Happy Tara Day: Tara can dispel all outer and inner obstacles

This is the sixth installment of the 12-part series sharing my understanding of the practice Liberation from Sorrow.

Praising Tara by her divine actions of dispelling conflicts and bad dreams

Homage to you who are honoured by the kings of the hosts of gods,
And the gods and the kinnaras.
Through your joyful and shining pervasive armour
All conflicts and bad dreams are dispelled.

These are particularly practical ways we can rely upon Tara.  We all, from time to time, experience conflict and bad dreams in our life.  Every time we find ourself in some sort of conflict, we can recall Tara’s swift ability to dispel conflicts, and recite her mantra with strong faith requesting that she do so.  Ultimately, all conflict is sustained by anger, attachment, and self-grasping – in either ourself of those we are in a conflict with (usually both).  When we recite her mantra, we should request that she dispel the inner causes of our conflict from all concerned.  For myself, much of my work revolves around the U.S.-China relationship, which is obviously plagued by different types of conflict.  To help dispel this conflict, I try generate pure view of the Consulate I work for and my boss as emanations of Tara and request that through them both, all conflict between China and the United States can be dispelled. 

Tara is also helpful for dispelling bad dreams.  When I was very young, I had a few particularly scary bad dreams, and became terrified of having more.  Every night when I would go to sleep, I would pray, “please please please please (repeated millions of times) protect me from bad dreams.”  It actually worked, and after I started praying like this when I went to bed, I had very few bad dreams.  Later, when I became a father myself, my kids started having bad dreams, and I taught them Tara’s mantra and gave them small Tara statues to hold in their hand as they went to sleep to protect them against bad dreams.  Their bad dreams became much less afterwards, almost without fail.

Praising Tara by her divine actions of dispelling diseases

Homage to you whose two eyes, like the sun or the full moon,
Radiate a pure, clear light.
Saying HARA twice and TUTTARA,
You dispel the most violent, infectious diseases.

When the Coronavirus first broke out, Geshe-la advised Kadampas around the world to do Tara practice due to her power to dispel violent, infectious diseases.  Some centers did 24-hour Tara pujas on Tara day every month for some time.  The way these work is every four hours, one engages in the Liberation from Sorrow sadhana, and recites the praises to the twenty-one Taras seven times each session.  While it is true the coronavirus still spread all over the world, but we cannot say it would not have spread worse if such actions were not performed.  If we have faith in Tara, there is no doubt that such actions help and perhaps saved many, many lives. 

Praising Tara by her divine actions of subduing evil spirits and zombies

Homage to you who have the perfect power of pacifying
Through your blessing of the three thatnesses;
Subduer of the hosts of evil spirits, zombies and givers of harm,
O TURE, most excellent and supreme!

In many ways, this verse is like the summary of all of the previous verses.  It refers to her power to pacify, bestow blessings (in particular of the wisdom realizing emptiness, or thatness), and subdue outer and inner obstructions.  She truly is most excellent and supreme!

This concludes the praise of the root mantra
And the twenty-one homages.

Normally, we talk of these praises as to the twenthy-one Taras, but here we are also reminded that these are also praises of Tara’s mantra.  In Buddhism, we often describe things as existing at gross, subtle, and very subtle levels.  Green Tara is the gross deity, her mantra is like a subtle emanation of Tara, and the Dharmakaya is the very subtle version of Tara.  In this way, we can understand the mantra as like a bridge between the Tara we normally know and definitive Tara.  With sufficient faith in and understanding the nature of the mantra, reciting the mantra has exactly the same function and power as reciting the twenty-one homages. 

Benefits of recitation of this Sutra

The wise who recite this with strong faith
And perfect devotion to the Goddess,
In the evening and upon arising at dawn,
Will be granted complete fearlessness by remembering her.

