By Lama Palden
Droma & James W. Coleman
The ultimate goal of all Buddhism is to help us uncover our true buddha nature and to bring awareness to what’s going on with our selves and our world. Of course, some people spontaneously awaken right out of the blue, but most of us need a lot more—a kind of step-by-step method and practice. The Vajrayana (Tibetan) tradition has literally thousands of different practices, so if you are going to follow that path it is important to work with a teacher to help you chart the course that is best for you. You need a living relationship that forms a circle between the teacher and student to help you through the process of awakening and to show you a living example of the awakened mind. If the connection is auspicious, then that student-teacher relationship can be incredibly valuable.
Because the path of Vajrayana Buddhism is so vast, there is a lot of room to do whatever kind of practice you are drawn to. Vajrayana shares many of its practices with the other Buddhist traditions. However, yidam meditation, in which we visualize ourselves in an enlightened mandala relating to and eventually becoming an enlightened being, is unique to Vajrayana. Yidam is often translated as “deity” in English, but that word doesn’t have the right feel to it. “Deity” sounds like some kind of Olympian god or something, and that’s not what we’re talking about. It would be more accurate to call them “awakened beings,” because they arise out of the formlessness of our true nature as a concrete manifestation of awakened qualities, such as compassion or wisdom. But I think it is best to use the Tibetan term “yidam” since it carries less baggage than any of its English equivalents.
The yidam mandala we imagine in this practice is a symbolic representation of our own universe. All the phenomena of our lives are the phenomena of the mandala, and we are the yidam at its center. The yidam mandala is a pure manifestation of the divine energies of our mind in form, color, sound, and thought. In the mandala we create in our everyday life, those enlightened energies are often obscured, so they appear in a distorted way. We enter into yidam practice to loosen our identification with those old distortions and habitual patterns. While doing this kind of practice, we try to rest in the true nature of our mind—complete openness and emptiness that is at the same time clear, luminous, and aware. This practice helps us realize that state more fully by entering into and interacting with an awakened mandala that we create, and eventually by coming to see ourselves and all other beings as the yidam at its center.
When we get to the point in our practice that our body becomes the body of the yidam, we think of ourselves as a being of light, just appearing in pure emptiness—which in fact is actually our situation all the time. This practice trains us to recognize that fact and to stop identifying with this physical body and our deluded sense of self, so we can come fully into our awakened identity. This transformation of identity is a huge part of yidam practice. In fact, in some ways the transformation of our limited, obscured self-identity is the core of the whole thing.
It’s said that if we meditate in this way, all our obstacles will be removed and the siddhis, the accomplishments and the awakened activities, will naturally manifest themselves. At the same time, however, everything that isn’t awakened mind comes to the surface and stares us in the face. When we’re doing this kind of practice intensely, we may come to see the horror, the full catastrophe, of our human mind. Eventually all our neurotic habit patterns—our depression, fear, and anxiety—get flushed to the surface and released out. But as they’re flushed out, we re-experience their primal energy. Say for example, we have had some kind of very traumatic experience that we have repressed. As it comes back into consciousness and is experienced, it can be quite disturbing because it will feel like the trauma is happening all over again. But actually nothing is going on except that old energy is coming to the surface and being released. So we have to keep remembering that our neurotic habit patterns are not who we truly are, but only old energy from the past.
In Vajrayana we practice with a vast array of yidams, but Tara has a special kind of traction here in the West today. I am constantly amazed by how deeply she resonates even with those who have no real background or interest in Buddhism at all. I think there is a deep hunger for the wisdom of the divine feminine and a need to get the masculine and feminine energies of our culture into harmony and balance.
Traditionally, we in the West haven’t really had an archetype of the awakened feminine that embodies both wisdom and sexuality, nurturing love and fierce wrathfulness. In the Western religious tradition, the awakened feminine is most clearly embodied by Mary, the mother of Jesus. She is seen as the pure Madonna, but she’s not allowed to be sexual. She had to conceive Jesus non-sexually, because in the West sex is often seen as gross or sinful. Jungian psychologists have found that there are two key archetypes of the feminine in the collective unconscious of our culture: the Madonna, who is pure, maternal, and wise; and the Whore, who is sensual and corrupt. But it is not just a matter of sexuality; the idea that spiritual women not have only wisdom, but a fierce, wrathful inner power doesn’t go over very well in the West either. This kind of split didn’t exist in the pre-Christian goddess traditions of the West, but at some point, the patriarchy stamped out the full vision of the divine feminine, and we have a deep longing to get it back.
