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Mahakala Puja Part Four: Lama Dance

20 February, 2012 Bodhgaya


February 20th was a day full of firsts. It was the first time that the Gyalwang Karmapa has performed in the lama dances since coming to India in January of 2000. It was the first time that the Karmapa, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, and Gyaltsap Rinpoche have participated together in the dances. It was the first time in India that the Karmapa could engage in the full length of the Mahakala practice that precedes the Tibetan New Year, and it was the first occasion when all the Kagyu Sanghas have gathered for this practice. All of these firsts came together on the twenty-ninth day of the last month in the Tibetan calendar, which is dedicated to protector practice, making this a particularly powerful occasion for the removal of obstacles and negativity.

The day actually started the previous night at 11pm with the beginning of “The Abridged Burning Up Anger,” and the chanting continued through to 5:30 the next morning. The thundering sound of the two immense drums and about thirty smaller ones as well as the swift pace of the chanting must have helped the Sangha to stay aware and awake through the long hours of the night. After a brief break at the end of the puja, the Karmapa strode into the shrine hall wearing the Activity Hat and ascended his golden throne to bless the monks who would be performing lama dances later on that ay—quite a feat after so little sleep.

The invitation card sent out for the lama dances began:

   In Praise of Mahakala
Though the power of your great compassion,
You arise in a fierce form
To increase the happiness of all living beings
And preserve the teachings of the Victorious One.

On February 20, the monks gathered at Tergar
Monastery will perform a lama dance known as
“The Jewel-like Tradition Embodying All,” which is
related to the wisdom protectors Mahakala,
Mahakali, and their retinue. The purpose of the
vajra dance is to dispel all that harms—sickness
or negative spirits—and to increase what is
positive—our life span, merit, and wealth—so that
everything perfect and auspicious may spread
everywhere and, ultimately, all may attain the
level of full awakening.

The chief guests were Jetsun Pema, the sister of the Dalai Lama, and her husband, Tenpa Tsering, the representative of the Dalai Lama at the Bureau of Tibet in Delhi. Sitting next to Jetsun Pema was Ngodrup Paldzom, the sister of the Gyalwang Karmapa, making two generations of great lamas’ sisters sitting side by side. Behind them, the Pavilion was filled with Sangha and lay practitioners who had  come to watch these meditations in motion, these mandalas come to life. It is said that the practice of lama dancing gives benefits for the dancers and for the audience as well. The dances belong to the category of yogic exercises that are a part of the Six Yogas of Naropa. They develop the dancers’ experience, realization, and positive qualities while also setting positive imprints in the mind since these dances are performed for the benefit of others. For the audience, the dances also leave positive imprints that will help to create good conditions for practice and turn one away from wrong paths, eventually leading to the realization of Buddhahood. This is the fundamental setting of Dharma practice that underlies all of the performances.

The audience is also very fortunate to witness these dances, since they do not exist in the vinaya tradition and are only present by implication in the tradition of bodhisattvas. The dances really began with the vajrayana, following the Buddha’s injunction to use skillful means in harmony with disciples’ minds to bring them into the Dharma. It is said that  King Dza had a vision of Vajrapani who taught the King dances, so they were practiced in India by the mahasiddhas, but kept totally secret. In Tibet, Guru Rinpoche performed a magnificent dance during the consecration of the first great monastery at Samye. For the Kagyu tradition, the dances were preserved through the Marpa Kagyu, especially in the Guhyasamaja and Hevajra tantras, but it was only with the Seventh Karmapa, Chodrak Gyatso, that they became public. So it is thanks to the generosity of the Karmapas that the dances can be seen today. The day of dancing began with a procession of the Hazhal Mahakala torma from the Tergar shrine hall to the Monlam Pavilion. Victory banners led the way while long trumpets, jalings, and cymbals sounded over the green fields stretching out on either side of the road. The torma was slowly carried down the main aisle of the immense sky-blue arch of the pavilion and up on to the left side of the stage where a platform waited. Two burning sticks flamed in front of Hazhal’s mouth while a tall finial of woven threads was added on the top to create a very imposing figure.

Set stage center were three ten-foot statues of a powerful dark blue Bernakchan in the center, Mahakali mounted on her blue mule to his right, and a brown Vajrasadhu on his mount to the left. Specially brought for the performance today, the three are veiled with lengths of silk. In front of Bernakchan is his torma from the shrine and two golden kapalas. On the flights of steps behind him are seats for the Gyalwang Karmapa, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, and Gyaltsap Rinpoche. Directly in line with the Karmapa’s seat and placed on the stairs rising behind him is the new statue of the Sixteenth Karmapa, followed by the First Karmapa’s statue and finally Shakyamuni Buddha with brilliant gold rays radiating from his body. To create a link to Tibet, the arch of the wall behind them is painted with a mural of snowy Mt. Kailash, rising into a deep blue sky that is the same color as the late afternoon skies here. The whole stage thus gives a visual lineage, starting from Shakyamuni Buddha and going through the Karmapas to Bernakchan.

