Tara or Arya Tara, also known as Jetsun Dolma, is a female Bodhisattva typically associated with Tibetan Buddhism. She is the “mother of liberation”, and represents the virtues of success in work and achievements.
Tara is actually the generic name for a set of Bodhisattvas of similar aspect. These may more properly be understood as different aspects of the same quality, as Bodhisattvas are often considered metaphoric for Buddhist virtues.
The most widely known Taras are:
- Green Tara, known for the activity of compassion
- White Tara, also known for compassion, long life, healing and serenity; also known as The Wish-fulfilling Wheel, or Cintachakra
- Red Tara, of fierce aspect associated with magnetizing all good things
- Black Tara, associated with power
- Yellow Tara, associated with wealth and prosperity
- Blue Tara, associated with transmutation of anger
- Cittamani Tara, a form of Tara widely practiced in the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism, portrayed as green and often confused with Green Tara
There is also recognition in some schools of Buddhism of twenty-one Taras. A practice text entitled “In Praise of the 21 Taras”, is recited during the morning in all four sects of Tibetan Buddhism.
Emergence of Tara as a Buddhist Deity
Within Tibetan Buddhism Tara is regarded as a Bodhisattva of Compassion.
She can be seen as the female aspect of Avalokitesvara, and in some origin stories she comes from his tears, but she has older antecedents as a Mother Goddess, before Avalokitesvara and the Bodhisattva ideal emerged. Tara is also known as a Saviouress, as a heavenly deity who hears the cries of beings experiencing misery in Samsara. And Tara is also a Tantric deity, whose practice is used by practitioners of Vajrayana to develop certain inner qualities and understand outer, inner and secret teachings about compassion, mercy and emptiness.
In India, Tara existed as a goddess within the Pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses, before she began to be adopted as a Buddhist Bodhisattva around the 6th century C.E. in the era of the Pala kings. She was a Mother Goddess within Hinduism which also included Sarasvati, Lakshmi, Parvati, and Shakti as mother goddesses. So it would be an exaggerated gloss to call her the Mother Goddess.
It would probably be better to see her as one face or expression of the feminine principle which had evolved over a large span of time on the Indian sub-continent. And as Martin Willson points out: “the Mother Goddess is universal, an expression of the Feminine Archetype embedded in the minds of all of us”.
Not uncoincidentally Tara began to be adopted into the Buddhist Pantheon of Bodhisattvas just a few centuries after the Prajnaparamita Sutra had been introduced into what was becoming the Mahayana Buddhism of India. It would seem that the feminine principle makes its first appearance in Buddhism as the “Mother of Perfected Wisdom” and then later Tara comes to be seen as an expression of the Compassion of Perfected Wisdom. However, sometimes Tara is also known as “the Mother of the Buddhas”, so in approaching Buddhist deities, one learns not to impose totally strict boundaries about what one goddess or Bodhisattva covers, as opposed to another goddess or even male Bodhisattva.
They all can be seen as expressions of the play of the energies of manifested form dancing out of vast Emptiness. Be that as it may, Tara began to be associated with the motherly qualities of Compassion and Mercy. Undoubtedly for the common folk who were Buddhists in the India of that time Tara was a more approachable deity. It is one thing to stare into the eyes of a deity who represents Wisdom as Void. It is perhaps easier to worship a goddess whose eyes look out with infinite compassion and who has a sweet smile.
Tara then became very popular as an object of worship and, as Alice Getty notes (with some disapproval), was becoming an object of Tantric worship and practice by the 7th century C.E. With the movement and cross-pollination of Indian Buddhism into Tibet, the worship and practices of Tara became incorporated into Tibetan Buddhism and as a deity or Bodhisattva she remains very popular in Tibet and Mongolia to this day. And as Ms. Getty also notes, one other reason for her popularity was that Tara became to be known as a Buddhist deity who could be appealed to directly by lay folk without the necessity or intervention of a Lama or monk. Thus, as Tara was accepted into the ranks of Buddhist Bodhisattvas, she became popular to both common folk as one to appeal to in daily life, and for monastics, as an entry way into understanding compassion and mercy as part of one’s evolving path within Buddhism.
