by Naomi Levine with Mary Jane Bennett
Just by seeing the Karmapa perform the Lama dance, one can attain the vajra body, said Gyaltsap Rinpoche. Bernagchen and the Karmapa are inseparable. From Karma Pakshi onwards Mahakala has protected all the Karmapa Lineage
The Karmapas are renowned for performing the protector Mahakala dance in preparation for the New Year. The previous 16th Karmapa performed the dance only once after he left Tibet, though not in traditional costume, and that was soon after he came to Sikkim in the 60’s.
February 20th, 2012 was the first time a Karmapa has performed the dance in India. The entire assembly in the theatre at Tergar stilled as His Holiness embodied Mahakala , as if sliding into another form while at the same time being fully the Karmapa. The fluidity of movement displaying the inseparability of appearance and emptiness, was riveting. It was a state which seemed beyond meditation.
At the end of the Black Hat Dance there is a crescendo as the Karmapa takes out a bow and arrow, seemingly aimed to subdue evil. This reminded me of an episode in Tibetan history when Pal Dorji, one of the 25 disciples of Guru Rinpoche, donned a black costume and killed the evil king who was destroying the dharma. It was an utterly arresting moment when theatre and ritual come alive. Was life imitating art, or art imitating life?
Mary Jane Bennett, a disciple of the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa for the last forty years, described it as “the most incredible experience of my life as a Tibetan Buddhist.
“I was present at the last Losar at Rumtek Monastery before the 16th Karmapa passed into parinirvana. Over the years I’d always loved the Mahakala puja, but I never appreciated the Lama dance. Now all that has changed.
“The setting was majestic. Mount Kailish had been painted as a backdrop at the Monlam pavilion. Descending in stages leading down to the area where the dances were held was a statue of the Buddha, below it a statue of Dusum Khyenpa, and then the 16th Karmapa statue, lined up with the 17th Karmapa’s seat. The Mahakala statues formed a backdrop on the base of the stage just in front of His Holiness’ seat.
“And then His Holiness came out to dance. The power of his presence and his first movements took my breath away.
“The day went on and on but time was eclipsed. Each performance was perfection Close to the end, when the torma was taken out, the dance was so choreographed….even the best theatre troope in the world could not have done better.
“After two awe inspiring days, I am reminded of what the 16th Karmapa said to me when he was already ill and dying.. ‘Don’t be sad; the next Karmapa will be born in Tibet but will speak many languages. His activity will be vast and spread throughout the world. He will be far greater than me.”