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Tibetan Monk Dance "Cham" and Butoh

Updated: May 8, 2023

One day an inspiration came to go to Nepal to visit the Tibetan refugee community there. When I arrived there it was exactly at the time of the new year in the Tibetan calendar, and that is the time when Tibetan monk dance called Cham is often performed in various monasteries. What I witnessed several times at the monastery called Shechen was magnificent among the others. At times Cham was performed in the courtyard offered as a spiritual gift to the lay community, and at other times it was performed inside the temple almost without audiences. When it was offered to the public, many Tibetans as well as tourists were sitting surrounding the courtyard, some Tibetan old women placing their hands together in prayer while watching at the dance left deep impressions in me.

During the stay, I had an opportunity to meet Adzom Gyalse Rinpoche, a great master of Tibetan Buddhism, and had an interview to ask about Cham. The first Cham I have witnessed was him dancing in the courtyard of Shechen monastery, and he was transforming into wrathful deity with sharp intense fire-like presence, but very soft gentle smile welcomed me as I entered his room. The rooms of each person always tell a lot about him/her the person who is inhabiting there. The impression when I entered the room of the maestro of the maestros of Balinese mask dance I Made Djimat was as if stepping into a deep jungle, there was very thick presence in the space. Adzom Gyalse Rinpoche's room was more like a clear luminous space. I have shortly introduced myself, and he also humbly introduced himself. The interview gave me inspiring insights, that have left a deep influence on my idea of dance.

One very interesting point was that the Buddhist tantric practice of transforming into a deity while dancing, is quite a different concept from what I had witnessed until then. For example, in Teyyam, the ritual dance from Kelala in South India, the dancers explained that in their view, different gods or ancestor spirits or spirit of some historical heroic figures actually descend into the dancer's body during their dance and gods or sprits leave the body after they finish to perform. Balinese maestros explained that they pray to gods before dancing and dancers and audiences are blessed by gods while dancing. But Adzom Rinpoche explained that the deity in Cham dance is not gods nor creator as actual entity that are somewhere in the sky, but manifestation of our own deepest inner qualities. He continued to explain that even such invisible gods in higher realms of existence are of exactly the same nature as humans and all other beings, empty of inherent existence, and the main importance is to understand such universal nature. In Tibetan tradition, they do however also recognize experiences such as invisible beings descending into human bodies. For instance, I have heard about some case of Tibetan oracles going into trance and being possessed. And afterwards when the being that possessed the body leave, the oracles do not remember anything that happened.

But what is happening in Cham is different. During the dance, they imagine themselves as certain deities and all the environment around as innately pure. By using the power of imagination, they transform the way to perceive themselves and all the phenomena into something more in accordance with the deepest reality. I have heard from some other monks what they are imagining during the dance, and they are really complex with so many different images of objects, colours, shapes on different parts of the body and the environment around, and reciting mantra within themselves, in such ways entering into the world of Mandala. These images are not simply used to wander around in the personal imaginary fantasy world, but to reveal and to be awaken to the deepest aspects of reality.

Such use of the image seem to be somewhat similar to the method of Tatsumi Hijikata, the founder of butoh. In his method, he flooded his dancers with so many various rich images one after another, and asked them to embody these precisely in different parts of the body as well as the environment around. For example: one insect on the right hand, another insect coming down from the left side of the back of the neck, another one coming up from the right inner thigh...... around the eyes, mouth, inside the ears, between fingers, in all mucous membranes 5000 insects.... from all pores in the skin 30000 insects are coming into the organs, from the pores insects are going out to the space around, insects are eating the space.... The common intention of the both methods is to explore and reveal the reality of existence. But the difference probably lies in what “reality” means. In the case of Cham, it is firmly based on the understanding that our deepest reality is something innately pure and luminous that is beyond the duality, whereas in case of Tatsumi Hijikata the images were given to reveal the darkness latently hidden within us such as fear, terror, desire and so on. It seems that the intention of Tatsumi Hijikata was to take down the veils of hypocrisy and confront the dancers and the audiences with darkness of which we often neglect and pretend as if they don't exists within ourselves. Not just that, but also going further to transform such darkness into beauty, into poetry, and thus opening up a space for darkness to exist, a space for embracing the totality of ourselves. By transforming the darkness into beauty, he also did break the dualistic wall between the light and the darkness, the beauty and the ugly, but he was probably not exactly standing on a point of view that underneath such darkness, there is something innately pure and luminous at the deepest level. I believe he was certainly searching for something beyond the darkness of existence, but was not fully rooting his art and his method in such viewpoint of innate purity. (further discussion in the article “Darkness in art and butoh?”)

