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A Day of Rare Buddhist Dances

"For rarity and authenticity, as well as pedigree, ‘A Day of Rare Buddhist Dances’ is unprecedented in the history of Buddhism, of London and of the V&A.
As a statement of enduring values in times of crisis, the lives of these nuns, priests, clan performers and actors serve as examples of ‘the road less taken’, voluntarily choosing lives that carry on living traditions of unbroken dance lineages dating back a thousand years and beyond."
CoC Director Joseph Houseal

A Day of Rare Buddhist Dances by CoC Director Joseph Houseal

What does dance bring to an exhibition of art?  More precisely, what does Buddhist dance bring to an exhibition of Buddhist art?  It is not widely recognized that Buddhism has more dance associated with its practice than any other religion.  Dance is an aspect of Buddhism little known or understood in the West.  As Buddhism grew and spread from India, its views and practices absorbed, rather than annihilated, the cultural heritage of its host countries, including traditions of dance and movement.  Most of the dances are, therefore, very old, or at least have very old elements contained within them.  Buddhism emphasizes meditation, whereas the various absorbed cultures engaged in more primitive religious practices.  These culturally distinct ancient practices are what shade the nuances of Buddhist mysticism.  In dance, these subtle distinctions are alive and their syncretic interpenetrating relationship with Buddhism is presentable.  As with tantra, any true appreciation of the value of dance as an embodiment of higher states of consciousness is experiential.  Many Buddhist dances continue in conflict zones torn apart by political, social, religious and economic change.  Dance is a measure of antiquity.  Living tradition is what dance brings to art: the life of extant transmission.  Dance provides access to the mysticisms associated with various types of Buddhism and its art in a way that meditation and visual art alone cannot.

When the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation contacted Core of Culture in summer 2008 about taking various ancient Buddhist dances to London as part of the inaugural celebrations of the new Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Gallery of Buddhist Sculpture at the Victoria and Albert Museum, I realized the difficulty, as well as the sublimity, of the task.  I knew how it would enhance an experience of the sculptures in the gallery, as well as exalt the occasion of the gift in a manner so refined and magnificent as to take on truly historic proportions.  The Foundation was a supporter of the dance preservation work CoC undertook in the Kingdom of Bhutan as part of the Honolulu Academy of Art’s ‘The Dragon’s Gift: The Sacred Arts of Bhutan’ project, which demonstrated the merits of presenting art and dance together.

Within a month, we had secured three groups: from Ladakh and Tibet, the Drikung Kagyu Nuns; from Kathmandu a Tantric Vajracharya priest; and from Kyoto, Theatre Noh, a troupe of Japan’s finest No actors.  Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism were now suitably represented.  Because the new gallery also included Theravada Buddhist sculpture, we wished to include dance from a Theravada culture as well.  To this end, the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation underwrote a CoC research and scouting trip to Sri Lanka, resulting in the revival of danced ritual unperformed for more than 50 years, the Suvisi Vivaranaya, or Dance Ritual of the 24 Previous Buddhas.  This ritual had remained within the living memory of the Dehimaduwa Bandara Clan of Kandy, Sri Lanka, a family of ritual drummers and dancers, appointed as ritual stewards 389 years ago by a Kandyan king.  Now the Bandara Clan is readying the ritual for international exposure.

Just as it is easier to appreciate Asian art in terms other than its intended religious ones, it is easier to encounter Asian art in the first place than it is Asian ritual dance.  In fact, it is quite often difficult to witness any sacred Buddhist dance performances, even in cultures where they exist.  Were you to go to Japan, for example, it would be impossible to see this star-studded cast of actors and musicians gathered to perform two No plays on a single day.  The group includes the live-in disciple of a lineage master whose tradition dates from the 14th century.  When word of this project spread, and further that one of Japan’s finest No actors, Mikata Shizuka was to perform in London, it immediately attracted the best performers and musicians in Kyoto, and actors from the foremost No families, including Kawamura Kazuaki, who gained prominence as a child prodigy.  No is seldom performed in the West because of the expense and effort involved in conveying the full complexities of this riveting and exquisite art form.  A single costume can cost upward of US$50,000.  The masks are works of art in themselves; indeed, the costumed performer is a moving sculptural form.  One of the plays to be shown in London, Kayoi Komachi, about the enlightenment of Japan’s legendary poetess and cruel lover Komachi, has never before been performed in the West.  It is considered a work of the highest spiritual stature, being the only No play in which the suffering soul attains enlightenment.  A purpose-built No stage will be erected at one end of the grand hall that is the Raphael Room at theV&A, and a Sri Lankan folk altar to the 24 Previous Buddhas will be raised at the other.

