Mother Tara’s many-armed protective embrace: 21 Taras according to Surya Gupta — a very special celebration of Supreme Mother Tara, the Liberator

Thangka depicting the 21 Taras according to the Surya Gupta tradition. Unlike the Atisha system of 21 Taras (see sample thangka below), each of the Taras is unique and distinct, including number of arms, attributes, colour, facial expressions, and other symbolic details.

There’s something very precious and special about Tara, the protective Mother, adored by Millions around the world. Her energy is, at its root, wisdom — the female Enlightened Buddha.

Tara is as approachable as our own mothers. She embodies the same protective traits, but not just protector: like a mother, she is teacher (usually our mothers teach us our first words), fierce motivator (taking out the garbage and chores), nurturer (always patient with us as we grow and learn.) Like a mother she never judges us: her practice assures us both temporal benefits (helping us in our mundane, daily lives) and profound ultimate benefits — the path to realizations and Buddhahood.

Tara, like our own mothers, doesn’t judge us. And, like our mothers, she can wear many faces (sometimes the stern disciplinarian, other times, the embracing mother). In this way the 21 Taras visualization, based on the Mahasiddha Surya Gupta, is very special. Each of the 21 Taras has a unique name and praise, mantra, and sadhana, with deeply profound symbolism, attributes and practices.

“Tara is without a doubt the most beloved female deity in Tibetan Buddhism, revered for her swiftness in helping those who rely on her. She has been described as a Buddha for our modern age, a sublime personification of compassion and wisdom in female form at a time when sorrow and suffering seem to be increasing everywhere. Of all the Buddhas, Tara is the most accessible.” — H.E. Venerable Zasep Tulku Rinpoche, from Tara in the Palm of Your Hand. [1]

The wondrous Surya Gupta 21 Taras

In this feature, we cover the 21 Taras according to the Mahasiddha Surya Gupta’s rich system, where each of the 21 Taras has a unique name and praise, with deeply profound symbolism, attributes and practices. [To get a sense of this wonderous system, scroll down the page and view the many individual Tara images. IN PART 1 of this series, we cover the first seven Surya Gupta system Taras. Watch for PART 2 for the next seven.]

A modern take on the 21 Taras according to Surya Gupta:

A modern take on the 21 Taras according to Surya Gupta. To see individual visualizations in more traditional style, see the images beside each of the 21 Tara descriptions below.

 

Starting the day right: with Praise to the 21 Taras

Before their first cup of tea (or coffee, in the west), millions of people around the world start their day with the Praises to the 21 Taras. [Full text of the praises in English and Tibetan below.] Tara is the embodiment of motherly protection, an ideal way to start the day, nostalgically reminding us of our childhood mothers sending us off to school.

The flavour and approachability of Tara practice is expressed beautifully by Venerable Zasep Rinpoche:

“Every night, my grandmother recited the mantras of Tara and the other Buddhas until she fell asleep. In the yurt was a small altar on which there were statues of Tara and other Buddhas; a butter lamp on the altar flickered comfortingly. When I would wake up during the night, I would see the statues illuminated by the soft light of the butter lamp; I would feel so protected by Tara, the other Buddhas, and my grandmother’s prayers.” [3]

Chanted in many languages, but especially rythmic and beautiful in Tibetan — where each Tara’s praise is chanted in four lines of eight syllables each — the main differences in practice are in the visualizations of the Taras. Yet, the 21 Taras can be much more than a beautiful praise to start out day. The Surya Gupta tradition, especially — where each of the 21 Taras is distinctly different — is a profound practice, with Sadhanas and Mantras for each of the Taras.

 

In Surya Gupta 21 Taras visualization, each Tara has distinctly different visualizations with meaningful symbolic implements. Shown is the second Tara “Moonlit White Tara.” In the Atisha system she has two arms, one face.

 

There are at least four 21 Tara traditions, although the two best known are the 21 Taras according to Atisha tradition, and the earlier — but more complex — 21 Taras according to the great Mahasiddha Surya Gupta. Visualizing and practicing in the Atisha tradition is certainly easier, with the main variant being color and some expressions. No empowerment is required. Practice is very simplified.

 

Why practice 21 aspects of Tara?

The Mahasiddha Surya Gupta and Taras.