A qualified mind of refuge has two main parts, fear of samsara and faith in the three jewels.  Normally, we don’t have much difficulty generating faith, but for our faith to have any meaning, it must be informed by an appropriate fear of samsara.  Without this, our Dharma practice just becomes feel-goodism.  But with healthy wisdom fears of samsara and faith in the three jewels, we are pushed to engage in Dharma practices, such as replying upon Mother Tara.  Through this we attain fearlessness in two ways.  First, because we will have a powerful protector at our side; and second, because we will gain inner Dharma realizations, which provide us with permanent protection from all suffering.  In particular, we need the wisdom that knows how to transform adversity into the path to enlightenment.  Normally we fear things that can harm us.  Most of samsara’s sufferings can harm us only because we don’t know how to transform experiencing them into causes of our enlightenment.  But through relying upon Tara, we can gain this wisdom, and then we will have nothing to fear.  We receive this protection merely “by remembering her” because wherever you imagine a Buddha, a Buddha actually goes; and wherever a Buddha goes, they perform their function, which is to bestow blessings.  In other words, by merely remembering Tara, she comes swiftly to our side and then blesses our mind to gain wisdom realizations.  The sadhana says we need to rely upon her with perfect devotion.  What does that mean practically?  It means we move beyond simply having faith in her to actively working to accomplish her wishes in the world.  Somebody who is devoted moves beyond inner faith to practical action.  Tara’s main wish is for the pure Kadam Lamrim of Atisha flourish throughout the world, both externally and internally.  If we are to enjoy complete fearlessness, we need to not only rely upon her, but to actively devote ourselves to realizing her pure wishes.

Through the complete purification of all negativity
They will destroy all paths to the lower realms.
They will swiftly be granted empowerment
By the seventy million Conquerors.

The cause of lower rebirth is negative karma on our mind.  The quality of mind we generate at the moment of our death determines the quality of our next rebirth – a negative mind will activate negative karma resulting in a lower rebirth, a positive mind will active virtuous karma resulting in an upper rebirth, and a pure mind will active pure karma resulting in a rebirth outside of samsara.  Avoiding a negative mind at the time of death will help protect us from a lower rebirth, but the only way to destroy all paths to the lower realms is through the complete purification of all our negative karma.  If we have no negative karma remaining on our mind, even if we generate a negative mind at the time of death, there will be no negative throwing karma to activate and it will be impossible for us to take lower rebirth.  Tara’s blessings can help us purify swiftly all of our negative karma, and we can recite her mantra as a practice of purification similar to Vajrasattva practice. 

Relying upon Tara also creates the causes for us to receive the empowerments of all the Buddhas.  What is an empowerment?  During an empowerment, our Spiritual Guide places within our mental continuum a personalized emanation of the deity who will remain with us between now and our eventual attainment of that deity.  This emanation is our personal yidam, or personal deity.  By virtue of this emanation, we can gradually learn to identify with the pure body and mind of the deity and gain the ability to use these as if they were our own.  Tara is the mother of all Buddhas, and all Buddhas respect and are devoted to their mother.  When we rely upon Tara, all of her children – the Buddhas – then come into action to help fulfill their mother’s wish for us.  They do so by granting us empowerment.

Happy Tara Day: Causing the three worlds to shake

This is the fifth installment of the 12-part series sharing my understanding of the practice Liberation from Sorrow.

Praising Tara by the light that radiates from the letter HUM

Homage to you who strike the ground with the palm of your hand
And stamp it with your foot.
With a wrathful glance and letter HUM,
You subdue all seven levels.

This also refers to Tara’s ability to engage in wrathful actions and can be understood from the above.  I’m not sure what the seven levels are.

Praising Tara by her Dharmakaya aspect

Homage to you who are happy, virtuous and peaceful,
Within the sphere of the peace of nirvana.
Fully endowed with SÖHA and OM,
You completely destroy heavy evil actions.

This verse refers to definitive Tara.  The conventional Tara is the green deity we know and love.  She manifests this form so that living beings can more easily develop a relationship with her.  But actual Tara is Dhamakaya Tara, or Truth Body Tara.  This is definitive Tara.  The Dharmakaya is a Tara’s realization of great bliss mixed inseparably from the emptiness of all phenomena.  She is referred to as the mother of all Buddhas because all Buddhas arise out of her Dharmakaya – she gives birth to them from her realization of bliss and emptiness.  What does the Dharmakaya feel like?  Happy, virtuous, and peaceful.  This is her inner pure land, and anytime we ourselves feel happy, virtuous, or peaceful, we are experiencing a similitude of her pure land.

Praising Tara by her divine actions of peaceful and wrathful mantras

Homage to you who completely subdue the obstructions
Of those who delight in the Dharma Wheel;
Rescuing with the array of the ten-letter mantra
And the knowledge-letter HUM.

