SACRED MONASTIC DANCE
"In a meditative state...the dance comes out of that...In tantra oneself becomes the Buddha."
?Lobsang Samten, ritual dance master of the Namygal monks
"Only in meditation are the methods of chanting and instrumental playing revealed."
?His Holiness, The l6th Gylwya Karmapa
Cham dances are the secret ritual dances of the Tibet's Buddhist monks. They are part of an elaborate and intensive ritual initiation that lasts anywhere from one day up to two weeks. Cham dances are performed for deep emotional, psychic, and spiritual purification, and while they are now able to be witnessed by spectators, they remain in many ways a mystery.
Part of the reason for this mystery is that while we are able to observe the form of the dance, we are unable to see the deep spiritual cleansing that is occurring for the practitioner. And yet even as a spectator, when I first saw Cham dancing on my first visit to Tibet in the early 1980s, I experienced something very powerful and magical. It was like an enormous way of peace and quietude overcame my body as I sat watching the elaborate ritual. Only then did I understand the power of this practice, and I could only image the intensity of the internal experience for the practitioner himself. We will now examine the specifics of Cham dance forms, the spiritual practice that lies underneath, and the iconography present in the masks, costumes, and ritual settings.
What Is a Mandala?
Cham, or sacred dance is always performed within the confines of a mandala (circle) and is part of tantric ritual. But what does this mean to a westerner? In a mandala, everything radiates from a central point, as a maze of circles set into a series of squares. Mt. Meru, in Tibetan cosmology is the center or axis mundi of the world. It is surrounded by four continents and ruled by the sun and the moon. Mount Kailish in far western Tibet is often associated with the mythical Mt. Meru. The mandala circle works simultaneously on three levels. It is the home of the realm of the Gods. It is its own physical representation on earth. In the physical body of a tantric practitioner or Cham dancer it represents the secret channels or centers called chakras. The four limbs of a man become symbolic of the four continents. The head is Mt. Meru. The eyes are the sun and the moon. The body itself is where the deity lives. The orifices are the entrance to the mandala. This outline also corresponds to the chakras, or psychic centers, and the meeting of the nerve clusters in the axis of the body, which are called nadis.
The Cham dancer concentrates on all of these centers and chakras during a performance. Concentration and meditations are specifically taught in oral instructions passed from a tantric master to student. These practices open the chakras and purify them. The purpose in purifying these centers is the overcoming of negative obstacles and to obtain what Buddhists call enlightenment. The Vajra Kilya dance, specifically inspired by Padmasambhava's vision was said to have been performed by the master himself at this time in order to purify the physical ground for the building of the monastery of Samye, root out evil and overcome the obstacles that the Bon priests and ministers were concocting. In fact according to Padmasambhava's life story, at the cardinal points of the monastery there were stupas of Vajra Kilya.
The word mandala derives from the Tibetan word kyilkhor, kyil meaning "center" and khor meaning "fringe." It is a group or collection of something that is interlinked from the center out to the fringe. This is like saying the city of Dallas is a big mandala, linked by its roads, businesses, media and human contact, and on its fringes are ranches and suburbs.
A mandala is an Indo/Tibetan system that maps mind and consciousness. It is a psychological diagram. All of our experiences are part of our own personal mandala, or web of our own consciousness. You could extrapolate this to say nations have their own mandalas. There are collective and individual mandalas that also overlap with one another.
The Purpose of Sacred Dance
In the 5th Dalai Lama's C'hams yig texts he talks about the purpose of dance by discussing the oldest recorded cham dance, that of the Vajra Kilya. He says, "The great religious master Padmasambhava performed this dance in order to prepare the ground for the Samye monastery (the first Tibetan monastery) and to pacify the malice of the lha and srin; in order to create the most perfect conditions he performed at that time (while dancing) to make the 'consecration of the ground', inserting into the soil those of the four qualities it did not possess, the erecting of a thread-cross and zor ceremonies. This dance stands in connection with the origins of tantricism and procures great blessings."