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Dancing to Enlightenment: Drukpa Nuns Bring New Energy to the Songs of Realization

Drukpa nuns perform gurma for Losar. Image courtesy of Druk Amitabha Mountain Nunnery

On a crisp November morning in 2019, I visited Druk Amitabha Mountain Nunnery on the hilly outskirts of Kathmandu. The Drukpa nuns (sometimes called the Kung Fu Nuns) who reside there perform an extensive repertoire of sacred dances, and I was there to learn about them. As I walked through the landscaped grounds with a small cohort of nuns, they suddenly stopped along the walkway and demonstrated a delightful dance. They sang a sweet, clear tune and moved liltingly with descriptive hand gestures─a sharp contrast to the popular kung fu practice that I had just witnessed in the open-sided kung fu pavilion. The dance was entirely different from the sacred Vajrayana cham dances often performed during prayer rituals in elaborate silk costumes, sometimes with wrathful masks and to the accompaniment of sacred instruments (horns, cymbals, and drums). The nuns referred to it as a “Dharma dance” or chödro in Tibetan. I began to probe a little deeper, and I learned that the song (and therefore the dance) belonged to a genre of poetic expression called gurma

Vajrayana Buddhism has a rich tradition of employing sensory experience to provoke and promote spiritual growth─hence the array of liberation practices through seeing, hearing, tasting, touch, and so on. The Songs of Realization, called gur or gurma in Tibetan, are an expression considered capable of liberating through hearing. These spontaneous compositions of realized masters voicing their profound spiritual experiences are modeled after the earlier dohas (a genre of pithy, rhyming poetry) of the Indian tantric practitioners known as mahasiddhas (great adepts) from the 8th–11th centuries. Tantric teachings and the practice of extemporizing the songs celebrating them were eventually brought to Tibet in the 11th century by the translator and yogi Marpa Lotsāwa (1012–1097) and his renowned disciple, the poet-saint Milarepa (1052–1135), both of whom had traveled to India and mastered them there. The Tibetans readily merged the doha tradition with their native folk melodies to form the genre of Tibetan song called gur. The spontaneous verses were originally sung and passed on orally, and only written down sometimes many years later.

These songs─either intoned (chanted without melody) or performed with associated folk melodies and rhythms are said to form an expression of sudden realization through hearing. There is even a story of how the mahasiddha Maitrīpa (c. 1007–85) received a complete empowerment by merely hearing a doha sung by his guru Shavaripa. 

The practices of composing and chanting Songs of Spiritual Realization are embraced by all four schools of Himalayan Buddhism. However, the oral nature of the gur tradition was tailor-made for the Kagyu school, which is often referred to as “the whispered lineage” because the highest teachings were whispered directly from teacher into the ear of the student in an unbroken line of transmission. The teachings, thus learned, were committed to memory, and then recited or sung. One can see from the use of repetition at the end or beginning of successive verses, and other mnemonic devices, how gurma were easy to memorize. Consequently, the songs were an appealing and effective way to convey teachings and even sacred biographies, philosophy, and social critiques. In Tibet, song and dance were typically used as methods to communicate Buddhist teachings to the largely unlettered general population. 

These joyful and spontaneous songs are known to have been danced as well as sung. One can see in this folio illustration, the Three Men of Kham dancing to a gurma they composed in supplication to their esteemed teacher Gampopa Sönam Rinchen (1079–1159). The story goes that the Three Men of Kham (disciples of the great master Gampopa) were expelled from Daklha Gampo Monastery by the discipline master for too much singing and dancing at the ganacakra feast. The three outcast students were already down the mountain by the time Gampopa learned of what had transpired during his absence, so he sang a gur to call them back. They, in turn, sang a gur and danced with joy at hearing their teacher’s call to return.

