On the sixth day of the ‘Aspirations to End Adversity’ with 17th Karmapa, there was a recitation of the Praises of the Twenty-One Tārās and two supplications to Guru Rinpoche, Clearing the Path of Obstacles and Spontaneous Fulfillment of Wishes together. Here is a transcript of the teaching on the recited texts compiled with some extra information on the textual and authorship sources the Karmapa referred to.
Praises to Twenty-One Tārās
First, the Karmapa explained the origin of Tārā and her being the main yidam of Jowo Atisha as well as the Kadampa school and that most of the White Tārā traditions in Karma Kagyu come from the Kadampa school:
“The teachings on Jetsun Tārā were very widespread in India even in ancient times. For example, to this day, ancient images of Tārā can be still seen at all of the sacred Buddhist sites, including Nalanda and Bodhgaya. In India at that time, it seems that everyone had great faith in and devotion to Tārā, regardless of whether they were Mahayana or Hinayana practitioners.
In terms of Tibet, Jetsun Tārā was Jowo Atisha’s yidam deity. At first, he had no desire to go to Tibet, but Tārā made a prophecy and explained why he should, so he decided to go, as is described in his biographies. Tārā is also a primary deity of the Kadampa school; she is one of their four main deities, the goddess of activity. These days, our main traditions of White Tārā come down from the Kadampa school. Tārā has been the yidam deity of many Tibetan lamas of all traditions, and many incarnations of the Karmapa have considered Tārā their yidam deity. In particular, these Praises to the Twenty-One Tārās are ubiquitous in Tibet, and all monastics and laypeople, young and old alike, recite them daily. Even illiterate people learn them by ear and recite them. When I was little, I remember my mother reciting Tārā. She was illiterate but had learned it orally and recited it with a pure intention.
Regarding Jetsun Tārā’s origin, there is not time to teach it at length today. But in brief, Tārā is usually said to be an emanation of Avalokiteshvara, and in Tibet there is a tradition that both White and Green Tārā were born from tears from his two eyes. In the Sutra of Mañjushri Expanding in All Directions, translated into Chinese by the Indian master Amoghavajra, it is said that when Avalokiteshvara entered the samadhi of Tārā, the appearance of all, from his right hand there shone light rays, out of which Tārā arose.
There is a custom of revering Tārā as an emanation of Avalokiteshvara or as Avalokiteshvara changing to a female form. For example, in some sutras and tantras, she is called by the names Tārā Lokeshvara and Tārā Avalokiteshvara. It is Tārā who is said to offer protection from the eight dangers, and the White Lotus Sutra similarly says that Avalokiteshvara protects us from the eight dangers. To sum it up, the Mahayana teaches Avalokiteshvara embodies the compassion of all buddhas. He then arises in the form of Tārā and becomes for us like the image of a loving mother. This allows us to be closer to her and have a stronger feeling. There are similar instances in many religions in the world. For example, in Christianity, many faithful people have especial faith in and regard for Mary, the mother of Jesus. I think this is similar to that.”
Textual Sources of Praises to Tārā
The 84000 Project have recently published a new translation of the Praise to Twenty-One Tārās (Namastāraikaviṃśatistotra, sgrol ma la phyag ’tshal nyi shu rtsa gcig gis bstod pa phan yon dang bcas pa). The Introduction to their translation states that:
“The praise has been preserved in the Kangyur in two forms. First, the praise was translated into Tibetan and preserved as an independent text in the Kangyur (Toh 438). It is this text that we present in English translation here. Second, it is also found in transliterated Sanskrit as part of the larger tantra The Source of the Different Activities of Tārā (Toh 726). In this tantra, the Buddha reveals the praise in the form of an incantation (dhāraṇī), a circumstance that prompted the Tibetan translators to transliterate the Sanskrit text of the praise rather than translate it into Tibetan. The relationship between these two versions in the Kangyur is not clear. The colophons to some Kangyur editions suggest that the Tibetan translation (Toh 438) was prepared based on the transliterated Sanskrit, but this is disputed by the Tibetan commentator Jetsün Drakpa Gyaltsen (1147–1216), who mentions that the praise was transmitted from India and translated as an independent text.
