Reprint of 1992 Tantra Magazine Article
Tara Dance. Dharma Emporium. Dances of Universal Peace.
This article was written for and published in "Tantra Magazine," Pele Issue 1992. Prema Dasara had just returned from teaching the dance in Sikkim. Two side bars were included with the Tantra Magazine article,"Dancing On Top of the World" and "Descent of the Dakinis".
Prema Dasara is an international teacher and performer of sacred dance. Schooled in the traditions of India, Nepal, Tibet and Bali, she has created ritual dance offerings of great depth, power and beauty. Captivated by the wisdom of Tibetan Buddhism, she has choreographed dances to some of the ancient prayers and practices of this profound system. Prema is recognized by some of the most respected Tibetan lamas as a bridge between the Eastern transmission and the Western expression of this ancient wisdom. She has recently taught and performed at Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim, India, by the invitation of His Eminence Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, one of the regents of the legendary yogi and meditation master His Holiness, The Karmapa. Her home is in Hawaii on the rainbow island of Maui where she lives in a remote mountain sanctuary. She feels the nurturing beauty of the island gave birth to the mandala dance of the Goddess Tara. She has toured the world teaching communities this exquisite expression of empowerment and liberation.
The many songs and dances she has written for children blend the captivating stories of Hindu and Buddhist divinities with the basic ideas of Eastern philosophy. The children participate in the dance offerings with innocent joy, touching the hearts of all who witness. Prema seeks to awaken her students and audience to the magnificent potential of their own humanity. Inspiring and uplifting, she invites all to enter the bliss nectar joy of their own heart's freedom.
I must have danced out of my mother's womb. I have always delighted in the movement of my body, in the feeling of being inside a body. I started ballet training at the age of three, a foundation of movement that is still a reference. Yet my joy in dance found full expression in nature. I love to dance the trees, the ocean, the moon, the sun and the stars. In nature, I always feel inspired.
My loving mother told her friends she thought I was an old soul She often consulted me about people. When I was four, I told her about an experience I had playing with one of my friends. I saw that I could look through her eyes as easily as my own. It was like one of those circus tents where there were those little circles for your eyes. If you went up and looked through those circles, you could see yourself in a mirror with a clown's body. I realized that people all had a lot in common, they ate, they went to the bathroom, they slept. And that the life that we took so seriously was only a reflection of the inner spirit which actually guided everything.
My mother was a mystic. Once her patron
saint had appeared to her and saved her life. Another time, she had a
death experience. Her heart had stopped. She was floating away from Earth
in joyous release. Mother Mary appeared to her and asked her to return
to earth; my father still needed
We suffered a lot of conflict, my father and I. During a rebirthing experience I was to find it started before I was born. The intensive breathing method plunged me into an experience of being in the womb. I was communicating with my mother who had just realized that I was female. She had been very abused by her father and she knew how much my father wanted a son. I could feel her fear and knew that karmically she was to help my father in his growth. But I felt my work was to benefit many beings. I came out of that experience wrapped in my mother's fear and chanting "for the sake of all beings." Suddenly I am reminded of a dream of clarity that I had years ago. I was standing in a graveyard with my mother by my side. It was a full moon night and I could feel her fear although I felt exalted. Above us, a massive owl appeared; its wingspan must have been eight feet across. My mother's fear approached panic and I turned to her, but she was not to be comforted. I told her "Look, we are in control," and I reached up and tore the owl in four pieces. As its spirit filled me, the four pieces fell to the earth like cardboard. I was completely empowered. But my mother's fear had become so desperate that I woke myself up so that I would not be contaminated by it.
Going from the supporting arms of my mother into the Catholic school system was an awakening jolt. During the rituals of the mass, I had many experiences of colors, lights and a profound ecstasy when the bread and wine were changed into the body and blood of Christ. However, when I communicated these things to the nuns and questioned the doctrine they taught, I was threatened with beatings and cursed as a demon child. I learned to keep my inner life to myself.
Hearing about the legendary modern dancer Isadora Duncan, my imagination was fired by her accomplishments. I immersed myself in Greek mythology. I was Artemis, virgin goddess of the forest, holy priestess of the mystery dances. I loved to gather my brother and sister and their friends and organize little dance programs. The children followed me everywhere.
When I was 12 years old, I was confirmed in the Catholic church. In the ceremony, the bishop slaps the candidate to awaken them to the harsh realities and responsibilities of life. Suddenly I saw the hypocrisy of the church and felt confined by its limits. I left the Catholic church and have never returned.
