In his devotion to White Tara, Jnanagarbha yearns to be filled with her beauty so that he can make the world a better place.
It is a summer evening in the mountains of southern Spain. Above the occasional whir of an insect’s wings, voices drift on the warm breeze from a shrine room 100 meters away. They are raised in unison, chanting a puja: a ritual of Buddhist worship. As I sit quietly on a sun-chair in the dark I conduct a solitary, silent puja. My eyes rest on the point where the steely rocks marking the southern side of the valley meet the deep, deep blue of the Mediterranean night sky. Little by little, the sky begins to lighten above the cliff wall. Patiently, but with a gentle thrill of excitement, I await the appearance of the Buddha with whom I have made a connection. For tonight is the night of the full moon, and I am conducting a puja to White Tara.
Before my ordination retreat I do not recall ever experiencing a moonrise. The moon is just one of many lights in the urban night. Living for four months in the rustic simplicity of Guhyaloka retreat center in Spain brought me closer to nature and its cycles than I had been before, even though I used to work as a conservationist. As I contemplated the junction between earth and sky on those two full moon nights following my ordination, I was filled with a simple delight when the first gleaming sliver of moon broke the horizon, followed by the rest of her silver orb. Near the horizon the moon appears at its largest, and her progress through the night sky seems at once serene and purposeful. Once she is overhead, far from other points of reference, she seems to rest in perpetual equipoise.
During the Buddha’s lifetime the year was measured by the phases of the moon. Key events of the Buddha’s life — his birth, his attainment of Enlightenment, his first communication of the Dharma and his death — are said to have occurred on the full moon. Today many Buddhist traditions continue to use a lunar calendar to mark the liturgical year, and most Buddhist festivals are held on full moon days. Through these associations the full moon has come to symbolize perfect Enlightenment, so that in their peaceful aspects most Buddha and Bodhisattva figures are depicted sitting on a moon-mat. In parts of the tantric tradition the full moon symbolizes the wisdom aspect of Enlightenment.
It is no surprise, therefore, that White Tara is associated with the moon; her wisdom complementing the compassion of her more famous ‘sister’, Green Tara. In Buddhist symbolism, however, whiteness symbolizes the full spectrum of Enlightened consciousness.
Like Green Tara, White Tara is a beautiful young woman. Her skin is the purest white, and is often compared to the radiance of 100 autumn moons. She wears the Bodhisattva’s adornments — beautiful silks and jeweled ornaments — and she is sometimes said to wear a garland of pure white pearls. Her right hand rests on her right knee, open towards us in the mudra (gesture) of generosity. Her left hand faces us at her heart where it holds the stems of three lotuses — sometimes white but often the blue utpala lotus that opens at night. One is a bud, one is partly opened and the third is in full bloom. This hand is in the mudra of bestowing refuge or protection, although it is sometimes described as the gesture of blessing.
In contrast to her sister, whose right leg is stepping down into the world, White Tara is seated in vajrasana, the full-lotus position. Her most mysterious and unusual aspect, however, is her eyes. They are a beautiful blue and are usually described as dark and long; she also has seven of them. In addition to the usual pair, she has an eye in the sole of each of her upturned feet, one in the palm of each hand, while the seventh and most striking is placed vertically in the center of her forehead. Much of her rich, black hair falls around her shoulders, and above her crescent-moon tiara the remainder is piled into a topknot. The tiara contains the jewels of the five Wisdoms, and enthroned in the topknot sits Amitabha, the deep red Buddha of meditation and love, who is the head of the Lotus family with which White Tara is associated.
Tara sits on a brilliant moon-mat, which rests on a pure white eight-petalled lotus. Behind her is the orb of the full moon, and around her radiate moonbeams and rainbows. The moon is also a universal symbol of the feminine, and White Tara expresses femininity in several aspects of her form. She is sometimes described as ‘the mother of the Buddhas’, and her gesture of generosity can be seen as a maternal, compassionate response to beings. Like a princess she wears a crown and is regally adorned, suggesting nobility, dignity and even mindfulness. Her youth suggests energy and joyful spontaneity.
