Why did we go to Ladakh? It was a crack, a path, a plunge in the ravine where things can get by. What got by in Ladakh was the sacred monastic dancing of Tibetan Buddhism, called Cham. The cultural devastation of Tibet included a systematic eradication of the tantric mystical practices, and among those practices, the Cham – The Dance – is esteemed as the apotheosis of mystical attainment. As the Tibetan diaspora bled out, and people fled, and monks and monasteries were displaced into India, Nepal, America and Europe, the dance went with it. Ancient Dance was on the run. Dance was in Diaspora.
Except in Ladakh. Being politically a part of India, and culturally, historically, an extension of Tibet where Tibetan Buddhist practices have been the foundation of culture for more than a thousand years, Ladakh became, by default, a sanctuary for Cham, and still today Cham is performed in its monasteries in an unbroken and uncompromised tradition. Ladakh is a slightly coarser, wilder microcosm of the lost dream of Tibet. In Ladakh, these ancient dances haven’t been stopped, pushed out or modified to become merely a tourist attraction. Ladakh, and the Cham practiced there, was still wild and free. So I thought.
When we arrived at the house where we were staying, a Muslim innkeeper across the road ran out to us, waving his hands, “You are the ones here for the dancing? Let me tell you something. Three things have changed the dances: taxis, umbrellas and machine guns.”
A picture of paradise. This walled home belonged to an old Buddhist nun and her younger sister who was in her mid-fifties. They lived together and they were entirely self-sufficient within the walls of their garden, except for tea and milk and the occasional package of biscuits. They grew cabbage and barley and potatoes and vegetables, composted easily using the clever and hygienic Ladakhi toilet (an elevated outhouse into which one shovels a bit of dirt after each use), and planted flowers in between the cabbages so it would be pretty. The Karakoram mountains commanded the sky.
The sister overheard the innkeeper talking to me, and asked if we were planning to go to the Buddhist dance festivals at the surrounding monasteries. I told her were we going to Lamayuru Gonpa, and planned to stay there 3 weeks. “ My sister is a nun – come stay with us before you head out. It will take you a day or so to get accustomed to the altitude anyway.”
Our stay with these women, before and after our documentation work at Lamayuru, was indeed paradisiacal. We thought they were beautiful and wise and happy. They thought we were at least half-mad. The nun could not comprehend the notion of “professional dancer” – such as I am – and asked for a demonstration of western dancing. I performed some ballet and modern dance moves. Jessie, sitting like a Ninja under the shade of a tree, was egging the whole thing on. The nun started laughing and smiling and called out her sister into the garden. She thought my dancing, and a grown man dancing around “for no reason” was about the most absurd thing she’d ever seen.
Nevertheless, she slowly rose and performed a few pulsing steps of Cham from memory. The nuns don’t perform it, but still it was in her bones. “Something like that,” she said. After a moment I modestly and reverently tried to emulate the movements she had shown…and she started laughing again. Laughing and laughing, she told her sister she could not fathom why we were so interested in the Cham, and how puzzling she thought it was that I would want to learn it, and just how ridiculous my dancing was anyway.
She was very pleased to have us as company, however, and over the next few days, I would always indulge Amo whenever she asked me to “Do Cham” for her in the garden. She would laugh and laugh.
The gift I usually carry with me to give hosts and innkeepers when I travel in remote places is a small pewter replica of the enormous steel sculpture by Picasso that is a symbol of Chicago, where I am from. It was Picasso’s gift to the city, his only public sculpture, once the largest steel sculpture in the world. It is work of Figurative Cubism. The problem is, since its unveiling, no one can figure out what the figure is, and Picasso wouldn’t say. “ Some people say it is a pterodactyl and other people think it is woman, or a piano,” I explained to the nun and her sister. “Picasso is one of the great artists of the 20th century.”
“Stupa,” mumbled Amo who was sitting on the floor.
“She said it’s a Stupa,” her sister told us.
Lamayuru Monastery is more than 1100 years old. A small haunting temple, Senge Lakhan – The Lion Temple – still remains of the original buildings and is used. It is virtually buried inside the mountain, and the local children are afraid of it. Lamayuru is a monastery of the Drikung Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddism. It is one of 4 remaining lines of one of the 4 main schools of Tibetan Buddhism. Over the centuries, its reputation among the lineages is for its excellence in the practical training of meditation. Lamayuru is home to mystics.
