Tibetan Monks to Perform Ancient Ritual Dances in S.D.

Times Staff Writer

While the world watched in horror as Chinese troops crushed the fledgling student democratic movement in Tien An Men square, Tibetans could take small comfort in knowing that they were observing an all-too-familiar pattern of harsh repression.

Since the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950, Tibetans have watched their protests brutally suppressed. But 12 Tibetan monks from the Dalai Lama’s Namgyal Monastery won’t give up. Through public performances on their first American tour, the monks are demonstrating here by performing an ancient ritual dance that depicts the destruction of forces threatening Tibetan Buddhism.

The local performance, a free outdoor event sponsored by San Diego’s Center for World Music and Related Arts, will take place at 12:30 p.m. Tuesday in the Balboa Park Organ Pavilion.

Among the rituals being performed on the tour is the “Black Hat Dance,” a traditional reenactment of a 10th-Century event--the assassination of the oppressor-king Lang-Dar-Mar. But it assumes new relevance after nearly 40 years of Chinese occupation of Tibet and the recent brutal crackdowns on nationalist feeling within the Himalayan country.


“What is going on in Beijing is absolutely nothing compared to what has been going on for years in Tibet and the hinterlands,” said actor Richard Gere, chairman of the New York-based Tibet House, which is sponsoring the monks’ tour. “I have been talking about this for years.”

Gere, who has studied with the Dalai Lama, describes himself as “a student of Buddhism” for 15 years. He was one of the founders of Tibet House, a nonprofit organization established in 1987 in New York “to save the culture of Tibet.”

The monks--exiles and children of exiles living in India--say that their art represents a bulwark against cultural genocide.

“Genocide? Definitely, that is what’s happening,” said Lobsang Samten, 37, one of the monks, speaking through an interpreter.


“The Chinese are wiping out the whole culture. This is a time when Tibet and what it represents could be lost to the whole world, the world community.

“What’s also important is not only Tibetan culture, but any culture that is actually part of the universal culture. It’s important that that not be allowed to degenerate or be destroyed or lost.”

The monks see their U.S. tour as a way of preserving the culture and countering government propaganda.

“The reason we’re doing this tour of ritual dances is for the purpose of sharing with the rest of the world Tibetan culture and religion and the Tibetan situation, and because there are many people who have not heard anything except for propaganda that the Communist Chinese have sent,” said Samten.


Proceeds from the tour will help house, clothe, feed and educate the refugees who continue to flee the Chinese occupation and arrive daily at the Namgyal Monastery, where the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of Tibet, took refuge in 1959.

The Dalai Lama is regarded by his 6 million followers in Tibet and about 100,000 emigrant Tibetans as the 14th reincarnation of a Buddhist deity. (Although he is the supreme leader only of the followers of the Tibetan sect, the Dalai Lama commands wide respect from the estimated 300,000 Buddhists in Southern California.)

How serious is the situation in Tibet?

Gere said that 1 1/2 million Tibetans have been killed. “That’s one-sixth of the population. Now there are 7 1/2 million Chinese in Tibet (through the government’s civilian population transfer policy), which makes the Tibetans a minority in their own country. . . .


“When you consider how quickly this was done to such an extraordinarily developed culture, it’s really heartbreaking.”

Further horrors were catalogued in testimony delivered to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Sept. 17, 1987, by John F. Avedon, author of “In Exile From the Land of Snows: the First Full Account of the Dalai Lama and Tibet Since the Chinese Conquest”:

“In sum, a 2,100-year-old civilization was essentially destroyed in a mere 20 years.”

The Tibetan religion is complex. The ritual dances, although performed in brightly colored brocade robes and various striking masks and headpieces, are not mere entertainment, either for the spectators or the dancers.


“The most important reason for performing these ritual dances . . . is to be able to eliminate or annihilate the disturbing emotions or mental afflictions,” said Samten.

That effort is directed on two levels.

“One is for people to see,” he said. “In Tibet, the people had great faith in the lamas or the teachers. Because they saw directly these costumes and these dancers, they had a feeling that they were seeing the Buddhas and very holy beings, which created happiness in their minds. That’s one level.

“On another level, performing the dances helped to increase the Tantric level meditations that the monks were doing. Based on that, it’s believed that the audience receives a blessing by coming to see dances that represent enlightened beings--a blessing that invokes, for the purpose of peace, a more peaceful state of mind.”


The dances will be authentic in costume and choreography but will be greatly shortened from the originals. The “Black Hat Dance,” for instance, takes three days when done at the Year End Ceremony. Explanatory commentary will be provided before each dance.

Although the steps may look simple, behind each dance is a complex symbolism and philosophy. The purpose of the “Lords of the Cemetery” dance, performed by four men in red skeleton costumes and grinning masks, for instance, is “to re-create the memory of impermanence,” Samten said.

“For the audience to remember impermanence and for each of the dancers to think about impermanence while they’re doing the dance.

“Some ritual dances can be learned very easily and very quickly within a couple of months,” he said. Others, because of the complexity of the movement, learning of the chants and understanding the symbolism, “are much more complicated and require several years of training.”


An example is the Offering Dance within the Kalachakra Initiation. “I’ve been a monk for 18 years and I’ve been studying it during that time,” said Samten. “But still I don’t consider myself to have really learned it well.”

Does he ever expect to perform it in Tibet?

“Always we have the great wish to return to Tibet,” he said, citing three reasons for the hope. “One is that the political situation of the whole world is constantly changing, and, two, the political situation in China, as we can see, also is constantly changing.

“And the third and most important reason is that everyone in the world wants to be happy and wants peace. And because everyone respects peace, everyone wants peace, they will support peaceful movements.”