There are many aspects of Tara, including profound emanations “like Vajrayogini, Kurukulle, Machig Labdron, and Palden Lhamo…” H.E. Zasep Rinpoche explains why we honour different aspects:

“This is similar to one person performing many roles, such as being a musician, an athlete, a mother and a wife, and having different personal characteristics such as being artistic, kind, humorous, and clever. While they vary in the details of their appearance and their activity, all the Taras have in common the energy, compassion, and wisdom to free sentient beings beyond number from their suffering.” [1]

 

According to Mahasiddha Surya Gupta’s practice, “each of the twenty-one Taras holds different implements. They may also assume different postures, some sitting, some standing, and may have more than one head and several pairs of arms.”

Rinpoche also answer a question often asked by students: “The twenty-one praises may be recited in Tibetan, English or any other language. It does not matter. Languages have no inherent existence; no one language is inherently superior to any other.” [1]

 

Typical inside spread of Tara in the palm of your hand, here showing the visualization of the 10th Tara, “Tara Who Dispels All Suffering” (original illustration) with accompanying “rite purpose”, visualization, seed syllable, praise and special mantra. The book is available on Amazon here>>

 

21 Taras according to Surya Gupta is a profound practice

 

Venerable Zasep Rinpoche teaching at a Tara weekend using the commentary book, Tara in the Palm of Your Hand, as a reference.

The earlier practices of Surya Gupta’s 21 Taras is considered more profound, not just be virtue of complexity, but on the strength of deeply meaningful symbolism. The same 21 Taras transform into many forms, with numerous attirbutes. As with other deities, she can be wrathful, semi-wrathful, peaceful.

Zasep Rinpoche described the practice as “more advanced… like a higher Tantra”, although it is actually a Kriya Trantra, approachable to all:

“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. Of course, in a sense, our experience of any Tara sadhana practice depends on the state of our mind and our degree of realization.” [4]

 

Mahasidda Surya Gupta

According to Thomas Roth: “According to Tāranātha, Sūrya-Gupta was born in present day Kashmir. A Mahāsiddha who practiced and accomplished Tārā for seven consecutive lifetimes, he was a contemporary of such masters as Śantideva, Candrakīrti, and Candragomin, another important master in the various transmission lineages of the Tārā tantras and practices.” [5]

 

What’s in a praise and a name: everything, and nothing

 

A 21 Tara thangka in the ATISHA tradition. Compare to the Thangka at the top, noticing the number are arms and postures. In Atisha’s system, mostly colour and facial expression changes.

Her name carries resounding power in our mindstreams on one level. Ultimately, like all names, it is an empty label.

Her name translates from the Tibetan as “Venerable Tara, Supreme Mother, the Liberator” from the praise to Tara:

OM.je.tsun.ma.pag.ma.drol.ma.la.chag.tsal.lo

  • Je — “Je means venerable protector, so Tara is the most precious protector of all sentient beings.” [2]
  • Tsun.ma — “In colloquial Tibetan, tsun.ma means nun and indicates a woman who has pure morality.” [2]
  • Pag — translates as “Supreme”
  • Ma — means “Mother”

 

The praises always begin with the main name praise:

OM.je.tsun.ma.pag.ma.drol.ma.la.chag.tsal.lo

OM, Homage to Venerable Arya Tara, the Liberator

 

21 Taras according to Surya Gupta

 

The practice of 21 Taras according to the great Mahasiddha Surya Gupta, requires intense visualization. The praises are the same. As with all 21 Tara practices, the devotee can simply chant the praise each morning and let the faith grow over time as Tara helps us day-to-day.

The real practice is properly taught by a teacher or in Tantras, mostly in Tibetan. Some pratitioners choose to do a Tara Sadhana a day for 21 days. On retreat, of course, all 21 sadhanas would be performed. For a specific need, for example, for help with infectious disease (Hint: Tara 2), the Sadhana of the most aligned aspect of Tara might be performed.

Clearly, it is a more involved practice of Tara, since each aspect, in the Surya Gupta method has:

  • Her own self generation (or front generation if you don’t have empowerment)
  • Her own rite and powers (aspect or specialty)
  • Her own Sadhana
  • Her own special mantra
  • Her own appearance and attributes
  • Only the praise and name of the 21 Taras is comparable betwen the Atisha method more commonly practiced, and the older Surya Gupta tradition.

Here, in this feature, there is only space for a brief description and praise, and we’ll include some images to give you a sense of this wonderful and powerful practice.

The only book with full English sadhanas and mantras and modern-day illustrations of the Taras is the wonderful book by H.E. Zasep Rinpoche, Tara in the Palm of Your Hand. [For a book review, please see here>>]

Note: For names, we’ve numbered with English translation, per Tara in the Palm of Your Hand. Below that are the Sanskrit name followed by the Tibetan name.

