GODDESS TARA: SILENCE AND SECRECY ON THE PATH TO ENLIGHTENMENT
Susan S. Landesman
The enlightened mind that perceives reality from an ultimate viewpoint transcends notions of gender, according to the Buddha's teachings. Based upon a belief in life's fundamental impermanence, all phenomena are viewed as de void of permanent natures. From this perspective, dualistic conceptions of the body, including its male and female components, and the range of values associated with gendered identity, are not considered "intrinsic" to a person's being nor are they issues of concern in the process of realization, for "it is the stream of consciousness that becomes enlightened, having fully comprehended the sense objects." (1) Despite these philosophical ideals, socially engrained biases favoring men still persisted within the early Buddhist monastic community. With an aim to challenge these views, Goddess Tara was promoted as one of the earliest enlightened female role models within the Buddhist tantras. (2)
The major canonical source for the Tara cult's formative period in India is the ritual compendium with the abbreviated title Tara-mula-kalpa (Tara's Basic Ritual Text), hereafter referred to as the TMK. (3) The Sanskrit text, believed to have been composed in the seventh century, was translated into Tibetan in the fourteenth century by Bu-ston, classified as a kriya tantra, and added to the Tibetan canon (bKa' 'gyur). (4) Although the TMK's Sanskrit text is no longer extant, and its lineage of teachings appears to have been broken due to its lack of commentaries, the text's importance for scholarship remains. Analysis of the TMK's contents reveals the strategies through which female role models were promoted within early tantric Buddhist rituals, art, and thought.
The TMK features Tara as the central object of ritual practice and religious devotion, although her persona is promoted, in part, by adopting the epithets, iconography, and functions of enlightened male bodhisattvas and Buddhas as they have been portrayed in earlier Buddhist scriptures. This is not a particularly feminist means of promoting a female figure. Still, Tara's status in the text underscores her importance within Buddhist tradition: she is the first female Buddha within tantric literature. Her epithet, Bhagavati, exclusively reserved for the most elevated among enlightened beings (tenth-stage bodhisattvas and Buddhas), underscores her enlightened status.
Tara follows a tradition of strong female role models, beginning in the ancient Vedic period (second millennium BCE), and sustained through early Mahayana times (0-400 CE). Many of these goddesses were and still are worshiped for protection from danger. (5) Others are revered as the embodiment of wisdom. For example, some of Tara's important functions can be traced to those of Goddess Prajnaparamita, the personification of wisdom realizing emptiness, as delineated in the Perfection of Wisdom scriptures (Prajnaparamita-satras). Furthermore, Prajnaparamita and Tara are both referred to as mothers of all Buddhas, since Buddhas are born from wisdom. (6)
Another rationale for the emergence of female role models within the Buddhist tantras springs from the nature of tantric practice: deities whom ritual participants emulated and worshipped were and still are envisioned in mother-father pairs. These pairs are depicted with differing levels of desire, from gazing, smiling, and touching to sexual embrace. Accordingly, these levels of desire correlate with a practitioner's ability to harness desire and direct it toward the generation of a subtler and more powerful consciousness realizing the wisdom of emptiness (sunyata). (7) The goals of tantric practice echo the opening statement of this essay: enlightened consciousness transcends dualistic thinking, including the male-female dichotomy. Furthermore, since Buddhist teachings claim that all living beings contain the seeds of Buddhahood, and the potential for enlightenment, Buddhist enlightenment is not a distinctly feminist enterprise, although it can be construed as inclusive and supportive of feminist ideals.
A widely held yet unproven theory is that the veneration of Goddess Tara originated from an ancient star cult that guided seafarers across dangerous waters under a dark night sky." This theory may be based, in part, upon the mean ing of tara as "star," derived from the verb "tr" meaning to cross, as a star crosses the night sky. An extension of Tara's hypothetical origin as a nocturnal celestial guide is her role in Buddhist sources as a protector of humans from various external dangers, such as ocean waves, floods, fires, epidemics, wild beasts, and serpents. Over time, Tara became renowned as a feminine symbol of the inner light of spiritual liberation, in which capacity she guided worshippers to overcome inner obstacles to enlightenment, including the afflictive emotions of desire and anger, as well as the fundamental cause of suffering: ignorance of the true nature of reality. (9) The TMK elaborates these points.
Just as this mantra practice shall become the cause for the perfection of wisdom for sentient beings, so shall it dispel all dangers of quarrels, disputes, famine, disease, opposing armies, untimely rainfall, sinful human and non-human beings, and wild animals.... Blessed Noble Tara, who assumes the guise and form of a woman, shall dispel robbers, floods, famines, and various injuries. She shall pacify all dangers [resulting from] kings, lions, tigers, buffalo, wolves, poison, robbers, humans, and non-humans. She shall also make all sentient beings who are skillful in the ritual of reciting mantras fulfill [a desire for] various kinds of sensual pleasures, such as medicines, flowers, flavorfiyl fruits, drinks, clothes, places, beddings, and seats, etc. And she shall make all sentient beings-who wish for the Dharma [teachings]-apply themselves to the practice of the virtuous Dharma."
In spite of the obscure beginnings of the Tara cult within Indian sources, a Tibetan legend records her rise to fame, with specific reference to her female embodiment.
Formerly, in beginningless time, in the world realm called "Manifold Light," there arose the Tathagata Lord called Dundubhisvara, Sound of the Drum. Also living there was the king's daughter called jhanacandra, Moon of Wisdom, who greatly revered the Tathagatds discourse. She worshipped the Buddha, together with his retinue, an infinite community of Sravakas and Bodhisattvas, for hundreds of millions of years.... At that time, a group of monks implored her, "If you aspire to serve the teachings of the Buddha, due to your own roots of virtue, you will become a man in this very life. In order for it to turn out that way, it is proper to do so accordingly." (11)
After engaging in dialogue with these monks, the king's daughter challenged conventional social biases favoring men by offering a rationale for her necessity to remain in female bodhisattva form.
There is neither man nor woman nor self nor person-hood nor notion of such. Attachment to [the designations] "male and female" is meaningless and deludes worldly people with poor understanding. She then vowed: Many desire enlightenment in a man's body, while not even a single [person] strives for the benefit of sentient beings in a woman's body. Therefore, I shall work for the benefit of sentient beings in a woman's form as long as samsara has not been emptied. (12)
Ancient Pali sources also provide controversial evidence regarding women's spiritual capacities. Although Buddha Sakyamuni is depicted …