Dance and Song as Meditation: Rehearsals for Marme Monlam 2014

January 15 and 16, 2014
Monlam Pavilion, Bodhgaya

 There were two rehearsals for the Marme Monlam, one the night before and another the afternoon of the day itself. Both times, the Gyalwang Karmapa was present and connecting with all the performers. He conversed with the musicians from the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts, with whom he has worked for years. He talked with the technical manager, who directed a huge bank of equipment, set up like a small fortress at the back of the shrine. This complex controls over forty spotlights that hung like ripe fruit from the ceiling of the Pavilion stage; fourteen lights that stood across the back like soldiers in medieval armor, swinging right and left up and down, and another twenty or so along both sides lifted their heads and bowed again. The lights surrounded a huge screen, forty by twenty-two feet. During the last days of the Monlam, it depicted a deep blue sky with bright clouds, and now during rehearsals, videos are playing behind the performers. All this equipment came from one of India's top lighting and production companies, employed by stars like Bon Jovi. The staff came at 8am one morning and worked through to 4am the next day to set up everything before the Monlam started. In terms of the setting and the professional skill of the performers, this year's Marme Monlam is light years ahead of those in the past.

Within this milieu, the Karmapa is clearly enjoying his role as director of events, taking care of even the smallest detail.  For the Lamp Prayer at the end, he sits in the middle of the stage, with rows of nuns on his right and monks on his left, each one holding in their lap a lotus that is lit from within. Looking at the whole picture, the Karmapa decides to change the format: they all should enter holding the mudra of meditation. And further, when they are sitting and a bell is hit twice, "Ting! ting!" they should lift the lotuses to their heart level. The Karmapa then walks over to the man with the bell and rings it twice to show him just the right sound.

Off to the side of the stage, tuning their instruments or exchanging ideas about how to play or sing, other performers are waiting their turn. One musician talks with us about his experience of meditation and playing his instrument. His lama taught him that sound comes from emptiness and that practicing with his voice and instrument is meditation. The musician has played for many years and knows that if he tries too  hard to play well, he will not, even if he tells himself to loosen up, because he is nervous and the music does not come from his heart. After studying Buddhism, he can see through all these thoughts and relax. While playing, he now feels inspired; imagining that the whole audience is the Karmapa, he makes a musical offering to him and the music comes from his whole heart.

Another musician talks about the orchestra, which was a new idea of the Karmapa for the Tibetan Institute of Performing Arts (TIPA).  Some of the traditional Tibetan instruments have come from China, and the Karmapa plays well a seven-stringed instrument called the Kuching, which may have inspired him to envision a larger group.  The orchestra includes flutes, yangching (strings like the insides of a piano played with small flexible sticks), a pipa (resembling a lute), nanhu (held upright and bowed), a Tibetan dranyen (like a small guitar), and an electric piano. The TIPA musicians trained especially for this occasion, improving their skills while preparing their musical offering.

Watching the rehearsal from the front of the stage is an elegant Indian couple, Dr R.S. Nandakumar and his wife Dr. Rhadika Nandakumar. Both hold a PhD in musicology and come from Mysore in southern India, home to a community with a strong interest in preserving Sanskrit culture. In 2010 the Karmapa had been researching dohas (spiritual songs of realization) within his lineage, and the first one he found was from Tilopa, the great Indian master and fountainhead of the Kagyu lineage. At this same time, Dr Nandakumar was writing his dissertation on the doha tradition in Karnataka. Along with a few others, he was asked to sing this doha and send the recording to the Karmapa, who finally chose him as the one to perform at the Karmapa 900 celebration.  This year, the Karmapa has asked his wife, who is a classical Indian dancer, to perform with her husband, who will sing again Tilopa's doha.  

The two artists talk about their work together on stage, which is always preceded by half an hour of meditation. This fine attunement is obvious during their performance, which embodies the sacred and timeless. In classical dance, they explain, the meaning of each word the singer puts forth is suggested by a gesture; the communication of the hand gestures is embedded in the style of dancing.  The earliest classical dance text has the Sanskritized word for doha, dvipadi, which means two lines. These are so well constructed that just these two lines can be the whole song; the singer can take any portion and sing it in a cycle to bring out the meaning. This spontaneity is built into the event, and so the song and the dance are different every time. To stay in touch, the Nandakumars have a secret system of communication so the dancer can shift with the song.

The earliest dohas found in India have been Buddhist and they have inspired other traditions, so it has become a pan-Indian meditative form of artistic expression.  Talking about the meaning of the doha, Dr Nandakumar explains that they have composed new verses for the beginning that ask for the guru's blessing, "Oh Karmapa, these opening verses are an offering to you." Usually the singers include their name but not in doha, because "everything is the guru. It is the guru who sings in us, who moves us. The guru is the doha itself."

Dr Nandakumar  gives a synopsis of the meaning that follows these opening lines. The entire world is connected, yet only with the guru's blessings can we understand. The knowing mind is just like the wind blowing around us. With the blessing of the guru we come to experience the purest mind. We supplicate the Buddha without impurities or concepts; we envision him and give everything we have. In this worldly existence, Tilopa counsels us, don’t rest your mind on things. Go back to the Buddha, let your mind rest on the Buddha, because he is the nectar of the ocean of wisdom.

The word Buddha appears in each line, and the singing and dancing circle around this word so that the mind of the practitioner is captured. The final statement of the doha is A ham shunyata (emptiness), the ultimate destination, and the last line of the doha. The experience of the shunyata is spontaneous. There is nothing less, nothing more; there is nothing to take away and nothing to add. Everything is of one nature, everything is the guru.  At the end, the performers offer their song and dance to the Karmapa and ask if what they have done is acceptable to him. "Would you accept our offering?"

Meditation and offering, devotion and the inspiration of the Karmapa are themes that run throughout the conversations during rehearsal. They are the framework, the very medium through which the performances take place. So the entertainment is not ordinary, but permeated with spiritual purpose, a fitting end to the Monlam with its aspiration to spread peace within the hearts of everyone and throughout the world.


  1. His Holiness' singing at the finale of this year's marme monlam was hauntingly astounding. I can't find it anywhere on the net. If only I could see/hear it again. Can you help?


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