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  • Traditional Dance of Buddhists - History

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P & C December 1998
- Face Music / Albi

- last update 03-2016

- Text available in German

This dance performance with masks is a pantomime mystery play, the performances of which are part of the ceremonious services of the Buddhists. The origin of the word is Tibetan and means "dance".
There is no comprehensive information concerning this masque culture in the Lamaistic countries. On the one hand, it has not been possible to gain access to this sort of material, especially in Tibet. Comprehensive manuscripts are mainly in the hands of the Nyngmas (Red Hats, Red Church), the non-reformed monks. On the other side, we will not be able to gain more information about its history and development, as the material was exposed to destruction and devastation as the events in Tibet show. Also in Mongolia, the 1930ies were the years of such destruction. Between 1932 and 1938 rebels burnt down about 700 monasteries, and many monks were murdered. Hence, already existing travelogues are incomplete.
We owe it to some researchers that there has been collected material: Professor Grünwedel, the Russian Aleksej Pozdnejev and Vladimircov, Cybikov and Baradijn from Buriat, the Austrian René von Nebesky-Wojkowitz. And also the Germans Wilhelm Filchner, Wilhelm A. Unkrig, Robert Bleichsteiner, and Professor Matthias Hermanns made their contribution.
An introduction to more comprehensive information may be found in the following books:

- Heinz Lucas: Lamaistische Maske. Der Tanz der Schreckensgötter. Erich Röth-Verlag, Kassel 1962.
- Werner Forman und Bjamba Rintschen: Lamaistische Tanzmasken. Der Erlik-Tsam in der Mongolei. Koehler & Amelang Verlag, Leipzig 1967.
(Unfortunately both books were written in German and are now out-of-print.)

The mask dances were filmed on the spot by the Russian Pudovkin in "Storm across Asia"; by Lieberenz in "Mit Sven Hedin in Asiens Wüsten"; by Filchner in "Om ma ni pad me hum" (this is the constant prayer of the Lamaists: "Om, o jewel in lotus, Hum"), and in "Mönche, Tänzer und Soldaten" by Schäfer and Harrer in "Lha rgyal lo" ("The Gods have won").

