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Tara —Tibet’s Madonna

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In the mytho-historical pantheon of Tibetan Buddhism, the gentle goddess Tara represents the exact counterimage of the terrible Palden Lhamo. Tara is — in the words of European alchemy — the “white virgin”, the ethereal-feminine supreme source of inspiration for the adept. In precisely this sense she represents the positive feminine counterpart to the destructive Palden Lhamo, or hence to the earth mother, Srinmo. The divided image of femininity found in every phase of Indian religious history thus lives on in Tibetan culture. “Witch” and “Madonna” are the two feminine archetypes which have for centuries dominated and continue to dominate the patriarchal imagination of Tibet just like that of the west. If all the negative attributes of the feminine are collected in the witch, then all the positive ones are concentrated within the Madonna.

The Tara cult is probably fairly recent. Although legends recount that the worship of the goddess was brought to the Land of Snows in the seventh century by one of the women of the Tibetan king, Songtsen Gampo, it is historically more likely that the Indian scholar Atisha first introduced the cult in the eleventh century.

Unlike the many repellant demonic gods who attack the tormented Tibetans, Tara has become a place of refuge. Under her, the believers can cultivate their noble sentiments. She grants devotion, love, faith, and hope to those who call upon her. She exhibits all the characteristics of a merciful mother. She appears to people in dreams as a guardian angel. She takes care of all private interests and needs. She can be trusted with one’s cares. She helps against poisonings, heals illnesses and cures obsessions. But she is also the right one to turn to for success in business and politics. Everyone prays to her as a “redemptress”. In translation her name means “star” or “star of hope”. It can be said that outside of the monasteries she is the most worshipped divinity of the Land of Snows. There is barely a household in Tibet in which a small statue of Tara cannot be found.

A number of colors are assigned to her various appearances. There is a white, green, yellow, blue, even a black Tara. She often holds a lotus with 16 petals which is supposed to indicate that she is sixteen years old. Her body is adorned with the most beautiful jewels. In a royal seated posture she looks down mildly upon those who ask pity of her. Naturally, one gains the impression that she is not suitable for tantric sexual practices. The whole positive aspect of the motherly appears to have been concentrated within her. She is experienced by Europeans as a Madonna untouched by sexuality. This is, however, not the case, then in contrast to her occidental sister with whom she otherwise has so much in common, the white Tara is also a wisdom consort. [2]

Sometimes, as is also known of the European worship of Mary, her cult tips over into an undesirable (for the clergy, that is) expansion of the goddess’s power which could pose a danger to the patriarchal system. Tara is known, for example, as the “Mother of all Buddhas”. A legend in which she refuses to appear as a man is also in circulation and is often cited these days: when she was asked by some monks whether she did not prefer a male body, she is said to have answered: “Since there is no such thing as a 'man' or a 'woman', this bondage to male and female is hollow. ... Those who wish to attain supreme enlightenment in a man's body are many, but those who wish to serve the aims of beings in a woman's body are few; therefore may I, until the world is emptied out, serve the aim of beings with nothing but the body of a woman” (Beyer, 1978, p. 65). Such statements are downright revolutionary and are in direct contradiction to the dominant doctrine that women cannot attain any enlightenment at all, but must first be reborn in a male body.


Tantric Buddhism’s first protective measure against the potential feminine superiority of Tara is the story of her origin. Firstly, she does not have the status of a Buddha, but is only a female Bodhisattva. Her head is adorned by a small statue of Amitabha, an indicator that she is subject to the Highest Lord of the Light (who allows no women into his paradise) and is considered to be one of his emanations.

Furthermore, Tara is nothing more or less than the personified tears of Avalokiteshvara. One day as he looked down filled with compassion upon all suffering beings he had to weep. The tear from his left eye became the green Tara, that which flowed from his right became her white form. Even if, as according to some tantric schools, Chenrezi selects both Taras as wisdom consorts, they nevertheless remain his creation. He gave birth to them as androgyne, as “father-mother”.

