The fear of death and infernal rebirths due to my evil actions has led me to practise in solitude in the snow capped mountains. On the uncertainty of life’s duration and the moment of death I have deeply meditated thus have I reached the deathless, unshakeable citadel of realisation of the absolute essence. My fear and doubts have vanished like mist into the distance, never to disturb me again. I will die content and free from regrets. This is the fruit of Dharma practice.

— Milarepa

Milarepa (米勒日巴) 37.

Finding Excellence, A Buddhist Land (Part 5)
by Joseph Houseal

There are not so many places left on Earth where the population is virtually 100 per cent Tantric Buddhist. Spiti Valley in Himachal Pradesh, India, adjacent to Tibet, is one of them. Core of Culture, the organisation I direct, has completed its summer 2016 Cham dance research fieldwork there and is able to bring forward a wealth of information about Buddhist dance, meditation, and history that has never before been made public.

The pervasive Buddhist character of Spiti Valley is part of the protection surrounding the serious practice of Tantric Yoga in the monasteries there. No commercialism, nor Hinduism, nor Islam, nor communism have negatively impacted the practice of Buddhist monasticism yet. Conversely, monastic Tantric Yoga is part of the protection surrounding the Buddhist population. I have written accounts of our visits and the Tantric practices related to Buddhist dance in the first four parts of this series. This is the fifth and final instalment of “Finding Excellence.”

Bhutan, where Core of Culture worked during the final five years of absolute monarchy, is another Buddhist land. Bhutan was a Buddhist kingdom and is now a Buddhist democracy. The pure spiritual flavour of a place, the immersive values rooted in peace, the cultural coherence and ritual integrity are all qualities of Buddhist lands that simply cannot be found in pluralist societies, occupied territories, colonial outposts, and disputed borderlands. There is something profound to be learned from these few remaining Buddhist lands. Indeed, we learned much about the nature of dance itself.

The nature and impact of change is most clearly seen against a baseline of unadulterated cultural practices. While Bhutan remains a mostly Buddhist nation, the culture had more integrity under the direct rule of kings than it does as a fledgling democracy, with its attendant capitalism that has infected the population. Bhutan is open for business. A fundamental change occurs when Buddhist monasteries, monks, and festivals become commercial commodities.

Not unlike western art scholarship and museum culture assigning commercial value to ancient religious art, the industry of tourism overlays a value system on Buddhist architecture and rituals based on their power to lure tourists and bring money to hotels, taxis, restaurants, and merchants. Basically, the tourism industry, often with the full support of the government, treats Buddhist sites and rituals as natural resources like mountains and rivers. Everyone makes money from it except the monasteries, mountains, and rivers.

The tourism industry is the single greatest destructive influence on Buddhist lands. Surely its impending ingress into Spiti Valley bodes darkly for the preservation of Buddhist values and cultural expression. Tourism is literally making inroads, as excellent new roads have been constructed through certain sections of Himachal Pradesh. Thankfully there are still plenty of perfectly awful, dangerous, harrowing roads to dissuade the leisure traveller.

This is, therefore, a very important time to be conducting research in Spiti Valley as it is on the cusp of change. The abbots and rinpoches in the Spiti monasteries were emphatic: Cham dance ceremonies are not for tourists, were never intended to be, and tourists are not invited. Is it surprising, then, that we encountered some of the most rigorous integrations of dance and meditation in Spiti among the many monasteries of the Trans-Himalaya we have visited over the past 20 years? Is not this integrity and spiritual accomplishment worth protecting and carrying forward?

Indian middle-class tourism, catered to by a sprawling ancillary industry, has turned the charming city of Manali into a lawless nightmare. Rather than escaping India’s urban centres further south, tourists bring the worst of urban behaviour to once lovely places. Simla is another famous city struggling to bear the weight of an excess of tawdry tourism. Cham ceremonies in Ladakh are overwhelmed with tourists, and battling them has become part of the experience for the monks and foreigners alike.

During our monastery visits in Spiti Valley, the very mention of the word “tourist” would cause the monks to mime the act of taking photographs. To the monastic leaders here, tourists and the prioritisation of, or surrendering to, photography are one and the same. Death by paparazzi.

