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The Damaru

From Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia
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The damaru is an hourglass-shaped drum that has two small beads at the ends of strings that strike the two drumheads of the damaru. The drum is held in the right hand and rotated back and forth in order to make the strikers swing around the drum and hit the drumheads. The damaru, along with the bell, is often recognized as one of the most ‘ritualistic' and symbolic instruments used in Tibetan Buddhist ritual music. They are often more independent than other instruments when used in ritual ensemble music at monasteries. Within Chod practice in particular, the damaru is used to help maintain the practitioners focus. It is also thought to help stop outside intrusions of negative thoughts or activities.


The damaru is sometimes classified alongside bells as a ‘rung' instrument rather than as a ‘struck' instrument. Based upon the way that it is played, however, via the concussive force of the strikers, it could easily be considered as a ‘struck' instrument. There are two main types of damaru, the “big damaru” (da chen) and the “small damaru” (da chung). The larger damaru is used exclusively in the practice of Chod, while the smaller damaru is used in a

variety of rituals. There is also a slight divide by gender, where men often play larger damaru than the women, but this is not an enforced guideline. Damaru are typically made of wood with animal skin from animals like goats used as the drumhead. Some damaru are made out of sandalwood, acacia wood or ivory. Damaru can also sometimes be made out of two human skulls, which is then given the special name of thod rnga. The damaru made of human skulls is highly valued for its appeal to Fierce deities.


Background Information on the Damaru


According to some, the damaru's earliest recorded history was amongst the Harrapan civilization of the Indus valley. It is present in the artifacts and clay seals left behind by the Harrapan civilization. Some of these were found at Mohenjo-Daro in particular. In these early depictions, it is often represented as an emblem of Shiva, the Hindu deity. The damaru that is used by Buddhists is similar to the early forms used in India, but is more

compressed in shape and has drumheads that are glued on rather than being held on with a lattice of string. Not only the wooden damaru, but also those made of skulls can be traced back to India. To a degree, the Damaru can be traced back to Indian roots through the thod rnga, the damaru made of the tops of human skulls. Oftentimes, the skull drum and the kangling are thought of as uniquely Tibetan instruments; however, these instruments are actually Indian in origin.

In India during the first millennium C.E., there was a religious movement known as the Kapalikas, which has been said to mean “skull-bearers” or perhaps “skull people.” Over a long period of time, this movement became more like a caste and less like a religious movement, but the actions they took when they were still primarily religious practitioners is key. The practitioners in this movement used ornaments and artifacts made of human bone as a means of

shocking people into taking life and their religious practice more seriously—confronting people with death was the means of accomplishing this goal. Alongside these bone ornaments and artifacts, the Kapalikas developed two instruments referred to in Sanskrit as the ‘kapala-damaru,' meaning the “skull hourglass-drum,” and the ‘majja-vamsa,' meaning the “bone-marrow [excavated from the bone to make an open tube] flute.” When rendered in Tibetan, these

terms for these two instruments came to be called the thod rnga and the rkang gling. When these two instruments were first introduced into Tibet by Indian Buddhists, some Tibetans were critical and derided them as negative or even evil influences from India. As time went on and Tibetans began to accept the instruments and make them more easily due to their practices of leaving corpses exposed at ‘sky-burial' sites, the opposite occurred in India, where Indian burial customs changed and Indians began denouncing the bone instruments as signs of “Tibetan savagery,” an interesting reversal.


Symbolism of the Damaru


The damaru has been described as “a microcosmic embodiment of the basic structure of the universe and of sentient life,” a thorough investigation of which “encompasses the entire scope of Buddhist philosophy and meditation.” The instrument is often understood as a reminder of impermanence and emptiness. In

Chod, it can be said to cut doubts and expectations from the self. It is understood by advanced practitioners to not only symbolize, but also produce the sound of emptiness—sound is produced, but it is impermanent and therefore lacks self-existence. Some ways of playing the damaru can pertain to the 18 kinds of emptiness. For the less advanced, the opposing sides of the damaru can be held to symbolize the conventional and ultimate truths, while the beads that strike the drumheads can be conceptualized as the ultimate nature of the mind.


