The Power of the Sacred Feminine in Buddhist Philosophy

One of the oldest stone aged artifacts ever to have been discovered is a small statue of a heavy breasted, full-bodied woman carved out of limestone.  It is estimated to be about 30,000 years old. It has been named the Woman of Willendorf, after the small village where it was found in southern Austria. As it turns out, many similar stone statues dating to the early stone age have been found throughout Europe – and beyond. It is clear that the embodiment of the creative, abundant, nurturing and all-inclusive power of the great feminine has been a source of inspiration in many cultures for a very long time.  

This expression of the great feminine has been found in the art, mythologies and spiritual practices of many ancient cultures.  It is often represented in the form of female deities and goddesses who are revered for their creative and nurturing power.

Images of Qu’an Yin, the great mother goddess of mercy dating back thousands of years have been found in China, Korea, Thailand and throughout south Asia.  In all these cultures, she is considered to be one of the most important figures in the spiritual traditions of those places. In all of the traditions of the Andes Mountains of South America, Pachamama, the great goddess of the Earth has long been depicted in stories and art embodying fertility, time, generosity and abundance for thousands of years.

Long before the embodiment of the great feminine of the Christian tradition, Mary, emerged in the Middle East, the cultures there and in Africa revered the many-faceted goddess, Isis. She presided over the other gods, life and death in traditions ranging from Nubia, to Lebanon and to Greece. Images of Kunapipi and Eingana, the mother goddesses of the Australian aboriginal cultures who bring life, knowledge and death, have been found in rock art dating back at least 10,000 years.

The embrace of the sacred feminine is an ancient tradition across the world. In Buddhist cultures, there are many forms of the sacred feminine, but the most well known is Tara. She is considered to be the mother of all Buddhas – a deity of love, compassion, nurturance, and longevity. If we consider what it means to be the mother of all the Buddhas, the awakened ones, on a symbolic level, we quickly understand that in the Buddhist tradition, it is understood that the awakened state emerges out of the generative power of the great feminine.

The power of this vision cannot be overstated. It means that the immense wisdom and teachings relative to the evolution of consciousness of the Buddhist tradition is generated and mediated by the power of the great feminine.  This is a tradition that has cultivated and elucidated many aspects of the power of the great feminine for thousands of years. We have much to learn about this power by understanding more about Tara, the field of wisdom out of which these teachings emerge.

Like the goddesses of other cultures, she represents the feminine aspect of spirituality, the sacred feminine. There are actually 21 different Taras. Through these many forms, Tara demonstrates a different aspect of the power of the great feminine. Each of the Taras is represented in a different aspect, and each is a different color or shade of color. The different colors and forms represent different characteristics, energies or qualities and thus carefully articulate a different aspect of the power of the great feminine.

In studying Tara, we find the powers of the great feminine she embodies are wide-ranging and profound. If we sit with these different representations, we can begin to understand the power of the great feminine better. Both men and women can reclaim the power of the great feminine in their everyday lives. One way to accomplish this task is to understand what Tara is demonstrating to us in all her different aspects.

As we begin to perceive these qualities in detail, we can measure where we are in relationship to them. We can compare ourselves to the way that Tara embodies these values and come to understand what is required of us in order to stand fully in the type of power she embodies in our everyday lives. This can be a journey of transformation, and to follow this path we need all the information we can get in order to embrace the sacred feminine fully in our lives.  

Unlike more ancient cultures which had a deep reverence for the sacred feminine and whose societal structures were centered on the respect and cultivation of her qualities, we live in a world that is out of balance. It is out of balance precisely because these qualities have been overlooked or forgotten. It is up to us to understand how we can reclaim these qualities for ourselves and become advocates for them in order to help bring balance to our current individual and collective situation.

So, let us become a student of what Tara is showing us in her many forms and try to understand how we can learn to embody the qualities of the great feminine in our everyday lives. There are several white Taras, several blue Taras, several red Taras, a black Tara – and perhaps the best known, the green Tara.

There are multiple White Taras. One represents longevity and nurturing. Another is known for effectively confronting forces that might interfere with these qualities. They are often depicted sitting on a white lotus.  The white lotus is an important symbol and by understanding what it and other symbols related to Tara represent, we can learn much about the power of the great feminine.

The white lotus represents purity on each level of being – purity of mind, purity of body, and purity of speech. Because the lotus grows out of the mud, it shows us that Tara can give us access to these qualities no matter what state we find ourselves in.

So, in aligning ourselves with the power of the white Tara, we are able to purify our thoughts and emotions, our bodies, and the way we communicate with others and ourselves. It can be very helpful to us to understand that this is a task that is required of us as we set out on our quest to more fully embrace the sacred feminine in our everyday lives. We can learn more about how to do this as we deepen our connection to the qualities that Tara represents.

The color white is another symbol that demonstrates an essential quality of the great feminine that Tara embodies. Here, the color white and the purity it indicates is important because the more we purify those aspects of our experience that prevent us from embracing the qualities of the great feminine, the longer life we are likely to have.

