Articles About Tibetan Thangka Painting and Visionary Art - index:

An Introduction to Tibetan Thangka Painting

What is a Thangka?

Female Deities In Tibetan Buddhism

Green Tara and the Twenty-one Taras

The Mandala And Its Symbolism

Wrathful Deities of the Tibetan Buddhist Pantheon

The Wheel Of Life

Visionary Art, Cosmology and the Tree of Life

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Green Tara and the Twenty-one Taras

"Gods and demi-gods with their crowns bow down to your lotus feet;
Liberator from all problems, Mother Tara - homage to You!"
From 'Homage to the Venerable Arya Tara', by Atisha (982-1054 AD)

The Goddess Tara

Tara, meaning "Saviouress" or "Star", is the principal goddess in Tibetan Buddhism. In the form of Green Tara, also known as Arya Tara, Cittamani Tara and "Mother of All the Buddhas", she has been the object of devotional practice for over fourteen centuries. Green Tara embodies the quality of active compassion and she has the ability to act without hesitation to help all beings in need, the way a mother would act to help her child. She is said to have first appeared at the same time as White Tara in a vision to a group of Tibetan people, which included Atisha Dipamkara Shrijana, who worked much of his lifetime to spread the teachings of buddhism in Tibet.

According to tradition Avalokiteshvara, the buddha of compassion, made a vow to help all sentient beings and to put others before himself - when he found himself unable, even with great effort, to relieve very much of the suffering in the world, he began to cry; in the vision he appeared seated on a lotus flower, which grew from a lake, and where his tears fell into the water two lotus flowers grew - one revealed the goddess White Tara and the other revealed Green Tara. The goddesses would act to relieve the suffering of all sentient beings as embodiments of his compassion.

Cittamani Tara's green colour associates her with nature, the nurturing power of the Earth and spiritual growth. Her body appears as if made of green light and she holds the stem of an Utpala flower with a bud, a half-open flower and a fully open flower, symbolising her ability to know past, present and future. Her right hand is in the Mudra (hand gesture) of granting refuge and she is invoked in Buddhist ritual practice for the purposes of protection and for removing obstacles to happiness. The practice of the twenty-one Taras is popular in all schools of buddhism and is particularly used to ask for a blessing when undertaking a new venture such as moving to a new house, starting a new business or at the birth of a child. The practice involves meditation, visualisation and prayer through the repetition of mantra and poetic verses. A ritual such as this helps people to remember their connectedness to all beings in all of their worldly activities so that they do not act selfishly or without compassion for others and in a way which benefits themselves.

The goddess Tara, the "Swift Liberator", is primarily associated with answering the need for help when in danger - for this reason she is also known as the One Who Rescues from the Eight Great Fears, traditionally listed as the fear of lions, elephants, fire, snakes, robbers, imprisonment, water and demons; with her compassionate nature she overcomes enemies without causing them harm - although in some translations of Tibetan texts Tara has been said to slaughter elephants and trample lions and robbers under her feet (translation by Beyer), this does not fit with the usual understanding of the goddess as purely compassionate. The wrathful aspects and behaviour referred to in such verses are more likely to represent Tara's power to destroy strong inner "demons", which have formed from an incorrect perception of the world and have become entrenched so that one cannot dissociate oneself from acting wrongly - the animals can therefore be seen in symbolic form as mental attitudes that can become dangerous if allowed to prevail. With such an understanding in mind, the Eight Fears are often interpreted to be these inner obstacles to enlightenment in the form of pride, ignorance, anger, envy, wrong views, avarice, attachment and doubt. In the East there are innumerable stories of Tara's swift response to people in need; there are also many accounts of the appearance of a Mother figure in different cultures around the world, for example in the Christian tradition with visions of the Virgin Mary and even in indigenous Africa there are accounts of the appearance of a nurturing Green Lady with a body made of green light, for example in a recent account in the book "Of Water and the Spirit" by Malidoma Some.

