A Teaching on Tara in the Sakya Tradition (An Interview with His Holiness the Sakya Trizin)
Q: Your Holiness, what does lineage mean?
Lineage means the teaching that has been brought down from Buddha to his disciples, then to the translators and then from one Guru to the next - the unbroken line of transmission that has been passed from Buddha himself, up to the present Guru.
Q: Who is Tara ?
Tara is actually the perfection of wisdom, and she is the mother of all the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Shravakas and Pratyeka Buddhas. This wisdom is actually beyond any forms or signs or descriptions. But out of great compassion, in order to help sentient beings she appears in physical form that is the Tara . The word Tara means “Saviour” or “One Who Saves”.
Q: Tara is called the female Buddha. Can your Holiness elaborate on why she is different from the historical Buddha Shakyamuni that most people are familiar with?
There are male and female Buddhas just as there are male and female people. There are many female Buddhas, not just Tara and Vajrayogini; there are so many female deities! For some people it is much easier to practise female deities. It depends on one’s own karmic connections. For some, female deities are more suited, and for others, male deities are more suited. Although is it said, in terms of their wisdom, compassion and power, that all deities are the same, but due to their motherly figure it is easier to invoke the blessing of female deities.
Q: Why is Tara in particularly regarded for her compassion?
Basically all the deities are the nature of compassion and emptiness; but Tara is special in two ways: firstly, she is in motherly figure, and secondly, she is an emanation of Avalokiteshvara, the manifestation of all the Buddhas’ compassion. Therefore, there is a particular connection between compassion and Tara .
Q: Was Tara a real woman, if so, when did she live?
In actuality, of course, she is not a person because the true nature of Tara is the perfection of wisdom, mother of all the Buddhas and noble ones, and that wisdom is beyond form or any signs or descriptions. But out of compassion at the relative level she appears in the form of Tara . But then there are also historical Taras . Like it is said that many, many aeons ago there was a princess whose name was Gyana Chandra. She created the enlightenment mind in front of Buddha Amoghasiddhi. In order to save sentient beings she took the vow to remain in the female form all through the path, and even after enlightenment. So that indicates that there is a historical figure as well.
Q: We have heard many stories about Tara 's help? Is there a special story or experience that your Holiness would like to share with us?
I do not have any personal experience as such, but Tara is very, very important and there are very many beautiful stories. One is related to the continuation of the Khön lineage. It is a story about Zangpopa who was the 11th Sakya throne holder counting from Khön Khoncho Gyalpo who first established the Sakya Monastery. Zangpopa’s grandfather had five sons, but the one who was Zangpopa’s father, Lopon Yeshe Jungne, was the son of a maid who was not of one of the official queens. One of the official sons, Chogyal Phagpa, was the throne holder and guru of the Chinese Emperor in his time. Another son, Drogon Chagma, had a son called Dharmapalarakshita who was the 9th throne holder. When he died in 1287, there was not an official Khön lineage heir after him. So Jamyang Chenpo from Sharpa took the thrown.
At this point, there was no officially recognised Khön lineage heir. Even though Zangpopa was alive, the people had doubts about Zangpopa’s father as his mother had not been an official queen. Zangpopa had been invited to China but as his father had not been the official heir, the Emperor did not recognise him. Instead he was sent to some far outlying area of China .
When Dharmapalarakshita (the 9th throne holder) passed away, the Emperor was distressed over his loss. Placing the bones of Dharmapala on his head, he cried. Because there was no issue in his Guru’s hereditary lineage and how sad it was. There had been only one daughter of the lineage, a princess, and when she passed away there were rainbows and her body had many relics. This altered the mind of the Emperor who now said that any connection to his Guru’s hereditary lineage, was holy.
At that time, Zangpopa was living in a distant part of China near the Avalokiteshvara shrine. He was having a very difficult time, and so he prayed to Tara . Tara appeared and placed her hand over the crown of his head and said, “Those who wish to have a child, can have a child Those who wish to have wealth, can have wealth All your wishes will be granted and your obstacles will be cleared.”
After he received that blessing, some Tibetan lamas helped the Emperor find Zangpopa. Being a nephew of Chogyal Phagpa, he was then recognized by the Emperor and was brought back to the palace. There he was officially enthroned as the Sakya Khön lineage prince. The Emperor then said, “It is very important to continue the historical lineage.” At this point he gave his own sister to Zangpopa as his queen. This emperor reigned in the Yön dynasty of the Mongol empire of China . The princess is called Mudakhen. She traveled all the way to Sakya , married Zangpopa , and they had one son.
Q: What is the historical significance of Tara Temple in Tibet to Sakya Drolma Podrang? Does it still exist? Who built it originally? Who used it? Was there any special reason it was a Tara Temple?
