White Tara

WhiteTara-thangkaIn my apartment building, people often leave unwanted items in the laundry room for others to take. I’ve gotten some good books, a nice lamp, and who knows what else that way. A week ago, someone left a Tibetan thangka of White Tara (made in Thailand) down there, and luckily I was able to grab it before anyone else did. A thangka is a painting on cloth that depicts a Buddhist figure or mandala. The one I found is exactly like the one shown on the right here, and it fits nicely with the motif of my Buddhist space in the living room where I have a statue of Kuan Yin and the Medicine Buddha. And it gives me an excuse to write a little about this Buddhist icon.

Tara is a female celestial Bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism, however in Vajrayana, the esoteric offshoot of Mahayana, she is regarded as a female Buddha. As far as I know, Tara is always female. Kuan Yin, on the other hand, is usually seen as male in Buddhist temples and monasteries (since they are generally run by male monks and priests), and as female by lay followers, at least that’s traditionally been the case in China.

Tara is sometimes regarded as an emanation of Avalokitesvara (Ch. Kuan Yin, Tib. Chenrezig), having originated from that bodhisattva’s tears. In Tibetan Buddhism, she is known as Jetsun Dolma.

Tara is a saviouress, who like Kuan Yin hears the suffering cries of the world; she is a Bodhisattva of Compassion; a Mother of Liberation; and in Vajrayana or tantric Buddhism, a meditation “deity.”

She may have been borrowed from Hinduism, where she is a “Goddess” in Shaktism, a devotional form of Hinduism. Tara’s mantra used by Hindus and Buddhists alike is, om tare tuttare ture svaha.

There are 21 different Taras: White, Red, Green, Black, Yellow, and so on, each representing different qualities.

Occasionally, we find that White Tara is considered the female counterpart of the male form of Avalokitesvara. White Tara is also a bodhisattva of compassion, and additionally associated with health, long life, and healing. The White Tara mantra is essentially the same as the Tara mantra but with some additional words to indicate the healing aspect: om tare tuttare ture mama ayuh punya jnana pustim kuru svaha.

In 1996, at one of the first Dalai Lama teachings I attended (on Tsongkhapa’s “Three Principle Parts of the Path”), the fourth and final day was given over to a White Tara Empowerment. It was very ritualistic and symbolic, involving a “secret” mantra and a mandala that we were not allowed to see, so we were given blindfolds (I peeked, of course). Afterwards, the Dalai Lama said, “This initiation develops potentials to develop bodhisattva-nature.” I’ve attended a number of similar empowerments, and it’s usually the same thing – no one seems to have any real understanding of the deeper meaning or exactly what one is empowered to practice. Maybe I don’t talk to the right people or stick around the group long enough to find out, but I do wonder about the value of giving teachings that no one understands. However, this is standard operating procedure in the Tibetan tradition, the idea being that even if you can’t comprehend the empowerment you still form a karmic bond with the teachings, a notion I find rather dubious.

The theory behind tantra, which does not always involve some element of physical sex, is complex, especially in regards to meditations on so-called “deities.” Regardless, using icons such as White Tara and Kuan Yin as objects of meditation, or as symbols of inner qualities we should aim to cultivate, can be useful and empowering.

I feel these female Buddhist icons connect to the notion found in Chinese philosophy of yin, as in yin/yang but different from the “Yin” in Kuan Yin’s name. Yin is the female principle, passive energy that resonates with love and wisdom. It’s a kind of energy inherent in all people, regardless of gender, but may be more or less dominant according to the person.

And this is consistent with the general theory behind Vajrayana or tantra, as explained by Shashi Bhushan Dasgupta in An Introduction to Tantric Buddhism,

The fundamental theological position of the Buddhist Tantras and that of the Hindu Tantras thus becomes the same. As there is the belief in Hindu Tantras that the two aspects of the reality are revealed in the world in the form of male and female in general, so there is the belief in the Buddhist Tantras that all men and women are nothing but the manifestation of Upaya and Prajna respectively; or in other words, all men and women are Upaya and Prajna in the ultimate nature.”

As I understand it, in our ultimate nature all men and women are actually a union of Upaya and Prajna. The male aspect, upaya, means “skill in means” and refers to the methods or means used to realize awakening. Prajna is wisdom, traditionally regarded as a feminine quality (Prajna-Paramita or Transcendent Wisdom is the “mother of all Buddhas”).

yinyang_001Again, we’re not talking about gender, but inner qualities that all people possess. Yang or male energy is aggressive, hard, fast and associated with fire and the sun. Yin, female energy, is passive, flexible, soft and associated with earth and the moon. They are not opposing forces, but are complementary to one another, and indeed, they are interconnected. Yin links to prajna, and yang to upaya.

In any case, with regards to White Tara, the thangka is now hanging on my wall, and when I gaze at it, I reflect on the vision of White Tara that Lama Anagarika Govinda experienced and described in his autobiography, The Way of the White Clouds,

After some time a new change took place, and a female figure formed itself before my eyes. She had the same youthful grace as Manjusri, and even the lotus, which grew from her left hand, seemed to be the same. But instead of wielding the flaming sword her opened right hand was resting on the knee of her right leg, which was extended, as if she were about to descend from her lotus-throne in answer to some prayer of supplication. The wish-granting gesture, the loving expression of her face, which seemed to be inclined towards some invisible supplicant, were the liveliest embodiment of Buddha Sakyamuni’s words:

‘Like a mother, who protects her child, her only child, with her own life, thus one should cultivate a heart of unlimited love and compassion towards all living beings.’