An even cleverer taming of the goddess consists in the fact that she incarnates in the bodies of men. Countless monks have chosen Tara as their yiddam and then visualize themselves as the goddess in their meditative practices. “Always and in all practices, he must visualize himself as the Holy Lady, bearing in mind that the appearance is the deity, that his speech is her mantra, and that his memory and mental constructs are her knowledge” (Beyer, 1978, p. 465). Her role as the “mother of all Buddhas” is also taken on by the male meditators, who thus say the following words: “[I am] the mother who gives birth to the Conquerors and their sons; I possess all her body, speech, mind, qualities, and active functions” (Beyer, 1978, p. 449). In one of his works, Albert Grünwedel reproduces the portrait of a high-ranking Mongolian lama who is revered as an incarnation of Tara. Even modern western followers of Buddhism would like to see the Sixteenth Karmapa as the green Tara.

Like Palden Lhamo, Tara also plays a role in Tibetan realpolitik, then the latter is — in their own view — played out by gods, not human agents. Hence, the official opinion from out of the Potala was that the Russian Czars were supposed to be an embodiment of Tara. Such image transferences are naturally very well suited to exciting the global power fantasies of the lamas. Then, since the goddess arose from a tear of Avalokiteshvara, the Czar as Tara must also be a product of the Dalai Lamae highest living incarnation of Avalokiteshvara. Further to this there is the idea derived from the tantras that the Czar (and thus Russia) as Tara could be coerced via a sexual magic act. This appears downright fantastic, but — as we know — the tantra master does use his karma mudra as symbols for the elements, planets, and also for countries.

In the nineteenth century the idea likewise arose that the British Queen, Victoria, was a reincarnation of Tara, yet on occasion Palden Lhamo was also nominated as being the goddess functioning behind the facade of the English Queen. It was thus more natural for the Dalai Lama to cooperate with the British or the Russians — since the Chinese had been possessed for centuries by a “nine-headed demoness” with whom it was impossible to reach an accord. The China-friendly Panchen Lama, however, saw this differently. For him, the Chinese Emperors of the Manchu dynasty, who professed to the Buddhist faith, were incarnations of the Bodhisattva, Manjushri, and could thus be considered as acceptable negotiators.


Tara and Mary

A comparison of the Tibetan Tara with the Christian figure of Mary has by now become commonplace in Buddhist circles. The Fourteenth Dalai Lama also makes liberal use of this cultural parallel with pious emotionalism. For the “yellow pontiff” Mary represents the inana mudra (the “imagined female”) so to speak of Catholicism. "Whenever I see an image of Mary,” — the Kundun has said — "I feel that she represents love and compassion. She is like a symbol of love. Within Buddhist iconography, the goddess Tara occupies a similar position” (Dalai Lama XIV, 1996c, p. 83). Not all that long ago, the "god-king” undertook a pilgrimage to Lourdes and afterwards summarized his impressions of the greatest Catholic shrine to Mary with the following moving words. "There — in front of the cave — I experienced something very special. I felt a spiritual vibration, a kind of spiritual presence there. And then in front of the image of the Virgin Mary, I prayed” (Dalai Lama XIV, 1996 c, p. 84).

The autobiographical book with the title of Longing for Darkness: Tara and the Black Madonna by the American, China Galland, reports on the attempt to incorporate the Catholic cult of Mary via the Tibetan cult of Tara. After the author’s second marriage failed, she returned to the Catholic Church and devoted herself to an excessive Mary worship with feministic undertones. The latter was the reason why Galland felt herself attracted above all to the black Madonnas worshipped in Catholicism. The “Black Virgin” has already been worshipped for years by feminists as an apocryphal mother deity.

One day the author encountered the Tibetan goddess, Tara, and the American was instantly fascinated. Tara struck her as a pioneer of “spiritual” women’s rights. The goddess had — this author believed –proclaimed that contrary to Buddhist doctrine enlightenment could also be attained in a female body. The author felt herself especially attracted to figure of the “green Tara”, whom she equates with the black Kali of Hinduism at one point in her book: “The darkness of the female gods comforted me. I felt like a balm on the wound of the unending white maleness that we had deified in the West. They were the other side of everything I had ever known about God. A dark female God. Oh yes!” (Galland, 1990, p. 31).