The Sakya sect monastery Sakya Tengon Lundup Choekor Ling towers over the town of Kaza, which serves as the seat of the regional government. Nawang Tashi, the lama tipa, or functional leader of activities at the monastery, shrugged when I asked him about tourists or problems with tourists during their festivals: “What can you expect from foreigners except ‘click, click, click’? They are not many, but they are ignorant and they always leave — they never stay for the full ritual. They are more like mosquitoes or flies than a big problem, but they are an irritation. They are not really interested in what we are doing, but rather what they are getting.”

“Kaza is the seat of government for Spiti and so the monastery serves a more public function than other remote monasteries here that have the opportunity to restrict who attends,” Nawang Tashi observed. “Government and military officials always attend, tourists passing through, and school children from around the district come. The monastery works with all the institutions in Kaza.”

“There is a two-year meditation retreat requirement before becoming the champon (dance master) at Kaza monastery, and the philosophical aspects of Cham are emphasised. Kaza monastery is primarily a place where Buddhist monks can continue their education in philosophy, debate, and liturgy, and at any given time, as many as 120 of our 200 monks are away at higher centres of learning. Forty monks know Cham well, and 40 boys are in training.”

Kaza monastery was the only monastery in Spiti we visited that named “quality and skill in dancing” as one of the factors in choosing dancers. The lama tipa, with the help of senior monks, look for monks who can dance well and uphold the prestige of the monastery and town of Kaza.

“Almost 100 per cent of the attendees at the Cham festivals are Buddhists — 50 per cent come for the ritual aspect, and because at least nine villages attend the festival, probably 50 per cent come for a social event,” said Nawang Tashi.

The Buddhist culture of Spiti Valley is fundamentally one of respect. The monasteries and villages survive on a mutual and symbiotic relationship based on the noble and spiritual values of Buddhism. Between the five major monasteries that rotate hosting celebrations in Spiti to mark the birth of the Buddha, more than 40 associated villages are involved in expressing themselves with dances and songs alongside the monks who perform the dances of their tantric practice. This is a remarkable danced expression of the mandala of monasteries and villages that etch the mountainous landscape; that defines this Buddhist land.

As I ponder what work is meritorious for Core of Culture to undertake going forward, I can think of nothing more rare and meaningful than documenting the Tantric dances, the “Mandala of Vajrayana Buddhism” as it is lived in Spiti Valley; to ensure that the ongoing and authentic practice of Cham dance is performed as a monastic discipline, and not as a tourist commodity. Spiti will surely change, as all things do, but for now, I can only be grateful to have encountered another true Buddhist land and to learn everything we can from this amazing remnant of how the world once was when Buddhism pervaded every aspect of life and landscape.

Joseph Houseal 1.

Compassion and tolerance are not a sign of weakness, but a sign of strength.

— His Holiness the Dalai Lama

Dalai Lama 74

Finding Excellence, What Buddhists Do (Part 4)
by Joseph Houseal

Mutual amazement at what the other does not find extraordinary is a situation I regularly encounter when speaking with monk dancers. They usually cannot believe that someone like me exists — who cares only about the quality and transmission of ancient gnostic dance. And I am routinely astounded by some of the training certain monasteries require of their Cham dancers.

In the summer of 2016, we distributed a rare Buddhist dance treatise, The Snow Lion’s Attributes, published by Core of Culture, the organisation I direct, to monasteries in Himachal Pradesh, northern India, where ancient roots and relative isolation from destructive modernity have maintained for the world some of the most serious and undiluted practices of Vajrayana Buddhism, respected worldwide for its profound teachings in meditation yoga. Actor Richard Gere, who does meditation retreats in remote Zanskar, refers to Vajrayana monks as “the Olympians of meditation.”

Perhaps you will agree with me that the meditation requirements aligned with Buddhist Cham dance at the 1,000-year-old monasteries at Dhankar and nearby Kye are astonishing. My astonishment is based on nearly 20 years of research, documenting Cham throughout the Himalaya — particularly in Bhutan, where Cham practice is exuberant and skilful. It is refreshing after 20 years to still be so amazed and enchanted by the subject of my driving interest.

