Lord of the Dance is an autobiographical account of renowned Tibetan Lama, Chagdud Tukku. Known for his compassion and knowledge, he was a great teacher, spiritual master, physician, and friend of many. However, rather than focusing on his achievements and influences as a lama, the autobiography chose to give an account of the details of his life and his culture, and the situation in Tibet during his life time. The book begins in 1930, when the author was born in Eastern Tibet. His mother was a well-known practitioner, and he was born with certain special powers and was recognized as a reincarnated lama. The story unfolds as he grew up and trained in Buddhism, and he witnessed the fall of Tibet under Chinese occupation. Wary of the possible destruction of Tibetan Buddhism under the Chinese, he fled Tibet and went into exile in India, and later Nepal; in both countries he served his community as a teacher, leader and healer. He eventually decided to settle in the United States and started spreading the Dharma in his new country. The book ended with his return to Tibet and reunification with his family in the late 1980s. As a lama who was born into the culture and trained in the traditional Tibetan Buddhism, Changdud Tulku provided as with some insights of the society, religious and cultural practices of Tibet before the Chinese occupation. His life story is particularly interesting and valuable as a source of information on the monastic community in Tibet before the Chinese occupation.
The autobiography opens with Chagdud Tulku’s description of his mother, Dawa Drolma. She was a highly revered religious figure, an emanation of White Tara and incarnation of Yeshe Tsogyal, one of Tibet’s most revered female practitioners and spiritual companion of a Vajrayana master. Young Chagdud inherited his ability to have extraordinary visions and dreams from her and was influenced by his mother in many ways.
When Chagdud was three years old, a delegation of monks decided that Chagdud would be the incarnation of Tenpe Gyeltsan. When he was formally recognized as the Chagdud incarnation, Chagdud and began his training as a lama. He studied with several lamas, and had several years of disciplined studies with these lamas. He also started to realize his innate powers, such as extraordinary visions and dreams, and glimpses of absolute awareness.
He later went onto a retreat in order to further his training. In the middle of his retreat, his mother died, and he decided to continue with his retreat and training as a lama. This part of his autobiographical account described many details and turning points of his practices, and the system in which he was taught and tested. He claimed that during the retreat, he improved his understanding and practice of Buddhism, and his foretelling visions and dreams became more and more accurate and frequent during this time. He benefited much from these retreats, and from his accounts, we can witness his spiritual growth as a Buddhist practitioner. During his second retreat, he states that he was different, “I was much less fascinated by the signs of practice. Visions of deities arose and I had splendid dreams, but as gratifying as these were, they were temporary riches compared with the constant revelation of mind’s spontaneous perfection” (94).
Up to this point, the author had described many details about his practice and training, monastic lives, and his own visions and powers. He spoke about Buddhist concepts and supernatural events with an unquestioning attitude and certainty. He especially had confidence in the power of his visions and dreams, often describing a dream before narrating an event that took place in real life, which was predicted in his dreams or visions. Perhaps the vagueness of the connection between the visions and the reality the visions supposedly predicted would confuse a modern reader, but Chagdud was certain of it, and almost each time, his visions would become the reality. During this period of his life, Chagdud was not just devout, but also fond of the monks and lamas around him.
The Chinese interest in Tibet led to the Chinese occupation of Eastern Tibet and threat to take over central Tibet. Chagdad was suspicious of the Chinese presence because the Chinese were building a road in the occupied region, and this reminded him of an prophecy from generations ago, “Several hundred years before, a very great lama had foretold that when a road was built through the Powo region of Tibet, terrible times would befall the country. The people should consider the road a sign to leave everything and go to Padma Ko, a region prophesied by Padmasabhava as a safe harbor during times of upheaval” (99). After encountering the Chinese and hearing about the destruction of monasteries by the Chinese in occupied Eastern Tibet, Chagdud decided to follow the prophecy and escape to Padma Ko after pilgrimage to Central Tibet.
Even after their flight to India, the situation was not very stable. Aside from the threat of Chinese advancement, they also faced great difficulty in daily living in terms of diet and living conditions. The separation from family members, friends and other lamas also made his exile life rather difficult. The tragedies of others also saddened Chagdud more than his own. He was also able to organize Tibetans to go to Orissa to search for new opportunities, and a carpet factory that helped to support the community was founded. Chagdud’s devotion to leading and serving his community also led to personal problems: his disregard for the family’s well-being resulted in his separation with his wife and split the family.
