Research Fellow 2018-2019
Aseemkala Experiential Research Fellow
Moondil Jahan is an emerging rhythmaculture practitioner, with keen interests in conservation—whether endangered species in the realm of ecology or disappearing traditions in terms of indigenous drumming and folk/ritual dance. Rhythmaculture is a term coined by Arthur Hull denoting the amalgamation of traditional/folk/indigenous music and dance into every aspect of life. As she progressed toward earning a BA degree in Field Biology in a Liberal Arts curriculum, Moondil realized that often times the biodiversity hotspots are also rhythmaculture hotspots, making these regions both unique and vulnerable. After she graduated, she embarked on a journey to better understand these regions with the aid of Thomas J. Watson Foundation.
As she encountered Guinean, Ghanaian, Indian, Moroccan, and Tibetan rhythmaculture, Moondil recognized the healing powers of indigenous drumming and folk dance, both in terms of healing the nature and living beings.
Since completing her fellowship, Moon remained inspired to continue her research and collaboration with the Aseemkala Initiative. She is now our experiential research fellow, who will be exploring Buddhist movement philosophy, traditional dances, and their sacred relationship to healing. She just completed one year of her MA preparatory course on Himalayan Language, Philosophy, and Khenpo class. She continues as a graduate student postulating for a Masters of Arts in the Buddhist Studies Program at Rangjung Yeshe Institute at Kathmandu University in Nepal. Be on the lookout for more of her research on Buddhist nuns and their dance forms.
What is the relationship between traditional practices and medicine?
“On my Watson, I observed and experienced both individual and collective emotional catharses through indigenous drumming and folk dance across cultural, religious, linguistic, and geographical borders. I particularly became interested in the Himalayan region, since it is a biodiversity and a rhythmaculture hotspot. As I delved deeper into the root cause of imbalance, I became aware of the role of emotional catharsis and how it is expressed through ritual performances with drumming and dance.”
How do you believe research in traditional arts and traditional health practices can improve medical care?
“My quest to find the use of the earliest form of drums (frame drums) took me to Tibetan Buddhist monasteries and nunneries in North India and Nepal to observe their ritual music and dance, aiding to remove the root cause of suffering. By focusing on two of the earliest forms of traditional arts, i.e., drumming and dance, I observed how we initiate and facilitate both individual and collective healing.”
Research Project 2019: A Study of Vajra Dance
March 1 was the 85th birthday of the abbot of the Tek Chok Ling nunnery in Boudhanath, Kathmandu, Nepal. To commemorate his birthday, the nuns performed a series of pujas and ritual performances. Vajra dance is a ritual dance focused on the progressive stages of awareness. Because of their vinaya (vow), the nuns are not allowed to dance (for entertainment), but in a ritualistic format with a motivation on awareness and their own practice, they perform various forms of Vajra dance. Ani Tsering, the nun dressed in white, is my Vajra dance teacher. She has also performed in two other versions of Vajra dance, Tara dance, Milarepa dance, and a selection of traditional Nepali dance (dances of Tamang and Newar people in Nepal) during the ceremony. Please see the recording below:
Final Project: “Dance Offerings: Blo Sbyong training and Vajra Dance”
Researched and Compiled by Moondil Jahan, AI Fellow ’18-’19
Two years ago, when I was training myself in West African and South Asian indigenous drumming and dance traditions through Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, my major focus was on the healing aspect. I regard these two oldest forms of performing arts as an outlet for emotional catharses. Throughout the journey, I came across various aspects of the drumming and dance forms—historical, political, religious, cultural and traditional. Toward the end of the journey, I was introduced to an intriguing dimension of drumming and dance through Tibetan Buddhist ritualistic tradition. One year after I finished my fellowship, I decided to move to Nepal to understand Himalayan Buddhist philosophy and the role of “dance offerings” in their ritualistic tradition. My role as a research fellow at The Aseemkala Initiative has facilitated in receiving special trainings in Blo Sbyong training and Vajra dance at Tek Chok Ling nunnery, which belongs the Karma Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism.
