What is the Tara Dance?

Dancing for His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Tucson, Arizona 1993

The Mandala Dance of the 21 Praises of Tara is a ritual dance offered worldwide as a prayer of peace, protection, wisdom and capability.

The words of the dance are based on a Tibetan Buddhist sadhana of the Mother Goddes Tara, compiled by Orgyen Dechen Chokjur Lingpa, The Great Tibetan Treasure Finder. It is said that he received the sadhana from Tara Herself.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama and many Great Lamas of all the lineages of Tibetan Buddhism have given their blessing and offered their prayers that this dance be shared as widely as possible.

Created by Prema Dasara, the dance has been turning since 1985 and a number of Student Teachers have stepped forward in their communities to hold circles of practice and annual public offerings. It has been taught to thousands of women and men throughout the world, including several groups of Tibetan nuns and laywomen.

The following article about the dance was adapted from a paper written by Rhye Gray, a Tara Dhatu Student Teacher from Baton Rouge, describing the dance and the process.

The Tara Mandala Dance is a unique form of meditative practice. Participants become Tara by dancing Her 21 Praises.

These praises are well-known among the Tibetans, they chant them from childhood, it is one of their most common prayers.

There are many folk and contemporary stories of people calling out to Tara. The Great Mother Goddess, to save them from danger. Her response is said to be swift and effective.

Tara is more than just an external deity, though. Tantric Buddhism teaches that all of the qualities of the bodhisattvas are already present in each sentient being and as an archetypal circumstance the relationship can be used to stimulate and bring into manifestation these latent traits. The Mandala Dance of Tara is a perfect demonstration of this accomplishment.

Refuge before His Holiness the 17th Karmapa Dharamsala, India 2001

The practice begins with refuge, an honoring of the lineage of teachers, the enlightened ones, their teachings, and the community of practitioners, those who are engaged in the practices that will bring about enlightened mind.

It is followed by a vow, affirming that the goal of the practice, enlightened mind, will bring benefit to all beings. Practitioners are not trying to escape the world, for that is self-centered, and the result is separation, isolation, disconnection.

The next step in the practice is to visualize Tara as a radiant feminine presence, sitting in the sky before the dancer. By imagining Tara in front of them, practitioners are creating a world in which this transcendent being of wisdom and compassion exists. They then bring this transcendent world into their own experience.

Engaging in ritual hand gestures called mudras, the dancers invoke Tara within a crescent moon mandala. Establishing the environment to be the pure realm of Tara they spiral into to a set of concentric circles while engaging in a purification process to release negativities.

When this is complete they visualize themselves as Tara. “When the dancers draw their hands over their heads and down their bodies this is a particularly poignant moment in the dance, when the purification and unveiling is complete”. (“Dancing as Tara,” Jessica Gray)

Prepared to dance as Tara, one by one the dancers are born out of the intricate mandala formation to dance one of the Praises of Tara as an offering to the world.

Tara of Invincible Courage

The Tara of Invincible Courage is born from the Mandala Seattle, Washington 1992

These four line prayers contain a world of meaning, and there are many commentaries describing the qualities, the powers that they represent.

By dancing Tara’s Praises, dancers reveal their inner nature as an aspect of the Goddess Tara. The body moves and Tara appears through the movements. It is not something channeled from without, it is something that arises from within.

Kauai Tara Dancer

Kauai Tara Dancer portrays a wrathful aspect of the Goddess 1991

Throughout the dance the dancers invoke three levels of relationship to Tara. There is the transcendent Buddha/Bodhisattva Tara appearing as an external being. There is the recognition that all sentient beings are aspects of Tara. And there is the conviction that the dancer, herself, is Tara.

This extraordinary experience is then translated into the way a practitioner interacts with the world. The qualities and praises are tools that the practitioner can use in daily life.

After dancing the praises or qualities, one of the most significant moments of the practice happens without movement. The dancers are instructed to ”Completely let go. Mind, vast, infinite, space.“

In this moment of simply being, of stillness, the power of this practice shines. Anxiety and suffering do not exist. When the mind is empty of grasping, spaciousness relieves all anxiety and reveals it’s wonder.

Out of this pregnant emptiness, Tara’s mantra arises.

The dancers unwind the mandala as they sing the prayer of benefit. The practice promises temporal advantages as well as transcendent blessings. The movements are simple, the dancers congratulating each other as they pass, rejoicing in the successful turning of the wheel of Tara’s Mandala. Each word affirms the blessing of Tara.

