Origin of the Cult of Tara
The view that the divine bodhisattva known by the name Tara assimilates the various characteristics and qualities of several goddesses of the Himalayan regions, from tribal snake deities to the great Shakti of Hinduism, and of other goddesses from farther afield, is not a novel one.
Whether this opinion is due to the somewhat outmoded idea of the archetype, or due to cultural drift and diffusion, or to people's general inability to keep specific details in mind is not really important. What is significant and valuable is the profound devotion that people have for Tara and the genuine efficacy of her practice. In times of great difficulty, millions of people call upon "Great Noble Tara."
Not every one agrees on how she should be depicted, however, and perhaps that in itself is significant. Stephen Beyer, in The Cult of Tara, reported that until some very experienced Tibetan artists were shown the details of the 21 Taras as illustrated in foreign texts, they often did not know or could not recall which colours, gestures and symbolic items belonged together. Also there seem to be waves of popularity for different lineage teachings of her practice, some claiming origin with one or another famous teacher of the past and others none at all. That is, some versions of her ritual worship [Skt.: sadhana] or practice are regarded as termas -- tantric texts revealed or uncovered by gifted individuals under extraordinary circumstances.
When her cult developed exactly is unknown. The Chinese pilgrim Hsuan Tsang, who visited northern India between 633 and 645, reports without describing, a Tolo image in a temple near Nalanda Buddhist University to which the general population was particularly devoted.
The Sanskrit root tār-means "to traverse" or "cross over" as in using a bridge to ford a stream. In the orthodox Indian sacred tradition, Tārā refers to the second of Ten Means to Realization. And as Shri Tara Devi she is the deification of that Mahavidya, according to Hindu tantra. As a Tārīni, she carries you across; she serves as a bridge for you to get to immortality. But the root tar- can mean "tree," and "particularly," and it is also related to "star" and to "pupil of the eye."
In Tibetan, she is called Dolma or Do'ma, though often we see Drolma because it follows the Tibetan spelling (a little more; if we transliterate, it is actually sgrolma.)
More than one Tara?
Often people say that White Tara and Green Tara (the two most distinctly different and popular forms of her) derive from Tritseun, (a.k.a. Birkuti, Belsa) the Nepali wife and Wen-ch'eng (Tib. Gyasa,) the Chinese wife, of Tibetan King Songtsen Gampo (ca. 617 - 650 CE,) though opinions sometimes differ as to which queen is which Tara.
Beyer, who explored the works of scholars such as Nebesky-Wojkowitz, Snellgrove and Lessing, agrees that to pair Green Tara, because she has a dark complexion with the noblewoman from Nepal is ignorant, if not a case of bigoted "ethnological expectation."
One of the most widely diffused of her tantric manuals is known as Tara of the Acacia Grove, ie. the Khadira Forest, and Nepal is certainly well known for its dark green rain forest called terai. This lends support for those who think that Green Tara must represent the Nepalese woman. However, Nepal is also the direction from which reading and writing, not to mention the dharma itself, came -- attributes more of White Tara. That opinion, that the Nepali woman is the model for White Tara, is the views of Waddell and Grundwedel.
Buton [Buston], the great Tibetan authority does not mention the "wives idea" at all; Kunga Dorje, author of the Red Annals says rather that the Chinese wife was an incarnation of Tara (non-specific) but that the Nepalese goddess Bhirkuti assumed the form of the other.
In Tibetan culture, and some others, green is considered to include all the other colors.
Green Tara is typically pictured as a dark, green-skinned girl of 16. She usually wears striped leggings but above, only her shoulders are covered. She wears the many characteristic ornaments of the samboghakaya.
Green Tara has her right foot extended as if about to rise. Her left hand, in the gesture of granting refuge holds the stem of a blue water lily or utpala that waves over her left shoulder while her right hand also holding a flower, offers that which we desire, a boon.
The practice of Green Tara helps to overcome fear and anxiety, but devotees also believe that she can grant wishes, eliminate suffering of all kinds and bring happiness.
