Friday, August 5, 2011

The Origin of Tara Tantra

Book Review: The Origin of Tara Tantra  by Jo Nang Taranatha – transl and edited by David Templeman – orig  1604 (Library of Tibetan Works and Archives 1981)

Taranatha was a famous Tibetan lama, writer, and historian who collected much information in particular about Indian Buddhism in periods before, during, and after it was brought to Tibet. His books are valuable in that there is very little detailed information about lineages and stories for some of these periods. He may or may not have traveled to India in his time – most scholars consider that he did not – but his teachers or their teachers before may have done so and collected and preserved this lore, and made records of lineages and stories. Taranatha was the last famous practitioner of the Jo Nang sect of Tibetan Buddhism that was taken over  and absorbed into the Gelug sect to suppress its political ties and possibly as well its outdated and somewhat heretical view of emptiness. (Although there are legends that the Jo Nang sect remained hidden and some lineages claim to be a continuation – even the famed Theosophist Madame Blavatski claimed to have a connection to the Jonangpas)

In the Vajrayana tradition there are many stories of great dharma practitioners meant to preserve lore but also to inspire future practitioners. These stories are called Nam Thar, or spiritual biographies in Tibet. Many of them contain magical tales along mythological lines. This style is particular to the Tantric tradition. Some are records of practitioners who have mastered the meditative practices of particular tantras – such is this one – the Arising of Tara Tantra – and the signs of their accomplishment and their enlightened deeds afterward. Taranatha was known to paint an overly rosy and optimistic picture of a thriving and spreading Buddhism – even in India where it had been declining significantly for over 400 years. This was likely a mechanism to inspire his students and students of the future. His texts are among the few that I have seen that describe Buddhist interactions with the Muslim Turuskas (Turks) and Garloks (apparently a specific tribe of Muslim Turks). There are also a few accounts of conflicts between what he called Singhalese Sravaka monks of the Sendhapa sect and those of the Mahayana – where the Singhala Sravakas burned Mahayana images – especially tantric sculptures. In one story a Sendhapa monk calls on Tara fearing retribution form the tantric king for destroying temple goods and she saves him by hiding him. Tara is foremost the champion of the Mahayana but is said not to distinguish among beings in need of protection.

The story of Tara begins with the story of a very long ago Buddha called Dundunbhisvara who was honored by a princess called “Moon of Wisdom.” She is said to have made offerings for millions of years when Bodhicitta (the mind of enlightenment) found her. Some monks suggested that she should pray to be reborn as a man to better practice. To this she then replied,

“In this life there is no distinction as ‘male’ and ‘female’, neither of ‘self-identify’, a ‘person’ nor any perception (of such), and therefore attachment to ideas of ‘male’ and ‘female’ is quite worthless. Weak-minded worldlings are always deluded by this.” And she vowed, “There are many who wish to gain enlightenment in a man’s form, and there are but few who wish to work for the welfare of sentient beings in a female form. Therefore may I, in a female body, work for the welfare of beings right until Samsara has been emptied.” 

For another several million years it is said that she perfected a meditation, or samadhi, called ‘saving all sentient beings’ where every morning and evening she would save beings from paths leading to their further suffering. After this the Buddha Dundunbhisvara conferred on her the name of ‘Saviouress’, or ‘Goddess Tara.’

“Then in the aeon of Vibuddha known as ‘very vast’, she vowed in the presence of Tathagatha Amoghasiddhi to preserve and defend from all harm all the sentient beings in the profound vastness of the ten directions. Seated in the equanimity of the meditation known as ‘completely subduing all demons’ daily, for 95 aeons, she established the minds of one billion and 10,000 million beings in deep meditation. Each night, too, in her capacity as Mistress of Kamadeva’s Realm she vanquished 10 million and 100,000 demons. Thus she became garlanded with the names of ‘Saviouress’, ‘Mainstay’, ‘Swift One’ and ‘Herione.’”