Origin as a Buddhist Bodhisattva
Tara has many stories told which explain her origin as a Buddhist Bodhisattva. One in particular has a lot of resonance for women interested in Buddhism and quite likely for those delving into early 21st century feminism.
In this tale there is a young princess who lives in a different world system, millions of years in the past. Her name is Yeshe Dawa, which means “Moon of Primordial Awareness”. For quite a number of aeons she makes offerings to the Buddha of that world system “Tonyo Drupa”. She receives special instruction from him concerning Bodhicitta. After doing this, some monks approach her and suggest that because of her level of attainment she should next pray to be reborn as a male to progress further. At this point she lets the monks know in no uncertain terms that from the point of view of Enlightenment it is only “weak minded worldlings” who see gender as a barrier to attaining Enlightenment. She sadly notes there have been few who wish to work for the welfare of beings in a female form though. Therefore she resolves to always be reborn as a female Bodhisattva, until Samsara has been emptied. She then stays in a palace in a state of meditation for some ten million years, and the power of this practice releases tens of millions of beings from suffering. As a result of this Tonyo Drupa tells her she will henceforth manifest supreme Bodhi as the Goddess Tara in many world systems to come.
With this story in mind it is interesting to juxtapose this with a quote from H.H the Dalai Lama about Tara, spoken at a conference on Compassionate Action in Newport Beach, CA in 1989:
“There is a true feminist movement in Buddhism thatrelates to the goddess Tara. Following her cultivation of bodhicitta, the bodhisattva’smotivation, she looked upon the situation of those striving towards full awakening andshe felt that there were too few people who attained Buddhahood as women. So she vowed,”I have developed bodhicitta as a women. For all my lifetimes along the path I vow to be born as a woman, and in my final lifetime when I attain Buddhahood, then, too, I willbe a woman.” This is true feminism.”
Tara then, embodies certain ideals which make her attractive to women practitioners, and her emergence as a Bodhisattva can be seen as a part of Mahayana Buddhism’s reaching out to women, and becoming more inclusive even in 6th century C.E. India.
Tara as a Saviouress
Tara also embodies many of the qualities of feminine principle. She is known as the Mother of Mercy and Compassion. She is the source, the female aspect of the universe, which gives birth to warmth, compassion and relief from bad karma as experienced by ordinary beings in cyclic existence. She engenders, nourishes, smiles at the vitality of creation, and has sympathy for all beings as a mother does for her children. As Green Tara she offers succor and protection from all the unfortunate circumstances one can encounter within the samsaric world. As White Tara she expresses maternal compassion and offers healing to beings who are hurt or wounded, either physically or psychically. As Red Tara she teaches Discriminating Awareness about created phenomena, and how to turn raw desire into compassion and love. As Blue Tara (Ekajati) she becomes a protector in the Nyingma lineage, who expresses a ferocious, wrathful, female energy whose invocation destroys all Dharmic obstacles and engenders good luck and swift spiritual awakening.
In all within Tibetan Buddhism she has Twenty One major forms, each tied to a certain color and energy. And each offers some feminine attribute, of ultimate benefit to the spiritual aspirant who asks for her assistance.
Another quality of feminine principle which she shares with the dakinis is playfulness. As John Blofeld expands upon in Bodhisattva of Compassion, Tara is frequently depicted as a young sixteen year old girlish woman. She oftens manifests in the lives of Dharma practitioners when they take themselves, or spiritual path too seriously. There are Tibetan tales in which she laughs at self righteousness, or plays pranks on those who have no reverence for the feminine. In Magic Dance: The Display of the Self-Nature of the Five Wisdom Dakinis, Thinley Norbu explores this as “Playmind”. Applied to Tara one could say that her playful mind can relieve ordinary minds which become rigidly serious or tightly gripped by dualistic distinctions. She takes delight in an open mind and a receptive heart then. For in this openess and receptivity her blessings can naturally unfold and her energies can quicken the aspirants spiritual development.
