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Charya Nritya, Nepalese Dance Performed in Portland, Oregon

by Helen Appell, The Buddhist Channel, Feb 6, 2008

Portland, Oregon (USA) -- The Kathmandu Valley in Nepal lies at the crossroads of the ancient civilizations of Asia.  Legend holds that the area was once covered by a lake.  Nepal Mandala, as the Kathmandu Valley was known, was created by the divine intervention of the altruistic deity Manjushri.

Using his flaming sword that cuts through ignorance, this lord of wisdom sliced a gorge that drained the lake and created a lush valley suitable for human habitation. The Newars are the earliest known and hence by all evidence original habitants of the valley.

As Manjushri's divine land, Nepal Mandala gave rise to a profoundly rich culture of spiritual wisdom and sacred arts.  These arts serve as offerings to the vast pantheon of Buddhist and Hindu divinities and provide soteriological methods to awaken the deity within both artist and appreciator.

The dance form known as Charya Nritya, a Sanskrit term translatable as “dance as a spiritual discipline,” is a Newar Buddhist movement practice that originated a thousand years ago in the Kathmandu Valley. The esoteric purpose of the dance is to bring a bodily dimension to the meditator's usual sitting practice of "deity yoga" and, in a ritual setting, to enable the dancer to fully become the deity in body, speech, and mind in order to benefit all beings. In its traditional context, the initiated observers of Charya Nritya could experience the blessings and presence of the Buddhist deities bodied forth in the dances.

Buddhist priest and consummate Charya dancer Prajwal Ratna Vajracharya established Dance Mandal: Foundation for the Preservation of the Sacred Arts of Nepal in Kathmandu in 1996. Four years later, Prajwal moved to Portland and undertook the challenge of transplanting and transmitting his highly stylized ritual dance form in a Western context.

Prajwal Ratna Vajracharya began his training in this meditative dance ritual at the age of eight, receiving teachings mainly from his father, the renowned Buddhist priest and scholar Ratna Kaji Vajracharya. Prajwal has dedicated his life to his father's vision of preserving this sacred art form as Nepal adapts to the changes of the 21st century. Prajwal has set out to expand this ritual dance while maintaining its profoundly spiritual intent. Prajwal and Dance Mandal bring Charya Nritya from the hidden sacred spaces of the temples of Nepal to a range of public venues around the world.

Although formerly criticized by the elder priests of his Newar tradition, Prajwal has recently been honored in their circles as they have come to recognize the wholesome intent and integrity of his teaching and performances. Today, Prajwal performs and teaches around the globe and conducts an array of programs at his meditation and dance center in Southeast Portland, providing cultural enrichment and enhancement of spirit to many. The awe and grandeur of the sacred ritual arts of the Land of the Gods can now be shared and experienced here on our fertile Portland ground.

On March 15, Prajwal and the local senior students of Dance Mandal will present an eloquent educational performance of divine beauty, rich symbolism, and cultural and spiritual significance. The performance will be held at the Buddhist Daihonzan Henjyoji Temple in Southeast Portland at SE 12th Ave and SE Clinton.

The title of this performance in the Newar religious language of Sanskrit is KAYA-VAK-CITTA MUDRA, which means “Sacred Gestures of Body, Speech, and Mind,” referring to a universal language of form (body), expression (speech), and awareness (mind) conveyed through mudra. Stated most simply, a “mudra” is a bodily gesture that conveys spiritual meaning, as seen in sacred paintings and statues of divine beings. Such gestures represent a language, or speech, without words, as seen in the way an open hand conveys a quality that differs from that of a clenched fist. Awareness of heart, the deepest aspect of mind, is the source of the bodily language of mudras and must be present, for only a pure energy of mind can offer the truly soft, open hand of selfless giving.

Newar Buddhists believe that humans are divine in our deepest nature, but we have not awakened to this realization. A shift of awareness in relationship to body, speech, and mind is what reveals the deity within. The mystery of this transformation can only emerge through the union of the three aspects of mudra, a complete experience of embodiment, a triune. The significance of this intimate relationship of Body-Speech-Mind, as well as the richness and complexity of the symbolic language, will be narrated and demonstrated in this highly informative and experiential ritual dance performance.

Each dance meditation is accompanied by Sanskrit song, or Charya Giti. The song and dance praise the transcendental qualities of a particular divinity while affirming the presence of those qualities in the dancer’s body as it becomes an empty vessel for the revelation of the deity within. The dancer becomes the deity through this interplay of giver and receiver.

As seen in sacred paintings and statues, every deity sits or stands with his or her head, hands, and feet in specific positions and with distinctive facial expressions.  Through observing Charya  Nritya, the viewer can discover that the deity’s body is not a static form but a dynamic unfolding of expressive movement.

The universe of a divine being, the surrounding environment, or mandala, is also experienced as divine. As the dancers become the deities, everything and everyone that surrounds them is ultimately experienced as the divine world.  The audience becomes an intimate part of their world, sharing the rasa, the “taste,” or essence, of each sacred movement.

