In 1998, on my first pilgrimage to Nepal, I met Ani Choying Drolma. She had just come out with the Cho CD with Steve Tibbetts. I was a long-time fan of Tibbetts’s music, owning several of his eclectic Jazz fusion albums on vinyl. As a Vajrayana practitioner, the blending of Steve’s music and Ani Choying’s voice transported me to the pure realms as I listened to those recordings continuously for months.
I don’t remember how I met Ani, other than it was the day before my departure and we spent an afternoon deep in conversation. We were contemporaries in our late 20’s and like many women, including the fully enlightened dakini Yeshe Tsogyal, had personal histories of trauma and abuse.
In that period, I was a Butoh dancer. The training in meditation, moving in awareness and stillness was powerful. Many of my students experienced deep healing and recovery, a kind of shamanic clearing of trapped memories and fragmented trauma through dance. Butoh appears dark, but is a dance of illumination. For many years, it was my method and art.
Ani also loved dancing. It was a bit complicated for her with monastic restrictions, but inwardly, she was a salsa dancing yogini! Singing was her method. Ani was a rising star determined to use her talent to benefit beings. As a musical fan, I attested that her voice had the accomplishment of liberation upon hearing.
Listening to her history of domestic violence, I was touched by the way in which dharma became the refuge that saved her life. Ani was committed to transforming lives and told me of her newly established NGO, the Nuns Welfare Foundation of Nepal, and her plans to build the Arya Tara School, a nunnery for girls. Her intention was to provide impoverished girls the opportunity to learn math, medicine, reading, music, and art, and become fluent in English. Offering quality education with training in dharma, she saw the potential of empowered women returning to villages and all aspects of society as bodhisattvas.
Her dream spoke to my heart and I made sincere aspirations to benefit her activity.
At that age, I was traveling on a shoestring budget as a pilgrim backpacker. I didn’t have wealth or ability other than the small accomplishment I enjoyed as a dancer. Although I danced as a path of awareness and transformation, Butoh was a strange and mysterious art, a far cry from the religious world of dharma. I was at a loss as to how I could help.
Before leaving Nepal, I made a humble donation toward the Arya Tara School project and offered my services if ever I could be of help.
Fast forward 18 years.
It is spring 2016. I am in Nepal attending special pujas in Pharping and teaching dance to the nuns at Arya Tara School. Decades have passed and aspirations made in youth have ripened.
Ani’s dream has been realized. Through her music and NGO, she has successfully supported the Arya Tara School, a nunnery for Nepali girls for nearly two decades. Currently, there are 72 girls enrolled. Families in financial need with a background lacking in education and a history of domestic violence are given priority.
My dream of supporting Ani’s activity is also unfolding. I am here teaching Charya Nritya through Dance Mandal, Foundation of Buddhist Arts of Nepal.
Charya Nritya is a dance tradition of Newar Tantric Buddhism that dates back nearly 2,000 years to the Vajracharya priests of Kathmandu. Practitioners engage in deity yoga through dance, taking the form of Buddhas and bodhisattvas through mudras, mantras, and songs of realization. These songs, known as charya gite, have been handed down from master to student for many generations.
Dance Mandal has offered classes in Charya Nritya since 2000, beginning with our lineage guru Prajwal Ratna Vajrachara, a 35th generation Newar Buddhist priest and Charya Nritya master. After he moved to the USA, the responsibility went to his senior disciples Uppa Shakya, followed by Ritu Shrestha Vajracharya and her sister Bunu Shrestha.
Last year Bunu was married and immigrated to the USA. Despite many years of training, without regular classes, the nuns stopped dancing.
I have been sent here now by our guru Prajwal Vajracharya to re-establish the program. The timing of my first class auspiciously landed on International Women’s Day. The nuns were ecstatic to begin dancing again.
Nyima Sangmo Moktan is from the mountainous village of Dolkha. In 2005, she enrolled in the Arya Tara School at nine years old. Now, a vibrant and talented eighteen year old student, she exudes confidence, enthusiasm and passion for learning. Her upper level studies are focused on business. Upon graduation, she aspires to become a journalist engaged in social services.
Yeshi Choden is twenty years old and studying to become a thangka painter. She is Newari from her father’s side and is grateful and proud to present her cultural heritage through Charya Nritya. Yeshe shared the story of offering Charya Nritya at the 80th birthday celebration of the late Tenga Rinpoche. It was their first performance with a large assembly of nearly 2000 at Benchen Monastery.
Kunsang Dolma Lama recounts her joy of dancing Arya Tara at the celebration. She felt honored to transform and appear as the deity and give blessings through dance. Her heart was filled with love. At seventeen, her focus is science and Ayurvedic herbal medicine. She is studying to become a traditional Tibetan doctor.
Another great occasion was the 10th anniversary of Arya Tara School where the nuns offered dances to Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, Chokling Rinpoche, Yangsi Urgyen Tulku Rinpoche, and Pakchok Rinpoche. They performed Manjushri and Pancha Buddha. They all wholeheartedly agree, that some of their most precious experiences have been offering Charya Nritya to their lineage gurus and sangha.
Several of the senior nuns at Arya Tara School are accomplished practitioners of Charya Nritya and talented dancers who have even performed with Dance Mandal.
Last spring, Dance Mandal offered an evening length concert at the National Theatre in Kathmandu in which the nuns offered several group dances. The concert was an international celebration of Charya Nritya with Dance Mandal members from Nepal, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Germany and the USA. It was a special performance as many of the senior disciples and previous Arya Tara School teachers that live abroad were in Nepal and performed together for the first time in over a decade.
At that time, my relationship with the nuns deepened. I felt like the mother hen, helping to prepare their costumes for the concert, taking care of their meals, transportation and accommodations. The following day, we received with our guru and Dance Mandal sangha, lineage blessings at a Newar yogini temple.
Working with these senior nuns who are adept at the dance, Dance Mandal is establishing a program for them to instruct and lead practice to the younger nuns as mentors. I will return later in the year and whenever possible, our lineage guru Prajwal Vajracharya and authorized Dance Mandal instructors will also offer master classes.
It’s lovely to see a new generation of nuns dance. Perhaps the sweetest story to share is that of Pema Sangmo, who at six years old has begun training in earnest. She is from Dolpo and entered the school with her younger sister last year. Pema Sangmo spends hours at night dancing during their self-study period and even after lights out! It can be a challenge getting the young dancing yogini to bed! Everyone is pleased that she has begun learning Charya Nritya and is channeling her joy into dharma.
Recalling my brief meeting with Ani Choying Drolma in 1998, I am amazed to witness the fruition of aspirations. Dancing in the mountains of Kathmandu with the nuns of Arya Tara School, I rejoice and dedicate the merit. The path of dharma and the unfolding of aspirations and meaningful connections is profound and blissful.
The young Ani Choying Drolma I met in 1998 has transformed into an internationally acclaimed super star and ambassador of compassion. Her humanitarian projects extend beyond the Arya Tara School providing pure drinking water in Seti Devi, street dog care, and helping to solve problems of pollution through Bio Gas production. Her long-term mission is to work with the Nepali Government to build a kidney hospital, a project dear to her heart as her own mother passed of this disease due to lack of proper medical care.
Charya Nritya: Ancient Buddhist Dances of Wisdom and Healing in the Modern World