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Nuns in Nepal Dance to a Milarepa Song of Interconnection

Radiating outward from the Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal, is a net of streets and alleys buzzing with exercise─dharma exercise─of a giant Tibetan neighborhood. On a quiet, hidden nook, sits Tek Chok Ling Nunnery─residence to some seventy nuns ranging in age from 5 to 85 years previous. Completed in 2006, the abbey, one of a number of began by the beloved scholar, trainer, and yogi Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, is devoted to the life and apply of feminine monastics.

The nuns at Tek Chok Ling keep it up a common, weekly sacred dance apply from two disparate traditions, the Tibetan custom and the Newar Vajrayana custom. Given that till not too long ago, the apply of sacred dance was closed to feminine practitioners, this appeared to me a distinctive growth. Indeed, that is all due to Khenpo Rinpoche’s deep enthusiasm and devotion to singing and dancing as a path to ignite religious understanding. Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche highlights this in his Dance of Great Bliss: A Biography of Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso Rinpoche:

Rinpoche has all the time positioned nice worth on the songs of realization of Milarepa, comparable to these discovered in The Hundred Thousand Songs, in addition to these of all of the siddha forebears of the sooner and later colleges. …

He made it attainable for his college students the world over to sing the above-mentioned songs of realization with newly tailored melodies in a wide selection of his college students’ personal languages: Tibetan, English, Chinese, and different tongues. He furthered their expertise of listening to, considering, and meditating by encouraging them to accompany these songs with vajra dances. 

A number of years in the past, I got here throughout a number of on-line movies of some of the dances carried out at Tek Chok Ling. Curiously, the nuns carry out a choice of charya nritya dances of the Newar Vajrayana custom. I have to admit to experiencing a bit of shock after I first noticed these dances. The Newar (indigenous individuals and tradition of Nepal) traditions, with their sensuous tribhanga (triple bent) postures, exude fairly a totally different taste from the Tibetan sacred dance traditions, regardless that they convey the identical dharma content material. Eager to know extra, I ended by the nunnery on a current go to to Kathmandu to be taught in regards to the origins of this apply and the background story of their different dances.

Photo courtesy Tek Chok Ling Nunnery

I used to be launched to Tsering Youden, a 23-year-old nun who got here to the nunnery at age 8 from the excessive Himalayan district of Manang, who defined how greater than ten of the youthful nuns realized and now usually apply the charya dances. Almost a decade in the past, in preparation for Khenpo Rinpoche’s eightieth birthday celebration (he simply celebrated his 89th), one of his international college students, LiAnne Hunt, an completed charya nritya performer and trainer, supplied to educate the nuns a number of of the dances to carry out for the occasion. Hunt can also be a scholar of my trainer, Prajwal Ratna Vajracharya, a thirty-fifth-generation Vajrayana priest and foremost lineage holder of this thousand-year-old custom. It so occurs that I’m fairly aware of this dance custom, as I apply it as nicely.

As you possibly can see from the video taken a few years later at Khenpo Rinpoche’s eighty fifth birthday, the nuns fantastically rendered the Dance of the Sixteen Offering Goddesses, with Tsering Youden in the lead in the white costume. Five dancers enter the courtyard in entrance of the Tek Chok Ling prayer corridor to the sung charya giti (Sanskrit songs of reward), every gesturing a explicit providing from the normal Buddhist array of sense choices that provoke sacred apply. Buddhist scholar Dr. Miranda Shaw explains: “The Dance of the Offering Goddesses is a danced form of devotion inviting the divine presence into the sacred space.” Guru Prajwal additional clarifies: “The Offering Goddesses serve to open the practitioner’s senses and provide the energy to engage in sacred practice.” 

Photo courtesy Tek Chok Ling Nunnery

As “Om” is chanted, the dancers collect their focus and power, circling the vajra mudra (a hand gesture used in all charya dances to crown oneself as a deity) above their head, and proceed with the mimetic dance actions of providing the items: lute (veena) music, flute music, massive drum (mridangam), little drum, finger cymbals, garlands, tune, dance, flowers, incense, gentle (butter lamps), fragrance, mirror of clear-seeing, style, contact, dharmadhatu (realm of absolute reality). The dancers’ oscillating footsteps create a visualization of the vibratory subject and impact these danced choices radiate.

Photo courtesy Tek Chok Ling Nunnery

Tsering Youden talked about that the nuns additionally carry out the charya dance of Manjushri, the bodhisattva of knowledge, in addition to the Pancha Buddha (Five Buddhas), a efficiency mainstay throughout essential festivals and non secular events in native Newar Buddhist temples in Kathmandu. In the Pancha Buddha charya dance, 5 dancers symbolize the 5 transcendental Buddhas: Vairochana, Akshobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, and Amoghasiddhi, incorporating their iconographic postures, hand gestures, and qualities like a Buddhist portray come to life. 

