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.’


6 thoughts on “White Tara

  1. Since you’re received the White Tara empowerment, you’re authorized to do the White Tara sadhana– there are a number of them out there, which you should be able to locate without too much googling. Since most of them are aimed at long life and health, and you’ve already got the thangka hanging there, …

    1. Yeah, I know. I guess the point I was trying to make and didn’t express very well, it that there must be some deeper meaning to the ritualism of the empowerments, and then just reciting a sadhana you could download and practice with or without an empowerment. I know there is a deeper meaning, but to focus on the ritualism alone without sharing insight into the background of the practice just seems like a wasted teaching opportunity.

      1. I agree– I’m just saying that even though that teaching opportunity was sadly missed, karma and dependent origination seem to have conspired to give you a chance to remedy that shortcoming.

        1. The only problem is that it’s been such a long time, I can’t remember what the secret mantra was or what the secret mandala looked like.

  2. “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.”
    Dear webmaster,
    In China Kuan Yin, or Guanyin is always considered female. However, in it original form of Avalokitshvara in Indian Buddhism and Hinduism he/she/it is considered male.

    1. Well, as I said, in the temples and so on, Kuan Yin has usually been perceived as male. Perhaps that has changed in recent years.

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