LORD OF THE DANCE: The Autobiography of a Tibetan Lama Chagdud Tulku
Padma Publishing: Johnson City, CA, 1992.
248 pp., $16.95 (paperback).

THE GREAT VIRTUE of Lord of the Dance, Chagdud Tulku’s autobiography, is the utter straightforwardness with which events in his life are related. In the Tibetan tradition, those events mostly take the form of stories. Many of these stories contain, as a matter of course, magical occurrences which regularly conduct the Western reader into the realm of myth and fairytale, “in a time beyond the reckoning of time.” Iron swords are tied into knots, figures appear in dreams directing the dreamer to hidden treasures, deities speak directly to those able to listen.

Incidents of telepathy and teleportation are related without fanfare or qualifying explanation since, as Chagdud Tulku reminds us, the most extraordinary siddhi (spiritual ability) of all is attaining unwavering recognition of mind’s true nature. However, pure intention and great realization may themselves result in the ability to charm the normal laws of cause and effect, as in the following interaction between the author’s aged sister and her Chinese tormentors, “witnessed by at least a hundred people”:

The Chinese had ordered everyone to pay homage to a photograph of Mao Zedong. T’hrinlay Wangmo refused, and instead reviled Mao as one who had caused the death of her relatives and friends. This public rebellion could not go unpunished, so the Chinese seized her, stripped her naked, drew a target on her chest, and stood her before an executioner. As the crowd watched silently, the executioner fired. His gun merely clicked-no bullet shot forth. He fired a second time and again there was only a click. Then he test-fired his weapon in the air and the gun fired normally. Once more, he leveled the gun at T’hrinlay Wangmo and once more it did not fire. Thoroughly disgusted, he threw the gun on the ground and turned away.

The military officials seized T’hrinlay Wangmo, handcuffed her, and marched her toward the prison. Suddenly, in front of the whole crowd, the iron handcuffs shattered into small pieces and fell to the ground. Her captors shoved her into prison, where they held her overnight, then released her, ordering her to get out of their sight.

There are other reasons to value this narrative. We learn much about the childhood and training of a Nyingmapa tulku, and about the complex relationship between Chagdud Tulku and his mother, venerated as a great teacher and delog, or one who had crossed death’s threshold and returned. Delog Dawa Drolma was “dead” for five days, during which time she traveled freely through the realms of mind, and her status as a delog was enhanced by the quality of the messages she brought back to people from their deceased relatives. Also of interest is the author’s firsthand account of the invasion of eastern Tibet by the Chinese and the variety of responses this catastrophe elicited among the Tibetan people.

A hilarious episode finds Chagdud Tulku in exile in India, suddenly responsible for supervising a group of destitute fellow Tibetans as roadworkers for the Indian government. A series of misadventures follows as the Tibetan lamas, unused to this backbreaking labor, sit down and drink tea any time someone isn’t staring directly at them. The road supervisors who come to check on their progress naturally fire the lot of them. This incident becomes a pattern, however, with a serious lesson in it:

We were fired several times. I became increasingly distressed, not just because of the possibility of complete destitution if we couldn’t earn our wages, but because of the lack of integration of spiritual practice with daily activity. The great siddhas of former times carried out the most ordinary activitie—pounding sesame seeds into oil, blacksmithing, hoeing fields, casting clay pots,—for years at a time, yet in each moment of their work their mind’s awareness never moved.

Our crew members would perform ceremonies, make offerings, and cultivate altruistic motivation for hours each day, but when they stood up from their meditation they would go out and refuse to give their employer an honest day’s work. I tried to talk about the need to integrate practice into every aspect of activity, but they couldn’t see my point. I hit one of the lowest points of my life.

Above all, however, Lord of the Dance is permeated by prophetic occurrences, prophecies culled from dreams, visions, divinations, and oracular pronouncements. For the Westerner, this has the effect of forcing the invisible into daily life and thereby demystifying it: such prophecies must be accepted in the matter-of-fact way they’ve been related. Visible and invisible are seen as mutually reinforcing strands of the same cultural web, and this in turn allows for a renewed appreciation of what was destroyed with the Chinese takeover—not merely a singular culture involved in promulgating the dharma, but another, more magical form of consciousness. We can turn again to the author’s sister in order to understand precisely what has been lost in this regard.

During his recent trip to Tibet, Chagdud Tulku was riding in the cab of an empty logging truck through the area of Kham where he had grown up. He saw everywhere the evidence of indiscriminate logging by the Chinese, the mountains stripped of the dense forests that had once covered them. He asked his sister—who had remained behind all those years in Kham—about this, and she responded,

People used to think that the local deities would be upset if the trees were cut, but the Chinese came, told them that nothing bad would happen, and went ahead and cut. Now people are not so worried about the local deities because nothing did happen.

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