As an offering for the Twenty-one Tarā (jenang) permission empowerment given today by HH 14th Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso (video here), in the place where Shakyamuni Buddha attained enlightenment, (which I was fortunate to attend in person), I offer first a brief introduction to the four main traditions of the Twenty-One Tārās (two from India, and two from Tibetan treasure revealers). Like the majority of Tibetans, I recite the Twenty-One Tārās Praises daily and so it is very close to my heart and mind.
Second, I re-publish the introduction to the first English translation (and publication) of the Commentary on the Praises to the Twenty-One Tārās: The Explicit and Hidden Aspects of Tārā (ཕྱག་འཚལ་ཉེར་གཅིག་གི་བསྟོད་པའི་རྣམ་པར་བཤད་པ། )composed by the Jonang, and Shangpa Kagyu, master Tāranātha (1575-1634)[i].
The text gives a verse- by-verse explanation of both the explicit (or literal) meaning of the words of the commonly-recited Praises to the Twenty-One Tārās, as well as their hidden (or secret) meaning. I first translated and published this commentary in 2020.
As the commentary gives instruction on the ‘hidden’ or ‘deeper’ aspects of Tārā, with Tāranātha also stating how each Tārā relates to the six yogas of Kālacakra, this text should only be read by those with the requisite Tārā and Kālacakra empowerments. Thus, it should not be re-published or copied for public use without permission. Please contact me here if you would like a free copy to download for personal use.
May the blessings of the Twenty-One Tārās in Bodh Gaya with the great man of ‘peace’ and ‘compassion’ Tenzin Gyatso (who has consistently maintained a stance of non-violence globally and for Tibet) lead us all to realise the wisdom, power, love and compassion of Arya Tārā!
Wishing all a happy, healthy, successful and joy-filled New Year’s Eve and New Year 2023!
Adele Tomlin, 31st December 2022.
Part I: The Praises to the Twenty-One Tārās and the four ‘main’ traditions
The tantra known as the Praises to the Twenty-One Tārās was spoken by the Buddha Samantabhadra out of which arose the system of practice with twenty-one Tārā emanations – one for each verse of praise. Each form of Tārā has a specific colour and accomplishes a specific activity.
There are said to be at least four ‘twenty-one Tārā’ traditions, those of:
- Sūrya-Gupta (7th/8th cent.),
- Atīśa Dipaṃkara (982-1054),
- Longchen Rabjampa (1308-1363), and
- Terchen Chokgyur Lingpa (1829-1870).
The latter three traditions are very similar in that the individual Tārās are described as varying only slightly in body colour and the emblems shown on the lotus flowers they hold. The two most well-known are the twenty-one Tārās according to the Atīśa tradition, and the earlier, more complex, twenty-one Tārās according to the great Mahasiddha Sūrya-Gupta [i]. It is these two I explain a little about below. The last two are ‘treasure’ (terma) traditions, the first discovered by Jigme Lingpa, the second by Chogyur Lingpa. HAR mentions another tradition from the compendium of practices called the Sadhanasamucchaya.
The tradition given by the 14th Dalai Lama was not explained, but from the visualisation instructions, it appears to be the Atiśa one, although it has a green central Tārā (instead of the normal red one for that system).
Sūrya-Gupta lineage of the twenty-one Tārās – various appearances, attribute and mantras
The Sūrya-Gupta lineage came from Sūrya-Gupta, one of the great Eighty-four Mahasiddhas (7th/8th century). In an article on the 21 Tārās by Thomas Roth (2009):
“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. prominent disciple of Sūrya-Gupta was Sarvajña-Mitra, who was a master of the Tārā tantras and practices in his own right. Some of Sūrya-Gupta’s works are found, translated into Tibetan, in the Tengyur.”
He is said to have had countless visions of glorious Mother Tārā. she first cured him of leprosy. (As recorded by the Indian scholar Vajrasana of Bodhgaya in the 11th century).
Interestingly, even though Tara instantly cured him of Leprosy, she is said to have left one tiny sore on his forehead. When he asked her why, she replied:
“Formerly you were born as a hunter, killed animals and in the end set fire to a forest. In consequence of this, you were reborn in Hell and this is your last rebirth of the 500 rebirths in Hell, and saying so, she bestowed on him the sadhana, accompanied by a stotra. The Tara said with their help, one may perform any kind of magic rite. I shall grant you miraculous powers (siddhi).”