There are dates, monastic roles and hierarchies, and changing schools of Buddhism that need unwinding to tell this story. Dhankar and Kye monasteries were built during the Guge Kingdom in the 11th century, part of an expansionist plan to extend the empire with trade, art, and religion. Dhankar and Kye marked architectural departures as they were developed into fortresses as well as monasteries, and so were perched on high cliffs, raised up strategically, in a way we associate with many monasteries now.

UNESCO has placed Dhankar Gompa on the Watch List of Endangered World Monuments. Both the mountain cliff and the ancient tower perched upon it are precariously holding on. Kye Gompa is nested on a mountain spur among mountains, a most dramatic setting. The Gelugpa subjugation of these monasteries was coupled with new architecture, purpose, and rituals. Both monasteries have endured attacks and invasions.

Dhankar was a hereditary and military monastery, aligning itself and its rituals with several Buddhist schools. Kye was a trading post and a centre of debate. The Gelugpa school, notable for being the school of the Dalai Lama, was not established until the 15th century. The monasteries in this account had half a millennium of rituals and dance before the Gelugpa asserted political authority and fortified the existing structures. Dhankar and Kye both became known for the seriousness of their meditation practice, just as Tabo Gompa in Spiti Valley was renowned for its scholarship and accomplished monks.

Here’s the time warp: Dhankar does the same Cham as ancient Tabo, which means it derives from a Gelugpa monk named Jampa Tharchen, who escaped from Tibet in 1957 and found refuge at Tabo. The lineage he taught belongs to Tashigang Gompa in Gnari, Tibet. Seemingly — and this needs to be clarified by further research — replacing the dances already performed there, ostensibly by offering a more authoritative and complete canon of Gelugpa Cham dances directly from Tibet.

In 1985, the Panchen Choegyal Nyima, from the legendary Tashilunpo Monastery founded by the first Dalai Lama in the 15th century, brought their lineage of Cham dances into India. A monk named Karchen Laktor taught these dances to Kye Gompa in Spiti, to Thikse and Spituk monasteries in Ladakh, and to a monastery in Nubra Valley.

In both cases, a fresh input of authoritative Cham, directly transmitted from Tibet, was integrated with local meditation practices hundreds of years old. This explains to a degree why the meditation requirements to perform Cham are so thorough at these monasteries. Although a young monk who could not contain himself during our meeting with senior monks blurted out the obvious standard that should not be overlooked: “Where the Dharma is strong, Cham is strong!”

The names of monastery roles and positions are not universal. The same title at one monastery can imply a different job at another. However, three positions are at play in this exposition of Cham and meditation. The omze is the master of rituals and chant — meaning he leads the accompaniment of Cham dances and has memorised all the ancient sutras, scriptures, and mantras that are chanted. This is encyclopedic commemoration.

The lama tipa is an archaic title for a regent, someone who rules in the name of someone else. He is not the abbot, but has all the authority and is also required to know how to run and manage every aspect of a monastery. The champon is the dance master, required to know every dance and to be able to teach it. At Dhankar and Kye, this implies knowing the tantric visualization and Deity Action Yoga empowering the Cham dances.

Prepare to be astonished. At Dhankar Gompa, the omze must undertake a two-year cave retreat practising his primary teachings before he can become the lama tipa, a position he fills for two years. He must then do a further one-year cave retreat specialising in Yiddam meditation in order to become the champon.

Primary teachings here refer to the teachings given to you by your own guru, and as such are entirely personal and designed by the guru for each person he teaches. No two are the same. It is a kind of development of the tantric personality of an individual. A Yiddam is a meditation deity, and in the case of a rising champon, the monk must accomplish the yogic act of conjuring the deity Mahakala, and further, making him move. The lama tipa at Dankhar explained that Mahakala is the root of all Deity Action yoga for Cham and any deity can be yogically extrapolated having mastered making a Mahakala visualisation move.

This is really the line between black and white magic as once a new being has been realised, the meditator, or sorcerer as the case may be, has the choice to make the being do anything, and it is at this point that tantric adepts can lose control over their own creations, just as Mickey Mouse did in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. This is serious, ancient yoga: older than Buddhism, older than the hills, and one reason Vajrayana Buddhism is so special for keeping these skills alive. This is the fine, much debated, tantric line between something actually happening and something symbolically happening.