The practice associated with a buddhist deity usually consists of three stages, which can be seen as a process of spiritual realisation - firstly by making prayers and offerings to the deity as an external figure to be invoked for our help, secondly by developing the attributes of the deity in oneself (i.e. developing an attitude of non-violence and compassion for others' suffering), thirdly by becoming the deity (i.e. becoming inseparable from the consciousness of universal compassion). The depiction of Tara in twenty-one forms implies that she is able to manifest in a form that suits the need of any particular situation, similar to other deities that have a variety of forms for the same reason. There are more forms of Tara, more detailed systems of artistic representation, devotional verses and practices than for other deities because of her beauty and the universal appeal of her qualities. The painting of so many forms is a way of showing that Tara's embodiment of compassion and ability to act in the world is unlimited.

The Historical Lineages of the Twenty-one Taras

There are three primary lineages of the twenty-one Taras, in chronological order: Suryagupta, Nagarjuna/ Atisha and Longchen Rapjampa. The Suryagupta system dates from around 850 AD and shows the twenty-one Taras in a great variety of forms with different colours, bodies with many arms, holding different implements, with various faces and in a variety of postures. The system attributed to Nagarjuna and Atisha is less complex with the distinguishing features limited to colour, facial expression and each goddess holding a different colour of flask in the right hand. The later Nyingma tradition, attributed to Longchen Rapjampa (1308-1363) depicts them in the same form but in many different colours, holding individual emblems on top of the lotus flower in the right hand. The founders of these different lineages have been responsible for amalgamating differences in doctrine and practice to a great extent, much like in the process of standardisation of language and writing implemented by certain individuals throughout history.

The twenty-one Taras have very specific roles, which comprise a variety of qualities and abilities to counteract negative influences that afflict human beings in physical, emotional and spiritual ways. There are some differences between the three main traditions with the two later systems having more in common; according to the Atisha system the names and main attributes of the twenty-one goddesses are as follows:

1. Nyur.ma Pa.mo, The Swift Heroine, subdues interfering influences and returns the power of those with harmful intentions.
2. Yang.chen.ma, as Saraswati, bestows the perfect wisdom that frees all beings from suffering.
3. Soe.nam Chog.ter.ma, The Giver of Supreme Virtue, embodies the six perfections - generosity, discipline, forbearance, joyous enthusiasm, meditative concentration and wisdom.
4. Nam.Gyal.ma, The All-victorious, protects and grants long life.
5. Rig.je.ma, The Giver of Intelligence, rescues lost souls.
6. Jig.je.ma, The Terrifier, subdues evil spirits and cures the diseases that they cause.
7. Shen.gyi.mi Tub.ma, The Invincible, destroys all negative influences from others.
8. Shen.le Nam.par Gyal.ma, The Conqueror of Others, slays all enemies and their influences.
9. Seng.deng.nag Dol.ma, Saviour of the Scented Forest, who with her light saves all beings from the myriad sufferings of life.
10. Jig.ten Sum.le Gyal.ma, The Conqueror of the Three Worldly Realms, fulfils all wishes.
11. Nor.ter.ma, The Giver of Wealth, rescues the impoverished.
12. Tashi.doen Je.ma, The Auspicious, brings the power of Amitabha to save sentient beings.
13. Da.pung.som Ze.ma, The Destroyer of Opposing Forces, uses fire to destroy all evil beings.
14. Tro.nyer.chen, The Wrathful, makes all sentient beings peaceful.
15. Rab.shi.ma, The Very Peaceful One, pacifies all evil actions and their consequences.
16. Bar.wae.od.chen.ma, The Blazing Light, rescues beings from cyclic existence.
17. Pag.mae.noen.ma, The Subduer of Countless Harmful Forces, stamps her foot to awaken all beings in the three worldly realms.
18. Ma.ja.ma, The Peahen Riding One, has the ability to transmute poisons.
19. Mi.pam Gyal.ma, The Invincible Queen, bestows unshakeable confidence.
20. Ri.toe.ma, The Mountain-dwelling Mendicant, dispels ignorance, disputes and frightening dreams.
21. Oed.zer Chen.ma, The Rays of Light, destroys all evil spirits and can raise the dead to life.

by Peter "Zotec" Newman ©2002-2009

REFERENCES: 'In Praise of Tara' by Martin Willson (Wisdom Publications) [pp.118-9,pp. 224-5, p.293]

'Images of Enlightenment, Tibetan Art in Practice' by Weber, A. & Landaw, J.(Snow Lion) [pp.83-88]

'Meeting the Buddhas' by Vessantara (Windhorse Publications) [pp.171-182]

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