In Galland we are thus dealing with a spiritual feminist who has rediscovered her original black mother and is seeking traces of her in every culture. In the Buddhist Tara cult this author thus also sees archetypal references to the many-breasted Artemis of Ephesus, to the Egyptian Isis, to the Phoenician Alma Mater, Cybele, to the Mesopotamian goddess of the underworld, Ishtar. Once more her trail leads from the dark Tara to the “black Madonnas” of Europe and America. From there the next link in the chain is the Indian terror goddess Kali (or Durga). “Was the blackness of the virgin a connecting thread of connection to Tara, Kali or Durga, or was it a mere coincidence?” asks Galland (Galland, 1990, p. 50). For her it was no coincidence!


With one word Galland activates the gynocentric world view which is familiar enough from the feminist literature. She sees the great goddess at work everywhere (Galland, 1993, p. 42). The universal position which she grants herself as the first creative principle is depicted unambiguously in a poem. The author found it in a Gnostic Christian text. There a female power, who sounds “more like Kali than the Mother of God”, says the following words:

For I am the first and the last.
I am the honored and the scorned one.
I am the whore and the holy one.
I am the wife and the virgin


I am the silence that is incomprehensible

(quoted by Galland, 1990, p. 51)

In spite of her unmistakable pro-woman position, the feminist met her androcentric master in October 1986, who transformed her black Kali (or Tara or Mary) into a pliant Tantric Buddhist dakini. During her audience, for which she feverishly waited for several days in Dharamsala, she asked His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama: “Did it make sense to link Tara and Mary?” — “Yes,” — the Kundun answered her — “Tara and Mary create a good bridge. This is a direction to go in” (Galland, 1990, p. 93).

He then told the feminist how pro-woman Tibetan Buddhism is. For example, the Sakya Lama, the second-highest-ranking hierarch of the Land of Snows, had a wife and daughter. Somewhere in Nepal there lived a 70-year-old nun who was entitled to teach the Dharma. When he was young there was a famous female hermit in the mountains of Tibet. For him, the Dalai Lamat made no difference along the path to enlightenment whether a person had a male body or a female one. And then finally the climax: “Tara” — the Kundun said — “could actually be taken as a very strong feminist. According to the legend, she knew that there were hardly any Buddhas who had been enlightened in the form of a woman. She was determined to retain her female form and to become enlightened only in this female form. That story had some meaning in it, doesn’t it?” — he said with “an infectious smile” to Galland (Galland, 1990, p. 95).


"Smiling” is the first form of communication with a woman which is taught in the lower tantras (the Kriya Tantra). The next tantric category which follows is the “look” (Carya Tantra), and then the “touch” (Yoga Tantra). Galland later reported in fascination what happened to her during the audience: “He [the Kundun) got up out of his chair, came over to me as I stood up, and took me firmly by the arms with a laugh. The Dalai Laman Gyatso, is irrepressibly cheerful. His touch surprised me. It was strong and energetic, like a black belt in aikido. The physical power in his hands belied the softness of his appearance. He put his forehead to mine, then pulled away smiling and stood there looking at me, his hands holding my shoulders. His look cut through all the words exchanged and warmed me. I sensed that I was learning the most about him and that I was being given the most by him, right then. Though what it was could not be put into words. This was the real blessing” (Galland, 1990, p. 96).

From this moment on, the entire metaphysical standpoint of the author is transformed. The revolutionary dark Kali becomes an obedient “sky walker” (dakini), the radical feminist becomes a pliant “wisdom consort” of Tantric Buddhism. With whatever means, the Dalai Lama succeeded in making a devout Buddhist of the committed follower of the great goddess. From now on, Galland begins to visualize herself along tantric lines as Tara. She interprets the legend in which the goddess offers to help her tear-father, Avalokiteshvara (Tara arose from one of the Bodhisattva’s tears), lead all suffering beings on the right path, as her personal mission.

