Sacred Dance Meditation

By Monks at Shechen Monastery

With the arrival of the Tibetan new year (Gyalpo Losar) on March 3, monks at Shechen Monastery in Kathmandu, Nepal have already performed one of the sacred dances to welcome the new year.

Yamantaka Cham is a sacred dance meditation performed by monks and masters of the monastery in the 12th month of the Tibetan calendar. It is generally performed at the end of the year to ward off negativity and bless the new year.

Every year monasteries in Kathmandu carry out holy cham practices as per the monastic lineage and tradition. Yamantaka cham is one of these.

Yamantaka is revered as the wrathful manifestation of Manjushri, the deity of wisdom, and also believed to be the god of death, Yamaraj. The two-day dance meditation is the concluding ritual of a five-day Drupchen (prayer ceremony).

The dance meditation is observed by a diverse group of spectators with a wide variety cultural backgrounds. The Buddhist belief holds that the dance meditation maintains the practice of Thongdol i.e., ‘liberating spectators by sight’, meaning that those witnessing the dance rid themselves of obstacles and obscurations.

Adzom Gyalse Rinpoche, one of the cham masters, commemorates the occasion as a sacred practice of giving and receiving blessings for the year.

One of the significant sessions within the cham is the cutting of the linga. A linga is a human form made of dough, which embodies negativity and mental obscurations. First, the evil and negativity is invoked on the linga. It is then pierced by a phurba (ritual dagger), while mantras are chanted. The meditative part is that it should be pierced by a compassionate heart unaffected by mental afflictions.

It is then cut into five pieces to symbolize the destruction of mental afflictions, especially the five poisons of desire, pride, anger, ignorance and jealousy. The dance meditation followed by the burning of the effigy of Yamantaka marks the end of the practice.

All the practices are carried out with rituals and mantra chanting. Every symbol or action embodies a meaning that is conducted according to the Buddhist scriptures. It is therefore important for spectators witnessing the practice to acknowledge the value and essence of it.

And it is not only the spectators that are liberated by the practice, but also the body, speech and mind of the dancers. They are clad in heavy costumes and huge masks which liberate their body. Similarly, chanting mantras and reflecting upon themselves as the manifestation of Yamantaka while dancing liberates their speech and mind.

Although the dance may seem subtle to spectators, it evokes a series of stresses, which come to a crescendo in the dancer’s mind. “Catching the rhythm of a musical beat through mantra chanting, imagining oneself as a manifestation of Yamantaka and memorizing dance steps, all come to a crescendo, building to an utmost pressure,” says Pema Sangpo, one of the dancers. He has been performing for more than a decade now but finds it challenging to match the energy and spirit of the practice. “However, imaging sublime rays falling upon our bodies, piercing the dark and unleashing our Buddha nature is the heart of the practice and this reflection is crucial.”

Despite nights of preparation and long years of performing, the challenge remains to excel as a dancer. Tandin Paljor, one of the cham mentors shares that he is less apprehensive now having performed for more than a decade. “As a beginner I used to watch my seniors perform, which helped me improvise and create the right attitude,” he says.

He reminisces about a moment few years ago when he performed as the lead dancer but ended up making mistakes on a few steps. The responsibility in a way lies with the lead dancer to guide the others. Therefore, the leader should remain more cautious in that regard.

He adds, “I have learnt from that incident. No matter how serious, it is wise to learn from your mistakes. All that matters, in the end, is that you try to better yourself each day, and I feel this understanding largely applies to this sacred practice.”

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Sonam Lama Hyolmo

Sonam Lama is a Kathmandu-based freelance multimedia journalist writing at the intersection of environment, indigenous rights, research, and science.

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