At one of the small group meetings I was at last week while on a retreat on the Dzogchen tradition of Vajrayana Buddhism, a woman sitting beside me asked one of the lamas something like whether there was any dancing in Buddhism, particularly any dynamic, moving practices with a strong physical aspect, like dancing, to get one’s body involved. The answer was basically no. There are some formal “lama dances,” but they are very advanced practices for monks and, to my ears, they didn’t sound like they involved any “fun,” they were very serious, stylized expressions of Buddhist ideas. There are also ngondro practices in Vajrayana Buddhism with things like doing 100,000 full body prostrations, but with the few I did when I was younger and stronger, there was lots of feeling of exercise and dedication (and resentment, this didn’t mean anything to me, I was doing it because it was supposed to be good for me), but little positive emotion or devotional fervor. Maybe that kind of practice works for some people: I hope so, as traditional Vajrayana Buddhism requires completing practices like these. But dance it is not.
I’ve often mentally played, a little sadly, with the expressions “Buddhists don’t dance,” or “Buddhists got no rhythm.” I felt sorry for this lady….
I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised, as I’ve noticed this over and over through the years, but tend to forget. When asked what his basic message was, Gautama Buddha said it was to teach that suffering could be ended and the means for doing so. Naturally this makes Buddhism of most interest to those who are suffering a lot and/or very concerned with their own or others’ suffering, and there’s plenty of suffering in the world to be concerned with.
Now I’m certainly concerned with reducing or ending suffering, my own and others, especially when I’m personally suffering or hearing or seeing others’ suffering. But my life in general has been happy, for which I’m thankful, and curiosity, as well as a devotion to higher spiritual things, is as much or even a more important motivating force for my interest in Buddhism as reducing suffering. I’ve always been interested in the way minds (and my mind in particular) work, and Buddhist meditation is, to me, a great tool, a microscope for examining the workings of the mind. I have a scientist’s mind, I like to figure out how things work, whether I like the answer or not. I believe that in the long run this helps reduce human suffering too.
Then, listening to some medieval devotional music on the way home, and then several really beautiful and spiritually moving “New Age” compositions on the radio at home, I marveled at the ability some of us humans have to create Beauty! In all sorts of art forms, of course, but it’s music that moves me the most. And yet, for all I love Buddhism, I don’t remember ever hearing any teachings about what a beautiful world we live in, or the joy inherent in creating beauty….. Once in a while I spontaneously sing the widely known Christian hymn
For the beauty of the earth
For the glory of the skies,
For the love which from our birth
Over and around us lies:
‘Lord of all, to Thee we raise
this our joyful hymn of praise.
And somewhere/somehow I have a deep conviction that the world and humanity and life are growing, evolving, more beauty, more love, more knowledge. It’s not just a matter that it’s all suffering, samsara, all going downhill since the time of Gautama Buddha.
Of course my personal observations that Buddhists don’t dance are biased, in the sense that I’ve mainly encountered Buddhism in formal teaching situations coming out of various monastic traditions, the most serious, “pure” aspects of Buddhism. I’m sure most Buddhist cultures, where Buddhism is the official religion, or one of the official religions, are full of ways of expressing the joy of the human spirit in ordinary people.
I have enormous respect and admiration of Buddhism as a powerful way of studying the human mind and reducing suffering, but my heart wants a way more moving, involving, heartfelt for me than just sitting meditation, a way that includes body movement, to deepen what I feel. Saying one should be deeply devoted, heartfeltedly devoted, to Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, and one’s teacher is nice, but not enough for me.
One example of this lack of emotional resonance for me is the way metta, loving kindness practice, is typically taught in Theravadin Buddhist settings. While sitting immobile, eyes closed, one is asked to have good intentions toward all sentient beings, to visualize blessings flowing to them. In a way, I have no trouble, no resistance to doing this: “all sentient beings” are a totally abstract class of beings for me who have never done me any harm, so fine, let them be blessed, whatever that means, but, proportionally, my emotional “juice” in wishing them well is generally very small. By contrast, walk into any Christian church where the choir and congregation are singing a rousing hymn: that’s got juice! As does The Beauty of the Earth and other sacred songs! I really value the quiet, equanimous, concentrated examination of my mind in formal Buddhist meditation, but I also want to dance, sway, feel love and devotion with my whole body!
I was once asked to teach the regular meditation class of a Buddhist teacher friend who had to be out of town. At the end, when metta was regularly practiced, I, with some trepidation that this might be too much for some people, asked them to open their eyes, look at the person next to them, eyes to eyes, and verbally wish them well, out loud. No abstract sentient beings, just a real person next to you. It felt right to me, but I wonder if I offended some people….
I think that’s what the lady who asked the question wanted too, movement to engage heart, but I think she went away disappointed…..
But perhaps as Buddhism adapts and evolves to fit Western culture we’ll have more heart – and some dancing!
Of course I should remind myself and readers that whenever I say anything on the order of “Buddhism is like…..” or “Buddhists believe….” it needs to be qualified as according to my limited exposure to certain kinds of Buddhism, and remember, I’m not a Buddhist scholar. In 2500 years all sorts of varieties of Buddhism have sprung up, a zillion scriptures exist, so for anything I say, a knowledgeable person can undoubtedly find both practice and scriptural contradictions to my observations or thoughts. It makes for overly scholastic and boring writing to be constantly saying that, though, so I normally won’t – but it’s true….