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This article was prepared by Barbara Fox for the May 11, 2005
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Tibetan Monks: Holy, But with Humor
In our culture, holy men don’t dance.
So it may seem a little strange when people from another land
demonstrate their spiritual commitment with movement.
Buddhist monks who have been exiled from Tibet are on tour of the
United States with a program that draws on all kinds of talents –
intellect, prayer, music and chanting and, yes, dance – the Black Hat
Dance, the Dakini Dance, and a Yak Dance. The monks from the Gaden
Shartse monastery in southern India will present "Sacred and Healing
Arts of Tibet" at the Princeton Center for Yoga and Health on Friday,
The Black Hat dancers re-enact the time when a ninth century religious
man dressed in black attire – feeling great compassion for an
oppressive king who needed to be removed from his throne – shot an
arrow into the king’s heart. Monks who perform this dance undergo
intense ritual preparation to achieve their intense focus on
compassion, and they believe that those who observe the dance can be
"cleared of both inner and outer obstacles," according to the program.
Some 25 years ago in Pittsburgh I saw the Black Hat dance performed by
monks who were on their first trip outside the borders of Bhutan, the
neighbor of Tibet. The monks moved with circular sweeping movements,
arms curved, stepping high, turning and bending. Even though I had no
idea what I was looking at, I was mesmerized. Yet the very next part
of the program involved a bit of low comedy, clowning around.
Just as the monks integrated movement into their worship experience,
they also integrated the sacred and profane into their daily lives.
These were holy men, but they were also young guys, 25-year-olds who
laughed at their own fright when they encountered their first
revolving doors and gleefully bought boom boxes as souvenirs.
When I watch another culture’s ritual dance I try to decipher its
purpose and absorb some of it into my own faith experience. If the
Black Hat mesmerizes with its intense focus, the Dakini dance
instructs. According to the program, the Dakinis try to entice the
Guru to leave the imperfect world, where he is instructing disciples,
and join them in their "pure land." At the end of the dance the Guru
consents to stay and continue to help the disciples, who,
nevertheless, are striving to get to the Pure Land.
The ultimate compliment for someone or something is to imitate it, and
so some American Indians perform a deer dance, in which they don the
skin of a deer. The Cudamani Balinese troupe at McCarter Theater last
month showed their Barong dance, in which two dancers in elaborate
costume acted out the part of the animal that represents Shiva, and as
the program closed the entire troupe turned their backs on the
audience and worshiped the deity.
For Tibetans, it’s the Yak Dance. The yak is as important to them as a
camel is to an Arab. Yak hair is woven into cloth for tents, and its
milk is used for nourishment and to make butter, which is sculpted
into ornamental patterns for temples and burned in lamps. I have not
seen this Yak Dance, but it has been described as playful and
Holy men, playful and hilarious? Holy men, dancing?
Maybe we Americans don’t know it all, after all.
-Barbara Figge Fox
Friday, May 13, 8:30 p.m., Princeton Center for Yoga & Health, 50
Vreeland Drive, Suite 506, Skillman. Monastic music and dance
presented by the touring Tibetan Monks of the Gaden Shartse Monastic
College in southern India. Benefit for the monastery. Donation $20.
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