At Kye Gompa, no meditation requirement exists for the position of omze, but he must complete one year of Yiddam meditation before becoming the champon and teaching the other dancers. The champon can keep the position indefinitely providing he completes a one-week Yiddam meditation retreat each year before teaching Cham.

Dhankar Gompa has the most intensive meditation retreat requirement for the position of champon of any monastery I have encountered in 17 years. Kye Gompa also clearly prioritizes the mastery of meditation as a pre-requisite for teaching Cham to anyone else. Clearly, these profound approaches to cultivating the inner person for a dance performance have nothing to do with theatricality or a public audience. In fact, these aspects seem mundane, irrelevant to our discussion.

The lama tipa at Dhankar was busily sweeping the 1,000-year-old tower where the special chambers of the Dalai Lama are situated when I accidentally met him after talking to two senior monks. I was thrilled to encounter him as he was about to embark on a year-long cave retreat to gain the yogic skill of conjuring Mahakala and making him move, and then becoming the champon. Perhaps too thrilled; he thought my excitement was unwarranted

He told me with some amusement that yogic mastery was not an amazing feat, nor peculiar to him, nor intimidating, but rather an aspect of ancient mental training protected by Buddhism since its inception when Guru Rinpoche subjugated and at the same time protected the ancient pre-Buddhist spiritual beings and the deep psychic and intellectual forces they embody and represent.

“You’ve been visiting the most remote monasteries of all sects, with a dance treatise, wearing a mustard-coloured suit and tie, and you think we are out of the ordinary?” he enquired with humour. “Deity Yoga for Cham? It’s a known thing,” he continued. “What Buddhists do.

Joseph Houseal 1.

Openness does not mean to give up all your power or autonomy to others. However, you are opened in a bigger way toward the whole universe in order to work with others positively in the situations you encounter.

— Dza Kilung Rinpoche

Dza Kilung Rinpoche 7.

Finding Excellence, Who is the Best Dancer Here? (Part 3)
by Joseph Houseal

Venture into remote places and you will find a joyful purity. During our recent summer fieldwork in Himachal Pradesh, northern India, we distributed copies of a Buddhist dance treatise, The Snow Lion’s Attributes, among the monasteries there, and used it as a touchstone for illuminating conversations about Cham practice. In Spiti Valley and the adjacent Pin Valley, Buddhist researchers have for decades examined Vajrayana Buddhism in what has long been an almost inaccessible area in which some of the oldest Buddhist monasteries practice tantric disciplines in an uninterrupted mental climate, unmolested by modern tourism and beyond the reach of urban turmoil. Blocked by snow for many months of the year, isolation has preserved authenticity. Spiti is on the cusp of change, however, and this is a critical time to carry out research.

Core of Culture, the non-profit organisation that I direct, is the first to examine the Cham dance traditions at these monasteries that define a “Buddhist land” wherein virtually 100 per cent of the population is Buddhist. Sanga Choeling Monastery, belonging to the oldest and original school of Vajrayana Buddhism, the Nyingma, sits atop a mountain range overlooking the vastness of Pin Valley in Spiti, Himachal Pradesh. This enormous valley is flanked by snow-capped peaks on both tapering ends, with waves of mighty rock undulating in the sky surrounding this Nyingma sanctuary founded by Padmasambhava in the 8th century. Some temples and the art contained within them date from 1330 CE. The newest building — a prayer hall and dance courtyard — is quite recent, courtesy of a foreign donor. Most of Pin Valley is a national wildlife refuge; a home to many rare things.

It is our custom when we work, to meet with the resident rinpoche, abbot, or high lama — for their blessing and permission, if nothing else. There being no telephone service across these peaks, we considered ourselves fortunate to have met with high lamas at every monastery we’d visited so far this season. However, the day we reached Sanga Choeling monastery, the oldest in Kungri, we learned that the abbot, Yomed Rinpoche, was away.

Young monks were working throughout the monastery and courteously offered to fetch the oldest monk they knew, who lived in the village. Our team was already returning to our vehicles when I told them to stop. “We don’t need to bother the old monk,” I told the teenage monk standing near me. “But tell me, who is the best dancer here?” The young monk, Tshering, 18, invited me to his room for tea and within minutes another monk, 23-year-old Palden Tundup, appeared. He spoke some English and was surprised that anyone, much less a foreigner, would ask for “the best dancer.” He was a little embarrassed that the designation “best dancer” was pretty much unanimously agreed upon by his fellow monks.