The music shifts to something more active and the dancers enter the dance of the mantra. The heart of the Tara practice is Tara’s mantra:

OM TARE TUTARE TURE SOHA

OM indicates all that exists, TARE, Great Respected Mother. TUTARE describes Her as the remover of all obstacles, while TURE describes Her as the giver of all needs, bestower of great fortune. SOHA is a seal for the mantra, stating that this is, as it ever has been and ever shall be.

Tara, Great Mother who Removes Obstacles & Satisfies Needs
So Be it!!!

These sacred syllables, having been used by countless generations of Tara practitioners, have impact on the minds of the dancers and the world around them. The movements reinforce the meaning of the words.

In the mantra section of the dance, the dancers sing the mantra while concentrating on receiving Tara’s light, blessing the earth, making offerings, receiving blessings, and sending them to the world to heal the suffering of all beings. This meditation of compassion encourages the dancer to engage in compassionate action in life. Dancing as Tara encourages practitioners to act with wisdom and compassion in their relationships and view of others.

Sending Tara's light into the world

Sending Tara's light into the world - Kauai, Hawaii 2004

After the mantra section the dancers enact a ritual of “passing the light”, acknowledging that whatever inspiration they receive that they will pass it on.

The Tara Mandala Dance practice creates a community of practitioners. Sometimes this community is literal, dancers who come together in the same physical time and space, but there is also an encouragement toward a virtual community of Tara dancers from around the world who connect through regular meetings, retreats and through the internet. There is a sense of being part of something larger.

The dance ends by enacting the prayer of dedication…

May All Quarrels and Wars Be Forever Ended
May Poverty and Sickness Be Removed From This Earth
May the Truth and All That’s Auspicious Increase

May All Beings Be Happy
Blessed By The One Who Blazes With Glory

When the dance is performed for an audience, there is another level of psychological impact on the community. The public performance is an expanded version of what happens personally. The audience has the opportunity to connect to the images of compassion presented in the dance for this brief moment, and this can inspire and galvanize a community.

The Tara Mandala Dance is designed specifically for women, and in performance, only women are allowed to dance the Praises. Men are invited to dance as protectors, supporting each individual Tara as She is born.

The vast majority of Tara dancers are women, as they strongly connect with the feminine imagery, but in my experience the practice has psychological benefit for men as well. It opens the man up to his “feminine side,” allowing an integration of male and female within the psyche.

Many of the characteristics of Tara, like protection, wisdom, and victory, are stereotypically thought of as male attributes in Western thought. By seeing these qualities as feminine, it allows for a more balanced perspective of male and female.

Om Tare Dharamsala

Om Tare Dharamsala, India, 2000

This feminine voice calls for liberation within the world, rather than liberation from the world—a re-conceptualization of the sacredness of everyday activity, a call for the re-enchantment of body and speech. The Tara Mandala Dance allows both men and women to recognize the sacred in the world and to find release and benefit through the embodiment of the divine feminine.

The ritual of the Tara Mandala Dance is a transformational process, and practitioners use this ritual to cultivate well-being in life. As a meditation it is a practice of calming the mind, teaching practitioners the ability to mindfully observe thinking, feeling, and how the body responds to the environment. The dance is always taught with the meditational correspondences, though dancers come to the practice at all levels of experience.

Regardless of Buddhist experience, the rhythmic movements themselves allow the mind to relax into the meditation. It takes tremendous effort of focus and concentration.

During the time of the dance, I cannot get caught up in my own wants, needs, desires, or thoughts. Without trying to solve problems in my life, puzzle things out, or figure out answers, I relax. I am energized and reinvigorated. I find a sense of peace. I feel better after the dance. It gets me outside of myself.

Iris Stewart, author of Sacred Woman, Sacred Dance, describes the Tara Mandala Dance based on her own experiences. She says, “The essence of this work that makes it so powerful is the mirroring of these enlightened qualities in yourself, to yourself. I have studied with Prema and can say it is one of the most powerful and transforming experiences I have had. Through the combination of mind, body and spirit, the dancer is psychologically transformed. This dance gives practitioners the opportunity to not only transform their self-perception but also to transform their perspective of the world. By transforming their perspective, the world itself is transformed.

Movement, our first language, touches centers of our being beyond the reach of vocabularies of reason or coercion. It communicates from the innermost soul that which cannot truly be expressed through words.”

Atisha School, Kathmandu, Nepal

May All Beings Be Happy, May All Beings Be Free - Atisha School, Kathmandu, Nepal