The twenty-one Tārās are quite different from the Atīśa lineage in that each of the twenty-one Tārās is very distinctive in appearance and attributes (see thangka image above and below), and each Tārā has her own visualisation, mantra and sadhana[ii].
In the Atiśa version, there is only the one mantra, sadhana and the images are relatively similar, appearing seated with two arms, with only minor variances in colour and expression (see more below).
Tāranātha does not specify exactly which tradition or specific visualisations he follows in this commentary. However, in his other commentary on the twenty-one Tārās (see below) he specifies that he is teaching the Atīśa tradition [iii].
Atīśa system – Central figure of Red Tārā
Atiśa Dīpankara Śrījñāna (982–1054) was a Buddhist leader and master. He is generally associated with his work carried out at the Vikramashila monastery in Bihar and of major importance in bringing the Buddha’s teachings into Tibet. Atiśa’s chief disciple, Dromtön, was the founder of the Kadam school, which later led to the founding of Gelugpa.Atiśa’s chief disciple, Dromtön, was the founder of the Kadam school, which later led to the founding of Gelugpa.
Atiśa was famously said to have had a pure vision of Tārā in which she advised him to go to Tibet, even though it would shorten his life-span:
“That night, Tara appeared to Atisha in a pure vision and told him his journey would be a complete success. He would benefit the Tibetans enormously and would find among them a disciple with an especially close bond to him. This would be an upasaka, a man with lay vows, and he would spread the Dharma even further. “But,” she told him, “if you remain in India, you will live to be ninety-two, whereas if you go to Tibet your life span will be seventy-two years.” Atisha now felt confident to go with the Tibetans and that it was worth the sacrifice of twenty years of his life if he could truly benefit others. He would have to find some clever means to obtain leave from his shrewd abbot.”
In the Atīśa system all the Tārās have the same basic appearance and only differ in the colour of the body. Green is considered the primary colour of Tārā based on other teaching lineages describing Tārā in solitary form or with the accompanying deities Marichi and Ekajati.
However, green Tārā is not included in the enumeration of the twenty-one Tārās of Atīśa. There are four red Tārās, six white, three yellow, four orange, two maroon (red-black) and two black Tārās for a total of twenty-one.
Each of the individual Tārās holds a vase in the outstretched right hand. The vase is the same colour as the body colour of that Tārā. Some of the Tārās are described as being slightly fierce, meaning they may have an open mouth with slightly enlarged canine teeth and furrowed brow above the eyes. For more on the specific colours and attributes of each Tārā see here.
However, as I said before, the 14th Dalai Lama seems to have given the Atiśa visualisation with a Green Tārā at the centre, like the thangka image below painted by HH 17th Gyalwang Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje.
For more on the origins of the Green Acacia Forest Tārā (Sengden Ngaki Drolma) from the 1st Karmapa, Dusum Khyenpa, see here.
Longchenpa system – Jigme Lingpa
The Longchen Nyingtig Tradition popularized by Jigme Lingpa (1729/30-1798) is very similar to the system of the Atiśa Twenty-one Taras. In the Longchen system the figures have a single face and two arms with the right hand and leg extended forward. Held in the left hand, blossoming over the left shoulder, is a flower supporting a symbolic attribute for each of the twenty-one Taras. For images of those Tārās, see the Himalayan Art Resources webpage, here.
The Twenty-one Taras according to the Tradition of Chogyur Lingpa (1829-1870) which follows very closely to the Longchen Nyingtig Tradition.
According to HAR, “a special characteristic of the Chogling system known as the ‘Chogling Tara Removing All Fear’ is the placement of Green Tara as the first and central of the Twenty-one Taras.”
