Flying monks

By Matthieu Ricard on May 30, 2009

image This image of seven Tibetan and Bhutanese Buddhist monks jumping on the beach in front of the ocean was taken in France, at Dieppe, on a bright winter morning in 1997. This image is an original slide; it is not a multiple exposure and no tricks were employed. It is simply a single exposure of seven monks jumping for joy and, contrary to most viewers' belief, the image has not been modified in any way.

I used a manual FM2 Nikon camera to take the photograph. The monks jumped three consecutive times and I shot each of them. One of these jumps was perfectly synchronized, giving the illusion of a single monk bouncing off the ground from his two feet, crossing the air, and landing seven meters away.

Actually, the monks were rehearsing an acrobatic movement in the sacred dance called ‟Dances of the Heroes” (pacham in Tibetan). This traditional dance is normally performed in the courtyard of Tibetan and Bhutanese monasteries during an annual sacred dance festival. During the dance, the monks jump a number of times touching their forehead to their feet, a movement that indeed requires a lot of training. You can better understand this movement by looking at these other images of the dance.

This particular dance was inspired by a vision that the great Bhutanese spiritual master Pema Lingpa had in the fifteenth century. He described the vision in this way: ‘At the summit stood a palace of light, glittering with the brilliance of primordial wisdom, vast like the sky. In the center of the palace, in an expanse of sparkling dots and interlacing rainbows, Padmasambhava was seated, the embodiment of all buddhas of the past, present, and future. He was surrounded by a gathering of enlightened beings and male and female deities who danced, gestured, and beautifully sang the profound teachings of the Great Vehicle. They came together like a magnificent cloud, performing actions for the good of beings in unimaginable ways.'

For further details on this dance see ‟Bhutan: Land of Serenity,” Thames and Hudson.