The actual dances began with the consecration or taming of the ground, a dance that comes from Guru Chowang’s Tenth Day dances. Based on the pure vision of this treasure discoverer, these dances are divided into eight sections and still performed in both the Nyingma and Kagyu traditions. The lead dancer was Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, who wore a fierce mask and red brocade robes, their side vents opening in bright vermillion pleats as he moved. He led a large circle of numerous dancers with fierce masks, several with bird faces, their long beaks partly open.  The two wild yaks were dressed in indigo brocade and their masks had curving horns. The tall white antlers of the deer were tied with fluttering ribbons in the Dharma colors red, green, blue, yellow, and white, which have many meanings, relating to the five wisdoms, and so forth. In the center of the circle stood an elder lama who had left Tibet with the previous Karmapa.

As soon as the dance finished, on came the clowns. Two old men with big noses, fringes of hair, and a hump in the back of their chupas. They went through classic slapstick routines and the audience loved it. One does a prostration and falls head first into a somersault over his big hump. The two sit half-sprawled by the incense pot and vigorously fan the smoke over themselves, spoofing Tibetan purification rituals. Without noticing where he is, another comes to sit in front of the Hazhal torma; when he finally glances up, the fright sends him spread-eagled on the ground.

During all this comedy, the colored veils are removed from the three main statues, equivalent to inviting this triad to be present. The two old men then lead the procession of incense and offerings that brought His Holiness on stage to make offerings to the Hazhal torma. A beautiful gold-embossed cup was filled with tea and various grains and then offered from each direction by the Karmapa as the monks chanted and music played. When he has finished, the Karmapa sits down right in front of the Bernakchan statue at stage center. The second dance is that of the skeletons, four sprightly dancers with their stylized bones piped in red on their white shirts and pants. Their dance is full of leaps and spins, ending with cartwheels and spectacular back flips to exit the stage.

They are followed by the Dance of the Two Deer and Two Wild Yaks that flowed into the Dance of the Maras and Negative Spirits.  Both performances involve four monks and relate to dealing with enemies. The next dance is that of the Gate Protector, which was composed by the Fourteenth Karmapa, Thekchok Dorje. The dance is a solo and was performed by His Holiness, grace and power flowing effortlessly from him. In the beginning, an effigy symbolic of all that is negative was placed in the center of the stage and the Karmapa held different hand implements as he performed the dance in front of it: a silver hook on a staff turning slowly above and below; a lasso held between his index fingers and thumbs, moving in circles in front of him; an iron chain with jewel bead ornaments; two brown feathers crossing in graceful turns; and a bell decorated in gold. The dance with each implement ended with a quick double step and a leap. As he stands facing forward, His Holiness is then given a silver phurpa, which he holds directly in front of his face, his concentration riding down and out from the point. After handing it to an attendant, he performs the final implement dance of the bow and arrow and departs the stage with his retinue of musicians and incense bearers. During the performance, Gyaltsap Rinpoche could be seen at the edge of the stage watching intently.

For quite a while, the monks chant sections from the Mahakala ritual and then the Dance of Four-Armed Mahakala begins with monks carrying incense at the head of a long row of masked dancers. In sets of four, they are robed in elegant brocade of rampant dragons, in gold, bright blue, dark blue, red, and green. Midst the masks are two birds, three yaks and one tall deer. As the dance comes to a close, the deer stays behind to dance the famous Deer Dance. He begins by offering huge sprays of grain into the air above and bowing to the statue of Bernakchan. The deer has bells on his feet that keep the rhythm of his movements—stylized running steps interspersed with swirling leaps. The monks bring out a rug and place it in front of the effigy. The deer descends onto the rug and begins a slow and electrifying dance while kneeling, bending back so far his antlers touch the ground and coming quickly forward, then twisting around a hundred and eighty degrees and spinning back. There is a complete sense of precision and control in these extended movements. With his sword he strikes the effigy and pieces are scattered on stage and into the audience. After this long period of kneeling, he comes into a squatting position and from there leaps around in an amazing circle. Then other dancers join in the dance and they exit the stage together.

