Tārā - A Beautiful Goddess for a Not-So-Beautiful World
Tārā is a female bodhisattva and an important goddess deity in both Buddhism and Hinduism.
More properly, she may be regarded as a set of forms or avatars that represent different aspects of the same qualities, principally those of compassion and sympathetic action.
Tārā represents the fundamental female aspect of the universe, which gives birth to warmth, compassion and relief from bad karma as experienced by ordinary beings in cyclic existence (samsara).
She engenders, nourishes and has profound sympathy for all living beings, but also acts to relieve suffering wherever she can.
Tārā is considered to be the female aspect of Avalokitesvara (or Chenrezig), the compassionate Buddha, who is incarnated in the Dali Lama.
In some origin stories she comes from the tears flowing from Avalokitesvara's left eye, as he perceived for the first time the agonies of the living and cried out that it would be better that his body be broken into pieces and he die, since he was unable to rescue them all.
As she took form Tārā declared: "As you are striving for the sake of sentient beings in the Land of Snows, intercede in their suffering, and I shall be your companion in this endeavour!"
Tārā traditionally holds an utpala, or blue lotus, in her right hand at chest level, which simultaneously displays the vitarka mudra (teaching) mudra.
This suggests that those who gain the most from Tārā do so by listening and learning from her teachings.
The utpala is a night-blooming flower, and so it is made clear that Tārā protects at our time of greatest fear, during both the physical night and while we exist in the darkness of our ignorance.
In addition, the lotus is renowned for its purity, remaining unstained in even the most contaminating of environments and reminds her followers that awakened wisdom can exist in the world without becoming tainted or corrupted.
Her left hand displays the varada mudra (bestowing or giving) mudra, symbolising her commitment to helping others.
Whether the Tārā figure originated as a Buddhist or Hindu goddess is a source of dispute among scholars.
She may have entered Buddhism via Shaktism (the pre-cursor to institutionalized Hinduism) since Buddhism was originally a religion devoid of deities altogether.
The oldest text to mention a Buddhist goddess is the Prajnaparamita Sutra in the 2nd century CE, describing a female being personifying the "Perfection of Wisdom".
The first textual reference to Tārā herself in this form came in the Mañjuśrī-mūla-kalpa, around the 5th century CE.
The earliest identifiable image of Tārā dates to the 7th century CE and her worship was well established by the 8th century CE.
Indeed her emergence as a principal deity at this time was part of Buddhism's reaching out to women and its overall expansion from India into new territories such as Tibet.
Eventually she came to be known the "Mother of all Buddhas," which simultaneously refers to the her role as activator of the enlightened wisdom of the Buddhas while endorsing the ancient concept of the Mother Goddess.
Whether she is classified as a deity, Buddha or bodhisattva, Tārā today remains very popular in Tibet, Mongolia, Nepal and Bhutan, and is worshiped as Quan Yin in China and Tarani Bosatsu in Japan.
Tārā also has a lot of resonance for western women interested in Buddhism and embodies certain ideals that make her attractive to modern feminists.
H.H the Dalai Lama spoke about Tārā at a conference on Compassionate Action in Newport Beach, CA in 1989: "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 woman. 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."
Amongst the various schools of Buddhism there is recognition of twenty-one Tārās in total. In the west, the most widely known forms are:
Green Tārā, known as the Buddha of Enlightened Activity. She offers succour and protection from all the unfortunate circumstances encountered in the samsaric world.
White Tārā, known for compassion, long life, healing and serenity.
She expresses maternal compassion and offers healing to beings that are hurt or wounded, either physically or spiritually.
She may easily be distinguished from Green Tārā by the presence of eyes in the palms of her hands, the soles of her feet and her forehead.
Red Tārā, of fierce aspect, associated with the attraction of the positive. She teaches discriminating awareness about created phenomena, and how to turn raw desire into compassion and love.
Blue Tārā, associated with the transmutation of anger. She expresses a ferocious, wrathful, female energy whose invocation destroys all dharmic obstacles and engenders good luck and swift spiritual awakening
Black Tārā, associated with power
Yellow Tārā, associated with wealth and prosperity
The principal prayer to Tārā consists of 21 praises.
It's dedication to Green Tārā will not only provide the reciter with whatever they may need, but also allay all major fears, including those related to the physical plane such as fear of thieves, water, flying, snakes, imprisonment and so on, but also all inner fears.
There are also specific mantras for each of the twenty-one forms of Tārā.
Her principal mantra consists of 10 syllables and is second only to the mantra of Avalokitesvara in popularity, as follows:
Om Tare Tuttāre Ture Svāhā (pronounced Om Tāre Tu Tāre Tur-e So-ha).
While the mantra has no real literal translation, it can be broken down thus:
Om is a sound representing the entire universe, past present and future.
Tāre represents salvation from mundane worldly dangers and suffering.
Tuttāre represents deliverance into the spiritual path from suffering.
Ture represents the culmination of the spiritual path, the Bodhisattva path for personal enlightenment and compassionate connection with the sufferings of others.
Svaha, means "Hail!", "Hail to!" or "May a blessing rest on!"
Her mantra can therefore be rendered as something like "OM! Hail to Tārā (in her three roles as saviour)!"
References and Further Reading
Beyer, Stephen (1978). Cult of Tārā. University of California Press. ISBN 0-520-03635-2
Chogye Trichen Rinpoche, H.E. The Practice of the Goddess Green Tara Website of the Kyegu Buddhist Institute, 2006.
Dalai Lama, H.H. Worlds in Harmony: Dialogues on Compassionate Action. Parallax Press, Berkeley, CA, 1992
Green Tara Meditation. Wildmind Buddhist Meditation: http://www.wildmind.org/mantras/figures/greentara accessed 20th September 2010
Tara (Buddhism). Wikipedia. Accessed 20th September 2010