Tsering Youden | Photo by Karen Greenspan

Tsering Youden exuded her enthusiasm for persevering with to educate these dances in addition to for instructing in basic. She has been instructing the youthful nuns in seven topics─English, Tibetan, Nepali, Science, Social Studies, Computer, and Math. Tsering Youden not too long ago left the nunnery to fulfill a six-month meditation retreat at their retreat middle in Yolmo, which occupies a web site the place the nice poet and yogi Milarepa meditated. After that, she hopes to full greater research to enhance her instructing abilities.

During my go to, Ani Dechen, who has served as a trainer and is at the moment the abbey administrator, stuffed me in on the small print of the nunnery’s different dance practices. Khenpo Rinpoche has a profound dedication to and love of gurma─religious songs of realization─a style of Tibetan sacred verse and tune. The songs of Milarepa are an instance of this extemporaneous poetic kind and apply, usually composed between lengthy periods of Tantric visualization, providing glimpses of these experiential states. The spontaneous composition of religious verse has been a favourite apply of Khenpo Rinpoche as nicely. Thus, he requested that the nuns of Karma Drubdey Nunnery in Bhutan (the primary nunnery he based) create a dance to one of Milarepa’s gurma and one other to the sutra of “Arya-Tara Who Protects from the Eight Fears.” 

Back in 1998, Khenpo Rinpoche instructed Ani Kheychok, a nun at Karma Drubdey and a proficient singer, to interact in a year-long retreat together with seven different nuns. During this time, she composed the melody for Milarepa’s “A Song of Meaningful Connection,” whereas the opposite nuns started to choreograph dharma dances. They went on to prepare many extra of Milarepa’s and Rinpoche’s songs to music. Rinpoche was evidently delighted and inspired them to proceed this effort and set up a distinctive custom of apply.

nuns dance milarepa song
A nun at Karma Drubdey performing a Milarepa gurma dance for Losar | Photo courtesy Karma Drubdey Nunnery

Tsering Youden described how “A Song of Meaningful Connection” tells of the interdependence (tendrel) of all issues. As she defined, I couldn’t assist however really feel the wonderful, significant connection that she and I shared in performing the identical dance custom. How unlikely was that, in addition to this opportunity assembly and discovery? (I got here with no appointment or introduction.) 

Milarepa composed and sang “A Song of Meaningful Connection” to his sister Peta and his former betrothed Zessay when he was on the verge of loss of life from hunger and struggling to meditate. He was revived by the nourishment they introduced him, and he expressed his appreciation to them in this tune of interdependence as he redoubled his efforts at meditation. 

nuns dance milarepa song
Karma Drubdey nuns performing Milarepa gurma dance for Losar | Photo courtesy Karma Drubdey Nunnery

The nuns sing the tune as they carry out a circle dance, which consists of gestures and postures describing the narrative. They put on their maroon monastic robes, over which a white scarf is draped─suggestive of the “repa” in Milarepa’s identify, which means “cotton-clad” in Tibetan. This refers to the skinny, cotton fabric Milarepa and different yogis wore (and nonetheless do) as they pursued their yogic practices.

The nuns normally carry out the “Tara Dance” in their common robes, though often, they costume it up with colourful robes and crowns alluding to the twenty-one kinds of Tara. They chant the sutra of “Tara Who Protects from the Eight Fears” as they carry out the straightforward dance of gestures and postures shifting in a circle. The eight fears─lions, elephants, fireplace, serpents, robbers, water (floods), plagues (additionally outlined as fetters or jail), and demons─can apply to actual bodily risks of on a regular basis life, particularly these current in historical India, the place the textual content originated. However, every worry additionally aligns with inner obstacles to overcome. For occasion, lions are equated with pleasure, elephants with stupidity, fireplace with anger, snakes with jealousy, thieves with improper concepts, and so forth, culminating with the ocean of want, jail of greed, and demon of doubt.

The Tek Chok Ling nuns traveled to Bhutan to be taught the dances from the Karma Drubdey nuns. Now, each teams apply these dances and carry out them (with the addition of the charya nritya dances at Tek Chok Ling) yearly on Khenpo Rinpoche’s start anniversary and infrequently for particular guests. In reality, at each nunneries, they’ve a devoted dance apply evening as soon as a week. Ani Dechen defined that every one nuns be taught and carry out these two dances, and the youthful nuns be taught the dances as soon as they’ve mastered the accompanying liturgies from their prayers. 

My charya nritya trainer, Prajwal Ratna Vajracharya, steadily quotes the Hevajra Tantra, reminding us, “Without singing and dancing, there can be no enlightenment.” He and Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso Rinpoche should be onto one thing. Perhaps it’s an understanding of the direct and significant connections that so swiftly come up by way of partaking in these embodied expressions of transcendent beings, that are finally features of our personal buddhanature.


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