- Invoking Happiness: Guide to the Sacred Festivals of Bhutan and Gross National Happiness by Khenpo Phuntsok Tashi
This volume by Khenpo Phuntsok Tashi, the current head of the National Museum of Bhutan in Paro, is a useful introduction to the dance/mask performance (cham) of Bhutan. The material is largely a combination of striking visuals and descriptions from a Bhutanese scholar, practitioner, and religious teacher but briefly addresses the theoretical and spiritual principles behind this Vajayana Buddhist performance. While some of the material is distinctive to Bhutan, the general ideas will help those researching performance festivals in Tibet and Nepal. Photos of individual masks and their use in scenes and dances will aid identification for those attending Himalayan Buddhist temple festivals.
The author describes dances that are ascribed to the eighth-century culture bringer Padmasambhava (called Guru Rinpoche in Bhutan). Author Khenpo Phuntsok Tashi began his work with a visit to the Tiger's Nest (Takshang), a cave high above the Paro Valley where that saint reportedly meditated while visiting Bhutan. The book was completed on the day Padmasambhava's thondrol (large portrait image) was unfurled at the Paro tshechu [End Page 236] (festival). For the author and mask dance performers, spiritual practice and arts are interlinked.
The text begins with general principles of performance in Bhutanese Buddhism, discussing three of the major festivals of contemporary Bhutan, those at Paro, Thimpu, and Bumthang. Next, illustrations and insights into the twenty-five dances found at these festivals are provided. While the short descriptions leave the reader wanting more discussion, the book provides preliminary material to compare and contrast festivals and mask types. The volume concludes with a short background on major monk-artists who helped fix the dances in their contemporary form.
In the preface the author remembers his own experience of learning the dances for lay people as a youth, noting the cold winds and strict discipline, including beatings when one made a mistake. But he (p. 3) also remembers the pride and inspiration when his teacher shouted, "Stretch up your hands like the wings of a vulture and raise up your leg in a gesture of the wrathful deities!"
The opening introduces the dances by linking them to the current government policy of Gross National Happiness: "Festivals can be considered manifestation of these Buddhist aspirations, displayed to the public in order to provide both teachings and direct experiences related to the path toward enlightenment" (p. 12). The author argues that festivals are both a cause and condition of an enduring positive happiness and create harmony for beings that are present. At a festival, audience, dancers, and indeed all sentient beings in the vicinity are felt to have the possibility of transcendence, with passing insects included (p. 49)! He argues that performing is more than mimesis: "Inside the Guru Rinpoche costume, a sacred lama has tantrically transformed his mind into that of Guru Rinpoche by using the very methods that Guru Rinpoche himself taught" (p. 33). For both dancer and audience member the performance is part of religious practice: "Tshechu dancers undertake deep meditation and transform themselves into the particular Guru manifestation, fulfilling their role as an embodiment of that deity before the public" (p. 43). Dancers detach their mind from worldly things and thereby eliminate obstacles to enlightenment. The viewers by watching are, likewise, separated from ego and prepared to "undertake compassionate actions for the benefit of all beings" (p. 43). Clearly, in this Buddhist aesthetic-spiritual practice, Aristotelian thinking does not apply.
Gar thig yang suem (art of body, speech, mind) is the performer's technique. Gar is a shortened version of garcham, which refers to mudras (chagja), sacred dance (cham), and yoga (tsalung). Thig refers to the creation of a mandala— which here is executed in dance and drama. Yang is the chanting that pleases "the ear and mind by reducing and dispelling negative feelings" (p. 47). When one has mastered body, speech, and mind (suem), one becomes a master or lopon. Festivals are events that generate merit for the well...