In Hinduism, the feminine is seen as shakti, the primordial cosmic energy of creation, while Vajrayana emphasizes the vast openness of the feminine. The feminine is seen as the womb of the divine mother that holds us all. Without space, without emptiness, nothing would be able to exist. Her emptiness holds all of us in divine love, nourishes us, gives us life, and sustains us. This wisdom of emptiness is therefore personified as Tara, Prajnaparamita, and other awakened female beings. The awakened feminine is said to be the mother of all the buddhas, because it is the nonconceptual openness of the feminine that brings us to awakening. Indeed, wisdom is itself the essence of the divine feminine.
In her aspect as divine mother, Tara nurtures all life and gives birth to the awakened ones, but she also manifests a fierce wrathful power that cuts through our problems and obscurations, and most especially through our deep-rooted ignorance. She is like our Mother Earth who supplies us with everything we need, but can also manifest fierce earthquakes, hurricanes, tidal waves, and tornados. The divine mother is a compassionate loving presence who’s always available to us, but she may display a terrifying ferocity if that is what we need to wake up.
Coming to abide in the realization of shunyata, the inherent openness and emptiness of all phenomenon that is Tara’s essence, is what gives birth to awakening. But we have to be careful with the word “emptiness,” because it gives a kind of desolate feeling to a lot of people here in the West. It is important to realize that emptiness is not just blankness; it has a fertile womb-like quality that provides everything needed to allow us to grow and for all things to manifest. If we see clearly, we realize that all appearance is appearance-emptiness, that all awareness is awareness-emptiness. Suzuki Roshi, the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center, once said that resting in emptiness is like sucking at the breast of the mother. When we are actually resting in the union of emptiness and appearance that is our true nature, there is a feeling of complete and total fulfillment, and we instinctively know that there is nothing we lack.
As we engage in this practice, we come to know Tara and develop a profound appreciation for the way she works in our lives. But it’s not usually an instantaneous process. It often takes time before we feel we have a real relationship with her. Just as in our daily lives, we might meet somebody we really like, but developing a relationship with them requires love and dedication. We have to put in the energy to meet with that person, to visit with them and get to know them. Meditating on Tara works in the same way. We may have very powerful experiences in the beginning, but they may also come in the middle or the end or at any time along the way. As we get to know Tara and receive her blessings, we come to see that she is a reflection of our own true nature. She reflects all of the aspects of the awakened feminine. She is the beautiful, all-compassionate, all-loving mother. She is the embodiment of peace, generosity, and all the other perfections.
Tara’s special activity, especially in her green form, is to remove fears and obstacles and to help create all the supportive conditions needed for our awakening. In fact, in Tibetan one of her names means “She Who Liberates” or “She Who Ferries Beings Across The Ocean of Samsara.” She has the power to help destroy, release, and alleviate all of our difficulties both internally and externally. She performs four specific kinds of “awakened activities.” The first one is pacification. This includes mediation, resolving conflicts, soothing, calming, and bringing peace. The next one is enriching. This is a kind of nourishment like giving food, water, encouragement, teachings, or knowledge, or providing whatever else is needed for people to be healthy and to grow and prosper. The third enlightened activity, magnetizing, brings together whatever is needed in a particular situation. Tara might, for example, bring various people together who could benefit from the Dharma teachings. The last of her enlightened activities, destroying, may sound harmful, but it actually has to do with setting limits, creating boundaries, and stopping things or relationships that have outlived their usefulness and need to come to an end. It is a kind of fierce, wrathful activity.
On a personal level, this practice helps us recognize that we have all Tara’s awakened qualities and the potential for all her awakened activities in ourselves. The practice is simply to allow all her qualities to flourish within ourselves, so that whatever is needed in any given situation can spontaneously manifest out of us. If a situation calls for a pacifying influence, for calming people or bringing them together, then that kind of activity will spontaneously arise. If the situation needs some enriching, perhaps some kind of Dharma teaching or other education, then that energy will come out of us. The same is true for magnetizing people together or for the more fierce energy of destruction where new boundaries have to be set or old patterns ended.
It doesn’t matter if you are a woman or a man; the more you practice Tara, the more you come to embody her enlightened qualities, and the more you become an emanation of Tara in the world. In Buddhist tantra, we sometimes meditate ourselves as male yidams, sometimes as female yidams, and sometimes as the union of the male and female. All of us have male and female aspects within ourselves. That’s why we practice to purify, transform, and liberate the masculine and feminine within us, and ultimately to bring them into complete union. In fact, emptiness and form, heaven and earth, male and female—all seeming dualities must be brought into union to fully realize our true nature. All dualities are inseparable, and in their final essence they are all wisdom and compassion united. So as we practice, it doesn’t matter whether we’re female or male in our bodies. What matters is that we do the right practice for us and for the world.
