A Commentary by Gelek Rimpoche
A fragment from chapter 1: Introduction
Who is Tara?
The being Tara has been worshipped throughout the Buddhist world. Not only in Tibet, but also in traditional India, China, Japan, everywhere. Wherever Buddhism has traveled – whether as sutrayana alone or in combination with tantra – Tara has been worshipped. Even today in India we find the physical shape of Tara carved in stone or wood everywhere. She has become so popular that antiques-dealers throughout the world have those female figures. She may have a slightly different posture here and there, but that indicates she has been popular. Popular means commonly accepted. ”Commonly accepted” gives you one more criterion, because when a lot of people accept it, it cannot be wrong. It cannot be that everybody is wrong.
In Tibet she is called Drolma, in China Kwan Yin or Kwan Shi Yin. In the Chinese tradition Avalokiteshvara and Tara are combined together and have become a female figure. In the Tibetan tradition and in the Sanskrit tradition in India Avalokiteshvara is seen as a male figure and Tara as a female figure [both being the embodiment of the compassionate activities of all buddhas]. In Mongolia and the areas around half the Tibetan and half the Chinese way is followed; depending on whether it is outer or inner Mongolia. The Japanese tradition calls her Kannon.
The Canon-company is named after Tara. They once invited the Dalai Lama to Japan and took him to their treasury house. The Japanese have so many strict rules! When they invited the Dalai Lama to the treasury house on the way a number of vice-presidents had to be dropped at the different doors. True! At each door the Japanese dropped a vice-president and they told the Tibetans that one of them must stay behind too. It is said that when they were inside, the only people that remained among the Japanese were the president and his executive director, and among the Tibetans His Holiness and his brother. Then they opened this huge safe and what was inside was an image of the secret Avalokiteshvara, red, with consort. And they said ‘This is Kannon!” So even in Japan she is very popular. All the Canon cameras throughout the world are named after her.
Whether or not there is a division between the male, Avalokiteshvara, and the female, Tara, I think is cultural. One thing about Buddhism is that it is always adaptable to the different cultures.
Where does this Tara come from? What is she? How does she function? There are a number of different stories by different masters but the most reliable and commonly accepted source is The origin of the Tara tantra written by Taranatha. That says: At first Avalokiteshvara was very active and busy helping beings. He got almost overwhelmed, worried to the extend of shedding tears. So he said ‘I need help”. It is said in a Hindu-Buddhist mythological story that Avalokiteshvara seeking help and crying, pinched a tear out and threw it away and suddenly Tara appeared out of the tear-drop and said ‘I am here to help you”. It is a long story, but that is what it boils down to.
It is also told that Tara is a human being like we are, who has committed:
a. to help other beings,
b. to help through the physical form of a female,
c. to remain a female throughout.
Why did she choose to remain female? Because of the importance of the feminine energy and because a lot of cultures treat females as inferior, as being of lower quality. That is true throughout the world, like it was true here in the West in the medieval period.
I remember, the first year I came here late Hélène van Hoorn took me sightseeing in Holland and we visited a place where they used to weigh females and give you a certificate ascertaining that you had a certain weight, thus stating you were not a witch. That was done in your own country, just a couple of miles from here and a couple of centuries ago. It is like that in the east, in India, in China, in Tibet, everywhere. Somehow the world-culture in a certain period decided that the female body was inferior. Whatever the reason may be, culture or not, it is there. That is why Tara made the decision that she would like to remain a female and function as an enlightened being in female form. Maybe Tara was the first feminist.
So Tara is very special and particularly very effective. It does not take millions of years to have effect. The second verse of The praise in twenty-one homages, a praise to Tara, you find ‘Homage! Tara, swift, heroic! With regard like instant lightning!” That is her quality of quickness, it does not need a million years to be effective. Therefore it is very special that we can work through Tara.
There are different physical appearances of Tara; some are green, some are white, some are yellow, some are red and they carry different implements. These are what we call manifestations of Tara. One of the twenty-one manifestations of Tara is called ”Swift One”. That does not mean she is the only manifestation that is swift, it means that each manifestation of Tara manifests a different quality.
These different manifestations, Wrathful Tara, Powerful Tara, Peaceful Tara, etc, are all one Tara with different qualities and a different effect on the individual practitioner. This is why these manifestations are there. Red Tara, White Tara and Green Tara and so on are not separate personalities, but at the same time they are not the same personality either. It is the same Tara, but different aspects of her quality have taken different physical forms. We call these nirmanakayas, meaning manifestations and remanifestations and re-remanifestations.
The word manifestation gives you the meaning and message of oneness as well as separateness. Take for example the big rivers. You have big rivers here, right? At some places they go together and at some places they are separate. When you look at them from a certain place you can say there are two different rivers – e.g. the Maas and the Waal – but in some areas you cannot say that this is the Maas and this is the Waal, because there they are going together. When two rivers join, like Maas and Waal join at Maasbommel, then from the point of view of the water you cannot really say: this is water of the Maas and this is water of the Waal; only when they separate you can identify them separately and they will function separately. This is a rough example, but it gives you an idea of a base and its manifestations.
© Jewel Heart 2001