(A continuation of previous entries: Part 1: The 21 Taras; Part 2: Green Tara)
The iconography of White Tara is no less complex than that of Green Tara; ultimately, White Tara is an emanation of Tara who is specifically associated with longevity and longevity practises. White Tara is also known as Drolma Karmo, Drolkar, Saptolocana Tara (“Seven-Eyed Tara”), Sita Tara, and Mrtyuvancana Tara. White Tara can be depicted with or without her seven eyes, with two or four arms, as a single figure or as part of a trinity. In the case of the latter, White Tara is one of the deities forming the Long-Life Trinity which also includes Amitayus and Namgyalma/Usnisavijaya (I will be discussing this pairing under a different topic). Both White and Green Tara can be shown in some images of Avalokitesvara/Chenresig. For more detailed information on White Tara according to various systems/lineages, see this link: Himalayan Art: Buddhist Deity: Tara, White (Main Page).
Modern thangka depicting a White Tara mandala.
The recitation of White Tara’s mantra in addition to performance of her sadhana(s) can be performed for oneself or on behalf of others; the mantras are frequently recited for those who are terminally or seriously ill, and special ceremonies can be commissioned on behalf of those who are suffering to invoke White Tara’s healing abilities. The individual does not need to be present to benefit. Paintings of White Tara are commissioned regularly in order to increase the longevity and good health of H. H. the Dalai Lama, images of White Tara are offered to one’s spiritual teachers as a way of evoking blessings for their longevity, and paintings of White Tara can be commissioned as a gift for a friend or family member to promote their good health and longevity. To simply see her image is believed to bring great benefit, and to hear her mantra is believed to have the power to speed healing, prevent untimely death, and strengthen the health, merit, and wisdom of the listener. That Tara is able to interact with others through the medium of images and statues is something which is long-established within her cult.
Image of White Tara by Ella Brewer. The presence of the rainbow behind her indicates that this is a depiction of a specific form of White Tara known as Drolkar Yishinkorlo (“Wish-Fulfilling Wheel White Tara”). In this particular practise, the practitioner envisions a series of protection wheels (srung-’khor) made of different coloured lights, each of which has a different healing power and is associated with different healing abilities. There is a related practise centered on Cintamanicakra Sita Tara (Jeweled Wheel White Tara).
The white colouration of this emanation of Tara symbolises her ability to pacify illnesses and purify negative karma. White is also symbolic of rest, thought, and the transformation of ignorance into wisdom. In the forms where White Tara is shown with seven eyes, the eyes have specific meaning: perception of suffering which is apparent (face), perception of psychological/spiritual suffering (third eye), perception of the suffering inherent in activity (hands/palms), and perception of the suffering endured during spiritual progression (soles of the feet). The lotus which White Tara holds can be depicted as either blue or white; this particular lotus has sixteen petals. This is in correspondence with the “lotuses” associated with the chakras and various channels.
In addition to her pacific forms Tara has several wrathful (raudra) forms. In some systems/lineages it is customary to meditate on Tara’s pacific forms in the morning/during the day, and her wrathful forms during the evening/at night. The purpose of these meditations is to (respectively) prevent the practitioner from a lower rebirth (such as in a hell realm, as a hungry ghost, etc.) and to purify the practitioner of any harms or transgressions encountered/committed during that day. Wrathful forms are commonly an alternative manifestation of specific Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who represent the active, dynamic energies of that Buddha or Bodhisattva. Wrath represents the purified form of hate and/or anger; wrathful emanations represent the deity in the act of engaging in what could be described as “ruthless compassion”. Wrathful forms tend to appear blue or black, the colours associated with destroying; they are usually clad in a variety of skins, necklaces of human heads, and holding a variety of weapons; they can and usually do display fangs of iron or other metals, and are sometimes described as being covered in blood and fat. Many wrathful representations also display multiple arms and heads. These ferocious depictions are not meant to frighten us, but are rather meant to instill fear in any harmful spirits or entities. I have chosen to use the below image as my example of a wrathful depiction as it clearly illustrates some of the attributes of a wrathful deity.
Samaya Tara Yogini depicted in an 18th century thangka, Jonang/Sakya lineage. More information regarding this particular image can be found here. The figures in each corner are additional emanations of Tara; at the top are represented Vajradhara, the teacher Buddhagupta (left), and Jetsun Taranatha (right), a renowned devotee of Tara from the Jonang school credited with writing her hagiography.
Represented in this image are a variety of weapons, ornaments, and offerings.
With the exception of portions of her crown and her earrings, Tara is shown wearing the bone ornaments of a tantric practitioner (necklace, armbands, bracelets, and anklets). The use of bone – in particular human bone – is primarily associated with tantric Buddhist practise and the wrathful deities. These form part of the traditional “armour of the dakini”, and traditionally retrieved fresh from the charnel grounds (it is easier to carved fresh bone than dried). They again represent the six paramitas (generosity, ethics, patience, joyous effort, concentration, and wisdom). The five skulls comprising her tiara represent the transcendent wisdoms embodied in the Five Symbolic Buddhas (Vairochana, Akshobhya, Amitabha, Amoghasiddhi, and Ratnasambhava). It also represents the death of the five skandha (aggregates – form, perception, sensation, impulses, and consciousness). Against her left shoulder Tara cradles a khatvanga, or tantric staff, which symbolises ultimate bodhichitta in the union of wisdom and emptiness. When depicted with a female deity, the khatvanga represents her consort (method, associated with the masculine as wisdom is with the feminine). The symbolism of the khatvanga is itself complex – more information can be found here. Moving clockwise, Tara also holds a flowery bow and a trident. The flowered bow is an attribute of Kurukulla (who is sometimes associated with Tara, but not always); it is used as a method of subjugation, usually through enchantment. The trident symbolises the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha) as well as the tripitaka (“three baskets” of the Buddha’s teachings); it also symbolises the three primary psychic channels. It also symbolises the destruction of the three poisons, the victory of the deity over the three realms and times, the three kayas (bodies), and the Vajrayana trinity of guru, yidam, and dakini.
Cradled in Tara’s third left arm is the kapala, or skull-cup; it is considered the wisdom vessel. The blood which forms its’ contents boils in the presence of Tara. The combination of blood and kapala represents the mind of Tara filled with great bliss as well as purified thought. Continuing to move clockwise, in Tara’s third right hand is the kartri (flaying knife), which is the masculine counterpart to the kapala (representing method). In combination, the presence of the khatvanga, kapala, and kartri are the attributes of a yogini/dakini (a female tantric practitioner). The flaying knife is used to cut through the two obscurations: kleshavarana (emotions such as anger, pride, jealousy, etc.) and jneyavarana (false views, ignorance, etc.), as well as through the hindrances to meditative contemplation. Next up Tara holds the damaru, made from two craniums (one male, one female) with heads of human skin. It represents the union of method and wisdom, and is used to invoke the deities, and dakinis, proclaiming the “sound of emptiness”. The top left hand holds aloft an arrow tipped with a blossom, the companion to her flowering bow.
In keeping with wrathful deities she sits on a sun-disc (as opposed to the moon-disc of the pacific deities), framed by the flames of awareness. Her tiger-skin loincloth represents control over anger, and she wears a necklace of fifty severed heads (mundamala), which symbolises purification of speech, with the white heads representing the sixteen “white” vowels (ali) and the red heads representing the thirty-four “red” consonants (kali). Tara’s third eye is open and her mouth smiling, revealing the ferocious fangs of a wrathful deity.
This concludes my discussion of the symbolism and iconography of Tara; for further information please visit the links cited above, and be sure to check out my bibliography, which will be coming at the end of the blog challenge!