Sacred Dance of the Yungdrung Bön Tradition

Cham dance at Menri Monastery on the 29th day of the 12th month. Photo credit: Unknown

As part of the Tibetan New Year monastic rituals and celebrations, sacred dances are performed and public viewing is allowed. Sacred dance exist in both Buddhist and Yungdrung Bön religious traditions as a means of conveying wisdom related to the path of enlightenment as well as the mundane world. Sacred dances, Tibetan: cham, are performed by both monks and laypeople. Each cham has its specific characteristics such as the particular costume, if there is a mask or no mask, the specific dance steps and body movements, which instruments are to be played as an accompaniment, and so on. When an ordained person wears the dress and ornaments of a deity and performs the dance, they dissolve attachment to their own identity and merge with the body, speech, and mind of the enlightened deity. In this way, the dances are meant to be viewed not as entertainment but with devotion and a pure view that one is witnessing the actual deity. Thus, illness, obstacles and negative influences are pacified and health, longevity and prosperity are strengthened and a multitude of inconceivable blessings are received.

Among the variety of cham within the Yungdrung Bön religious tradition, there are three cycles of sacred dance that are commonly performed: (1) Sacred dance of the Mother Tantra, (2) Sacred Dance of the NIne Zema Sisters, and (3) Sacred Dance of the Nine Indestructible Shenraps. 

His Holiness the 33rd Menri Trizin Lungtok Tenpa Nyima Rinpoche is widely credited with personally rescuing the Bön traditional sacred dances from obscurity. He was a student in Amdo and had responsibility for the dances for six years. During three of those years, he performed at the end of the line of dancers. After those three years, he performed as the dance master at the beginning of the line. He trained both monks and nuns to perform the traditional dances. Having danced as both a novice at the end of the line as well as the dance master at the head of the line, he was able to preserve the complete performance instructions for the dances.

His Holiness 33rd Menri Trizin demonstrates sacred dance steps at Menri Monastery. Photo credit: Unknown

The Sacred Dance of the Mother Tantra was not commonly performed for the public until after the 15th century. It is similar to Buddhist Mother tantra cham dances in that it demonstrates the path of liberation. It also shares the characteristic of the dancers wearing black hats with black coverings hanging in front of the eyes. This cham is performed after creating the mandala of the Mother Tantra and performing the feast offering for the collective Mother Tantra deities. The steps of the dance can be divided into three categories that are named according to the first three syllables of the Tibetan syllabary: KA, KHA, and GA. During the KA steps, all of the deities are invited with the sound of the large drum. With the KHA steps, the six emanations of Sipé Gyalmo, the forty peaceful and wrathful deities, the forty-five female guardians, and the thirty-five supreme deities of space are presented with offerings. With the GA steps, the four kinds of enlightened activity are accomplished and blessings are bestowed. This dance has been greatly supported by the Shen family, who are the descendants of the the Lord Buddha Tönpa Shenrap Miwoché.

Mother Tantra cham with its characteristic black hats. Photo credit; Unknown

The Sacred Dance of the Nine Zema Sisters depicts the beginning of our world system according to Yungdrung Bön cosmology. According to one account, the goddess  Lhamo Chucham Gyalmo and Lha Gö Tokpa produced twenty-seven eggs. From the first nine eggs emerged the Zema Gu, or the nine Zema sisters who have animal heads and human bodies. These nine sisters were appointed as protectors by Takla Mebar. It is said that this dance began with the tertön Shenchen Luga who discovered the text in 1017 AD.

During the dance, the dancers wear animal masks that represent each of these nine sisters. From all twenty-seven eggs emerged one of twenty-seven sisters. In the early days of Tibet, all twenty-seven sisters were depicted in the dance. This cosmology is deeply rooted in Tibetan history such that the country of Tibet was once referred to as “born from an egg.” The nine zema sisters are:

  1. Blue Dragon-headed
  2. Dark-green Snake-headed
  3. Black Garuda-headed
  4. White Lion-headed
  5. Red Bear-headed
  6. Dark-red Wolf-headed
  7. Dark-brown Tiger-headed
  8. Yellow-green Garuda-headed
  9. Female Lu with a hungry mouth

This dance has fifteen different kinds of steps:

  1. Guiding along the Path steps
  2. Tiger Steps
  3. Gait of a lion steps
  4. Peaceful and Wrathful steps
  5. Meri steps
  6. Mother Tantra steps
  7. Wrathful manner steps 
  8. Welcome steps
  9. Energy moving steps 
  10. Drawing the Arrow
  11. Taming the Sky
  12. Taming the Earth
  13. Shooting Four
  14. Sipé Gyalmo steps
  15. Cycle of Bön Lamas steps

Monk dancers dressed as the six emanations of the protector Sipé Gyalmo. Photo credit: Unknown

Sacred Dance of the Indestructible Shenraps is different from other dances in that there are many lead dancers. It has been performed since the 15th century every year on the 29th day of the 12th lunar month as instructed by the founder of Menri Monastery, His Holiness the 1st Menri Trizin Nyammé Sherap Gyaltsen Rinpoche. This sacred dance depicts nine religious protectors of the Yungdrung Bön tradition that have all taken vows to protect the religion and its followers. The dance has nine distinct types of steps that each have a precise meaning.  The nine protectors depicted in the dance are:

  1. Sipé Gyalmo who is the principal of the dance

  2. Mudü who is the chief of the fierce dré and srin spirits

  3. Tsen who is chief of the powerful tsen dré spirits

  4. Absé Gyalwa who is another chief of the powerful tsen spirits

  5. Nyipangsé who is a gyalpo or king spirit of Zhang Zhung

  6. Dzam Ngon who is also known as Blue Dzambhala or Kubera and is a wealth deity

  7. Sheltrap Chen

  8. Drakpa Sengé

  9. Tago

Monk dancers emerge from the meditation hall to perform before the crowd at Menri Monastery. Photo credit: Unknown

Tibetan translations by Raven Cypress Wood

Raven Cypress Wood ©All Rights Reserved. No content, in part or in whole, is allowed to be used without direct permission from the author.

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Posted on February 13, 2021, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Thank you for these precious photos and explanation of the dances. Years ago in Washington, DC, I was delighted to help host the 33rd Menri Trizen and take him in for a White House tour. It would have been so amazing to see him lead these dances at Menri!

  2. Extraordinary blog today, thank you! When will we see the book?

  3. Hi Dan,
    The book about the sang practice if eminent. Just need to finalize editing.
    Happy Losar,
    Raven

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