Part II: Tāranātha and the twenty-one Tārās
Jetsun Tāranātha was an expert scholar on Tārā and wrote several sadhanas and instruction texts about Tārā[iv], and a historical text about the origin and history of the Tārā tantras, which has been translated and published in English by David Templeman[v]. In a recent article by Templeman, Tāranātha describes what happened when he met his Indian master teacher, Buddhaguptanātha[vi]:
“The ascetic told the young student of his own trans-oceanic travels to Potalaka, the abode of Avalokiteśvara, which was also believed to be the abode of the form of Tārā known as Bhṛkuṭī as well as being the actual residence of Tārā. The young Tāranātha requested Buddhaguptanātha for the yoga empowerments for Tārā, the root instructions for her practice as well as for the requisite blessings to permit him to commence them. He then had certain visionary dreams of Tārā and other deities who predicted that if he were to supplicate Avalokiteśvara until his twentieth year he would become a master of the caryā practices of Avadhūtipa and would as a result spread the Buddhist doctrine in various nearby lands, especially in Garzha (gar zha) in the region of Zangskar (Tzangs dkar). Almost drily, Tāranātha observes that despite this dream prophecy of Tārā he never really put the necessary requirements into practice and therefore did not fulfil the prophecy.”[vii]
Another famous text by Tāranātha, known as the Ocean of Yidam Deities[viii], contains the descriptions and short sādhanas for altogether four hundred and seventeen deities. Among them are forty-two aspects of Tārā[ix].
The Twenty-One Tārā commentary by Tāranātha
There are three extant Tibetan editions of this Tibetan commentary available online at TBRC. The main one I have used is in the Collected Works of Tāranātha, published in Beijing[x]. It is also contained in the other major editions of Tāranātha’s Collected Works, under a different Tibetan title[xi]. As far as I can see, there are no major differences between the texts, although I have not done a critical edition.
There is another Tārā commentary written by Tāranātha, on the definitive aspects of Tārā The Ṭīkā Commentary on the Definitive Characteristics of Noble Tārā, which is found in the Beijing and Dzamthang editions of his Collected Works[xii]. In the colophon of this work, it states that it was composed by Tāranātha when he was thirty years old. This second commentary is very similar to the main commentary of this translation, however, as there are slight differences or additional explanations, I have included them as annotations where relevant. In this second text, for example, Tāranātha refers to the ‘hidden’ meaning as ‘definitive’.
The main commentary of this book consists of a verse-by-verse explanation of the twenty-one Tārās, in terms of the explicit and hidden meaning. The text does not state when, or where, Tāranātha wrote the text and it is not clearly mentioned in his biographical material, according to scholar, David Templeman.
The Kālacakra six vajra-yogas and their connection to Tārā
In this commentary, within the explanations of the hidden meaning, Tāranātha refers to how they connect to the six vajra-yogas of Kālacakra[xiii]. For more on the origin, content, editions and translations of Tāranātha’s texts on Kālacakra: Meaningful to See and Hundred Blazing Lights, see here and here.
However, as Tāranātha does not give the actual pith instructions on them, it would not be inappropriate for people to read it. Nonetheless, it is highly recommended to have the Tārā and/or Kālacakra empowerment, transmission and instruction before reading this text.
In the Kālacakra tradition, the completion stage consists of six vajra yogas. These practises involve the manipulation and control of the channels, winds and essential drops. By doing this, a practitioner can attain the fully enlightened vajra-body state of Kālacakra, or here Tārā, in one lifetime[xiv]. Deities are sambhogakhāya Buddhas and so even though on the relative level they appear different with differing qualities and aspects, on the ultimate level they are inseparable from and are the embodiments of the ultimate Buddha, the Tathāgatagarbha. Therefore, in that respect, all deity practices are leading to the same result.
When Tāranātha specifically refers to one of the vajra-yogas, I have included annotated references of some of the descriptions given by Tāranātha in his major root text on the Kālacakra preliminaries and six vajra-yogas, Meaningful to See[xv] and some of Jamgon Kongtrul the First (a devoted follower of Jonang Kālacakra and Tāranātha), in his Treasury of Instructions: Book Eight, Part Four: Esoteric Instructions.[xvi]
For Tāranātha, the Kālacakra six vajra-yogas are the pinnacle of all the tantras; all other advanced practices, whatever name they go by, include them. As he states at the beginning of his instructions on the six vajra-yogas in Meaningful to See[xvii]:
“It is stated in the (Kālacakra) Mulatantra and in the Guhyasamaja UtTāratantra: “individual sense withdrawal, mental focus, wind control, retention, recollection and samadhi are held to be the six-branch yogas.” Also, in the Cakrasamvaramulatantra, it is said: “Realization is achieved through mantra repetition, wind-control and bliss.” Also, in Hevajra: “Contemplating the six branches, the yogin…” There are many other such comments. In brief, the six branches are: individual sense withdrawal, mental focus, wind control, retention, recollection and samadhi.