‘A Day of Rare Buddhist Dances’ on 1 May broke with both the museum model and the cultural export model for traditional dance.  With projects like ‘The Dragon’s Gift’ and this Buddhist Sculpture Gallery inauguration, dance was being presented as seriously as fine art, traditionally the most highly valued form of creative expression in Western culture.  Dance and art can be understood as mutually illuminating, as twin manifestations of the same cosmology.

The Dambulla cave (3rd-2nd century BCE) paintings in Sri Lanka include the Suvisi Vivaranaya in iconographic and danced processional representations.  Since independence in 1948, Sri Lanka has successfully toured high-quality traditional forms as concert dance with the Chitrasena Dance Company as well as, more commonly, a pageant-of-nations style cultural assortment of various dances in charming, unchallenging and much shorter restagings.  Technical ability has not diminished, as can be seen by comparison with some recently uncovered films of Ceylonese dance in 1926 by American dancer Ted Shawn (1891-1972).  The revival of the Suvisi Vivaranaya at Miragama, Sri Lanka, in November 2008 was produced by Colombo-based Mohan Daniel, director of The Serendib Gallery.  Although the ritual was not announced publicly, nearly 300 villagers showed up and stayed all night.  Daniel returned a great dance ritual more than 300 years old to its devotional purpose by re-engaging the royally appointed clan who were tasked to preserve it.

The main intention of the ritual is to venerate the 24 Previous Buddhas, a uniquely Theravadin schematic, with poetic verses.  Originally this was done from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. for seven days, the drumming and dancing sections fleshing out the verses.  For the revival, performed in a single night from 7 p.m. until 4.30 the next morning, and including six hours of non-stop drumming and dancing, all 24 Pre- vious Buddhas were invoked.  For ‘A Day of Rare Buddhist Dances’ the eight dancers and four drummers of the Dehimaduwa Bandara Clan performed a newly devised two-and-a-half-hour version, wherein with ritual rigour the verses of all 24 Previous Buddhas were sung, and offerings made individually to each of them.  It was a real ritual.  In Theravada Buddhism monks are forbidden to dance; ritual dance in Sri Lanka is considered pure dance, a pure offering, just as flowers, food and incense are offerings.

Identifying the role of dance in relation to Buddhist practice helps distinguish the Bandara Clan’s offering of pure dance from the meditative intellectual exercises of the Drikung nuns, and again from the bodhisattva’s art of Charya Nritya (‘practice of discipline’) embodied in Prajwal Ratna Vajracharya, a tantric Newar high-caste priest.  These religious distinctions extend to and enhance an understanding of the culture’s corresponding visual arts, but are indispensable for understanding the ancient dance rituals themselves.

There are fewer than 30 Drikung nuns who perform Cham, the yogic dance of the monks.  They are taught by Sonam Kunga Rinpoche, 79, one of the three top oral lineage masters of the Drikung Kagyu Order of Vajrayana Buddhism.  He is also a great dance master, as well as meditation master to veteran monks and nuns during long solitary retreats.  In addition to performing two meditation visualizations with fluent symbolic hand gestures called mudra and using damaru drums and bells, the nuns also performed two masked Cham dances, Shawa Cham and Mahai Cham, the mandala dances of the stag and the buffalo.  According to a 12th century text on the inner teachings of Drikung Cham, ‘The very core of the dance is to be a representation of the activity of the mind essence beyond conceptual thinking.’  It is a yoga, a meditation technique used to stabilize a visualization, to train in the act of separating from the ground of phenomenological being, and to experience the dissolution of the illusory world.  These nuns never dreamed they would be doing meditation visualizations in front of a European audience. They are dedicated contemplatives living in the Himalayan foothills.  None of these rites has ever been documented: they have been transmitted as living knowledge for at least 700 years.

