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Swimming in a Sea of Ancient Symbols
The Sacred Music and Dance of Tibet

by Karen Anne Webb 

“The Mystical Arts of Tibet” programs presented by the lamas of the Drepung Loseling Monastery are not easy programs to review in the conventional sense. What they present are authentic ritual songs and dances. Reviewing them would be a little like attending a Mass or a Sacrament Meeting or a 19-Day Feast and discussing whether a homily or a testimony or a reading of Scripture was delivered with enough dramatic conviction.

So let me describe rather than critique this wonderful glimpse into the world of Tibetan Buddhism and the arts of the monastery that is the residence-in-exile of the Dalai Lama. The monks who leave their cloistered life to present these programs are permitted to leave the monastery for this specific purpose for one year. They are chosen based on a number of elements including spiritual maturity. And part of their mission is to raise awareness about the plight of the Tibetan people residing both in Tibet and in exile in India: they face cultural genocide because of the incursion of the People’s Republic of China, which invaded Tibet in 1959.

The Drepung Loseling monks visited the Eccles Center in Park City in early October for a week-long residency that allowed them to turn the theater into an immersive environment: they were less performing than consecrating sacred space.

Their activities during the week leading up to the performance on Oct. 8 included the creation of a sand mandala, one the staff of the Eccles Center asked them to dedicate to world healing (this was also the theme of the performance). Although, for obvious reasons, the mandala area was roped off the night of the performance, the monks provided an interactive exhibit in which one could try one’s hand at sandpainting using the materials the monks themselves used: sand in a variety of symbolic colors and ridged metal cones through which the sand is poured (the rate of flow is determined by a stylus run up and down the ridges).

The cones allow for the creation of impossibly intricate designs. Although it is essentially the same art form as that used by the Navajo sandpainters for their rituals, the result is a more contiguous picture. Flowers, images of the Buddha, motifs honoring the four cardinal directions (there are ten directions in this tradition), and other more general motifs blended together to form a striking tableau. (Although information on the symbolism of the colors and the motifs is available on the web and in books on Tibetan Buddhism, some on-site information on these subjects would have made a nice addition to the program.)

The program itself consisted of a melange of ritual dance, sacred instrumental music, the multiphonic chanting for which the monastery is known and even a look at the special sort of debate the monks practice for five to six hours a day. Anyone who paid close attention learned not only a little about healing rituals but quite a bit about basic Buddhist philosophy in general (and Tibetan Buddhist philosophy in particular).

Although an element of movement accompanied each section of the program, the actual dances were those of the Black Hat Masters, the Snow Lion, the Skeleton Lords and the Celestial Travelers/Angels. Like the mandala, the costumes for each dance were drenched in symbolic elements. The Black Hat Masters dance, portraying the elimination of ego and negative energy, included a symbolic dagger and a drape with an “angry” face to symbolize the intense concentration it takes to overcome these hindrances.

The Celestial Travelers (minus one) were attired in the colors of the rainbow, a powerful symbol of the divine. The Skeletal Masters, whose dance symbolized the transient nature of the material world, were garbed in the red that symbolizes life and the white that symbolizes truth.

The dances themselves (except for the Snow Lion dance, which involves two of the monks wearing a lovable pantomime snow lion costume) have technically similar footwork. That footwork, in turn, is similar to that used in many Native American rituals. Again, it is the consecration of sacred space and the symbolic intent that are important.

A comment on the multiphonic chanting: When I first read about each individual lama being able to create three notes simultaneously, I was looking for a melodic triad of some sort (and wondering if they somehow made each vocal cord and maybe the uvula vibrate at a different frequency). The effect is actually produced by training the throat muscles to change the shape of the voice box so it amplifies the natural overtones of the note the monk is singing. It is a very interesting effect. Like the sounds of the instruments used—a drum, assorted cymbals, small brass and two huge instruments like brass Alpen Horns—it may not always sound melodically beautiful to Western ears. But there’s something hypnotic about it that produces a sense of peace and well-being. When the music is cacophonous, it is a joyous and exuberant cacophony.

On a final note, early in the program, the narrator commented on symbols on the altar array that sits centerstage for the entire performance and mentioned the commonality between some of the Tibetan symbols and those of the Navajo.

That, though, is not the only thing the costuming and symbols and so on had in common with another culture. The headdresses worn by the lamas look very much like those used by ancient (and not-so-ancient) Pacific Islanders as war helmets or ceremonial headgear. The images and cymbal accompaniment to the Black Hat Masters dance suggest a relationship with pre-Communist China; the images themselves might also be found in ancient Meso-American sites like Chichen Itza. The rainbow as a powerful symbol of the divine occurs in many legends, including the Judaeo-Christian, and the idea of Celestial Messengers or angels is practically universal.

In this sense, the “roof of the world” (or “roof of the world”-in-exile) might also be seen as a crossroads of the world—or perhaps a cradle of culture for the world. Participating in the evening made for a wonderful journey into edification and spiritual fulfillment.

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