While Chagdud still remained calm during this period of danger and chaos due to his deep spiritual beliefs, unlike his account of his early life which was characterized by his faith in the monastic practices, the accounts since he encountered the Chinese and left his hone region reflected more and more dissatisfaction and disappointment toward the monastic system. While there is no sign of any doubts in his faith in Buddhism and supernatural powers, his attitude toward the monastic community had been changed.
One of the problems that had been frustrating him was the disunity among different lineages. The disunity among different lineages still persisted even in exile. When he was a young monk in his retreat in Eastern Tibet, he was faced with insults and challenges from older monks of other lineages. He took it seriously, and debated an older monk, only to find out the older monk did not really have knowledge of the essence of the debate. The older monk’s hostile attitude was basically due to the prejudice against each other among different lineage, rather than disagreement on the teachings. Even when they were in exile in India, the different lineages still did not always coexist peacefully, and incidents such as one lineage attempting to establish itself as the orthodox over the other took place.
Besides being critical of the interactions among the different lineages, he was also critical of the conduct of the monks. While he was very fond of his teachers when he was in Eastern Tibet, on his pilgrimage to Central Tibet at the eve of Chinese takeover of his Kham, he had to travel with a group of monks, whose questionable behaviors angered him. He was annoyed and infuriated by the crimes the monks committed, such as stealing and forcing people to make donations. Even after their exile in India, the morality of the monks was questionable. His major issue with the Tibetan monks was their hypocritical attitude. When he was trying to organize a workforce in order to help the community to survive, he was frustrated by the fact that many Tibetan monks were not willing to work hard. Their daily praying and other activities just angered him even further, he claims, “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 and daily activity” (179). He was particularly frustrated by that fact that they “our crew members would perform ceremonies, make offering and cultivate altruistic motivations for hours each day, but … they would refuse to give their employer an honest day’s work” (179).
After working in Tibetan communities in India and helping his people to achieve much, he moved to Nepal, where he practiced as a lama, spiritual teacher, and healer, and met his second wife Jane, an American woman and follower of the Dharma. After his successful practice at Nepal, he had had some Western students, and eventually decided to move to the States, where he taught for the next few years.
The book ended with his reunification with his sister and relatives in Tibet. After receiving a letter from his sister, he was determined to visit the land of his birth. After a few years of waiting, in 1987, he was able to visit Tibet with his wife and children. At first he was happy to see his family and visit old monasteries, but he also could not help but notice the problems in Tibet. The one that saddened and worried him the most was the loss of faith in Buddhism and other Tibetan beliefs among the Tibetans. At a certain point, he taught at a monastery despite the warning of the Chinese, and realized that in some regions there were shortages of lamas due to the many years of Chinese control. Other problems, such as environmental problems, were also attributed to the loss of faith. For example, he saw the destruction of the environment that never occurred in old Tibet, but now took place because people no longer feared local deities. The book ended with his plans to meet up with his American students, who were also in China and intended to make a pilgrimage to Mount Wutai, a Buddhist site in China proper.
Chagdud’s autobiography is an interesting account of someone who was born into a traditional Tibet and grew up in the Tibetan monastic tradition without knowing the world outside of Tibet. Before encountering the Chinese and later escaping to India, his thinking reflect that of a man from Tibet, free of outside influences. In fact, even after his exile in India, he showed little interest in the world outside of the Tibetan community or Buddhist practitioners. His life was centered around serving his religion and his people.
Throughout his book, he did not mention much about the central government in Tibet, which could be perhaps due to the fact that he was from Eastern Tibet and had little loyalty to the central government. Even during his exile in India or later Nepal, he never mentioned central Tibetan figures such as the Dalai Lama, but depended on mostly local lamas for guidance and decisions. The absence of the central government in this autobiography begs the question of the role the Central Tibetan government played in his life, his monastery, and the Tibetans in exile or remaining in Tibet, before or after the Chinese incorporation of Tibet.
His autobiography spans from the early 1930s till the late 1980s, a very critical period of Tibet’s development. His span of the book and his background could help us to gain valuable insights of Tibetan history at this very critical historical moment, however, there are several limitations of the book. Because Chagdud was born into a very wealthy and privileged family and later entered a monastery at a young age, the scope of his story is limited. The poor, the aristocrats, or the lay people are rarely mentioned in this account. The focus is on the monastic life and monks. The location of his birth and upbringing, Eastern Tibet, also would lead to some bias in his account. However, this deeply personal account of a Tibetan Lama still provided something that would be missing from generalizations in many Tibetan history books.