 

Tara 1 Heroic Red Tara

Pravita Tara / Rabtupa We Drolma

 

Power or Rite: turning back the power of others.

  • Seed syllable OM
  • Colour: red
  • Number of arms: four
  • Peaceful or wrathful: peaceful

 

Praise

Homage to you, the Swift One, the Heroine,

Whose eyes are like an instant flash of lightning,

Who arose from the open corolla

Of the lotus face of the Lord of the Three Worlds.

 

Tara 2 Moonlight White Tara

Chandra Kanti Tara / Karmo a Dang Ge Drolma

 

Power or Rite: calming infectious disease.

  • Seed syllable TAM
  • Colour: white
  • Number of arms: twelve
  • Peaceful or wrathful: peaceful

 

Praise

Homage to you whose face is like one hundred autumn moons

Completely full, and gathered into one,

Radiating a great and distinguished light,

Superior to the gathering of a thousand stars.

 

Tara 3 Golden Colour Tara

Kanaka Vana Tara / Ser Mo Serdok Chen Ge Drolma

 

Power or Rite: prolonging life.

  • Seed syllable RE
  • Colour: golden (bluish)
  • Number of arms: ten
  • Peaceful or wrathful: peaceful

 

Praise

Homage to you who are golden blue,

Whose hands are beautifully decorated with a water-born lotus;

Who embody the Six Perfections of giving, moral discipline,

Patience, perseverance, concentration, and wisdom.

 

Tara 4 Golden Tara of Crown Victorious

Usnisa Vijaya Tara / Tsug Tor Nam Pal Gyal We Drolma

 

Power or Rite: neutralizing lethal poisons.

  • Seed syllable TUTA
  • Colour: golden
  • Number of arms: four
  • Peaceful or wrathful: peaceful

 

Praise

Homage to you, who crown the Buddhas’ ushnishas,

Whose victorious actions are without limit,

Who have attained all transcendental wisdoms without exception,

And on whom the Bodhisattvas themselves rely.

 

Tara 5 Tara Proclaiming the Sound of HUM

Hum Svara Nadini Tara / HUM Dra Dolpi Drolma

 

Power or Rite: subjugating.

  • Seed syllable TA
  • Colour: yellow
  • Number of arms: two
  • Peaceful or wrathful: peaceful

 

Praise

Homage to you, who, uttering TUTTARE and HUM,

Fill the worlds of desire, direction, and space,

Who with your feet press down the seven worlds,

And who by your power draw all beings without exception.

 

Tara 6 Tara Victorious over the Three Levels of the World

Trai Lokya Vijaya Tara / Jig Ten Sum Lay Nam Par Gyal We Drolma

 

Power or Rite: purification of all obscurations and negativities.

  • Seed syllable RE
  • Colour: ruby red
  • Number of arms: four
  • Peaceful or wrathful: peaceful

 

Praise

Homage to you to whom Indra, Agni,

Brahma, Vayu, Ishvara and the other gods offer prayers,

And who are praised by spirits, zombies,

Smell eaters and Yakshas.

 

Tara 7 Tara Who Crushes Adversaries

Vadi Pramardani Tara / Golwa Jompi Drolma

 

Power or Rite: transference of consciousness to the Akanistha Pureland at time of death; destroyer of adversaries.

  • Seed syllable TU
  • Colour: ruby black
  • Number of arms: four
  • Peaceful or wrathful: wrathful

 

Praise

Homage to you who with the mantras TRA and PHAT

Completely destroy all the magic wheels,

Crushing them with your right leg bent and your left stretched out,

Burning them completely in a blazing whirl of fire.

 

The next 7 Taras in Part 2 of this feature series here>>

For those looking for the book details referenced above:

Tara in the Palm of Your Hand, a book by Acharya Zasep Tulku Rinpoche. This feature is an excerpt from the introduction of this book. For more information, visit Amazon>>

Book Details

 

NOTES

 

[1] Tara in the Palm of Your Hand, by Venerable Zasep Rinpoche, page 28.

[2] Ibid, page 36

[3] Ibid, page 66

[4] ibid, page 75

[5] Jonang Foundation, “21 Taras of Surya Gupta”

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Josephine Nolan

Author | Buddha Weekly

Josephine Nolan is an editor and contributing feature writer for several online publications, including EDI Weekly and Buddha Weekly. She is Editor-in-Chief for Blogertize Publications.

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