Homage to the 21 Taras
The Twenty-one Praises of TARA
Tara is a completely enlightened buddha who had previously promised to appear, after enlightenment, in the form of a female bodhisattva and goddess for the benefit of all beings. Her primary activity is to protect from the eight fears. Practiced in all Schools of Tibetan Buddhism her various forms are found in all classes of tantra - Nyingma and Sarma.
Tara (Star) or simply Drol-ma in Tibetan, goddess of protection and compassion, worshipped by Vajrayanists worldwide. One of the widest worshipped deity in Tibet, Tara is the bodhisattva representing the miraculous activities of all buddhas. In myth she is born from Chenrezig's (sanskrit: Avalokitesvara, the male counterpart similar to Tara) tears of compassion or from her own vow to be enlightened and stay a woman. There are innumerable manifestations of Tara, manifesting in so many ways as sentient beings may require, but her most famous are the peaceful WHITE TARA, who brings protection, long life and peace; and the dynamic GREEN TARA, who overcomes obstacles and saves beings in dangerous situations in the most immediate manner. Tara also manifests in the 21 forms of Taras.
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All Tara images courtesy
We are including Green Tara as the number one here, since she is considered by all systems to be the "originator" from which all other Taras emanate, although she is usually not included in the 21. With several lineages by which the 21 Taras are categorized, there is no universal agreement on their names, the order in which they appear, or even on all of their faculties and powers, so we will present them here in as complete fashion as we are able, recognizing that there will be mistakes of omission and probably of commission as well. (We beg forgiveness, and encourage more knowledgeable readers to send us their suggestions or corrections.)
However, for the purpose of the practice of the "Twenty-one Praises of Tara", it is not necessary for all of the deities' images and information to be in order. These are only presented so as to give the reader a good feel for all of the Taras and to illustrate their salient features.
But first, a bit of background and history:
Origin of the cult of Tara
The view that the divine bodhisattva known by the name Tara assimilates the various characteristics and qualities of several goddesses of the Himalayan regions, from tribal snake deities to the great Shakti of Hinduism, and of other goddesses from farther a-field, is not a novel one.
Whether this is due to the somewhat outmoded idea of the archetype, or due to cultural drift and diffusion, or to people's general inability to keep specific details in mind is not really important. What is significant and valuable is the profound devotion that people have for Tara and the genuine efficacy of her practice. In times of great difficulty, millions of people call upon "Great Noble Tara."
Not everyone agrees on how she should be depicted, however, and perhaps that in itself is significant. Stephen Beyer, in "The Cult of Tara", reported that until some even very experienced Tibetan artists were shown the details of the 21 Taras as illustrated in foreign texts, they often did not know or could not recall which colors, gestures and symbolic items belonged together. Also there seem to be waves of popularity for different lineage teachings of her practice, some claiming origin with one or another famous teacher of the past and others none at all. That is, some versions of her ritual worship [Sanskrit: sadhana] or practice are regarded as "termas" - tantric texts revealed or uncovered by gifted individuals under extraordinary circumstances.
When her cult developed exactly is unknown. The Chinese pilgrim Hsuan Tsang, who visited northern India between 633 and 645, reports without describing, a "Tolo" image in a temple near Nalanda Buddhist University to which the general population was particularly devoted.
The Sanskrit root tār-means "to traverse" or "cross over" as in using a bridge to ford a stream. In the orthodox Indian sacred tradition, Tārā refers to the second of Ten Means to Realization. And as Shri Tara Devi she is the deification of that Mahavidya, according to Hindu Tantra. As a Tārīni, she carries you across; she serves as a bridge for you to get to immortality. But the root tar- can mean "tree," and "particularly," and it is also related to "star" and to "pupil of the eye."
In Tibetan, she is called Dolma or Do'ma, though often we see Drolma because it follows the Tibetan spelling a little more; (if we transliterate, it is actually sgrolma.)
Origin of the Ritual Practice of Tara
There exist two different scholarly Tibetan traditions as to which teacher was first responsible for introducing her practice. Evidence is strong that in the tenjur of Tibetan king Trisong Deutsen (reigned 755-797) there were only 3 works concerning Tara, but they were not translated for general use. These were: the incantations called Mother of Avalokiteshvara and 108 Names of the Goddess Tara, and Chandragomin's "Praises of the Noble Tara Who Saves From all Great Terrors".