I found it interesting – reading from the great notes section of this book – that Tara as Red Tara (of Semi-wrathful Overpowering Activities)  - as the Indian Goddess Kurukulla is said to be evening mate to Kamadeva, the Indian god of desire and love, very similar to Eros and Cupid of the classical traditions. Kurukule is known as Mistress of Enchantments and is a patron of love magic. Both she and Kama carry bows and arrows – though in her case it is a bow and arrow of lotus flowers and she also carries the noose and the hook of compassion – to catch beings in order to save them from suffering. Anyway in this guise Tara could even be said to be in a sense  the daughter-in-law of The Goddess of Love Venus/Aphrodite who is mother to Eros/Cupid/Kama.

There is another legend recounted where Tara is born from the heart of the Great Compassion Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara after he (as the monk ‘Radiant Pure Light’) receives a blessing of ‘the Great Rays of Compassion’ from all the Buddhas of the 10 directions. So in that sense she was born at the same time he was born as the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Here she came to protect beings from the eight and sixteen fears.

Other stories are given of her deeds and in various ‘aeons’ such as the following:

“Then in the aeon called Asangka, when all the Tathagathas of the 10 directions had consecrated her, she became the Mother who produces all the Buddhas. All that happened a beginningless time ago.”

In this very aeon it is said that countless buddhas, bodhisattvas, gods, nagas, yaksas, and others gathered around the limitless center (axis mundi) where Arya Avalokitesvara intones the Tara Tantra and Mantra 10 million times.

Next are recounted various legends of the origin of the Tantric Tradition – where the tantras taught by various buddhas in various realms were gathered and guarded by Vajrapani – the Lord of Secrets, and stored in the realm of the wealth-lord Yaksha Vaisravana. Vajrapani in this account is said to have appeared as King Indrabhuti (of the land of Oddiyana – now Pakistan) to propagate the tantras. According to most Buddhist legends this is where the tantras first appear to humans. Another legend here says that 300 years after the passing of Buddha Shakyamuni – so around 150 B.C. – there spontaneously appeared the Mahayana Avatamsaka Sutra. The various classes of tantra - Kriya, Carya, Yoga, and Annutara – arose as well at this time period when apparently manifestations of Manjusri, Vajrasattva, Vajrapani, and other beings were occurring.

Next is a discourse of stories and legends of Tara protecting those who call on her from the 16 fears: Fears of enemies, lions, elephants, fire, poisonous snakes, brigands, prison walls, ocean waves, flesh-eating ogres, leprosy, mischief of Indra’s angels – the gandharvas, poverty, losing relatives, royal punishment, vajra missiles, and ruination of one’s aims. There are also the Eight Great Fears which are said to have outer and inner manifestations: 1) drowning or water = craving or attachment, 2) thieves = wrong or false views, 3) lions = pride, 4) snakes = envy or jealousy, 5) fire = hatred or anger, 6) spirits or flesh-eating demons = doubt, 7) captivity or imprisonment = avarice, 8) elephants = delusion or ignorance --- (from Rigpa Shedra website)  In these stories various statues and temples of Tara in various Indian lands gained the lore of various miracles – not so unlike those of the Virgin Mary in the last few centuries – but different for sure.

Another legend tells of the Acarya Hayapala who through one-pointed meditation was able to travel to Oddiyana and bring back various tantras – recalling them to a written form with full explanations where before they were in this area just incomplete oral traditions. These tantras were: 1) the Arising of Tara Tantra, 2) Candamaharosana Tantra 3) Tantra of Vajrapani 4) Tantra known as – Producing of Heruka from Oneself.

Several and various lineages are recounted in this book - virtually all from India – but several that later made it to Tibet. Taranatha also mentions several texts – many now lost – where these lineages are recounted. A siddha named Suryagupta is said to have composed various texts, mandala rituals, and sadhanas of accomplishment, associated with this Tara Tantra. I am not sure if these are still practiced. I do know that several of the Tara sadhanas I have practiced are termas, often gong ter, or mind treasures – from the mystical terma tradition where many sadhana texts were said to be hidden by Padmasambhava, Yeshe Tsogyel, and a few others – and later discovered by magical tertons, or ‘treasure finders’  - often said to spontaneously appear from their minds.