Historical Development

In Tibet there have always been performed mystery plays and cult dances since time immemorial on; on these occasions, magnificent masks have been worn. On the occasion of certain religious holidays of the year such a masque is presented. Apart from this, there are also magic ceremonies (Tantrism) making use of masks, too.
The performance is supposed to be a relic from century-old rites of fertility and banishment. As far as it is possible to have a survey on early Tibetian traditions, dance performances were given on the occasion of festivities celebrating New Year and spring as well as on the occasion of midsummer festivities. In Bontum the New Year dances were seen as a symbol of the successful fight of good against evil as well as an illustration of the soon-to-come victory of spring over the dark forces, the lords of the long Tibetan winter. A very long time ago human beings and animals were sacrificed at New Year, in order to please the spirits and demons and to guarantee their favour for the days of the year to come. Another old Bon dance is "The Dance of the White Demon", which is said to be a work of Schenrabmibo (founder of the later form of the Bon Faith).
In the works of Agwangchädub (a scholar and head of the monk community) there is stipulated that these masques have their origin in India where in older times special actors (in part professional actors) with masks and in the costumes of the gods and demons danced and performed dialogues.
Lamaism, a form of Northern Buddhism, came to Tibet in the 7th century but has never succeeded in completely substituting the old Bon forms. For this reason, the meaning of the old mystery plays was transformed for a new purpose of its own. In former times, the dance performances were a means to present the victory of light over darkness, but then they were transformed into triumph and victory of Lamaism over the pagan world of the Bon Faith.
What was also new for these dance performances was the abolition of the human sacrifice used so far, as this did not comply with the Buddhist teaching on life and rebirth. A figure made from dough was sacrificed instead. There is only little reminiscence of earlier times in connection with certain mask types or mask rites, such as the God of War (Jamsran) with his satellites (the Holders of the Sword) or the sacrificial rite (Linga). The occasions and time schedules of the dances were changed, too. The old dance performances were held on the occasion of the New Year's and Midsummer festivals. The Lamaists also postponed the dances to the birthday of Padmasambhavas, the Buddhist missionary in Tibet. (He was an Indian religious teacher and mystic and also one of the founders of the monastery Samye (770 AD) in Tibet.)
With the performance of "the holy dance of the masks", the mythical dance of the frightening deities, Padmasambhava tried to persuade the pagan deities and spirits, the local Lords, to not harm the founders of the monastery. Later on there developed additional plays that were performed in the various seasons and on the occasion of different festivities and also in other newly erected monasteries in the entire territory of Tibet. The only difference so far was the newly introduced dialogues. Dialogues did not form part of the former and original dance that only consisted of pantomime. The performing masks were only quietly uttering incantations (Tarni).
The transition from a pure act of cult to the theatre form started with these dialogues in the dance performance. Only the comic or human roles, however, were allowed to talk. There also were not only presented exclusively deities and demons but rather also human beings. The dancers do not consist entirely of monks, also laymen may be found. Special reference may be made to the Milaraspa Dance performance (Mongolian: Milaräba Tsam), information on it may be found below.
The dance had its own purpose. The beings that have treaded the way of the mysterious Dharanis and attempted to free their spirit from the chains of the "dependance on matter" not only have to thoroughly deal with the fundamental and conclusive religious and ethical exercises but also rather have to attempt to cease their sinful acts. This is realized by means of throwing to the ground, circling the Buddhist shrines, and cultivating the masque. There has to be made a subsequent sacrifice that ought to please the Buddhas of the Ten Countries. The dances are also meant to remind the faithful of death, of the triviality of human life. They remind of the transition of the soul, of the natural cycle of life, and of rebirth.
The souls who cannot find their peace and have to wander around undergo different stages of development during their 49 days in this "Bardo" ("inbetween two states", also called "the Land of Confusion"), until they are finally reborn. Here in the "Bardo", the demon-like protective deities persecute the souls. These awfully looking rescuers are presented in the dance in order to make it possible for the faithful to get used to this sight on earth and in life. The souls have to listen to the "Protectors of Religion" who are well-disposed towards these poor souls, in order to being reborn on a higher level and in order to not being blinded by the beautifully looking dream world.
At the end of the 14th century, Tibet experienced a church schism, initiated by the monk Tsongkhapa, a reformer who objected to the sinful behaviour of the monks. He founded the "Sect of Virtue" (the Yellow Church, we know them as Yellow Hats) and introducted the colour yellow for the habit of the order. This sect adopted the dance performances and, in contrast to the Red Church, unified the plays and the occasions of such performances, which were then written down in production books and scripts, in so-called dance books. The reformers abolished the figure of the magician Padmasambhava and the magic performances in his honour (Tantrism). The dances were again performed on the occasion of New Year, as this had been initially the case.
The masque "Tsam" itself, as it is called nowadays, was first introduced in the 16th century, and performances of such masques were first put on stage in the Pantschen-Lama monastery Taschilhumbo in Tibet.

Dance performances were put on stage on the occasion of the:

- Butter Festival. There are lit up lamps soaked in butter, and there are presented pictures of a god made from butter.
- festival making reminiscence of the death of the eight saints from the monastery Kumbum. On the occasion of his conquest of Eastern Tibet, the Chinese military leader Mien Kung Ye (under Emperor Yung Cheng) invited the eight saints into his tent and later ordered to have them beheaded.
- festival making reminiscence of the death of King Langdarma, the last Tibetan grand king. He was a follower of the Bon religion and a big enemy of Buddhism. The avenger came in the person of the monk Paldorje. He approached the king at the instigation of the Goddess of Protection of the Land, "Lhamo"; in the disguise of a Bon dancer and killed him with a poison arrow.
- festival making reminiscence of the ascension of the reformer Tsongkhapa, the founder of the "Yellow Church".
- festival making reminiscence of the first day of the performance of a Tsam play on the occasion of the consecration of the monastery.

