Dancing monks? That collocation of words seems strange from our cultural point of view. Dance is not recognised as a deep experience of a spiritual kind but is rather seen as a form of artistic expression or entertainment unsuitable for a person in a monk’s habit. In order to appreciate the meaning of dance as a spiritual and contemplative practice, it is necessary to first understand the significance of its function in Himalayan Buddhism.
During their dance performances, the monks achieve a particular state of consciousness that may be called a trance. In this state of elevated consciousness, the dancers communicate blessings to all present with the aid of sacred and highly symbolic gestures. This blessing cleanses and frees participants in the ceremony from the five mental poisons that disrupt inner harmony – the state of mind and body fundamental to Buddhist practice. These five poisons are hate, spite, ignorance, pride and envy. Each of the dances has its own symbolic meaning. All the choreographic elements and costumes, even each dance step, lead the understanding viewer into the world off sacred Buddhist truths and the history of its triumph in the Himalayas.
In the 8th Century AD, the supernaturally empowered Buddhist monk Padmasambhawa, having overcome the mountain demons in a great struggle, introduced the complete Indian Buddhist teachings to Tibet and Bhutan. This story of his deeds described in dance and music leads us step by step into the universe of Himalayan Buddhism. As we carefully observe the dancers, we discover key religious truths, moral messages and ways of expressing beauty and harmony in art. The order of the dances is not random as each is a chapter in a single book, the Tsechu, which creates a ritual whole in dance and music over three days.
A full three days of dance, often in heavy costumes and masks, is an enormous challenge for the dancer monks not only in the choreographic, but also the physical sense. In order to gain the honour of becoming a dancer, the young monks go through special fitness tests and then practice for years before the first performance. The fourth day includes the ceremony’s culminating moment. Long before dawn, a Thongdrel is hung from the monastery walls. This is a huge 30-meter high and 45-meter long thangka (Tibetan tapestry) embroidered in silk on silk cloth. It depicts Padmasambhawa surrounded by his disciples. The chance to see, touch and pray before this holy cloth signifies the highest blessing for believers.
Travelling through the Himalayas discovering the world of the local culture and religion, I dreamt of taking part in a Tsechu. Currently, these ceremonies only take place in Bhutan, the last free country of Himalayan Buddhism. The chance of realising this dream came about when, thanks to the support of the National Geographic, I applied for accreditation in Bhutan. Gaining accreditation, especially in order to film or photograph, is a byzantine process in this country. It requires many clearances and precise definition of what, where, when and why as regards the object of our interest. Fortunately, the name National Geographic opened all doors.
When, I was just about to gain this precious document, I received the most distressing news. The abbot of Wangdue monastery informed the persons responsible for my accreditation that the ceremony had been cancelled due to the difficult financial situation of the monastery. I felt the most enormous disappointment. I also thought of the thousands for whom the Tsechu was the long-awaited culmination of the whole year. I am not very good at giving up on my dreams. I needed to know, at least for myself, that I had done everything in my power to support the monastery. I asked the abbot what funds were needed to organise the ceremony. Taking into account its scale, I expected a sum of at least a few thousand dollars. And I was under no illusion that I would be able to raise it all in the short time I still had in Bhutan.
So my surprise was great when I received the news that the whole sum was 1500 dollars needed for the team hanging out the Thongdrel on the last night. The amount, even in the modest conditions of Bhutan, did not seem astronomical. I decided to become the monastery’s benefactor, though under the condition of co- financing of half the amount by representatives of local business. Being aware of the Bhutanese national pride, I assumed that the example from abroad would evoke a reaction from local donors. It turned out to be a good idea and the abbot’s appeal was answered almost immediately.
The knowledge that I had done something for my hosts brought me great joy. However, the greatest reward was waiting for me at the Wangdue monastery. Treating me as a friend of the monastery, the Abbot granted me the exceptional permission to photograph the dancing monks not only during their official performances but also allowed me to take pictures behind the scenes. This is how an intimate account by the actual central actors of the event itself arose, one that was much more than a typical viewer’s story.
Creating this photographic essay, I wanted to show how the monks transform into dancers, their emotions before going on stage, the meditation turning into a trance during the performance, the moments of relaxation and joy at the end of each day of the ceremony. In whatever way I could, I tried to discretely accompany them with the camera, respecting the rhythm of their work and the intimacy of their rest. I did not feel treated as an intruder, though at first my presence must have disrupted the harmony painstakingly created over the years. And as time went on, I felt ever more accepted. During their free time, I tried to show the effects of my work so that they felt more at ease with it. At first hesitantly and with reservation there were requests to take pictures of moments that were especially important for them, or to take their portraits. So thanks to the acceptance of the monastery abbot and the support of the dancers, I had the unique opportunity to make a photographic report that was more than just another ethnographic dance documentation, but the first ever material about the actual people central to the event – about their emotions, physical travails, their moments of contemplation and their ecstasy.