Regarding the Indian commentarial literature on the praise, there are seven related texts preserved in the Degé Tengyur. These comprise two sādhanas attributed to Nāgārjuna (Toh 1683–84) as well as two sādhanas (Toh 1685–86) and three commentaries attributed to Sūryagupta (Toh 1687–89). Sūryagupta’s commentaries, rather than explaining the meaning of the words in the praise, focus on the iconography of each of Tārā’s twenty-one forms, describing her color, seat, posture, number of faces and arms, implements, and hand gestures. In Tibet, many scholars composed a variety of commentaries and sādhanas related to this praise.”[i]
There are several other prior translations of the Praises available online including my own, which is included in my recent translation of Jetsun Tārānatha’s Commentary on the Praises to Tārā : The Explicit and Hidden Aspects of Tārā.
Two Supplications to Guru Padmasambhava
The Karmapa then went on to explain the two supplications to Padmasambhava, the relatively unknown treasure-revealers who revealed the texts, his own new translation of them into Chinese, and how Guru Rinpoche is not just important for the Nyingma lineage but for all lineages:
“Then we will recite two supplications to the great Guru Padmasambhava of Uddiyana. These two are the most common of the many different prayers to Guru Rinpoche. They are both termas, but there are different versions based on different terma texts that were revealed at different times. For the texts included in our prayer book on this occasion, the first, Clearing the Path of Obstacles, is based on the terma revealed by Tulku Sangpo Drakpa, and the second, Spontaneous Fulfillment of Wishes, is based on the terma revealed by Tulku Bakhal Mukpo.
There are versions of both these texts that were revealed later by the great tertön Chokgyur Lingpa, but it seems that the original tertöns to reveal them are the two whom I just mentioned. But neither of these two tertöns is all that well known, so I think many people probably have never even heard of them. Thus, in order to show gratitude to these two for revealing such important treasures as these, we have included them in our prayer books, and I have taken this opportunity to translate them into Chinese, though there is some room for improvement in some places. I hope that later, when they are right in all respects, I will be able to share them with you all.
Of these two, Clearing the Path of Obstacles is a supplication combined with the life story of Guru Rinpoche. Guru Rinpoche had a great influence on the spread of Buddhism in Tibet, and thus all followers of Tibetan Buddhism owe him a deep debt of gratitude. It is said that though he was kind to Tibet, his kindness went unnoticed. Unlike other Indian scholars and masters, there were many in Tibet who objected to and denigrated Guru Rinpoche. The reason this occurred is on the one hand that his detractors did not know his sources, scriptures, and reasons, and on the other, it is that a few of Guru Rinpoche’s followers seem to have had the fault of being overly zealous. In brief, if we were to say that Guru Rinpoche was only kind to the Nyingma school or that he belonged to the Nyingmas only, it would be mistaken. He was, as the Tibetan saying goes, the guru of all gurus, the sun of all suns. The second buddha Padmasambhava is not a guru for a specific school or a specific dharma lineage; he is like the universal jewel for all Tibetans, and I think it is important to keep this in mind.
It was during the reign of King Songtsen Gampo that the dharma was initially established in Tibet. He built the Pehar shrine in Rasa. Then dharma was practiced for five generations until King Tride Tsugtsen or Me Oktsom. After he passed away, some ministers from the Shang clan acted badly and the shrines and statues of the Three Jewels that had been built were destroyed. They said, “This southern Nepali dharma is not appropriate for Tibet,” and decreed laws prohibiting the practice of dharma.