It no longer exists. It was build by Bari Lotsawa. Actually it is said that Tara accompanied Bari Lotsawa all the time in real human form. Then one day, she absorbed into a statue (or stone) in this particular place. He then built this temple to enshrine her. The temple and all the outer images were completely demolished during the Cultural Revolution. But innermost stone, where the real human form of Tara was absorbed, that particular image, was saved by someone. So now we have built another 21 Tara images, and that stone is placed inside the main Tara image. Now there is not a separate Tara temple but it is in the main temple of the Sakya. Actually we donated these 21 images, made in Nepal and sent to Tibet . There are four monks remaining in this temple doing Tara pujas, everyday. So it is a Tara temple because of the connection between Tara and Bari Lotsawa . Actually Sakya has four wondrous shrines, one of them is Tara one of them is Manjushri, one of them is Goddess Vijaya and one of them is Mahakala.
Q: What is the connection between Tara with Drolma Podrang? Was there a Sakya Nunnery?
Actually our palace is not called Drolma Phodrang, it is called Pünphal Phodrang. But as the palace is right next to this very famous Tara shrine, most people call it Drolma Phodrang. In fact, now nobody now calls it Pünphal Phodrang. Everyone calls it Drolma Phodrang. No, there was no nunnery. The nunnery was located on the other side.
Q: Could His Holiness say something about famous Sakya Female Practitioners? Upon which meditational deities did they concentrate?
Sakya has many, many very famous female practitioners. So many of them, even recently, for example Jetsuma Chime Tenpei Nyima, Jetsun Tamdring Wangmo, Jetsun Pema Thrinley. It seems that for most of them their main deity for practice was Vajrayogini.
There is one temple in Sakya where there is a very famous Vajrayogini statue. When I was there no one doing any pujas. But it is said that in ancient times, all the princesses, all those Jetsumas who were nuns, came together to this temple on every tenth and every twenty fifth day (of the lunar month) and did the puja. And it is said that this Vajrayogini statue was just like any other female in that every month there was menstrual flow from the statue, with nectar coming down from the statue.
Q: Is Tara meditation only for women?
No of course not, everybody can receive Tara .
Q: Can your Holiness tell us about the types of meditation that might be given at the “initiation” or “ blessing ceremony” ?
Initiations differ in the sense that there are major empowerments, there are blessings, and there are simple initiations. Taking as an example in a simple initiation, there are three kinds of meditations. First, physically visualising oneself in the form of the deity; then, verbally repeating the mantra, and finally, mentally meditating on the primordial wisdom, which is away from all descriptions, away from all activities, beyond speech, beyond thought. So this is the meditation.
Q: What happens at a Tara Initiation or Blessing Ceremony?
Initiations are all the same in the sense that, during the initiation, ones own body voice and mind are blessed. From that moment onwards, one is authorised to do the visualisation, recite the mantra, and do the meditation on primordial wisdom of Tara .
Q: How can we determine which Tantric practice would be most effective for ourselves?
I think it mainly depends on the individual. Some people are suited to the Kriya tantra, some are suited to the Carya tantra, some are suited to the Yoga tantra, and so on. Similarly for some people the Tara tantra is more suitable than the other tantras.
Q: Is there any special advice for today’s present female practitioners who have to balance family, work and spiritual life? Are there better conditions than in previous times?
In Tibet , disciples had to engage in hardships and travel long distance whereas disciples these days have more ready access to teachings through modern transport and communication. Some teachers say this is the times of deterioration but the diligent can gain results more rapidly.
Generally, convenience does not necessarily improve the practice. First of all, we are in a different time; this is a degenerated time! Nowadays, people do not possess so much faith or devotion, and have much more doubt than ancient times. Therefore it is much harder in these times. Even though it is easier to practice and to have access to the teachings, I feel the result takes much longer.
Q: Impermanence is always emphasized in the teachings, which in turn has created insecurity, in view of our relationships and careers. In Vajrayana, though, we are reminded to put our total trust in the Root Guru, until we gain enlightenment. Is this a contradiction of the impermanence teachings, which we are supposed to view things with detachment rather than attachment? Could your Holiness give some advice on how to balance impermanence with faith in the Guru?
I do not understand this (referring to the insecurity). Because everything is impermanent you need faith, I think. Because everything is impermanent, because life is impermanent, and we are going to die one day. We are going to lose all our possessions, and wealth and everything. At the time when we leave, our mental consciousness is alone travelling to an unknown destination, the only thing that one could seek for help is the Dharma. Dharma can only be learned from the Guru; so therefore you need faith and the trust in the Guru. Isn’t that so? I don’t see any conflict. A nice life is not what we are seeking for – this life is not nice, even the nicest life is not nice. Actually it is a suffering, just another kind of suffering. So we need to renounce this, we need to awake from this illusion. And the way to awake is with the support and help from the Guru and the Dharma.