There are several types of ornamentation that are sometimes attached to the damaru, one of the most symbolic of which seems to be the strip of cloth that sometimes hangs from the handle. Oftentimes, this decoration is made up of five colors, which can be said to represent the five Buddha families. Sometimes people attach other things to this strip of cloth. For instance, some people attach the hair of dakinis, described in this instance as the consorts of Rinpoches, to the decorations on the handle. When this is done, there are often two bits of hair on either side of the handle—one side has hair from a living dakini, and the other side has hair from a dead dakini.

The great Tibetan yogi and poet Milarepa is said to have produced an intriguing song that speaks about the symbolism of the damaru and speaks more generally about the variability of symbolism. The story goes that Milarepa was staying in the Lion Cave of Tag Tsang when he was approached by four ascetic

yogins, who were shocked by his ability and experience. They asked for his advice and information about their clothing and the damarus that they carried—they had been asked to sing a song “exemplifying” these objects during their travels and had been unable to do so, which led to ridicule and derision from their questioners. In response to their questions Milarepa sang a number of stanzas describing their clothing and the damaru. For instance, one such stanza reads as follows:

“The thin waist of the damaru-drum
Marks the place of error and doubt
Where samsara and nirvana meet;
The widening out of the two skull-rims
Is like the waxing and waning of samsara and nirvana.”
Milarepa goes on to describe many other qualities of the damaru before making the following admonition to the ascetics:
“Do you get my meaning, ascetics?
Listen further, friends:
Without encountering a good lama,
Without instructions, precepts, and experience,
One is led by the appearances of this mundane life.
Though you have a yogin's form,
If you don't have good qualities of realization,
Wearing that white hat on your head
Is like whitewashing charcoal.”
After this admonition he goes through each characteristic that he described previously, but identifies its symbolic aspects differently. For instance, when it comes to the damaru he says:
“The thin waist of the damaru-drum
Indicates your extreme paucity of wisdom;
Its widening out to the two skull rims
Shows how your sin and evil actions increase.”
In doing so he turns what was once positive into a negative parallel.

This sequence of events in the tale of Milarepa is particularly interesting in terms of the message that it gives about symbolism in terms of the damaru and more generally. At its most basic level, it shows that symbols are not static and monolithic structures. The way that symbols are interpreted, the meaning attached to them, varies from person to person and from circumstance to circumstance. In the first stanza that Milarepa gives about the damaru he

identifies the meaning that it might have for a sincere and genuine yogin. He admonishes the ascetics to whom he is speaking to make sure that they receive the correct training and become sincere yogins, not just people with the physical outward form of yogins. If they fail in this endeavor and are not genuine and do not come to possess the “good qualities of realization,” then rather than symbolizing important ideas of their practice, the damaru will come to

represent their “paucity of wisdom” and their increasing “sin and evil actions.” The meaning of the damaru or indeed of any symbol can be expressed differently depending upon what the teachers wish to express to their students. The particular background and situation of the teacher as well as that of the student shapes what will be emphasized and divulged. Milarepa makes his point explicit to the four ascetics at the end of his song, when he proclaims:


“That was my song
About the three articles of ascetics
Hat, headband, and damaru-drum—
Taking their details as examples.
It should be an iron goad
For yogins who have realization,
Provisions for those who wander the countryside,
Food for those seeking sustenance, Nourishment for those in retreat, A companion for those living along, And a standard for the masses.
You yogins who don't have realization,
Who wander the ends of the earth searching for food
You will take the first set of examples
As the accomplice of imposters.
Use it to sate your rapacious hunger!
Use it as a crutch for lack of ability!
Hawk it as a treasure in the market!
Sing it as your song to the ten directions!
The second series of examples
Reveals the hidden nature of imposters.
The wise should take it as an admonition.
The unrealized should take it as derision.
Children should make it their nursery rhyme.
It should be repeated all day long.
Prompted by the situation,
I composed this allegory of appearances,
Making both good and bad examples;
Did you understand or not?
If you did, let it urge you to virtue.
If not, it will upset your mind.
Please be patient at my teasing.
I've considered all this, and my mind is happy.”