My journey to Lamayuru began in my front room on the shore of Lake Michigan in north Chicago, where one day a few years ago, I sat meditating, but obviously not very well because I was looking at the people on the beach. I spied the crimson-robed old monk I’d seen around the neighborhood here and there. He was walking along the shore with a younger monk. He’d point to the water, the younger monk would look at the water. They’d walk on. He’d point up at a tree. The young monk would look at the tree. As they got nearer to my window, a “power-walker” was out training and whizzed by. The older monk smiled as the athlete strode toward him, “ Nice walking,” commented the old monk.
“LAMA!” I shouted from my open window. He turned and smiled and waved and they walked up to my window. “ Please come in and have some tea. I make a good cup of tea.” They smiled and nodded and I buzzed them in.
I am a dancer and producer who has worked with ancient Asian dancers for more than 15 years. My taste is monastic and my only furniture is a tatami platform, a cushion to sit on and a low table. Otherwise, Japanese scrolls and jewel-like images of ancient dance adorn the space. My art collection is beloved by me but not of any real value, except for something I got by fluke on eBay that turned out to be an early Ming Dynasty bronze Imperial incense burner. It is small item casually, not prominently set on my windowsill with other things. In the back is my office and library and computer and kitchen. The monks entered and sat on the floor.
With a single sweeping gesture of his head, the older monk did a 360 degree survey of the room, pointed his finger at the Ming incense burner, and said to me, “ Nice one”.
“Yeah,” I said. “That’s the nice one. I’ve seen you around the neighborhood and wanted to meet you. Why are you here? Are you from Tibet?”
“We are from Ladakh!”
“Where’s Ladakh?” I brought down the globe from the bookshelf. No Ladakh.
“It should be here,” said the old monk whose name I learned, was Lama Sonam Kunga Rinpoche. He was the uncle of the younger monk, Konchuk Tsondus. “Why aren’t you at work?” asked Sonam as it was in the middle of the day.
“I am at work,” I answered and went on, using photos and drawings to explain the project at hand, which was computer animating ancient Japanese paintings and sculptures with the motion-captured digital movement of real Kabuki and Noh actors, for a live performance using real Japanese classical dancers moving within a Virtual Reality environment onstage.
Thinking I had really blown their mind, I was surprised by the reaction: “ I think my brother will do that!” said Tsondus.
“Who’s your brother?” I asked.
Tsondus pondered a bit, “ renacandon, rinning, ummm…Do you have a dictionary?” I got him a dictionary. “Ah, ah! Here it is," and he pointed to an entry.
“Reincarnation? Your brother is a reincarnation?”
“Yes, yes,” he smiled.
“Why do you think he will do my project? Is he a dancer?”
“Oh – he is the best dancer in many generations.”
Oddly perhaps, but I never felt more at home. I was utterly fascinated. Then the old monk, Sonam Kunga, raised his finger, pointed it at my forehead, and said, “You come to Ladakh.”
I had been longing to return to Asia again as a dance ‘insider’ as I was in Kyoto some years back. This was the way. Without hesitating, without even knowing where ( or if ) Ladakh was, I answered, “OK. I will come to Ladakh.”
I saw Sonam Kunga once more after that, and helped Tsondus send a couple emails, but after a couple months, never saw them again. 14 months later, I was in Ladakh. I had found out where it was.
It turns out, Tsondus’ brother was the 23 year-old reincarnate Abbot of Lamayuru Monastery, now living his fourth lifetime in the past 500 years. His name is Bakula Rangdol Nyima Rinpoche. (Rinpoche is pronounced ‘rin-po-shay’: a title meaning transmitter of teachings. ) Not only was he an excellent dancer, but as leader of Lamayuru, he has chosen to emphasize its function as sanctuary for the dance. The young Rinpoche, in his own example among monks, is reviving a renewed commitment to its high purpose.