Palden Tundup explained that the rituals used at their monastery were from the Tantras of the Bhutanese Saint Pema Lingpa, with the exception of his 15th century dances. Also carried out were rituals of the Nyingma Terser tradition. Cham is performed twice each year, in a major Tsechu in October, as well as on the birthday of the abbot when several dances are performed.

Sanga Choeling has 75 monks and 38 boys. There is no champon or dance master. Instead, six jorpon, a type of monastery official, take responsibility for training and selecting the dancers. I asked how the dancers are selected and how he came to be the “best dancer.” He laughed and replied, “We all have to learn Cham movements when we are 12. So the dancing is easy, we know it from childhood. We enjoy doing it, it is almost second nature.” We’d seen as much when the monks started dancing upon our arrival.

I asked about a Chams Yig, or dance manual, and Palden Tundup casually answered, “Every monk has a copy. Knowing it is part of being a monk here.” In nearly two decades of carrying out Cham research in the Himalaya, where most monasteries do not even have a Chams Yig, or cannot find it, or don’t use it if they do have one, we had never before encountered a monastery in which every monk had his own copy and knew its contents.

“Really?” I asked incredulously.

“Yes!” he laughed, and told the young monk making tea to show us his copy. The poor lad couldn’t find it, so Palden Tundup instructed the monk precisely where in his own room his copy could be found, and within minutes it was produced for us. Since we consider a Chams Yig to be a kind of Holy Grail for ancient Buddhist dance and have produced an expensive and beautifully designed dance treatise to share. We were a little surprised, therefore, to be handed a stapled, mimeographed copy of the Tibetan manuscript, quite the worse for wear. I was dumbstruck.

Palden Tundup was amused that we thought his monastic exercise of Cham was so extraordinary. It is a scholarly, tantric, and choreographic discipline performed by every monk with whom he lives. He further explained that the battered document I was holding was written in two types of Tibetan script, and that it instructed in all aspects of Cham at once: dance, meditation visualisations, and mantra (empowered chant), which are performed with the dance.

“Since Cham dances are ingrained in our bodies from childhood, we don’t worry about the dancing part. It is the meditation visualisations that are difficult, but we see improvement every year,” Palden Tundup related. “The Chams Yig is really a guide to Deity Action yoga. We like reading it, because it is more than reading.”

The original manuscript was produced in some unspecified ancient time by a monk named Dorje Dundop, who spoke out the Cham teachings to a scribe, who recorded them in the document we held before us. The Cham teachings themselves were attributed to Dortol Lingpa — a title that intrigued us greatly. “Lingpa” is a title used for a terton, or “treasure revealer” who is privileged to receive the hidden teachings of Guru Rinpoche, which were intended to be discovered at a future time. Pema Lingpa, whose rituals were used by Sanga Choeling, was a terton, and the many extant dances of his remaining in Bhutan are ter cham, or dances specifically left for the future by Guru Rinpoche.

We are searching for answers. Sounding similar to “Dortol,” the terton Dorje Lingpa also revealed a canon of Cham dances in the 14th century, and these dances have been kept alive at three monasteries in Bhutan. Pema Lingpa and Dorje Lingpa are two of the five Treasure Kings who left major bodies of tantric practices for posterity. Clearly, we have work ahead of us, unwinding this mystery of ancient dance.

I have so far been unable to find any information on Dortol Lingpa, but it remains a primary point of inquiry for us, particularly considering the age of the monastery and the fact that it is of the Nyingma school, the oldest school of Vajrayana Buddhism, and one that has shown us on numerous occasions to have the most interesting dances. The Chams Yig at Sanga Choeling details 14 unique dances. It still astounds me that every monk here can dance from the age of 12, and further, is easily familiar with the contents of the ancient Cham Yig that they keep in their rooms.

I asked Palden Tundup for his thoughts on the future of Cham, and his answer came swiftly: “All of Kungri is proud to uphold the ancient Nyingma teachings. It is still the case that every family’s second son becomes a monk. We are very proud of this tradition, and it will not fade away any time soon.” The other monks in the room nodded in approval. I was impressed with his sincerity and the nobility with which he spoke of his own traditions.

