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Tibetan Mystery Play (ca. 1935) - Part One

"...Here, where people had not yet come in touch with the outer world, where people had never seen a vehicle on wheels, where the mere mention of railways or steamships aroused an incredulous smile, and where aeroplanes or the like had never been heard of

- it was here that one could see and participate in the feelings which these mystery plays aroused.

They were far from being merely theatrical performances: they were the coming to life of a higher reality through magic rites, in which beings from the spirit world were propi-

tiated and invited to manifest themselves in the bearers of their symbols, who for the time being divested themselves of their own personality, by going through a ritual of purification and making themselves instruments and vessels of divine powers which their masks represented.  These masks, which seemed to take on a life of their own under the strong Tibetan sun and in the measured rhythmic movements of their bearers, were not only of a benevolently 'divine' nature but embodied likewise the terrible guises which these powers assumed in the outer world as well as in the human heart: the powers of death and destruction, the terrors of the great unknown, the powers of demoniacal fury and hellish illusion, of fearful spectres and sneering demons of doubt, which assail us on our way from birth to rebirth, until we have learned to face life and death from the courage that only the compassion for our fellow-beings and insight into the true nature of phenomenon give us.  Unless we are able to recognize all these fearful and terrifying appearances as emanations of our own mind and transformations of the force that will ultimately lead us towards enlightenment we shall wander endlessly, as it is said in the Bardo Thodol {The Tibetan Book of the Dead}.

Thus the mystery plays of Tibet are the representations of this supernatural, or better, super-human world that manifests itself in the human soul and would overpower it if no

adequate expression could be found.  The mystery plays of ancient Egypt as well as those of the Dionysian cult sprang from the same source.   And just as in Greece, the theatre developed from the mystic Dionysian dances, so the Tibetan religious plays had their origin in the ritual dance of the majicians, in which symbolical gestures (mudra) and incantations (mantra) served the purpose of warding off evil and creating

beneficial influences.

As with the Greeks the performance takes place in the middle of the audience.  There is no separate or elevated stage, but the plays are performed in the main courtyard of the monastery, which is generally surrounded by galleries in which the most prominent peo-

ple are seated, while the others are crowded in the remaining space in the courtyard and on all the available roofs round about.  The imposing architecture, the gorgeously decorated galleries and the colourful gay crowd form a natural and most beautiful set-

ting, which is as inseparable from the dances as the architecture from the landscape and the spectators from the performers.  The very fact that the latter were not separ-

ated from the spectators by a stage, but moved through and within the crowd, emphasizes the oneness of spectators and performers in an experience in which the boundaries between the natural and supernatural, the profane and the sacred, have been eliminated, so that the spectators became as much a part of the play as the actors, participating in and fully responding to the magic, mind-created reality of a higher dimension.  Their expectancy and implicit faith, their spontaneous reactions and emotions, seem to create a kind of integrated consciousness, in which  performers and spectators are merged and lifted up to a level of spiritual experience that otherwise would have been inaccessible to them."

"The Way of the White Cloud"  Lama Anagarika Govinda

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