Taking Refuge in Tara
How the mantra-based practice of the “Mother of all Buddhas” can transform suffering
By Liz Kineke • February 18, 2022
Green Tara thangka painting by Giovanna Silvani-Weidman | Artwork courtesy the artist
Six months into the pandemic I couldn’t turn down the chatter in my mind. Like so many people around the world, I was suffering: “Will this ever end? Why are so many dying? Did I contract the virus at the grocery store? My mother is frail, what will become of her? My career is languishing, what can I do?” Despite my best efforts, it was impossible to find space between the questions, even during my daily meditation.
While I waited for answers that might never come, I joined a virtual sangha centering Green Tara, the female Buddha of Tibet and her twenty-one emanations. The monthly online gatherings are led by Rachael Wooten, PhD from her home in Raleigh, North Carolina, and based on her recent book, Tara: The Liberating Power of the Female Buddha.
Tara is known as the “Mother of all Buddhas.” She acts as an unconditional guide and protector whose purpose is to help all sentient beings find liberation from the churn of suffering. This female deity is most often depicted as a green woman on a lotus throne holding a blue flower in her right hand. Her right foot is extended slightly, ready to leap up and assist us at any moment. The Green Tara mantra, Om tara tuttare ture soha, is one of the most commonly recited in Tibetan Buddhism and is used as a veil of protection as practitioners face physical or emotional challenges. Her story and practices first emerged in India fifteen hundred years ago. Here in the West interest in Tara is spreading, part of a shift in the culture as people rediscover and reclaim the wisdom of the Divine Feminine in all her various forms and across faith traditions.
Our monthly online gatherings begin with the ring of the Tibetan tingsha cymbals. As a point of entry, Wooten, often joined by her two cats Bodhi and Citta, invites members of the sangha to share what’s on their minds. Given the current zeitgeist, heartfelt stories of illness, loss, and heartbreak are in abundance, but there are moments of shared joy, too. These exchanges are where Wooten’s work as a psychologist and Jungian analyst comes through. Invariably she guides the conversation back to what’s happening in the collective and how it relates to a particular emanation of Tara. This serves as a reminder that the practice is not just about us, but provides a way to benefit all beings. From here, the sadhana (spiritual practice) begins. Wooten walks us through a series of ritualized steps, first invoking an image of vast space, which reminds us of the spacious nature of Tara consciousness that permeates our inner and outer existence. She then leads us through the centuries’ old pattern of the sadhana, using visualization, prayer, mantra, and silent meditation.
Wooten became a student of Tibetan Buddhism 28 years ago while she was living in Switzerland and studying at the C.G. Jung Institute in Küsnacht. Through a colleague she was introduced to Lodrö Tulku Rinpoche, a traditionally trained Tibetan Buddhist monk and spiritual teacher. He founded Samdup Dölma Ling (Wish-fulfilling Tara Island Centre) in Erlenbach near Lake Zurich as well as the Chöd Meditation Centre, Ganden Chökhor, in the Swiss mountains. Over the years, with Rinpoche as her teacher and spiritual guide, she received a number of Tara initiations and it is with his blessing that she wrote the book and teaches this practice to Westerners.
For me the practice is an antidote for living in a constant state of ambiguity brought on by the pandemic. When I feel unmoored, personal and professional setbacks, large and small, feel sharper as the internal dialogue of my restless mind goes into overdrive with toxic thoughts about myself that are mostly not true. In order to get out of my own way, I need to interrupt the tape. A breath-based meditation doesn’t always cut it.
“There is a part of us that is already awake, wise, and compassionate,” says Wooten. “Then there is the part of us that is just scared.” Our work, according to Wooten, is to build a bridge between the two—finding compassion for ourselves as we face our anxiety under difficult circumstances. Even in the best of times, this is not easy and that’s where this embodied practice comes in.
Whether I’m practicing alone or with the sangha, the use of visualization, intentionality, and mantra percolates through the haze of suffering in all its different forms. When pandemic-induced feelings of social and professional inertia set in, I’ll meditate on Saffron Tara Who Moves the Three Worlds. This emanation dispels disillusionment, and its sidekick despair, and helps me reframe my worldview to see what is good in my life in that particular moment.
