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by Joseph Houseal
February 14, 2002
This essay first appeared in Ballet Review, Summer 2001
Reprinted with permission and amendments
"Here the land is dry, but Lamaruyu is wet with blessings," spoke the twenty-three year old reincarnate Bakula Rangdol Nyima Rinpoche. The Rinpoche looked out the window of his rooms atop the 1100 year old monastery, and smiled easily. All around him, the haunting Himalayan landscape played out its daily drama of color and power.
We sat eating fresh apricots - the Rinpoche, his trusted secretary-in-waiting Konchuk Sherab, the monastery's most accomplished mystic, and myself. The Rinpoche called me to his side with a gesture of princely grace and gazed at the monastery courtyard far below the lofty rooms, "It is so quiet now." Only days before, the courtyard pulsed with thirty five dancing monks and ten musicians performing an ancient series of danced rituals lasting the almost unimaginable duration of twenty four hours over two days: thirteen hours of dancing on the first day; eleven hours of dancing on the second.
The Rinpoche is living his fourth lifetime in five hundred years. One of the monastery temples is dedicated to his first incarnation and contains his statue placed in front of a thousand-armed goddess. The identification of a reincarnate, a process rigorous and foolproof, is carried out while the boy is still very young. Rangdol Nyima was the great leader of Lamayuru monastery, leading the community of monks and villagers through turbulent as well as peaceful times. That he should be reborn at this time of challenges inconceivable to earlier generations provokes the question of why. After three more years of training and initiations, then three years of solitude, he will again become the Abbot of Lamayuru. It being rather outside my usual conversational fare, I merely asked, " So, in six years' time, the responsibility for this monastery and community will rest with you?" He laughed, "If they give me the job."
I cannot imagine who would choose it. Tibetan Buddhism, as it is commonly known in the West, is in strange times. It is disemboweled in Tibet, diluted in Sikkim, in exile in India, under wraps in Bhutan, trendy in America, and existing with some freedom and authenticity especially in Ladakh, a semi-autonomous region of Himalayan India. Perhaps its greatest threat today is unbridled western commercialism, the most pervasive force for the destruction of cultures in Asia. What threat turmoil in Kashmir may pose to Ladakhi Buddhism awaits to be seen. Tantric, or Vajrayana Buddhism, as it is more properly understood, is a form of mystical esoteric Buddhism created as an amalgam of Indian Buddhism and indigenous Himalayan spiritual and magical practice. There are several sects in Vajrayana Buddhism and the Rinpoche's sect is called Drikung Kagyu Buddhism. One of its unique aspects is its dance tradition, perhaps the most sophisticated, difficult and mystical of its kind in the Himalayas.
The responsibilities on the young Rinpoche are many and consequential. Rinpoche means 'transmitter of teachings' and while there are many rinpoches in Himalayan Buddhism, not all of them are reincarnations nor heirs to monasteries. As such, his position brings with it historical expectations and major operational requirements. He will be a master of mystical and speculative philosophy; he will provide leadership to the community of one hundred monks ranging from eight to eighty-five years old, and guidance to villages throughout Ladakh, some so remote they are reachable only by horse or foot; his calligraphy is pure art; he will become a mystic adept. Villagers prostrate themselves before him. When he walks in public, heads bow and hands reach out. When he enters a room, a hush falls.
So how to describe the Rinpoche in few words? He is a dancer. The Rinpoche is considered the finest dancer in many generations. Not only his skill, but his passion for the integrity of the dances, distinguishes him as a young abbot. While he claimed to me that he does not recall any steps from his previous lives, he 'learned' seventy percent of the dances - that's more than fifteen hours of dancing - in less than three weeks. In ballet terms, that's six Swan Lakes.
The western mind is challenged by the sheer endurance of these hardy mountain people. Only the oldest and sturdiest villagers are able to sit through the entire ritual performance. Performing the dances requires an altered state of mind. The two days of masked and costumed performance are preceded by one unmasked day to rehearse both masked days, and before that, five days of meditation and chanting.
Beyond these requirements, a few monks went even further. In the middle of the night after 15 hours of rehearsal, the courtyard was filled with moonlight and three monks. On one side, an old monk was patiently teaching a young monk dancing the ceremonies for the first time, and on the other, one of the best dancers, Ridzin Wongchuk, danced alone perfecting some of the more difficult steps. There was no music, only the sound of a few feet in yak skin boots stamping the dusty earth. The beauty of the scene was unearthly and unforgettable.
The dancing itself is difficult to describe because neither its purpose nor its form has any parallel in the West. The twenty-four different dances performed over the two days vary in speed and style. Some are peaceful and fluid; others violent and so fast the monks are unable to slow down or control their bodies' trajectory. Some dances are highly ceremonial and stately; others again depict the wrathful protection of specific deities. In all, the fundamental action is to destroy all obstacles to the purpose of life.