It is generally agreed that it was not until Atisha arrived in Tibet in 1042 that her cult was introduced. He claimed that it was Tara who prophesied that his life would be shortened by his going to Tibet, but that he would, by undertaking that duty to the dharma, greatly benefit beings and one devotee in particular. That person was Dromton [or bromton] who built a temple to Tara that was standing at Nyetang at least until the late 1970's.
Of Atisha's 117 works, only 4 are about Tara. Also, of the 77 Indian works he translated, only 6 are about her. It is noteworthy that, according to Beyer, all of the White Tara lineages derive from his translation of 3 of Vagishvarakirti's works in the larger cycle known as 'Cheating Death.' The White Tara tradition stems from that writer's own revelations and not from the tantric tradition said to have originated with the Buddha.
The orthodox Buddhist tantric tradition was not deemed appropriate for general dissemination in the 11th century which was a time of reform. It took another 400 years it to be revived, or at least, widely disseminated which it was under Taranatha (fl. 1600) according to the Tibetan historian, Zhunnupe.
The 21 Praises to Tara, though, were brought from India in the 11th century by Darmadra of Nyen, according to Drugpa Jetsen, abbot of the Sakya monastery who wrote a commentary a century later. He, himself, wrote 13 works on Tara.
All denominations will call upon Green Tara in times of necessity. According to Beyer whose informants were Drugpa Kagyu, the Kagyu consider there is a special relationship with White Tara via Gampopa (fl. 1100.) The superior, contemporary tantric master Ven. Tenga Rinpoche maintains that lineage. But Kagyu temples everywhere begin the day with the four-mandala offering to Green Tara.
In a world known as Various Lights, there was a Buddha called Dundubh-ishvara [Lord of the Sound of Drums] and he had a devotee, a princess called Jnanachandra [Wisdom Moon.] For many ages, she made offerings to him, and to the 'hearers' and bodhisattvas, until finally there arose in her the determination to, herself, become a buddha. She was advised that she would first have to seek a rebirth in a male body, for who had ever heard of a female buddha?
"Nonsense," she thought. "What difference does the form of the body matter? In fact, to dispel this incorrect notion from the minds of certain beings, I will forever be reborn as a female!"
Then Wisdom Moon sat determinedly in meditation for many ages. She attained the knowledge that events do not arise, and the state called Saving All Beings. Every morning before she had taken food, she introduced and fixed innumerable beings in the state of acceptance; every evening she did the same, and so she became known as Tara the Saviour.
Reborn into the realm of Buddha Amoghasiddi in the era called Vastly Extended, Tara took another vow before him: She determined to protect the sentient beings of the infinite worlds of all ten directions from harm. She settled into the state of meditation called 'Defeating all Maras,' and during the day, fixed in contemplation innumerable heavenly rulers of beings, and in the night, also those of the heaven of power of vision over others. She became known as Tara the Swift, and Tara the Heroine.
Then, in the era called Beginningless, a monk whose name was Stainless Light was empowered via the light of compassion of all the tathagathas [buddhas] and became Avalokiteshvara (Lord of the World, called in Tibetan, Chenresi or Chenrezig). In him, two lights emanating from all the buddhas - that of Understanding and that of Compassion, united as a father and mother. These lights, these initiatory energies, engendered Tara who was then born from the heart of the Lord of the World 'as a bud from the lotus.'
That is how Tara is understood to have come to us - out of Emptiness, but by the merit of her devotion and her determination which, manifesting as care, finds its way through the union of wisdom and compassion to all sentient beings.
With some history and background taken care of, let us continue and get to know the "Twenty-one Taras". Then we will offer a complete "ritual" of "The Twenty-one Praises of Tara", as well as additional reference material on Tara.
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In Tibetan culture, and some others, green is considered to include all the other colors.
Green Tara is typically pictured as a dark, green-skinned young girl. She usually wears striped leggings but above, only her shoulders are covered. She wears the many characteristic ornaments of the samboghakaya.
Green Tara has her right foot extended as if about to rise. Her left hand, in the gesture of granting refuge holds the stem of a blue water lily or utpala that waves over her left shoulder while her right hand also holding a flower, offers that which we desire, a boon.
The practice of Green Tara helps to overcome fear and anxiety, but devotees also believe that she can grant wishes, eliminate suffering of all kinds and bring happiness.
When called upon, she instantaneously saves us from eight specific calamities. (Another lineage describes 16.) The First Dalai Lama lists the 8, and interprets them as representative of corresponding defects, flaws, or obscurations:
As we shall see, all of the Taras' qualities and powers should be interpreted in like manner. (Unless you actually need protection from elephants and lions!)
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