For instance, if I remain angry about being disempowered in some way, that anger is likely to exhaust me over time. Therefore, I am less likely to be able to maintain my energy and my health, and my longevity may be affected by this depletion.

But if I work with my anger to see where it comes from by watching carefully when it gets triggered, I can begin to understand it better. If I try to become more aware of my thoughts, I can see where the anger is before I express it. And if I carefully watch the way I express myself, I can see how my anger is showing up in my word choices.

Cultivating this kind of awareness is the first step toward transforming my anger. As I continue to work to understand anger and its effects, I am more likely to feel at peace and have more energy for longer periods of time. If I can, through these practices, maintain my energy and health, I am more likely to live a longer life.

There are many texts within Buddhist Philosophy that offer important insights about the power of Tara. White Tara: An Offering and The 21 Verses in Praise of Tara are but two.

Here, in the text, White Tara: An Offering, we gain some insight about the ways in which people have worked with emotions like anger over time:  

“0 venerable Tara, inspire the forces that enrich life and cause spiritual energy to increase. Inspire the forces that sustain life. Inspire the forces that pacify diseases and evil. Inspire the forces that can counteract negative instincts and spiritual obscurations within the mindstream. Inspire us quickly to attain the ordinary and supreme siddhis.”

“Siddhi” is a Sanskrit noun that can be translated as “accomplishment. “It is truly an accomplishment to be able to address the ways in which we cut short our own life force by indulging in negativity. We can examine the ways in which the practices of Tara can help us address hidden negativity within us and focus us toward a more positive, life-sustaining engagement with life.

There are several Red Taras, each a different shade of red; they represent different aspects of the power that Tara embodies. One is often shown sitting on a moon disc, indicating her connection with the power of the moon. The moon represents the cycles of change and Tara’s sitting on this disc indicates her ability to engage and even dominate the cycles of time.

This Tara is quite peaceful, resting among garlands of flowers. In this aspect Tara is considered to be the heart of Tara herself. She is known for being able to magnetize all good things into any given situation and circumstance from her seat deep within time.

In the 15th Verse of The 21 Verses in Praise of Tara, this aspect of Tara is expressed in this way:

I prostrate to the blissful virtuous, peaceful one,
She who acts from within nirvana’s serenity.
With the pure sounds ‘Svaha’ and also ‘Om’
She annihilates even the greatest evils.

When we consider what it might mean for us to “prostrate to the blissful virtuous, peaceful one,” in our own lives, we can look at the way in which we can dedicate ourselves to promoting peace within ourselves and within our community. Peacefulness is an essential aspect of the great feminine that invites us to participate in activities that provide mutual benefit. When we think about how we might center our lives on activities that generate peace over time, we have an antidote to the sense of despair or hopelessness we might find ourselves in when we are surrounded by forces, such as “the greatest evils” that many of us experience as part of the focus on war and creating harm that is so prevalent in the current time.

Another Red Tara demonstrates a fiercer approach to bringing peace into our lives.  This Tara has four arms and holds various symbols in her hands. She is often shown with a ring of flames around her. The flames symbolize her ability to burn away misunderstandings and even delusions we might have – particularly about our relationship to the power of the great feminine.  

Verse 13 of The 21 Verses in Praise of Tara vividly captures this quality:

I prostrate to she who dwells within a garland
Of flames like the aeon ending in fire.
Her right leg stretched and left withdrawn,
Joy of her followers and scourge of their foes.

With two of her main arms, she holds an arrow, stretched on a flower bow. The shaft of this arrow is made of flowers and the flight is made of leaves. The symbol of the bow and arrow indicates her ability to clearly attain what her heart desires.

If we think about what this means for our lives, we see that aligning ourselves with Tara’s practices have the possibility of helping us get clearer about what our goals and purpose are. This is facilitated by the work we do to understand how our misconceptions may be clouding our ability to truly know our goals and purpose. As we gain clarity, we can set the arrow of our intention more clearly as we strive to bring ourselves into better alignment with our heart’s desire.

In depictions of this aspect of Red Tara, her upper right hand holds a hook of flowers and her left hand holds a noose. Both these implements symbolize her ability to bring home those who might stray from the path of aligning their heart’s desire to as much clarity as possible.

In the verse, the reference, “Her right leg stretched and left withdrawn,” refers to an aspect of many of the Taras. Her leg is outstretched as she steps forward to do what is asked of her. We too can cultivate this willingness to gain clarity about our purpose and our heart’s desire. We can understand how Tara is showing us how to follow our path with all the purpose and possibility available to us.

Tara is represented in so many forms because there are so many facets to the power she carries. At one moment, she is loving, extending herself to help those who are suffering – and then next, she is ferocious, defending against powerful negative forces.

Even as Verse 15 gives us a portrait of her loving side, Verse 8 of The 21 Verses in Praise of Tara gives us a good understanding of her ferocious side:

I prostrate to Ture, who vanquishes
The great fears, the mightiest devils.
With a wrathful twist of her lotus face,
She slays all foes without exception.

