“Tara is without a doubt the most beloved female deity in Tibetan Buddhism, revered for her swiftness in helping those who rely on her… Of all the Buddhas, Tara is the most accessible.” — from Tara in the palm of your hand, Venerable Zasep Rinpoche
For Tibetan Buddhists, Tara is among the most of popular meditational deities, and there are certainly many books on Tara: the savior, the mother, the compassionate activity of all the Buddhas. Is there need for a new one? In the case of Tara in the palm of your hand, the answer is yes, for three compelling reasons:
- In Tara in the palm of your hand, the 21 Taras commentary and guided meditational sadhanas are from the precious lineage of the great sage Surya Gupta (including the mantras and visualizations with original illustrations) — where each of the 21 Taras has her own unique appearance, sadhana, mantra, symbols and special influence on our lives.
- This commentary is concise yet very thorough, and written in the style of an in-depth retreat teaching, from a great master teacher. The authority and lineage of the teacher is impeccable. [See biography at foot of this article.] Zasep Tulku Rinpoche is a highly accomplished teacher, spiritual head of all of the Gaden for the West meditation centres in Canada, U.S. and Australia.
- For some of us, we can’t get enough of Tara. Tara is the activity of the Buddhas, alive and energetic in today’s modern world: the rescuer, the remover of fears, the activity of the compassion of all the Buddhas. For those with Tara as the Yidam, this book may be indispensable.
Rinpoche explains fully the differences between the more in-depth visualizations of Surya Gupta 21 Taras versus Atisha’s simplified 21 Taras. In brief:
“The Mahasiddha Surya Gupta lineage of the twenty-one Taras is quite different from the Atisha lineage in that each of the twenty-one Taras is very distinctive in appearance and attributes and each Tara has her own sadhana. Although technically the practice of the twenty-one Taras is Kriya Tantra, it feels more advanced, with the sadhanas reading more like sadhanas from a higher level Tantra.”
Unique teaching and practice from an ancient lineage
Without question, this tight, yet wonderfully detailed book stands apart, not only because it covers a unique Buddhist teaching — an ancient teaching that should be preserved — but because the author, Most Venerable Acharya Zasep Rinpoche, engages the reader as if they were his students.
This is meant to be a hands-on practice guide, where the book becomes the teacher, and all questions are answered. The book itself contains the main sadhana, and practice sadhanas (with mantras and illustrations) for each of the 21 Taras.
It may be only 176 pages, but it is densely packed with every nugget of important information — presented clearly from a “Western” cultural perspective. Concise advice and explanations pepper the book such as “the reason” we do Tara practice:
“As Tara did, we develop the potential of our minds to attain full Enlightenment through meditation. Meditation is a process of focusing our mind on a virtuous object.”
Venerable Zasep Tulku Rinpoche’s purpose was to preserve the teachings in a specific lineage, the Surya Gupta teachings and practice of the 21 Taras. It should be a complicated subject, particularly with all the very rich visualizations — much more detailed than other 21 Tara practices where mainly the symbolic body colour changes — but somehow Rinpoche manages to make everything clear, concise and complete in 176 pages. At the same time, he delivered a collection of wonderful insights that can help anyone in their practice:
“As soon as we begin to accept that all sentient beings have Buddha Nature, we go about our lives differently; we are less quick to do harm, and more inspired to be kind. Through avoiding nonvirtuous actions and cultivating positive states of mind, we will make progress on the spiritual path.”
Stories of Tara
My favorite section, as a reader/reviewer, are the stories of Tara. There are thousands of stories of Tara’s rescues and influence in people’s lives, but it’s very special and helpful to read these stories. Sixteen stories of Tara’s activity are used to illustrate the 16 great dangers.
Rinpoche explains: “The essence of the stories is that Tara protects from the problems and sufferings that ordinary people have in their lives. Tara moves swiftly to help those who rely on her, no matter what the problem.”
Rinpoche also included an entire section on “What is Buddhism?” for the new practitioner — which shouldn’t discourage the advanced student, since the wealth of detail that follows is sufficient for a lifetime of study and practice.
Teaching from a Western perspective
Venerable Zasep Rinpoche is well known in Canada, the United States, and Australia where he regularly teaches from a “westerN’ point of view. He has taught in the west for over 40 years, and began as a translator for other teachers. The section on Buddhist principles, including lofty concepts such as Shunyata (Emptiness) and Dependent Arising, and Buddha Nature are worth the price of the book. Rinpoche makes these difficult topics approachable from a North American point of view (with all our built-in biases and doubts).
For instance, he hits us straight on with the concept of “Tara, imaginary or real?” — a difficult topic for Westerners who tend to try to rationalize deity practices as “meditations of the ideal.” Rinpoche writes, powerfully:
“Many Westerners have a difficult time believing that Buddhas like Tara are real. They say, “Granted, the historical Buddha may have existed, but there is no scientific proof that these other Buddhas exist. They are mere figments of the imagination.” At most, they will allow that Buddhas are projections of the mind. They may even think that Tibetan Buddhists are ignorant or backward to believe Buddhas are real. However, Buddhas exist in the same way that all phenomena exist, not inherently, but as dependent-related phenomena, arising from causes and conditions, name, parts, and imputation by mind. For Tibetan Buddhists and those who truly understand Shunyata and dependent arising, reality has room for Buddhas and other manifestations of spiritual energy. For them, Buddhas are always present; no place exists where there is no Buddha.”
Original line drawings carefully and accurately rendered
Original line drawings of each of the very richly detailed Taras make it easier, but it is the teachings that make this book a must buy for any Tibetan Buddhist who is devoted to Tara practice. Even the hand mudras are helpfully illustrated, along with “how to set up an altar and offerings to Tara.”