Our taxi, completing the treacherous 6 hour drive from Leh to Lamayuru, stopped at the base of the mountain atop which sat Lamayuru Monastery. Jessie and I looked up the steep crumbling path. A flurry of crimson robes was descending: old men, young men, and boy monks skipping along like foam on an ocean wave. Early 20th century explorer Marco Pallis labelled the boy monks, “monklings”, an endearing term I find quite fitting. Like Pallis, my first impression of Lamayuru was being greeted by a monkling. A bright-eyed 8 year old slid into the dirt to brake his speedy descent and stood in front of me, “ hello hello hello hello, heh heh heh heh, hah!” , he grabbed my single large and very heavy suitcase with one hand, slung the case over his head to land on his back, turned around, and immediately went running up the mountain full speed.
The rest of the monk-cloud arrived and grabbed me and started pushing me up the path, “ You must go meet the Rinpoche” they said again and again as we went up.
“ Where is Tsondus?” I asked, being my contact to the place.
“You can’t see him. He is in retreat.”
“When will he be finished?” I asked
“October” was the answer. It was mid-July.
“How about Sonam Kunga?”
“We don’t know where he is; maybe SanDiego.”
And all the way up the mountain they took me, through the monastery courtyard, up through the temple, higher and higher until at the very top of the monastery, I stood before a curtain at the door of the Rinpoche’s chamber.
“Take off your shoes!” I am certainly well enough acquainted with the custom of removing one’s shoes, but I was rather thoroughly disoriented at this point. I took off my shoes. I didn’t know what they’d done with Jessie, who arrived shortly.
“The Rinpoche will see you now.” I walked in, knelt on the floor, and looked up at the young Rinpoche, …and burst out laughing.
“What’s so funny?” he asked with surprise.
“You look EXACTLY like your brother.”
“I know,” he sighed, “ everybody says that. Do you have your own face?”
Within minutes, we were on the monastery’s highest rooftop showing each other dance steps.
The villagers, visiting pilgrims, and monks lined the winding road leading to the monastery to greet the head of the lineage, HH Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpoche and his entourage. In the blazing sunlight, everyone waited for hours. Of particular interest at Lamayuru, is a group of pilgrims from faraway Zanskar, across the Zo-li pass, who come every year wearing flower hats, and among whom, every year a transvestite seer falls into a sometimes distracting and loud, sobbing and rocking trance. The Zanskar pilgrims sit in a special place throughout the entire 2-day ceremony, and even perform at one pause in the ceremony on the second day.
I asked an older monk, who had been a Chamspon, or Director of Dance at Lamayuru, why the tranced-out transvestite seer came to the ceremony, rocking and crying and carrying on?
“He comes every year, no matter what” was my answer.
One thing I have learned showing our dance documentation video work to Tibetans in exile, even those deeply interested in the preservation of the Cham, is that the first thing they notice is the local element of identity – who is from where, what cloth or hat or food appears. The humanity is what they long for, what makes them smile. The simple markers of daily life. Seeing Zanskar pilgrims at a Ladakhi festival appears charming and bucolic to many Tibetans. They take such delight in cultural differences. They long for home when they see those who still have it.
Of particular humor to us was the dancing group of village maidens, about 8 of them, all beautiful, wearing very hot and heavy costumes designed for winter use. (The dance ceremonies have been shifted from winter to summer only within the past decade.) They were to sing a short song consisting basically of 2 lines of melody, and dance while they sang upon His Holiness’ arrival. A village matron thought it was a good idea that the girls practice their number while we waited. And they would sing their little song, and sweat and sweat and mark out the little dance. Again and again while we waited, the matron instructed them to practice. Obediently, but with increasing displeasure, they danced and sang in the sweltering heat. “ OK girls, one more time,” I guess is one of the universal laws of dance. By the time the entourage arrived, these girls were as irritated and angry as teenagers anywhere, although they rose to the challenge and displayed all the lovely charms of their youth and home.
To this day, I can sing that melody, it was so driven into my head.
What kind of mind is produced at the top of the world? What kind of body? What is the body-mind nexus like when you are naturally as strong in your element as a wild animal, and your mind is trained from an early age with the mystical practices of tantric Buddhism? Looking into the eyes of these boy monks, I saw variously animal and sage-like qualities. The monklings were endlessly mischievous and playful and tagged along with me and Jessie as much as they were allowed to. They were free and happy children.