When called upon, she instantaneously saves us from eight specific calamities. (Another lineage describes 16.) The First Dalai Lama lists the 8, and interprets them as representative of corresponding defects, flaws, or obscurations:
Relation to Amitabha
It is said that, despite his having taken a vow before Amitabha Buddha to enable everyone without exception achieve liberation from the endless round of rebirth, Chenrezi became so discouraged at the untold numbers of sentient beings that he began to cry. From his tear was formed Tara.
The 21 Praises to Tara says 'On the face of Chenrezi, she is born from a tear as a bud from a lotus' or "born from the opening corolla of the lotus face of the Lord of the triple world."
A different account is that, while Chenrezig emerged from one of the eyes of compassionate Buddha Amitabha, Tara came from the other. In her iconography, the association with the red Buddha, Amitabha, is usually indicated by a tiny image of him in her topknot.
Link to the Maitreya site with epithets of the 21 Taras and their colors.
There is a different tradition in which she is a Buddha, the consort of Amoghasiddhi.
In yet another, she is called Mother of the Buddhas and as such, resembles in many ways the Great Goddess of India.
She is distinguished by "her body . . . white, as an autumn moon; clear as a stainless crystal gem, radiating light. She has one face, two hands, three eyes. She is described in manuals as having "the youth of 16 years" but is often depicted as more full-bodied than Green Tara. Her right hand makes the gift-bestowing gesture, and with the thumb and ring finger of her left hand she holds a branch of white utpala, its petals level with her ear.
There are three flowers in various stages of growth symbolizing the three times (past, present and future.) The first bloom that is in seed, usually on the right, stands for Buddha Kashyapa who lived in a past eon; the second in first bloom stands for the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, whose activity has brought you here today, and the bud on the left symbolizes future buddhas -- the expected one is Maitreya Buddha.
Her hair is dark blue, bound up at the back of her neck at the back with long tresses hanging down; her breasts are full; she is adorned with divers precious ornaments, her blouse is of vari-colored silk, and her robes are of red silk, the palms of her hand and the soles of her feet each have an eye, making up the seven eyes of knowledge; she sits straight and firm upon the circle of the moon, her legs crossed in the diamond posture."
[This description (Beyer 379) from the beginning of her sadhana is included as characteristic of the details in texts used as a basis for tantric visualizations. We remind the reader that in a Buddhist sadhana, the practitioner is not really worshipping a goddess since the image is his or her own self imagined as a deity.]
White Tara is referred to as "Mother of all the Buddhas."
This is because she embodies the motivation that is compassion. Her
whiteness "Radiant as the eternal snows in all their glory" is
indicative of the selflessness -- the purity -- of this compassion but especially
the undifferentiated Truth of the Dharma.
The mantra for White Tara is
OM. TARE TUTARE TURE. MAMA AYUR PUNYE JNANA PUSHTIM KURU, SWAHA
This is a request for increase in longevity, merit and wisdom.
A sadhana for White Tara in English via Lama Zopa and the FPMT for which no empowerment is required, though it is always beneficial to get one. White Tara is there, an emanation of Amitayus (Tib. Tsepameh,) the longevity aspect of Amitabha.
Chintamani Chakra Tara (The Jewelled Wheel) is a protector form of White Tara with a violet or rainbow aureole. Dagmo Kushab, consort of His Holiness Dagchen Sakya Rinpoche, is known for this empowerment. The practice is credited with having afforded protection in 1959 for the many people who had to undertake the dangerous journey out of Tibet. A description can be found in Meditations on the Lower Tantras which includes commentaries by the 2nd, 5th and 13th Dalai Lamas.
The Tara cult assimilates many forms into one: The Supreme Tantra of Tara the Yogini: Source for All Rituals says in referring to aspects of the visualization: "By a green wheel, one is protected; one cheats death with a white one." The wheel in this case serves as a metonymy for the activity of one single deity.
Buddhaguyha says that Tara's green colour is the result of the mixing of white, yellow and blue standing for pacifying, increasing and destroying respectively. That means that Green Tara practice incorporates that of White Tara and of all the others, including that of golden goddess of wealth, Vasundhara (Tib. Norgyun, Norgyuma).