The main areas of influence of the "Yellow Church" were mainly the monasteries in Northern Tibet and later on in Mongolia.
The non-reformed Lamaists still call themselves "Followers of the Old" (Red Church), and due to the highly stressed magic element (tantrism) it may be assumed that they have the most versatile dance versions.
In the Himalaya state of Sikkim there may be found a rather unique situation in regard of the masques of Lamaism. There also warriors with swords appear on stage in masques. Their God of War is the spirit of the Mountain God "Kangchendzönga", consisting of a group of five peaks (the local populations simply calls them tiger, lion, horse, dragon, and garuda). This mighty mountain god, daily presenting himself in a large scale to the population, is offered sacrifices and worship on a yearly basis.
Matthias Hermanns stipulates that there are also masques being performed in Bon monasteries and village temples. These are performed according to oral tradition. The play is dedicated to the mountain god Rmargyal. There are performed further dance plays in honour of this protective deity. As the Bon teaching has rather close ties with Persia, and as Iranian influence was experienced in Tibet later, too, there may exist relations between the Mithras and the Yama mystery plays (masques).

Tsam in Mongolia

- The Eastern Mongols are living, from a political point of view, on Chinese territory, on the frontier from North-Eastern Tibet, in part in East Sinkiang and on the territory of the Blue Lake (Köke Nuur).
- The Northern Mongols live in the South of Central Siberia, and the Burjates live mainly in the area around the Lake Baikal. The people from Western Baikal are still prone to Shamanism. The people from Southern Baikal and the Burjates in the Trans-Baikal area have adopted the Lamaistic faith with reformed influences. Here, the people also know Tsam performances.
Such as the Burmanese, the Chinese, the Japanese, the people from Cambodia, Corea, Siam, the Sinhalese, the Tibetan and other peoples in Asia, the Mongols belong to the religious group of Indian-Buddhism. China's culture and art have created commonly adopted traditions in the course of various centuries, traditions that still establish a relationship between these peoples.
The Mongols are Lamaists and hence also know the Tsam. The "Yellow Church" here determines the area of influence. In Mongolian monasteries Buddhist art, before its destruction in the 1930ies, had been very highly developed, and there could been found real masters of their art among painters, sculptors, architects, and especially skilled craftsmen.

In the Mogolian culture there may be made out some essential characteristics:

- Nomadism excerted influence on the entire life of the shepherds and hunters, on their traditions, their virtues and vice, which the Mongols have in common with the neighbouring Turk peoples.
- The exotic and in a way adapted: This is the Indo-Tibetan, by means of which there was introduced also a new religion, Buddhism with its sublime teaching and its scientific encyclopedia (especially medicine).
- The Chinese, which enriched the Mongolian language with a rather important terminology and is associated with the system of administration introduced during the Manchu dynasty and the Chinese works on philosophical and ethical matters.
- Recently, also the European has gained some amount of influence.

In Mongolia a Tsam play was, for the very first time, performed in the monastery that served Chutuktu of Urga (today Ulaanbaatar), an incarnation of the Tibetan saint Taranatha, in the 16th year of the reign of the Manchurian Emperor Djia-tjing (1811) as residence. Mongolian masters, following the description of the work written by the V. Dalai Lama on the Tsam, fabricated the costumes and masks. There were added to the Tsam four lion figures similar to the lion masks in Chinese parades celebrating New Year; these were a present of the then governor.

Life in a Mongolian monastery

If a family did not want that its son attended the school of the Manchurian ruler (the Manchurian-Chinese emperors ruled some 200 years in Mongolia) and ended as a civil servant in the administration and thus as a servant of this master, the family sent its son to a monastic school. The fact that many pupils wanted to be eduacted in these well-organized schools guaranted the survival of these monasteries. The families supplied them with enough food, clothes and other raw materials, and in this way they also hoped to court the deities' favour.
After having completed this form of education, the novices could either leave the monastery and live as cattle breeder and nomads and also found a family; or they could stay in the monastery forever and start to being taught in the arts and crafts.
This is the reason why five eighth of the male Mongolian population had been educated at this point of time, until the monasteries were destroyed in the 1930ies.

Mongolian Tsam Plays

There is also known the speech tsam, the so-called MilaraspaTsam (Mongolian: Milaräba), the name of which goes back to the Tibetan poet and hermit "Mila". Special reference will be made thereto later.

