Tibetan Book of the Dead, Part Three: One Last Dance
Sometimes, dance is what philosophy looks like. Only rarely in my long years of dance research has a painted image been so arresting with its mysterious presence that I would spend years unraveling both a choreography and an underpinning cultural, religious, or philosophical system. The dancers in the murals of the Etruscan Tomb of the Triclinium were the first; then the Daoyin Tu gymnastics of the Chinese Han dynasty Mawangdui scroll. Later, after I first saw one of the many extraordinary painted dancers from the Dunhuang Caves in far western China, the encounter opened an area virtually unexplored by Western dance and movement researchers.
One day in 2000, my close colleague Gerard Houghton and I were allowed into the Avalokiteshvara Temple at Lamayuru Monastery in Ladakh. The sculpture of Avalokiteshvara (Tib. Chenrezig), Bodhisattva of Compassion, is the magnificent centerpiece. The compassion continues in a mural covering the entire length of the left wall. I was new to Tantric Buddhism and the exalted complex role of dance within it. All of the iconography was wild and dizzying; flying, floating, deities burst through dimensions of time and space, enhaloed with fire, ferocious and benevolent. I wanted them for my friends right away. I felt a kinship. Within the novel frenzy of the explosive imagery of Tibetan Buddhism, something in this mural burned into my consciousness and has never left.
It was a large field of dancing wrathful dakinis, (Tib. khandum), some animal-headed, some brandishing weapons, all female. In a way, the dancing creatures were central, in another, they were the very border separating enlightenment from rebirth into lower existence; dances on the edge of liminal consciousness—one last dance, one last chance to avoid rebirth. This is a dance of ultimate consequence: in fact this, to our knowledge, is the only known mural depicting the Bardo Thodol, better known in the West as the Tibetan Book of the Dead. From the moment of death until the final opportunity to avoid rebirth, the mural can be read left to right, oscillating up and down. It begins with the image of Samantabhadra in ecstatic embrace upper left and concludes with scenes depicting types of rebirth in the lower right. The mural is about 12 meters long and some 1.5 meters high. Wild dancers inhabit two thirds of the mural.
The dancers’ movement shapes erupt, each unique. In defiance of gravity, their inherent fearsomeness and colored bodies appear in flames, dancing anywhere in the air or ground they want to appear, like a rainbow layer of their own reality. It depicts a multi-dimensional forcefield of danced energy, something ascribed to the very origins and intentions of Cham dance. I had never seen anything like these dancers. I know now, nearly 20 years later, that I will never see anything else like this because it doesn’t exist anywhere else.
One reason the artistic style of the dancers struck me is, I have learned, because they are painted in a particular Drigung style of Tibetan Buddhist painting—one attributed to the Drikung Kagyu school of Vajrayana Buddhism. Distinguished art historian David Jackson has defined this style only in recent years. While the mural was painted in the mid-19th century, elements of the style here trace back to at least the 17th century. The Drigung style is not delicate, it has a vitality and stylization suitable to artistic engagement, yogic development, and psychic imprint. I have since seen wrathful dakinis at the bottom of 17th century thangka paintings nearly identical in physical shape to these in the bardo mural at Lamayuru. But such a vast field of dancers I have never seen anywhere else.
There is much to recommend this mural art historically, from the Drigung style to the rare content instructing the Bardo Thodol by means of a small figure who experiences each phase. Connections between the homunculus-like white figure to each symbolic opportunity are literally represented as painted lines. It is at once yogic and charming, outrageous like a Bosch painting, and a concise presentation of the symbolic representation of the fundamental philosophical tenets of Buddhism. It is within this framework that the meaning of the dance performed by these wrathful female deities becomes clear; their urgency and significance brilliantly real.
To summarize: unless the dead person attains enlightenment immediately upon the moment of death, he will then encounter experience after experience with Dhyani (meditation) Buddhas, arrays of karmically evoked virtues, peaceful deities and finally, six dancing wrathful herukas accompanied by 52 dancing wrathful dakinis. Each dancing wrathful deity has a name, color, characteristic dance shape, specific hand gesture (mudra), and implement.
