“The 17th Karmapa is not an emanation of Guru Rinpoche. He is Guru Rinpoche.“ — Tai Situ Rinpoche, in a private interview
The Vajra Lama Dance staged on the 10th January, 2014 at the Monlam Pavilion in Bodhgaya was in many ways a parallel historical event to the dramatic opening scenario which established Buddhism in 8th century Tibet.
The great Indian tantrika known throughout the Himalayas as Guru Rinpoche or the precious Guru was invited to Tibet by the reigning King, Trisong Deutsen, to dispel the obstacles to the establishment of Samye, the first monastery in Tibet.
The Abbot, Shantarakshita, could not accomplish it, because he was a scholar whose knowledge was sutra based. Nor could all the wealth and power of the great King. It needed a tantric mahasiddha to transform the energy.
There were obstacles from the indigenous shamanistic religion, and obstacles from the lha or mountain gods, as well as malevolent spirits or demons.
The Lotus-born Padmasambhava was the great tamer of beings. To prepare the ground for Samye – the place of the inconceivable – he performed a magnificent Cham or Lama Dance.
According to the Fifth Dalai Lama, Padmasambhava performed a Vajrakilaya dance and the rite of ‘thread cross’ or (Tib) namkha to assist the King and Abbot. His tantric dance cleared away all the obstacles, enabling the monastery to be built in 767. He also tamed the local spirit protector, Pehar Gyalpo, and bound him by oath to become the head of the entire hierarchy of Buddhist protective spirits.
Guru Rinpoche’s activity in Tibet also cleared the ground for women to be honoured as fully as men, possessing an even greater capacity to attain enlightenment. ”Male and female,” he replied to his consort, Yeshe Tsogyal, ”there is no difference. But if she develops the mind bent on enlightenment, a woman’s body is better.”
Together with Yeshe Tsogyal, he concealed both earth and mind “terma,” or treasures. An imbalance of the elements, he predicted, would bring about a degenerate age with natural disasters like floods, earthquakes, and drought, war and violence, affecting the minds of practitioners. The dharma would become only words written down in texts, subject to corruption. To ensure renewal the dharma at those times, Guru Rinpoche hid treasures – texts, empowered ritual objects, and visions – into the mind stream of his 25 heart disciples to be revealed at the right time by their reincarnations.
The ritual practice of Lama Sangdu is such a terma treasure, and one of the most important. Lama Sangdu means “embodiment of the master’s secrets,” and it is a sadhana of the Guru’s heart. The Cham or Vajra Lama Dance is the heart of the Lama Sangdu ritual.
The entire ritual has held a special place in the Karmapa lineage for the past 800 years, ever since it was revealed by the pre-eminent treasure revealer, Guru Chowang, a speech emanation of King Trisong Deutsen – one of the 25 heart disciples of Guru Rinpoche. Guru Chowang visited the Copper Coloured Mountain of Padmasambhava in a pure vision and saw the dakas and dakinis dancing; later he turned his vision into an extraordinary Vajra Lama Dance. Guru Chowang (born in 1212) offered his treasure to the second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi, who was the “terdak,” or designated rightful owner of the terma.
The following century the fifth Karmapa, Deshin Shegpa, predicted that the Kagyu lineage would nearly come to an end between the 16th and 17th Karmapas. He predicted that the “demon,” a samaya breaker, would be destroyed by a heart emanation of Padmasambhava. http://kagyuoffice.org/traditional-materials-on-recognition-of-the-17th-karmapa/prophecy-of-the-5th-karmapa/
At the time of the 17th Karmapa’s birth there were clear signs from Guru Rinpoche. His mother dreamed of 3 white cranes; one was holding a letter with beautiful golden writing and when asked who had sent them, they replied it was Guru Rinpoche. As a child he knew the 7- line prayer of Guru Rinpoche without being taught and recited it to clear obstacles and create favourable circumstances. When a forest fire was threatening their village, the Karmapa recited the prayer and blew the fire into another direction.
In conclusion, we have a Lama Vajra Dance coming directly from Guru Rinpoche, performed by the Karmapa – known to be the same as Guru Rinpoche – at a time of great obstacles for the Kagyu Lineage – on the tenth day of the month, when the precious Guru said he would appear in person to those with faith. This was indeed an auspicious alignment. In parallel with the conditions that prevailed in 8th century Tibet, one could expect something to happen.
The queues began at 2 am and by 4 am had snaked half a kilometre across the Monlam field. Those who arrived at 5 am thought they would not get into the Pavilion which seats 10,000, but no one was turned away.
The stage was set with a 30-foot high thangka of Guru Rinpoche, surrounded by his eight manifestations and two consorts, on loan from the 12th Tai Situ Rinpoche whose image was portrayed under that of Guru Rinpoche. On the two sides of the aisles leading to the stage, 12 -foot high thangkas of the Karmapa lineage were hanging like sentinels guarding the mandala.
