Mask Dancing as Deity Yoga

Mekara Fiske, Level 3 Winston-Salem, North Carolina

” ‘But why should I emanate myself as [Tara] or any other diety?’, you may ask. ‘It is already difficult enough for me to emanate myself as a man, or as a woman. So why should I change my appearance and put on another mask, a [Tara] mask?’

First of all, your present face is not you; your bones and flesh are not you. Neither your blood, your muscles, nor any other part of your body are the essence of who you are. The next thing to realize is that from the time you were born up until now you have manifested in many different ways. None of us is static and unchanging….

None of these manifestations arise primarily from your body. They all arise from the power of your consciousness, from the power of your mind.

[And] what we have to remember is that when we emanate ourselves as [Tara] it is not to manifest as something different from what we already are. We already have the profound qualities of such a divine manifestation within us at this moment. The reason we practice emanating ourselves as a deity is so that we can more fully recognize and cultivate these qualities…Tantra challenges this unreasonably low opinion of human potential by showing us how to view ourselves and all others as transcendentally beautiful….One of the essential practices at all levels of tantra is to dissolve our ordinary conceptions of ourselves and then, from the empty space into which these concepts have disappeared, arise in the glorious light body, a manifestation of the essential clarity  of our deepest being.”

~Lama Yeshe,  Introduction to Tantra, A Vision of Totality

These words of Lama Yeshe so beautifully describe the essence of Ritual Mask Dancing Diety Yoga, one of my main practices that I would love to share with you.

Many years ago, I lived in Bali for a month studying movement and meditation. During this time I had the honor to meet an incredible mask maker and dancer and study at his feet for a moment in time. That moment changed my life. I vividly remember the first time he presented me with a mask to dance. I held the mask in my hands and looked into it. I centered within the depth of my breath, connecting with the beauty and power of this ritual object as I had been taught. The mask was then placed over my face. I immediately felt an energetic shift. I could describe this in many ways….I aligned with it’s energy. I merged with its essence. OR, I brought forth the essence within me that was of the same vibration.

The dance that followed was one like I had never known. I “found” a part of myself in that dance.

Many comment that it must be so “easy” to dance with a mask because you are hidden, “disguised”. These comments represent our patterns of self-consciousness and fear of being truly seen, and yes, this can be true on a surface level. Paradoxically, however, when one is engaged in meditative practice, with authenticity and the depth of presence, you are actually naked, more exposed, more revealed through the mask. And within that revelation, is liberation. What is happening?

Interestingly, I danced my first Tara Dance 9 months before I lived in Bali and I began studying with Prema in depth upon my return from Indonesia. Mask Dancing and Tara Dancing ran parallel in my life for years, with Tara Dancing being a more prominent part of my life and focus. In 2002, I was suddenly strongly called to dance the masks I had brought back from Bali in ritual performances for healing and prayer. A most amazing thing began to happen. As I would sit with the mask and meditate, opening myself to the archetype, opening myself to envision the story, the ritual, the “choreography” if you will, I began to realize how similar it was to what I would do when dancing one of the 21 Tara’s.  I decided to explore further. I had begun profound Dakini practices that were transforming my psyche and my life.  I decided to make a Dakini mask and do Deity Yoga practice throughout the entire process from the conception of the mask to the ritual dance of the mask.

This is a journey that I encourage you to make for yourself to realize it’s power.

Everything happens within the practice itself: the inspiration for specific mask making techniques; shape, form, and color; visualization practices that bring the energies into form; choice of music and other adornments; and the powerful sacred movement itself, as my Balinese teacher would say ,”moving the energy of the mask”; moving the energy of the deity into manifestation in the world.

It all arises from the practice. And with the incredible thrust of putting the practice into physical form in such a tangible, creative, full-bodied way, we have a unique opportunity for transformation, the main principle of tantric deity yoga.

I encourage deep breathwork and visualization practices before every step of the mask making and movement process. This creates a field of spaciousness out of which the deity awareness arises.  Then one enters into the realm of manifestation from a completely different view of reality. There is something so very sublime that happens while chanting the mantra of the deity as you are making the physical form of her sacred face, her energy, her wisdom nature; and then painting and adorning with rich color, texture, and shape.  All of the senses are utilized. All of our being has an opportunity to focus.

There is profound intention, presence, awareness, creation.

And as the sacred power of Mantra itself calls the luminous body of a deity into form; we chant the sacred syllables and call the face of the deity into form within the mask.

