A while ago I attended a performance at my local theater, by Tibetan monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastery. Established in the early fifteenth century, Loseling was once the largest monastery in Tibet, home to more than 10,000 monks. After the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1959, the monastery was closed and most of its residents were killed or imprisoned. Some 250 monks escaped to India, where they established a replica of Loseling.
Hundreds of refugees-many of them children, whose parents send them across the treacherous Himalayas to safety in India-arrive at the monastery from Tibet each year in the hopes of receiving a traditional education. With the help of actor Richard Gere, the monks of Loseling have now created a two hour performance of the sacred music and dances of Tibet. They tour across North America and Europe, introducing Western audiences to the mystical arts of their ancient, profoundly spiritual, vanishing culture.
The performance I was at was emceed by a young Tibetan monk, who introduced each of the traditional songs and dances by telling us a little about what each ritual was intended to do.
The Dance of the Skeleton Lords was a reminder that all things are ephemeral, and that awareness of the fleeting nature of existence brings true freedom.
The beautiful, haunting Song for World Healing resonated through the hall, vibrated deep in my chest, and brought me to tears.
The emcee talked about the power of intention–how, with sacred intent, even a concert hall can become a sacred space. During the course of the evening, the theater was transformed into a Tibetan temple: a backdrop painting of the original Loseling monastery loomed above a table richly draped in red and blue and gold brocades. On the table were ritual items including a silver vase containing holy water, a copper mirror to reflect all beings, and a photo of the Dalai Lama.
Nine monks blew on giant ram’s horns, pounded on great drums painted with sacred symbols, rang gongs and bells, and chanted healing mantras for the world.
My heartbeat slowed, and I was transported into a world alive with the mystery of spirit, resonant with beauty, delight, and divine playfulness. Five monks dressed in elaborate costumes danced the Dance of the Celestial Travellers-representing the five archangels who visit the world during times of great danger and bring with them the blessings of freedom, unity and peace.
Each chant and song and sacred dance performed that night was taught orally, learned through memory.
Many of the monks on that stage were young; they had been born in refugee camps in India. They had never seen Tibet. Yet the collective memory of their culture was imprinted in their minds and hearts, and deep in the cells of their bodies.
Through memory, and through the sacred arts of Tibet, these monks carry their homeland with them, even as their country itself is being systematically stripped of its language, its culture, its spiritual heritage and its population. Their chants and dances are reminders that memory can serve a higher purpose than simply that of reassembling the past: memory can change our consciousness in the present.
Through dance and song, music and art, we can connect with the creative energies of compassion, blessing, and harmony; we can transform fear, pain and violence into a vivid and powerful experience of unity and peace–a reminder to invite grace into our lives.
The power of memory lies in what we choose to remember-and despite the great suffering that these monks have experienced, despite the destruction of their world as they have known it, the memories they choose to keep alive are positive and uplifting, offering a transformative vision of wholeness which is their gift to our fractured world.
I was deeply moved by the devotion of these men without a country, their generosity, focus, and the purity of their intention. As they chanted or played their musical instruments, their eyes were closed, their faces wore an expression of rapt concentration.
At the end of the evening, the members of the audience rose spontaneously to their feet and clapped and cheered. The monks smiled shy, uncertain smiles, ducked their heads in greeting and looked bashfully at their feet before shuffling off into the wings.
I left that concert hall knowing that some fundamental change, brewing for a long time, had begun to take place in my own heart. All week, I’ve found myself sifting through my own memories. Letting go of those which no longer serve any generous purpose; releasing old dreams and fears; old hurts, regrets and recriminations; saying goodbye to outworn ways of viewing the world, and to tattered old stories about my place within it.
In the sudden weightlessness that remains, I am rediscovering those memories that nourish a new, open, more expansive vision: a vision of a loving, creative, joyful community. Right here, in the midst of my everyday life.
What memories do you carry with you? And how do they serve your life now?