From the point of view of the yoga of the four vajras, individual sense withdrawal and mental focus are the yoga of body-vajra, wind control and retention are the yoga of speech-vajra, recollection is the yoga of mind-vajra, and, samadhi is the yoga of awareness-vajra. From the point of view of the four-fold approach-accomplishment, individual sense withdrawal and mental focus are approach (bsnyen pa), wind control and retention are near accomplishment (nyer sgrub, also called ‘close approach’), recollection is accomplishment, and, samadhi is great accomplishment.”
Here in this text too, according to Tāranātha, the practice of the hidden (or ultimate) aspects of the twenty-one Tārās, is a practice on the six vajra-yogas.
I received the direct oral transmission and instruction on the text from Jonang lama, Khenpo Chokyi Nangwa in 2017. However, due to various obstacles, and a lack of harmonious and supportive conditions and merit, I was unable to complete it until 2020. Thanks also to sponsors and supporters, in particular, Gonpo Jack and Louise. I apologise for any errors and dedicate the merit that we may one day see all sentient beings as precious and as worthy of our love and compassion, as our only child and by doing so attain the fully awakened state of Noble Tārā.
[i] Thomas Roth says (2009): “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.”
[ii] For an extensive description of the twenty-one Taras according to the Sūrya-Gupta lineage, see the post: ‘The 21 Tārās of Sūrya-Gupta’ by Thomas Roth (2009) on the Jonang Foundation website at https://jonangfoundation.org/blog/21-t%C4%81r%C4%81s-s%C5%ABrya-gupta
[iii] Martin Willson in his book, In Praise of Tārā (1992), traces many different lineages of Tārā Tantras, Tārā scriptures used as Tantric sadhanas. Willson’s work also contains charts which show origins of her tantras in various lineages. Tārā as a tantric practice quickly spread from around the 7th century CE onwards, and remains an important part of Vajrayana Buddhism practice.
[iv] For my compiled catalogue of extant texts on Tārā by Tāranātha in the main editions of his Collected Works, see Appendix A.
[v] Origin of the Tārā Tantra by Jetsun Tāranātha, tr. David Templeman (LTWA, 2007).
[vi] Buddhaguptanātha, an Indian tantric master, (16th century) was one of the main teachers of Tāranātha. His life was recorded in extensive detail by Tāranātha who wrote his biography around the year 1601. Tāranātha’s work is almost entirely devoted to his journeys across South and Southeast Asia and the many miraculous events that he experienced. Tāranātha presents the narrative as a faithful account of the events as told him by Buddhagupta himself. For more on his life see TEMPLEMAN 2002 and 2009 and the Treasury of Lives biography.
[vii] See TEMPLEMAN 2002.
[viii] Yi dam rgya mtsho’i sgrub thabs rin chen ‘byung gnas or just Rin ‘byung for short.
[ix] For an English translation of these different descriptions, see the post by Thomas Roth (2009) at https://jonangfoundation.org/blog/tāranātha’s-descriptions-tārā
[x] See: Collected Works by Tāranātha, Peking edition,(Jo nang rje btsun tA ra nA tha’i gsung ‘bum, dpe bsdur ma/), vol. 24, pp.71-94, 2008. TBRC W1PD45495.
[xi] The same text, which is titled, Explanation of Tara (sgrol ma’i ‘grel pa/) is found in the Dzamthang edition, Vol. 12, pp. 573-603; and in the Tagten Phunthsog Ling edition (rtag brtan phun tshongs gling gi par ma/), Vol. 12, pp.565-594.
