A steady drumbeat sets the pace as the ringing of ritual bells and the moaning bleating of the kangling the trumpets weave a rich sound tapestry. Dressed in burgundy robes and majestic golden crescent-shaped hats, a group of Buddhist nuns move for ceremonial purposes through the monastery grounds to an open-air courtyard. Some carry and play instruments. Some carry banners, victory banners and flags. Others carry trays of ritual instruments. The master of offerings waves a packet of incense purifying the way for a small cohort who pulls up a tray with a large terrifying effigy surrounded by a cardboard aura painted with flames. A final group emerges, dressed in the dramatic costumes of the Tantric Black Hat Masters. These advanced practitioners are about to dance and sing an elaborate ritual to transform the ordinary world into a field of enlightened energy.
At Mount Druk Amitabha, on the outskirts of Kathmandu, Nepal, this ritual, called torgyab, is performed by the Drukpa nuns, widely known as Kung Fu Nuns, and no stranger to break glass ceilings.
In vajrayana, or Tantric Buddhism, meditations and ritual activities centered on fierce deities are performed to generate the energy needed to overcome internal and external obstacles to spiritual advancement. Torgyab is a Vajrayana ritual performed across the Himalayas in preparation for Losar, the Tibetan New Year, to rid the community and the universe of negativity and promote excellent conditions for the coming year. Carried out on the last day of the year Drubchen (intense period of meditation, prayer and ritual) dedicated to Vajrakilaya, a wrathful form of Buddha Vajrasattva, the torgyab ritual invites this fierce deity of compassion to dispel obstructive forces.
The torgyab ritual is performed with a powerful dance called Zorcham. But the nuns – being women – were never allowed to execute Zorcham until recently.
In the Himalayan Buddhist monastic environment, the performance of these rituals and their sacred dances (cham) is traditionally prohibited for practitioners. But the Drukpa nuns – guided by the visionary leadership of His Holiness on the 12the Gyalwang Drukpa, the dynamic spiritual leader of the over 1000-year-old Drukpa lineage of Himalayan Buddhism, began practicing lineage religious rituals and prayers in 2001. Two years later, Gyalwang Drukpa began to practice lineage religious rituals and prayers. teach nuns the cham dances which are part of the rituals. He then began their kung fu training in 2008 after observing nuns in Vietnam practicing martial arts.
Over the past 20 years, nuns have engaged in daily worship and ritualistic activities that are still prohibited for women in most Himalayan monastic communities. Now, nuns are broadcasting their daily worship online to expand the reach and effect of their radical practice. During this finale of their three-day annual Vajrakilaya Drubchen for the Removal of Barriers, the nuns performed Zorcham as part of this symbolic exorcism of negativity.
By publicly performing Zorcham, these practicing nuns challenge the dominant attitudes of what is feminine within Vajrayana communities. They are redefining themselves, the competence of female Buddhist practitioners and the possibilities for girls and women everywhere.─not only as full participants, but as instigators and facilitators of a more positive world.
How to watch dancing and what it means
In February 2020, I was to go to Druk Amitabha Mountain to witness these sacred activities and dances. But as the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, public participation in the drubchen was canceled. I looked for the nuns Facebook page and noticed that they were posting video clips of their activities for their subscribers. (The Gyalwang Drukpa has active sanghas all over the world─in Asia, Europe, the United Kingdom and the Americas.) Facebook posts have evolved to offer complete records of their Sadhana (worship) practices and special events─including the cham. Now anyone can watch the ritual online. But what is really going on and what does it mean? Let me explain.
Note: the video has no sound.
The long horns emit rhythmic explosions as the officiants arrive at the ceremonial ground prepared with a pyramid of stacked wood and branches for the torgyab. Drukpa nuns continue the procession─dance in two steps─circling the ceremonial ground, creating the outer boundary of a sacred mandala, or buddha field. The wrathful effigy in the center of their orbit is placed on a table under the protection of a black parasol in front of the wooden pyramid.