By experiencing the taste and understanding the refinement of the KVC mudra, the observer, too, can experience transformation. When the dancer strikes his or her bare feet to the ground in an assertive act of “I am here, I exist,” which part is touching the ground first?  What is expressed or spoken by “heel first” or “ball first”?  Can we trace the source of that expression from the wisdom of the deity being embodied?

If all this sounds too complex, the bold colors of the costumes are easier to comprehend. Colors in this ritual realm correspond to the most fundamental universal energies, those of the five elements: earth, water, fire, air, and space. A perfect elemental balance is central to the yogic  practice of deity meditation and hence integral to the Charya dances, in which the colors worn are also considered mudra. For example, golden yellow expresses the earth element, which in ideal balance with the other elements carries an abundance in nutrients, bestowing nourishment in the form of abundant crops, wealth and overall prosperity, and, beyond these more worldly but nonetheless important planes, fullness of spiritual practice. A single bold color can represent a universe in the tiniest speck of dirt or the loftiest and subtlest attainment of wisdom.

The ritual dancer’s ornaments, too, are deeply symbolic. Six articles of jewelry adorning six parts of the body reflect the beauty of the six inner qualities, such as patience, generosity, and morality, which are always present in one who is considered divine. Heartfelt generosity shines like a beautiful gem that graces the dancer’s body. The same ornamental expression is found in the jewels of the Charya meditator and the deities portrayed in sacred paintings.

The hands and arms purify space through repeated motions followed by gestures such as those of compassionate generosity or drinking the nectar of enlightenment, depending on the divine quality embodied. The legs on their own plane of relating to the earth command attention and show the circle of the deity’s mandala, the foundation for all enlightened activity. Expressiveness also comes through the dancer’s spiritual intentions. A performer may shake with the intensity of energy required to face and shift all unwholesome states of mind or overcome negative interferences on the spiritual path.

The long-term and more gradual benefits of mudra cannot directly be observed during a performance, but they are the ultimate purpose of this meditation. Over time the practitioner’s body is carved and sculpted by the poses and movements, a gracious expressive quality of speech is released, and the mind’s universal awareness is slowly unveiled. Mudras can liberate the energy of negative habits and remove their damaging effects. Fully inhabiting the body deeply affects the mind. For a Charya dancer, the energetic interplay of the mudras of body, speech, and mind becomes the entire universe, "the dance of life," on the principle that as you move, you become, and what you become you express, making it possible for others to experience and respond. Thus, a practitioner of Charya Nritya becomes a student of Buddhist iconography, kinesthetic energetics, human emotion, Sanskrit language, meditation, and divine qualities.

Charya Nritya is a beautifully moving and compelling artistic expression of the Newar Buddhist belief that our own human state—our body, speech and mind--are the foundation for the attainment and manifestation of divine activity.  Indeed, in the Newar view, this is the ultimate purpose of human life.

It is an exciting development that the Newar culture and sacred arts that made Nepal the “Land of the Gods" are still being preserved, in Nepal and abroad, and can be encountered in Portland in the upcoming program at the Shingon Temple.

THE VENUE

The Buddhist Daihonzan Henjyoji Temple was established in the United States during the 1940's, spreading the teachings of Kobo Daishi (Japan, 774-835 CE).  Kobo Daishi's primary teaching was that all humans are able to realize and attain Buddhahood (enlightenment) in this lifetime.  To achieve enlightenment, people are encouraged to practice the "sanmitsu", or three mysteries.  These mysteries develop skills to make congruent thought, word and action.

The Henjyoji Temple was founded by Bishop Daiyu Henjyoji.  The Temple embodies the tradition of Shingon Buddhism and embraces the spiritual practices of Ikebana (art of arranging flowers), Chado (the way of tea) and Shodo (calligraphy) which are shared with the community.  Since the passing of Bishop Henjyoji, these traditions have been carried on by Reverend Wako Henjyoji and Reverend David Komeiji.  They have tried to reinvigorate the beliefs and community involvement that Bishop Henjyoji started and envisioned.  The Henjyoji Temple recently hosted the Maitreya Heart Shrine Relic Tour and a speaking engagement for His Holiness Ngawang Tenzin Of Bhutan with great success.

Building on this energy, the Buddhist Daihonzan Henjyoji Temple is proud to host Dance Mandal’s performance of Kaya-Vak-Citta Mudra on March 15, 2008. Both the Temple and Dance Mandal share the Vajrayana Buddhist practice of integrating body-mind-speech, energizing the dynamic of this auspicious event.

If you go:

Event & Venue:  Announcing a performance by a Southeast Portland, Nepalese Dance Group at a local Japanese Buddhist Temple.
Title:  Kaya-Vak-Citta Mudra, “Sacred Gestures of Body, Speech, and Mind”, Ancient Spiritual Dance of Nepal performed by Dance Mandal
Date: Saturday, March 15th, 2008
Time:  7:30 – 9:00 PM
Location:  Buddhist Daihonzan Henjyoji Temple, 2634 SE 12th Avenue Portland, OR 97202
Admission:  Donation Accepted at the Door
Event Information: Call Brian Hochhalter at (503)-349-4159



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