Knowing I wanted to videotape dance images painted on crumbling murals in the Avalokiteshvara Temple, some boys fetched us one night and “broke into” the temple making absolutely everything available to us, in every cupboard, behind every altar. Putting masks on themselves, they danced until they were laughing too hard. I informed the Rinpoche what the boys had done the next day thinking I needed to apologize for taking the liberty. Instead the Rinpoche smiled, “ I used to do that when I was a child.”
I was staying in a cave that was part of the monastery’s hermitage on a rocky slope above the monastery compound. It was an honor to be housed there, the personal cave of Sonam Kunga Rinpoche, who I had met that fateful day on the beach in Chicago. The honor came with hazard as the hermitage had no real ‘path’ ascending to its heights and most of the monks could climb it backward in their sleep in a blizzard. I however, was always relieved to make it up the slope and find my cave each night.
One night as I struggled up the hill, I fell down, and looked up to see the Milky Way in its prehistoric glory; the heavens glowing, the ocean of stars so close I felt I could swim in it. The feeling of an elemental cosmic wholeness and connection took over my whole being. I was in a natural state of awe, furthered by insight into the living reality that this state of physical awareness could be the basis for mystical dance. I stayed there for a long time, and then stood up on the slope and looked down.
There, on the rooftops of the boys’ quarters, were the monklings, splayed out in their robes on their backs, fast asleep, like stars that had fallen from the sky. “This is their childhood,” I marveled to myself. I remember the moment well. It seemed no child on earth had it so good as these.
Nothing is more creative than history, and there are several longstanding versions of the origin, creation, and transmission of the tantric Buddhist dances. Told by a Buddhist: the founder of tantric Buddhism in Tibet, Padmasambhava, a yogi from modern day Afghanistan, performed tantrically empowered dances “to subdue and convert” the local shamanic deities and powers. No doubt the Buddhist absorption of the existing shamanic religions of Tibet, such as Bon and other localized practices, began with Padmasambhava, who was a fearful practitioner of the esoteric.
The dances were there before Buddhism, and nowhere else in the Buddhist world is there anything like Cham. It is a unique movement tradition made up of internal and external practices and techniques, such as a westerner would assign variously to meditation, healing, dance or martial arts. There is more going on internally than externally except in the most vigorous and swift dancing of Cham. So where is this movement from and what was it before it was Cham? I believe clues exist in the depiction of ‘dharmapala’ in paintings. ‘Dharmapala’ is the name given to the class of local deity who, now converted to Buddhism, are serving as Protectors of the Dharma. The Dharmapala are often animal-headed.
Who to ask and how to seek are questions my team likes to answer by increasingly involving practitioner-scholars. Ancient and prehistoric cultures are known to have performed phyrric dances. A pyrrhic dance is a war dance. There are great ancient Greek descriptions and rhythmic poems like rhythm tracks for the dances. A few African tribes retain war dances, but tribal war today doesn’t use them. The Mel Gibson film, “Braveheart” showed a couple pre-battle scenes that were rather like pyrrhic dances in having warriors demonstrate their abilities in the most flamboyant and threatening way before the opposing army, poised for battle. The purpose was primarily to intimidate, and clearly had some function in the rhythm of war.
Much of the Cham movement vocabulary is martial. There are different kinds of martial dance – real fighting and movie fighting for example. “Spiritual warriors” are common to many cultures, and consequently many artistic traditions depict protective postures that symbolize a martial strength. It is a kind of metaphorical and aesthetic martial expression – you couldn’t really hurt anyone of you did it. Kabuki is a good example. It is all art. Japanese Noh by contrast has martial patterns that are in fact, authentic martial patterns, and you could hurt someone if you did it.
Jessie and I believe the Cham is deeply connected to some actual ancient fighting style. I’ve shown our documentation videos to a Kalaripayyat practitioner ( an Indian martial art ), Chinese martial artists, several bharatanatyam dancers, and a tantric Nepali dancer. We all concurred the basic energetic stance of the Cham was more Chinese than Indian, and the fighting style of Cham a dilution of some indigenous fighting styles informed by the great Chinese techniques. It seemed an Indian internal metaphysic had been infused into chinese-like martial metabolism producing its own energetic reality.