The morning finishes with the offering of white scarves (katas) from the Tsurphu Labrang, (the Karmapa’s administration) first to the statues of the two Karmapas and then to the dancers by tying the long katas around their necks. The timing of this is a special trick as the dancers have to be caught while they are moving. Other sponsors follow the Labrang and by the end of the performance, the dancers are  swathed in white. Before the dance ends, the old clown in a blue chupa appears and goes into the audience. He takes a cap from one man’s head and wearing it backwards, he sits in the VIP section to joke with a yellow-robed Theravadin monk, who laughs and plays along with him. The clown calls for a photographer and poses with his head on the monk’s shoulder. On stage, the dancers had moved into a spiral and as it unwinds they exit the stage. The head guests, Jetsun Pema and Tenpa Tsering go up the stairs that ascend to the Buddha and offer katas to the Karmapa. The whole audience is then invited to lunch at Tergar Monastery.

After lunch, the monks chanted long sections from the Mahakala practice, continuing to interweave the ritual they have chanted for the past days with the dances. The next Dance of the Pureland Protectors featured numerous dancers carrying three-foot, red and black triangle banners, which waved rhythmically back and forth in harmony with the triangle shaped sleeves of the dancers’ brocade robes. This dance as well as the two previous ones (Four-Armed Mahakala and the Deer) were composed by Ga Lotsawa. He met Mahakala and his retinue in a vision whence came the dances. Ga Lotsawa was one of the teachers of the First Karmapa and so these dances came very early into the lineage.

Gyaltsap Rinpoche led the ninth dance, Maraya. He was easily distinguished by the smoothness of his movements and the gracefulness of his hands, which held a sword and a silver kapala lined in vermillion; he wore a large metal mirror on his chest and a white sash in a half circle over the front of his robes. The Dance in the Rhythm of Seven and Eight came next with eight monks dressed in bright blue dragon brocade and the deer and yak making another appearance in this circle dance. These two dances come from a pure vision of the Seventh Karmapa, Chodrak Gyatso.

Once the dancers had left the stage, the Karmapa, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche and Gyaltsap Rinpoche descended the stairs to stand in front of Mahakala. While the monks chanted, they made repeated offerings to the protector and his retinue in a large libation cup. At the end, the three lamas stepped forward and together offered five long katas in five auspicious colors, placing one  length-wise underneath each of the three statues. It was a visual reminder of these teachers’ ancient connection to each other and to these practices.

After a break came the grand finale , the Dance of the Black Hat, which comes from the Eighth Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje. Some thirty monks encircled the stage and the main dancer anchored the mandala in the middle. They all wore black hats, which ascend from a wide brim trimmed in black, to a cone shape mounted by a skull topped by a flaming jewel. The back of the hat is decorated with a braid of five-colored katas that open out into billowing strips of red, yellow, white, blue, and green. The focus of the dance was the offerings made from the front of the stage by the central dancer. These included a kapala brimming with swirling red waves and a black bird with curving lines of bright colored dots to indicate its wings. After the central dancer offered them in the center of the mandala, these were all carried down the central aisle and given outside.

The final torma offered was Hazhal. The two top wicker pieces were dismantled, the katas offered by the faithful as they circumambulated Benakchan were removed, and a tall banner was set next to him. A group of monks gathered around and lifted the torma up, carrying it to stage center and down the central aisle while accompanied by dancers in a slow step. As Hazal passed out of the pavilion, the dancers returned to the stage. Following the Tsurphu tradition, this torma was burned on a stacked triangle of wood in the northeast direction, the flames bright enough to be seen from the Pavilion. During this time, in the place where the torma had been on stage, the monks drew in chalk a triangle with flames and mantra on which the torma platform was then placed upside down. Chants were performed to reverse obstacles, while the main dancer stood in each of the four directions and placed his vajra on the platform, performing the Torma Dance (gTor bro).

The afternoon is brought to a close with the chanting of The Victorious Melody, composed by the Fifteenth Karmapa, Khakhyab Dorje. Wearing long meditation capes in maroon, the monks all gather on stage in a large semi-circle facing the three statues. Among the thirteen chant masters, the four main ones come from the Kagyu monasteries of Rumtek, Ralang, Mirik, and Benchen. As their voices resonate through the long tones of the melody, a twenty-foot thangka of Bernakchan is raised to the arching blue roof. This is the day’s final blessing for all who have come.

The monks then return to the Tergar shine hall to make the dedications for the benefit of all beings. Later in the evening, Gyaltsap Rinpoche performs a brief fire puja to eliminate any obstacles that might remain. In sum, this day has seen twenty-four hours of practice in different modalities: the ritual of Burning Up Anger, the lama dancing, the unveiling of three new statues, the special torma offering of Hazhal, and the rising of the Bernakchan thangka. Evident to all was the richness and variety of the tradition and the great good fortune of being in the presence of the Karmapa, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, and Gyaltsap Rinpoche to celebrate the Dharma at the end of the year.

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