Tārā (meaning "Star" or “Saviouress”), also known as Jetsun Dolma in Tibetan, is a popular female deity and Bodhisattva primarily worshiped in Tantrism or Vajrayana Buddhism. Originally a Hindu goddess, Tārā was absorbed into the Buddhist pantheon during the sixth century C.E. and is represented in different forms in Buddhist iconography. Known as a Bodhisattva of compassion, as well as a tantric deity and Mother Goddess, it is said that Tārā guards and protects her devotees their whole lives. She is popularly worshiped for her role in saving her devotees from worldly dangers; great trust and reliance is placed in the ability of Tārā as a savior in times of need.
In Tibet, Tārā is a Tantric deity whose mantra and visualization are used by practitioners of Vajrayana to develop certain inner qualities and understand outer, inner, and secret teachings about compassion, mercy, and emptiness.
Within Tibetan Buddhism Tārā is regarded as a Buddha of compassion and action. She is the female aspect of Avalokitesvara and in some origin stories she comes from his tears that were shed in pity as he observed the vast suffering in the world.
Tārā originated not in Buddhism but in Hinduism, where she was seen as a Mother Goddess. Known as a manifestation of Kali, the queen of time, Tārā was seen as the unquenchable hunger that propels all life. Hindu oral tradition states that Tārā first appeared during the Hindu creation myth of the churning of the ocean. In this legend, Shiva has drunk the poison that was created from the churning of the ocean, thus saving the world from destruction, but has fallen unconscious under its powerful effect. Tārā appears and takes Shiva on her lap. She suckles him, the milk from her breasts counteracting the poison, and he recovers. This myth is reminiscent of the myth in which Shiva stops the rampaging Kali by becoming an infant. Seeing the child, Kali's maternal instinct comes to the forefront and she becomes quiet and nurses the infant Shiva. In both cases, Shiva assumes the position of an infant vis-à-vis the goddess.
In the 6sixth century C.E., during the era of the Pala Empire, Tārā was adopted into the Buddhist pantheon as an important Bodhisattva figure. Not coincidentally, this was just a few centuries after the Prajnaparamita Sutra had been introduced into what was becoming the Mahayana Buddhism of India. Tārā made her first appearance in Buddhism as the "Mother of Perfected Wisdom" and then later came to be seen as an expression of the “Compassion of Perfected Wisdom.” However, sometimes Tārā was also known as the "Mother of the Buddhas," which usually referred to the enlightened wisdom of the Buddhas, so in approaching Buddhist deities, one learns not to impose tabsolute boundaries about what one deity represents. Be that as it may, Tārā began to be associated with the motherly qualities of compassion and mercy. Undoubtedly, Tārā was a more approachable deity for the common Buddhists of that time in India. One reason for her popularity was that Tārā came 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. Also, as Tārā was accepted into the ranks of Buddhist Bodhisattvas, she became an entry way into understanding compassion and mercy for monastics as part of their evolution within Buddhism (Beyer, 3).
By the seventh century C.E., Tārā had become very popular as an object of Tantric worship and practice. With the movement and assimilation of Indian Buddhism into Tibet, devotion to Tārā became incorporated into Tibetan Buddhism. Independent of whether she is classified as a deity, a Buddha, or a Bodhisattva, Tārā remains very popular in Tibet and Mongolia to this day. Such is her popularity that she has also been woven into creation myths in Tibetan culture that predate Buddhism's arrival in Tibet. For example, in the myth telling of the birth of the Tibetan people, Tārā was the Goddess that gave birth to the people; hence she is not only a patron deity, but their mother as well (Beyer, 4). The introduction of Tārā into Tibet is also alluded to in the account that Nepalese princess Tr’itsün, wife of the great Tibetan king, Songsten Gampo (617 C.E. – 650 C.E.), brought with her a statue of Tārā to Tibet. It is, however, historically unclear whether this sparked a devotional cult to Tārā (Beyer, 4). Some accounts describe the Tibetan king’s two wives, Nepalese princess Tr’itsün and Chinese princess Wen-ch’eng, each as versions of Tārā (Green and White Tārā, respectively). Tibetan devotion to Tārā may also have become widespread after Atīśa, a Buddhist monk from India, traveled to Tibet in 1042 C.E. Tārā was Atīśa’s personal deity throughout his life, and he may have popularized devotion to her in Tibet (Beyer, 11).
