Lam, it will soon be the time of Thimphu Tshechu. I have been attending since I was a child, but I don’t think I really understand the meaning of the cham dances. Also, my mother insists that we can become enlightened merely by seeing the dances and the thongdrel. I don’t understand how this can be so. 

SP, Thimphu


Well, there are basically three kinds of cham dance – those that commemorate tales of great yogis, those that aim to purify the environment, and dances that proclaim the victory of Buddhism and the glory of Guru Rinpoche. One of the best known dances is ‘the Stag and Hounds’. This is an example of the first type of dance and tells the tale of a hunter and his dogs pursuing a stag. After a long chase, the fleeing animal takes refuge near the yogi Milarepa, who the hunter tries to kill with an arrow. He fails in his attempt, and the drama concludes with the stag being saved and the hunter vowing to stop hunting. In this way, the tale promotes the universal Buddhist values of compassion and commemorates the meditative power of a great yogi to bring a violent situation to a peaceful conclusion. An example of a purification dance is ‘the Dance of the Black Hats’ while ‘the Dance of the Drametse’ is a representation of the third kind of performance.

On an outer level, the dance performances might merely be perceived as a theatrical version of historical tales and after-death experiences, and the thongdrel painting seen only as an artistic portrayal of an enlightened being, but on an inner level they are an expedient method to plant the seeds of enlightenment in our mind stream.

While it may seem impossible that a dance or a painting could have the capacity to exert such a great influence on our lives, we should remember that nothing appears at random or from a single source but develops due to the combining together of a number of factors. And, when these factors originate from the minds of enlightened beings, as they do with certain cham dances and the thongdrel, then the result is the opportunity for the beholder to attain enlightenment.

As an example, consider how a tree develops. It does not just appear suddenly from no-where, right? Instead, it arises due to certain causes and conditions joining together. The primary cause of a tree is a particular seed: a pine tree grows from a pine seed, a papaya tree grows from a papaya seed, and so forth. As for the seed itself, it remains dormant until it is moistened by rain and receives warmth from sunlight – two conditions that help seeds develop into trees.

It is the same with attaining enlightenment. While every sentient being possesses Buddha nature (the basis of enlightenment), it can only be realized when a number of causes and conditions combine to clear away the ignorance and confusion that obscure it. For the sake of simplicity, perhaps we could think of the enlightened mind as a clear blue sky. Even though the sky may be lost from view due to thick, dark clouds, it never disappears and will emerge once the clouds dissipate. Basically, the causes and conditions that we gather serve to clear away the clouds of ignorance and so allow our original nature to shine through. Contact with consecrated images can act as a seed for accumulating these conditions and purifying karma. However, enlightenment does not occur instantly (except in exceptional cases), but in the same way that payapa seeds lay inactive until they are awakened by moisture and warmth, so the seeds planted in the mind-stream remain dormant until they are awakened by conducive factors.

Although there is a great benefit associated with passive contact with sacred objects, devotion and faith enhances the perceiver’s ability to receive the blessings. Expressed in agricultural terms, prayers and pious acts prepare the mind so that the seeds develop strongly and reach fruition. Basically, these acts perform a similar function to cultivating and nurturing soil so that it becomes fertile ground for papaya or other seeds to grow healthy and strong.

Still, even without devotion, merely experiencing consecrated objects can create the circumstances that lead to enlightenment. As an example, we can consider the story of an old man called Peglye who was alive at the time of the Buddha. In a past life Peglye had been born as a wild pig, and during that time a dog had chased him around a stupa. Even though he had run around the sacred monument to save his life, not as a spiritual endeavour, the act still planted positive seeds in his mind stream. Later, when he was reborn as a human and met with conducive circumstances, these ripened as conditions that enabled him to become a disciple of the Buddha and to attain enlightenment.

So, basically, remember that nothing appears at random and from a single source, but arises as the result of a number of causes and conditions joining together. As I mentioned above, a seed of a pine cone will produce a pine tree when it meets with the right conditions, while seeds of enlightenment will purify karma and result in liberation when they are activated by conducive circumstances.

I apologize that my reply is overly simplistic, but limitations of space don’t allow for a more detailed explanation. Anyway, I hope that it will at least give you basic idea of how contact with sacred objects can plant seeds of enlightenment in the mind stream and lead to liberation.    Enjoy the tshechu!

Detailed information of the cham dances: