Red Tara: Female Deity & Tibetan Buddhism

A review of Red Tārā: Lineages of Literature and Practice, by Rachael Stevens.

This thesis offers an insightful and much-needed overview of the literature, iconography and practices associated with the subjugatory aspect of Tibetan Buddhism’s most popular female deity, Tārā (Tib. sGrol ma). Stevens’ investigation embraces many of the most important schools of Tibetan Buddhism, as well as their precursors in the Indic world of the first millennium. The dissertation deftly combines textual, ritual and art-historical elements to provide a satisfyingly well-rounded portrait of Red Tārā in her numerous forms, performing various functions for her devotees down the generations.

Tārā appears in many aspects represented by different colors, the most famous of which are green and white. The many forms of Tārā have become revered in Tibet and Western Tibetan Buddhism, both in their own rights and as attendants to the country’s patron deity, the bodhisattva of compassion Avalokiteśvara (Tib. sPyan ras gzigs). Of the less pacific, red aspect of Tārā, the most well known is named Kurukullā (Tib. Rig byed ma), with her characteristic bow and arrow made of flowers, who has received at least some scholarly attention. Individual Red Tārās who are not Kurukullā are sometimes misidentified as her or subsumed under her aspect, and so overlooked or erased from the academic view. These often forgotten or marginalized manifestations together form the focus of this dissertation.

Due to a dearth of previous scholarship in this area, this dissertation is for the most part descriptive, rather than analytical or highly theoretical. From the start, Stevens rejects taking a feminist stance on representations of the goddess (p. 1), in favor of providing “a comprehensive survey of the literary and practice lineages of Red Tārā in the present day and more generally in Tibetan history” (p. 8). This is a positive trait in this context, resulting in a clear and uncluttered introduction to Red Tārā in all her forms. Split into three parts, Part One offers an introduction to the Buddhist Tārā and all Red Tārās (including Kurukullā), Part Two investigates the textual traditions on the non-Kurukullā Red Tārās in Tibet, and Part Three describes contemporary practices for these goddesses existing in the West today.

Chapter 1 contextualizes Red Tārā within the wider cult of Tārā in India and Tibet. It draws on a wide array of secondary literature, but here also Stevens makes the point that there is almost no such literature on Red Tārā specifically (p. 11).  She weighs the various claims concerning where, when, and into which tradition (Brahmanical or Buddhist) Tārā was born in India (pp. 20-28). This is followed by a discussion of the name Tārā, its possible etymology and protective connotations (pp. 28-29). In the latter half of the first millennium, Tārā became a tantric deity par excellence, cited as having helped the Buddha overcome the dark forces of Māra and having her tantra taught by Śākyamuni in return (p. 32). Texts outlining Tārā practices appear to have been introduced into Tibet in the eighth century, after which she became a popular figure in Tibetan Buddhism (p. 35). Tārā “the mother of all Buddhas” is even seen as a mother of all Tibetans, since it is said that (while incarnating as a rock demoness) she gave birth to the first human inhabitants of Tibet (after sexual union with Avalokiteśvara incarnating as a monkey, p. 37). One especially important trait of Tārā that Stevens notes is her inspirational vow (incarnated as one “Wisdom Moon” or “Ye shes zla ba”) only to be reborn in a female form — to prove that the spiritual capabilities of females are equal to those of males (p. 43).

Chapter 2 outlines the features of the most famous red manifestation of Tārā, Kurukullā (pp. 68-81). Stevens then distinguishes this Tārā from other Red Tārās, and forms her thesis that “although Kurukullā is indeed an emanation of Tārā and is one of her forms, it is not the case that all Red Tārās are related to Kurukullā” (p. 81). The next sections of this chapter offer a conspectus of the non-Kurukullā Red Tārā lineages known to Stevens (pp. 82-97). This encompasses traditions in India and Tibet, including those of the Nyingma (rNying ma), Sakya (Sa skya), Geluk (dGe lugs) and Kagyu (bKa’ brgyud) schools. Stevens’ accounts provide tantalizing glimpses of the many Red Tārā practices that are no longer available for study, either having died out or still being shrouded in protective silence by their current lineage holders. Part Two of the dissertation then goes into a detailed examination of “the individual forms of Red Tārā for which a textual tradition can still be traced” by academics (p. 102), presented in roughly chronological order.

The first chapter of Part Two, Chapter 3, deals with the Pīṭheśvarī Red Tārā in India, and as translated from an Indic language into Tibetan in the eleventh century (p. 157). Stevens expands on the limitations of feminist analyses of this goddess, especially the approach of Miranda Shaw. She argues that Shaw did not investigate all texts on Pīṭheśvarī written by the undated female author, Vajravatī (p. 104), and misreads one of these texts as being written for an exclusively female audience (pp. 153-154). Stevens also questions Shaw’s dependent claim that, as a text meant only for female practitioners (to be practiced with male spiritual consorts), the lineage died out due to male bias against the tradition in the later monastic setting of Tibetan Buddhism (pp. 156-157). Instead, Chapter 3 describes Pīṭheśvarī afresh, on the basis of a larger set of data, as a goddess of the twenty-four sacred sites of India (pīṭha) that correspond to the twenty-four points on the spiritual body (pp. 137-152). Stevens especially draws attention to the deity’s associations with the symbolism of subjugation in all of her variant iconographies (pp. 129-130); and while some of the textual accounts that she studies do not emphasize this aspect (pp. 135-136), she argues that it is probably implied along the lines of the Yoganiruttaratantra class of highest tantric yoga practice (p. 159).

Chapter 4 describes the Red Tārās of the Sakya textual tradition in Tibet. The earliest of these texts also appeared in the eleventh century, often drawing on Indic sources (p. 174). Yet their iconographies of Red Tārā differ from that of other traditions in Tibet (p. 207). Stevens uses some of the unique characteristics of these iconographies to compare the early texts of the Sakya school with later texts on Red Tārā by such Tibetan luminaries as Tāranātha (1575–1634) (pp. 204-207). She thereby considerably narrows the field of likely candidates for the source texts of Tāranātha’s important work on Red Tārā (p. 206), as well as usefully charting the continuation of the Sakyapa Red Tārā lineage, and the expansion of its practice texts, within several different Tibetan schools.

Chapter 5 deals at length with the Red Tārās included among the famous 21 Tārā group (see also p. 53). The song of praise to these Tārās has evident Indic roots, though Stevens questions Alex Wayman’s assertion that the song represents a syncretic blend of Śaivism and Buddhism (p. 212). In Tibet, the 21 Tārā praise is mostly performed for mundane benefits, though Khenchen Palden Sherab and Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal claim that the number 21 is connected to the Buddha’s 21-fold teachings on enlightenment or the 21 knots to be untied on the path to realization (pp. 214-215). The praise contains both peaceful and wrathful aspects of Tārā to be contemplated in the morning and evening respectively (p. 215), and the Red Tārās fall into the latter category.

Stevens analyses the praise as it exists in five different lineages in Tibet (following Jeff Watt, p. 214), focusing especially on the lineages of Sūryagupta (containing 6 Red Tārās, pp. 217-227) and the Nyingma (containing 7, pp. 229-238). She details the symbols of subjugation associated with the each Red Tārā, such as the bow and arrow, flaming vajra, black dagger, or the sounds hūṃ and tuttāra indicating her magnetizing voice (Stevens follows Robert Beer in her analysis of these symbols, pp. 240-247).  Magnetization is another power of Red Tārā, which like subjugation can be explained as possessing a mundane and supra-mundane aim (for instance as magnetizing your guru to appear or “to attract support for one’s dharma practice,” p. 395). Stevens follows this with a description of a 21 Tārā initiation according to the Sūryagupta tradition (this time with a Red Tārā at the center of the maṇḍala), which she witnessed in Dharamsala, India (pp. 247-250). She notes that, like the Pīṭheśvarī practices above, such empowerments are performed against a backdrop of the yoganiruttaratantra class of attainment (p. 248). Her in-depth descriptions and helpful tabulations of Red Tārās among the 21 Tārās, contained in this chapter, will hopefully pave the way for further links between iconography, literature and initiatory practice of Red Tārā to be forged in the future.