Geser Tsam was performed in the Western part of Northern Mongolia, in the today's People's Republic of Mongolia, in the monastery of the holy Chutuktu Ulaguksan and in the vasall monastery of Prince Dalai Tschoinchor-wan. These two monasteries also included faculties for studying mystics. The God of War Geser, at the same time, was the patron saint of the Manchurian royal family, of the warriors and the herds. He was considered the guarantor of a lucky hunt and the destructor of enemies and demons. He was also called "Son of Heaven".
An exact description of the masks, costumes, the dancing steps and movements in this Tsam symbolizing the fight against and the victory over evil demons and the enemies of Buddhism and the empire is given by means of oral tradition. During the dance, old Manchurian canons fired shots. The warriors fighting with Geser danced in splendid silk costumes, over which ancient suits of armour and iron vests were worn.
The dance of the masks was a pantomime in which the artists showed the victory over the evil demons by means of gesture and movement. During the holy dance they quietly uttered the incantation "Tarni", each for the very deity he was representing. This dance, with its several intervals, lasted for a couple of hours. Therefore it was necessary to cast young and strong monks who were able to wear and carry these especially heavy masks and costumes, richly decorated with corals and jewellery. Unfortunately, there were no photographs taken, also pictures of the costumes, the arms and the masks have disappeared.

Geser Tsam - In Eastern Mongolia a Geser Tsam was performed in the monastery of Prince Sansaraidordschi in today's city of Tschoibalsan (Bajan-Tumen) in Eastern Aimak in today's People's Republic of Mongolia. This monastery included a Geser temple.
Today a microfilm wit two block printed books in the Tibetan language gives information on this Geser Tsam (copies of this microfilm are kept at the Hungarian Academy of Science in Budapest, and at the Orientalistic Institute of the Czech Academy of Science in Prague. These works are known in Mongolia as teaching circle). They include some 94 essays by Tibetan and Mongolian authors on the Geser cult and the Geser Tsam.
In the 19th century, they were published by Chutuktu Ilaguksan Arthasiddivadschra who himself had written some works for this Geser teaching circle, in which he described the masks, the costumes and the attributes of the dancers, their movements and gestures. They further include the texts of the prayers and incantations, which are to be uttered by the artists during the Geser Tsam as well as the history of the Geser cult in Northern Buddhism.
Dschagchar Tsam - The Dance of the Iron Palace, also known as Erlik Tsam

Dschagchar Tsam - The Dance of the Iron Palace, also known as Erlik Tsam.
The main figure in this Tsam is Erlik Nomun-chan, the God of Law, also called "Tshoijoo", the God of Death. He is the Mongolian translation of Dharmaradscha (Sanskrit) as well as the old Mongolian name of the God of Death, used by the Shamans in the translation of Buddhist texts for Yama.
Literature on the Erlik Tsam in Mongolian language has never been printed, as it is mainly meant for a small circle of those in the know that come into direct contact with this Tsam.
Agwangchädub, a Buddhist author from the 19th century who is extremly famous in Mongolia, wrote on this Tsam and its history. These essays have long been hidden.

- Beispiel 1

Tsam performance from Mongolia

- Example 2

Tsam performance from Mongolia - the Erlik Tsam from Urga

Milaraspa Tsam (Speech Tsam)

This is based on the legends about the life of the famous poet and hermit of the Red Church, Mila with the Cotton Cloth. The tsam already contains dialogues with the actors, and there even exist hand-written textbooks. The best-known tsam is called "Dance with the Protector of the Thunderbolt".

The Milaraspa Tsam, which is also called Milaräba-Tsam in Mongolia
It was not that well known, and the roles were only given to articulate and honest monks. There were only a few actors, usually two and without masks, one of whom played the hermit Milaräba and the second one the hunter Gombordordschi. This play is based on the same plot as in Tibet. Today they may not only be recognized these influences in the Mongolian theatre; furthermore it has definitely been strongly characterized thereby.

