This is the third installment of the 12-part series sharing my understanding of the practice Liberation from Sorrow.
Homage to the Twenty-one Taras
OM Homage to Venerable Arya Tara
The main purpose of reciting the twenty-one homages is to generate faith in Arya Tara. Faith is what gives Buddhas power to help us. It is not they hold back their help waiting for our faith and respect, rather when we generate faith we open the blinds of our mind to allow the sunlight of their blessings to pour in. There are three types of faith: believing faith, admiring faith, and wishing faith. Believing faith believes in the qualities and abilities of holy beings. Admiring faith generates a feeling of wonder, amazed at their incredible good qualities. Wishing faith wishes to be the beneficiary of such power, and superior wishing faith wishes to gain these good qualities ourselves so we can do for others what the holy beings can do for us. The more faith we have, the more powerfully we will receive the blessings of the given Buddha. To paraphrase Lord Acton, faith empowers and absolute faith empowers absolutely.
When we recite the twenty-one homages, we can train in increasing our faith. Typically, we recite the twenty-one homages three times. With the first recitation, we can primarily train in believing faith; with the second recitation, we can focus on admiring faith; and with the final recitation, we can emphasize wishing faith. In this way, we will build up powerful potential energy in our mind for the remainder of the practice.
Praising Tara by her life story
Homage to Tara, the Swift One, the Heroine,
Whose eyes are like a flash of lightning,
Who arose from the opening of a lotus,
Born from the tears of the Protector of the Three Worlds.
Each time we receive a Tara empowerment, we hear Tara’s life story. She has both a common and an uncommon life story. Her common life story is as a bodhisattva, some sexist monk said if she continues in this way, she can pray to be reborn as a man so she can become a Buddha. Upon hearing this, she vowed to always take rebirth in a female form and ultimately attain enlightenment in a female form. She was the first feminist. Her uncommon life story is Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion, wept as he looked at how many beings remained to be liberated. His tears fell into the clear light emptiness, and Arya Tara arose telling him to not worry, she would help him free all living beings. When we recite this verse, it is important to make this personal – she became Tara for us, and so we should generate a feeling of closeness and gratitude.
Praising Tara by the brightness and radiance of her face
Homage to you with a face like a hundred full moons in autumn
Gathered together into one;
Blazing with brilliant light
Like a thousand constellations.
Sometimes people wonder how it is Buddhas can help all living beings directly and simultaneously. There are so many living beings, how exactly can we understand their emanations pervading all worlds? For me, there are two analogies that help, both of which are illustrated by this verse. First, while there is only one moon in the sky, it nonetheless spontaneously reflects on the surface of every body of water in the world without its light being diminished in the process. In the same way, the wisdom moon of Mother Tara shines in the sky of our mind, and spontaneously appears on the surface of every mind of faith in the world. Second, imagine a wheel with countless straw-like spokes. If you shined a light inside any one spoke, it would illuminate just that spoke, but if you moved the light into the hub of the wheel, it would illuminate all of the spokes directly and simultaneously. In the same way, Tara’s brilliant light shines into the spokes of our minds like a thousand constellations.
Praising Tara by her colour, what she holds and her causes
Homage to you who are bluish gold,
Your hand perfectly adorned with a lotus flower;
Who arose from practising giving, moral discipline,
Patience, effort, concentration and wisdom.
Blue generally represents Buddha Akshobya, the completely purified aggregate of consciousness of all the Buddhas; and gold (yellow) represents Buddha Ratnasambhava, the completely purified aggregate of feeling of all the Buddhas. A purified aggregate of consciousness is one that is free from the two obstructions, and a purified aggregate of feeling experiences all phenomena equally as manifestions of bliss and emptiness. By praising Tara as being bluish gold, we recall her purified consciousness and feeling and generate faith. A lotus flower generally symbolizes how an object of complete beauty and purity (a lotus flower) emerges from a contaminated source (the mud in the pond). In the same way, our eventual enlightenment will emerge despite our origin being contaminated. Tara holding a lotus flower symbolizes her power to lead contaminated beings such as ourselves to enlightenment. All Buddhas attain enlightenment in exactly the same way – through training in the six perfections of giving, moral discipline, patience, effort, concentration and wisdom. We sometimes think Buddhas were always enlightened and they are somehow different than the rest of us, but they were suffering sentient beings once as well just like us, and through their practice of the six perfections they attained enlightenment. If we do the same, we too will attain the same results. Recalling Tara’s causes reminds us of that and shows her power to help us train in the six perfections ourselves.
Praising Tara by her being honoured by the Conquerors and the Bodhisattvas
Homage to you who surmount the Tathagatas’ ushnishas,
Whose victorious actions are limitless;
Who are greatly honoured by the Sons of the Conquerors,
Who have attained every perfection.
The primary purpose of this verse is to increase our faith in Tara as an enlightened being. Normally, we view our spiritual guide on our crown. Tara being on the crown of all the Tathagatas indicates that she is the spiritual guide of all the Tathagatas. Victorious actions refer to her victory over the four maras, delusions, and all other objects of abandonment along the path. She is honoured by all the Bodhisattvas (Sons of the Conquerors) because she is their mother, and she has attained every perfection. Considering these qualities, we generate deep faith in her.
Praising Tara by her subduing unfavourable conditions
Homage to you who with the letters TUTTARA and HUM
Fill the realms of desire, direction and space.
With the seven classes of evil spirits beneath your feet,
You are able to draw all beings to bliss.
Here, we imagine that from the mantra rosary at her heart, countless light rays radiate out in all directions, filling the entire universe and dispelling all unfavorable conditions and obstructions to our practice of Dharma. We imagine she is doing this for the benefit of ourself and all living beings. There are countless evil spirits (all empty) who wish to obstruct our Dharma practice, but she is able to overcome them all single-handedly. Through her powerful actions, we then imagine she draws all living beings into the bliss of her Dharmakaya where they are perfectly freed from all unfavorable conditions.
Praising Tara by her being worshipped by the great worldly gods
Homage to you who are worshipped by Indra, Agni,
Brahma, Vayu, and the other mighty gods;
And before whom the host of evil spirits,
Zombies, smell-eaters and givers of harm respectfully offer praise.
Normally living beings look up to the worldly gods, but worldly gods worship Tara. If we bow to them and they bow to her, then we certainly should also bow to her. Normally we fear evil spirits, but they too offer praise and respect to Tara. We would think evil spirits would also fear Tara since she is the opposite of evil and has the power to overcome them, but she is so loving and skillful, even her would-be enemies respectfully offer her praise. By relying upon her, we too can gain the ability to earn the respect of those who oppose our virtuous wishes.