Our focus this week is on Tara whose 21 manifestations offer every aspect of compassion. As Green Tārā she protects against suffering, as White Tārā she heals wounds, as Red Tārā she teaches compassion, and as Blue Tārā she destroys all obstacles to awakening. She laughs at practitioners who become too serious and works to open our heart. Like Padmasambhava, the central figure of the previous sadhana, she appears as a beautiful 16 year-old but where his semi-wrathful appearance motivates our determination to dispel delusions, she offers playfully loving encouragement.
We offer praises to invoke Tara’s presence and take refuge in her nature. We chant aspirations for her help and recite her mantra while trying to visualize her as fully real as any other phenomena. By reciting her mantra and visualizing her, we aim to become imbued with her being and all it represents. Then we dissolve the visualization and dedicate our practice for the benefit of all beings.
Just as Padmasambhava did, Tara manifests from emptiness and is translucent like a rainbow. We aim to become inseparable from them and realize the emptiness both of our ordinary self and the visualization of our self as them, to realize that both our ordinary self and our self as deity are our creation. Neither one has inherent existence. We are working to recognize ultimate reality as it is, a display of emptiness and luminosity.
This practice is much simpler than the first one. There is only one text, fewer chants, and much less to visualize. It takes quite a long time to practice because there’s a lot of recitation of Tara’s mantra but it takes only two days for lama to explain the whole practice. He starts over again from the beginning on the third day so we will get the structure firmly fixed.
Lama also offers new details. One of Tara’s manifestations, he says, subdues zombies and all manner of other beings, too, including ones with horse heads and human bodies. All such beings are ways to visualize negative emotions that lead to negative actions. Lama has many tales about zombies.
Zombies are bodies inhabited by a demon who replaced the original occupant. There are none now, Lama says, because high lamas killed them all, which is unfortunate in a way because wherever there were zombies, you could be sure a high lama would soon appear, too. Those high lamas could make zombies work. One took a long pilgrimage all across Tibet and needed to bring a lot of stuff with him. He made a zombie carry it all. At the end of each day he told the zombie to stop. The zombie would crash to the ground and remain immobile ’til morning. Toward the end of the pilgrimage it started making a funny noise as it walked because its feet were almost worn through.
Another time, when the abbot of a monastery was nearing death, he told his lamas they must at all costs cut up and burn his body within three days of his death. But when the time came, they decided not to do that because even the lowest person is allowed to rest for a week. They laid him to rest and respectfully slept where his body lay. On the third night one young lama was too scared to sleep. At last he turned and placed his head where his feet should be so he could keep a close watch on the abbot’s body. Suddenly, its eyes opened, it sat up, rose to its feet and began touching each sleeping monk’s head. They instantly became zombies. The young monk escaped because only his feet were touched. He ran out, locked all the zombies in, and probably burned the monastery to the ground. Lama says he can’t attest to that last point. It’s his assumption based on other such incidents.
Lama says the reason for sky burial, the Tibetan tradition of cutting bodies into small pieces and leaving them for vultures, was to avert zombies. Since there are none now, sky burial is no longer necessary. The workers who cut up the bodies had to hide the heads because vultures, who are in fact special-purpose deities, like brains best. If they got brains first, they wouldn’t finish the flesh and other organs.
Some questions (italicized) about all this:
“Why is it OK to use the body even to the point of destruction just because it’s occupied by a demon?” Buddhists regard the body as a vehicle, just like a car, boat or bicycle. You want to be able to use it for a long time but at some point it will stop working and it then has no more value.
“Why are many of the stories jokes about hardship?” Cultures where life is hard tend to use humor as an anesthetic. Buddha wanted to find a better way, how to end suffering altogether. He said its causes are attachment, ignorance and hatred. Imagining how things are is ignorance. Imagining we have a self and our body is that self makes us fear damage to it, most of all death, because then our self would die. That we have no self to protect is hard to see. There is no aspect of what we imagine to be our self that is unchanging, many of its elements existed before our body was even conceived and many will continue to have effects after our body’s life ends. I get that intellectually but not yet experientially.
“The demons don’t exist now because high lamas killed them. What supposedly exists now that will be killed off in future?” Buddhist deities and demons represent qualities that do exist, so in that sense they are real. Their images and stories can engage us in a new conceptual understanding of reality. When our habitual concept and the new one seem equally plausible, we may see through both concepts and recognize what is truly present.
“Do any stories incorporate current events?” Mao Zedong, who drove the Dalai Lama and so many others out of Tibet is said to have been the manifestation of a deity who saw that Tibetans had stopped progressing spiritually and drove them out of their comfort zone. There was a report in yesterday’s newspaper about a mysterious sickness that caused the death of several hundred villagers. Zombies are suspected to be the culprits. They were killed in lama’s story but remained a force elsewhere.
Two more days of teaching and practice and the class is over. Now I have to figure out what to do next. I don’t feel ready, somehow, to benefit from making either of these sadhanas my daily practice. I sense that I should do something else first. [Note: That instinct was correct. The traditional path is to start with the Preliminary Practices. Some practitioners repeat them over and over again throughout their life. Others move on to more complex sadhanas like the ones we studied in these classes. Let me know if you’re interested and maybe I’ll write about Preliminary Practices sometime.]