They represent three orders of spiritual beings: Kerima, dakinis of the eight kinds of awareness, also representing the eight directions of space and thereby making them coexistent with the vastness of the universe; Htamenma, dakinis of the eight regions of the mind, are animal-headed. Eight gatekeeper dakinis appear. Finally come the 28 Wang-chugma, animal-headed deities that mock the illusion of form, and transform subjective passion into objective virtue. Each of these dancers offers another opportunity for liberation. These opportunities are seized when the dead person makes a connection to them and uses the expedient means of that particular element to attain enlightenment. The bardo state lasts 49 days. The dancing wrathful dakinis appear on days 13 and 14 of the bardo state.
The last chance—the final possible connection—is the dancing wrathful dakinis. By merely recognizing them, the dead person can attain enlightenment and avoid rebirth. And so, my study of Buddhist Cham dance has come full circle, for the first thing I learned about Buddhist Cham was that the characters in the Cham would appear in the after-death state, and by merely recognizing them, one could avoid rebirth. It was these very painted dancers, these wrathful dakinis, ferocious in their protection, that are the substance of Tantric Buddhist Cham dance, and one reason why the village faithful see the dances year after year. These dakinis in the Lamayuru bardo mural are the monstrous deities, dimensionally expanded into physical reality and embodied in Cham dance by monks trained in meditation and movement.
Back in 2000, when I first saw Cham, I had no idea what these dancing figures were. No one could tell me. The large field of dancers didn’t match anything I’d ever seen. The reincarnate head of Lamayuru Monastery in the mid-19th century was Bakula Rangdol Nyima. He built the Avolokiteshvara Temple as part of a monastery reconstruction after a period of war and destruction. He personally commissioned the bardo mural for the benefit of common believers, who could learn the Bardo Thodol teachings from the mural, and thereby be prepared for death and the intermediate state before liberation or rebirth. Rangdol Nyima loved the people.
I was not the only one captivated by this mural. Italian scholar-practitioner Kristin Blancke not only noticed the mural, but recognized what it was: a depiction of the Bardo Thodol. I am indebted to her for solving my riddle in the most sublime fashion. She has popularized interest in the mural, raised concerns over its conservation, given a lecture about its history and content at a conference in Leh, and has done something also very much of the common people: she started a crowdsourcing webpage for anyone with images of this mural, and the results span decades. All of the Lamayuru bardo mural images in this three-part essay on the Tibetan Book of the Dead come from that collection. Some have been digitally enhanced here to assist clarity and readability.
Images from her collection were used in the sole public exhibition of the bardo mural, in Tenerife, Spain, in 2011, curated by Alexander Siedlecki for the Museo de Historia y Antropología de Tenerife, as part of a Dzogchen presentation of the bardo mural at Lamayuru together with images from the Lhukhang mural in Lhasa, which shows visual depictions of tantric meditation techniques. The brilliance of the exhibition included an audioscape composed by Renaud Schweitzer that intoned the text of the Bardo Thodol, as intended by its yogic author, the terton Karma Lingpa.
Blancke has also produced a presentation explaining the mural, step-by-step, according the Bardo Thodol text. It can be found at this website, and I cannot recommend it more strongly. There you will find two links beneath the page heading—these are the links to use. I look forward to the day when all of this material is compiled into a lasting book, as it deserves to be.
In addition to pages on her research, there is a Flickr stream of mural images—the finest collection of such images in the world. They are beautiful, shocking, orderly, and reveal marvelous details. They also reveal the increasing degradation of the paintings, the emergency stabilization provided by the Leh-based mini-group of the Archeological Survey of India earlier this century, and their current condition. Since its inception, the bardo mural was for the common people. Even now, the Internet generations are uniting in awareness, study, and appreciation for this amazing work of art.
The head of the Drikung Kagyu order was recently informed about Kristin Blancke’s work, the Tenerife exhibition, and this column’s renewed interest in the dancing wrathful dakinis depicted in the bardo mural, and sent this message:
His Holiness Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang Rinpoche has expressed his happiness in seeing renewed interest in the Bardo Thodol because of attention on the bardo mural in the Chenrezig Lhakhang at Lamayuru Monastery. He sends many greetings and tashi delek to all the people.
With thanks to Kristin Blancke, Sonam Angmo, Alexander Siedlecki, Lama Kinley Gyaltsen, and also Mr. S. B. Ota and Dr. V. K. Saxena of the Archeological Survey of India, for their kind help in completing this column.
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