Depending upon how the initial letter is pronounced in the Indian languages, the name of Yellow Tara is variously transliterated: Basundhara Vasundhara, Yasundhara. Basudarini is a variant emphasizing her femininity, ie. Norguuma in Tibetan. Vasudhara is the consort of Vaisharavana the protector of the northern direction, who is considered the same as Kubera or Jambhala.)
OM TARE TUTTARE TURE PUSHTIM KURU OM is a version of her mantra.
She is related to Hindu great goddess Lakshmi, and her Sanskrit name Vasundhara indicates she is the source of the eight "bountiful Vasus." Therefore, according to the epic Mahabharat, she is the bounty that is the waters of the river Ganges -- the goddess, Ganga whose origin is the snows of the Himalayas.
Known as the Golden Image of Agusan, it is nearly 4 pounds of 21-carat gold. It was found in 1917, on the banks of the Upper Agusan River, by a Manobo woman. It is currently in the possession of the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History. Might the "Seruma" of legend have lain farther east than is generally thought?
Tara of Many Colours
'Some have a vision of you (Tara) as red as the sun with rays
more brilliant and red than lac and vermilion. Others see
you blue like the sapphire. Some again see you whiter than the
milk churned out of the milky ocean. Still others see you golden.
Your vishva-rupa is like a crystal which changes its color with
the change of the things around it.'
Dolma Sermo (Yellow Tara) from a series of the 21 Taras.
Om, Shri Vasudhara ratna nidhana kashetri, swaha is the mantra associated with this particular form of Tara.
Ritro Loma Chen
An emanation of Tara that is golden, with three faces and six arms. Her power helps overcome plagues and epidemics, and illnesses new to the world. Those who suffer from incurable conditions can still benefit from her blessings.
In a woven-thread ritual, some other colors for Tara/Yasundhara -- Tara viewed as Holder of the Flask -- are: orange, reddish black and black. So we see that the Tara cult also de-similates her into a wide variety of forms.
For instance, there is a Blue Tara in the form of a She-wolf usually depicted with her head turned towards her tail. The mantra associated with this practice, like some few others, is considered especially powerful and, according to the Venerable Kamtrul Rinpoche presents real danger to those unequipped to handle it.
There is an Indian temple to Ugra [wrathful] Tara in Kathmandu, Nepal. Situated in the Asan tole (Assamese quarter,) today people go there wishing to cure diseases of the eye.
Also, in Uzan Bazaar in the eastern part of Guwahati (Assam, India,) one of the 52 peethas or places where Hindus believe parts of Shiva's wife's body fell to earth, is another temple honouring Wrathful Tara. Constructed in 1725 by Rajah Shiv Singh, it was meant to serve as a Shakta place of worship. But it may be that the 18th-century king was looking for traces of an older site, for 3 years earlier he had excavated the tank called Jorepukhuri that lies east of the temple. Though not generally considered a Buddhist shrine, who can say what lies beneath the current structure (rebuilt after a 20th-century earthquake) ?
According to the "Hindu" Yogini Tantra: "Tara is the same as
Kali, the embodiment of supreme love. So also is Kamakhya. In thinking of
them as different from Kali, one would go to hell."
His solution was to ask Ugra Tara to mobilize her hosts of dakinis to drive away the inhabitants of Kamarupa. But they did not distinguish the rishi Vasistha from any of the others and he, who was doing his evening meditation with Lord Shiva, was naturally infuriated. So he laid a terrible curse on Ugra Tara and her cohorts with the result that Vedic rites were abandoned.
Consequently, the only practices remaining were those of the "left-hand path" -- the Vamachara rites. The Kalika Purana describes the terrible slaughter that resulted. The victims included most kinds of inhabitants of earth, sea and sky. Men even shed the blood of their own bodies to propitiate the deities. (Females, probably because of the cyclic shedding that naturally occurs, were not expected to participate in that.)