My search for spiritual guidance had started in earnest. In high school a group of revolutionary intellectuals gathered and we took to going to a different religious establishment every week. We studied the development of Western thought and experimented with existentialism, which was very much in vogue. The sixties burst upon us and in the psychedelic community I finally found affirmation of my inner experiences.
How I had looked forward all my life to college! I would save my lunch and bus money, working at odd jobs, teaching music to children, baby-sitting. What a disappointment it was to me to find that "higher education" was so divorced from the wisdom I sought. I began hitchhiking across the country, meeting wonderful people, having dramatic adventures. I was an artist exploring every medium: music, dance, painting, theater. I took Henry Miller's advice. He said if you were an artist in America, you either shot yourself or left the country. I went to Europe. Amsterdam in the sixties was a magnificent culture of openness and exploration. I found the tolerance of the Dutch refreshing and their willingness to support and encourage art a great blessing.
I started having flashbacks of my life as a snake goddess in Babylon, a temple dancer priestess. I began the practice of hatha yoga. A violent relationship turned me to explore the science of Scientology and I benefited greatly from their process. I saw clearly that one is self-determined and if one takes responsibility for one's life, life responds. I also learned that organizations dealing with spirituality may have many powerful and wonderful tools, but may also be foolish and destructive. One must discriminate carefully.
Back in America, in the name of freedom, I entered what I would call the underbelly of civilization, some strange people doing some very strange things. I was almost murdered. It changed the course of my life. I turned to a book called "Autobiography of a Yogi" and there I connected with the next phase of my journey. Paramahansa Yogananda said if you want to understand the spirit then you must serve. I realized how far I had come from my childhood ideal of trying to make everyone happy. I had turned toward the Western culture of self-gratification and this road had led me into self-destruction. How grateful I am for this period in my life because it allowed me to experience for myself why people suffer so much. Once I started to serve others, I came out of the horrible suffering I had gotten myself into and understood that the self-oriented life, the life that is lived purely for self-gratification, is miserable, lonely and dissatisfied.
I found a little group of Theosophists down in southern California, a splinter group of the main society. They had a sign in their study room that said "Creeds Disappear Hearts Remain." I worked for them as their postmistress and applied myself to intense introspection and religious study.
A relationship carried me off to Santa Cruz where my partner and I bought into 250 acres of fruit trees and forests. I lived under a tree by a pasture where I kept a small herd of horses. We had a natural foods distribution business and once a week, I would deliver natural foods up and down the coast of California. One day the folks at Esalen, Big Sur, asked me to deliver a load of food and invited me to spend a couple of days. As I was sitting in the hot tub alone looking out over the magnificent Pacific, a strange thing occurred. A man in an orange robe was sort of hovering with the butterflies and singing to me. It seemed perfectly natural and I was filled with bliss. When I dressed and went outside, he was there and walked along with me although it was obvious that no one else could see him. As a thought of judgment arose in my mind, he pointed it out to me. I didn't know who this being was who was so capable of reading my mind, but I was impressed. That evening I found a book "Holy Man and the Psychiatrist" and I recognized my new friend to be Satya Sai Baba of India. The next morning I was invited to join a meditation class and when I entered the room, there was a huge picture of him on the altar. A friend was sitting before it and gave me some of Sai Baba's sacred ash. When I ate it, I saw the picture open and there was a long dusty road. I was going home to my true mother and father. In a month I was in India.
I stayed at Baba's ashram in Puttaparti, India, for three months and immersed myself in his teachings and the Hindu religion. One day, I spontaneously decided to go to the Theosophical Society in Adyar, Madras. I was welcomed as if I was a long lost friend. Within a month, I was given their international publication to edit. I was 27 years old.
Living at Adyar was a great blessing. The 250 acres of gardens bordering on the ocean was a buffer to the intense life of an Indian city. They have one of the greatest esoteric libraries in the world and I read constantly and extensively. I studied esoteric Christianity with Bishop Charles and had long conversations with the many fascinating people who did research into Eastern thought. At their school of wisdom, I studied the unusual revelations of Madam Blavatsky who sought to show the relationship of Eastern and Western thought and who claimed her masters to be Tibetan teachers of great power and wisdom. I joined the other young people of the compound in celebrating the Dances of Universal Peace with a student of Murshid Sam. I studied the history of India and began to understand the different sects of Hinduism. It was helpful to see that Hinduism is actually a Western title and means people from the Indus Valley. The Hindu people refer to themselves according to family lineage and each family has its own spiritual teachers and traditions. There is such a blending of so many different influences and such a vast array of philosophical points of view that calling oneself Hindu does not in any way mean that one shares another Hindu's gods or philosophy.
