Buddhist Goddess and Archetype of Compassion

White Tara; detail from a Tibetan Tangka painting.
White Tara; detail from a Tibetan Tangka painting.

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Tara is an iconic Buddhist goddess of many colors. Although she is formally associated only with Buddhism in Tibet, Mongolia, and Nepal, she has become one of the most familiar figures of Buddhism around the world.

She is not exactly the Tibetan version of the Chinese Guanyin (Kwan-yin), as many assume. Guanyin is a manifestation in the female form of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva. Avalokiteshvara is called Chenrezig in Tibet, and in Tibetan Buddhism Chenrezig usually is a "he" rather than a "she." He is the universal manifestation of compassion.

According to one story, when Chenrezig was about to enter Nirvana he looked back and saw the suffering of the world, and he wept and vowed to remain in the world until all beings were enlightened. Tara is said to have been born from Chenrezig's tears. In a variation of this story, his tears formed a lake, and in that lake, a lotus grew, and when it opened Tara was revealed.

Tara's origins as an icon are unclear. Some scholars propose that Tara evolved from the Hindu goddess Durga. She appears to have been venerated in Indian Buddhism no earlier than the 5th century.

Tara in Tibetan Buddhism

Although Tara probably was known in Tibet earlier, the cult of Tara appears to have reached Tibet in 1042, with the arrival of an Indian teacher named Atisa, who was a devotee. She became one of the most beloved figures of Tibetan Buddhism.

Her name in Tibetan is Sgrol-ma, or Dolma, which means "she who saves." It is said her compassion for all beings is stronger than a mother's love for her children. Her mantra is om tare tuttare ture svaha, which means, "Praise to Tara! Hail!"

White Tara and Green Tara

There are actually 21 Taras, according to an Indian text called Homage to the Twenty-One Taras that reached Tibet in the 12th century. The Taras come in many colors, but the two most popular are White Tara and Green Tara. In a variation of the original legend, White Tara was born from the tears from Chenrezig's left eye, and Green Tara was born from the tears of his right eye.

In many ways, these two Taras complement each other. Green Tara often is depicted with a half-open lotus, representing night. White Tara holds a fully blooming lotus, representing the day. White Tara embodies grace and serenity and the love of a mother for her child; Green Tara embodies activity. Together, they represent boundless compassion that is active in the world both day and night.

Tibetans pray to White Tara for healing and longevity. White Tara initiations are popular in Tibetan Buddhism for their power to dissolve obstacles. The White Tara mantra in Sanskrit is:

Green Tara is associated with activity and abundance. Tibetans pray to her for wealth and when they are leaving on a journey. But the Green Tara mantra actually is a request to be freed from delusions and negative emotions.

As tantric deities, their role is not as objects of worship. Rather, through esoteric means, the tantric practitioner realizes himself as White or Green Tara and manifests their selfless compassion.

Other Taras

The names of the remaining Taras vary a bit according to the source, but some of the better-known ones are:

  • Red Tara: is said to have the quality of attracting blessings.
  • Black Tara: is a wrathful deity who wards off evil.
  • Yellow Tara: helps us overcome anxiety. She is also associated with abundance and fertility.
  • Blue Tara: subdues anger and turns it into compassion.
  • Cittamani Tara: is ​a deity of high tantra yoga. She is sometimes confused with Green Tara.