The “Emptiness of Emptiness”: Emptiness as a tool

Many of you are probably familiar with the idea behind emptiness, but for those who are not, I begin with a short explanation:

The Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna in the 2nd Century CE established the theoretical foundation of the doctrine of emptiness (sunyata), which avers that nothing posses an absolute, conditioned self-hood that does not depend on anything else to come into existence. Put another way, everything that comes into existence is mutually dependent on causes and conditions. Everything is interconnected. Nothing stands alone. Additionally, nothing is permanent or eternal. Everything that presently exists will one day not exist. All things are transient.

These seats are empty.

Based on a comment I received a while back, I know some are unfamiliar with the aspect of emptiness that is the focus of today’s post, particularly in respect to Nagarjuna’s teachings, so here I will try to explain for everyone as best, and simply, as I can.

For Nagarjuna, emptiness was not an absolute truth in itself. If all things are empty, then emptiness must also be empty: sunyata-sunyata or “the emptiness of emptiness.” He considered emptiness as upaya, a Sanskrit word meaning “skill in means,” or “expedient means.”

To Nagarjuna, upaya specifically referred to the “skillfulness of non-clinging.” The root of suffering, he stated, is our tendency to “cling,” to form unhealthy attachments to transient things. Understanding the emptiness of things is a tool that helps us break free from our compulsive clinging, and transforms active causes for suffering into dormant ones.

Many Buddhists didn’t quite get this and some still view emptiness as an absolute, or ultimate truth.

There are some who would say everything is empty, and would cling in mind to this empty-nature of things. They are said to hold the wrong-view of non-existence because they cling to emptiness as the ultimate nature of things.

Nagarjuna, Treatise on the Prajna-Paramita Sutra

Even views are empty, and emptiness is not a view, it is upaya, a tool. When emptiness becomes a view, it then becomes an object of clinging, and is no longer useful. Nagarjuna maintains that the ultimate truth is not any view at all. He says, “Silence is the ultimate truth of the wise.”

Sometimes it’s difficult to see how a concept like emptiness relates to one’s daily life. It’s also a bit confusing. After all, we have many attachments that do seem healthy, like those we form with our parents, children, friends, pets, favorite works of art, etc. That’s why I like to use the word “clinging” because it suggests a kind of attachment that is obsessive and unnatural.  It’s one thing to love a person, and something else to cling to that love.

So, the hardest part about emptiness might not be in grasping it as a concept, but in seeing how it is at all practical. How do we use emptiness as a tool? Lama Anagarika Govinda, in A Living Buddhism for the West, offers some insight into this question:

In contrast to those religions that are based on unprovable articles of faith, the basis of Buddhism is understanding. This fact has misled some Western observers into considering Buddhism to be a purely rational doctrine that can be completely understood on purely intellectual principles. However, understanding in Buddhism means insight into the nature of reality, and is always the product of immediate experience.

Understanding is like a Swiss Army knife, with a file to scrape away delusion and attachment, a screwdriver to rivet insight, a can opener to unlock wisdom, and of course, the blade of emptiness to cut through everything else. In this way, understanding emptiness makes the experience of emptiness, or reality as it truly is: multifaceted, interdependent, and open, immediately available to us, and we can use this understanding for many different situations in everyday life. Just like a Swiss Army knife.

But the knife, of course, is empty. And it is meant to be used as a tool, not as an object of clinging. This also applies to the emptiness of the knife. That is nothing to cling to, either.

They cling to words and names. If they hear that emptiness is empty, they cling to this. If they hear that all things in their ultimate nature is peace, Nirvana, where the entire course of words stops, even to that they cling.



Upaya: Skillfulness of non-clinging

Upaya or “skillfulness” or “skill in means” is a term that has been much misunderstood and misused, particularly in Japanese Buddhism, where upaya or “hoben” has been understood in the sense of “convenient; expedient; make things convenient (for somebody)”, tantamount to “the ends justifies the means.”

This is not a term that was used much, if at all, in early Buddhism, essentially it is a Mahayana concept. The Soothill Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms, defines upaya as “Convenient to the place, or situation . . . a mode of approach, an expedient, stratagem, device. The meaning is – teaching according to the capacity of the hearer, by any suitable method . . .”

Mahayana used this as a way to legitimize its sutras, which were not taught by the historical Buddha, a fact that they were well aware of. They claimed that the Buddha taught different teachings to different audiences based on the people’s capacity and the correctness of the time. That is why he preached so many different sutras, and since the people of the world were not ready to grasp the full meaning of the “Mahayana” sutras, that is why they were hidden at the bottom of the sea and guarded over by sea-dragons until Nagarjuna, who apparently possessed the ability to breath underwater without a breathing device, traveled to the bottom of the sea to retrieve them.

It’s a story. A fable. A myth. To put it more bluntly, the Mahayanists lied. They lied about their sutras and a number of other things. They believed that the end, in this case legitimizing their teachings, justified the use of lies. I do not, or will I ever, believe that this conception of upaya or skills in means, is proper Buddhism. And I consider myself to be a Mahayanist.

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