I met my third husband in Adyar and we walked around the sacred fire according to Hindu marriage rites. He offered to support me in studying one of the art forms of the country. He had spent many years in India as a student of the great Carnatic violinist, Lalgudi Jayaraman.
Rukmini Devi, the grande dame who was responsible for reinstating Bharatanatyam, the temple dance of South India to respectability, lived at the Theosophical Society. She gave a lecture demonstration and I resolved to learn temple dancing. Discussing this with my husband, he told me of a style he had seen once that entranced him. He had heard that there was a teacher at Rukmini's school, Kalakshetra. And so I met my teacher, Guru Ramani Ranjan Jena and was introduced to Odissi, the temple dance of Orissa.
The class had already started when we entered the bamboo and thatched roof school room. Eight young women were completely focused upon the young attractive teacher playing his drum and singing. Their movements were sinuous and lyrical, powerful yet graceful. There was a feeling of absolute devotion that was melting in its intensity. Mesmerized, I begged the guru to teach me privately. His class had been studying with him for several years. I knew nothing about Indian dance. He refused to take me as a private student and for months, I tried to win his interest. Finally in desperation, I joined his class. It was amusing. I wandered around in the back of the room trying to sort it all out. In Indian dance, every part of the body is doing something independent and it is all choreographed. The feet, the knees, the hips, the waist, the midriff, the neck, the head, the face, the eyes, the eyebrows, and then the hands and the arms all moved independently. The songs were in Sanskrit and my teacher spoke Oriya and Hindi. I was at sea, but I was completely determined. This went on for months. One day he camp up tome watching me struggle with a particularly difficult step and said, "I have never seen anyone learn so fast. I will come to your house tomorrow." For four years, I had the wonderful privilege of being trained privately by this great master. He would come to my house every day. When he entered, he would greet every one of the deities I had on my altar with a prayer. I would bring his drum, touch his feet and with great patience and iron discipline we would explore the tradition that has left sculptural evidence of its practice for more than 5000 years.
Living in India, the atmosphere was permeated with the gentle devotion of the people. Just walking the dusty streets, seeing the rice flower offering designs the women made outside their doorsteps every day, watching the cows wander freely down the road, the slow pace of the women with water pots on their heads, I would find myself captivated, in bliss. I absorbed as much of the culture as I could, studying Sanskrit and vocal music at Kalakshetra and complementing my physical discipline with yoga classes taught by Sri Desicacharya. I was blessed to study the vina, an ancient lute-like instrument, with a masterful woman who represented the last of a treasured lineage. "Dive into the ocean of music," she would laugh. "It will carry you to the divine."
< A shift in Indian politics found us suddenly living on my husband's remote land 3000 feet up Haleakala, Maui, Hawaii's sacred volcano. Although I had told my teacher, to his amusement, that I would not perform, I realized that the dance was a precious jewel that deserved to be shared. But I knew it had to be in the context of the sacred. It had to be a divine experience.
During this same period, Lama Tenzin, a Tibetan student of the great meditation master Kalu Rinpoche, came to Maui to open a Dharma center. I took teachings with him and was impressed with his patience, his charm and openness. He came to my first dance offerings and began inviting me to dance in the center's temple on festive occasions. This seemed so curious to me. There is somewhat of a separation between the Hindu and the Buddhist path. Historically there has been conflict. But this was America, the great melting pot, and Lama Tenzin's intuition was respected.
In Tibetan ritual practice, deep and sonorous chanting is important. Lama Tenzin requested we arrange English translations of some of the prayers so that they could be sung in English. Our only neighbor, Jeff Munoz, student of Kahuna Daddy Bray, used to sing Indian devotional songs with us. A favorite was the Mantra of Tara sung to a tune Jeff had learned from Bhagavan Das. Jeff had arranged the praise to the Central Tara. That gave me the inspiration and I sat down with the rest of the sadhana and shaped it so that the whole thing could be sung.
This version of the Twenty One Praises of Tara was adapted from a translation by Sarah Harding of a traditional Tibetan sadhana, a gom ter (mind treasure) written by Orgyen Dechen Chokjur Lingpa, the great Tibetan treasure finder. It was one of the most common texts used in the west in the practice of Tara.
In 1983, the arrival of His Eminence Tai Situ Rinpoche, one of the youthful regents of the Karmapa, was celebrated with great joy. Seated on a throne in the midst of the Dharma center's tropical garden, he gave our sangha the empowerment of the Goddess Tara. His transmission of compassion was so profound that many of us were weeping.
