Mongolian Tsam (One, Two, Three)
Geshe Luvsangenden.Z
September 10, 2007, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia

One. “Tsam” mask dance.

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Tsam is one of the Buddhist rituals and its origination and development are inevitably connected with Buddhist devotees and nations. A research recorded that there was a performance of Jakhar tsam in 775, which aimed at subduing local nagas and lords of the land while Guru Rinpoche, a founder of Samya monastery of Tibet and great Niyngma tantric master was visiting India. Some research paper mention that the first tsam was performed in Tibet in 811 which leads to a conclusion that there is a need to further this fact.

In Mongolia, the tsam was introduced at the beginning of the 18th century from India through Tibet. For instance, the first tsam in Mongolia was performed in Erdenezuu Monastery in 1786 and it was prepared and instructed by Tibetan umze (chant leader) of Ikh Khuree, Agramba, Bilegt Nanso and Gelong Sengerapten (fully ordained monk). Nomch Tsorj Lobsangdargye insisted his disciple Argamba Gelong Sengerapten to write a handbook as a reference of tsam performance in Erdenezuu and disciple refused to do so on the ground that he did not attain sufficient knowledge and realizations. However later, the disciple reconsidered his teacher's wish and wrote "The Core of Tsam to subdue common obstacles and destroy enemies of Dharma by Torma (religious object made by barley and butter)" on the base of tsam sutra written by V Dalai Lama Lobsang Gyatso and tsam text of Tashi Lkhumpo. 

The word 'Tsam' means a dance of the Buddha (deva) and elements of this dance show as if protectors and deities have physically descended on the Jambudtiva (Southern continent). In general, 'tsam' is a Tibetan word and at present, two meanings of this word are well known. Firstly, it signifies a dance or 'garcham'. Secondly, it is dedon yer med ji cham or subduing negative mental afflictions by emptiness. Although the Buddhist tsam performance could be seen as a dance from artistic point of view, but in depth it is a secret tantric ritual, which has very subtle meaning. It is a religious ritual with a secret meaning and its rules and meaning were studied by knowledgeable Buddhist monks, who reached certain levels of realizations and they performed them by abiding by strict rules. The fact it was a religious ritual could be proved by the custom that the tsam performance was not carried out separately, but was combined with Buddhist chanting and the performance had specific days and places. 

As mentioned above, the tsam performance was an important gurim (remedy practice) of Buddhist secret tantra and only well prepared monks carried out gurim by certain requirements and in certain circumstances. For example, the tsam performance was carried out in order to subdue and purify external environment, eradicate diseases, suffering, wars, famine, and hardships and spread auspiciousness. The performing monks had to first qualify by taking exams of rules of the tsam well in advance and they prepared for performance by doing secret tantric meditations.

Performing monks should study Buddhist secret tantric teachings, choga  and chakling in depth.

Besides illustrations of protectors, devas and Buddhas and their motions, there is also a subtle meditation on emptiness, which is an inner meditation ritual to abandon all mental afflictions and please local nagas and lords of the land. Another advantage of tsam performance is to help devotees recognize different types of wrathful yidams, choijins and protectors by seeing them and know them well in their next lives especially in intermediate states of rebirths and generate faith to them, so that to take higher rebirth, therefore it has a subtle meaning of Buddhist theory of karma.

Besides pleasing the external environment, the tsam performance also purifies internal environment or mental afflictions of all sentient beings including humans and to lead them to the Buddha's path.

The internal meditation of tsam has a complete nature of Buddhist theory and its external expression also closely connected to its nature.

Although some external forms and motions of tsam seem to resemble shamanistic elements, it is clear from internal nature of tsam meditation that they are completely different.

Two. Mongolian Khuree Tsam

The first tsam of Ikh Khuree of Mongolia was performed in the Year of Iron Sheep of the XIV century or 1811 of Mongolian calendar. This was "Jakhar tsam", which illustrated destruction of iron towns of hell realm soldiers and subduing them by Yamantaka.

The Khuree tsam was performed for the first time by the instructions of Undur Gacheng Lama of IV Bogd invited from Tashi Lkhumpo of Tibet during Saishaalt Yeruult Khaan or in 1811. However, Gacheng Lama did not give sutra of Khuree tsam choreography, due that XII Great Abbot Jidorin Agvanglobsangkhedup of then Khuree wrote "Clarifying Tsam Dance"(gar cham saljed) as a guideline of Khuree tsam in 1836 and it is viewed that the text was equal to original texts written by Tibetan scholars.

Tsams of Tashi Lkhumpo of Tibet, Namgyal Monastery of Lhasa and Ikh Khuree of Khalkha have the same origin, however there are many variations among them. About this it is mentioned in the Agvanglobsangkhedup's text: "Continuity of tsams of Tashi Lkhumpo, Namgyal Monastery and Ikh Khuree is said to the same, however there are many differences such as number, rules of the tsam performance, and many other differences due to the course of time, and sometimes texts of these tsams do not correspond to each other respectively and I refrain myself from writing those again. If one is interested to know more, refer to respective records and numbers of those texts of tsam".

