Archive for November, 2005


How significant is Tara in Buddhism?

***i asked a question on tara. and with my friend’s (adeline woon) help, she consulted Master Chia Ch’i, who ‘started as the Tibetan ‘Lama’ and now she has changed to Northen Buddhism’…(sic)***


Amito Fo!

Here is a little information about Tara, and an answer to your question: First, "Tara" is a name, and these days it’s best-known in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The word "Tara" is a Sanskrit word (as you thought), but possibly Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit as distinct from classical Sanskrit. (Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit is a quite late form of Sanskrit.) I found "Tara" in a very large dictionary called The Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Dictionary, which tells me that it’s the name of a goddess who is an embodiment of the compassion of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. So, before saying more about Tara, I’d better say a little about Avalokiteshvara. Avalokiteshvara is Great Compassion Bodhisattva. His name is translated two ways in Chinese. In the Heart Sutra (and probably the other Perfection of Wisdom Sutras), Avalokiteshvara is Tsi Tsai Pu Sa. In the Amitabha Sutras and the Lotus Sutra he is Kuan Shih Yin Pu Sa. These two different translations are interesting because they emphasise the different qualities Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara shows in the two kinds of sutras. In the Wisdom Sutras Tsi Tsai Pu Sa is the one who explains the Perfection of Wisdom. He is a great meditator and can explain the nature of reality. In the Lotus Sutra Kuan Shih Yin Pu Sa is the Bodhisattva who can save beings from difficulty. It explains that if you’re in trouble and you call on Kuan Shih Yin Pu Sa, you won’t be harmed. Now to Tara. Tara is understood as an embodiment of the compassion of Avalokiteshvara and she is very like Kuan Shih Yin Pu Sa (except in appearance.) As well, she’s always female. (Kuan Shih Yin Pu Sa is generally thought of as female these days, too.) So, since Tara is said to be an embodiment of the compassion of Avalokiteshvara, and is always female, perhaps she is another form of Kuan Shih Yin Pu Sa? I’ve heard a true story about that, which I’ll put in further down. Tara is the favourite Bodhisattva in the Tibetan tradition. They also have Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, but he is male and not so active. In fact there’s a Tibetan legend that says that Tara was born from one of Avalokiteshvara’s tears. Avalokiteshvara was sad that people were suffering so much and that he couldn’t help them all, and so he created Tara who was young and zippy, so that she could zoom around helping everyone who called on her! All Tibetan Buddhists revere Tara. A statue of her, or her picture, is to be seen in most Tibetan temples. Whenever Tibetans find themselves in a tight spot and want some help to get out of it, they say Tara’s mantra, in the same way that Buddhists in East Asia call on Kuan Shih Yin Pu Sa. Tara and Kuan Shih Yin Pu Sa share many similarities but they are depicted as quite different in appearance. Kuan Shih Yin Pu Sa is very beautiful and motherly, modest and dignified, in long, flowing clothing. Tara is a young, playful, teenage girl, dressed in jewels and just a few thin draperies. Kuan Shih Yin Pu Sa is usually depicted as white in colour, whereas there are lots of forms of Tara, of different colours. The two best-known ones are a green one and a white one. Green Tara is bright emerald green and you’ll probably have seen pictures of her if you’ve ever been to a Tibetan Buddhist centre. It’s Green Tara that people pray to to help them out of difficulties. White Tara is more sedate. Her special power is healing, and people who are sick or dying say her mantra to help them get better or live longer. So, that’s Tara. She’s an embodiment of compassion in action, and Tibetan Buddhists pray to her for help. Now here’s the story I promised you: A friend of mind, a Taiwanese nun, had a very bad accident when she was a teenager. She fell downstairs and crushed her spine. She was in hospital for a long time and it was thought that she mightn’t walk again. She told me that at one point when things seemed very very bad, she dreamed of Kuan Shih Yin Pu Sa. It was a most beautiful dream, and from that time on she started to get better. (Now she walks perfectly well.) The interesting thing about this dream was that in it Kuan Shih Yin Pu Sa wasn’t white, she was green! (At that time my friend had never heard of Tara.) So perhaps Tara and Kuan Shih Yin Pu Sa are different manifestations of the same essence? The differences between them may be just differences of appearance. They both embody the unconditional compassion of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva and they both act out of the same benevolent motivation. Now, to answer the original question: How significant is Tara in Buddhism? She’s enormously significant to Tibetan Buddhists: as significant as Kuan Shih Yin Pu Sa is to East Asian Buddhists. From the point of view of Buddhism in general, she’s significant to everyone who knows about her because she represents Compassion, which is a cornerstone of Buddhist practice.


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November 2005
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