Q: Similarly, when pondering the sufferings of hell and so forth, we sometimes feel panic rather than calm. If we cannot overcome our panic of while meditating on these fundamental teachings (in the Nang Sum), are we then really ready for further instructions, such as the Lam Dre teachings?
This again I don’t understand. You see, life is panic; everything is impermanent, and everything is suffering. If you try to avoid that, then you cannot overcome it. You cannot avoid it; that is a reality. We don’t want it, we want to live a really happy life. But the reality of it, though, is not happiness. The reality is suffering and that we can’t avoid. We have to face it, and only by facing it can we overcome it. Otherwise if you try to avoid it, you will still have to face it some time. And at that time, when you are forced to face it, then you are in a terrible and desperate situation. The way to overcome this is to deal with it, by knowing it and knowing how to overcome it through the Lam Dre teachings.
Q: Must one take the opportunity to practice dharma upon oneself?
Of course. Basically with Buddhism everything you have to do it yourself. As the Buddha said, “Only you can save yourself. Nobody else can save you.” So the main help has to come from one’s own side. If one is ready, then deities are always ready. But if one is not ready, then deities cannot help.
Q: We hear about practitioners gaining realisation through Guru devotion. They have been put through many physical and mental and spiritual trials. Luding Khenchen Rinpoche said that if a Guru really put modern disciples through traditional Guru devotion practices, all the disciples would run away. How would modern and traditional Guru Devotion practices compare?
I think generally it is the same as before. But what Senior Luding Khen said is true. Modern people could not bear such hardships, so therefore we cannot do that kind of thing. We have to do things that are suitable with the present circumstances and it also depends on the individuals. Similarly speaking, in ancient times some people did not have much hardship, whereas some people have to go through a great deal.
Q: Can more be mentioned about female practitioners in the Sakya lineage?
There are, as you know, many, many female practitioners. JetsumaTenpei Nyima had so many disciples. Almost all the Sakya and Ngorpa masters received teachings from her. Also some Dagmo’s were also very famous. Indeed, one of the pioneers of the Sakya Teachers, Drogmi Lotsawa, who was the first Tibetan Lama to receive the Lam Dre teachings, had four female disciples. One of them I remember very clearly is Tömo Dorje Tso. She was not a nun but a very ordinary person. She came, in fact, from a very rich family and then she was married into another very rich family, and that family was very powerful. She gave birth to five sons. So then, they had wealth, manpower and everything. They were a very, very powerful family but somehow the people of the village didn’t like them. So, one day the whole village came and killed the father, killed all the five sons and took away all the wealth. Tömo Dorje Tso was left alone there. At that point, she was almost insane with grief, crying day and night and suffering so much. Then Drogmi Lotsawa heard about it. He saw that there was a connection between her and himself, and so he called for her. She was also one of the disciples who did not have to go through so much hardship. After she was called by him, Drogmi Lotsawa did not give her many teachings. He just gave her the Hevajra Cause empowerment and after that a “Beyond Thought” meditation, not the Vajrayogini but another one with Hevajra. Just by practicing that, within a very short period of time, she got the realisation. She became a very great Yogini and it is said that, in the later part of her life, she could travel between the different Buddha fields and then also return to her Tibetan residence.
Q: Tara is said to be staying in Potala, an island in the south. Her Buddha family is Amitabha, why isn't her Buddha-field in Sukhavati? Does anyone do prayers to be reborn in Potala ?
Potala is of course actually a physical place, but sometimes you can see it and sometimes you don’t see it at all. Every Buddha has his own Buddha-field. People do pray to be in Potala but it is not as popular as Sukhavati. It is very difficult for ordinary people with their obscurations to be born in Buddha-fields. But Buddha Amitabha especially created Sukhavati so that even those with negative karma, even those who have obscurations can be born there. So, we ordinary people should pray to be born there because it is actually possible. To be reborn in other Buddha-fields is not so easy.
Q: Does Tara protect and heal only those who call on her?
Actually it is just like the sun; the sun is all the time shining, but sometime we see it and sometime we don’t see it. Just like that, Tara is all the time showering her blessings to every sentient being, but some people, due to their lack of faith, belief and confidence, cannot receive that blessing. You see, in order to save someone you need the hook and the ring – Tara is all the time throwing out her hook of compassion to catch beings, but to be saved you need the ring of the faith. If you have the ring of the faith then the hook of compassion will be caught in that and then one will be saved.
Q: Is Tara only for Buddhists?
Of course not. Tara sees all sentient beings as her only child. Every mother loves her child, particularly those mothers with only one child. In their minds, they are constantly thinking about that child, the welfare and well-being of that child. Tara has such great compassion and such great love that all sentient beings are her only child, without any discrimination or exception.