Peaceful actions refer to a Buddha’s ability to pacify negativity, delusions, or their imprints in either ourselves or in others.  All living beings possess Buddha nature.  What does this mean?  It means we all possess within ourselves the potential for an enlightened mind, and all we need to do is purify our mind of all that defiles it and our natural enlightened state will be unleashed or uncovered.  What is our mind defiled by?  Principally three things:  negative karma, delusions, and their imprints.  Technically negative karma is also an imprint of a delusion which is why we normally say the “two obstructions,” referring to delusions and their imprints.  But from a practical point of view, we place particular emphasis in the early stages of our practice on purifying our negative karma (lower scope meditations), then overcoming our delusions (intermediate scope meditations), and finally the remainder of our contaminated karma (great scope meditations).  Tara can help us pacify all three of these, as explained by her ten-letter mantra whose principal function is to bestow all of the Lamrim meditations.  According to Tantra, the two main objects to be pacified are ordinary appearances and ordinary conceptions.  Ordinary appearances are phenomena appearing to exist independently of our mind (the things we normally see), and ordinary conceptions are grasping at the wrong belief that objects do in fact exist in the way that they appear.  For example, when we think of ourself, we see our ordinary body and mind.  This is an ordinary appearance.  When we grasp at them actually being ourselves, this is an ordinary conception.  Tara also has the power to pacify all our ordinary appearances and conceptions.

Praising Tara by her divine actions of wrathfully shaking the three worlds

Homage to TURE, stamping your feet,
Born from the seed in the aspect of HUM,
Who cause Mount Meru, Mandhara and Vindhya,
And all the three worlds to shake.

Buddhist cosmology is incredibly vast.  The universe as we know it actually only one world system.  There are the thousand worlds, which is a thousand world systems or universes as we know them.  There are the two thousand worlds, which is a thousand of the thousand worlds, or one million universes.  And there are the three thousand worlds, which is a thousand of the two thousand worlds, or one trillion universes.  In truth, there are countless universes, and the three thousand worlds is a shorthand for implying countless that makes it somewhat easier to grasp.  Just as the stars in the sky form galaxies, super clusters, and so forth, the three thousand worlds also cluster together and are arranged in different ways, so too the three thousand worlds cluster together and are arranged in particular way.  In the center of the three thousand worlds is Mount Meru, which is actually comprised of countless different pure lands at different levels of purity, such as the Land of 33 Heavens where Buddha went to teach his mother after she took rebirth there.  At the top of Mount Meru is Heruka’s celestial mansion.  Surrounding Mount Meru are the four major and eight minor continents, like an archipelago of different clusters of universes – they can be likened to superclusters of galaxies.  The universe that we live in is simply one of many universes in what is known as the Eastern continent, but is in reality just a cluster of universes.  Traditional cosmology as we know it just talks of our one universe where the Big Bang unfolded, but this one universe is as insignificant as our own planet is in our universe.  The vastness of Buddhist cosmology is almost beyond comprehension.  Interestingly, some astrophysicists have a similar view arguing we live in a multiverse, or a n-dimensional multiverse, but they have no idea how these universes are shaped.  Just as the science of quantum physics is gradually catching up with Buddha’s teachings on emptiness, it is only a question of time before science catches up with Buddha’s teachings on cosmology.  Tara’s blessings and power pervade everywhere.  Vajrayogini and Tara are actually the same being, just appearing at two different levels – Action Tantra version as Green Tara and Highest Yoga Tantra version of Red Vajrayogini.  Vajrayogini is in union with Heruka inside his celestial mansion atop Mount Meru and her wisdom is able to cause all three thousand worlds to shake!

Praising Tara by her divine actions of dispelling internal and external poisons

Homage to you who hold in your hand
A moon, the lake of the gods;
Saying TARA twice and the letter PHAT,
You completely dispel all poisons.

