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Lord of the Dance
Autobiography of a Tibetan Lama
By Chagdud Tulku
Lord of the Dance is the autobiography of a great ngakpa: Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche. He was known in the West for establishing thriving Dharma centres throughout North and South America. The book, however, like Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s Born in Tibet, focuses primarily on Chagdud Tulku’s life in Tibet during the last years before the Chinese invasion, when Eastern Tibet’s traditional culture was still intact. His childhood, education as a recognised tulku, coming of age, and flight into exile are described. The book closes with an account of Chagdud Tulku’s return visit, many years later, to the scenes of his early life, after a partial relaxation of Chinese policy.
For readers interested in the Nyingma Tradition in general and the Aro lineage in particular, Lord of the Dance offers intriguing glimpses. There is a vivid description of an emergency session of chöd practice during a three-year group retreat (the chödpa, summoned by a galloping horseman, was tasked with preventing a corpse from becoming reanimated by evil spirits, by means of the chödpa’s sleeping overnight in a shed with the rapidly bloating body, which eventually exploded). There are verbal snapshots of great Lamas such as Dilgo Khyentsé Rinpoche and Düd’jom Rinpoche, functioning with penetrating insight and compassion in the midst of difficult and demanding times. There is an ongoing theme concerning the auspiciousness of the Padma Kod (Pemakö) region as a refuge for Dharma practitioners. (This region is the site of the children’s school directed by Lopön Ögyen Ten’dzin, in which both boys and girls are now being trained in the tradition of the gö kar chang lo’i dé).
For readers interested in the non-monastic or yogic style of Buddhist practice, Lord of the Dance provides a rich portrait of that style in its living cultural context. From an early age, Chagdud Tulku’s strong visionary experiences pointed him in the direction of a non-monastic life. When he reached the point in his training where he had to decide whether to continue as a monk, there is no indication that that decision was a foregone conclusion, that there was no alternative to the monastic path. Chagdud Tulku decided to become a ngakpa, ‘a yogi who holds no vows of celibacy’. He consulted with his stepfather on this decision, who replied that although the path of the ngakpa is not easy, many people in his family had practiced and accomplished it. Chagdud Tulku’s mother was a powerful practitioner and magician, his stepfather was a Tértön, his half-sister was a siddha, and his great aunt was such a strong meditator that she seldom lay down to sleep. Most of the extraordinary experiences of practice that Chagdud Tulku describes take place in the context of his family and of ordinary human life.
Chagdud Tulku had a temper and had difficulties in his relationships. He married twice and had children. The traditional Tibetan context that Chagdud Tulku presents is one in which non-stop visionary and magical experiences are not separate from all the equally non-stop emotional hassles, arguments, and trying circumstances. This is someone who played the rôle not simply of spiritual practitioner and Lama, but doctor, road repair contractor, and community development administrator – among others. The life that Chagdud Tulku presents, as a form of teaching, is a picture of being fully involved with the phenomenal world while at the same time recognising its transparency.
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