Until that time, I had been somewhat put off by the practices. I was attracted by the logic of the teachings but nothing had really touched my heart. Soon I found myself chanting the 21 Praises of Tara as a daily practice. I seemed to memorize it effortlessly and as I would wander the hills chanting, I could see this radiant rainbow Goddess dancing before me.
I requested permission to choreograph the sadhana for a dance offering I was arranging and Lama thought it was an interesting idea. A close friend, Lauryn Galindo, told me she was also having dreams and visions of dancing Tara but it included many women. She dreamt of a golden spiral and I saw the pattern of movement clearly. We called all our Goddess friends together and the first Tara dance was presented.
We were all humbled by the intensity of the experience. Seeing twenty-two beautiful, loving women embodying and projecting the wisdom, power and compassion of Tara, many people in the audience wept. The dancers were exalted by the power that flowed through them. How hungry our world is for the embrace of the Divine Mother.
I plunged deeper into the study of the Tibetan path. I studied practices of purification and how to accumulate the stability and power to penetrate the mind. Always immersed in the compassionate wish to benefit all living beings, I studied the transformational path of Tantra.
What a curious word, Tantra. The teachings and practices of the Hindu Tantrikas and the Tibetan Buddhist Tantrikas are different. And within these two traditions are many different lineages with dramatically different practices and teachings. Western Tantra again was different, an amalgam of whatever Tantric connections the teachers had made combined with their own experience of the many different paths we as western seekers are exposed to.
I needed to resolve these currents in myself. I returned to India. My dance teacher had settled in his native Orissa and we began preparations for my Mancha Pravesh, a ceremony of performance offered after a certain level of training has been achieved. Before the British outlawed the practice, it represented the marriage of the dancer to God.
We chose the sacred temple of Kirachora Gopinath, a shrine of Lord Krishna as the beloved cowherder. Lord Chaitanya had experienced himself as Radha, the divine lover of the Lord, in that temple and the air itself was permeated with bliss. In the light rays bouncing off the morning mist, you could see the play of the cowherd folk with their beloved Krishna. The childlike villagers gathered to witness a Western woman dancing in abandon within the temple courtyard and accepting a shawl from the priest, symbol of divine union.
One day, I wandered to the river to find the local people taking sacred baths and releasing little paper boats into the water. As the colorful creations floated through the morning mist bearing offerings of food and flowers, the people remembered their seafaring ancestors. Over a thousand years ago, their people had journeyed across the seas to a group of islands rich in resources and started colonies there. This festival, called Bali Yatra, eventually led me to study and teach in Bali.
Before leaving Orissa, I happened upon an article that claimed Odissi dance to have passed through four major religions in the past 2000 years. One of them was Vajrayana Buddhism. I put a bicycle on top of a local bus, journeyed down remote village roads and forded rivers to find ancient monasteries, sculptures and stupas. I spoke with priests, scholars, dance masters and the last living temple dancer. Again the study of history helped me to see the movement of peoples, the blending of gods, the divergence of paths.
In Nepal, I was introduced to Ratnakagi Vajracharya, a respected priest of the Newar Buddhists. He was a master of Charya dance, a living tradition of dancers representing the gods and goddesses in the temple rituals. The movement is similar to Odissi. He told me there was a legend that his people had migrated to the Kathmandu Valley from ancient Orissa.
This was the connection I had been seeking. I had studied Lama dancing in Dharamsala at the Tibetan School of Opera, Music and Dance. I had found the movements very masculine and learned that indeed women did not dance in the Tibetan rituals. It was a practice only for men. I discussed this with many respected Tibetan teachers and told them of my visions and the Tara dance. They gave me their blessings to proceed.
Tai Situ Rinpoche returned to Maui in 1985. On a bluff overlooking the wide Pacific, we offered the Tara Mandala Dance to a high lama for the first time. The devotion was as embracing as the soft tropical breeze that billowed our saris. Situ Rinpoche was deeply moved by the dance. He said that he had never seen the depth of devotion that we had demonstrated. He told me that I would share this dance all over the world and he had many suggestions. At the time I was shocked, knowing little about the dharma, Tara, I felt so inadequate. He told me to change the text however was necessary. He envisioned a yearly offering of the dance, a festival of the Great Mother. We maintained that tradition on Maui for many years.