These qualities of feminine principle then, found an expression in Indian Mahayana Buddhism and the emerging Diamond Vehicle of Tibet, as the many forms of Tara, as dakinis, as Prajnaparamita, and as many other local and specialized feminine divinities. As the worship of Tara developed, various prayers, chants and mantras became associated with her. These came out of a felt devotional need, and from her inspiration causing spiritual masters to compose and set down sadhanas, or tantric texts, especially to invoke her presence. Two ways of approach to her began to emerge. In one common folk and lay practitioners would simply directly appeal to her to ease some of the travails of worldly life. In the second, she became a Tantric Deity whose practice would be used by monks or tantric yogis in order to better develop her qualities in themselves, ultimately leading through her to the source of her qualities, which is Enlightenment,Enlightened Compassion, Enlightened Mind.
Tara as a Tantric Deity
Tara as a focus for tantric deity yoga can be traced back to the time period of Padmasambhava. There is a Red Tara practice which was given by Padmasambhava to Yeshe Tsogyal. He asked that she hide it as a treasure. It was not until this century, that a great Nyingma Lama, Apong Terton rediscovered it. This Lama was reborn as His Holiness Sakya Trizin, present head of the Sakyapa sect. A monk who had known Apong Terton succeeded in retransmitting it to H.H. Sakya Trizin, and the same monk also gave it to Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, who released it to his western students.
Martin Willson in In Praise of Tara traces many different lineages of Tara Tantras, that is Tara scriptures used as Tantric sadhanas. For example a Tara sadhana was revealed to Tilopa,(988-1069 C.E.) the human father of the Karma Kagyu. Atisa the great translator and founder of the Kadampa school of Tibetan Buddhism, was a devotee of Tara. He composed a praise to her, and three Tara Sadhanas. Martin Willson’s work also contains charts which show origins of her tantras in various lineages, but suffice to say that Tara as a tantric practice quickly spread from around the 7th century C.E. onwards, and remains an important part of Vajrayana Buddhism to this day.
The practices themselves usually present Tara as a tutelary deity (thug dam, yidam) which the practitioners sees as being a latent aspect of one’s mind, or a manifestation in a visible form of a quality stemming from BuddhaJnana. As John Blofeld puts it in his The Tantric Mysticism of Tibet:
“The function of the Yidam is one of the profound mysteries of the Vajrayana..Especially during the first years of practice the Yidam is of immense importance. Yidam is the Tibetan rendering of the Sanskrit word Istadeva-the indwelling deity; but, where the Hindus take the Istadeva for an actual deity who has been invited to dwell in the devotee’s heart, the Yidams of Tantric Buddhism are in fact the emanations of the adepts own mind. Or are they?To some extent they seem to belong to that order of phenomena which in Jungian terms arecalled archetypes and are therefore the common property of the entire human race. Even amongTantric Buddhists, there may be a division of opinion as to how far the Yidams are the creationsof individual minds. What is quite certain is that they are not independently existing gods andgoddesses; and yet, paradoxically, there are many occasions when they must be so regarded.”
Sadhanas of Tara
Sadhanas in which Tara is the Yidam can be extensive or quite brief. Most all of them include some introductory praises or homages to invoke her presence. Then her mantra is recited, followed by a visualization of her, perhaps more mantra, then the visualization is dissolved, followed by a dedication of the merit from doing the practice. Additionally there may be extra prayers of aspirations, of refuge, and a long life prayer for the Lama who originated the practice. Many of the Tara sadhanas are seen as beginning practices within the world of Vajrayana Buddhism, however what is taking place during the visualization of the deity actually invokes some of the most sublime teachings of all Buddhism.
In this case during the creation phase of Tara as a Yidam, she is seen as having as much reality as any other phenomena apprehended through the mind. By reciting her mantra and visualizing her form in front, or on the head of the adept, one is opening to her energies of compassion and wisdom. After a period of time the practitioner shares in some of these qualities, becomes imbued with her being and all it represents. At the same time all of this is seen as coming out of Emptiness and having an translucent quality like a rainbow. Then many times there is a visualization of oneself as Tara. One simultaneously becomes inseparable from all her good qualities while at the same time realizing the emptiness of the visualization of oneself as the Yidam and also the emptiness of one’s ordinary self.
