On the evening of March third, the Monlam stage with its huge altar was transformed by the presence of four tall pillars arrayed across the front of the stage. In deep brown decorated in gold filigree, topped by lotus flowers, they supported the four animals—a tiger, garuda, vulture, and snow lion—that appeared to Milarepa in his famous dream. The four represent the main disciples of Marpa the Translator, through whom the Kamtshang lineage flows. In front of the stage, the rows of seats in the Pavilion are filled right up to the back while three screens on either side bring into the evening darkness the radiant and warm colors of the stage.
This is the setting for tonight’s play based on the life of the Second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi (1206-1283). Written by the Gyalwang Karmapa in a contemporary idiom, the drama focuses on three events: the arrival of Orgyenpa (1230-1312), who would hold the Karma Pakshi’s lineage; the meeting of these two great lamas; and finally, Orgyenpa’s meeting and recognizing the Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje (1284-1339). During the time of the Seventh Karmapa, such dramas, based on the lives of buddhas, bodhisattvas, and other realized beings, were performed during the first fifteen days of the New Year, commemorating the time when the Buddha performed his great miracles. At Tsurphu, (the Karmapa’s main seat in Tibet), the custom was to practice the Twenty-Branch Monlam in the morning and present these dramas in the afternoon.
This year, with his usual hands on approach, the Karmapa has been involved in the rehearsals as well as the stage setting. This evening he can be found in the vast storage room just behind the stage where the performers are busy getting ready. His presence and interest in all that is happening bring a liveliness to the space. A Khampa weaves a red ribbon into his long braid and wraps it around his head. Orgyenpa is having his hair grayed with a white liquid. A member of the Karmapa’s administration is helping an actor, who will play an attendant of Karma Pakshi, fold the right pleats into his robes. The head of the Tibetan Institute for Performing Arts (TIPA) will play Karma Pakshi, and his young son, who is missing two weeks of school for this special opportunity, will play the Third Karmapa as a child. With the gentlest of smiles and a touch of delight, His Holiness stands in front of the young performer who is in monks’ robes and wears the Karmapa’s activity hat. He lifts off the hat and places his hand on the boy’s head. Perhaps the Karmapa is recalling the time when he was a similar height and age, wearing the activity hat for the first time at Tsurphu.
In another corner of the hall, the performers from TCV Suja School are rehearsing their steps, the bells on their feet jangling. The Karmapa has a special connection with TCV Suja as the students are all refugees. During the first year he could travel, he went to the school and the students performed for him then as well. This evening, two boys, who came from Tibet ten years ago, sit next to their stringed instruments: a mandolin from Amdo, the dranyen, sometimes called a Tibetan guitar, from Central Tibet, and the piwang, a single stringed instrument from Eastern Tibet, the hardest to play, they say. The boys only learned about these instruments when they came to India, which underlines the importance of the Karmapa’s efforts to preserve Tibetan culture and encourage these performances.
Before the play begins, Sherab Tharchin comes on stage to give background information. He says that the Seventh Karmapa was quite difficult to meet. One had to wait days to see him, and an interview was brief. He was very skillful, however, and created the Prayer Festival of the Great Encampment. It took place in a tent with one hundred pillars, golden spires, and myriad decorations of brilliant colors and precious materials such as pearls and crystals. It was so magnificent that great masters said they could not tell if it was a dream or not. In the tent, mornings were devoted to prayer, and afternoons saw the performance of these dramas, which gave both entertainment and education. It is this tradition that the Seventeenth Karmapa is reviving.
Sherab Tharchin then gave a brief introduction to Karma Pakshi. Before the First Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa, passed away, he said that someone would be born to carry out his wishes. Karma Pakshi was then born into the family of descendants of the Dharma king Trisong Deutsen. This Karmapa was famous for the miracles he displayed at the court of Kublai Khan and for creating the famous statue of the Buddha at Tsurphu. It is also said that he received teachings directly from Vajra Varahi. The accomplished master, Orgyenpa, was very famous but Karma Pakshi humbled him, so that he lost his pride,becoming Karma Pakshi’s student and a key figure in the Kamtshang lineage.
The first scene of the play takes place in the Karmapa’s quarters at Tsurphu. The sleeping monks provide comic relief as they try to wake each other up and pull themselves together. Echoed by a chorus, Karma Pakshi sings in a piercing voice about Orgyenpa coming from Latö: “He’s like the sky that covers the earth.” The next vignette is of Orgyenpa and his attendants on the road to Tsurphu where they are met by Karma Pakshi’s monks. In the following scene, Orgyenpa is formally escorted to the monastery, and the initially well-behaved crowd that has gathered to greet him turns into fractious chaos as they push and shove to get close to the lama for his blessing. It takes five strong Khampas with their staves to bring them under control. Recognizing this very familiar scene, the audience laughs and applauds.
When he meets the Karmapa, Orgyen still carries himself with a certain hauteur, but Karma Pakshi subdues him in a perfect recounting of what Orgyenpa had been thinking. The Karmapa then gives him the Gyalwa Gyamtso empowerment and offers him the activity hat and a text. Karma Pakshi also gives Orgyenpa a pointing out instruction:
- Now, recognize that empty appearances are the dharmakaya, unimpeded energy is the sambhogakaya, and diverse appearances are the nirmanakaya. Therefore, all that could possibly appear is of one taste with the three kayas.
Sherab Tharchin then reappears to continue his narration. Karma Pakshi had said that when all the activities of this life were finished, he would come back to Latö and he asked Orgyenpa to recognize his reincarnation. Karma Pakshi was the first tulku, but this recognition of the Third Karmapa would become the first time a great master had recognized another tulku of a great master. In the final scene, Orgyenpa hears about a boy who says he is the Karmapa, so he sets up a high throne, figuring that only the Karmapa would dare to sit on it. The young boy appears and naturally climbs the stairs to sit on the throne. From his previous life, the reincarnation remembers conversations with Orgyenpa and what he had given the older master—the activity hat and a text. So Orgyenpa calls for the activity hat and places it on the boy’s head, first rather lopsidedly, which draws a laugh from the audience. As the finale, the Suja school dancers come on stage, their long red and white sleeves rhythmically waving to the pulsing drums.
Finally, our narrator explains that the next performance of Tibetan opera is based on a Jataka tale, recounting a previous life of the Buddha as the king Lodro Zangpo. The actors and actresses come from the Rumtek Opera Society, formed in 1961 during the time of the Sixteenth Karmapa, who was very fond of Tibetan opera. Sometimes, the group would perform for seven days in a row. Among the actors tonight are original members of the society, who have trained the new generation, helping to preserve this tradition started in Tibet by Thangtong Gyalpo (1385-1464). The opera ends with all the actors on stage and a lively Ki ki so so lha gyalo! All victory to the divine!
At the end, His Holiness is invited on stage where he gives long white scarves of thanks to the director of TIPA, the principal of the Suja School, and the head of the Rumtek Opera Society. The Karmapa speaks of his hope to revive the traditions of the Seventh Karmapa, noting that the teachings of the buddhas and bodhisattvas come in many forms, not just Dharma talks. The aspirations and prayers of the Twenty-Branch Monlam help countless living beings and seeing these lives of great beings can leave a strong impression on our minds, turning them more deeply to the Dharma. His Holiness then thanks all the performers and dedicates the merit of the evening toward sewing the seed of positive karma in all of us and toward the long life and freedom from obstacles of the great teachers amongst us, beginning with his Holiness the Dalai Lama. May peace and compassion pervade the world.