 1992, 2001). He also saw a vast gathering of celestial beings dancing before the master. After this transformation experience he inaugurated the festival of the tenth day, which celebrates in the dance the coming to Tibet of Padamasambhava and the establishment of Buddhism (Govinda, 1996).

This process of new dances being created as a result of visionary experiences has been repeated again and again over the centuries. An example of one of these visions goes as follows: the great Bhutanese treasure revealer Pema Lingpa (1450-1521) had a dream in which Yeshe Tsogyel, the principle consort and spiritual disciple of Padmasambhava, showed him the dance of the five dakinis (feminine deities). When Pema Lingpa awoke he clearly remembered the images of the dance. He taught himself to execute the movements and then transmitted them to his disciples. Another example of this is in the sixteenth century when the great teacher Khamtrul Kunga Tenzin, in retreat in a mountain hermitage, had a vision in which the whole universe became the mythical pure land of Padmasambhava where he saw wonderful dances were being danced. Padmasambhava appeared and told Kunga Tenzin to leave his retreat and work for the benefit of all beings by teaching the dances he was seeing, for they would bring great blessings to those who saw them. Kunga Tenzin was responsible for establishing the Gar Cham, a dance festival that took place at Khampar in eastern Tibet and continues today at Tashijong in northern India (Govinda, 1996).

Training for these dances often takes place in the evening in the middle of the monastery courtyard under the watchful eye of the dance master who indicates the rhythm by tapping the cymbals he carries. The dancer monks often continue the training in the lamplight until late at night. To coordinate their movements they count the steps in a slow recitative. The boy monks are often enthusiastic spectators, and sometimes imitate their elders in a corner of the courtyard. When it is their turn to learn, they will already know most of the dances by heart. Once or twice a year the monks’ prowess is tested in the presence of the abbot and the dance master. They are the dance students in the monastery and are marked on their capacity to memorize the movements, their expressiveness, or, in the case of some dances, on their sheer athleticism (Garcham, 1992).

Drudi is a dance master who came from Tibet to transmit his knowledge of this art to the young monks of Shechen in Nepal. He explains the basic principles of what makes cham a dancing meditation. As in any spiritual practice, the dancer has to apply three essential points. Firstly he should prepare himself beforehand by having the right motivation, which means to have the ‘mind of enlightenment’, the wish to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. Secondly, when he dances he should be perfectly concentrated, with an awareness that all phenomena are like dreams. His mind should be clear, watchful, serene, free from attachment, and conscious of the illusory nature of things. With his body, he should faithfully represent the positions and expressions of the mandala (Kyabogon, pg, 108, 1992).

The richness and vigor of the Tibetan religious tradition can be seen in its rituals, which often last all day. In a type of annual ceremony known as drupchen the ritual continues day and night nonstop for nine days and nine nights. A ritual is a call to reflection, contemplation, prayer, and meditation. The chanting of the liturgy is interspersed with bursts of musical offerings, which mingle with the sounds of long trumpets, bells, drums, and cymbals. For these grand ceremonies, a mandala is created which represents the pure land of divinity. Symbolically mandalas can be seen as meditation objects whose purpose is to gradually transform our way of perceiving the world until we rediscover its intrinsic purity. Externally a mandala takes the form of a diagram painted on canvas or drawn with colored powders. First the dancer monks dance the patterns of a mandala. Then the monks who are the painters in the monasteries, in meticulous detail, using colored powders, draw it. At the end of the ritual, the mandala is swept away, symbolizing the impermanence of all things. The powders are gathered up and thrown in the river, so that all who use the water, animals or humans, may be blessed (Garcham, 1992).

Sometimes the ceremonies end with dances which serve as a visual teaching, in which the world is transformed, negative forces subdued, and beings awakened to their ultimate nature and freed from suffering. Every hour in the monastery is considered precious, whether it is spent in study, in performing rituals, or contemplation. Each day brings a new enrichment and leads a little further toward perfection, at the same time helping to maintain the continuity of the universal values and truths, that many people feel, are essential not only for Tibetans but for the whole of mankind (Trungpa, 1992, 2001).

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