Then, when King Trisong Detsen, still a youth, reached the age of twenty, he saw the reasons for practicing the dharma and repealed the old laws prohibiting dharma practice. He invited Buddhist masters and the king himself listened to dharma teachings and read dharma texts. His intention was to propagate Buddhism widely in Tibet, but at that time, many people thought that since Buddhism was not the old religion of Tibet, it would conflict with propitiating deities, harm everyone, and offend the gods. They thought it would interfere with politics and bring human and animal diseases, famine, and so forth. They had very strong suspicions and worries. Because of this, King Trisong Detsen summoned the kings of minor kingdoms such as Asha and the external and internal ministers to hold a council to discuss this thoroughly. First, they considered what the Buddhist scriptures mean. Second, they took their forefathers’ deeds as an example. Third, they investigated in great detail with the help and guidance of the Buddhist ministers and saw that not only was there no fault in practicing Buddhism, it was also very beneficial.
They saw three main reasons it would be beneficial. The first reason was that the meaning taught in the dharma was all excellent and that practicing it would accomplish excellent and unexcelled aim. Thus, it would not turn out badly; it could only turn out well. Second, one had to look at long term benefit and happiness; one could not say that short-term circumstances are an adequate reason to say dharma practice is inappropriate. Third, for many generations, their forefathers had practiced dharma, but nothing bad and no problems had occurred. For these three reasons, they agreed that there was no fault in practicing the dharma and had an edict inscribed with their commitment to not denigrate and not extirpate the dharma. The inscription can still be seen to this day.
Old manuscripts from the time of the kings call Guru Rinpoche, “Padmasambhava, the scholar from Uddiyana who achieved siddhi.” At that time, Guru Rinpoche was the most powerful siddha in India. Though King Trisong Detsen wished to propagate the dharma in Tibet, many internal and external obstacles arose, as did many bad signs and omens. They invited Guru Rinpoche, and he tamed the gods and demons, quelling all the bad signs and omens. He made the gods and demons enter people’s bodies, and they admitted their faults, saying that what they had done was wrong. People could not help being amazed and had to believe. Their earlier suspicions and wrong thoughts were all pacified. Thus his help and assistance to the king in spreading Buddhism at that time was an extremely great kindness.
Guru Rinpoche’s life story is taught in many different ways. Some say he was born miraculously. Some say he was born from the womb. There are also people who say that it is fine to say both—that he was born miraculously and also born from the womb. Regarding how long he spent in Tibet, people explain it in many different ways. Some say he spent three years in Tibet, some say six years, and some eight, twelve, or eighteen years. According to the termas, the shortest time is fifty years, and some say he spent over one hundred years. If these are explanations of visions of pure appearance, you can say as long as you like, but when trying to determine the order of historical events, it must be presented in terms of how it commonly appears to human beings. Thus, researching the Kama texts of the Nyingma and the actual ancient Tibetan historical documents and chronicles to establish the sequence of events would give confidence. In particular, there is a life story of Guru Rinpoche written by the Jonang Jetsun Tārānatha called the “Indian” or the “Threefold Conviction.” It has some interesting, distinctive features, and I think it would be good for all of us to read it.
In brief, please have great faith and devotion in Jetsun Tārā, the embodiment of the activity of all the buddhas, and in Guru Rinpoche, who is superior to all others in wisdom, love, and power during this degenerate age, and let us recite these prayers together.”
Jetsun Tāranātha’s ‘Life Story of Padmasambhava: Endowed with the Three Confidences‘
The text by the Jonang and Shangpa Kagyu master, Jetsun Tāranātha (that the 17th Karmapa specifically referred to) is called Master Padmasambhava’s Life Story endowed with the Three Confidences (slob dpon pad+ma ‘byung gnas kyi rnam thar yid ches gsum ldan)[ii]. The colophon states that it was composed by Tāranātha at the age of 36 at the hermitage of Nagyalmo (nags rgyal mo) at jo mo nang. Nagyalmo is a local deity of Jomonang. This text has been translated into English by Cristiana de Falco (Shang Shung Publications, 2002, see here). It is unusual in that it is based on the kama, not terma tradition and speaks about Padmasambhava having a common, human (not miraculous) birth. In her translation, De Falco states that:
“As I will explain in more detail in the Introduction, there are biographies of Padmasambhava in both of the main traditions of Tibetan sacred literature related to the Nyingma school: terma and kama. Most of the biographies that are known nowadays, especially the terma ones, in spite of their beauty, expressive perfection and great value as far as the deepening of the studies of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism is concerned, do not provide data that could be of much relevance to a contemporary Western historian. For instance, most of these texts introduce Padmasambhava as a being who was not born of a woman, but who suddenly appeared – in a miraculous way – in the shape of an eight-year-old boy sitting on a lotus flower in the middle of a lake, an account which could stimulate in a modern Westerner the wish to get to know more about the language of this culture that is not restricted by rationalism…..