There are several "Black" Taras invoked by Buddhists:
Red Tara as Kurukulla, a deity whose primary activity is described as magnetizing or as subjugating. [ link is to 4 images of Kurukulle at Padmasambhava.org]
The Drikung Kagyu Four-Armed Red Arya Tara is less common. Her activity
:: Red Tara (Tib. Dolma Karmo) as practiced at Chagdud Gompa centers is different from Kurukulla. This practice, where Tara is a remover of obstacles, originated with Apong Terton, a great Nyingmapa who lived in the 1900s. Called The Condensed Essence of the Treasure of Supreme Enlightened Mind: The Mandala Ritual of the Noble Red Tara Called the Wish-Fulfilling Essence, it is "an extensive cycle that includes preliminary practices, dream yoga, healing practices, yoga of the subtle channels and energies (Tib. tza lung) and extensive teachings on the nature of mind.
A shorter practice is in Red Tara Commentary: Instructions for Concise Practice Known as Red Tara, An Open Door to Bliss and Ultimate Awareness compiled by Chagdud Khadro (Lama Jane Tromge.) It still contains two levels of practice: The first is a visualization of Tara in the space in front of oneself that does not require initiation; the second involves visualization of oneself as Tara and does require initiation. "Through initiation, the blessings of the lineage are formally transmitted and one's mind is ripened in order to realize the profundity of the practice."
The steps of the Red Tara practice are interspersed with prayers of homage to the twenty-one Taras as composed by another great Nyingmapa, a contemporary of Apong Terton, Khenpo Ngaga.
As The Liberator, she is believed to be able to free prisoners and those confined in other ways. This "freeing" extends to her efficacy in helping with childbirth.
There are a multitude of Tara rituals: to "bind thieves," to protect against slander, and to heal via her mantra and seed-syllable [Skt.: bhija] TAM. Beyer has in his book, an image of Tara who protects against yak-goring.
Tara's practice is also used in the making of special medicinal pills, thread-cross mandalas [in other cultures known as God's eyes] and other woven mandalas already mentioned that are charms to be carried on the person. The writings of the great Nagarjuna include the formula for the preparation of a protective Tara mandala to be inscribed on bark.
Images of Tara are sometimes reported to manifest mysteriously on bone and in stone, among other substances. Without considering the color, Green Tara is distinguishable from White Tara in that she has two arms, and her right foot is advanced as if she were about to rise from her seat.
Origin of the Ritual Practice of Tara
There exist two different scholarly Tibetan traditions as to which teacher was first responsible for introducing her practice. Evidence is strong that in the tenjur of Tibetan king Trisong Deutsen (reigned 755-797) there were only 3 works concerning Tara, but they were not translated for general use. These were: the incantations called Mother of Avalokiteshvara and 108 Names of the Goddess Tara, and Chandragomin's "Praises of the Noble Tara Who Saves From all Great Terrors".
It is generally agreed that it was not until Atisha arrived in Tibet in 1042 that her cult was introduced. He claimed that it was Tara who prophesied that his life would be shortened by his going to Tibet, but that he would, by undertaking that duty to the dharma, greatly benefit beings and one devotee in particular. That person was Dromton [or bromton] who built a temple to Tara that was standing at Nyetang at least until the late 1970's.
Of Atisha's 117 works, only 4 are about Tara. Also, of the 77 Indian works he translated, only 6 are about her. It is noteworthy that, according to Beyer, all of the White Tara lineages derive from his translation of 3 of Vagishvarakirti's works in the larger cycle known as 'Cheating Death.' The White Tara tradition stems from that writer's own revelations and not from the tantric tradition said to have originated with the Buddha.
The orthodox Buddhist tantric tradition was not deemed appropriate for general dissemination in the 11th century, which was a time of reform. It took another 400 years it to be revived, or at least, widely disseminated which it was under Taranatha (fl. 1600) according to the Tibetan historian, Zhunnupe.
The 21 Praises to Tara, though, were brought from India in the 11th century by Darmadra of Nyen, according to Drugpa Jetsen, abbot of the Sakya monastery who wrote a commentary a century later. He, himself, wrote 13 works on Tara.
