Tara, whose name means “star” or “she who ferries across,” is a Bodhisattva of compassion who manifests in female form. In Tibetan, Tara is known as “Dölma” (Sgrol-ma), or “She Who Saves.” In particular she represents compassion in action, since she’s in the process of stepping from her lotus throne in order to help sentient beings.
The syllable Om has no conceptual meaning, and is sound representing the entire universe, past present and future. You can read more about Om on the page discussing the Om shanti shanti shanti mantra.
The central part of Tara’s mantra is a loving play on her name. According to Sangharakshita, a traditional explanation of the mantra is that the variations of her name represent three progressive stages of salvation.
1. Tāre represents salvation from mundane dangers and suffering. Tara is seem as a savioress who can give aid from material threats such as floods, crime, wild animals, and traffic accidents. Tara is therefore said to protect against ordinary worldly dangers.
2. Tuttāre represents deliverance into the spiritual path conceived in terms of individual salvation. In traditional terms, this is the path of the Arhant, which leads to individual liberation from suffering. This is seen in Mahayana Buddhism as a kind of enlightenment in which compassion does not figure strongly. Tara therefore offers individual protection from the spiritual dangers of greed, hatred, and delusion: the three factors that cause us individual suffering.
3. Lastly, ture represents the culmination of the spiritual path in terms of deliverance into the altruistic path of universal salvation – the Bodhisattva path. In the Bodhisattva path we aspire for personal enlightenment, but we also connect compassionately with the sufferings of others, and strive to liberate them at the same time as we seek enlightenment ourselves. Tara therefore delivers us from a narrow conception of the spiritual life. She saves us from the notion that spiritual progress is about narrowly liberating ourselves from our own suffering, and instead leads us to see that true spiritual progress involves having compassion for others.
By the time we have been liberated from mundane dangers, liberated from a narrow conception of the spiritual path, and led to a realization of compassion, we have effectively become Tara. In Buddhist practice the “deities” represent our own inner potential. We are all potentially Tara. We can all become Tara.
Svaha, according to Monier Monier-William’s Sanskrit Dictionary, means: “Hail!”, “Hail to!” or “May a blessing rest on!” We could see this final blessing as symbolizing the recognition that we are, ultimately, Tara.
Her mantra can therefore be rendered as something like “OM! Hail to Tara (in her three roles as a savioress)!” although this may one of those occasions when the mantra is best left untranslated, because the words have no “meaning” in the normal sense of the word. Instead they are more like a play on her name, like variations in a piece of music by Bach or like improvisations in a piece of jazz music.
There’s a more literal meaning of the mantra as well:
“Tare” is the vocative form of Tara, so it means “O Tara!”
“Tu” is an exclamation that can mean “pray! I beg, do, now, then,” and so “tuttare” could mean something like “I entreat you, O Tara” or “I beg you, O Tara.”
“Ture” is probably the vocative form of “tura,” which means “quick, willing, prompt,” and so it would mean something like “O swift one!”
So the mantra could be rendered as “OM! O Tara! I entreat you, O Tara! O swift one! Hail!
Click below to hear an MP3 version of the Green Tara Mantra:
Tara means “star,” “planet,” or “she who ferries across.” She is a bodhisattva embodying compassion in the female form of a young goddess. She is often considered to be such an advanced bodhisattva that she is actually a Buddha.
Tara’s name is said to derive from the verb meaning “to cross” or “to traverse”. In Pali the verb tarati means “to get to the other side.” This word is cognate with the Latin “trans” (across). The word Tara also literally means “star.”
An interesting overlap between these two senses is the use of stars in navigation. The Pole Star, used at least for millennia to guide travelers, was known as Dhruva-Tara (the immovable star). Tara becomes a focal point on the far shore that helps us guide our lives in a safe direction. We can take her enlightened qualities of wisdom and compassion as our guide, moment by moment, as we navigate our lives.