The point here is not that any of us are correct at this time. The point is that authentic practitioners of movement traditions are using their own body-knowledge as a lens by which to understand these ancient dances and sense clues about what they are. The monks at Lamayuru and abroad, whom I had asked about it, had never given it any thought. The written tradition will give us one story.
The body is able to transmit its own story and life without the word. Dance is pre-verbal and pre-literate human expression. Is the Cham a link to a pre-literate movement expression used in pre-historic himalayan war? Could be.
So progressed the discussion of dancers and fighters. Dance transmission requires only 3 things: 2 dancers and something to transmit. Some of the dances in Drikung Cham are the products of mystical visions or dreams where an entire dance in all its detail would appear outside of time to a great leader. The introduction of dances is rare, and its occurrence is historically significant.
I ‘understand’ the Cham first as a dancer, second as a producer of preservation material, and finally as a researcher. We believe dancers should be instrumental in saving threatened dance forms. Who else should understand it so well, so personally, so naturally? It was clear to the young reincarnate, Rangdol Nyima Rinpoche, and to myself, that we were both naturally born dancers. – not just able to dance, but born dancers. It was the basis of our communication.
Command Central. Rangdol Nyima Rinpoche’s Chamber sits at the very top of Lamayuru Monastery. It is not particularly large. The sole piece of furniture not visible in the picture is a long low table perpendicular to his dais on his right, where guests sit, perpendicular to him. My place was nearest to him, and we spent many hours talking and eating there: me looking up and to the left; the Rinpoche looking down and to the right.
He liked Coke, and, as apricots were in season, villagers and pilgrims coming for his blessing, brought a lot of apricots. The Rinpoche found the comedy duo of American Joseph and British Jessie endlessly amusing, and the Rinpoche was fond of offering us apricots, only to learn yet another polite British refusal to accept. He wanted to know why British people have better manners than Americans, and when he walked by people in public blessing their head, he always hit me instead of blessing me.
Jessie noticed though, that when we were all eating together, the attendants would hold the sleeve of their robe in their teeth while serving the Rinpoche and me, but would drop the sleeve out of their mouth when serving him. Holding the sleeve with the teeth is a sign of respect: not even your breath defiles the food for the Rinpoche. Jessie and I were regularly invited to dinners and receptions for the 20 or so practicing Buddhists from Europe or America who were pilgrims themselves to Lamayuru. We never went. We went off by ourselves in the village, or joined the Rinpoche in his chamber and ate with him. The food was usually better too.
The duties on the young Rinpoche are enormous and he fulfills them with dignity and decorum and all due seriousness. His attendants are all monks he has grown up with and all of them are his close friends. So, once the Rinpoche is inside his chamber with just his attendants and us, he was very playful and fun. He had a habit, upon entering his chamber, of looking to see there was no one around but us, get off to a short running start, and hurdle over his table, land on his dais and not hit the window. He didn’t always make it.
On his dais, he slept, ate, read, wrote, received pilgrims, sat, talked. The only window in the room is behind his dais. It looks out over a sea of of stone and sky. He cannot see the monastery from his window.
The people living in and around Lamayuru are partly cave-dwelling. Whole families lived in caves not far from the monastery; mud-brick homes were built out of the mountain, some little more than a façade for a man-made excavation into the mountainside. There were also free-standing mud-brick, and more recently, concrete, buildings.
I was housed in the personal hermitage cave of Lama Sonam Kunga Rinpoche, who told me “ You go to Ladakh” more than a year before in Chicago. It had a door and a window built into it, was dug into the mountain, and a narrow roof covering the slope of mountainside. It had 2 compartments: one for cooking, another for everything else.
My second day there, I heard a loud knock on the door. I opened and there was the Rinpoche who had come all the way from his chamber down in the monastery to go up to the Hermitage and the cave where I was. I was surprised and wondered why he was there. He came in, looked around and laughed, “ Sonam Kunga used to get so mad at me when I was being too playful! He would chase me, and when he caught me, he would beat me!” The Rinpoche laughed, full of memories. I didn’t understand why he would come all the way up to the cave to tell me that.
