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.

Bhutan Times - - Editorial - By Karen Greenspan

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)

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Bhutan

© PressReader. All rights reserved.