Sound into form. Body, Speech, and Mind.

The mask is infused with the power of the deity. We have birthed our “buddha” self from our own innermost nature, and made it manifest in a face we can see before us. We have invoked and made offerings to the deity through our intent, our voice, our prayers, and through the physical materials from which we are forming the mask. Then we are ready to embody the deity.

In the next step of this practice, it is extremely powerful to do the full deity yoga visualization with the mask before you. And then with utmost awareness, put on the mask. Merge with that face, the face of the deity, your face. Use the magic of the mask to embody the deity fully, and then move. Move your entire body. Move the enlightened activity of that deity into the world. Dance your essential nature. Do not “pretend” that you are the deity. Feel from the depths of your being that you are That.  Dance the wisdom. Dance the compassion. Dance the power. Dance the transmutation of poisonous emotions into wisdom nectar. Dance the world into a new state of awareness.

It is in the act of the ritual “performance” itself that a supreme act of bodhicitta is gifted. And that is our most sincere motivation. As Lama Yeshe, once again, so eloquently states, “What is the purpose of all these practices? It is nothing other than developing and expanding the dedicated heart of bodhicitta. There is no other reason for all these deities. In fact, all tantric meditations without exception are for the sole purpose of developing strong bodhicitta.”

In the Mantra Dance segment of the Mandala Dance of the 21 Praises of Tara, there is a beautiful Tonglen practice in dance form. In Masked Dance Diety Yoga I dance Tonglen as well. The movements are spontaneous and organic, arising from the body of the deity, very specific to the energy of the deity that is being danced. For example, in the Vajra Dakini dance, the transmutation of anger into mirror-like wisdom was a very different energetic experience than the Padma Dakini transmutation of lust and desire into discriminating wisdom. Both the enlightened activity of the deity. Both bodhicitta.

Within this body of work, Ritual Mask Dancing Deity Yoga, we are able to combine the essence of original theater (harnessing the forces of the cosmos in a ritual “reenactment” to tell the story of the Divine within) with the exquisite power of tantrayana ( thinking, speaking, and acting now, in this moment, as an Enlightened Being.)

Giving even more power to this work are the Masks, themselves. Ancient vehicles, revelatory devices that connect the seen with the unseen, sacred mirrors that bring the formless into form. In traditions the world over, sacred masks are revered as holy;  objects imbued with incredible power, to be honored and respected, to be interacted with in prayer and with purity of intention. In Bali, the sacred masks worn in ritual are kept in the temple, in seclusion, when not being “performed”. It is important for us to remember that as with the sacred texts, these masks made within the power of our deity yoga practice are to be treated with respect and care. As a physical manifestation of your practice, the mask can have an extraordinary effect.

And then there is the cellular experience within the body, in our beautiful dancing body. With every movement and with every breath, bodhicitta. The Embodiment of the Deity.

In 2007, the deity yoga mask work I have been exploring coincided with Prema asking five of us to dance specific Dakinis at the Tara Retreat on Kauai. It was perfect. Parallel paths within my being joined with the Padma Dakini dance. This past summer at our 2008 Retreat, I was able to share this process with a small group of Tara Dancers who created their own masks and danced the Dakinis. It was phenomenal. After the first experience of “moving the energy of the mask”, we sat in a circle and I asked each woman to speak of what she experienced in her bodymind as she moved the energy of the Dakini. What came forth were wisdom teachings of the Dakinis themselves; the deepest, most profound aspects of our wisdom nature brought into awareness through the body, through the mask, through the dance, through the practice.

“The deity we choose to identify with represents the essential qualities of the fully awakened experience latent within us. To use the language of psychology, such a deity is an archetype of our own deepest nature, our most profound level of consciousness. In tantra, we focus our attention upon such an archetypal image and identify with it in order to arouse the deepest, most profound aspects of our being and bring them into our present reality.” ~ Lama Yeshe

Mekare is a 3rd Level Teacher of the Mandala Dance of the 21 Praises of Tara and is also now leading Ritual Mask Dance Deity Yoga Workshops and Immersions.  She also gives private individual sessions which incorporate Tara and Dakini visualization practice with sacred movement, breathwork, and bodywork.  Mekare is continuing to create a Mask and Dance for each of the 5 Wisdom Dakinis and for each of the 21 Taras.

Contact her at GreenTaraBliss@aol.com for information.