I have never been one for venerating the Goddess, or God for that matter. Though I have had the privilege and responsibility of acting as chaplain to several gatherings of the Earth- and Goddess-centered Womenspirit group at The Mountain over the years, my presence there has strictly been to be available for emergency crises of the heart, not to be a central figure in worship or to attend any of the many workshops. Not chanting or drumming or divining.
I have called the circle, faced the directions, sung to Shakti and Artemis, Ishtar, and Gaia. But I have done so out of a sense of interfaith respect, as an act of spiritual solidarity, but with no more connection than when I have visited and kneeled in unfamiliar Cathedrals or bowed my head at a prayer breakfast. Politely, but with distance, perhaps even a chasm.
Blame it on my hyper-rational Unitarian childhood, or the fact that while I have considered myself a poet of sorts, my literary preferences, and therefore my preferences for heroines, have been less fantasy and metaphor than history and factual detail. Growing up, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella and Persephone were less interesting to me — even though I was well exposed to fairy tale and myth — than Sacajawea, the real life young Indian woman who guided the Lewis and Clark expedition across the country two hundred years ago. How I would recount and re-enact that trip over and over again, begging for beaded moccasins and a chance to follow her soft sure footsteps. How did she know or find her way? What was it like to be surrounded by men, dependent upon her but so unwilling to admit it?
So, not that I have had a literal conversionary experience of embracing the Goddess, or Goddesses in their many emanations, but recently, indeed this month, this Women’s History Month, I decided to visit a small art exhibit on Mongolian Buddhism at a local university, the colorful and complex mandalas, the intricate statues, of Buddhas and deities in many periods and forms. Not only are they breathtakingly rich and beautiful, they completely captivated me, especially the female figures, with the remarkable energy and power of their imagery. The Taras especially. I took them in and in doing so, allowed myself to be inspired, even changed.
I learned, perhaps not for the first time but for the first time that it registered for me, that the goddess Tara is a multifaceted, shape-shifting deity within Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism. She is manifest in several forms as befit her multiple roles, for which she is known and worshipped accordingly. I read that her name may be translated and interpreted in several ways.
The term “Tara” means “star,” and is most closely associated with polar stars, which over the ages has been used by mariners and travelers in following a correct path in their journeys. It is said that this name, this meaning, is clearly related to Tara’s role as one who guides and saves individuals from the perils of travel, whether physical or spiritual. The Sanskirt verbal root “tri,” meaning to carry across, assist in difficulty, to rescue or save, is also associated with Tara’s name and her central role as a savioress.
Like a star, we are told, that perpetually consumes its own energy, Tara represents the never-ending desire that fuels all life.
Tara originated in Indian Hinduism as the Mother Creator, and her many representations spread from Ireland to Indonesia under many different names.
In this current exhibit, and in religious history, there are vivid and diverse depictions of these female divinities, startling and compelling. In the most basic sense, I think I “got” for the first time the significance of the divine feminine, as a reality or an archetype, a universal symbol found in dreams and used in myths. I got it in a way that I haven’t in all the hype about Mary, either the Mother of Jesus or Mary Magdalene, the Holy Grail. Some sense of admiration, some felt experience of Tara’s determination to not just be a spiritual vessel but a bold adventuress.
It is frequently noted that in Buddhist tradition, Tara insisted on remaining in a female body while functioning as a Bodhisattva, remaining earthbound even after achieving nirvana, to assist all beings, regardless of sex, in their attainment of enlightenment. The story goes that while taking the Bodhisattva vows, she refused to pray, as was the custom (of course), for rebirth as a male. Instead she vowed always to take female births. In the midst of a predominantly male religious culture where, for example, women were allowed to become nuns only after heavy deliberations by the Buddha, hers was a sign of great courage and the persistence of women’s spiritual and temporal power.
I learned that in Buddhism there are white Taras and green Taras, lighter and darker Taras, white and green Goddesses, each with complimentary and different roles in the Buddhist cosmology.
The white Sita Tara, one of the two Taras born of the tears, we are told, of a particular male Bodhisattva, sometimes takes on a seven-eyed form. She possesses eyes on the palms of her hands, on the soles of her feet and a third eye added to the customary two, on her face. She is seated on a lotus, indicating her enlightened state, with the two eyes on her feet symbolizing her focus on the plight of humans. Her crossed legs, we are told, symbolize her undying dedication to the state of Nirvana. Her right hand is gracefully lowered in welcome and generosity. Her left hand holds the stem of a three blossomed lotus, each in different states of bloom, representing the Buddhas of the past, present, and future.
In the center of the open lotus blossom is a Sankskrit syllable “at” referring to Tara’s name. The third eye on Sita Tara’s face is used to recognize the ultimate sameness, or unity, of all things, while the other two see the ultimate differences in all existence.
Sita Tara is often called upon in prayer and meditation rituals for the healing of the sick, regarded as one of the three longevity deities. She is considered important in her role in the propagation and growth and preservation of Buddhism in Tibet and Mongolia, and practitioners and gurus are encouraged to remember her on a yearly basis.
