Pictures from the Past: Origins of the Vajra Dance

The two articles that follow are part of a series recounting memories of experiences, retreats, travels and other moments spent with Dzogchen Master Chögyal Namkhai Norbu during his travels and teachings across the globe.

1990 First teaching on the Dance of Vajra. First mandala at Khandroling

by Joe Zurylo

It was my task during Rinpoche’s retreat to bring up supplies on a daily basis, primarily food and ice. There were some unusual requests such as a shovel, machete and a large ball of colored yarn. The shovel was used to dig out a large white rock, which in the end was way too big to move, the machete for hacking his way through the bush looking for retreat cabin places, and the yarn to hang off the trees to mark the spots.

A day or two later Rinpoche asked for some paint, bright paint in primary colors along with green, so off I went to the hardware store again to bring back some small half pints of paint. The following day Rinpoche asked for more paint, lots more paint, he said he was painting a mandala. So off I went and this time I brought back larger quart cans, and I thought to myself this should do it. Well not really because Rinpoche said he needed more paint, much more paint. By this time I was really curious because he had and enough paint for a small house. What was he doing? So back to the store this time I came back with gallons of paint, and I thought this ought to do it, besides how big can a mandala be. Well once I saw what he was painting I realized a mandala can be really big.

We had constructed a large plywood platform by the pond for the retreat, and he was covering the whole thing with these bright geometric shapes. Of course I had not a clue what I was looking at. Rinpoche told me to tell all the locals to come up after he finished his retreat and he would explain what he was doing and had some interesting information for us.

A few days went by and we all met up on Khandroling and Rinpoche began to tell us all about his dreams, how he had slept out in the open on top of the mountain and how he saw a large crystal temple with this mandala that the Dakinis were dancing on. He said Khandroling was the seat of a dakini queen by the name of Goma Devi and that she was releasing this teaching for us to practice. At which point we all went down to the pond where the mandala was and Rinpoche began to instruct us on the dance. This was the first dance class in our realm and the rest of the story most of you know.

Essential account of the Origins of the Vajra Dance 

1990–1992

by Prima Mai

In 1989 Rinpoche had the first dream of the Vajra Dance at Tsegyalgar East/Khandroling, seeing the Vajra Dance performed in a large hall, but without any instructions. When he returned to Khandroling in 1990, Rinpoche had the first instructions and painted the first Mandala on an existing platform near the pond that summer. Rinpoche taught a little of the dance in Khandroling to the practitioners who were present, showing parts of the Vajra Dance of the Song of the Vajra.

When Rinpoche came back to Merigar, he gave the first teachings on the Vajra Dance during the September retreat that included teachings on the Khandro Nyinthig. Rinpoche came down to the room that was for the Shang Shung Institute, studying some papers with diagrams and said we should paint a Mandala here, so we painted it on the sky blue carpet. Rinpoche had learned from a dream in Khandroling that the measurements of the first Mandala were not precise and at Merigar he corrected them from the indications he had received. The measurements were again slightly modified in later years.

As soon as the Mandala was painted, Rinpoche started to come to this room. He asked to have a table and chair and he would sit and study the Vajra Dance book. Sometimes he got up and moved on the Mandala and then he would go back to the book and write something. Then we started following him on the Mandala and sometimes he would watch, and he would say, go here, and then there, also checking with his notes and maybe add more to them. Slowly more and more people were assembling learning until late at night. When the retreat was over Rinpoche continued coming early mornings until November with some interruptions and with only a few of us present, continuing to follow him and memorizing the steps of the Three Vajra Dance and until Kelanam of the Song of the Vajra.

Later in December that year the third Mandala on Earth was created, with Rinpoche working himself at Tashigar South, Argentina, and where extensive teachings were given on the Song of the Vajra with a book also being published for the first time in 1992. There is also some video documentation of this time with Rinpoche preparing the platform to paint the third Mandala. (note: video: The Teachings on the Vajra Dance from 1991- 1999 by ChNN)

Rinpoche returned to Merigar West in early 1991 where in the meantime a retreat cabin had been built. He remained in personal retreat for one year and continued having dreams of the Vajra Dances, including the Vajra Dance of Space of the Song of the Vajra, of which he talked and showed me a bit about on various occasions. As well in that year we often met Rinpoche in the small forest surrounding his retreat cabin and worked together with him clearing the forest, including picnics, singing songs and sharing stories.

1991 was also the tenth anniversary of Merigar and during its festivity day we performed and offered to Rinpoche a Vajra Dance until Kelanam, as can be seen in the SSI video “Ten Years of Merigar”.

At that time I had continued studying the next group of steps from the diagrams Rinpoche had made available and together with Laura Evangelista we asked him when he might continue showing the second part of the Song of Vajra Dance. Soon after we now mostly met with Rinpoche in the afternoons to learn the second part, remaining for hours and hours and dancing again and again. The dance opened up many things and also something in our minds and maybe we saw our condition more clearly, working with Rinpoche so closely, learning also something completely new, which had not existed previously on earth.

Khyentse Yeshi Namkhai made the first music that we have used, at times, for many years, including until today. It was simple and basic pure sound. We were not always singing yet, even though this practice is about integrating with all three existences, Body, Mind and Voice in the Dance of the Song of the Vajra.

Rinpoche said at that time, that it was not easy to also sing, because sound is energy and that’s not easy to integrate when we need to focus on learning with the mind or body. He said that for a support, when still learning, we could integrate a choir of male and female practitioners singing together in the music.

We also didn’t know about the arms or mudras in the beginning and Rinpoche taught them all only in spring of 1992. He continued to have dreams of the Vajra Dance and also had the first dreams of Khalongdorjeikar, the Vajra Dance of Space of the Song of the Vajra.

During his personal retreat at Merigar in 1991/1992, Rinpoche had translated his dreams and the instructions of the steps of all three Vajra Dances from Tibetan into Italian, simultaneously recorded on about fifteen audio tapes, each of ninety minutes, which were transcribed by many collaborators and under the care of Enzo Terzano, Rita Bizzotto and Adriana Dal Borgo. It was published under the name “The Precious Light”. Later in 2012 Adriano Clemente translated the root text from Tibetan into “The Precious Lamp” and after verifying our understanding of Dance with the written text, it was published in 2015 as the “Vajra Dance Book”.

By the end of spring in 1992 we had learned the Vajra Dance of the Song of the Vajra until the end and it was also the year when he taught ‘The Vajra Dance That Benefits Beings’ for the first time to a few of us in the early summer mornings in Khandroling, Tsegyalgar East.

Some people who had come to Merigar and heard about the Vajra Dance, asked how they could learn the dance and Rinpoche, following indications in a dream, authorized and sent me to Greece, to teach the first course of the Vajra Dance and soon after also traveled to Tsegyalgar East/Khandroling right before his retreat giving the Lung and commentary on the Vajra Dance Book.

I had never taught anything in my life. I said to myself I have to try and do as Rinpoche did, the way he did with us, especially his attitude, he was our spiritual guide and friend, never pretending to be someone special and always doing his best at what he did. In later years it became more formal and secluded around him, but at that time we were all still close to him with the emphasis always on working and also enjoying together, being a family.

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