Our ever changing group of Goddess friends on Maui have danced the Tara Mandala for many great Tibetan teachers. They have received our offering with delight. When Bokar Rinpoche, heart son of Kalu Rinpoche, came to the island last November (1991), he told us that his main practice was Tara and it was thrilling to him to witness the dance. He told us that those who practice this dance ritual with a sincere heart would clarify hindrances in their life, remove obstacles to spiritual growth, and, ultimately, become endowed with the unconditional wisdom of enlightenment. (Venerable Bokar Rinpoche's Commentary on the Tara Dance)
It has been a great joy to travel and share
this experience with women from all over the world. Women have the extraordinary
power to protect, to inspire, to love. The Praises of Tara remind us of
our potential, that we are worthy of honor, capable of greatness, wise
in the ways of heaven and
This is an experience of utter freedom. We completely drop our ordinary limited idea of ourselves, our self-centered obsessions. We pray that whoever sees us experiences the qualities of Tara. And if our own intention is powerful and the audience is open, we are all transported.
Carrying all the silk costumes with me,
I dress each woman in the vibrant color of the emanation of Tara she represents.
It is a wonderful thing to see what happens to a Western woman when she
is dressed in a silk sari. It is the most feminine form of dress that
I know; it flows with the body; it
One of the most delightful things I've
been doing is teaching children. It always moves me deeply to experience
their openness and intuitive grasp of the Dharma. One song I wrote according
to a traditional Tibetan text, "Tara Tames the Eight Fears".
The Fire of Anger, the Lion of Pride, the Snake of Jealousy--we explore
the emotions, their effect on us and others and the possibilities of working
with them. One day I asked a group of seven-year-olds what they thought
pride was. One little girl told me, "It's when you don't think you
are as good as anyone else so you act like you're better." From the
mouth of babes! I hope to be able to record these songs some day. Often
my men friends have asked me when will I include them. Recently I have
been playing with a song about Guru Rinpoche, the precious teacher who
brought Buddhism to Tibet. This summer solstice, about sixty of us--men,
women and children--demonstrated its power. Sacred dance, ritual movement
that provides a vehicle for the spirit, can be a catalyst of growth and
empowerment. Let us explore the
Looking up at the impressive buildings of
the Rumtek Monastery and feeling the towering snow peaks of the Himalayas
behind me, the unusual combination of elements made it all seem so dreamlike.
There I was in Sikkim, an Italian-American from Hawaii using classical
Indian dance movement to interpret several of the most beloved Tibetan
prayers. The audience surrounding the courtyard included Tibetan monks,
nuns, families from the surrounding community, Bhutanese disciples, and
a wide assortment of Western folk from all over the world sharing in the
Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche had invited me to teach and perform because he saw in my work a bridge between the East and the West. He felt the dances were a vehicle for children to learn spiritual values in a joyful way. He wanted the young Tibetan women to be encouraged to come out of their cultural restraints and take their place in a world where women were honored. He hoped to include even the youngest and the poorest in the coming coronation of the latest incarnation of the Karmapa who has recently been discovered, a child of 8. Preparing the community in this way, it was his wish that I would bring Western dancers to join with the young Tibetan women I was training to dance the Mandala Dance of the 21 Praises of Tara in next year's ceremony.
It was an experience I will never forget. Rinpoche had asked me to explain my background and the lineage of the Tara dance. Having listened to countless hours of Tibetan teachings translated into English, it was strange to have it going the other way as my words were translated into Tibetan. And stranger still to see these two meditation masters smiling and listening thoughtfully.
The dancing went well, the children overcoming their shyness as children will. As soon as the Rinpoches were escorted upstairs, the monks rushed my friend Robert who had been running the tape recorder begging for copies of the tape. The smiling faces of the villagers were heart warming, but it was the old crones that moved me to tears. They came up to me bowing, looking deep into my eyes. These women had done Tara practice all their life and that day they had seen Tara. "Jetsun Drolma, chak sa lo," they whispered. I bow to Tara.
For the four weeks I remained in Rumtek, I taught the children as much as possible. I would wake in the morning to a little family on the ridge, the children singing the songs I had taught them. When I went out, a little group would be waiting outside my gate. "Dancing today?" they would ask shyly.
And now His Eminence Jamgon Kongtrul is dead, killed in an automobile accident April 26th. The 17th Karmapa has been escorted to his monastery in Tibet. I will do my best to fulfill the wishes of Jamgon Rinpoche and with help may I succeed. In the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, we pray that H.E. Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche will return to us soon. May we all be inspired by these great teachers capable of leading us to fulfillment. May we open our hearts to truth and to our limitless possibilities. (His Eminence Jamgon Kongrul's Letter of Endorsement)
the feast," the Lamas solemnly intone,
They swarmed about the mandala,
And at the center,
Where is his protection my heart calls,
Satiated, drunk with the bliss nectar devotion offering,
With longing my heart follows them---