Taranatha gives an account presumably from a text called, “The Accounts of the Succession of Acaryas of Yore” (arcaryas are great teachers) – where is given acounts of the eight Arcaryas being protected from the Eight Fears. These Acaryas overcome various difficulties through Tara’s help.

Another section gives accounts of unaccomplished practitioners who encounter magical and miraculous experiences and realizations under the influence of Tara.

Taranatha notes a period of decline during the 900’s A.D. when Buddhism did not have the support of the kings and so it is said there were less who gained the siddhis – due to less passing on and practicing of the techniques. There is a legend at this time that a great Tantra collection was sealed and hidden in a charnel ground. This collection was said to include: Tantras of Sri Heruka, Mahakala, Arising of Tara, Candamaharosana, Cathu-pitha-karmavali, and fragments of Siddhas Invocations of Divinities, and many other fragments. He also goes through some legends in this time period of the Mahasiddha Tilopa (Tillipa) who after attaining siddhi powers was able to travel to the mystical land of Uddiyana and encounter a “bluish-green girl” who transformed into Tara and taught him the Arising of Tara Tantra. Tilopa was progenitor for many lineages – often being said to have attained instruction directly from Buddha Vajradhara (a.k.a. the Tantric Budhha). He was the first human in the famed Kagyu lineage that spread to Tibet through Marpa and next in that line was the famed Tibetan Yogi Milarepa. He is also associated along with his students with the rise of the Cakrasamvara Tantra as well as the Hevajra Tantra. Some accounts of Dipankara (the famed Atisa are given) but since these are available elsewhere he gives accounts of a few of Dipankara’s students. Dipankara was well known as a monk but also as a  tantric practitioner of Tara in particular. His student Madhyamasimha became a priest to the King of Kasmir and was able to keep Buddhism in power for a while even in the presence of the Persian Turuskas. Although there are stories of the various Turk and Garlog Kings being subdued by Buddhist siddhas and promising not to harm Buddhists – history shows that eventually Buddhism pretty much declined to nothing in India although there is great acknowledgement among the Hindus of his accomplishments and teachings and he is regarded by many as the 9th avatar of Vishnu. There is one story where the deity Padma-Nartesvara (Lotus Lord of Dance) was invoked to subdue Muslims who were destroying Buddhist images and icons. This deity is apparently very similar to Shiva as Nagaraja – the King of Dance – and may represent a conjoined Buddhist-Hindu battle of magic against the invading and by now well-established Muslim empires. Buddhists were much more disparaged by the Muslims as they did not have a supreme god as some Hindus did and so were thought to be non-monotheistic and idol-worshipping pagans.

Taranatha also calls Origin of Tara Tantra – the profound King of the Mother Tantras. The feats of many Indian siddhas are recounted in this book and so it is valuable as history in a vast time period where little detailed written history is available. Taranatha notes that he received instruction in this tantra from his guru and from the works of the Mahasiddha Santipada who wrote elucidations about this tantra. Again, the notes given by the translator in this book are invaluable and compare different accounts of various siddhas and their time periods and accomplishments.

Finally there is an appendix with the most beloved – Homage to the 21 Forms of Tara.
I found it to be a particularly nice translation. One can gather by reading this homage that Tara is a Goddess of Benevolence who protects through both peaceful and wrathful means. Below are the first two homages:

“OM! (I pay) Homage to you, Noble and Holy Tara!
Homage to you Tara, O swift and courageous One,
Whose very eyes flicker like lightning, Thou
Born from the open flower of the lotus-face
Of the protector of the triple world.”

“Homage to You whose face is filled
With a hundred autumn moons,
O Thou who glows with a delicate light
Of a thousand assembled stars.”

I think Taranatha’s books offer a unique perspective into the Buddhist tradition. I have heard slightly different versions of some of these stories from Tibetan lamas and have also heard teachings that came originally from texts written by Lama Taranatha.

1 comment:

  1. That was great ! Thank you for that. I wonder if there were any speculation as to why Taranatha wrote the Golden Garland. To Popularizing the Jo nang school? Where do he draw his sources from to write it other than the oral teaching from his teachers.