On those shadowy days where imposter syndrome clouds my thoughts, I visualize Dark Red Destroying Tara and chant Om tare tuttare ture sarva shatrum maraya phat soha. As I recite these ancient syllables 108 times and move the mala beads through my fingers, the self-criticism starts to dissolve. Mantra is Sanskrit for “mind instrument” and as the vibration resonates within, it acts as a balm for my mind. I feel more spacious.
“When people are in psychological pain their whole world shrinks down,” says Wooten. “The teachings are trying to say, here’s something you can do to let go of that contraction. There’s more to you than this. Our deepest need is to know, how do I live from my fullest self?”
When I speak to my fellow sangha members about their Tara practice offline I am surprised how their stories of transformation mirror my own.
“Finding my voice has always been pretty scary,” MJ Wetherhead told me when we connected over the phone. The mantra-based practice quells her anxiety, especially when it comes to speaking her truth, “Whenever I did, it would come with a charge—a kind of false armoring around it,” a response to her own internal dialogue. But the mantra recitation gives rise to an internal physical resonance that “created a stillness unlike anywhere else. It’s a completely different space,” and she feels more grounded and confident.
When Allegonda Deppe joined the group, she was in a state of deep grief after the death of her husband of 25 years. She credits the meditation with pulling her back from the edge. Today she practices every morning with Bess, her 14-year-old black Labrador at her side. Deppe feels nurtured by Tara’s Divine Feminine energy and the way it allows her to reclaim the parts of herself that were ignored as she cared for her husband during a long and difficult illness. “I’m reorganizing my life now to learn to live on my own again,” she said. “I’ve got my dog and I’m meeting new friends.”
Mary Parker* was surprised by how the practice transformed her understanding of her own spirituality. It also changed the way she meditates. “That’s what’s so exciting about it,” she said, laughing. Using mantra as a part of her practice was new to her. “When I first encountered these ideas of Tara and other aspects of Buddhism, I thought they were a little far out. But then I considered it, and nine times out of ten I came around to the ideas and kept going.” Not only was she able to sit for longer, but her noisy thoughts were more subdued. Today she chants mantras on her short walk to work or after a stressful conversation with a coworker.
As someone who struggles with a chronic illness, Lisa Zinsow often feels fatigued. Instead of giving herself permission to rest, she’ll berate herself for feeling sluggish and unfocused. On those days she uses the emanation of the Fiery Red Burning Tara to dissolve negative beliefs about herself. It has helped her recover her sense of worth, “If only for a little bit,” she said. She hopes that over time she “can train it into my body.”
Tara meditation has become the pillar of Alison Crocetta’s spiritual practice and changed how she approaches her work as a visual artist. In the past she would have pushed hard for an answer to a particular creative conundrum. That tendency has now shifted. Her Tara practice “gives what seems insurmountable a spaciousness,” she said. “So you don’t have to rush in with an answer. You can let things percolate up.”
Crocetta views her growing interest in Tara and the Divine Feminine as part of a widespread cultural reckoning. “This notion of the Divine Feminine rising is not to eclipse male energy, but to be of service,” she said. “Patriarchy can’t get us there—we are going to need new ways of thinking and relating and being. The way we got out of balance was by repressing feminine intelligence.”
Crocetta’s words ring true. If ever there was a time for the Divine Feminine to reemerge, now would be it. We are a world out of balance as we face circumstances that are daunting in their scope: a global pandemic, the climate crisis, racial and gender disparities, world hunger, to name but a few.
It’s against this backdrop I find myself getting up and getting dressed to face the day. I’ve just received word that I didn’t get the job I thought I was perfect for. Before the merciless thoughts settle-in, I take my seat and call on Tara, visualizing her in a subtle body of green light. I remember the teachings and find compassion for myself and others. I am not alone in my suffering but part of a vast, interconnected universe. This community of practitioners face the same fear, anxiety, and pernicious doubt that I do and I am grateful for their fellowship and wisdom. As I chant Om tare tuttare ture soha I ask for Tara’s help and protection in seeing me through this.
There is refuge to be found in the Buddha, the dharma, and the sangha.
*name changed for privacy
Liz Kineke is a journalist who for the last 14 years has specialized in reporting on religion. She has written and produced 45 half-hour shows about religion in America for the CBS Religion & Culture series.