A third meaning of “tara” is “the pupil of the eye,” again suggesting a focal point and conveying a sense that Tara watches over those who navigate the treacherous waters of life in search of the further shore of liberation.
Tara’s name in Tibetan is Dölma, which means “She Who Saves.” She is seen as guarding against the Eight Great Terrors of lions, elephants, fire, snakes, robbers, imprisonment, shipwreck or drowning, and man-eating demons. In each case these terrors are symbolic of spiritual dangers. For example, the First Dalai Lama described the demons against which Tara offers protection as being our self-consuming spiritual doubts.
The most striking thing about Tara is also the most obvious: she is female. While there are many female representations of enlightenment, most are relatively obscure and male forms predominate. Tara, however, is very well known and is one of the most popular Buddhist deities in the Mahayana world, outside of the Far East, where Kwan Yin, the female form of Avalokiteshvara, predominates.
To westerners, having a female form representing compassion may seem natural, but it should be remembered that in traditional Buddhist iconography the male form tends to represent compassion while the female form more often represents wisdom. Tara bucks that trend.
Traditionally, even in Buddhism, which has seen countless enlightened women, the female form has most often been seen as disadvantageous for the pursuit of the spiritual life compared to the male form, to the extent that female spiritual aspirants often aspire to be reborn in male form to help them in their future spiritual endeavors.
There is an important sense, however, in which Tara is not female and in which the “male” Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are not male. Enlightened beings are said to be beyond the limiting conditions of ordinary human consciousness, and are not defined by the gender of their body. Gender is seen in Mahayana Buddhism as being a psycho-social construct that can be transcended. An important passage in the Vimalakirti Nirdesa, an important Mahayana Sutra, illustrates this.
In the story, Shariputra, the foremost in wisdom of the Buddha’s human disciples, is in conversation with an unnamed “goddess” who is immeasurably his spiritual superior. Shariputra, trapped by his dualistic thinking, asks the goddess, “Goddess, what prevents you from transforming yourself out of your female state?” He assumes of course that the female form is a hindrance.
The goddess replies, “Although I have sought my “female state” for these twelve years, I have not yet found it.” The goddess does not see herself as female, or Shariputra as male, because she has transcended limiting thinking, has transcended socio-cultural conditioning, and has even gone beyond any biological conditioning.
The goddess then seriously messes with Shariputra by transforming herself into his form and transforming him into a female. She says:
“All women appear in the form of women in just the same way as the elder appears in the form of a woman. While they are not women in reality, they appear in the form of women. With this in mind, the Buddha said, ‘In all things, there is neither male nor female.'”
Although the goddess is not named, she may have been a prototype for the much later emergence of Tara herself, who is said to have spoken the following words in her earlier incarnation as Jnanachandra:
Here there is no man, there is no woman,
No self, no person, and no consciousness.
The labels ‘male’ or ‘female’ have no essence,
But deceive the evil-minded world.
The other striking thing about Tara is her greenness. She is represented as a beautiful, often voluptuous, sixteen-year-old woman, clad is silks and jewels: a highly attractive figure. And yet the color of her skin is green, and this surely clashes with her otherwise attractive appearance.
Tara is associated with the color green in a number of ways. First, as we will see when we consider Tara’s origins, in one myth she is said to have been given her name by Amoghasiddhi Buddha, who is himself green. Tara is Amoghasiddhi’s spiritual consort.
Secondly, both Tara and Amoghasiddhi are connected, in the Five-Buddha Mandala, with the element Air, which is itself associated with that color.
Thirdly, Green Tara is a forest goddess, and in one story is shown as being clad in leaves. Her Pure Land, in distinction to others that are composed of precious gems, is said to be lush and verdant:
Covered with manifold trees and creepers, resounding with the sound of many birds,
And with murmur of waterfalls, thronged with wild beasts of many kinds;
Many species of flowers grow everywhere.
She is therefore a female form of the “Green Man” figure who is found carved in many European churches and cathedrals, and who is found in the Islamic traditions as the figure Al-Khidr.