You will see the Black Hat dancers wearing their high hats and aprons painted with the face of a fierce deity. Every aspect of the costume and the hand instruments is an intentional signal to the dancer and the viewer to support spiritual transformation. They dance while holding a bell in the left hand (symbolizing emptiness) and a kapala (skull cup) in the right (representing the transformation of our ordinary body, speech and mind into one body, one word and one. enlightened mind). The defining black hat represents a mandala. The black circular base and the cup are painted with symbols to infuse it with power.
The dancers form a semicircle and dance assertive jumps, pirouettes and jumps. “We have to jump as furiously as possible,” says Lopon Jigme Tingdzin, the master cham of the convent. “You have to visualize yourself fully as a Vajrakilaya. You are no longer an ordinary girl, a nun. All of these dualistic concepts have to be totally demolished, so while you dance the dances you are 100% focused on being Vajrakilaya. ”
But they also meditate on boundless compassion, a key element of the dance, which is the culmination of three days of drubchen practices to visualize and generate oneself as this fiercely compassionate deity.
When the dancers stop, the nuns sing a hymn referring to the horizontal sin strips of text that several nuns hold. The sturdy horn section plays a series of groans from the 7-foot-long instruments called dung. The sound of each of the sacred instruments serves a symbolic purpose. Dungchen frequently announce the arrival of a deity or dancers. the kangling (trumpets, sometimes made from a human tibia or femur or metal) call or nurture spirits or deities. The horns are all played in pairs and this is to provoke a meditation on the union of wisdom and compassion.
The video clip ends here. Another hymn begins as the master of offerings gestures his arm in dramatic, upward sweeps sprinkling the effigy of consecrated water, symbolically demolishing its solidity and merging it into a void. The long horns explode as the Black Hats repeatedly hurl black streamers that they hold with their right hands towards the effigy to attract negative energy there.
Another hymn is sung. The cymbals break down. The horns are moaning. The banners fly.
Tension mounts and the nuns sing another hymn─this time faster with the rhythm driving drums.
The cymbals break down. The horns are moaning. The banners fly.
The song resumes on a faster and more insistent rhythm. The banners fly.
The dancers begin a slow, controlled dance to a dark song. They lift one leg in the air and balance on the other leg while pivoting, then switch legs. Lopon Jigme Tindzin explains, “When you lift your leg you release yourself from samsara and when the leg is lifted to the sky it means release into nirvana.” All the while, they are getting closer to the effigy. The dancers stop and the choir takes over─sing a beautifully harmonized and balanced hymn to the rhythm of the drums. At its completion, the horns and cymbals announce the ritual action at hand. the dorje lopon, ritual master, take a phurba (Ritual dagger with 3 blades, symbol of Vajrakilaya) and pierces two small effigies of paste (symbolizing our afflicting emotions and our concept of self) contained in a triangular box. Although this ritualistic ‘act of liberation’ is performed by the dorje lopon, the entire ‘team’ is fully focused on dissolving all dualistic concepts into a void and generating benevolent compassion to transform toxic forces into void. healthy energy.
The dorje lopon takes a bow and shoots three arrows─up, forward and down─to better master all obstacles while the choir takes up the harmonized hymn. In this brilliantly orchestrated confluence of movement and sound, dramatic tension mounts as the dance continues─get closer to the wrathful image.
The melody grows faster, changing to a spoken liturgy fast to the pulse of the cymbals. Finally, a new recitation begins to the insistent rhythm of the drum and the branches are lit. Within moments, a raging fire is on fire. Several nuns help the dorje lopon to lift the heavy tray with the ritual image. They launch the dreaded construction with its protective umbrella and other symbolic objects into the fire to burn away negativity, illusion and confusion. The dung rings in a continuous tone, allowing everyone to relax in the auspicious experience or tashi, because everything is consumed. After a final hymn, everyone returns through campus after completing the task of cleaning up and preparing the environment (indoor and outdoor) for the New Year.
Thanks to Lopon Jigme Tingdzin of Druk Amitabha Mountain for generously providing explanations and visual aids.