Conventionally, Tara’s blessings are particularly powerful at dispelling external poisons, such as those we might ingest.  I personally suffer from terrible allergies, some of which are deadly.  When I have a strong allergic reaction to something I eat, I of course take my Benadryl or other allergy medications, but I also recite with great faith Tara’s mantra requesting that she protect me.  Those who have allergies can do the same, even allergies as light as hay fever.  But principally, Tara’s blessing dispel the inner poisons of our delusions.  Outer poisons can at most harm us in this one life, but the inner poisons of our delusions harm us in all our future lives.  Considering our delusions to be inner poisons is a particularly powerful way of thinking of them.  If we ingested an external poison, we would do everything we can as quickly as we could get rid of it from our body or to take an antidote.  But we would never think that the poison is us, we see clearly the difference between the poison and ourselves.  In the same way, our delusions are not us, but they do terrible harm to us, and we should feel great urgency to purge them from our system.  Tara is the antidote to all of the inner poisons of delusions.  She is known as the Lamrim Buddha because she helps Atisha’s followers and her blessings specifically function to bestow Lamrim realizations.  Lamrim is like a net of virtuous minds that functions to oppose all delusions directly or indirectly.  By weaving the Lamrim within our mind, we protect ourselves against any possible combination of delusions, and thus achieve protection from all inner poisons.  

Happy Tara Day: How to ignite Tara’s fierce and raging fire in our life

This is the fourth installment of the 12-part series sharing my understanding of the practice Liberation from Sorrow.

Praising Tara by her destroying opponents

Homage to you who by saying TRÄ and PHAT
Completely destroy the obstructions of enemies.
You suppress with your right leg drawn in and your left extended,
And blaze with a fierce and raging fire.

I think there are two ways we can understand this.  First, her wisdom blessings act like a fierce and raging fire that radiate out in all directions like a protection circle, dispelling all obstructions of enemies, keeping them at bay.  Second, because she is a Buddha she has universal compassion even for those who would oppose the Dharma.  To destroy the obstructions of enemies means she has the power to destroy the delusion obstructions and the obstructions to omniscience of her would-be enemies.  Geshe-la once famously said in Toronto that “Love is the real nuclear bomb that destroys all enemies.”  In the same way, Tara completely destroys opponents by destroying the obstructions to enlightenment on their minds.  This shows her skill in loving living beings while directing wrathful energy against their delusions.

Praising Tara by her purifying demons and the two obstructions

Homage to TURE, extremely fearsome one,
Who completely destroy the chief of demons.
With the wrathful expression on your lotus face
You vanquish all foes without exception.

Where do demons come from?  They are mere karmic appearances to mind, ripening from our negative karma.  The way to actually destroy all demons is to purify the negative karma that sees or appears anybody as a demon.  Nobody is a demon from their own side, they only become such when we view them with a deluded, contaminated mind.  This is how she purifies all demons.  It also says she vanquishes all foes without exception.  In Buddhism, there are no outer enemies, only inner enemies.  To vanquish all foes without exception, therefore, refers to her ability to vanquish the inner enemies of the two obstructions – delusions and their imprints.

Praising Tara by the objects she holds in her right and left hands

Homage to you whose fingers perfectly adorn your heart
With the mudra symbolizing the Three Precious Jewels.
Adorned with a wheel of all directions
Whose radiant light outshines all.

Buddhas hold different implements in their hands to symbolize their inner qualities and abilities.  Her hand in the mudra symbolizing the Three Precious Jewels indicates that she is the synthesis of all three jewels, and that she also performs the function of all three jewels.  She blesses our mind like a Buddha, she teaches and protects the Kadam Dharma, and she helps us like loving Sangha.  I’m assuming the wheel here refers to the Wheel of Dharma which outshines all because it enables us to escape from samsara.

Praising Tara by her crown ornament and the sound of her laughter

Homage to you whose very joyful and shining crown ornament
Radiates a garland of light;
Who, with your mirthful laughter of TUTTARE,
Subdue the demons and worldly gods.

Here, we can imagine that infinite light rays radiate out from Tara’s crown ornament, bestowing blessings and peace on all living beings.  We can then rejoice in her enlightened actions, wishing to gain the ability to do the same ourselves.  Mirthful laughter means a merry or amused laugh.  We should never underestimate the power of laughter.  More often than not, we take everything too seriously.  This makes us tight and our grasping stronger.  But when we can laugh at the absurdity of samsara, then it takes the sting out of it.  Samsara makes me laugh!  In particular, it is important to be able to laugh at ourselves and our delusions.  This is one of the most powerful ways of cutting the power of our delusions over us because we are able to view them from a distance and laugh at how ridiculous they are.  Being able to laugh at others in a way that also enables them to stop taking themselves or their samsara too seriously is a whole other level of skill at mirthful laughter.  Normally, people can take it wrong that we are laughing at them or their plight, and they can become quickly offended.  But Tara has the ability to use skillful mirthful laughter to even subdue demons and worldly gods, disarming their ill intent or pretension. 