Tāranātha (1575-?), the author of the biography contained in this book, is one of the major Tibetan historians of his age. His testimony is still considered reliable by Tibetans, and the source of his writings is in the kama tradition. In this work he deals with the history of Padmasambhava as a modern historian would, wishing to satisfy a need
for objectivity, using the most reliable sources available to him and making accurate references to them in his text, so as to dispel any doubts regarding the authenticity of his account.
At this point, I would like to stress that my purpose here is not to belittle the value of the terma tradition to which so many fundamental teachings of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism belong. To raise doubts about thistradition or about the historicity of Padmasambhava, who was himself the author of many terma texts, would be like doubting the existence of a Tantric tradition in Tibet altogether. Rather, my purpose is to point out that there are different versions of Padmasambhava’s life story, and that this one says something new, in that – relying on sources that are so different from those of the terma biographies and having different aims – it shows a more historical and human side of this great being. This is a very important contribution, since the whole transmission of the Tantric teachings is based on one very important thing: the human figure of the
guru, or ‘spiritual teacher’.”
“The version of the kama tradition is probably less known. Taranatha’s biography relates that he was the son of a member of the royal family of Oddiyana, called Srado in Oddiyana language and Srigdhara in Sanskrit….
The text was written with the aim of shedding light upon the countless stories regarding the life of Padmasambhava, which, according to Taranatha, were not always reliable. It is subtitled ‘in the Indian style’, since Taranatha mostly relied upon Indian sources, such as the Indian oral tradition of the Mahasiddhas, as transmitted to him by his guru Buddhaguptanatha. He also consulted the main texts of the kama tradition, i.e. The Garland of Views of the Secret Methods and the series of texts on Vajra Kilaya and Hayagriva, comparing them with each other and with the Tibetan historical documents that were available to him, such as the Bashe. It resulted that the kama texts mostly agree with each other and with the Bashe regarding the account of Padmasambhava’s birth and sojourn in Tibet.”
For more on Jetsun Tāranātha and translations of other texts by him, see the page here.
Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 27th January 2021. Special thanks to Dharma friend, Gonpo Jack for informing me of the translation of the Taranatha text. May it be of benefit!
Twenty-One Praises to Tārā – new translation by 84 000 Project. New Publication: Praise to Tārā with Twenty-One Verses of Homage | 84000 Translating the Words of the Buddha
The Explicit and Hidden Aspects of Tārā: Commentary on Praises to 21 Tārās by Jetsun Tārānatha (tr. Adele Tomlin, Dakini Publications 2020).
White Tārā Daily Practice by 8th Karmapa (tr. Adele Tomlin, Dakini Publications 2020).
Master Padmasambhava’s Life Story (slob dpon pad+ma ‘byung gnas kyi rnam thar yid ches gsum ldan) by Jetsun Tāranātha. Translated by Cristiana De Falco (Shang Shung Publications, 2002).
[i] The 84 000 translation’s Introduction further states that: “This translation has been prepared based on the Degé Kangyur with reference to the Comparative Edition (dpe bsdur ma) and the Stok Palace Kangyur.We also consulted the Sanskrit editions prepared by de Blonay (1895), Pandey (1984), Willson (1996), and Wayman (2002). The interested reader may also wish to compare our translation to some of the other published translations of the praise in English.”
[ii] In the Collected Works of Tārānatha (gsung ‘bum/_tA ra nA tha/ ?dpe bsdur ma/?. TBRC W1PD45495. 38: 55 – 104. pe cin: krung go’i bod rig pa dpe skrun khang, 2008.