Arts and Entertainment

January 25th 2009

This evening we had a shadow play produced by European Ripa Sangha members Carlo Tomassi and Ursula Von Vacano. This project had been underway for many weeks of rehearsals during the morning lungs. A shadow play, in case you have not seen one, is performed on a white screen with bright lights shining behind it. Then cut out, silhouetted figures are moved behind the screen with thin sticks. The figures can be made bigger and smaller depending on how far they are held from the lights.

Tonight’s performance happened in the huge monastery courtyard. Because it was Sunday a large number of Tibetans from the different camps were able to attend. Sundays always see bigger crowds at the empowerments and more tourists. During the afternoon break today I was surrounded by a large group of Indians and asked to pose in five or six photographs.

The stage for the shadow play screen was about ten feet wide and stood about six feet over the ground. It was framed out of thick bamboo posts and beams covered with assorted pieces of fabric. Ten colorful Tibetan prayer flags were strung across the top. There was ground seating for about fifty feet in front of it, and then several rows of dignitary seating for His Eminence, the Sakyong, the other teachers, the Ripa family and so forth. Behind them stood row after row of onlookers. I would say that a thousand people altogether were seated under the dark new moon and bright stars when all was ready to begin.

The feature was The Life of the Buddha, from his birth to his enlightenment to his first teachings. Carlo Tomassi and Ursula Von Vacano produced a similar, but far more elaborate production of this in France last year receiving mainstream critical acclaim. The website for their theater company will be posted shortly. It includes seven minutes of video. The Orissa production was much less elaborate than France, with every bit created here from scratch. I was astounded by the blend of art, imagination and delight in the project. Local musicians provided the accompaniment and sound effects with voice, Tibetan and western guitars, drums and hauntingly beautiful Tibetan flute melodies.

We started with the birth of Siddhartha Gautama who was to become Buddha, the Awakened One, upon his enlightenment. I thought it would all be in Tibetan, but the two monk-narrators first read the descriptions of each secessive scene in English, then Tibetan before the curtain was parted and the action began. The Buddha’s birth was complete with the infant Gautama taking seven steps on miraculously blooming lotuses. A bell chimed with each step and in the end Gautama lept back up into his mother’s arms.

Many things can be portrayed with shadows and light that in the western entertaiment industry can cost thousands or millions of dollars to produce. For example, walking on water was featured during the section of the Buddha’s training with teachers before enlightenement. The Buddha would sink in the water, then rise up again to follow his his early master. Gradually he became more accomplished. At enlightenment during the defeat of the fearsome demon Mara, the Buddha touched the earth to indicate the earth was a witness to his awakening and we witnessed a gentle earthquake.

Humor and action were also in abundance. When still a prince, the Buddha trained in various martial and courtly arts. We watched an amazing sword fighting dual between the Buddha and his jealous cousin, Devadatta. When the two contestants became fatigued, they would rest and pant for breath. During the horse race (an obvious thematic nod to the Gesar epic thought this reviewer) one horse fell behind, lost its rider and finally had to be carried over the finish line.

The fantastic, stupendous performance had the entire audience quite rapt. Indeed some of youngest might have been quieter than during the empowerments. After the Buddha gave his first teachings in Sarnath with the wheel of dharma actually turning in the sky, a monastery rose up on screen, Rigon Thubden Mindrolling. Above it floated the crown of Padmasambhava. The dharma continues to this day, 2600 years of teachings for the benefit of beings.

Here is the music from the episode of prince Gautama’s enjoyments of courtly dancers before he renounced his kingdom.

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