JOHN DANCY: They are called "dancing demons," but, in fact, they're demon chasers. Nineteenth-century dancers wore these masks in the Buddhist monasteries in Mongolia to exorcise evil spirits. Now on display at the Asia Society in New York City, the masks and their origins are described by Mary Blume, education program coordinator, and Bill McKeever, director of Asian studies.
Ms. MARY C. BLUME (Asia Society): The title, "Dancing Demons: Ceremonial Masks of Mongolia," comes from a western view. When westerners first saw these Buddhist mask dancers, they looked at the ferocious masks that were dancing wildly, and they called them demons. But, in fact, these really aren't demons at all, but are really protectors of the faith.
Mongolian traditions illustrate something very well about religion that we think of here in the West as nonwestern, and that's a permeability, an ability to encompass, to include many different things.
When we talk about the people of Mongolia, the nomadic peoples of the steppes, what we're really talking about is a worldview that's based on the animistic notion that everything in the world is imbued with spirit. In that view of the world, the ritual specialist who helps bring the world into balance is the shaman. Shamanism isn't a religion. There's no doctrine that's followed.
Mr. BILL McKEEVER (Asia Society): Buddhism has a unique genius of being able to incorporate the spiritual impulses of the people and to transform it into iconography, religion, and ritual. So what you have is the enormously sophisticated philosophical and meditative tradition of India coming into the indigenous, animistic religion of Mongolia and having its efflorescence of festival and imagery.