The “initiation” by the Kundun did not end with this first encounter, it found its continuation later in a dream of the author’s. There Galland sees how the Dalai Lama splashes around in a washtub, completely clothed, and with great amusement. She herself also sits in such a tub. Then suddenly the Kundun stands up and looks at her in an evocative silence. “There was nothing between us, only pure being. It was a vivid and real exchange. — Suddenly a blue sword came out of the crown of the Dalai Lama’s head over and across the distance between us and down to the crown of my head, all the way down my spine. I felt as though he had just transmitted some great, wordless teaching. The sword was made of blue light. I was very happy. Then he climbed into the third tub, where I was now sitting alone. We sat side by side in silence. I was on the right. Our faces were next to one another, faintly touching” (Galland, 1990, p. 168). The Dalai Lama then climbs out of the tub. She tries to persuade him to explain the situation to her, and in particular to interpret the significance of the sword. “But every time I asked him a question, he changed forms, like Proteus, the old man of the sea, and said nothing” (Galland,1990, p. 169). At the end of the dream he transformed himself into a turquoise scarab which climbed the wall of the room.

Even if both of the dream’s protagonists (the Dalai Lama and China Galland) are fully clothed as they sit together in the washtub, one does not need too much fantasy to see in this scene a sexual magic ritual from the repertoire of the Vajrayana. The blue sword is a classic phallic symbol and reminds us of a similar example from Christian mysticism: it was an arrow which penetrated Saint Theresa of Avila as she experienced her mystic love for God. For China Galland it was the sword of light of the supreme Tibetan tantra master.

Soon after the spectacular dream initiation, the “pilgrimages” to the holy places at which the black Madonnas of Europe and America are worshipped described in her book began. Instead of Marys she now only sees before her western variations upon the Tibetan Tara. The tear (tara) of Avalokiteshvara (the Dalai Lama) becomes an overarching principle for the American woman. In the dark gypsy Madonna of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (France), in her famous black sister of Czestochowa (Poland), in the copy of the latter in San Antonio (Texas), but above all in the Madonna of Medjugorje, whom she visits in October 1988, Galland now only sees emanations of the Tibetan goddess.

Whilst she reflects upon Mary and Tara in the (former) Yugoslavian place of pilgrimage, a prayer to the Tibetan deity comes to her mind. “In it she is said to come in what ever form a person needs her to assume in order for her to be helpful. True compassion. Buddha Tara, indeed all Buddhas, are said to emanate in billions of forms, taking whatever form is necessary to suit the person. Who can say that Mary isn’t Tara appearing in a form that is useful and recognizable to the West? When the Venerable Tara Tulku [Galland’s Buddhist Guru, a male emanation of Tara) came [...], we spoke about this. From the Buddhist perspective, one cannot say that this isn’t possible, he assured me: 'If there is a person who says definitely no, the Madonna is not an emanation of Tara, then that person has not understood the teaching of Buddha'. Christ could be an emanation of Buddha” (Galland, 1990, p. 311).

What lies behind this flowery quotation and Galland’s eccentric Mary-worship can also be referred to as the incorporation of a non-Buddhist cult by Vajrayana. Then Mary and Tara are both so culture-specific that a comparison of the two “goddesses” only makes sense at an extremely general level. Neither does Tara give birth to a messiah, nor may we imagine a Mary who enters sexual magic union with a Christian monk. Despite such blatant differences, Tantrism's doctrine of emanation allows the absorption of foreign gods without hesitation, yet only under the condition that the Tibetan deity take the original place and the non-Buddhist one be derived from it. In this connection, the report of a Catholic (Benedictine) nun who participated in the Kalachakra initiation in Bloomington (1999). For her, the rite set off a Christian experience: “I’m Christian. Never before has that meant so much. This past month I sat at the Kalachakra Initiation Rite in Bloomington with H.H. the Dalai Lama as the master teacher, a tantric guru. I have never felt so Christian. […] I was sitting in the VIP section on the stage very near the Dalai Lama. The Buddhist audience seemed like advanced practitioners. The audience was nearly 5,000 people under this one huge tent. When dharma students would know that I was a nun they’d ask me what was in my mind as the ritual progressed through the Buddhist texts, recitations, deity visualizations and gestures. At the time, I must confess, I sat with as much respect, openness and emptiness as possible. My Christian heart was simply at rest being there with ‘others’. […] There’s no one-to-one correspondence with Buddhist rituals especially one as complex and esoteric as the Kalachakra, but there is a way that we live that creates the same feeling, the same attitude and dispositions. (Funk,. HPI 001) The literature in which Buddhist authors present Christ as a Bodhisattva and as an emanation of Avalokiteshvara grows from year to year.


Article by Victor and Victoria Trimondi