“We’re all really good dancers, too,” Palden Tundup teased me, his joy infectious. “You should come and see our Cham ceremony. We don’t do it like a tourist show, but I can tell you would like it.”

He’s right about that.

Joseph Houseal 1.

Once the human mind becomes compassionate and arouses the basic nature of compassion then the individual automatically becomes ethical.

— 5th Samdhong Rinpoche, Lobsang Tenzin

5th Samdhong Rinpoche, Lobsang Tenzin 31.

Those who turn their backs on worldly pleasures, and avoid any harmful actions, striving for peace for themselves alone — such individuals are said to be ‘intermediate’.

— Atiśha

Atisha (阿底峡尊者) 12.

Finding Excellence, A Tradition of Transmission (Part 2)
by Joseph Houseal

One needs to take a long view — one that spans vast distances and many centuries — to appreciate the context of the Cham dance traditions that were preserved for the future after escaping the devastation wrought on Buddhist practices during China’s brutal invasion of Tibet in 1950, the quashing of the 1959 Tibetan uprising, and the Cultural Revolution that followed from 1966. High lamas and rinpoches fled Tibet in the 1950s, taking with them memorised sutras, tantras, rituals, and dances kept alive within their minds and bodies.

Where do dances find sanctuary? The centre of this story is the centre of many stories: Tabo Monastery, founded in 996 in Spiti Valley in the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, is the oldest monastery in continuous use in all of India and the Himalayas. It is also the oldest surviving monastery of the second diffusion of Vajrayana Buddhism, spearheaded by Yeshe O’d (c. 959­–1040), ruler of the Guge-Purang Kingdom that extended from Kashmir to Mustang, and his preceptor Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo (958–1055), the famous monk translator.

Monasteries established during the first diffusion — initiated and carried out by Padmasambhava in the 7th century—still stand, such as Samye, the oldest of all Vajrayana monasteries. What distinguishes Tabo Monastery is its continuous functioning and role in linking people, cultures, languages, and art during critical periods of Buddhism’s growth and survival. The monastery’s design and decorations are among the most astonishing artistic achievements of the 10th and 11th centuries in the Trans-Himalaya.

In coming to know the character of Tabo Monastery, art history serves dance history. As shown in Figures 1, 3, and 4, we see that the inaugural styles of art from 996 and 1042 share characteristics with the finest Buddhist art of the 10th–13th centuries, in which the body is depicted as the locus of metaphysical transformation.

This art is often associated with the travels of Rinchen Zangpo. Tabo was considered a “daughter monastery” of Tholing Monastery in Ngari, Tibet, established in the 10th century and later transformed into a centre for King Yeshe O’d’s monastic and artistic vision. Tabo’s connections with Tholing include Tabo’s role as a trading station as well as a missionary outpost for the king’s expansionist plans.

The artistic style builds upon the intricate and sophisticated painting of deities in the Ajanta Caves in India’s Maharashtra State that date from before 500 CE. The shading of the body and intricate decorations, hairstyles, and attire appear in tiered compositions with hierarchies of metaphysical meaning. This original, exuberant style was taken to artistic heights rarely matched in Buddhism and is due to non-Buddhist artists from Kashmir and Nepal coming into contact with artists from Central Asia, Tibet, China, and India.

In addition to Tabo, the finest extant examples of this style of art can be found in the Alchi Monastery complex in Ladakh, in the surviving 12th century monastery at Wanla, Ladakh, and in the 1,000-year-old Nako Monastery near Tabo in Kinnaur. Central Asian elements, such as rainbow halos, flying dancers, and narrative landscapes, connect Tabo’s art with that found in the Dunhuang Caves, a terminus of the Silk Road in faraway Western China, and perhaps the greatest single record of ancient dances anywhere.

The art is a kind of ancient virtual reality, designed as an immersive experience through which one walks: text in the form of wall inscriptions, painting, sculpture, and relief combine as figures that are human scale, three times human scale, and in miniature. Landscapes are layers of portraits and narrative paintings with abstract religious symbols. It is a metaphysical head-trip meant to destroy and replace mundane perception with the mental formulations of Buddhist yoga.