In this final set of stanzas, Milarepa makes it clear to the four ascetics that if they take only the first set of examples then they shall do so as “imposters” of sorts. They should take the second set of examples, wherein the different articles are said to symbolize negative things, as an “admonition” to do better. Milarepa underlines its importance by describing how “Children should make it their nursery rhyme”—the implication being that they should

take it to heart and allow it to urge them towards virtue. This interestingly mirrors the basic idea of Vajrayana practice, where the negative is taken and transformed into the positive. The story goes that the four ascetics did indeed understand and were filled with strong faith, asking Milarepa to bless and teach them. After receiving his teachings, they practiced and ended up becoming unusually realized and renowned Yogins. The different symbolic approaches were an effective teaching mechanism.


Important Qualities a Damaru Should Possess


When considering purchasing a damaru, there are several important qualities that it should have. Above all else, the most important thing is the sound; the damaru should have a good, clear sound. The best damaru are made of sandalwood, but any wood that has not been eaten by insects is acceptable. According to a woman who sold instruments at a local monastery, many damaru are made of acacia wood, which is cheaper than sandalwood but still produces a good

sound. The drumhead is best if it is made of goat skin, but again, whatever makes a good sound is acceptable. Almost all the qualities of a damaru are subservient to the need for a good, clear sound. Even size is not necessarily important. There are many different sizes of damaru and various levels of ornamentation, but neither quality is particularly important—you should get what fits your hand and is most comfortable. There is traditionally, however, a big damaru that is used more specifically for Chod, and a smaller one for other rituals.


Another important quality has to do not with the sound of the instrument, but with its relation to religious practice. In order for a damaru to be effective for religious practice, it should have several mantras written on the inside of the wooden body of the drum. These mantras should also be blessed by a high monk or Lama. There are many options for these mantras, some of which can be written in Sanskrit, but some of the most important include the mantras of the male dakini and the mantras of the female dakini. The mantras for the male dakini should be on the right, and the mantra for the female dakini should be on the left.


Playing the Damaru


Damaru are always held and played in the right hand. The thin middle section of the drum is grasped by the thumb and index finger and the entire drum is rotated back and forth so that the two beads that hang by strings off of the drum each strike a drumhead. During the lessons on Chod that I was able to attend at a local monastery, the Chant Master went into great detail about the correct way to play the damaru. Among his most important instructions was an admonition relating to the idea of balance. He described how the body itself should be straight and balanced, as should the drum. The damaru should not be

held too high or too low, instead it should be right in the middle—this appeared to me to be a point where the top of the drum hovered at around the height of the forehead or eyebrows. In addition to being at the right height, the damaru should not be held too far away from the body.

This idea of balance transferred into the movement and actual playing of the damaru as well. The Chant Master described how you must make sure that the hand is balanced when you are holding the damaru. It should not be held too loosely or too tightly and should not be played to quickly or wildly; the correct manner of playing should be easy and comfortable. To accomplish this, it is very important to have control of your hand during Chod. The hand must

turn in a properly balanced way with consistent speed so that the damaru turns in the right manner. A correct turn appeared to be a full 180-degree rotation of the drum. For a correct rotation of the drum to be made, you must be sure not to let the damaru fall or waver when you turn it, this means maintaining a balanced and consistent speed and not allowing the elbow to lift or fall either. Failing to maintain this balance will mean that the damaru

is not being played correctly. Often, if both strikers are not making sound then you have an imbalance in speed or are not turning far enough. This is one way to tell if you are having an issue with your playing. The Chant Master also described how, before you first start playing, the damaru should be held in a ‘rest position' of sorts. This rest position is done

with the drum in the right hand and the bell in the left by crossing the arms across the chest, with the right arm and hand holding the damaru on top of the arm and hand holding the bell. Once you actually begin to play, it is important that you start the motion of the drum by swinging it backwards, away from yourself, so that the strikers swing backwards first. Some Chod practitioners of other traditions did this too, but this part of the practice at least is likely specific to particular traditions, as Tibetan literature and commentary on Chod does not speak of the direction of rotation for the drum.


