Monday, December 17, 2007

Tibetan Sacred Dance Part I

In this post I am going to cover some of the history of Tibetan Sacred Dance and how this dance form is evolving today and where. I will also give insight into the spiritual meanings and implications of these dances and how they tie into the Tibetan Buddhist Religion. Since the Chinese invasion in 1959, much of Tibetan culture and religion has existed in exile. In Nepal, Bhutan, and India the festivals of sacred dance have been able to continue without constraint. For example, Nepal straddles the Himalayas between Tibet and India and has a very rich heritage of peoples, cultures, and spiritual traditions. The people that dwell in the mountains of Nepal are mostly Tibetan refugees who are Buddhists; this is also true of the peoples of the Mustang and Dolpo regions. On the other hand, the religion and culture of the people of the valleys are mainly Hindu of Indian origin. The constant mingling of peoples and cultures between the valleys and the mountains has created a religious coexistence characterized by exceptional tolerance. This has allowed places like the monastery of Shenchen in Bodhnath, in Katmandu valley, to become a haven for the development of sacred art and dance (Kyabogon, 1992).

The traditional Tibetan Buddhist understanding of sacred dance, or cham, originated in India with Buddhism, and then diffused to Tibet where it flourished for centuries. In Tibetan Buddhist philosophy sacred dance has a different basis than secular dance, which often engages the emotions; contrastingly sacred dance pacifies the emotions (Trungpa, 1992, 2001). When the monks of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition dance ceremonially, they are meditating while offering a spiritual gift to the witnessing lay community. Through “symbolic gesture” and sound the monks transmit an experience that is the culmination of long contemplative visionary experience and meditation, and it is believed that this kind of dance liberates the audience. When I say liberate I am referencing the Buddhist idea of liberating oneself from the bondage of the five poisons that work against inner peace: hatred, covetousness, ignorance, pride, and jealousy (Khyentse, 1992).

In the West, we usually understand creativity to be the expression of the impulses that arise from personal subjective experience. From a contemplative standpoint this approach is not necessarily creative in its fullest sense because that subjective experience itself is limited by what Buddhism calls basic ignorance. Thus, what one considers to be an original creation is often the result of exploring one’s habitual tendencies and impulses that maintain the vicious circle of samsara, the wheel of existence. From this spiritual point of view, true creativity means casting off the veils of ignorance to discover the ultimate nature of mind and phenomena. In fact, sacred art is an element of the spiritual path. It takes courage to practice it, because its goal is to destroy the attachment to the ego. Furthermore, Tibetan dances are full of symbolic meaning. For instance, when a lone dancer in a stag mask cuts up an effigy with a sword it is not an act of violence but symbolizes destroying the ego with the sword of wisdom. The masked dancers who chase each other in a colorful noisy riot do not represent the pursuit of demons but the movements of inner energy, which give rise to the mental activity that continually agitates our mind. However, a few symbolic elements like these cannot encompass the profound meaning that the dances find in the much vaster sphere of the meditation on pure vision, the perception of the primordial purity of all phenomena, both animate and inanimate (Kyabogon, 1992).

At the time of the Buddha, in the sixth century B.C.E. in India, it is said that the Buddha appeared to certain particularly gifted disciples in the form of various wrathful deities, whose awesome appearance symbolized the indestructibility of compassion. These deities were said to have danced in a thousand majestic ways, symbolizing their innumerable activities to help all sentient beings. This is how the sacred dances came into being in India. The sacred dances were danced at spiritual feasts known as ganachakra where the monks would dance spontaneously, without hesitation or inhibition. Over the years the dances came to be codified and taught and their significance was explained. An uninterrupted transmission from teacher to disciple continues in some monasteries today, maintaining the continuity of the practice to the present (Garcham, 1992).

The fifth Dalai Lama explains that the trained dancer should flourish the tails of his robe like a great garuda gliding through the firmament, and shake his hair like a now lion shaking its turquoise mane. His body should have the grace of a tiger gliding through the Indian jungle; his trunk should be straight, his waist should form an elegant curve; his calves should be elastic, his elbows and knees fast-moving, his footwork elegant, and every movement of his body should be ample and majestic, full of ease and grace, precise and clearly defined. It is also said that the dancer should move as if his feet were drawing a lotus on the ground, and that his movements should be like the wing-beats of an eagle, (Kyabogon, pg, 157, 1992).

The symbols that the dancers hold are often in the form of weapons symbolizing the combat of enlightenment against ignorance and the victory of serene clarity over the whirlwind of emotions. The terrible laughter and song put to flight the legions of Mara, the demon who embodies attachment to the notion of self, the belief in the reality of oneself and phenomena, (Kyabogon, 1992).

This post continues....

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