Chapter 6, the final chapter of Part Two, concerns a twentieth-century Red Tārā lineage emanating from Apam Terton (A paṃ gTer ston, 1895–1945). As a terton (gter ston) or “treasure revealer”, Apam is said to have revealed from his mind many religious texts bestowed upon him in an eighth-century incarnation by the great Guru Rinpoche or Padmasambhava (pp. 254-257). Stevens is thus always aware that these texts contain living and secret practices that should not be disclosed in full to a wider uninitiated audience, including scholars (pp. 270-271). As much as possible, though, she gives a detailed analysis of these texts (pp. 270-285) and the iconography of Red Tārā contained within them (pp. 286-291), noting important similarities and divergences compared to the other traditions discussed above (e.g. p. 289 with the Sakya school). Again the symbolic hook, noose and other wrathful attributes predominate in Red Tārā’s description, “indicative of her role as a subjugating / magnetizing goddess” (p. 291). In explaining Red Tārā’s role in these texts (pp. 292-295), Stevens notes that the deity is more closely linked to Kurukullā in Apam’s corpus (p. 296). This chapter makes it clear that he was responsible for a number of innovations, for instance using different mantras than other traditions, but his works did not represent a huge revolution in the textual and iconographic depiction of Red Tārā.

Part Three begins with Chapter 7, on Chagdud Tulku (lCags mdud sPrul sku 1930–2002) who was initiated into the Red Tārā cycle by a student of Apam Terton (p. 307). This connection thus acts as a bridge between the second two parts of the dissertation, moving from textual traditions to modern Red Tārā practices. Chagdud Tulku was born in Khams and became throne holder of Chagdud Monastery before going into exile in India and eventually arriving in the USA in 1979 (pp. 301–303). While in India, at the sacred Padmasambhava site of Tsho Padma (mTsho Padma) in Himachal Pradesh, he became part of Apam’s Red Tārā lineage, but believed that the time was not right to practice or pass on this cycle (p. 308). Therefore, as Stevens notes later, the Tibetan community has not really practiced Apam’s Red Tārā cycle whereas, since Chagdud Tulku began to spread them in the Americas, these practices have been “mostly taught by and to Western students” (p. 348). As background, this chapter therefore contains a useful discussion of the study of American Buddhism, especially Jan Nattier’s typology based on the work of Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge in the study of religions more generally (pp. 309-318). Stevens critiques the applicability of Nattier’s schema to any particular group of adherents, for instance the Brazilian Chagdud community that falls somewhere between the “elite” or “evangelical” group (p. 315); the distinctness of this Southern American form of Tibetan Buddhist practice also suggests the limitations of Nattier’s perhaps too USA-centric model (p. 316). Stevens then provides a potted history of Buddhism in America and Tibetan Buddhism in the USA and Brazil (pp. 318-323), and the Chagdud community in both countries (pp. 323-335). Stevens here draws attention to their almost unique trait within Western Tibetan Buddhism, that of containing a high proportion of Western teachers among their ranks (pp. 329-331). This includes many women, which is more indicative of American Buddhism in general (and vipassāna especially) whereas it contrasts with Buddhism as practiced in Tibet (pp. 331-335).

In their Red Tārā practices, the Western Chagdud communities continue to spread the innovations of Apam Terton, for example reciting the shortened form of her mantra and maintaining a symbolic link between her and Kurukullā (pp. 337-339). Yet they also continue to accord with wider Nyingma traditions of Red Tārā, such as those included among the 21 Tārās detailed above (p. 346). Chagdud Terton also added new innovations to the iconography of the goddess by revealing a new “treasure” text on a seven-eyed Red Tārā (pp. 341-342). Stevens’ unprecedented scholarly attention to the São Paulo community, including an horarium of their Red Tārā daily practices and an introduction to their novel form of Red Tārā dream yoga (pp. 344-347), demonstrates it to be a flourishing site of Red Tārā lineages today, even after the passing of Chagdud Tulku. She ends this chapter by raising the interesting question of whether or how this situation will be altered when the newly discovered reincarnation of this Tibetan master comes of age (p. 329).