Musical Analysis and the Damaru


There are two types of sounds that are played on the damaru—‘beats' (brdung) and ‘ringing' (khrol ba). The sound of beats are made by a single twist of the damaru in one direction that makes each striker hit a drumhead or by a continued twist of the drum in alternating directions, which causes one strike on each of the drumheads. In other words, beats can be made by a single rotation of the damaru or by a back and forth rotation. Single beats can be

thought of as being combined into numerical series called ‘counts' (grangs). The beats in any single series are of more or less equal lengths, but different series of beats can be combined— when this happens, the series respective beats may still differ in length. In contrast to beats, ringing is a more continuous sound. Ringing is produced by rapid clockwise-counterclockwise rotations of the drum, which produces a stream of rattling pulses from the

strikers hitting the drumheads. Ringing sections seem to be used at more specialized times such as alongside a melody, which is either sung or played on the kangling, or when called for by non-musical reasons relating to the meditation. A section based on ringing may end with a cadence made up of several beats

From my own experience watching and listening to a group Chod practice, there were two rhythmic patterns that I often heard played on the damaru and bell during the ritual practice. The first was very simple and appeared to be as follows:


Outside of this very simple rhythm, there was one other rhythm that I heard with some frequency:


Given their simplicity, I felt comfortable transcribing these two rhythms. The only other rhythmic pattern I was able to recognize regularly came at the end of each section of instrumental playing. The Chod practitioners ended each segment with a series of violent flicks of the instrument that caused a flurry of wild beats to emanate from the damaru. This ending sequence began with the tempo of the consistent quarter note beats on the damaru becoming

faster and faster, culminating in this flurry of frantic beats. Afterwards, there would be a brief pause before another flurry of frantic beats, followed by a seemingly final end to that particular section, after which chanting would occur. Some rhythms played on the damaru during Chod were recorded by Daniel A. Scheidegger in his book Tibetan Ritual Music. See Image A in Appendix B for his transcription of the rhythmic patterns.


Making a Damaru


I was fortunate enough to get to speak with a man working in a shop that sells damaru and various other instruments. This man was experienced not only in selling damaru, but also in making them. He has been working at the shop, which is owned by his father, and making damaru in his free time for approximately 12 years. He learned the process for making damaru from his father and was kind enough to allow me to see part of his work. The entire process for making a damaru takes about two days, after which they can sell them to anyone who wants them—at this shop they mainly sold to Buddhist ritual

practitioners, but they also sold a fair number to tourists. They make as many damaru as get ordered, and retain some in the shop. The process for making a damaru begins by acquiring the right materials. The craftsmen at this shop get their wood from Gorkha or Tarai Hetauda in Nepal and the skin for the drumhead from India. They also have some damaru made out of plastic to use as samples. Once they have the wood the process for making

the actual damaru beings. They start off with a large, round piece of wood. The first step in the process is to take this lump of wood and make it into the correct shape, which I was told took between one and a half to two hours to do. After the wood is in the correct shape to be a damaru, they stain the wood. While this woodcarving is occurring, they are soaking the skins for the drumhead—which are made from goat skin—in water. They need to soak for about one and a half days.


Once the skin has soaked long enough, they place black tape on the edge of the wood where the drumhead will be attached. They then put the skin on the drum. The two drumheads on opposing sides of the drum get held on at first by sewing the them together with stitches that reach across the center of the damaru. They use a thick thread that goes back and forth in a big series of “V” shaped zig zags. This stitching holds the drumheads on while they are wet.

When they dry they stay put on their own. After they have dried a little bit, the drumheads get painted and are allowed to dry overnight. After this is done the stitching gets removed and different decorations are affixed to the damaru. Once this has been done, the damaru is completed and is ready to be sold.



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