The specific movement vocabulary is limited to approximately 100 movements, or roughly the same as classical ballet, and considerably more than many ancient forms of dance. The combinations of these movements shift and meld like minimalist music, being often so subtle as to escape notice although the timbre of the performance takes on a different quality. Turns and half turns punctuate falling and leaping steps. Fast staccato runs and twisting arms holding a variety of ritual and rhythmic objects pause into sometimes graceful, sometimes grueling backbends. Without notice, the entire ensemble stops for periods that begin again with no perceptible cue.
Even the perception of obvious rhythm is often impossible and the uncanny ability of the monks to stay in synchronicity is puzzling. I asked the Rinpoche about this and he answered my questions as well as supplying me with a secret text on the dances. The text is written by the current leader of the Drikung Vajra order, Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpoche, based upon an early 18th century manuscript detailing the dances from the 13th century onward. Here was the secret toward which the Rinpoche directed me.
Although the musical accompaniment is largely with rhythm instruments,
drums and cymbals as well as enormous horns, the musicians play cued by
the solo and collective motions of the dancers. The dancers are guided
by natural pulsations and the instructions the dancers follow as they
execute steps are as such:
Beyond the physical instructions and execution, the dances are intended
to be the apotheosis of mystical attainment within the Vajrayana tradition
of meditation, which is an elaborate process of forgetting the self, identifying
with a particular deity and conceiving the very universe as a mandala
in which the deity exists. The dances are cherished for the karmic imprint
they leave on both the dancer and the observer. The very core of the dances
is to be a representation of the activity of the mind-essence beyond conceptual
thinking. The dancers of high accomplishment also utter mantras while
they dance and altogether the finest performances express the
The living legacy of these dances, with their origins nearly 800 years old and actual choreography more than 400 years old, sets a very high standard of expectation for what the dance is supposed to do. Spiritually and physically, these dances are demanding in the extreme. I asked the young Rinpoche about sustaining an exalted metaphysical frame of mind while performing, and he answered that the five days of meditation and prayer preceding the dances was where the focused cultivation on mind took place, and further that the dances are quite simply so difficult to perform, his mind is absorbed in their execution.
I reminded him of the secret text, which clearly stated the dancer was
intended to hold such a state of mind, and also told him I had witnessed
such expanded consciousness in Noh performances. He answered immediately,
From this account, it would seem all is magical, mystical, profound and transcendent in the world of Himalayan Buddhist dancing, but that is the opposite of the hard reality. Lamaruyu stands alone in the seriousness with which it performs the dances. In Tibet, the dances are banned. In Ladakh, now politically a part of India, the ruthless and ignorant tentacles of "western development" are snaking their way through the region. Leh is the capital of Ladakh, and has become a center for a breed of trekking tourists aware of the region. A cash economy is about 15 years old, and suddenly everyone in and around Leh is desperate to make a buck, wear jeans and drink Coke. The monasteries near Leh are as vulgarly engrossed in this pursuit as anyone else. Local culture is dying. The dances are becoming extinct.
There is no WWF for dance forms, but there ought to be. Today, there remain only three monasteries of the Drikung Vajra order performing intact the great ceremonies of dance. Other orders perform similar dance festivals, but the caliber of dancing varies due to many factors. Among these others, Hemis monastery has led the way in turning the sacred dances into a regional Gilbert and Sullivan entertainment for tourists. It is sickening. The ceremony at Hemis is a tourist nightmare. The dancing isn't well performed, trinket sellers hoard every inch of available space and the tourists' behavior makes one ashamed to be western.
I have struggled to find words to describe the appalling behavior of some the trekking tourists, who are nothing but photo-terrorists. In my many years of travel through forty-two countries, it was the most disgraceful example of tourist behavior I have seen. There was little to do in Ladakh but trek, until eight years ago, when a decision was made to move the dance festivals from winter to summer, "for the tourists" - For the tourists to destroy would be more accurate. Demographically, the trekkers are easy to identify, and I had my own assessment confirmed by the department of tourism in Jammu and Kashmir. Would Americans ( there were only three that entire summer ) be as rude? Who knows? It is safe to say most Americans have never heard of Ladakh.
The philistines do things like invade sacred spaces to get a good photo; bully local villagers, or even step on them, to get the angle they want - things they know they may not do in Europe. In the villagers' eyes, they are too often dressed like harlots and freaks. You cannot take photos during a dance performance in Paris. You cannot click away inside German cathedrals. They know better. Their attitude is imperialist, as if the local culture was just a lark for their leisure. Understanding never enters the picture. Another batch from another country, mostly fresh out of the army, behave as if they are on spring break, boisterous and with no consideration for anyone, local or foreign. The scene at Hemis Monastery is disgusting.