White Tara reflects a paradox in the spiritual path. The Bodhisattva is committed to supporting all beings in their progress towards Enlightenment, so her hands are held in the gestures of generosity and bestowing. But her legs remain folded in the full-lotus position. She does not step down into the world to help all beings as does Green Tara.
This paradox reminds me of an important teaching. I used to live in a retreat center in southern England. Sometimes people had a romantic view of retreat center life. It was easy for them to imagine that I spent my time either on retreat or, when no retreat was happening, that I had nothing to do but meditate and reflect. My life wasn’t quite like that. Once a colleague and I were at the local supermarket buying groceries for a retreat. Seeing the large quantities of bread and milk the lady on the checkout asked us what we did. When we told her we ran a Buddhist retreat center she looked wistful and sighed, ‘That must be such a serene life’. This became a catch phrase in the community. When I was struggling with e-mails and phone messages, trying to co-ordinate a year’s program of retreats, hurrying to finish some redecoration before 25 retreatants arrived, or was driving around looking for a replacement for a retreatant’s punctured motorcycle tire, I often found myself ironically muttering, ‘Such a serene life …’
With the practical demands of running a retreat center (or bringing up a family, or even of simply trying to fit meditation, Dharma study, retreats, friendship and so on into one’s life) it is easy to lose sight of the ultimate objective: attaining Insight. With her still and centered posture, and her seven wide-open wise eyes, White Tara brings me back to this fact. Unless I constantly strive to take my Dharma practice deeper, I have nothing substantial to give other people. Without awareness, our attempts at kindness are well-intentioned blunderings. There is no true kindness without awareness, and I am gradually coming to see that there is no true awareness without kindness.
So what does White Tara offer us from the depths of her wisdom? There are clues in her mantra: om tare tuttare ture mama ayur punya jnana pushtim kuru svaha. There are many Tara mantras, and most of them follow the form of the general mantra om tare tuttare ture svaha with various insertions. In White Tara’s case the insertions form a request to increase our life, merit and wisdom. White Tara’s response is to suffuse her devotees (indeed all beings) in a succession of beautiful colored lights imbued with magical qualities. These surround us in concentric spheres of white, yellow, red, blue, green and violet, to form a Mandala of Protection.
The heart of this Mandala (or magic circle) is a sphere of white, the color of Tara herself, of purity and the tantric rite of pacification. The white light purifies us of diseases and unethical actions. In Tibetan culture White Tara is best known for her capacity to bestow long life. There are two sides to prolonging life: avoiding disease and promoting well-being. The next ring of the Mandala is thus a rich yellow color, which extends our life and enriches our wisdom. In the tantra, yellow is associated with the rite of prospering, and it is the color of Ratnasambhava, the jewel-bearing Buddha of abundance and beauty.
Although Tibetan tradition emphasizes White Tara’s capacity to increase life, few of the western devotees of White Tara that I know pay much attention to this. Perhaps this is because we tend to take our human existence for granted. With all the developments in public health, our relative affluence and the extraordinary efficacy of medical science, it seems that we expect to live comfortably to a ripe old age. But Buddhist traditions, particularly in Tibet, have emphasized that we are fortunate to be alive, and particularly lucky to have the liberty and opportunity to develop ourselves through practicing the Dharma.
White Tara’s association with longevity encourages me to reflect on how precarious life is. Tibetan tradition exhorts us to make the most of the precious opportunity of a human birth through wholehearted spiritual practice, working to become more kind, generous and honest while we can. Through developing these qualities, and not getting caught up in the many distractions of 21st-century life, we can allow our minds to settle into the meditative calm that springs from a clear conscience, and find release from the tyrannies of stress.
