The Moving Mandala: Inside Bhutan’s Sacred Dance Festivals
At the annual events, monks perform cham, choreographed rituals that serve as enlightening visualizations and honor the influential guru who danced them.
In the world of Himalayan Buddhism, there is hardly anyone of greater influence than Padmasambhava, whom Buddhists of the region consider to be the “Second Buddha.” This great tantric practitioner, also called Guru Rinpoche, is wellknown for bringing Buddhism from India to Tibet and Bhutan in the eighth century. It is not as well known that he was also a master of dance—or let's just say a demonstrative, embodied form of spiritual practice we can recognize as dance.
The “out of the box” practices of tantric Buddhism, or Vajrayana, meant to accelerate a person's path to enlightenment, emerged in India between 500 and 1000 CE and moved with Padmasambhava to the Himalayas. There, they incorporated elements of the shamanistic animism native to the area. This influenced the profusion of multi-sensory Vajrayana practices, including the sacred dances called cham, which are still performed today.
These dances are considered mandalas—embodied representations of a perfect universe—complete with their associated divine inhabitants. The cham dancers replicate, through movement and spatial design, the action and qualities of the deities that are visualized and meditated upon by Vajrayana practitioners, who hope to cultivate the deities' enlightened qualities within themselves. Thus, the cham are three-dimensional animations of the sacred construction project of the mind carried out in the visualizations. For the viewer, cham is considered thongdrel—liberation through seeing—capable of generating enlightened qualities merely through the viewing of it.
In Bhutan, the culture is abound with references to Guru Rinpoche's travels through the region and how he miraculously overcame obstacles to the new Buddhist religion in the Himalayan lands. Many of the guru's incredible feats were believed to have been accomplished through the performance of cham. Today, most localities celebrate an annual tshechu, or sacred festival in the guru's honor. “Tshechu,” meaning “tenth day,” refers to Padmasambhava's promise, as he was departing his earthly existence, to return on the tenth day of each lunar calendar month to dispel the suffering of the people. The Bhutanese bring about his “return” through their tshechus honoring the guru's teachings and activities through the performance of sacred and folk dances as well as Buddhist rituals. Many of the tshechu dances are understood to be the very dances that Guru Rinpoche performed as he overcame threatening obstacles and converted enemies into protectors of the dharma.
On a recent trip to Bhutan, I traveled to Trongsa, a majestic mountainside village, to witness an annual tshechu. The festival is held in the town's imposing dzong, a medieval fortress complex, built in 1644. I arrived a couple of days before the event to observe rehearsals and interview some of the danc- ers. The stone courtyard of Trongsa Dzong was filled with the swirl of red- and wine-colored robes as the monk dancers rehearsed several cham. Sixteen of the senior dancers were rehearsing Guru Tshengye Cham, a two-hour dance of Guru Rinpoche's eight manifestations. He manifested in these eight forms to meet the demands of the moment, like a spiritual superhero. The eight manifestations rendered in Guru Tshengye Cham are the guru's most famous forms, although many more have been enumerated in over two dozen sacred biographies (see below).
This cham is a revealed treasure dance, or tercham, taken from scriptures discovered by the great Tibetan terton [treasure revealer] Guru Chokyi Wangchuk, popularly known as Guru Chowang (1212– 1270). Revealed treasures, or terma, are understood to be Padmasambhava's teachings, which he and his disciples hid throughout the landscape or in the mindstream of chosen persons for discovery in the future when the times called for them. Many of the treasure dances are derived from what are believed to be treasure texts discovered in rocks, caves, and lakes; others came in the form of choreographic visions. As part of the treasure tradition, all of these dances are considered the sacred wisdom of Padmasambhava.
( To be continued next week)