He pointed to an old snapshot photo of a small boy, placed between some butter lamps on the altar in the cave, “That’s me.” I couldn’t believe my eyes. He went on, “ That’s me sitting right over there in that corner of the cave.” Then it hit me: I was in the cave where Lama Sonam Kunga Rinpoche had raised and educated this reincarnate for his duties from his earliest days. I think I have never felt such a surge of natural reverence within myself. I immediately ‘went all Japanese’, sat in ‘seiza’ position and bowed my head. It was instinctive. The Rinpoche hit me on the head, and left the cave. “See you,” he said.
When I saw this commanding photo of the Rinpoche during the dance ceremony, preparing to go before the villagers and the faithful, it was as if the little boy in the cave had come down the mountain as a man, and taken his role as leader of the community.
Togdan Rinpoche is the Abbot of Phyang Monastery, one of three in Ladakh belonging to the Drikung Kagyu Lineage. Lamayuru and Shachukul are the others. Togdan Rinpoche is about 40 years older than Rangdol Nyima Rinpoche, and is his superior within the order, as leader of all Drikung Kagyu monks in Ladakh. I had heard from some of the older monks that Togdan Rinpoche’s style of dancing was taught to him in Tibet at the monastic university at Yangrigar Monastery years ago, and that he danced in ways others hadn’t learned. Yangrigar, and another Drikung monastery in Tibet, Drikung-Thel, are historically centers of dance within the order; where new dances were first first performed and where the most seriousness about the order’s historical dance personalities and their writings is customary. I learned, too that there were 5 or so older monks at Lamayuru who had been trained in Tibet.
I asked Rangdol Nyima if I could please meet Togdan Rinpoche when he arrived for the ceremony and he arranged it. He was very nice and like a mountain himself, seated on a platform in a monastery room with lots of windows and the sun setting behind him.
We talked about the Chams Yig, or dance rite manuals, which delineate the dances with ritual proscription. We talked about the role in dance transmission of such rosetta-stone like codices using only words. You can’t learn Cham by reading words any more than you can do ballet by reading words. Dance terms mean specific movements. Ancient Dance terms, including those of the Cham are often metaphorical, symbolic, intentionally hidden in poetry, and ritually charged words. I asked him if there was anything other than written texts used to preserve and record the dance?
He reached into the sleeve of his robe and pulled out a diagram. It was folded up; he tossed it down onto the floor in front of me. I opened it up. I saw immediately it was a choreographic diagram and again, fell into my awed state. This time however, no awe was allowed. “It’s just a piece of paper,” He said. Actually it was about 300 years old, and something he brought with him from Phyang, as he was dancing the major role of the protector deity Heruka, and this was the mandala dance diagram for the Heruka solo dance.
The mandala is the overview of the sequential pattern of the dance. Specific steps are written in words at junctures and loops in the diagram. It is not so unlike choreographic diagrams of Baroque Opera in the West. It is interesting that the baroque rulers and artists used the convention of overview and geometric dance diagramming precisely to symbolize, if not embody, cosmic patterns and harmony.
The more he told me about it, the more in awe I was. Finally, to make his point clear, he ordered Rangdol Nyima, “ Make a copy.” Rangdol Nyima sent a monk to get some good paper and pen. “ Use that,” said the older Abbot pointing to a paper napkin and a pencil laying near it. Without hesitating, Rangdol Nyima closed his eyes for a bit, took a breath, and proceeded to make an exact copy on the napkin. “ Give it to the American.”
I still have it.
He said he didn’t know of any other such maps, and no one in Tibetan studies I have encountered has seen such a mandalic dance map. Tibetan monastic musical notation varies from monastery to monastery. I am so intrigued to know of the ways the dance has been preserved. Dance preservation begins with prehistoric petroglyphs. Where are we with it now?
The mandala structure of a large and long group dance centered on a specific deity, unfolds in time, as dance exists in time, and is only sometimes a grand geometric design before one’s eyes. More often, variously energetic dancing occurs along the lines and curves and vortices of a pattern whose wholeness is not always visible in the dancing. Constrained and released energies cultivate internal concentration and external manifestations of natural force. Masks provide meaning by iconography, just as a painting. Each dancer has a vision of the pattern in his mind as he further identifies with the deity whose attributes he embodies.