Praising Tara by her accomplishing divine actions through the ten directional guardians

Homage to you who are able to summon
All the directional guardians and their retinues.
Frowning and shaking, with the letter HUM,
You rescue all from their misfortune.

In the Tsog offerings, we invite the directional guardians, evil spirits, zombies, givers of harm, smell-eaters and other such beings from the charnel grounds, offer them Torma and Tsog offerings, bless their mind, and effectively “enlist them” to help Dharma practitioners and flourish the Dharma instead of oppose them.  From a deeper point of view, we imagine that all of these beings are actually emanations of the principal deity sent into the realms of samsara to help the beings in every terrifying corner of the six realms.  From the letter HUM at the heart of the principal deity, light rays radiate out and invite these beings to come before the deity to then work on the deity’s behalf.  When we recite this verse, we can imagine Tara does the same, inviting all such beings from the charnel grounds who come before her, and then commit to working on her behalf to rescue all beings from their misfortune.  In this way, she also rescues these beings themselves from their misfortune by inspiring them to engage in virtuous actions of protecting practitioners.

Praising Tara by her crown ornament

Homage to you with a crescent moon adorning your crown,
And all your ornaments shining brightly;
With Amitabha in your top-knot
Eternally radiating light.

Here we can imagine different details of Tara’s form, recognizing them all as manifestations of her inner realizations.  Buddhas have the ability to manifest their mind as form.  When we engage in checking meditations of different deities, we focus on different aspects of their form recalling the inner realization it represents.  A moon in Buddhism symbolizes the realization of emptiness.  The ornaments of a Buddha’s body typically symbolize their inner realizations of the six perfections.  Amitabha in her top-knot indicates Amitabha is her spiritual guide.  Amitabha is the Vajra Speech of all the Buddhas, and is the same nature as Geshe Langri Tangpa, the author of Eight Verses of Training the Mind, our root text for Lojong practice.  Recalling this, we can generate faith that through our reliance on Tara we will be able to realize emptiness, complete the six perfections, and train in transforming adverse conditions into the path.

Praising Tara by her wrathful posture

Homage to you who dwell amidst a garland of flames
Like the fire at the end of the aeon.
With your right leg extended and left drawn in,
You destroy the hosts of obstructions of those who delight in the Dharma Wheel.

Buddhas engage in four types of enlightened action – pacifying, increasing, controlling, and wrathful actions.  Wrathful actions are forceful actions that skillfully differentiate between the person and their delusions or faults.  They are able to be ruthless with delusions while being loving with the person.  They are like a wisdom anger against the inner objects to be abandoned along the path.  If we fail to make the distinction between the person and their delusions, our wrathful actions are just ordinary anger and usually wind up harming living beings.  Pacifying and increasing actions are relatively easy to do without delusions, controlling actions can be done if we are free from attachment to the other person doing what we want, and wrathful actions can only be performed with compassionate wisdom differentiating clearly the person from their faults.  They also typically require the other person to have faith in us to receive well our wrathful actions, but this isn’t always necessary.  Buddhas are often surrounded by blazing wisdom fires indicating their ability to burn through negativities and protect others with great power.  When we recite this version, we imagine Tara radiates such powerful energy around her like the fire at the end of the aeon.  Her right leg extended symbolizes her ability to swiftly come to the aid of living beings.  Because she is the completely purified wind element, she can move as fast as mind to any object.  If we think of the moon, our mind is instantly there.  But how does it get there?  By being mounted upon winds.  Tara is the wind all virtue is mounted upon.  Her right leg extended shows her swift ability.

Happy Tara Day: How to increase our faith in Tara

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.

Happy Tara Day: Why we turn to Tara

This is the second installment of the 12-part series sharing my understanding of the practice Liberation from Sorrow.