Of the other two Drikung Vajra monasteries, one of them, Shachukhul, is in a politically sensitive region bordering China, and I was not allowed to visit, although the Rinpoche informed me it is a true but simple ceremony between the monks and the villagers; is very remote, hosts few tourists and the monks are working to learn and perform the dances well. This is why he went to help with the performances. Nearer to Leh, Phyang monastery is giving Hemis a run for its money as the most vulgar bastardization of religion in the area. The Abbot of Phyang monastery is the Rinpoche's superior, deeply knowledgeable about the dances having learned them himself in Tibet, and I cannot understand how he can justify the degradation he has allowed to engulf the sacred dances at Phyang.
I went to Phyang monastery on the rehearsal day, and no one was rehearsing. I thought I had gotten my days wrong. So I went to next day and saw that the performance itself was the rehearsal. To my unbelieving eyes, the monks didn't even know the steps! They bumbled around, laughing and looking at each other to figure out what to do. So much for a mystical state of mind. The two Dutch tourists near me, boasting $10,000 of camera equipment between them said it all, " Oh look! They can't remember the steps. Isn't that cute? Let's go down and take a picture." The monks on many occasions would actually stop dancing to have their photos taken by tourists walking into the sacred performance space. Around the monastery, Kashmiri Muslim merchants would hawk everything from Hindu gods to women's lingerie.
The monks are as guilty as the tourists for this debasement of religion and culture. They certainly know from Tibet and Sikkim, that indeed Buddhism can be wiped out. They are succeeding where China has failed in Tibet. China would love to keep Buddhism in Tibet as a tourist attraction and dead as a faith. The tourists have no idea what the dances are about and the monks provide no clues. I went to great lengths to find out, and was fortunately befriended by a dancing reincarnate. The monks have wantonly abandoned their mission to teach Buddhism, so perhaps the photo-terrorists and the make-a-buck monks deserve each other. And how rich are the monks becoming? I did a little math. Let's say there are 500 tourists cramming the monastery - a generous figure. Let's say, each one gives 20 rupees, again a generous figure. That comes to 10,000 rupees, or the whopping, life altering sum of about $250. A foundation grant of $300 might convince them to move the ceremonies back to wintertime.
What is happening in Ladakh is not unique. Culture everywhere
is being pummeled by arrogant uneducated tourism. Upon returning to London,
The Independent ran a piece about Mont St Michel, the 13th century island
fortress and cathedral in France and its plans to eradicate all fast food
and non-French restaurants on the island and appeal exclusively to a "
few, richer tourists who savor the rarefied atmosphere." A local
French historian found words to describe the plight shared by the monasteries
This brings us back to Lamaruyu. Lamayuru is more remote and difficult to reach than Hemis or Phyang, but it is becoming easier and tourists are increasing. I have suggested to the Rinpoche he ban photography, as has the monastery at Alchi which houses the most extraordinary painting in the region. I went on to offer to produce a printed program informing people of the nature and themes of the dances, and the expected etiquette.
The Rinpoche informed me that among his order, there remain only three old monks, all in their sixties, who know all the steps to the dances. He guesses they have about five more years of performing left. He asked my help in finding a way to document these remaining three monks. The Rinpoche asked if I could make this record within the next three years, because after that, he would be in solitude for three years and unable to oversee the project until he returned. I promised him I would, whether by video, or by high-tech motion capture, a technique used by Merce Cunningham, Bill T Jones, and a host of video games which precisely captures 3-D movement. I am currently involved in a project to motion capture ancient dances from Japan and India and interest to do the same with Peking Opera, Egyptian Raqs Sharqi and VietNamese dance has been passionately expressed.
But it is in Ladakh where the dance is truly imperiled. Dance is a living art, a true indicator of the health of a culture. Unlike painting and sculpture, dance exists in time, not through time. Once it stops, it is over. Dead and gone; extinct. Cannot our vast wealth be brought to ensure the dancing does not stop? Can't we assure the locals of the magnificence, not the poverty, of their cultures? Can we understand that the full and ancient splendor of a Himalayan Buddhist dance treasure now resides in the bodies of three old men?
Shortly before I left Lamayuru, The Rinpoche's secretary,
Konchuk Sherab pulled me aside and asked, " Joseph, do you believe
in Rangdol Nyima Rinpoche?" I thought he was asking if I believed
in reincarnation, in esoteric Buddhism, and mystical ecstasy. Sherab continued,
" I believe he has the strength and courage to save these dances
and promote the truth of Buddhism."
© Joseph Houseal, London 2000
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