This occurs in the completion stage of the practice. One dissolves the created deity form and at the same time also realizes how much of what we call the “self” is a creation of the mind, and has no long term substantial inherent existence. This part of the practice then is preparing the practitioner to be able to confront the dissolution of one’s self at death and ultimately be able to approach through various stages of meditation upon emptiness, the realization of Ultimate Truth as a vast display of Emptiness and Luminosity. At the same time the recitation of the mantra has been invoking Taras energy through its Sanskrit seed syllables and this purifies and activates certain psychic centers of the body (chakras). This also untangles knots of psychic energy which have hindered the practitioner from developing a Vajra body, which is necessary to be able to progress to more advanced practices and deeper stages of realization.
Therefore even in a simple Tara sadhana a plethora of outer, inner, and secret events is taking place and there are now many works such as Deity Yoga, compiled by the present Dalai Lama, which explores all the ramifications of working with a Yidam in Tantric practices.
The fruitional results of doing such Tara practices are many. For one thing it reduces the forces of delusion in the forms of negative karma, sickness, afflictions of kleshas, and other obstacles and obscurations. The mantra helps generate Bodhicitta within the heart of the practitioner and purifies the psychic channels (nadis) within the body allowing a more natural expression of generosity and compassion to flow from the heart center. Through experiencing Tara’s perfected form one acknowledges one’s own perfected form, that is one’s intrinsic Buddha nature, which is usually covered over by obscurations and clinging to dualistic phenomena as being inherently real and permanent.
The practice then weans one away from a coarse understanding of Reality, allowing one to get in touch with inner qualities similar to those of a Bodhisattva, and prepares one’s inner self to embrace finer spiritual energies, which can lead to more subtle and profound realizations of the Emptiness of phenomena and self.
As Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche notes in his Introduction to the Red Tara Sadhana of his lineage: “Tara is the flawless expression of the inseparability of emptiness, awareness and compassion. Just as you use a mirror to see your face, Tara meditation is a means of seeing the true face of your mind, devoid of any trace of delusion”.
- Blofeld, John. Bodhisattva of Compassion: The Mystical Tradition of Kuan Yin. Shambhala Publications, Boulder, Colorado, 1977
- Blofeld, John. The Tantric Mysticism of Tibet. Prajna Press, Boulder, Colorado, 1982
- Dalai Lama, H.H. Deity Yoga: In Action and Performance Tantra. Snow Lion Publications, Ithaca, New York, 1987
- Dalai Lama, H.H. Worlds in Harmony: Dialogues on Compassionate Action. Parallax Press, Berkeley, CA, 1992
- Getty, Alice. The Gods of Northern Buddhism. Charles E. Tuttle, Co. Rutland, Vermont, 1974
- Govinda, Lama Anagarika. Creative Meditation and Multi-Dimensional Consciousness . The Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, Ill., 1976
- Kongtrul, Jamgon. Creation and Completion: Essential Points of Tantric Meditation. Translated by Sarah Harding. Wisdom Publications, Boston, Mass., 1996
- Norbu, Thinley. Magic Dance: The Display of the Self-Nature of the Five Wisdom Dakinis. Jewel Publishing House, New York, N.Y., 1981
- Rinpoche, Kalu. Gently Whispered: Oral Teachings by the Venerable Kalu Rinpoche. Station Hill Press, Barrytown, New York, 1994
- Rinpoche, Khenchen Palden Sherab. The Smile of the Sun and Moon: A Commentary on The Praise to the Twenty-One Taras. Sky Dancer Press, Boca Raton, Florida, 2004
- Rinpoche, Khenpo Kathar. The Wish-Fulfilling Wheel: The Practice of White Tara. Rinchen Publications, Kingston, New York, 2003.
- Taranatha, Jo-nan. The Origin of the Tara Tantra. Library of Tibetan works and Archives, Dharamsala, India, 1981
- Tromge, Jane. Red Tara Commentary. Padma Publishing, Junction City, CA, 1994
- Tulku, Chagdud. Red Tara: An Open Door to Bliss and Ultimate Awareness. Padma Publishing, Junction City, CA, 1991
- Vessantara. Meeting the Buddhas: A Guide to Buddhas, Bodhisattvas & Tantric Deities. Windhorse Publications, 1996
- Willson, Martin. In Praise of Tara: Songs to the Saviouress. Wisdom Publications, London, 1986