Going for refuge

I and all sentient beings, until we achieve enlightenment,
Go for refuge to Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.   (3x)

Je Tsongkhapa explains the primary causes of going for refuge are fear and faith.  Fear of lower rebirth, samsaric rebirth, or solitary peace; and faith in the three jewels to provide us protection from these fears.  When we engage in Tara practice, even though the refuge prayer we recite is the same as in so many of our other practices, we should mentally generate a specific faith in Tara, understanding her function.  In particular, Tara promised Atisha that in the future she would provide special care for all of his followers.  Atisha is the founder of the Kadampa tradition, and all Kadampas take his Lamrim as our main practice.  Tara is, in many ways, the Buddha of Lamrim.  Her mantra reveals that her main function is to bestow upon our mind the realizations of the initial, intermediate, and great scope of Lamrim, thus protectingus from lower rebirth, samsaric rebirth, and solitary peace.  Viewing her as our spiritual mother and the Buddha of Lamrim, we go for refuge to her with deep faith.

Generating bodhichitta

Through the virtues I collect by giving and other perfections,
May I become a Buddha for the benefit of all.   (3x)

The way we generate bodhichitta is different for each practice we engage in, even if the words we recite are exactly the same.  Of course, our compassionate wish to become a Buddha for the sake of all living beings is the same, but the specific flavor of the bodhichitta we generate will depend upon the practice we are doing.  The difference is identified in how the practice we are about to engage in contributes to our enlightenment based on its uncommon function.  Tara helps us in ways that are different than say Manjushri or Avalokiteshvara, and so generating bodhichitta for Tara practice is different because it is informed by how she helps us.  The more clearly we understand her function, the more precisely we will understand how reliance upon her will help move us towards enlightenment, giving our bodhichitta prayers a unique Tara-like flavor.  What is Tara’s function?  She is our spiritual mother, she helps us gain Lamrim realizations, and she swiftly helps us dispel all fears.  We need a spiritual mother, the lamrim realizations, and fearlessness in order to progress swiftly towards enlightenment.  Wanting these things and understanding her power to help us attain them, we generate bodhichitta.

Generating the four immeasurables

May all sentient beings possess happiness and its causes,
May they be free from suffering and its causes,
May they never be separated from the happiness that is without suffering,
May they abide in equanimity, without feeling close to some out of attachment or distant from others out of hatred.

As with bodhichitta practice, our practice of the four immeasurables should also have a Tara-like flavor when we recite them.  To do so, we should not just generate the four immeasurable wishes in a generic sense, but we should try align ourselves with Tara’s four immeasurable wishes for all living beings.  How Tara feels and experiences these four immeasurable wishes will be informed by her own understanding of her function and how she helps people realize these four wishes.  If we are to align ourselves with Tara’s blessings, we need to not only generate faith in her, but we need to align our motivation with hers.

When Tara thinks may all sentient beings possess happiness and its causes, she does so as a spiritual mother would.  When she thinks may they be free from suffering and its causes, she does so as somebody who has the power to dispel all fears would.  When she wishes everyone never be separated from the happiness without suffering, she does so as somebody who has the power to bestow the lamrim realizations of freedom from lower rebirth, samsaric rebirth, and solitary peace would.  When she wishes everyone abide in equanimity, she does so as a mother would who loves equally all her children and wishes only that they also love each other.  As you engage in the four immeasurables, ask yourself, “how would Tara feel these wishes,” and then try to feel them in the same way she would.  This will make your practice particularly powerful and align your mind more precisely with her blessings.

Inviting Arya Tara

From the supreme abode of Potala,
Born from the green letter TAM,
You who liberate migrators with the light of the letter TAM,
O Tara, please come here together with your retinue.

Potala is her Pure Land.  Definitive Potala is the clear light Dharmakaya of all the Buddhas.  An enlightened mind is the union of the completely purified wind and mind.  The completely purified very subtle wind is the vajra body of the Buddha, and the completely purified very subtle mind is the vajra mind of the Buddha.  When bodhisattvas are progressing along the Tantric grounds, they imagine that out of the Dharmakaya their vajra body (or illusory body) emerges out of the Dharmakaya.  Their very subtle wind takes the form of a seed letter of the future Buddha they are to become.  For Tara, her seed letter is the green letter TAM.  Once a Buddha attains enlightenment, they send out countless emanations and blessings to help all living beings – these are their emanation bodies.  Taken together, this verse means from her inner pure land of Dharmakaya Potala, she emerges as her enjoyment body in the aspect of a letter TAM, which then sends out infinite light rays in all directions ripening and liberating all living beings, who then appear in the aspect of countless Taras surrounding her and the twenty one Taras.