The abbot of the nunnery, Khenpo Tsültrim Gyamtso Rinpoche is a renowned Karma Kagyu master who introduced several forms of dance offerings to his nuns to aid in their practice. But in order to advance to that stage, one has to train in Blo Sbyong, which is a combination of Tibetan yoga with movements and mudras of the yogis and ḍākinīs of Tibetan/Vajrayana Buddhism. There are seventeen steps in Blo Sbyong which trains both the mind and body. Every session begins with an aspiration/motivation prayer and ends with a dedication prayer. At the beginning, one sets the motivation to train in those seventeen steps with full awareness of the mind, body and speech. Each movement, each mudra, each syllable of the songs during the entire session are meant to be practiced with earnest diligence. Throughout the practice, with the aid of breathing awareness and body movements, one imagines to breathe in all the positive energies and breathe out all the negative emotions. The purpose of Blo Sbyong is to increase mental and physical pliancy for the advance practices. My trainer Ani Tsering Youdon, a seventeen year old nun and a Vajra dancer, pointed out that Blo Sbyong is a wonderful practice for Śamatha (Calm abiding) meditation done in movements. Throughout the session one puts full attention to the movements.
Another crucial point Venerable Youdon-la mentioned that the purpose of the training or practice is to benefit all sentient beings, which is the essence of the aspiration prayers. This significantly shifts the priority from self to others. From this perspective, one regards one’s body as a tool or means to accomplish the goal of being enlightened. The practices such as Blo Sbyong training and Vajra dance significantly helps one’s practice of training their mind, body, and speech. While Blo Sbyong helps one to prepare for Vajra dance, the latter has two main aspects—embodying the deity and performing their functions. The nuns perform various types of Vajra dance such as “the offering of sixteen goddesses”, “pañca Buddha”, “Manjuśrī dance”, Milarepa dance, and Tara dance. Each of the dance offerings has a central deity or figure, such as Tara, Milarepa, or Manjuśrī. The dancer needs to embody the mudras pertaining to the specific deity with full awareness. Moreover, there is an aspect of blessing during the dance where the dancer blesses sentient beings and those around them. Venerable Youdon-la further elaborated that all these forms of dance offerings have five main central points: the main purpose is to benefit all sentient beings which is expressed in aspiration and dedication prayers, the meaning of the dance should be well understood, each dance mudra is done with full awareness, one meditates by practicing śamatha (calm abiding) during the offering, and through repeated offerings one accomplishes vipaśyanā (superior insight or wisdom). In Buddhist philosophy, the root of suffering is identified as the lack of renunciation from saṃsāra (material world). In the Buddhist context, sentient beings are bound in saṃsāra due to afflictive emotions (such as ignorance, anger, aversion). Śamatha training temporality subdues the afflictive emotions which serves as a basis for vipaśyanā. Once vipaśyanā is accomplished, the afflictive emotions are completely uprooted. Thus, any form of suffering does not arise. Once asked about the impact of dance offerings on her health, Venerable Youdon-la indicated that such training has increased her mental and physical pliancy which helps her to progress in the path. The fundamental priority is to benefit all sentient beings without exception and one’s body is used as a tool. Therefore, both mental and physical well-being is maintained through these forms of meditation in movement activities.
Click the pictures below for the videos.
Research Project 2020: A Study of Caryā Nṛtya
This fellowship year, I chose to train in caryā dance, which is a Newar Buddhist ritual dance offering. Recently it has been made open to the public to watch and even learn the dance, as a part of Nepal’s cultural heritage. That being said, it is important to note that there are at least two major aspects related to this dance: performing arts aspect and ritual aspect. There are certain ritual aspects with would require specific initiation to learn, which is not open to everyone. Moreover, even if one gets initiated to learn it in its full entirety, it is not allowed to share certain aspects publicly, since that would violate the ritual. Keeping all these aspects in mind, I am carefully proceeding further.
Final Project and Performance in 2020, Stay Tuned!