Whatever our gender, as we practice we come to understand how Tara manifests in all her various forms and activities. We open up the awakened feminine within us and allow the full range of feminine qualities to come to fruition. But this is not the restricted Western version of femininity. Tara is not just quiet and demure, sitting with her legs crossed all the time. As we have seen, she has countless other aspects and qualities as well. She can be wise, sexy, fierce, pacifying, beautiful, and assertive. But this doesn’t mean we should neglect our masculine qualities either, because our practice opens those up too. In our tradition, we often meditate on ourselves as Chakrasamvara, who embodies the clarity, strength, and skill in means of the masculine principle. Cultivating a relationship with Tara and the other yidams helps bring us into the true balance of female and male. But at the same time, we are getting to know someone we can call on anytime we need help.
In order to do Tara practice correctly, you need to work with a teacher that you feel connected to. But along with Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezig in Tibetan), the bodhisattva who hears the cries of the world, Tara is considered to be one of the two safest yidams to work with. So it is all right to experiment with a simple form of Tara practice on your own.
Like any tantric practice, you begin by taking a comfortable posture, settling your mind calmly, and declaring your intention to take refuge in the Three Jewels—the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Then out of emptiness, you visualize the “seed syllable” Tam appearing in the sky in front of you. If you know what the Tibetan character for Tam looks like you can visualize that; if not, use the English spelling. Then from that Tam, imagine Tara instantly appears, sitting on a full open lotus and a flat disk of the moon. She is radiantly beautiful and serene. Her skin is blue-green like the color of a mountain lake, and she is arrayed in silks and jewels, symbolizing both her complete integration of the six perfections and her full awakening as a completely realized buddha.
Next, imagine that you are radiating light from your heart to purify the phenomenal world and make offerings to the enlightened ones. Then invite Tara’s supreme wisdom to be present with you. Visualize this wisdom raining down on you from the heavens in the form of countless small Taras. While you do this, visualize that these imagined Taras are inseparable from her true wisdom. Think that the minds of all your spiritual teachers and of all those who have shown you love and compassion are united with her, and that she is now truly present in the sky in front of you. It is okay if your visualization isn’t very clear or strong at first; the important thing is to feel her loving presence.
She is the mother of all the buddhas, the essence of compassion in action. Her right foot is slightly extended, because she is ready to leap to the aid of beings. Her right hand is opened out and is resting on her right knee in the gesture of generosity. Her left hand holds the stem of a beautiful lotus flower that is blossoming next to her left ear. Begin repeating her mantra, Om Taré Tu Taré Turé So Ha, and try to generate true devotion and love for her. Then visualize that a river of nectar, or amrita—liquid light turquoise green in color—comes from her outstretched right hand into you. The river of amrita removes all fear, gives protection, clears away obstacles and obscurations, and transmits enlightened awareness into you and all beings. Then make prayers to Tara, and receive her blessing.
Next you see Tara dissolve into light and merge into you. Think that your mind is inseparable with Tara’s mind and with all enlightened minds everywhere. In the culmination of the meditation, you imagine yourself as actually being Tara, appearing as a body made of light that is inseparable from emptiness, emptiness that is inseparable from her form. Imagine the blue-green seed syllable Tam resting in your heart. From this seed syllable light radiates out to all beings, sending joy, compassion, loving-kindness, strength, equanimity, and all the other blissful qualities of the enlightened beings. Keep repeating the mantra over and over again as you imagine this.
When you are done, you gradually dissolve the visualization and let it collapse in on itself until there is nothing but a drop of turquoise-green light left in the heart area. It is radiating brilliantly: the essence of your true nature. Finally, this brilliant drop dissolves into space, like a rainbow disappearing into the sky. Rest your mind naturally in tranquil meditation for a few minutes more or longer if you feel like it. Finally, as we do at the end of all our meditation practices, we dedicate its merit to all beings and remind ourselves that what we are doing is not just for ourselves, but to help bring all living beings everywhere to enlightenment.
In this way Tara practice, like all Vajrayana, uses duality to help us realize the complete emptiness of our dualistic thinking. It uses our sense of being separate from the divine, from our own awakening, to dismantle that separation and with it our deluded perception of the world. When we first call on Tara, we envision her as an awakened being separate from ourselves, but the more we interact with her, the more we come to dismantle that very separation. We eventually come to see that we are completely inseparable from her and her enlightened mind, and with that realization a profound shift in identity occurs. The pure gold of our true nature shines forth, and we become an enlightened yidam and the world our sacred mandala.