Finally, Chapter 8 looks at Red Tārā practices espoused by Stuart Kirkpatrick (a.k.a. Traktung Khepa/Traktung Rinpoche/Traktung Tulku) — the controversial head of a new Western Tibetan Buddhist community, the Flaming Jewel Sangha. Stevens rightly argues that to ignore this New Religious Movement due to its disputed bona fides would be to censor the ongoing Tibetan Buddhist tradition, which is unjustifiable from an academic perspective (p. 352). Nonetheless, she frankly addresses Kirkpatrick’s claims to authority, contrasting his self-presentation online and the other viewpoints of contemporary Tibetan authority such as the present Dalai Lama (pp. 358–368), into which she brings a pertinent discussion of the disputed nature of “revealed treasure” (gter ma) following Janet Gyatso (pp. 368–371). The chapter then situates the Flaming Jewel Sangha as conforming to the description of a “cult” within Jan Nattier’s typology, ultimately bringing in David Bromley’s work on New Religious Movements to help explain its relation to older Tibetan Buddhist tradition (pp. 373–376). The text of their Red Tārā practice, “A Garland of Bimba Blossoms,” is available online in English and in a sung version, accompanied by an image of the Red Tārā in question (p. 377). The text displays further innovations compared to other traditions, for example an “overtly sexual tone” more in keeping with another red goddess in Buddhism, Vajrayoginī (p. 378). Red Tārā’s iconography mostly closely resembles that of the Apam / Chagdud tradition, but with substantial differences. For example, though her attire is not described explicitly in the text, in the accompanying image she has one breast exposed and “her skirt appears to be Western in style” (p. 379). This Red Tārā also lacks a strong symbolic link to Kurukullā (p. 385). The text’s colophon describes the work as mind-treasure, similar to that of Apam (p. 383); yet it does not conform to the general tradition of “treasure” colophons that are meant to engender in the reader confidence that the work is authoritative (again following Gyatso, p. 384). This relates back to the disputed authority of Kirkpatrick himself and reminds us that in the contemporary world of Western Red Tārā practice, “the veracity of the sources are under question” just as in older traditions (p. 385).

It comes as no surprise that subjugation is a key theme that binds this dissertation into a whole. As Stevens points out in Chapter 2 that, “Red Tārā is the main example of Tārā as a subjugating deity, a function exemplified by her red color” (p. 63). Kurukullā is thus also a subjugatory deity, but this dissertation shows that she is by no means the only one and that not all Red Tārās are Kurukullā or explicitly related to her. In fact, in the light of this excellent study, even the relatively well-covered topic of Kurukullā (in the sense that it has been covered at all) could be revisited.  It seems from Stevens’ research that certain methodological and ideological presumptions held in previous studies of this goddess have misrepresented the data, and that the topic could be immensely clarified by the process of distinguishing Kurukullā from Red Tārā.

Interestingly, in the Western practice of Red Tārā, her wrathful traits appear to be downplayed. Stevens cites one witness in the Chagdud community as saying that the subjugatory aspect of Red Tārā is “not of great concern” (p. 395), and that Chagdud Tulku introduced her practice simply in order to help with Westerners’ much-needed accumulation of merit (p. 347). “A Garland of Bimba Blossoms,” as Stevens notes, contains no description of the function of Red Tārā, whether subjugatory or magnetizing (p. 382). This is just one of the many important points that this dissertation brings up in its survey of a broad range of material related to Red Tārā.

This breadth ensures the dissertation a wide audience to whom I can heartily recommend it: scholars of not only Tibetan, but also global Buddhism; those working on gender or goddesses within the field of religious studies more generally; and finally any interested practitioners of Tibetan tantric Buddhism, especially those holding a lineage of this fascinating and multifaceted deity, Red Tārā.

Lewis J. A. Doney PhD
“Kingship and Religion in Tibet” Research Group
Institute for Indology and Tibetology
LMU Munich
lewis.doney@lrz.uni-muenchen.de

Primary Sources

The Tibetan Buddhist Resource Center (http://www.tbrc.org/#home)
The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford (http://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/bodley)
The Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, Dharamsala, H.P. India (http://www.ltwa.net/library/index.php?option=com_multicategories&view=categories&cid=3&Itemid=15)
Himalayan Art Resources (http://www.himalayanart.org/)
“A Garland of Bimba Blossoms” online text (http://a2aquaponics.org/)

Dissertation Information

University of Oxford. 2011. 449 pp. Primary Adviser: Charles Ramble.

Image: Thang-ga of Red Tārā in the A-paṃ gter-ston tradition. Kathmandu, Nepal, 21st Century. Author’s collection.

The author has indicated her interest in sharing an email contact, which is rayoflight100@yahoo.com

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