Tara holds an utpala, or blue lotus, in her right hand, which is held at chest level. This hand is simultaneously in the vitarka, or teaching mudra. Tara may save, but the beneficiaries of her protective powers learn to save themselves through following her teachings!
The utpala is a night-blooming flower, and so Tara protects at the time of greatest fear, during both literal darkness and while we are in the darkness of ignorance.
The core significance of the lotus flower is that it remains unstained even in the most contaminated environments. Early Buddhist texts often refer to the fact that water simply runs off of a lotus. The Dhammapada, an early Buddhist teaching, refers to the unstained nature of the lotus in this way:
58. Yathā saṅkāradhānasmiṃ
Padumaṃ tattha jāyetha
59. Evaṃ saṅkārabhūtesu
58. As upon a heap of rubbish,
Thrown out by the highway,
May grow a lotus
Delightful and of pure scent,
59. So, among defiled beings,
Among blind, unawakened beings,
The disciple of the Fully and Perfectly Awakened One
Shines with wisdom.
The lotus has therefore, since the earliest days of Buddhism, and probably even before then, signified the way in which awakened wisdom can exist in the world without being contaminated by it.
Tara statue (Akuppa)
Tara’s left hand is in the varada mudra, or gesture of giving (for more on mudras see the section on Shakyamuni Buddha). Tara makes of herself a gift to the world. She is an advanced Bodhisattva whose entire life is devoted to helping others.
The origins of Tara are, as with most Bodhisattvas, obscure and sometimes contradictory. Since we’re dealing with a realm of myth and imagination, however, contradictions merely add richness!
In one myth, Avalokitesvara was looking at the world in compassion (the literal meaning of his name is “The Lord Who Looks Down”) and saw innumerable beings suffering. He saw the pains involved at birth. He saw old age, sickness, and death. He saw beings suffering because they lacked what they wanted, and saw them suffering because they were burdened by things they did not want. He saw beings seeking happiness but creating suffering, and saw beings trying to avoid suffering but running headlong into it.
Since Avalokiteshvara had expended a vast amount of energy trying to liberate innumerable beings from the sufferings of existence, and since there were still uncountable beings suffering, he began to weep. His tears flowed down, and kept flowing until they had created a vast lake.
Then out of this lake — the quintessence of Avalokiteshvara’s compassion — arose a blue utpala lotus, and on this lotus appeared a 16-year-old girl in the form of a goddess. This was Tara.
In another myth, in a time long ago Tara was known as Jñānacandrā or Moon of Wisdom. She vowed that, rather than take the traditionally more advantageous form of a man in her future lives, she would continue to manifest in female form in order to save sentient beings. As a result of her prowess, the Buddha Amoghasiddhi gave her the name Tārā, or “Savioress.”
Historically, there is no record of Tara before around the 5th or 6th century C.E. She seems to have evolved from the early Brahminical goddess Durgā [Durgaa] (“difficult or narrow passage”) with whom she shares many attributes and names. According to the Hindu classic, the Mahābhārata, Durgā gets her name because she rescues people from difficult passage. This version of Durgā is not the same as the later warrior-goddess!
As might be imagined, Tara first appeared in India. She is one of the most popular Buddhist deities in Tibet, and it’s said that her mantra is second only to Avalokiteshvara’s. Although her form spread to the far east, the presence of Kwan-Yin, a female form of Avalokiteshvara, seems to have filled the “ecological niche” of the compassionate female bodhisattva.
There are many forms of Tara, each of a different color. The most common besides the green form are White Tara (whose compassion is mainly focused on offering protection against and during sickness and old age), and Red Tara, who, according to John Myrdhin Reynolds, uses her “enchantment and bewitchment to bring under her power those evil spirits, demons, and humans who work against the welfare of humanity and its spiritual evolution.”
Tara is, not surprisingly, very popular amongst women in both East and West. A women’s retreat center in Shropshire, UK, is named Taraloka (The Realm of Tara) in her honor.