One unique characteristic of Cham at Lamayuru is the amount of different movement simultaneously occurring in large group dances. This actualizes the energies of the mandala by physical activation. It is the dance way of ‘knowing’ the mandala to a level of thoroughness, that it can then be further activated and understood, and used as a mystical tool for enlightenment in the same way a monk meditating with the mandala would be required to do mentally. The dances provide an actualized, not merely a visualized attainment of the fundamental tantric act: the creation and dissolution of the illusory appearance of the deity. For this and other reasons, the dance is considered the apotheosis of mystical attainment, and embodiment of the transcendence of discursive thought:
“The play of meaningful musical dances leads to knowledge. For various people who are introduced to the mandala deities; for beginners on the Path and for those excellent ones who have attained already higher realization, the dance is the summit of exercising skill and ascension on the Path.”
- from “The Snow Lion’s Attributes” a Driking Kagyu Text on the Cham.
Our approach to documenting any kind of ancient ritual act is non-invasive. We like to think of what we do as eco-cultural. We feel strongly that photographers and cameramen should stay out of the sacred ritual areas. We worked closely with the monks at every level and they had an interest in the outcome; indeed the video was being made for them.
The monastery provided us with several privileged locations from which to shoot over the 20-hour rehearsal day, and the 2 days of ceremony which followed; 13 hours of dancing on the first and 11 on the second. This meant we had, say, 8 hours of shooting from one spot; 5 hours from another and so on. The sun pursued it course as the hours passed and we had no control over blazing light and engulfing shadow.
Jessie, in an almost superhuman feat, shot the entire ceremony himself on one camera. It was his serious martial training in Japan for many years that allowed him both to remain moving on his haunches for hours on end, as well as giving him an eye to follow the movement of these himalayan monks. He was also very interested as a movement practitioner himself.
If you think just anyone can shoot dancing, you’re mistaken. Some are better than others. On those occasions when I have been asked to produce a TV segment on dance for PBS and cannot choose my cameraman, I always put in the request, “ …then please give me the guy who shoots hockey.”
Dance can be meaningfully appreciated on many levels at once. Never feel intimidated when making meaning for yourself out of a dance. That is why it is there. For these monks it is a mystical and karmic act they are performing. And any practitioner of a movement tradition can feel the liberation by seeing an image of the Cham even in a photograph.
The West adored early 20th century dance pioneer Isadora Duncan, whose vast spirit lead her to explore in her imagination, her body and her travels, the dance of the ancients. It was the truth of myth she embodied and even today her photographs reveal a natural heroic grace connecting her at once to a higher state of being and a complete comfort with the natural nobility of the physical body. While ballerinas were wearing tiaras and tutus, Duncan was baring her soul in a toga. The western spirit clearly longed for what she had to give and for what she symbolized. It still does.
I ran into the legendary director of the Joffrey Ballet, Gerald Arpino, on the street in Chicago and he asked me what I was doing. I showed him a photo. “ Oh,” he said, “what an astonishing dance photo. You’ve found the teachers of Isadora Duncan…”
Karmic imprint. One intention of the dances is to produce a karmic imprint on the monk as well as the spectator. It arises from a purified place produced by the accumulated dances of the lengthy ceremony. Vajrayana Buddhism assumes the ultimate as the path, and believes within everyone is a buddha-nature requiring realization. These dances invoke the activity of spiritual beings with their attendant mental skills and energetic manifestation. The purpose is to dispel 3 kinds of obstacles encountered by practitioner monks as well as the ordinary public. These obstacles are Outer obstacles, such as those distractions to meditation; Inner obstacles such as those related to the physical metabolism and energetic pathways; and Secret Obstacles, which are discursive thoughts keeping us from experiencing the emptiness of our own nature.
With these obstacles cleared by dancing the Cham, an opportunity to plant the seeds of karmic imprint occur. The Cham as a ceremonial spectacle can thus transfer the actual experience of the wisdom-mind essence beyond the bodies of the dancers.
This karmic imprint on the consciousness is then used when one is dying and is in the last stages of dissolution of the ground of phenomena on which the ego-discursive self has been based. It is believed this lingering imprint generated by the Cham ceremony, determines in a most favorable way what happens next as death ends with a return to the cosmos.
“The very core of the dances is to be a representation of the activity of the mind essence beyond conceptual thinking.”
HH Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpoche
I was seated next to an old monk in charge of the boys at the monastery for many years. Throughout the ceremony, he and others would be pointing out to me this or that or answering some question of mine. During this large group dance, a few of his former charges were performing the Cham for the first time and he was attentive and concerned for them.