The Buddha’s earliest recorded teachings offer another perspective on longevity. In the Pali canon a word meaning ‘undying’ or ‘immortal’ was one of the original terms for Enlightenment. In the Dhammapada the Buddha explains that: ‘Awareness is the path to the deathless. Those who are fully aware do not die, those who are not aware are as if already dead’. When I am aware, my life seems rich, vibrant and fulfilling. However, as soon as I lose awareness life appears dull and uninteresting, and I find myself looking for distractions. White Tara’s seven eyes remind me to ‘keep my eyes open’ in all areas of life. They suggest that her awareness has risen to a point where it has become Transcendental Wisdom, and I sometimes think of the seven eyes as including the usual two of the human form, while the remaining five represent the Wisdoms of the five Buddhas.
Returning to the Mandala of Protection we enter the red sphere, the color of the rite of fascination, or love, and of Buddha Amitabha. The red light increases our capacity to communicate with others, especially fellow Dharma practitioners. The spiritual community is represented by a red jewel, and the Buddha famously said that the practice of spiritual friendship (kalyana mitrata) is the whole of the spiritual life. Spending time with others who practice the spiritual life (especially those who are doing so more effectively than we are) can have a dramatically beneficial effect, especially if we are able to connect deeply with them.
We then come to the blue and green spheres. The blue light subdues obstacles, while the green light helps one to achieve one’s aims in the face of such difficulties. The blue light is related to the tantric black rite of destruction, and to the imperturbability of the Buddha Akshobhya. The green light evokes the fearlessness that Green Tara represents in her aspect as consort to the Buddha Amoghasiddhi.
Practicing the Dharma will inevitably be difficult at times. Some difficulties are of our own making, some the result of the conditions in which we find ourselves. It is easy to become frustrated with oneself, or with others whom we see as ‘blocking’ us. We can think, ‘I’d be able to feel loving kindness all the time if so-and-so wasn’t so irritating’. We need to address life’s difficulties — whether subjective or objective with determination and initiative, and these must be imbued with awareness and kindness.
The outer ring of the Mandala of Protection is violet, and this is said to make our spiritual achievements firm and unshakable. It suggests to me the need to consolidate the changes. We purify ourselves by replacing unhelpful habits, but new habits of ethical speech, meditation and generosity can be fragile. just one late night can leave me irritable or undermine my morning meditation practice. Like the tender shoots of a seedling we need to protect new habits of skillful activity until our resourcefulness and creativity become unshakable.
In this way Tara’s Mandala of Protection surrounds us with a beautiful sphere of skillful activity. These concentric layers of clarity, generosity, friendliness, determination, resourcefulness and consistency protect us from the buffetings of the world.
At dinner on a recent retreat, somebody asked what purity meant to me. It was one of those occasions when an answer seemed to come to my lips almost magically. ‘Purity is Beauty in action’, I replied. When I sit in meditative contemplation of White Tara it is to her beauty and purity that my heart responds. Meditating on her can be an experience of such incredible beauty that it leaves me in a state of wordless bliss. Such experiences fill me with a yearning to make the world a more beautiful place. They inspire me to purify myself of petty self-interest and free me to act in a way that will illuminate the world with the silvery light of 100 autumn moons.
Suddenly, appearing from emptiness
A snow white. eight-petaled, white lotus
A moon disc clear and shining
And TAM, vividly defined.
Essence of Tara’s wisdom-compassion
Dazzling white and radiating moonbeams
From the midst of which appears Tara.
White as a hundred full autumn moons
Clear and translucent as a crystal gem.
Eyes long and dark, with fine long eyelashes
Seven beautiful smiling eyes of wisdom.
Hair black as onyx, partly bound up,
The rest falling over the shoulders and breasts.
Her neck is round and delicate,
Her earlobes long.
The line of her lips is pure and red.
Her teeth a fine-textured garland.
Tongue fine and soft.
Her breath the sweet scent of lotuses
The right hand stretching out in kindness
Fingers soft like lotus petals
Left hand holding by her heart
The stem of a blue utpala blossom.
A smiling and passionate youthful manner
With her round breasts
And the slimness of her waist
She gives inexhaustible bliss.
On her head, Wisdom’s five jewels
In a garland of golden lotuses.
She is adorned with finest silks
Precious jewels and celestial blossoms
And surrounded by rainbows and moonbeams.
From a White Tara puja by Pabongka Rinpoche