Tibetan A lce Lha mo:The World Beneath the Tent (Continued)

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The play we were about to see, Padma ‘od ‘bar, is based on a story of about a former life of Padmasambhava, the eighth century Indian teacher and yogin who is famous for the part he played in the establishment of Buddhism in Tibet, especially his conversion of all Tibet’s pre–Buddhist nature deities into Protectors of Buddhism.The story is found in the Padma bka’ thang, a book of Padmasambhava’s recollections of his previous existences. The play script was prepared by the actors from the book. There are chanted narrations to set the scenes, dialogue verses extracted from the text that are sung in a complex and demanding style, drum and cymbal pieces to accompany action and dance, and the actors continue to ad lib humor and social commentary to enliven the performance.

The theater piece that finally results can be quite different from the literary source. The lha mo players, as do all good story tellers, develop the use of myth and the fantastic in their "telling" in order to heighten the images of the real world and redirect the senses away from merely observing the action of the unfolding tale. The fantastic elements are not just decorative elements but are a vehicle by which the emotions of the audiencecan be focused and manipulated so that ideas can be dramatically expressed and made easy to understand. Every play, including this one, has its share of demons, witches, cannibals, magic words, magic lands, magic objects, miraculous occurrences, celestial beings, or denizens of the worlds under the water and below the earth. And both the literary and fantastic aspects of the script are threaded through with ordinary characters and actions from every part of Tibetan daily life, sometimes played as parody or for their comic aspect,but always acting as a reminder that the emotions and concerns being played out are part of real life.

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Gangtok Lha mo, 1955: Photograph by Beatrice Miller

As the play opened we knew that the Heretic King was in his court, mulling over what to do about his head merchant, the Buddhist minister, Nor bzang, who is Padma ‘od ‘bar’s father. In an effort to get rid of Nor bzang as a possible threat to the throne, the king sends him on an extremely dangerous trip to the ocean to get the wishing jewel from the klu, water spirits. The father is killed by sea monsters when he attempts to cross the ocean. Now, only the recently born, but very precocious Padma ‘od ‘bar and his mother, the Goddess, Bram ze gsugs mdzes, are left.Afraid that the king will take her son as well, Bram mdzes refuses to tell Padma ‘od ‘bar who his father is and keeps him in seclusion. One day, while in the forest collecting wood to help his mother, Padma ‘od ‘bar sees a baby deer playing with its mother and father. He says to himself, "I must have a father, for even the deer have parents." He goes home and questions his mother persistently until she says he is the son of a beggar who left him one day. Against his mother’s wishes, Padma ‘od bar goes to town to play with the other children, who taunt him about his different parentage.He returns to his mother and asks again about his father’s identity; she repeats her story. Subsequently, Padma ‘od ‘bar, concerned about helping to support his mother, makes some golden threads from wool stolen from his mother’s bag, and goes off to the market to sell them. Here he meets an old woman trader and trades the threads for cowrie shells. He then makes the old woman angry, and in her anger she says, "How could a good father have a bad son like you?" Padma ‘od ‘bar demands of her, "Who is my father?" The old woman tells the boy the story of his fatherand the tragic quest for the jewel. The King and his minister, Rkang mgyogs dbang chen (Swift Foot), discover the threads by telescope, and the latter goes to town to investigate. The boy is found, and brought before the King, who sends him on the quest that his father was unable to fulfill, even though Padma ‘od ‘bar is just three years old.

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Padma ‘od ‘bar bids farewell to his mother

The agitated mother prays and the Khandroma appear to provide her with three magic words her son should use whenever he is in trouble. With an advice giving parrot, the boy sets off on the quest for the jewel. When the sea monsters attack his boat, Padma ‘od ‘bar says the magic words and is saved. The klu queen, believing the boy to be an incarnation of the Buddha because he has survived the sea monster guards, gives the boy the wishing jewel. Padma ‘od ‘bar returns home to his mother first and with the wishing jewel makes her young and beautiful before going to the King.