Mysterious Dance

Tsam, Dance of mystery

Tsam, Dance of mystery.

Mogi*, my Mongolian friend, runs the Top Tours hostel in Ulaanbaatar. She has hosted me there multiple times on my journeys down from Russia. I roll in regularly due to the intricacies of visa requirements here in old Rus. She knows I am a cultural enthusiast, generally with camera in tow, so she put a bug in me ear about the “Tsam” dance.

Mongolia is an explorers paradise. She feels a lot like Montana to me, minus the fences, and the welcome is high, wide and handsome. Opportunities for discovery are as unlimited as the steppe itself. It is discovery that soothes my restless heart.

So when Mogi’s words flowed into my oral receivers and made contact in my frontal lobe, my comprehension was ECSTATIC! I couldn’t believe my good fortune! Tsam, or Cham dances are a rarity, attendance can be quite a trick. One has to be in tune with sacral calendar of a monastery that observes the Tsam, not all do. Unknowingly, I had made my way to Ulaanbaatar for three days, and a Tsam dance dish was served up spicy on my discovery plate! No chance I was gonna miss this.

Black Hat dance, performed by the Yellow Hat sect.

Black Hat dance, performed by the Yellow Hat sect.

Since my return to the confluence of the Selenga and Uda, the capital of the Siberian steppe, Ulan-Ude, I have actively searched the world wide web so to inform you of the deep meaning and religious significance of the Tsam dance. Alas, the web has remained virtually silent on this point. The Tsam dance is mostly mystery to the uninitiated. Here is what I know: the first Tsam was performed around 770 A.D. The dance originated in India, and quickly spread to Tibet. From Tibet, it spread up into Mongolia and then into Siberia. The dance is staged to combat the enemies of Buddhism. Many of the characters who appear in dreadful form, present themselves such, so as to strike fear into the hearts of evil demons: a kind of fight fire with fire approach. While they look dreadful, their hearts are full of love and peace according to the practicants of the ritual.

The rise of Soviet power in Siberia and Mongolia not only put the kibosh on Tsam dances, but ended the lives of more than 18,000 lamas in Mongolia alone. In Buryatia, between 1929 and 1937 45,000 Buryats were disposed of, roughly 10,000 of those being Buddhist monks. Monasteries across the Mongol world lay shattered, their practices and rituals soaking into the soil along with their lifeblood.

Tsam is only now making an impression again, twenty-five years after the end of Soviet power. The mystery has arisen again, to remain . . . mystery.

And now, unveiled before your very own two peepers, behold the mystery that is Tsam!

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 Tsam in the words of it’s practicants:

“The performing of cham not only destroys all obstacles to Dharma and its people,
it also purifies and blesses the whole earth.
These dances leave powerful karmic imprints in the minds of the people
who observe them.”
Drupon (Master Teacher) Sonam Kunga

“We show the same form as the evil so the evil can feel fear. The protective deities take a wrathful form in order to scare evil.”
Khenpo (Scholar) Konchok Namdak

“With the help of Cham, people can know the role of gods and devils,
and understand the fruits of good and bad work.”
Lopon (Abbot) Konchok Namgyal

“Through cham we are trying to destroy evil with love and compassion.”
Lopon (Abbot) Thupstan Standin

If you would like to know more about the “Tsam” or “Cham” dance, I did find this explanation on the “History and Development of Dance” website. Just follow the link below:

Cham Dance: the Masked Ritual

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Zhargal: Buddhist Lama

Zhargal and Alex.

My friend Zhargal is a Buddhist Lama. I had the honor of meeting Zhargal at a conference on Buddhist peoples in Ulan-Ude.  The purpose of said conference was to help Christians to better understand Buddhist beliefs and worldview. Zhargal was our resident Buddhist expert.

Of the several forms of Buddhism, Lamaism, or Tibetan Buddhism is what is practiced here in Buryatia. Lamaism has other names, Vajrayana, Tantric Buddhism, and Mantrayana to name a few.  Tibetan Buddhism traveled from Tibet, through Mongolia and to

Stuppas over the Selenga river. Looking toward Mongolia.

Buryatia in the early 1700’s. It spread throughout the region of “Zabaikalye” or “beyond Baikal” to the extent that the eastern Buryat tribes consider themselves Buddhist. The western tribes, who live in “Prebaikalye” or “before Baikal”, remain strictly Shamanist. For reference, Irkutsk is on the western side of lake Baikal, in the area occupied by western Buryats, whereas Ulan-Ude is on the eastern side, where the eastern Buryats live. Lamaism is always a mix of local religions and Buddhism, so here what you find is Buddhism mixed with Shamanism.

Zhargal and I met together at “Silk Road” cafe. Over some hot cappuccino we discussed the foundational beliefs of faith in Jesus, and Buddhism. We agreed on two things.

One of many Buddhist temples in Ulan-Ude.

1. There is a lot we don’t agree on.

2. We really enjoyed each others company.

Having agreed on that, we ate dinner together, Sharbin and tea with milk. A good old-fashioned Buryat meal. If you are wondering, “what on God’s green earth is Sharbin?”, you take some ground meat, beef, mutton or viande de cheval (horse meat), mix in salt, pepper, and onions, slap it in some dough, fry it in a pan, and it comes out like a stuffed, fried “meat pancake” if you will. Lousy on the veins, but very tasty.

Zhargal and I have met twice now. Our conversations cover meat, scripture, soccer, the four noble truths,  ghosts, Jesus, the eightfold path, meat, and why people do bad things, not necessarily in that order. We grin when we meet each other, because we have become good friends.