[xii] ‘phags ma’i sgrol ma’i mtshan nges pa’i TIk+ka ‘grel pa rnams kyi lugs su sbyar ba, in the Peking edition, Vol. 42, pp. 39-53, TBRC W1PD45495 and Dzamthang edition, pp.545-563, TBRC W22276. In the Introduction to this text, Tāranātha states that:
Here the definitive characteristics of the renowned essence of the source of the Tārā tantras, is that of the tradition of the Twenty-One Tārās of great master, Dipamkara Shri Jnana (Atisha). Atisha himself, made a concise summary of his extensive explanations of the tantra. This is that together expanded with some other explanations taught by lamas. In relation to that, there are three teachings: the explanation of the meaning of the Praises to the Twenty-One Tārās, the application [training] of the definitive characteristics and the number of characteristics. From among those three, first, if one speaks of a word by word commentary, since there are many, I will roll it up into the essence.
I have only translated the first of these three: the explanation of the word for word meaning for the purposes of this text.
[xiii] Six vajra-yogas (ṣaḍañga-yoga, sbyor drug). These are the completion stage practices according to the Kālacakra system. The six yogas are:
- so sor sdud pa – individual sense withdrawal (pratyāhara)
- bsam gtan – mental focus (dhyāna)
- srog rtsol – wind control (prāṇāyāma)
- ‘dzin pa – retention (dharāṇā)
- rjes dran – recollection ( anusmṛiti)
- ting nge ‘dzin – samādhi (samādhi)
[xiv] For more on this see DHARGYEY (1998) and TOMLIN (2019a and b). The recently passed scholar-translator, Edward Henning, also gave some detailed descriptions of the six vajra-yogas on his website, www.kalacakra.org and in his article ‘The Six Vajra Yogas’ (see HENNING 2009).
[xv] Meaningful to See (mThong ba don ldan) is an important text by Tāranātha, and is still used by the Jonang and other traditions when teaching the Kālacakra six vajra-yogas. Unpublished translations of this short, root text have been completed by Cyrus Stearns and Edward Henning. I have now also translated this text and the much larger supplementary commentary to it, A Hundred Blazing Lights. Both texts will be published together in the near future. The edition I have used here is the Peking edition (2008), see Zab lam rdo rje’i rnal ‘byor gyi khrid yig mthong ba don ldan/ in gsung ‘bum/_tA ra nA tha/ （dpe bsdur ma/), Volume 7, pp. 33 – 138, TBRC W1PD45495.
[xvi] See HARDING (2007).
[xvii] See mThong ba don ldan (2008), p22.
Dhargye, Ngawang (1998) Kālacakra Tantra, LTWA, 1998.
Dhargye, Ngawang (1982) Life of Atisha. Excerpt from “Anthology of Well-Spoken Advice,” vol 1. Dharamsala, India: Library of Tibetan Works & Archives, 1982, prepared and edited by Dr. Alexander Berzin based on oral translation by Sharpa Tulku.
Guarsico & Mcleod (2012) The Treasury of Knowledge: Book Six, Part Four, Systems of Buddhist Tantra, by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Taye, Shambhala Publications, 2012.
Harding, Sarah (2007) The Treasury of Instructions, Book Eight, Part Four: Esoteric Instructions by Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye, Snow Lion Publications, 2007.
Henning, Edward (2009) ‘The Six Vajra-Yogas’ in As Long As Space Endures: Essays on the Kalacakra Tantra in Honour of HH Dalai Lama, ed. Edward A. Arnold (Snow Lion Publications, 2009).
Templeman, David (1998) The Origin of the Tārā Tantras, by Jetsun Tāranātha (LTWA, 1998)
Tomlin, Adele (2019). The Chariot that Transports to the Four Kāyas, by Bamda Gelek Gyatso (LTWA, 2019).
Tomlin, Adele (2020). A Hundred Blazing Lights: A Commentary on Meaningful to See by Jetsun Tāranātha (forthcoming publication, 2020).
Wallace, Vesna (2007) Inner Kālacakra Tantra, Oxford University Press, 2007.
Willson, Martin (1992). In Praise of Tārā: Songs to the Saviouress, Wisdom Publications, 1992.
Lhasey Lotsawa (2020) Praise to Tārā with Twenty-One Verses of Homage and Their Benefits. 84 000 Publications