- When a red deer persecuted by a hunter seeks shelter with the hermit, he offers the deer protection and asks the hunter to not kill the deer. In his rage, the hunter threatens the hermit. As a consequence, the hermit starts a dialogue and tries to persuade the hunter to stop killing living beings. The hunter then is overcome by the speeches and asks for forgiveness. He swears that he, from this point on, will stop killing living beings and that he wants to start working for the hermit.
- In a later version there is added to the dialogue a conversation on the law of retaliation of all offences and how there might be done penance for these. The hunter tells the hermit about atrocities and events having happened during the last year, and he then asks him what he should do in order to do penance. The offences and their culprits are not directly named, there are only given hints. But gestures and voice make it rather clear so that all people present immediately looked at the person concerned.

One reason why this tsam could not find prevalence might be that not every monastery could dare presenting this socio-critical dialogue. And so what was left, was a simple enumeration of legends and the presentation of the hermit's life.

Further mask ceremonies

Apart from the Tsam dances there were various ceremonies presenting individual mask dancers (all the elements containing Bon rites from the mystery plays):

- The expulsion of the dead last year. This takes place on the last day of the year.
- The call for luck in the year to come. This is a fertility ceremony, which is staged in spring on the occasion of equinox. In this connection the mythical bird Garuda, the Mongolian Khangard, plays an important role.
- The spirit descends. Here there are used the masks of female devils.
- The red deer Shiva with its huge antlers. This is a Bon ceremony, originally staged with a living deer, later on, on the other side, only with the deer's image. In former times the ceremony ended with the animal being sacrificed.

Origin of the mystery plays

These dances are ancient and go back to a time when there were no mystifications. But what is more probable is the conception that the people of that time presented magical rites, in reaction to the demons they thought were around them, in order to please the hostile powers and to banish them. At the highlight of the rite they probably offered human sacrifices. Originally this rite was probably related to a sacrament-like eating and drinking of the flesh and blood of the person sacrificed.
In the form it has today, the mystery play has been put on stage with only the symbol of a human sacrifice for a very long time; this helps to gain the deities' help in expelling the old year and its demons of misfortune and also achieve a victory over all human and spiritual enemies.
In the "memory key", a work of the Bon religion, it is said that one of his subjects has to be sacrificed in order to heal the prince, the sacrifice happening as follows: The fortuneteller drags the man holding his legs, the Bonpo grasps the man's hands, and the black handha ripes open his chest and tears out his heart. Subsequently the fortuneteller and the Bonpo sprinkle the blood into all directions.
It is this rite that is performed in the Tsam, only with a different function, as it does not serve the healing of an ill person anymore but rather the banishing of demons showing a hostile attitude towards mankind.
In this way, the Tsams of the Lamaistic countries still contain remains of the fertility and demon-banishing rites dating back to prehistoric times. The fertility rite did not only refer to the reproduction of animals but also human beings. The banishing rite primarily aimed at those demons responsible for bringing severe illness and plagues to mankind. By means of human and animal sacrifices the people wanted to influence the deities and other higher powers.

Monastic orchestra

A monastic orchestra normally consists of twenty people, no matter whether this is a large or a small monastery. When performing the tsam, the musicians get into two lines, one behind the other. The tambourines and drummers are seated in the front row. Behind them, there are seated the wind section setting the tone as well as the cymbalists.

- see Instrumente: - Masks and Costumes

- Masks

The larger-than-life masks of the deities are put over the head, and they cover the whole of the face. The masks representing human beings are only facemasks of natural size.
For the production of these masks, a mass made from papier-mâché (also in Mongolia) as well as a thin and embossed copper sheet are used. In areas with larger wood resources than in the Tibetan uplands, such as in Sikkim and Bhutan, the masks are also carved from hard wood. There the humid climate would quickly destroy the paper mass. The people from Tuva, on the other side, fabricate their masks from leather.

- Production of Masks

- Dance Masks

The mask is very often combined with a wig made from the hair of yak tails. The masks are usually colourfully painted.
The colouration of mask and costume follows old tradition and is identical with Lamaistic iconography.

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P & C Face Music - Ulaanbaatar, September / October 1999 - Albi
English translation: Hermelinde Steiner