The Shyama or “dark” Tara is generally visualized as, and painted, green, and is considered the action-oriented form of the goddess. An example of her role and powers would be a painting in which the goddess is shown saving a pilgrim from a stampeding elephant with a ray of golden light. This is one of the eight great salvations or the astamahabhaya for which this manifestation of Goddess is best known. As the female personification of compassion and salvation on two levels, the literal as well as the metaphoric, she is widely venerated for guiding travelers through the wilderness and its dangers, whether actual encounters or the spiritual and psychological dangers or fears that are now correspondences on our journeys.
This ray of warming, healing, and protective light emanating from a gold star on Tara’s head is the image that most captivates me, that has stayed with me in the weeks that have followed as I live my 21st-century life free from the actual dangers of enraged, stampeding elephants, but so aware of the climate of fear within and around me, the wild animals, the stormy weather.
Tara’s eight fears or eight dangers may speak to each one of us in more or less connected and powerful ways. I invite you to listen while I read them and ask yourselves, which are most real. There is the fear of lions or pride. There is the fear of elephants or ignorance. There is the fear of fire or anger. There is the fear of snakes or envy. There is the fear of robbers or wrong views. There is the fear of imprisonment or avarice. There is the fear of floods or attachment. There is the fear of demons, or doubt.
Perhaps there is one danger, one fear, that particularly haunts you at this time. Perhaps several. I know that for me, I am seeing snakes wherever I go, common green garden varieties or threatening cobras, as people around me seem to be attaining some of the positions and gaining the glory I still cling to as goals. When I name this for myself, I find more comfort and sustenance in visualizing Tara’s wise and generous hand beckoning to me, or the blue lotus she is sometimes holding, symbol of salvation, than the idea of a judging God with external commandments. Or the solitude of my own swirling shaming thoughts, attempting to push away or rise above those fears and dangers that threaten and capture me.
Contemporary liberal religious women have found that their emerging awareness of and understanding of the Tara figure in Buddhism has enhanced their Buddhist practices, practices that are gaining popularity as meditation circles and classes have become commonplace in Unitarian settings. They have found the need to balance the male Buddha call for “detachment” from the world, its vices, fears, and dangers, with the female manifestation of Buddha nature, particularly the Tara archetype, which recognizes, names, and shows compassion towards stresses, tragedies, and everyday emotions.
Tara Brach, who teaches at the Insight Meditation Community of Washington D.C. and tends to pop up regularly on UU cyber-links, says she has come to deliberately avoid “detachment” in her writing and teaching. Brach, who is the author of Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life with the Heart of a Buddha, says that many traditional interpretations of Buddhism foster what she calls an aversion towards attachment and desire that ultimately lead to a deep distrust of the body and emotions or the notion that life itself is bad.
She says that rather than reject or change the basic tradition of Buddhism as she has taken on its philosophies and practices, she has turned her attention to the feminine stream of practices that have sometimes been overlooked, especially the practices associated with Metta, or lovingkindness, that have been central to all schools of Buddhism throughout the centuries. What some call the more heart-centered Buddhist practices, with the symbols, stories, visualizations of, meditations on, and praises to Tara being so much a part.
Like most aspects of spirituality and spiritual practices, there does seem to be some danger in this Tara renaissance. Much like the commercialization of Kabala, with its catalogues of red strings and holy water, there appears to be a micro industry, anyway, of Tara statues — plain brass or hand painted, postcards, hanging banners, and even meditation kits, complete with a pearl-finish incense burner, cone incense, cleansing water, rock crystals, and a velveteen bag, and marketing of Goddesses and Goddess gifts for every need.
There are seemingly scores of books, including A Goddess is a Girl’s Best Friend: A Divine Guide to Finding Love, Success, and Happiness by Laurie Sue Brockway, former journalist and now interfaith minister who teaches and writes about women’s spirituality and the feminine faces of God.
The appeal to her of Goddesses is that she finds them to be direct pipelines to the divine, with no intermediaries needed, a shoulder to cry on, guidance. For her they are holy beings and energies, for others, she says, they may act as messengers or guides.
She believes that the goddesses bring a deeper connection to all life, and complement any other spiritual practice or practices, because they bring balance.
James Fowler, whose tall and wise presence has graced the halls of Emory University in general and the Candler School of Theology in particular for many years, has developed a theory of the stages of human “faith” or spiritual development that has been profoundly influential within our liberal religious movement. One of his proposals is that interest in and belief in myths, legends, and fairy tales, stories of miracles, and the supernatural are normative and necessary to human development: this collective mythology can connect us to our own heritage, strengths, and beauty, especially if they are inclusive, especially as we recover the She-roes and well as the He-roes.
If we deny ourselves and our children exposure to and even the whole-hearted belief in and embracing of our myths, we interfere, he believes, in the natural development and progression of our religious affections, spirituality, and indeed full potential. These myths, he tells us, stay with us individually and, as we recognize the difference between literal truths and mythical “truths,” as we test ideas and stories against felt and shared experiences, they emerge for us in our later years as rich and vital sources of metaphor and wisdom.
Tara’s role as fierce and compassionate protector and savior is one of those symbols, and her adventures warding off elephants and driving away snakes is one of those stories that has taken on fresh and wondrous meaning for me on my journey of formation and integration.
May she do so for you as well.