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Asian Theatre Journal 19.2 (2002) 390-392

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Lord of the Dance: The Mani Rimdu Festival in Tibet and Nepal. By Richard J. Kohn. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000. 366 pp.; ill. $29.95

The Mani Rimdu festival of Tibet and Nepal is most familiar to Westerners and to native Sherpas and Tibetans for its three days of public, masked-dance performances that annually draw crowds of local spectators as well as tourists from around the world. This public presentation, however, is only a small part of Mani Rimdu, an elaborate eighteen-day Buddhist Tantric ritual.

Richard Kohn's study, based on more than a decade of research and his attendance at eleven festivals, meticulously describes the ritual practices of all eighteen days. He emphasizes that Mani Rimdu is best understood if one sees all the elements of the festival as parts of an organic whole. He compares Mani Rimdu to an elaborate work of art, such as a symphony or an opera, which has its "movements and motives, its structures and parallels, its changes of theme and emotion" (p. 6). Kohn is thus interested both in the "grand architecture of the festival as a whole" and in "the interplay of each element with others" (p. xxi). [End Page 390]

His thorough description of Mani Rimdu draws on his readings of Tibetan ritual texts, his interviews with lamas, chant leaders, and other significant participants, and his personal observations at two monasteries. Intermingled with this description is his analysis of each part of the festival and its relation to others. Kohn's faithful recording of both the public and the private parts of Mani Rimdu, based on a "Himalayan mass of data" (p. 4), makes an invaluable contribution to the study, not only of this tradition, but of Tantric Buddhist practices in general. The volume is a companion to Kohn's related documentary films, Lord of the Dance/Destroyer of Illusion and Destroyer of Illusion: The SecretWorld of aTibetan Lama. For performance scholars, the book puts the Mani Rimdu's masked dances in context and situates Tibetan and Nepali performance traditions within the framework of Tantric Buddhist thought.

The book is divided into two parts. The first, "Orientations," is a relatively short introduction to major aspects of the festival and their background, such as the gods who are invoked during the ritual, Tantric Buddhist dance practices, and the division of roles within the monastery.Part Two,"The Days," forms the bulk of the book. It provides a day-by-day account of the festival and all the practices of the monks both in preparing for and in executing the ritual. According to Kohn's primary informer, Trulshik Rinpoche, the lama most versed in the practice of this ritual, the dances are the least important part of the festival—and even unnecessary. The heart of this ritual, which uses dance, chant, and incense to engage all our senses, lies in the blessings the attendees receive from the lama, especially in the form of magic pills distributed during the empowerment portion of the ceremony. These pills provide "spiritual sustenance and physical well-being to all who take them" (p. 260). Furthermore, through its display, the ritual reinforces the monk's "compassionate duties: it is he, who for the sake of all beings, meditates on the infinite increase of the good, and takes on the responsibility of keeping the dangerous forces of the unseen world at bay" (pp. 260-261).

In Mani Rimdu, as in much of Tibetan ritual practice, certain things are kept secret and only passed on to initiates. Tibetan ritualistic texts regularly omit important information, so that only indoctrinated lamas can perform them. But with the threat that currently faces Tibetan culture, these unrecorded practices risk being lost forever. This situation makes Kohn's work, which attempts to fill every gap, uniquely important. The book's wealth of detail does at times threaten to overwhelm the reader. Kohn's zeal for recording the ritual in all its specificity even brought suspicion from Lama Tengpoche...