The Dance of Emptiness: How Thrangu Nuns Broke Tradition and Made History

In the tranquil town of Lumbini, where the whispering winds carry tales of enlightenment and spirituality, a profound transformation was underway. Lumbini, nestled amidst ancient temples and monasteries, serves as the birthplace of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. On a hot, humid afternoon, amidst the languid cows and bumpy rickshaw rides, a quiet revolution was brewing. This revolution had a name─Thrangu Monastery, affectionately known as Canada Monastery, nestled in Lumbini’s West Monastic Zone. Its existence was a testament to the goodwill and support of the Canadian Buddhist community. Within its walls, a small cluster of Thrangu nuns and monks pursued their degrees in Buddhist studies at Lumbini University. But what made this monastery an epicenter of change was a select group of three Thrangu nuns. They were part of a historic moment, a moment that would forever alter the course of their lineage. These nuns were entrusted with a sacred task: to perform a cham dance for the 2014 Kagyu Monlam, a monumental international prayer festival presided over by His Holiness the 17th Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje. The Kagyu Monlam, a tradition stretching back to 15th-century Tibet, brought together over 10,000 people in a collective effort to seek Buddhist teachings and pray for global peace, harmony, well-being, and happiness. What set this year’s event apart was that, for the first time, nuns from the Kagyu lineage were invited to perform sacred Vajrayana dances, a role traditionally reserved for monks. The story of how these Thrangu nuns became pioneers in this historic change is one of dedication, courage, and spiritual growth. Originally hailing from the high Himalayan region of Nepal, Pasang Drolma Lama, Karma Drolma Gurung, and Jamyang Lhamo joined Thrangu Abbey at young ages and were now in their mid-30s, studying at the university. Their journey was one of defying norms; none in their home villages had ever pursued a university degree. A visit to Kathmandu brought another crucial member of this transformative journey into the spotlight: Sherab Sangmo. Alongside Chokyi Lamo, who didn’t dance at the Monlam but played a pivotal role in other Thrangu dance activities, Sherab shared the inside story of the Thrangu nuns’ journey. It all began with a letter from the Karmapa’s office, a request for four nuns to perform a cham dance for the Monlam. The nuns understood this as a powerful step towards gender equality, a continuation of His Holiness’ efforts to expand opportunities for female practitioners. The nuns embarked on a rigorous training journey, learning the intricacies of the cham dance and prayer from monk cham masters. But why were these nuns chosen from the plethora of talented individuals at the abbey? The answer lay in their history of performing the Twenty-One Praises of Tara dance, a practice they shared with Prema Dasara, the dance’s creator. This shared practice united them and provided the confidence to step into this groundbreaking role. The performance itself was a mesmerizing display of spirituality and artistry. The Kadrinchenma Cham, performed by the dakinis, was a supplication to Padmasambhava for blessings. The dancers, adorned with silk brocade robes and elaborate bone ornaments, carried damarus and drilbus, symbolizing compassion and emptiness. Their movements, slow and graceful, conveyed an ethereal message, accompanied by haunting chants. The Tsechu Cham, part of the Lama Sangdu terma, was a central element in this spiritual journey. It celebrated Guru Rinpoche’s promise to return on the 10th day of each lunar month to dispel suffering. The dance embodied the essence of the Himalayan region’s spiritual fervor, attracting huge crowds seeking blessings. This sacred tradition, originally a Nyingma tradition, found its way into the Kagyu lineage through the Eighth Tai Situpa, Chokyi Jungne, in the 18th century. The dance practice, now flourishing in various monasteries, was brought to the forefront by the 16th Karmapa Rangjung Rigpe Dorje in exile. The Kagyu Monlam was not just a platform for the nuns to perform; it was a stage where history was made. His Holiness the Karmapa himself recognized the significance of their performance, blessing them in a touching manner. As the dakini crowns were removed, he asked them if they felt tired, understanding the energy required for such an endeavor. But beyond the dance and history, the Karmapa’s teaching emphasized the essence of the cham dances. The performance wasn’t just a visual spectacle; it was a journey into emptiness, a profound spiritual experience that transcended words. In the words of Thrangu nun Sherab Sangmo, “Cham is a key to understanding emptiness.” This dance, this spiritual expression, offered a glimpse into the infinite potential for transformation and connection that defines our existence. As we reflect on this remarkable journey of Thrangu nuns, we’re left with a sense of hope. Hope that this liberating expression continues to thrive, breaking barriers, and bringing forth a deeper understanding of spirituality through the dance of emptiness.
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