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Demons & Deities

By Thomas Murray
Photography by Don Tuttle

Part II The Spread of Buddhism
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From its humble beginnings under the Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya, the teachings of the Buddha spread overland and by sea to nearly all parts of Asia. Buddhism's path to salvation depended largely on the individual's own efforts, and Buddhism's doctrine of self-reliance and non-violence appealed to the merchant class in India and thus it spread along trade routes - north through Central Asia, into China and then into the Far East, Korea and Japan. It also spread south to Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia - Burma, Thailand, Indo-China, and Indonesia. Nepal and Tibet embraced Buddhism at the zenith of its development in India, and it was this tradition which eventually came to permeate Mongolia, Manchuria, Kalmykia and Tuva (the latter two in present day Russia). It is interesting to note that in this final group of countries a form of Tibetan Buddhism returned to the region frequently associated with the origin of Central Asian shamanism.

Buddhism entered Tibet in the 7th century AD. The transformation of Tibet from an essentially animistic culture to a radiantly Buddhist one is a fascinating story. One of the major players in this tale is Padmasambhava. A great Indian Tantric Buddhist adept from the Swat Valley (modern day Pakistan), he was instrumental in founding the first Tibetan Buddhist monastery at Samye (777-779 AD), south central Tibet. It is said that he overpowered the ancient mountain gods of the old religion (Bon) and converted the wrathful deities, convincing them to become defenders of the new faith.

Padmasambhava is also said to have introduced the Vajra Dance (rdo-rje gar) at Samye Temple. This practice continues today under the name Cham in celebration of Padmasambhava's conquest of the Bon religion. Taking place in a monastery, masked monks in deep meditation perform dramas first imported from India and prescribed by Sanskrit-based Tantric texts. The ritual lasts for three days.[1]

In masks, Padmasambhava appears in his natural and animal manifestations (19). Wrathful protectors of the faith or dharmapalas (23), including Mahakala, exhibit their fierce visages as spectators enter into the transformation process of the masquerade. In this way, Buddhist doctrine is transmitted to literate and non-literate alike through meditation in action. This dance tradition takes a form known as Mani Rimdu in Nepal.


Tantric Buddhism often invokes imagery associated with death. Such imagery points both to the demise of ego which is associated with spiritual transformation, and to the all-too-brief duration of our physical existence. Chitipati, the skeletal Lord of the Funeral Pyre, is a particularly powerful example of this iconographic theme, and is easily identified as a grinning skull mask (25). Remarkably, but also typical of the wise Buddhists of Tibet, Chitipati is also seen in a humorous light, his joker-like antics offering relief from the profundity of the other lessons observed during the Cham drama.

Remarkable masks are also associated with the Tibetan Folk Opera known as Ache Lhamo.[2] A morality play involving participation from laymen and women, this popular drama uses dance and song to illustrate the power of Buddhism to overcome all negative forces. Another folk dance tradition, practised by the Monpo and Sherdukpen people of Bhutan, is the Deer Dance. The story tells that a young man goes into the forest and shoots a deer, having already gathered sufficient food for his family. The deer transforms himself into a god who teaches the hunter that he should not take more than he needs from nature. In this way, the morality play underscores responsible wildlife ecology. A variety of masks can be associated with these colourful dramas, and are often used interchangeably as their characters appear in more than one drama.

The distinctions made by previous authors between Monpa and Sherdukpen masks were based on the mid-century observations of Verrier Elwin. However, recent investigations into this restricted area by Thomas J. Pritzker could not support this distinction, hence the use in this article of both names when referring to masks that were formerly attributed to one or other of these ethnic groups. This is not to say that one cannot recognise stylistic differences, but that they may be attributed to regional as opposed to ethnic variations. The extraordinary similarity between Monpa-Sherdukpen (28, 29) and Japanese masks is no accident. It is clearly a reflection of a shared experience of Buddhist culture.

The subject of Himalayan masks is difficult to narrow. In considering the masking phenomenon of the region, we are drawn into a discussion of an ever-widening geographic and historic scale. Through the microcosm of this topic, we may access a macrocosm as broad-ranging as Eurasia and the Americas, and a time-span stretching from upper Paleolithic to the present. The intention here has been to place the discussion in the wider context, for it is in understanding the depth of their contacts that we recognise the great integrity of Himalayan masks. We perceive objects of relevance and become aware of a new art form.

Himalayan masks represent a truly international style, with stylistic affinities as far flung as Japan (36), Alaska (35), and Khotan. Underlying this international style is a cultural arrow through time, beginning with the shamanism of the steppes, and moving through subsequent Hindu and Buddhist masquerade traditions. In addition, a continuous dynamic of cross-pollination occurred between tribal and monastery masking traditions, reinvigorating both. Ultimately, following the insights of C.J. Jung - it can be argued that the psychic 'deep structure' motivations for masking did not change and the old gods were reincarnated with new names.

A comparative analysis of large groups of tribal Asian masks reveals, I believe, a general unity of style and meaning. This unity constitutes strong evidence that the masking phenomenon had a common origin. Thus, in cases where the original meaning of masks and their accompanying rituals is lost, we may attempt to infer insights by using data surviving in other, better preserved, masking cultures.

Thus, although the Scythian 'animal style' may be site and period specific, the idea that animals have power, both awe-inspiring and worthy of harnessing, is something also recognised by the Nepalese shaman, the monk in a Tibetan monastery and the American Indian totem carvers of the Pacific Northwest. So too, the human yearning for wisdom and compassion, embodied by the bodhisattvas, affects us all.

In his book Himalayan Art, Madanjeet Singh has this to say of masks: "…these ageless images are undoubtedly the most fantastic and formidable art-link in the entire Himalaya. With these masks, we are presented with a radical departure from cultures and aesthetics more familiar to us. They provoke us emotionally and intellectually. And their examination offers both an occasion to develop intuitions about peoples, far distant and long ago, as well as insights about one's self, here and now.'' [3]

click here to go to Part I: Demons and Deities

This article was originally published in the HALI anual #2, titled Asian Arts, 1995

Thomas Murray on || Thomas Murray: Asiatiaca/Ethnographica ||


Dorje, L., 'Llamo: The Folk Opera of Tibet', The Tibet Journal, Summer 1984, vol.IX, no.2, pp.13?22.
Chazot, Eric and Lawrence Hultberg, Facing the Gods, Smithsonian catalogue (unpublished), 1989.
Singh, Manjaneet, Himalayan Art, New York 1968.

1. For a comparison of the Cham and Lhamo dance forms, see Dorje 1984. [back]
2. Chazot and Hultberg 1989 (unpublished). [back]
3. Singh 1968. [back]

text © Thomas Murray
images © Don Tuttle

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