“Ture” is a reference to Tara.  The Black Taras are perhaps the best example of this ferocity. They often wear a tiger’s skin to indicate their great power and tiger’s teeth to exemplify this power.   In this form, she is often referred to as “the Divine Mother of compassion and a firm Goddess to ward off any form of evil.”

This ability to meet fear and other obstacles with great power is a valuable quality we must all cultivate. We are often taught that it is unseemly to express power in a direct and confrontational way, but there are situations where this kind of stance is required.  Without it, how can we face down a bully who is harming our children? Or, how can we put down a proper boundary to other types of negative intention? One of the lessons we learn from observing Tara in this fierce stance is that we can hold this kind of power in order to effectively protect ourselves against in even the most threatening situations.

It is important to remember that although the power of Tara can be expressed in many forms in order to help convey all of the different facets of the power of the great feminine, she has one characteristic that is unchanging: compassion. Even in her fiercest aspects where she is facing down the different forces of negativity, she approaches the confrontation with compassion in her heart.

The Blue Taras are known for their capacity to demonstrate this alchemy of meeting negativity with great intensity while holding steady in a field of compassion. Through this catalytic activity, anger can be transmuted into wisdom. They show us how we can meet other obstacles that might block our ability to come into balance with equal strength.

The Blue Taras show us that we have it within us to see our problems as opportunities. This perspective is important to cultivate as we set out on the path to come into balance in the way we hold power of the feminine in the world. Often, as we begin to realize the ways in which we are not meeting the challenge of standing in our potential, we can feel daunted. Blue Tara reminds us that by marshaling our inner strength we can transform any obstacle into a path of insight and even good fortune.

There are several forms of yellow or gold Tara. They are associated with generosity and prosperity. Abundance is one of the key characteristics of the great feminine.  

Verse 11 of The 21 Verses in Praise of Tara captures Tara’s dedication to preserving this abundance.

I prostrate to she with power to invoke
All the armies of local protectors.
With face fiercely wrinkled and a vibrant Hum
She brings freedom from every poverty.

When we think of abundance, we often think of money and material possessions. Of course, it is important to all of us to have enough money to be able to lead our lives as fully as we can.  But Tara also shows us that we need to free ourselves from all types of poverty if we are going to be able to truly enjoy abundance on a material level.

The Golden and Yellow Taras show us that this kind of abundance is possible, and it is within our reach when we focus our attention properly in order to attain it. We must be willing to free ourselves from self-limiting ideas about what we are allowed to have. We must allow ourselves the abundance of stepping into new possibilities and protect our right to have what we need in order to be able to embrace our lives fully.

The Green Tara is perhaps the best known of all the Taras. She embodies compassion, protection, engagement and courage. Like some of the other Taras, she is often depicted with one leg stepping forth from a seated position, indicating her willingness to offer assistance and service to the world. Green Tara is often referred to as a savioress.

Her reputation as a savioress is well documented in this story that is an adaptation of an account by Bokar Rinpoche, a Tibetan Buddhist monk, who was 18 years old when he and a group of Tibetans fled the Chinese occupation of Tibet by making a dangerous crossing of the Himalayas in 1959. His belief in and reliance on Tara, is striking. Of all the deities in the Tibetan pantheon, it was Tara he and his fellow travelers called upon to assist them in finding safe passage. Here is his account of a particularly difficult moment during their journey: 

The wind was driving the falling snow into high drifts all around us. The animals were struggling to find their footing. As they slipped, the bags they were carrying fell off and disappeared down the mountainside. There were sixty of us who were trying to get through the high, dangerous mountain pass before the Chinese troops who were pursuing us caught up with us.

Earlier in the journey, we had asked for guidance from Tara through divination to plan our safe escape from the Chinese troops who were overtaking our homeland. We were concerned with the results of the divination, because it indicated that the best course of action was to take the route that led over the steep mountain pass. Winter was upon us and we knew at the outset that if snow were to fall while we were traveling this route we would have great difficulty. But Tara’s direction was clear – we were not to take the easier route.

Just before the snow started falling, we had met a group of nomads coming up the mountain. They told us that they had seen Chinese troops on both sides of the pass. We could not turn back. Our only choice was to continue. The snow blinded us as we struggled on, but we maintained our determined pace until we finally made it safely to the Tibetan settlement in Nepal.  

As we were warming ourselves by the fire the next morning, we learned that the Chinese troops had come very close to discovering us. While the blizzard had made it impossible for us to see even a foot in front of us, the Chinese troops had similar difficulties, and this proved beneficial since the conditions brought on by the storm hid us from their sight. By the time they reached the pass, it was no longer traversable, and they had to hunker down in the blackout conditions of the blizzard as we pushed on through the storm. If the snow had not fallen, or had fallen slightly earlier, or slightly later, we might have been caught. We could not help thinking that this timely snowstorm had been Tara’s blessing.

These monks were evoking the power of the great feminine in the form of Tara to deliver them from their difficulties. We too can invoke this same power, and even become agents of this power to help address the difficulties that we are facing as our own world, like theirs, is changing in ways we could never have imagined.  If we commit to understanding Tara better, we can develop the courage to trust that we can receive the guidance we need to help us through any difficulty.