It’s clear that Rinpoche wrote this as a commentary with illustrations for his own students, which makes it all the more focused, tight and useful. Since Tara does not require “special permissions” the practices can be practiced by anyone (provided, in the Tibetan tradition, Tara is visualized in front of you, rather than visualizing your self as Tara).
Rinpoche’s skill in simplifying, without “talking down” to students is legendary, cultivated through decades of teaching in Australia, US, and Canada.
Full commentary, praises, visualizations and sadhanas
Not one, but 21 Sadhanas, one for each of the Taras. If a practitioner is in a hurry, of course, he or she can just practice the main, concise sadhana and mantra. If someone had a special focus, such as helping support someone who is sick, in need or suffering, the practitioner might practice the Sadhana and mantra of a particular Tara. All the information needed is here.
The contents include sections on:
- Buddhism generally, Buddha nature, Dependent Arising, Shunyata and many other important topics
- Stories of Tara: protecting from the 16 dangers and rescuing from the 8 great fears
- Visualizing Tara, a how-to
- The Twenty-one Praises to Tara in English and Tibetan with full commentary
- The Tara Benefits Prayer and commentary
- Setting up an altar and torma offerings
- A full commentary on all of the praises and mantras (21) of the twenty-one Taras, including the Principal Tara, Arya Tara
- The actual sadhana of the Principal Green Tara
- The actual 21 Taras, one by one, with “purpose of her rite”, illustrations, seed syllables, praise and mantras
- A chapter on the two great masters of Tara: Atisha and Surya Gupta
- An extensive glossary
- A biography of the author
Tara in the palm of your hand is highly recommended for anyone practicing Green Tara or the 21 Taras. It is a must read for someone interested in the unique, in depth Surya Gupta lineage of 21 Taras. It is a “should” read for someone seriously interested in Tara. It is a “good read” for any Tibetan Buddhist.
Biography of Author Venerable Zasep Tulku Rinpoche
The Venerable Zasep Tulku Rinpoche was born in Kham province of Eastern Tibet in 1948. As a very young child, he was recognized as an incarnation of Lama Karma Konchog Tenzin by the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa and Kyabje Yongzin Trijang Rinpoche. At the age of five, Zasep Rinpoche was enthroned at Zuru monastery; at the age of seven he was installed as Zasep Tulku Rinpoche at Sera monastery near Lhasa, Tibet. At that time, Sera was home to 5,000 monks. When the Chinese communists invaded Tibet in 1959, Zasep Rinpoche escaped from Sera monastery, at first walking by night and then travelling by horse across the great grass plains of western Tibet and Himalayan mountain range to the border of Nepal.
[A full biography of his life’s adventure as a teacher, from his time as a boy, to his experiences with his teachers in Tibet, India, Nepal, Thailand and Mongolia, to his eventual migration to Canada is told in his rich autobiography, A Tulku’s Journey from Tibet to Canada. We previously reviewed the hardcover edition here. Soon to be available in paperback and Kilndle on Amazon.]
Once in Nepal, Zasep Rinpoche continued his studies, remaining there until Trijang Rinpoche suggested he go to Dalhousie, India, in the foothills of the Himalayas, to study under the great Geshe Thupten Wangyal. For 10 years, both summer and winter, Zasep Rinpoche did intense Dharma study and retreats under Geshe Wangyal’s guidance. Then in 1971, acting on Geshe Wangyal’s advice, Zasep Rinpoche attended the Sanskrit University at Varanasi, where he completed his Acharya (Master’s) Degree in Buddhist philosophy. Thereafter, Zasep Rinpoche spent 18 months in Thailand, where he practised Vipassana mindfulness meditation in forest monastery with the Theravadin Buddhist monastic tradition under the direction of the famous master, Achaan Buddhadasa.
In 1976 the Venerable Lamas Thubten Yeshe and Zopa Rinpoche invited Zasep Rinpoche to Australia to translate for the Venerable Geshe Thubten Loden. Zasep Rinpoche and Geshe Thubten Loden were among the very first Tibetan Buddhist teachers in Australia. In 1980 Zasep Rinpoche came to Canada, first residing in Nelson B.C., where he taught Buddhist studies at David Thompson University. He also taught Buddhist debate and logic and Madiyamaka Avara at the Naropa Institute, Boulder, Colorado for two summers.
Book Review: Zasep Tulku Rinpoche’s “A Tulku’s Journey from Tibet to Canada” is Equal Parts Autobiography, Spiritual Epic Journey, Gripping Adventure Narrative, Inspiring Buddhist Life Example, and a Travelogue Spanning Nine Countries.
In 1980, Zasep Rinpoche and some of his students founded Gaden Choling Mahayana Buddhist Meditation Centre in Toronto. Zasep Rinpoche subsequently opened five other centres in Canada; he is also the spiritual head of four centres in Australia. In 1999, Zasep Rinpoche and his students created Gaden for the West, an international umbrella organization of all the centres, headquartered in Nelson, B. C. Gaden for the West has been developing the Gaden Tashi Choling Retreat Centre just outside Nelson, with a Tibetan-style temple being consecrated in October, 2012.
Zasep Rinpoche also founded the Gaden Relief Project, a charitable foundation that has built the Jamseng Health Clinic in Zadoh Tibet, organized cataract surgeries in Tibet, and raised funds for hundreds of monks, nuns and lay students in India. Gaden Relief has also improved living conditions in monasteries and nunneries in Tibet, Zangskar-Ladakh and Mongolia by drilling for water, installing water wheels and setting up solar energy panels. In addition, Gaden Relief has raised funds to provide yurts for single mothers and a mobile health clinic in Mongolia.
Zasep Rinpoche has been teaching Dharma in the West for over 33 years; he regularly visits his centres to teach, lead retreats, and guide his students.