Description and Iconography
Tārā embodies several different identities and roles such as Bodhisattva, Mother Goddess, and Tantric Deity. Each of these roles is associated with particular representations, stories, symbols, and iconography. While Tārā's forms are diverse, her main representations are as follows:
Tārā as Bodhisattva
Tārā as Bodhisattva represents a central feature of Mahayana Buddhism; the Bodhisattva is one who has taken a vow to help all other beings attain enlightenment, so that they may be free of the suffering of the cycle of rebirth. It is interesting to note that Tārā is said to have attained an enlightenment state within female form. In her capacity as Bodhisattva, Tārā is closely linked to the male Bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteśvara; in many cases, she is considered an emanation of Avalokiteśvara. Indeed, Tārā is known as the one who hears the cries of beings experiencing misery in samsara and seeks to save them. Tārā is also known as the “Mother of All the Buddhas,” which is a title linked to the feminine trait of wisdom seen to reside in perfection within Tārā.
Representations of Tārā typically depict her as green in color (although she may be portrayed in other colors as well). She is often portrayed as a young woman seated in the contemplative position with one hand in the open-palmed gesture of welcome. She is generally adorned by silken garments, jeweled ornamentations, and lotus flowers. Tārā is also closely tied to nature; she is associated with many features of the Earth, including plants, human beings, and animals. Many of the eight fears that she is said to protect against are threats from wild creatures (Willson, 17). The eight great dangers are lions, elephants, fire, snakes, robbers, imprisonment, water, and man-eating demons. There are many stories and accounts of Tārā’s helpfulness in saving those plagued by such dangers. Alternatively, these dangers may also take on a symbolic form, portraying the eight fears as personal obstacles to be overcome: pride, delusion, anger, envy, wrong views, avarice, attachment, and doubt (Willson, 14). Eventually each fear was assigned its own particular representation of Tārā and it became very popular for artists to depict these different forms in their work.
Another feminine principle Tārā possesses is playfulness; she shares this quality with the dakinis. As John Blofeld expands upon in Bodhisattva of Compassion, Tārā is frequently depicted as a 16 year old girl who manifests herself in the lives of practitioners when they take themselves or their spiritual path too seriously. There are Tibetan tales in which she laughs at self-righteousness, or plays pranks on those who lack reverence for the feminine. In Magic Dance: The Display of the Self-Nature of the Five Wisdom Dakinis, Thinley Norbu explores a subject he calls "Playmind." When the theory of Playmind is applied to Tārā, 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, for in this openness and receptivity her blessings can naturally unfold and her energies can quicken the aspirant’s spiritual development.
Tārā as Mother Goddess
Tārā can also be seen as an expression of the sacred and ancient Feminine, a universal concept. She is known as the “Mother of Mercy and Compassion.” She is called the source, the female aspect of the universe which gives birth to warmth and compassion as well as relief from bad karma as experienced by ordinary beings in a cyclic existence. She engenders, nourishes, and smiles at the vitality of creation, and has sympathy for all beings.
Tārā in the form of the Great Mother Goddess shares strong links with many Brahmanical goddesses, such as Durgā and Kali. The similarities in appearances between Kali and Tārā are striking and unmistakable. They both stand upon a supine Shiva, identifiable here by his damaru. Both goddesses are black. Both wear minimal clothing. Both wear a necklace of severed human heads and a girdle of severed human arms. Both have a lolling tongue, and blood oozes from their mouths. Their appearances are so strikingly similar that it is easy to mistake one for the other. Indeed, they are often said to be manifestations of each other; for example, in their thousand-name hymns they share many epithets as well as having each others names. Tārā, for example, is called Kalika, Ugr-kali, Mahakali, and Bhadra-kali. Furthermore, like the Goddess Kali, Tārā in her Hindu context enjoys blood. In her hymn of a hundred names from the Mundamala-tantra, she is called She Who Likes Blood, She Who Is Smeared with Blood, and She Who Enjoys Blood Sacrifice. The Tārā-tantra describes Tārā's delight in both animal and human blood, but says that the latter is more pleasing to her. The blood of devotees is to be taken from specified parts of the body, such as the forehead, hands, breasts, head, or area between the eyebrows; some of these areas may correspond to the different chakras (spiritual centers within the body). She appears on the Tibetan Wheel of Life as the ogress, a destructive aspect symbolizing the suffering that is the cycle of life.