The Three Men of Kham dancing gurma (folios from a manuscript edition of An Ocean of Kagyu Songs, or Kagyu Gurtso). Image courtesy of Dr. Karma Phuntsho and the Loden Cultural Programme 

The Kagyu school of Himalayan Buddhism traces its roots back to Gampopa, and his teacher Milarepa, and his teacher Marpa—and before him Naropa and his teacher Tilopa. The extemporaneous expressions, or outbursts, of inner experience were a defining feature and practice of the early founders of the Kagyu school and endured as it branched out into many traditions. The song form continues to be used as a mode for inspired teaching and expression among some contemporary lamas and scholars today−most notably by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, a prolific composer of gurma who has encouraged his students to set these and the traditional vajra songs to music with choreography.*

For centuries, Kagyu monasteries have dedicated an entire day annually to reciting the gurma of their lineage masters, particularly on the anniversary of Milarepa’s parinirvana. This collection of Kagyu gurma, called the Kagyu Gurtso, was first compiled by the Eighth Karmapa Mikyo Dorje (1507–54). Later translated into English under the supervision of Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche (1939–87), the Kagyu Gurtso was compiled into a book titled The Rain of Wisdom. In the book’s foreword, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche wrote of the expression’s transformative properties saying: “. . . from my personal experience, these songs do provide a kind of staircase of liberation. They actually enable us to interrupt our perpetual subconscious gossip, awaken ourselves on the path, and energize ourselves so that we can help others.”

The masters of the Drukpa Kagyu (Dragon lineage) so excelled at the form that the lineage emerged as a key steward of the tradition. In the northern Drukpa Kagyu monasteries (in Kathmandu, Ladakh, and northern India), under the leadership of His Holiness the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa, the monks and nuns not only sing, but also dance gurma. These dances are performed for special occasions such, as grand pujas, formal teachings, the completion of long-term retreats, the consecration of temples and stupas, and birth and death anniversaries of lineage masters. It is the Drukpa nuns, however, who energetically integrate the dances as a ritualized offering during their pujas twice each month on feast days (Dakini Day and Guru Rinpoche Day). 

Drukpa nuns demonstrate Mi De Zhen La. Video courtesy of Druk Amitabha Mountain Nunnery

Although singing gurma is a cherished tradition in the predominantly Drukpa Kagyu nation of Bhutan, there seems to be no practice of dancing gurma in the Drukpa Kagyu monasteries there. The Drukpa Kagyu of Bhutan mostly belong to the southern Drukpa division under the leadership of the Je Khenpo. There is, however, a recent development of dancing gurma at Karma Drubdey Nunnery (Karma Kagyu lineage) inspired by their founding lama  Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche.

Back at Druk Amitabha, the dance master, Lopon Jigme Tingdzin, explained the concept and motivation for performing the dances: 

Gurma is a Vajrayana dance─a tantric dance. In Vajrayana, we have many different practices to train us to minimize our ordinary dualistic perception of I, me, mine; good bad; clean, dirty. When you do advanced practices and finally realize the ultimate non-dual nature of all things, your heart is so full and happy that you sing and dance to celebrate the spiritual accomplishment. The Drukpa lineage masters are realized beings, so when they attained realization, the gurma songs naturally flowed out of their mouths. Of course, we are not realized, but we perform them in the tradition of our great masters hoping that through their words, we too will realize the ultimate nature soon and swiftly.

Drukpa nuns performing gurma. Image courtesy of Druk Amitabha Mountain Nunnery

Gurma were often conceived after long sessions of tantric visualization and therefore express transformed states of consciousness. This idea that the gurma naturally flowed from the realized masters’ mouths has been explained as the result of advanced tantric yogas, in which one gains control over the subtle physiology of channels, chakras, and the winds and essences that move along this subtle system. Through meditative visualization, the realized practitioner moves the essence drops up the central channel reaching the throat chakra. Then, according to Tsangnyön Heruka, in his renowned biography and collected songs of Milarepa titled The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, when they reach the throat-center, “a treasury of vajra songs burst forth by their own power.”