However, interestingly, when I told Adzom Gyalse Rinpoche about butoh, he told that something similar practice exist in the Tibetan Buddhism as well. He explained that there is some practice to visualize themselves as hell being, hungry ghosts or animals, instead of deities, and told that the purpose of such practices is to understand the suffering body and mind of such beings by embodying them. But generally in the Tibetan traditions, it is strongly emphasized that such practice of visualization, wether visualizing themself as deities or some lower beings, is not for the beginner but is allowed only for qualified practitioners who have a very strong base to be engaged in such practices, and under the guidance of very qualified teacher. The first base required is the right motivation. The only right motivation to practice such method is compassion for all other beings, humans and non-humans, to have the sincere wish to be of benefit to all. Another essential base to enter into such practice is to have gained understanding of emptiness, dream-like illusory nature of self and all phenomena that has no independent inherent existence. In the visualization practices, the practitioners replace their ordinary sense of self-identity with that of visualized object such as deities or at some case hell beings, hungry ghosts or animals, as Adzom Gyalse Rinpoche explained, with the understanding that both the ordinary sense of self-identity and the visualized objects are empty of inherent existence. But if we don't have the right understanding of emptiness and believe that we are actually inherently such image of deity or hell beings etc, it can cause further delusion about who we are and can be hazardous. And we do actually see such similar problems in butoh, or acting in theatre and movies. It is common to hear that when an actor play the role of a criminal or a psychopathy or whatever else very intensely, even after he finishes the shooting or performance, he is still confused of his identity. In butoh, when the performer continuously embody different images on himself/herself and environment around, over long periods of time, there are cases that people get confused with the border between the images and the reality and fall into mental confusion. Furthermore whatever the image we embody will certainly give different influences on our body and mind, and especially when such images are quite dark creepy ones, if we don't deal with them very skilfully, it can cause very negative influences on the daily life of the performer, even though it might help to create some interesting performance on the stage. Are we really ready to be engaged in such practices? Is our teacher really qualified to lead such practices? Even Tatsumi Hijikata himself, he was one of the most revolutionary artist in Japan after the war but he was not a spiritual teacher.

Related with this topic, on another occasion I once read a lecture from a well-known Japanese religious scholar and Tibetan Buddhism practitioner, Shinichi Nakazawa. As part of a practice system called Dzogchen in Tibetan Buddhism, once his teacher Khetsun Sangpo Rinpoche taught him one preliminary practice (ngöndro), and told him to go into a forest without being seen by anyone and be completely naked and stay for weeks. So he found a place in the forest with many monkeys and deers, and over 2 weeks behaved like a mad man keep screaming, laughing, crying, or sometimes acting like animals, vomiting out anything within such as anger, jealousy, hidden desire. He explains that the purpose of such practice is to empty out the mind, and also to understand all different layers of the mind without hiding any aspects. What kind of distortions are there, how does such distortions arise, and also to understand not only the human mind but also the mind of all other beings such as dog, monkey, or earthworm. He says that when he saw butoh when he came back to Japan, he was surprised to find something very similar. But in the case of the teaching of Dzogchen as Shinichi Nakazawa experienced, this is a preparatory practice, and after such preparation, the teacher will follow to introduce the practitioner to the deepest nature of the mind that is luminous and pure. I find this very suggestive when we think about in which direction butoh can be further evolved. It is not to say that we should express in art only joy and delight or superficial love and peace, and it is certainly very important to recognize and reveal inner darkness. But can we re-acknowledge the darkness and the whole reality from the point of view of such ultimate nature of purity? Can we re-evaluate Tatsumi Hijikata's method and evolve it further from such point of view? Apparently Tatsumi Hijikata continued to dig and reveal darkness of existence, and suddenly passed away young at the age of 57, in the middle of his artistic endeavour. And he left his last word on the death bed “I am dying into the Absolute Light” (「神の光を臨終している。」)


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