Vajra Lama Dance Revealed: An Introduction to the Garchen Tse Chu Cham

January 2014 is a monkey month in the Tibetan calendar and the 10th day is the anniversary of the birth of Guru Rinpoche, the tantric master who brought Vajrayana Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century.  It is a particularly auspicious day to connect with Guru Rinpoche, one of whose main activities is to remove obstacles in the dharma - outer, inner and secret. In many revealed texts it is said that Guru Rinpoche promised that he himself would actually appear on the tenth day of every month, and in particular, on the tenth day of the Monkey Month.

All the Karmapas are emanations of Guru Rinpoche, but the 17th Karmapa is said to be Guru Rinpoche himself, in person.  On this day the 17th Karmapa will be the lead dancer performing in 3 of the 20 dances in an all-day Lama Dance called the Garchen Tse Chu.  The dance will be performed for the first time ever in Bodhgaya; the last occasion was at Tsurphu, in Tibet. The dancers will also include H.E. Gyaltsap Rinpoche and H.E. Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche,and monks from Benchen, Mirik and Palchen Choling monasteries, all of which hold the tradition of the Tsurphu Garchen Tse Chu.

The Garchen Tse Chu, or 10th day Guru Rinpoche dance of the Great Encampment, was one of the major practices of the Great Encampment, which started during the time of the 7th Karmapa and lasted until the 10th Karmapa. At a time of civil unrest in Tibet, the huge encampment was caught between an army of Mongols under Gushri Khan and an army from Central Tibet. The resulting massacre saw the end of the Garchen and the 10th Karmapa barely escaping with his life.

It was the 14th Karmapa, Tekchok Dorje, who revived the Garchen Tsechu Cham and brought it into the Tsurphu tradition, where it has been performed uninterruptedly to the present.  

The Cham originates with a terton called Guru Chöwang, an important incarnation of one of the 25 disciples of Guru Rinpoche. Born in 1212, during the time of Karma Pakshi, the second in the Karmapa lineage, Guru Chöwang was in fact the terton for Karma Pakshi. Throughout their 900 year history, each of the Karmapas has had a particular terton who offers revealed treasure to him. In his recent teaching on the close connections of the Kagyu and Nyingma schools of Tibetan Buddhism, the 17th Karmapa described how the 16th Karmapa's mind was intermingled with the greatest Nyingma masters of his time. For this reason the Karmapas are known as terdak - the receivers of terma treasure.

Guru Chöwang revealed the text, Lama Sangdu, from a place called Tse in the region of Nyetong, which is where Phagmo Drupa was born, and it passed into the Kamtsang tradition through Mindroling Monastery, the Phagmo Drupa, and Palpung Monastery under the 8th Tai Situ, Chokyi Jungne. The Karmapas have been the lineage holders of this Cham through the ensuing centuries. In this lifetime it was Umdze Thubten Sangpo who taught it to the 17th Karmapa.

This terma or revealed treasure of Guru Chöwang is a combination of mind treasure and pure vision. The chanting of the text is a gom-ter or mind treasure. However, an oral tradition speaks of Guru Chöwang visiting the abode of Guru Rinpoche, known as the Copper Coloured Mountain or Zangdok Palri. There he saw the dakas and dakinis performing a dance. When he awoke, he recorded the movements of the dancers and it is this Cham or Vajra Dance that we will be watching on the tenth day.

Guru Chöwang arranged the choreography and the chanting of the dance. As Lama Sangdu is the name of the revealed text, we could say that this is a Lama Sangdu Cham. To be allowed to perform the Vajra Dance, the monks are required to do the entire Lama Sangdu practice, including the creation and completion phase practices, as well as the chanting.

There are 20 dances, and, significantly, no connecting story line. It is a recreation of the movements of the dancers as seen in the pure vision state of the treasure revealer. Thus there are no concepts to distract the mind.

The performers and the audience both receive great benefit from the dance. It has the power to protect them and open the mind to positive activity. These positive imprints are known as liberation by seeing.

To be able to witness this Vajra Dance performed by the 17th Karmapa, whose mind is so intermingled with Guru Rinpoche, that he is known as Guru Rinpoche himself, in the place of the Buddha's enlightenment, means that one has accumulated enormous merit. Because of this vast merit, wishes made on this day will be accomplished.

In HH 17th Karmapa's words:

We pray that by holding this puja along with the Vajra Lama dance,
the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism may spread and flourish,
that all declines in the environment and beings be pacified,
that everyone in the world may be happy,
and that all the people in the Noble Land of India,
and in particular the state of Bihar and the sacred site of Bodhgaya,
may be happy and prosperous,
and I believe that this will come true.


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