Prostration

Gods and demi-gods bow their crowns
At your lotus feet;
O Liberator from all misfortune,
To you, Mother Tara, I prostrate.

Typically, gods and demi-gods bow to nobody thinking themselves superior to all, but when they are in Tara’s presence, they spontaneously bow their crowns out of respect a her lotus feet.  They do not do so out of fear or political loyalty, but deep respect understanding her to be the Holy Mother of all the Buddhas.  When we recite that she is the Liberator from all misfortune, we understand that she has the power to liberate all beings who are now around us in the aspect of Taras, and we imagine that all beings spontaneously bow down to her out of love and respect to her as our spiritual mother. 

The feeling this evokes for me is like in Game of Thrones with Daenerys Stormborn liberated countless slaves from their masters, and tens of thousands of them spontaneously started calling out to her as Mhysa, their liberating mother.  Tara is our Mhysa, and we imagine all living beings surrounding us feel the same loving respect. 

Happy Tara Day: Getting to know our spiritual mother

The eighth of every month is Tara Day.  Geshe-la once said during a commentary to Tara practice that, “we should make our own commentary” based on our experience.  As my offering to her and to help celebrate her day and to deepen my own relationship with her, over the next twelve months, I will provide my own understanding of the practice Liberation from Sorrow.  Nothing I say should be taken as definitive in any way, I am simply sharing my personal experience of this practice.  I hope others might also share their own experience and understandings of the practice in the comments.  Then, we can all learn from each other.

In the introduction to the Sadhana, Geshe-la says:

Tara is a female Buddha, a manifestation of the ultimate wisdom of all the Buddhas. Each of the Twenty-one Taras is a manifestation of the principal Tara, Green Tara. Tara is also known as the ‘Mother of the Conquerors’.

The ultimate wisdom of all the Buddhas is the wisdom directly realizing the emptiness of all phenomena.  Sometimes we think of emptiness as a state that somehow exists on it’s own – everything is empty – but in reality, it does not exist without a mind realizing it.  Emptiness is also dependent upon the mind realizing it, and so is also empty.  Tara is a being who has imputed her “I” onto the ultimate wisdom of all the Buddhas – she is this ultimate wisdom.  She appears in the aspect of the twenty-one Taras, just like a single diamond can have twenty-one facets to it.  All other Buddhas arise from her ultimate wisdom, just as waves arise from an ocean.  In this sense, she is the Mother of all the Buddhas – they literally emerge from her, she gives birth to them all.

Tara is our common mother, our Holy Mother. When we are young we turn to our worldly mother for help. She protects us from immediate dangers, provides us with all our temporal needs, and guides and encourages us in our learning and personal development. In the same way, during our spiritual growth we need to turn to our Holy Mother, Tara, for refuge. She protects us from all internal and external dangers, she provides us with all the necessary conditions for our spiritual training, and she guides us and inspires us with her blessings as we progress along the spiritual path.

Our spiritual life can begin at any point in our life, sometimes when we are young or sometimes when we are older; but in either case, Tara is our spiritual mother.  She cares for us in the earliest stages of our spiritual life, nurturing it to make sure we eventually ripen into an independent, functioning spiritual adult able to sustain our practice on our own for the rest of our life.  This is why it is especially important for new practitioners to take Tara practice as their main deity practice.  Establishing an early relationship with Tara will ensure that we ripen onto the math in a mature and stable way.  All we need to do is put our faith in her and request that she nurture our spiritual life into spiritual adulthood.

In some New Age circles, they talk about us choosing our parents in this life.  Generally speaking, according to the Kadampa teachings at least, we are trapped in samsara, which means we necessarily take uncontrolled rebirth.  We did not “choose” our parents, we we karmically thrown into rebirth as their child.  It is true that we may have generated attachment for our mother as she was engaging in intercourse with our father, but that is quite different from “choosing” our mother.  Despite this, through reliance upon Tara in this life, we can choose to have her as our spiritual mother in all of our future lives.  The paths of future lives are very uncertain and samsara’s distractions and deceptions are endless, but our spiritual mother can care for us and guide us to the spiritual path, help us enter it, and then once again ripen us into spiritual adulthood.  People buy insurance policies all the time to protect themselves against eventualities.  Reliance upon Tara is like a spiritual insurance policy for making sure we once again find and enter the path in all of our future lives until we attain enlightenment.  Every day, I pray, “May Guru Tara be my eternal mother in all my future lives.” 

