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Fifteen Good Years

I first traveled to Ladakh in the western Himalaya 15 years ago, after being invited by a lama I met on the beach in front of my apartment in Chicago, Sonam Kunga Rinpoche, the previous autumn. He was concerned about the future of Buddhist monastic dance and thought it fortuitous karma to encounter both a dancer and scholar in me, someone with long experience in Asia and longing for more.

When he told me his nephew, Bakula Rangdol Nyima Rinpoche, 23, was a reincarnated master and also the best dancer of his generation, my attention piqued. I did not know until several years later that Sonam Kunga was both a dance master and a meditation master in the Drikung Kagyu lineage, and that he had trained Rangdol Nyima from the age of three in a hermitage cave. He was clear enough with me as he pointed to my forehead, saying “You come to Ladakh.” I had never even heard of Ladakh!

In the year 2000, then, in Ladakh, I saw Cham for the first time—the yogic dance of the tantric Buddhist monks indigenous to the Trans-Himalaya. The synthesis of movement and meditation was like nothing I’d seen before. It was wild. It was cosmic. 

Sonam Kunga Rinpoche in a rolling backbend, 1972. Photo courtesy of 
New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. From Core of Culture

There I met Sonam Kunga’s nephew, Rangdol Nyima Rinpoche, an exceptionally knowledgeable dancer who embodied his old master’s teaching. With much innocence and unity of purpose, the first thing we did was to make a lexicon of the vocabulary of the movement of Cham, step by step. Each step had a name, and each name was followed by a description. Approximately 80 steps were recorded in this way. This was made into a DVD, which also included a recording of an inner teaching on Cham by H. E. Togden Rinpoche of Phyang Monastery. The DVD was later taken secretly into Tibet, where 11 of 14 Drikung Kagyu monasteries are located and so had variously compromised Cham traditions. 

“Lamayuru, Sanctuary of Dance” DVD. From Core of Culture

What distinguished Sonam Kunga’s teachings on Cham was the fact that he had taught Rangdol Nyima the dance steps by using their names, and so a lexicon of step names was in fact possible. What we have learned in the 15 years since is that nearly all Cham is taught using imitation and counting and not by using names, as these are becoming forgotten through disuse and through not keeping dance treatises current among educated monks.

From left: Rangdol Nyima Rinpoche, Sonam Kunga Rinpoche, Joseph Houseal, 2007. From Core of Culture

In Bhutan, the Drukpa Kagyu and Nyingma orders use names, but more regularly learn dances by sequences in the dance, and they number the sequences where they don’t name them. So for example, a dance might have 19 sections rather than so many specific steps. In Bhutan, dance is taught by immersive osmosis, sometimes entire monastery populations dancing Cham in the dark of night again and again until the young ones learn it.

In certain Ladakhi monasteries the boy monks are “forbidden” to do Cham, so of course that is the only thing they want to do. They learn by spying and not getting caught. Other orders do not know Cham step names, and others still believe there are people alive who know the names although they are not used. Besides the lexicon we created of Sonam Kunga’s Drikung Kagyu Cham teachings, we know of no other dance lexicon in tantric Buddhism. The Drikung lexicon has initiated other text researches among monastic orders, such as the Sakya and Drukpa Kagyu.

To consider the implications of not using names to transmit and teach dance, one can imagine classical ballet being taught without step names. It is hard to imagine. Cham is like ballet in that it is a complex, interrelated system of steps that build upon one another. It is abstract in that the steps can combine differently. There are both mechanical and metaphoric instructions in dance terms that enrich performance.

The importance of Cham to the practice of Tibetan Buddhism lies in its being a transmitted form of meditation practice and a didactic as well as a religious experience for observers. Being an ancient movement tradition designed to cultivate higher consciousness such as Western culture no longer has, Cham offers us insight into the nature of dance itself and challenges our notions of what dance can do.

A living culture today with strong connections to its ancient dance traditions adds value to world culture and its diverse potential and excellences. Cultural diversity, like bio-diversity, is healthy. Ancient dances that continue become part of the change in society. In the case of Cham, dance becomes a barometer for the health of the society where Cham is found. Cham exists as a kind of élan vital of Tibetan Buddhist civilization, a living, animated, mystical history. As intangible heritage, dance possesses a highly symbolic nature, being a distillation of animating beliefs and cultural design.

It was because I followed Sonam Kunga’s instructions to go to Ladakh, thereby enjoying a substantial encounter with Cham, that Core of Culture was invited to survey and document the dances of the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan during the final five years of the absolute monarchy, from 2003–8. Nowhere today is Cham as robust as in Bhutan.

Several years into our work in Bhutan, a philosophy teacher named Khenpo Passang of Karchu Monastery made the observation that our project’s art historians were working throughout the kingdom as was our own dance research team, and yet, according to Buddhist tradition, the core meaning of the art and dance was accessible only through initiation by a recognized master, and none of us working on either team had that. 

Drubchen rehearsal, Tashichho Dzong, Thimphu, Bhutan, 2006. From Core of Culture

So I reached out again to Sonam Kunga Rinpoche, the dance master whose teachings had reinvigorated Cham in his own order and beyond. He was living adjacent to a nunnery in Dehra Dun, India, in the Himalayan foothills. It was there I learned he went by the title Drupon La, designating his role as meditation master to yogis in long secluded retreats, and others dedicated to a life of meditation. I received initiation and my Buddhist name from him there.

Shortly afterward, I was asked by Robert Y. C. Ho of The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation to produce “A Day of Rare Buddhist Dances” at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. I again asked Sonam Kunga’s help. He personally trained ten nuns to do a seated meditation with fluid hand gestures, or mudra, done while chanting, and also to do the Buffalo and Stag Cham dances. Their dancing and chanting excellence in London corresponds entirely to their meditation skill and practice.

Dance and mysticism united in Sonam Kunga Rinpoche. He understood and embodied the yogic techniques of Cham; he was a master of many yogic techniques. This is the rare ancient art that thrills me—a life of mysticism and danced gnosis; the mental beauty of a good monk coupled with the brilliance of a great dancer, in the body of a hardy mountain-dweller. That the nuns he trained to dance in London were already his meditation students speaks to the essential unity of dance and meditation in Cham.

Sonam Kunga Rinpoche and a nun from Samtenling Nunnery playing music for Cham in London, 2009. Sonam Kunga leads the dances with the cymbals. From Core of Culture
Drikung Kagyu nuns from Samtenling Nunnery dancing the Buffalo Cham in London, 2009. Photo by Jonathan Greet. From Core of Culture

Shortly after returning from a summer traveling in Ladakh and Zanskar with Sonam Kunga Rinpoche and two nuns in 2014, I received word that Rinpoche had died. He died in a mystical state called thugdam, in which the body stays warm and limber and does not decay, remaining erect in meditation posture for a period of time. It is a sign of spiritual attainment, rare and meaningful to the devout and the adept. Some would say a living Buddha; in any case, a dancing Buddha. Even in death, his body and mind were one.

Thank you Sonam Kunga, “My Perfect Teacher” as they say, for 15 good years.

Sonam Kunga Rinpoche at Sharchukul Monastery, Ladakh, 2008. 
From Core of Culture
Lexicon of steps demonstrated by H. E. Bakula Rangdol Nyima
Rinpoche, 2001. From Core of Culture 

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