“Just by seeing the Karmapa perform the Lama dance, one can attain the vajra body.“ — Gyaltsap Rinpoche
Before the performance begins, the dancers line up to receive the Karmapa’s blessing, a reminder of the sacredness of this live re-enactment of the vision from the Copper Coloured Mountain. He wears the gold encrusted brocade kept for special occasions under his maroon robe and puts on the black Activity Crown. The monks prostrate to the shrine and the giant thangka of Guru Rinpoche as they leave.
In the grand opening dance, called Serkhyem, or golden offering, twenty- one monks from Rumtek accompany the Karmapa, all wearing conical black hats adorned with the Kalachakra seed syllable. They move slowly, deliberately in the perfectly synchronized rhythm that accompanies a royal procession. Karmapa dances the lead role wearing an enormous melong or mirror, an accoutrement of the fully realized mahasiddha. First he holds a kapala in one hand and a phurba in the other; then he holds a serkhyem aloft, and tosses the blessed nectar upwards into the air, offering it to the lamas and yidams, protectors and local deities as the dancers circle in magnificent black brocades each holding serkhyem. The deep slow drumbeat is punctuated with cymbals and a guttural sound from the chant master like a hiccup pulses through the pavilion. A gold parasol is held aloft at centre stage while the black hat dancers step solemnly in glistening brocades that derive from centuries old Tibetan designs, creating a visual masterpiece.
This sacred lama dance with such a long history and profound meaning is totally unlike any kind of ordinary or mundane dance. The essence of the vajra dance is the recognition of the nature of all phenomena as the union of appearance and emptiness. The practitioners of the vajra dance use their own body, speech and mind not as ordinary body, speech and mind but those of the deity, and the dance becomes a way to express this. Therefore when a realised practitioner performs the lama dance they can cause the blessings of the body, speech and mind of the deities to actually enter the body, speech and mind of the viewers.
Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche and Gyaltsap Rinpoche both lead the third dance, an invocation to bless the phenomenal world and transform it into the Copper Coloured Mountain. They appear in resplendent gold and blue costumes respectively, playing the bell and damaru while they dance. From the back of the stage the Karmapa stands like a theatre director, intensely focused, as if guiding every move that the young Jamgon Kongtrul makes.
When they stand facing the shrine and the thangka, while chanting prayers to invoke the deities, a palpable feeling of blessing arises as in a sadhana when the wisdom deities merge with the imagined deities. Then the dancers circulate around the stage playing damarus and bells; the clack of drum and and tinkle of bell resonate in the Pavilion temple. Their costumes are like a sumptuous feast prepared in gold, red, blue, green, and white. Lacey nets cover the brocade like a frontispiece. Monks with the fringed yellow hats known as tsesha come onstage and play horns.
The moment the troupe of dancers and monks exit, there is an explosion on the roof of the Pavilion like horses’ hooves clattering on metal. Not an ordinary rainstorm with a drop by drop preparation, but a deluge pouring from the sky. Ten thousand faces look upward in awe and wonder at the rain of blessings from the Copper Coloured Mountain. Some are joyful and radiant, others weep with devotion. Many are inspired to prostrate to the shrine. It is certain that Guru Rinpoche has replied with the thunderous applause of celestial gods and goddesses. It leaves an indelible impression beyond words.
About a half an hour later during an aptly named dance called Wrathful Splendour, while 21 dancers hold swords, Guru Rinpoche gathers the forms of the five poisons into his heart and transforms their remains into wisdom nectar. The sun appears lighting up the gold dragons emblazoned on black brocade, bedazzling the eye. The play of phenomena merges with the dance of appearance and emptiness.
The Golden Procession of Guru Rinpoche, with his eight emanations, two consorts, ministers and warriors and the rest of his entourage is always the piece de resistance of this grand Vajra Lama Dance. But on this occasion it was not only an elaborate spectacle but an historic precedent. It was the first time that women have been allowed to perform in a Cham dance, or even allowed to be onstage with the monks.
The sound of their voices, clear and lucid like water drops, was a sound never heard before in any monastic Cham. Dancing with bell and damaru in front of the gigantic golden masked figure of Guru Rinpoche, their steps placed delicately like footprints on water, we were suddenly at the Copper Coloured Mountain with the celestial dakinis.
It must have delighted the great Guru. The massive golden mask of the Guru crowned with a parasol and supported by several attendants because of its great weight, was not a hollow crown. Inside the golden mask of the Precious Guru is the human form of the Precious Guru, Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the Gyalwang Karmapa. His eyes appear at the level of the Guru’s skull-cup as he supports the weight of the hollowed image on his shoulders while seated on the throne. No one can see this, but in his hands he is holding a precious antique statue of Guru Rinpoche.
— N. Levine, © Kagyu Monlam
N. Levine’s recent book about the 16th Karmapa is now available at Namse Bangzo Bookstore: Miraculous 16th Karmapa: Incredible Encounters with the Black Crown Buddha
Click on the thumbnails below to see each photo properly. They are wonderful!