འཆམ ‘cham

Photo Courtesy: Mathieu Ricard and Filip Wolak

The origins of ‘Cham are said to be buried in Tibet’s pre-Buddhist era, abound with gruesome human and animal sacrifices to keep demons at bay. Eventually, the ancient shamanic dance was adapted and tamed by Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, the great Indian sage who introduced Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century C.E. The first Buddhist ‘Cham was performed by Padmasambhava himself to consecrate the site of the construction of Samye Monastery, the famous Tibetan Buddhist temple complex built in the year 779 on the initiative of King Trisong Detsen. The foundations were to be laid at the points where the Guru’s shadow touched the ground. The dance effectively subjugated the local spirits hostile to the introduction of the Buddhist dharma, bound them by oath and transformed them into protectors of the Buddhist faith, ensuring a purified realm for the construction of the temple. Since then, ‘Cham has been performed on auspicious occasions to consecrate any sites of temple or stupa to be built. Apart from regional and sectarian variations, the major monasteries developed their own performance schedules according to the Tibetan liturgical calendar.

Much more than just dance, ‘Cham is an extravagant liturgical performance of the conquering of evil forces. Contrary to Gar which is performed by monks within closed walls, ‘Cham is carried out in the presence of lay audience. It has been passed down for centuries, mainly through oral traditions. Ever since the first dance of Padmasambhava, additions to ‘Cham have been introduced by accomplished yogic masters known as Treasure Revealers (tertöns), who discovered treasures (terma), including instructions to the dances, hidden by Padmasambhava until they were destined to be revealed. Additions to ‘Cham were also revealed in mystical yogic visions during which heavenly characters would teach the dances to the meditating saints. According to the Vajra Master in charge of the dance ritual practice[1] at Rumtek monastery, the Kagyu ‘Cham originated from Ga Lotsawa [2] who was born in the 12th century.For the Kagyu tradition, the dances were preserved through the Marpa Kagyu, especially in the Guhyasamaja and Hevajratantras, but only became accessible to the public after the Seventh Karmapa, Chodrak Gyatso. The Karmapas are also known to create dances through their pure visions, such as The Dance in the Rhythm of Seven and Eight by the Seventh Karmapa, Chodrak Gyatso, and the Dance of the Black Hat, by the Eighth Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje. Many dances in the Kagyu lineage were discovered by a great nonsectarian master and tertön, Chokgyur Dechen Lingpa (1829-1870), who prophesized that Karmapa would take rebirth for a total of twenty-one times[3].

Besides physical demonstrations and oral instructions, ‘Cham was preserved in the form of writing, called ‘Cham-yig. These dance manuals were written not just by anyone but highly qualified lamas, prescribing minute details of the ritual, the movement steps, hand gestures (mudra) and the symbolism behind them, the masks and costumes to be adorned, the accompanying music and so forth. A deeper understanding of the dance cannot be achieved without thorough study of the ‘Cham-yig but access to them is difficult and mastery of the Tibetan language is required. According to many Western references on ‘Cham, the ‘Cham-Yig written by the Fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682) was the first authoritative text on ‘Cham[4]. It was the first Cham-yig to be translated, but it is highly questionable that it was the first authoritative text in Tibet given the fact that ‘Cham has existed and was being passed down for generations before that. Richard Kohn (2001) pointed out that the Fifth Dalai Lama brought ‘Cham into the Gelug-pa tradition and became one of the main exponents of the Mindroling Dance Traditions after being inspired by Chogyal Terdag Lingpa’s (1646-1714) new Nyingma-pa dance festivals.

[1] Karma Gyaltsen Namgyal (hereby referred to as Lama Gyaltsen)

[2] Great siddha and translator who visited India; also known as Palchen Galo. GaLotsawa Zhonnu Pal was one of the teachers of the First Karmapa. He was also the guru of Pamodrupa Dorje Gyalpo (1110-1170) who was a student of Gampopa. He stayed at Nalanda monastery and meditated in the Cool Grove Charnel Ground, where he had a vision of a wisdom-protector and received predictions. (Source: The Autobiography of Jamgon Kongtrul: A Gem of Many Colors By Kon-sprul Blo-gros-mtha’-yas and Blazing Splendor: The Memoirs of Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche By Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche)

[3] Chogyur Dechen Lingpa’s oral explanation of his vision was recorded in a text called Sounding the Tones of the Melody of Auspiciousness.

[4] One of the first ‘Cham-yig was believed to be written by the fifth Dalai Lama (1617-1682) and the full text was completed in 1712 (Nebesky-Wojkowitz, 89).