As I questioned Lopen Jigme Tingdzin about the Drukpa Kagyu gurma, I learned that the songs are quite old, originating from the early Drukpa masters (12th–16th centuries). The dances are mostly old lineage traditions, although some are new and considered to be gongter or “mind treasures” of His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa. In fact, she recollected how they had been performing the dances for a long period when, in 2015, His Holiness convened the nuns to teach them a new edition of mudras (gestures). So this is a living, dynamic tradition. 

Drukpa nuns dancing gurma at Druk Amitabha Mountain Nunnery. Image courtesy of the author

The lyrics speak to key themes of the spiritual path through a lens of pure joy─for one’s guru, for the teachings/practices, and for all sources of spiritual support and refuge. The dances are performed in monastic robes to melodious songs, which the nuns sing while they dance without any instrumental accompaniment. Conveying a range of moods, the melodies evoke energetic joy, benevolence, meditative veneration, and more. 

The dances employ a variety of choreographic devices. A frequently performed gurma, which they call Tsenden Lama** composed by the Second Gyalwang Drukpa, Drukchen Kunga Peljor (1428–76), expresses the joy and happiness of having an authentic guru. After a preamble, in which the lyrics proclaim, “I will sing a happy song; I will perform a joyful dance,” the dance does just that, with simple turns, graceful hops, carefree kicks, and descriptive gestures. In a folksy refrain of “E Ma Ho” (How wonderful!) between each verse, the dancers join pinky fingers and gently swing their arms as they move toward the center of their circle and then retreat in communal celebration.

Tsenden Lama. Image courtesy of Druk Amitabha Mountain Nunnery

In the gurma Mi de Zhen La by Kunkhyen Pema Karpo, the Fourth Gyalwang Drukpa (1527–92), the dance and song are themselves a meditation. The dancers move in a circular formation to the soothing, contemplative tune, performing a short, flowing movement phrase with hand gestures indicating praise and homage. The movement phrase repeats as each verse extols a different source of spiritual support─the guru, the yidam (meditational deity), the dakinis, the Dharma protectors, one’s Dharma friends, the Dharma, and good fortune. 

Video courtesy of Druk Amitabha Mountain Nunnery

In a striking departure from the other gurma dances, Sha Mo Ta Lai Mo offers a unique choreographic experience. The first part of the song takes the form of question and response describing the buddhas of the four directions—Vajrasattva (east); Ratnasambhava (south); Amitabha (west); and Amoghasiddhi (north)—and is performed standing in place while motioning a prayer-like mudra dance. During the second part, half of the group grasps hands, holding them high, to create archways for the remaining dancers to skip through in joyous song as they enact entering the gateway to each of the four buddha-realms.

Drukpa nuns dance Tashi Cham for the birthday of His Holiness the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa. Video courtesy of Druk Amitabha Mountain Nunnery

The nuns frequently conclude their offering of gurma dances with Tashi Cham, a dance that dispenses auspicious wishes. Holding in each hand a set of streamers in five colors representing the five natural elements and five wisdoms,*** they move in a circle, tossing their arms and streamers up and around in spirals, like giant paint brushes. With their stomping feet they crush negativity, and with their arms they stir up joy, reflecting the song’s lyrics of good fortune coming from all directions.

“We dance gurma,” Lopon Jigme Tingdzin concluded unequivocally, “because when you finally realize the ultimate non-dual nature of all things, what can be happier than that?”

Tashi Cham. Image courtesy of Druk Amitabha Mountain Nunnery

With thanks to Lopon Jigme Tingdzin of Druk Amitabha Mountain for generously sharing her vast knowledge and resources.

* Teachings (Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche)

** The compositions were not necessarily titled. As is common in many song traditions, they are simply referred to by an opening phrase or a repeated phrase in the refrain.

*** Five Colors/Elements/Wisdoms: blue – water/mirror-like wisdom; yellow – earth/wisdom of equanimity; red – fire/wisdom of discernment; green – air/all-accomplishing wisdom; white – space/all-encompassing wisdom.

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