Prajwal Vajracharya is the foremost exponent and practitioner of Charya Nritya among the few hundred remaining Vajracharya priests in the Kathmandu Valley.  His family history extends to the construction of the great stupa at Swayambunath, and he is the 35th generation holder of his lineage.  The Vajracharya priests practise a differently derived tantra to that from the Swat Valley in northwest Pakistan, the home of Padmasambhava, who introduced Tantric Buddhism in Tibet in the 8th century.  It was Padmasambhava who at the same time established Cham dance, such as the nuns will perform.  By contrast, the Vajracharyas adhere to a local, much older tantric tradition, citing a temple to a form of Vajrayogini, Khadga Yogini, dating to the 2nd century BCE.  Charya Nritya is unlike Cham in every respect, a completely different form.  Where we have tried to see movement similarities between actual Cham and the dance depicted in many Himalayan paintings and sculptures, we have learned there is more similarity in the yogic function of the deity and their placement in a mandalic composition than in the line of the actual dance movements.

Charya Nritya, however, brings Vajrayogini and other deities to life with mudra and postures any art historian would immediately recognize.  As a singer proclaims the outer and inner attributes, the priest-dancer embodies the deity not only for his own self-transformation through deity yoga, but also for the sake of the observer.  Indeed, the overall effect of these dances is akin to prayer.  They have been maintained in esoteric secrecy, from the rise of the Hindu Malla kings in the 12th century until the 20th century, when Prajwal was instructed by his father to take Charya Nritya to the world to ensure its survival.  There is controversy regarding how much should be shown; how much to advocate to assert true Nepali and not Indian dance scholarship; and how much should be kept hidden.  The most sacred dances and highest tantric rituals are to this day still only performed in secret.

Prajwal’s art is a feeling art, not an intellectual one as with the nuns, or an offertory one as with the Sri Lankans.  It becomes a vehicle for the bodhisattva’s vow of a person on the cusp of enlightenment to opt instead to remain in the world to assist all beings to attain enlightenment – the greatest act of compassion and, therefore, feeling.  When Vajrapani offers protection, Prajwal embodies the deity and emanates protection.  When Avalokiteshvara offers compassion, Prajwal embodies the bodhisattva and radiates compassion, a feeling toward all things.  Among the dances Prajwal performed for ‘A Day of Rare Buddhist Dances’ was Mayanjala, which translates as ‘net of illusion’.  In it, a wandering sadhu, or holy man, is overcome with feelings of samsara, the first Buddhist truth, that all life is suffering and all creation suffers.  In this dance he feels compassion for the world’s suffering.  This sung ritual is 1,300 years old.

The performance of four completely different Buddhist movement traditions in one place on a single day offered a variety of danced practices that challenge Western notions of time and space, and embody Buddhist notions of the body and self.  Study of such dance tells a new story about the spread and practice of early Buddhism.  The quintessential mystical quotient that is often least brought forward in the presentation of visual arts – usually for the good reason of the failure of words to communicate types of consciousness – is provided with integrity in the dances.  A co-presentation of art and dance expands our experience of Buddhist cultural elements, and enhances our understanding of the visual arts with related consciousness-altering practices long embedded in dance.

For rarity and authenticity, as well as pedigree, ‘A Day of Rare Buddhist Dances’ was unprecedented in the history of Buddhism, of London and of the V&A.  As a statement of enduring values in times of crisis, the lives of these nuns, priests, clan performers and actors serve as examples of ‘the road less taken’, voluntarily choosing lives that carry on living traditions of unbroken dance lineages dating back a thousand years and beyond.  The dances performed on 1 May provide a touch- stone from which to reevaluate the full power and meaning of the art in the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Gallery, and mirror the evolving context of artistic meaning in light of the spreading exposure to genuine Buddhist practice.