Tāra as Tantric Deity
As a Tantric Deity in Vajrayana Buddhism, Tārā encompasses all the powers of an Enlightened Buddha, yet remains in the worldly realm to assist others with her compassionate actions. She is said to swiftly come to the needs of those in distress when her mantra is spoken, although sometimes only a simple thought is needed (Willson, 21). Tārā may also take on a plethora of different roles and forms within this capacity. Tārā is actually the generic name for a set of Buddhas or Bodhisattvas who may be understood as different metaphors for Buddhist virtues. The iconography of each of these representations is distinct. A practice text entitled In Praise of the 21 Tārās, is recited during the morning in all four sects of Tibetan Buddhism. Tārā has 21 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. The most widely known forms of Tārā are:
Green Tārā, known as the Buddha of enlightened activity
White Tārā, associated with compassion, long life, healing and serenity; also known as The Wish-fulfilling Wheel, or Cintachakra
Red Tārā, fierce aspect associated with magnetizing all good things
Black Tārā, associated with power
Yellow Tārā, associated with wealth and prosperity
Blue Tārā, associated with transmutation of anger
Cittamani Tārā, a form of Tārā revered at the level of Highest Yoga Tantra in the Gelug School of Tibetan Buddhism, portrayed as green and often confused with Green Tārā Khadiravani Tārā, Tārā of the teak forest, who appeared to Nagarjuna in the Khadiravani forest of South India; she is sometimes referred to as the "22nd Tārā." Tārā is best and most widely known as Green Tārā (young, compassionate, and peaceful).
Green Tārā offers comfort and protection from all the unfortunate circumstances one can encounter within the samsaric world. Another common Tārā, White Tārā, is more mature and specializes in matters of health and longevity. She expresses maternal compassion and offers healing to people who are hurt or wounded, either physically or mentally. At her most fierce, she is the four-armed Red Kurukullā Tārā who is paradoxically subjugating and magnetizing, violent and seductive. Red Tārā teaches discriminating awareness about created phenomena and how to turn raw desire into compassion and love. Blue Tārā (Ekajati) is 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.(Beyer)
A central aim of Tantric practice is to visualize becoming the deity one is focused on. In meditation, one strives to take on the body of the deity, and embody that deity’s enlightened perspective. If one seeks to identify with Tārā and seeks to mold oneself after her, this means emanating an unwavering compassion toward all other beings.
Worship and Sadhanas of Tārā
Worship of Tārā can involve the use of prayer, chants, mantras, and visualizations, depending on the level of the practitioner. Two ways of approaching Tārā are common. First, lay practitioners directly appeal to her protective nature by invoking her mantra. Tārā’s mantra is widely known as, Om Tare Tuttare Ture Svaha (meaning “One who saves, save me”). The mantra is said to ward off fears or dangers, especially those outlined in the eight terrors. There are countless stories of people who were beset by danger and certain death, but gained Tārā’s protection and were saved after crying out her name or reciting her mantra. One must thoroughly contemplate a mantra to be able to apply it successfully; often this requires extensive ritual service to the deity.
Merit must be accumulated, and recitations of a mantra may be recommended in the tens or hundreds of thousands. All faults or interruptions in recitation must be made up for by further recitations. Faults are characterized by reciting improperly, too slowly, too quickly, too softly, or in an incoherent manner. Interruptions may include coughing, sneezing, falling asleep, stumbling, or allowing the mind to wander. Indications that one’s mind has been adequately prepared through this ritual service to the deity come in the form of twelve signs. These signs include feeling little hunger or thirst, feeling free of fatigue, feeling free of illness, and feeling pleasant warmth as one’s body begins to glow.