The fact that Khuree tsam was called as summer Jakhar tsam is due to the fact that it was performed in summer seasons extensively. While winter Jakhar tsam did not exceed 9 Shanagas and there was only sor zalakh (burning of all negativities in the fire) in the middle month of winter, therefore winter tsam had a smaller size than of summer's.

Although 21 tsam performers of summer offering jakhar tsam were named as 21 Taras, they were 21 Shanagas. Offering tsam was called as Chogor tsam and it was performed on the 4th of the last month of summer. On the day of tsam, a big thangka of Vajrapani was displayed in the front square of Decheng Galav monastery and in the hour of sheep or between 2pm-3pm, 21 Taras performed tsam. In Tara tsam children aging 13-14 proceed  in groups. At the end, White Old Man comes followed by Azar, which signifies the end of short tsam or Offering tsam.

Jakhar tsam or extensive tsam was performed on the 8th and 9th days of the last month of summer. It took place in front of the palace called western palace decorated with images of ten wrathful deities (hangal) and they installed Lyanga under a giant umbrella before the tsam starts. After that, monks recite texts and during that time Shanag chengbo or Chambong performs the tsam without interruption. The Shanag tsam continued for a long time reaching midnight  and in some places, it reached the dawn.

In case of days, there was a recitation on the 8th day of the last month of summer and the actual tsam was performed on the next day. In order to do that, chanting of the 9th day of the last month of summer was made one night in advance, followed by tsam performance next day.

Preparation for Khuree tsam recitations starts from the end of the first month of summer and recitations start from the first day of the middle month of summer and it continues upto the 6th day of the last month of summer without interruption. Starting from the 4th day of the last month of summer, preparations of tsam choreography was conducted outside. Costumes of tsam dancers consisted of four items, namely deel with agui sleeves, apron with depiction of powerful animals and long trims at the ends, chest part costume covering two shoulders, chest and back and heavy bone malas attached to chest part. There were 23 groups of mask tsam in succession including Durtod-dakpo in Khuree tsam.

Khuree tsam was bigger, more elaborate in terms of masks, ornaments and handicrafts, rituals and content was more extensive compared to other types of tsam and some researchers concluded that Mongolian tsam was the most "precious" in the world. This distinction is directly connected with the Buddhist scholars and masters of Mongolia and also cultures of certain regions and people. Khuree tsam was performed between 1811-1937 without interruption and during great repression thar took place in Mongolia, it was destroyed like other Buddhist rituals. From 1990-s, democracy was introduced in Mongolia and there was a campaign to revive Mongolian tradition and culture, as a result activities of restoring some ancient temples and forgotten rituals were initiated. There is a great demand for time and funding to revive Buddhist rituals interrupted for over 70 years, and most of all there is a lack of monks who has knowledge to perform those rituals. Nowadays, there is no any obstacles from the side of the state and society and there have been a number of tsam performances in the frame of religious ritual and it is important to organize the events in more expanded forms.

As tsam is a form of secret tantric meditation ritual it is often viewed that is should be kept secret. However, we are not provided with conditions of performing tsam according to the actual secret tantric rules, we believe that it is important to introduce Mongolian tsam, furthermore, Khuree tsam from artistic point of view to the world and organize awareness campaign of it.

In July, 2007, "Goo yertsunts" (Beautiful world) society organized "Khuree tsam-108", although internal meditation was skipped during this performance, externally it was beneficial to help devotees recognize yidams, choijins, protectors and devas and not be afraid of them in their next lives and intermediate states, so to have higher rebirths.

I hope that in the future, there will be a development in the level of internal meditation on emptiness based on the external form in tsam performance. 

Three. Tsam of other countries (brief).

Besides Mongolia, tsam dance also developed in Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal, India and China. Although their forms may differ, they all have same  Buddhist meaning.

Tsam of above mentioned countries can be divided according to four traditions of Buddhism in general, namely:

1.   Niyngma

2.   Sakya

3.   Kagyu

4.   Gelukpa

Among them, the tsam was originally created in the Niyngma tradition and it was introduced later in Sakya and Kagyu traditions and at last in Gelukpa tradition. Tsams of the above countries and traditions vary in terms of originations, types, ritual of destroying lyanga, implements, days of tsam performance, durations, preparations, place of performance, deities, dance motions and masks and they all have different characteristics. For example, Mongolian Khuree tsam following Gelukpa tradition has enormous difference from other tsams by characters such as White old man, Khashin Khaan, lords of the four mountains, Lion, crow, Buivee hero, Shijir hero. Also Vajrapani character of Khuree tsam is the most clear distinction of Khuree tsam.

Detailed writing about tsam will require great deal of effort and time and detailed research, therefore, I wrote here in brief.

May all be in peace.

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