Of note, regarding the use of the body in this art, is the seeming weightlessness of the bodhisattvas in relief, and the rare mudra (ritual hand positions) shown, some unidentifiable. In Buddhism, circumambulation, following ancient traces, and walking through mandala temples precede the establishment of dance in India, and lay a foundation for its meaning.

Less spectacular, visually, is the transmission of Sanskrit Buddhist texts and manuscripts that followed their own paths to Tabo, in which the monastery played a critical role. Not only did Rinchen Zangpo spend several years at Tabo translating Sanskrit scriptures into Tibetan, but a stream of Indian translators also came to Tabo to learn Tibetan. There, monks ready to teach them collaborated to produce translations of Buddhism’s voluminous literature into Tibetan. These translations were the foundation of Buddhism’s successful second diffusion. Over the centuries, like the artwork that represents the Nyingma, Sakya, Kadampa, and now the Gelugpa teachings, the manuscripts comprising Tabo’s Kangyur, (a set of Buddhist scriptures) are among the most diversely sourced in all Buddhism.

Less well known — in fact, unknown until our field research this year, during which we shared copies of a Buddhist dance treatise, The Snow Lion’s Attributes, with monasteries in Himachal Pradesh — is the story of dance lineages being transmitted through Tabo Monastery as it gave sanctuary to lamas fleeing Tibet, defying China’s objective of crushing all Buddhist practice, including Cham.

Thanks to Tabo and a certain monk known as Meme Gyupta (1927–97) who came to Tabo in 1957, and there taught the entire repertory of dances connected with the lineage of Cham from Tashigang Monastery in Tibet, one lineage of Cham dances survived and found a home. I spoke with the current abbot of Tabo, a Tibetan named Kanden Rinpoche, appointed by the Dalai Lama two years ago.

Kanden Rinpoche spoke forcefully about the scale of destruction by the Chinese, who reduced 60,000 monasteries in Tibet to less than 1,000. Despite all this, he affirmed that serious yogic Cham is still performed in the traditional Tibetan region of Amdo to this day as it was seen as something that could be sustained by the monks internally, whatever the external situation.

Kanden Rinpoche cited the founder of the Sakya school, Konchok Gyalpo (1034–1102), who said that Cham was debased as soon as it was made public. “Cham is not for tourists,” Kanden Rinpoche observed. “Tabo monastery does not advertise its Cham ceremonies, and does not invite anyone outside the monastery’s community, which includes three villages.”

Elder monk Zeten Zangpo entered the conversation to explain how Meme Guytpa (Jampa Tharchen) had taught the monks in 1957, treating Cham as a form of Deity Yoga expanded to become realized as masked dance. “Thanks to Tabo’s remote location and the current paucity of tourists, the monks are able to maintain that virtue in the movement,” he said. “Today there are six older monks who know the name and purpose of each step of every dance. The ceremonies feature 12 dancers, and 14 boys are in training.” Tabo features in three Cham ceremonies: on Losar (the Tibetan new year), during Saka Dawa (marking the birth of the Buddha), and the tri-annual Chakhar Festival.

However, there is no Chams Yig, or dance instruction manual. Fortunately, the six older monks have, between them, all the knowledge to write a Chams Yig for the ancient Tashigang lineage deposited at Tabo 60 years ago. Inspired by The Snow Lion’s Attributes, Seten Zanpo plans to compose a Tabo Chams Yig this winter, with the help of his fellow elder monks. Core of Culture has offered every assistance in this project to produce a lasting document — a memorialization — that will be an invaluable service to Vajrayana Buddhism and a great contribution to world culture.

For more than 1,000 years, Tabo Monastery has served Buddhism as a nexus for realizing great art, promoting trade and learning, translating Sanskrit scriptures, and preserving for perpetuity the ancient dance traditions. Nowhere was this vitality better seen than in 1996, during the 1,000th anniversary of the monastery, when the current incarnation of Lotsawa Rinchen Zangpo held a conversation with the monastery’s pre-Buddhist protectress Wi-nyu-nin, in front of her image, with the help of a medium. Tabo has remained true to its course.

Joseph Houseal 1.

When you are dreaming of what is possible for your life, you should know that anything is possible. You may not always feel it or see it, but you never for a single moment lack the capacity to change course. Your life is subject to infinite revision.

–17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje

17th Karmapa 25