Also, one’s understanding grows, comprehension of scripture progresses, and dreams are promising and come true. One feels no reluctance towards reciting the mantra and is instead inclined towards doing so. Finally, not only does one willingly strive toward preserving such qualities, but one’s devotion to the patron deity becomes great (Beyer, 244). Magical powers may also indicate contemplative mastery, signaling attainment of great merit. These magical attainments may include invisibility, invincibility, youth, levitation, instant self transportation, and domination over all other things, as well as many other godly powers (Beyer, 246). The speaking of such a mantra is so central and important in practice that it holds tangible power itself, detached from and beyond the deity (Beyer, 242). Beyond its spoken use, Tārā’s mantra may also be carved into a substance to ensure continual protection.
A second way to approach Tārā consists of visualization practices, which are used by monks or Tantra Yogis in order to develop Tārā's qualities in themselves, ultimately leading to Enlightenment (Beyer, 236). Visualization is a very important process in invoking Tārā for protection; it is through this method that an object may become a vessel for the protective power of Tārā. Visualization is often characterized by visualizing oneself as the deity, in as detailed a manner as possible; the power of the deity can thus be invoked. For specific reasons, one may want to visualize a particular variation of Tārā, to suit a specific need. Therefore, if one desires health and longevity, White Tārā should be the subject of visualization, and alternatively a devotee may use Red Tārā as the subject of visualization for subjugating, or Yellow Tārā if he or she desires to increase their wealth. The accompanying mantra would also be altered accordingly. In this manner, a devotee may use the basic components of praise and devotion to Tārā, recitation and visualization, and apply it to any problem that is encountered (Beyer, 242).
Sadhanas in which Tārā is the yidam (a deity chosen as a focus for meditation) can be extensive or quite brief. Most all of them include some introductory praise or homage to invoke her presence, followed by prayers asking her to grant refuge. Then Tārā’s 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 about personal aspirations and a long life prayer for the Lama who originated the practice. Many of the Tārā sadhanas are seen as practices specifically 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.
During meditation, Tārā is seen as having as much reality as any other phenomena apprehended through the mind. By reciting her mantra and visualizing her form, it is said that one can become open to her energies of compassion and wisdom. After a period of time, the practitioner is thought to become filled with all that her being represents. One simultaneously becomes inseparable from all her good qualities and realizes the emptiness of the visualization of oneself as the yidam. One dissolves the created deity form and at the same time 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 is preparing the practitioner to be able to confront the dissolution of oneself at death and ultimately be able to approach 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 Tārā's energy through its Sanskrit seed syllables and this purifies and activates certain 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 Tārā sadhana a plethora of outer, inner, and secret events are taking place. 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 end results of doing such Tārā practices are many. It reduces the forces of delusion in the forms of negative karma, sickness, afflictions of kleshas, and other obstacles and obscuration. 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 Tārā's perfected form, one acknowledges one's own perfected form, that is, one's intrinsic Buddha nature, which is usually obscured and clinging to dualistic phenomena as being inherently real and permanent. The practice weans one away from a coarse understanding of reality, allowing one to get in touch with inner qualities similar to those of a Bodhisattva. It 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.
Tārā as a focus for tantric deity yoga can be traced back to the time of Padmasambhava. There is a Red Tārā 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, allegedly 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 is said to have given it to Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche, who released it to his western students.
Martin Willson traces many different lineages of Tārā Tantras, Tārā scriptures used as Tantric sadhanas, in In Praise of Tārā.. For example a Tārā 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 Tārā. He composed a praise to her, and three Tārā sadhanas. Martin Willson's work also contains charts which show origins of her tantras in various lineages.
Tārā has long proven to be exceedingly popular in Tibet and with many who practice Buddhism the world over. There are references to deities much like her in many different cultures in all parts of the world. Her unwavering compassion toward all those that are in distress makes Tārā appealing and accessible to all her devotees, regardless of their social class or location. The adaptability of Tārā as a deity to fit many circumstances ensures that her help and protection extend to all those in need.
Finally, according to the Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, Tārā also represents an icon for Buddhist feminism. He states:
There is a true feminist movement in Buddhism that relates to the goddess Tārā. Following her cultivation of bodhicitta, the Bodhisattva's motivation, she looked upon the situation of those striving towards full awakening and she 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 will be a woman. (Conference on Compassionate Action in Newport Beach, CA. 1989)
Tārā 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 inclusion of women in enlightenment.