Next to him crouching on the ledge was a monk of about the same age as those dancing for the first time. He had a slight mental disability, and although he lived among all the others monks just as anybody else, he was not capable of the mental discipline required for the mystical practices which must be accomplished in order to perform Cham. He wanted so much to dance, and had been a constant presence throughout the course of the preparations for the ceremony.
Inside the window sat my friend the reincarnate dancing Abbot, Rangdol Nyima Rinpoche, smiling at me from the center of it all as he had done ever since the moment we met. He had just been dressed and was awaiting his solo dance. Next to him was his assistant Konchuk Sherab, who became effectively ours too during our stay. Although Sherab exhibited a poise like that bestowed by a painter, he had two left feet when it came to the Cham, and he languished in the 2 group dances he was obliged to perform. Our being there made him doubly self-conscious . We all teased him about it. He was so much happier just being the Rinpoche’s assistant, a position he clearly carried out with considerable grace.
In front stood a monkling, opportunistically disobeying by standing on the ritual ground while his supervisor was distracted by the dance and the Rinpoche indisposed to dispense any discipline.
His whole body and spirit seemed to be saying, “ Me, next.” It was a delicate and hopeful moment of ancient dance transmission, captured in its natural innocence.
The continued existence of ancient dance traditions in the 21st century is not something we should take for granted. That an entire canon with many variations throughout the Tibetan Buddhist regions of the Himalaya continues is something of a miracle. The Cham, if originating with the domination of Buddhism in Tibet in the 7th century, is at least 1300 years old. I am convinced it pre-dates the arrival of Buddhism and may be much older. No records or histories exist between the Padmasmbhava origin story dating to that time and the 12th century, when the first Drikung Kagyu dance text was written. Since then the ritual proscriptions have been written and mystical visions recorded in accounts of those major figures in the lineage who upheld the tradition of dance practice.
And so much is unknown about this mysterious, powerful and contemplative dancing. What are the ancient sources of this dance? Where did the knowledge come from to imbue it with such powers? It is complex and sophisticated; raw and u-theatrical at the same time. The ability of Cham to connect so deeply with the human psyche that it communicates still today is a testimony to a power that is fundamental and essential, if not necessarily pre-historic. Using movement analyses may offer insight into fundamental aspects of who we are.
Being a dancer isn’t a particularly easy path in life, and anyone who has dedicated their life to dance can tell you the inborn necessity of it isn’t enough by itself. The joy and meaning and power of dance are great, but sustaining and finding ways of making dance happen is hard work.
My experiences at Lamayuru over two years’ time have changed me. It underscored for me the work that can be done to assist ancient dance transmissions surviving against the threats of the 21st century. Dances become extinct just as animal species and wilderness areas.
Certainly the way I view and understand my own dancing body is enriched by experiencing powers of dance unknown to me, and I am able to search out the origins of dance within and without myself in an ongoing cultivation. Dance as practice. Ancient Dance Lives. Save the Ancient Dances.
Earache. We called him Earache. Healthcare is not widely available in Ladakh, although everybody we met seemed robust. But things like skin problems, eczema and the like were not uncommon. There were no mirrors anywhere so no one could look in a mirror and work on their face for any reason. This little fellow had eczema rather badly on one ear and, being such a hellion by personality, picked at it all the time.
We had the most basic things like A&D ointment, wet-wipes, and band-aids, and when the morning group of monklings surrounded us as we prepared each dawn, we could not continue without at least cleaning and redressing his ear. This became a morning ritual with its own audience, and sure enough, after a few days his ear was a lot better.
Earache was our constant protector deity. He is the head inserting itself in one photograph; he is the flying monkling in another. ‘Joseph’ and ‘Jessie’ are difficult words to pronounce in Ladakhi, and they soon became ‘Jochup and Jechi’. We learned quickly however to respond attentively anytime we heard anything remotely sounding like ‘Jo-chi.’
The future. The future of ancient dance is in the children who will carry it on or not. My belief in these children is strong and their task will require the strengths they are developing now. I always ask myself: what strengths can we be developing to play a part in the integrated preservation of humanity’s oldest living traditions?