All denominations call upon Green Tara in times of necessity. According to Beyer whose informants were Drugpa Kagyu, the Kagyu consider there is a special relationship with White Tara via Gampopa (fl. 1100.) The superior contemporary tantric master, Ven. Tenga Rinpoche, maintains that lineage. But Kagyu temples everywhere begin the day with the four-mandala offering to Green Tara.
Taranatha (b. 1575) was, besides a noted philosopher and scholar, also a Tara devotee as we see from his name. In Origin of the Tara Sadhana, he tells how
More about the lineages and varieties of Tara by "layman Sherab."
Her basic mantra which may be said for all her forms and by anyone, is
OM! Tara, Tuttare Ture, Swaha.
Ohm. Tar-uh, too-tah-ray too-reh. Swaha [so-ha is how Tibetans say the final word.]
As we have seen, there are distinctive mantras that go with the various forms or aspects of Tara and they may vary according to the lineage of transmission.
The mantra for any deity conforms to the following (which is for Yellow Tara):
OM, BASUDARINI [< deity's name] SOHA [<Tibetan pronunciation of swaha = so be it!]
In a world known as Various Lights, there was a Buddha called Dundubh-ishvara [Lord of the Sound of Drums] and he had a devotee, a princess called Jnanachandra [Wisdom Moon.] For many ages, she made offerings to him, and to the 'hearers' and bodhisattvas, until finally there arose in her the determination to, herself, become a buddha. She was advised that she would first have to seek a rebirth in a male body, for who had ever heard of a female buddha?
"Nonsense," she thought. "What difference does the form of the body matter? In fact, to dispel this incorrect notion from the minds of certain beings, I will forever be reborn as a female!"
Then Wisdom Moon sat determinedly in meditation for many ages. She attained the knowledge that events do not arise, and the state called Saving All Beings. Every morning before she had taken food, she introduced and fixed innumerable beings in the state of acceptance; every evening she did the same, and so she became known as Tara the Saviour.
Reborn into the realm of Buddha Amoghasiddi in the era called Vastly Extended, Tara took another vow before him: She determined to protect the sentient beings of the infinite worlds of all ten directions from harm. She settled into the state of meditation called 'Defeating all Maras,' and during the day, fixed in contemplation innumerable heavenly rulers of beings, and in the night, also those of the heaven of power of vision over others. She became known as Tara the Swift, and Tara the Heroine.
Then, in the era called Beginningless, a monk whose name was Stainless Light was empowered via the light of compassion of all the tathagathas [buddhas] and became Avalokiteshvara (Lord of the World, called in Tibetan, Chenresi). In him, two lights emanating from all the buddhas - that of Understanding and that of Compassion, united as a father and mother. These lights, these initiatory energies, engendered Tara who was then born from the heart of the Lord of the World 'as a bud from the lotus.'
That is how Tara is understood to have come to us -- out of Emptiness, but by the merit of her devotion and her determination which, manifesting as care, finds its way through the union of wisdom and compassion to all sentient beings.
S. L., who is a medical doctor, tells us that Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche told his pregnant wife to do Tara's mantra though she had received "neither wong, tri, or lung [various types of empowerment] for that practice." He recommends Bokar Rinpoche's Tara: The Feminine Divine. Others mention John Blofeld's Bodhisattva of Compassion.
and More about Tara
First Dalai Lama quotations are from Nitin's Nov. 2000 Tara article.
divine bodhisattva: Tara occupies a unique status in that she has mythological origins as a goddess, as a bodhisattva and is also frequently viewed as a Buddha.
Karma Ozer, an ordained monk and student of HH Karmapa says:
obscurations: what in another context might be called "sins," are sometimes viewed as "neurotic tendencies," but the language of Buddhism speaks of imperfections such as dust on a mirror that obscures an otherwise true image, or stains that mar an otherwise pristine cloth.
RM's interesting simile: He says that mantras are like phone numbers with their various extensions. [ Area codes, too] In that case, dialing style does not matter as long as you get the right number.
The Vasus: According to the Rig Veda, possibly the oldest hymn of pre-Hindu culture, when creation of the physical universe was taking place they were the attendants of Indra.