Tara’ means ‘Rescuer’. She is so called because she rescues us from the eight outer fears (the fears of lions, elephants, fire, snakes, thieves, water, bondage and evil spirits), and from the eight inner fears (the fears of pride, ignorance, anger, jealousy, wrong views, attachment, miserliness and deluded doubts). Temporarily Tara saves us from the dangers of rebirth in the three lower realms, and ultimately she saves us from the dangers of samsara and solitary peace.

There is a close relationship between the eight outer fears and the eight inner fears – indeed, the eight inner fears create the eight outer fears.  The eight outer fears are not just literal lions, elephants, snakes, and so forth.  Rather, these animals are symbolic of types of outer circumstances which give rise to fear.  Through relying upon Tara, we pacify the eight inner fears, and as a result we no longer fear the eight outer fears.

For example, pride is a mind that thinks we are better than we actually are, or that takes some characteristic we have about ourselves and generates a feeling of superiority over others due to this trait.  Lion-like outer fears are situations that call our exalted view of ourselves into question.  We fear others criticizing us or discovering that we are a fraud.  We try exert our domination or superiority over others and feel threatened by those who challenge our authority or position.  All of the outer things we fear as threats to our status, reputation, or position are fearful to us only because we have the inner fear of pride.

Ignorance has two types, conventional ignorance of not knowing what to do and ultimate ignorance of not knowing how things truly exist.  People’s lives are plagued by the elephant of insecurity and uncertainty.  We don’t know what the day will bring, and we have no idea what karma will ripen.  To try control against these fears, we try gain control and reduce uncertainty, and we fear anything that could increase our insecurity or uncertainty.  All of our outer fears associated with insecurity and uncertainty come from the inner fear of conventional ignorance.  If we knew clearly what objects are to be abandoned and what objects are to be attained, we would not fear an uncertain world because we would always know what to do and how to respond.  We would have confidence in the laws of karma that if we responded wisely to whatever arises, our karmic circumstance would definitely get better, so we would fear nothing.  Further, ultimately, the only reason why we fear anything is because we still grasp at things existing from their own side, independently of our mind as causes of our happiness or suffering.  But if we understood that everything depends upon how we look at it and everything can be transformed into a cause of our enlightenment, we would quite literally have nothing to fear at all.  Thus, eliminating the inner fear of ignorance removes all of our outer fears.

All of the other outer fears are likewise born from the inner fears of anger, jealousy, wrong views, attachment, miserliness, and deluded doubts.  We can think about all of the things that give rise to our anger, jealousy, wrong views, attachment, miserliness, and deluded doubts.  Normally we view these things as our “problems” because they give rise to feelings in our mind.  But if we eliminated these delusions from our mind, then we would no longer have outer fears.

If we rely upon Mother Tara sincerely and with strong faith, she will protect us from all obstacles and fulfil all our wishes. Since she is a wisdom Buddha, and since she is a manifestation of the completely purified wind element, Tara is able to help us very quickly. If we recite the twenty-one verses of praise, we shall receive inconceivable benefits. These praises are very powerful because they are Sutra, the actual words of Buddha. It is good to recite them as often as we can.

The power of any Buddha to help us depends almost entirely upon the strength of our faith.  Faith is like electricity for our spiritual life.  The entire modern world would come to a screeching halt without electricity, in the same way our spiritual life is inert without the electricity of faith.  Faith can also be likened to our sails, and the Buddhas blessings to winds filling our sails.  If our sails are raised and aligned with the pure winds of the Buddhas, we will be blown swiftly towards enlightenment.  Tara is the completely purified wind element, which means the winds of her blessings are particularly powerful and swift.  Through generating faith in her, we will enjoy all of the benefits and protections explained in the sadhana.  Through faith in her, we will come to feel her presence in our life and enjoy her protection, which will increase our faith further in her in a self-fulfilling cycle of enlightenment.