On November 29, 2022, Snow Lion Publications, part of Shambhala Publications, published Red Tara: the feminine Buddha of power and magnetism by Rachael Stevens.
In this little gem, the author takes us on a deeply personal journey into the world of the goddess Tara and, as the title suggests, focuses specifically on her less explored red forms. Stevens' intention is to shed light on various Red Tara lineages across Tibet, Tibetan exile communities and beyond, both enduring and extinct. This is both a reader-friendly and scholarly book, and the author clearly explains what is considered appropriate to include and what is not, as well as where historical information is lacking.
The story begins at the Mahabodhi Temple in Bodh Gaya, amid the hustle and bustle of early morning pilgrims, setting the stage for a decade-long exploration. He begins by discussing the attempts of different scholars to determine the origin of Tara worship: Sastri proposed Ladakh as the origin, while Dhavalikar argued for western India, based on evidence from Ellora and Ajanta. Ghosh disagreed with Ladakh and suggested that the earliest evidence was in India, with Tara being a Durga-like creation – and so the book continues.
I had already studied Red Tara a little before exploring this book, also fascinated by this less common aspect of the Tara pantheon, so I was eager to read and learn more. I was not deceived.
How is Red Tara usually transmitted? Firstly, it is easy to group her with the female Yidam Kurukulla, not that that's incorrect of course, but that's far from the whole story. Thanks to Terchocollection of 26 texts revealed by Apong Terton, then consolidated in India, Nepal and Bhutan after his death around 1945, we have the most familiar form of Red Tara that we know in the West.
We can generally know it like this:
Kurukulla, an incarnation of the compassionate red lotus of Amitabha's Padma family, is known as Red Tara and is associated with love, coercion and fascination. With her red uptala arrows, she showers her love on all, even on those who are far from Dharma. His crown, decorated with five skulls, symbolizes the transcendent ideas of a Buddha: compassion, effort, mindfulness, concentration and a clear reflection of reality. She is a beacon of the beauty and eloquence of Dharma. Her Tibetan name, Rigiyedma, carries nuanced translations from “mistress of magic” to “cause of knowledge,” painting a vivid picture, but not in literal Sanskrit terms.
Unlike many deities in the Buddhist pantheon, Kurukulla seduces with the charms of love, seduction and sensuality. She echoes more of Aphrodite wielding Cupid's bow than the usual deity of Buddhist imagery wielding a skinning knife and skull cup. His attachment-centered nature, in an area where detachment is often sought, lends an intriguing quality to his character. Just like the mesmerizing dance of clouds or the hypnotic flow of water, the charm of Kurukulla lies in enchanting us towards wisdom and transforming our passions into profound insights. Like the red thread of destiny, its noose symbolizes an indissoluble bond. It embodies the nourishing essence of life, reminiscent of an umbilical cord.
Kurukulla's evolution from Indian love magic to the Tara pantheon reflects his multifaceted nature. Now encompassing both Buddhahood and Heaven Dance dakini, it bridges the gap between reflection and revelation. And I can even say that, in a universe closely linked to quantum physics, the energy of Kurukulla facilitates the manifestation of desires, resonating with the principles of the “law of attraction”.
Stevens' years of extensive research put an end to any generic, even romantic or fanciful claims. "magical" means. Of course, this was only a fleeting layer of this complex divinity. Tara manifests in various forms, including the well-known Green Tara, the White Tārā and the collective entity known as the Twenty-one Taras, representing her as a nurturing, protective and guiding presence throughout samsara, each discussed in detail. But, as the texts explain, feed may not have always been the first adjective that came to mind when it came to the iconography of Red Tara.
Although Tara may be conventionally visualized as separate, on a deeper level she represents our innate Buddhahood, embodying the empty nature of our mind. Stevens provides us with a comprehensive list of texts on Red Tara, organized by location and school of Tibetan Buddhism, to help practitioners explore their specific interests. However, due to the secretive nature of the tantric tradition, not all texts are accessible and some lineages may have been lost over time. She also introduces the four classes of tantra in the Tibetan tradition, emphasizing the need for initiation with a qualified tantric master to truly understand these esoteric teachings, as well as practices involving visualization of divinity, with variations depending on the tantra class. Through Tantric practice, one transcends conventional reality, realizing the non-dual truth of the inseparability of our minds from enlightened beings such as Tara. There is also a section that highlights Tara's role as Yidam, the principal deity of the practitioner in tantric meditation, highlighting the transformative power of this practice. Indeed, the depth of information Stevens provides is truly impressive.
Stevens' dedication to the exploration of Red Tara is evident and the writing is clear and well structured, making it easy for the reader to follow his progression from his initial curiosity and visits to esteemed institutions such as the Library of Works and the Tibetan archives of Dharamsala. , to the in-depth research we see in these pages.
This book provides an enlightening introduction to the goddess Tara in Tibetan Buddhist traditions. It traces the historical evolution of the cult of Tara, emphasizing its central role in Tibetan Buddhist practice. The first part deals with the origins and worship of Tara, establishing a foundational understanding of her past mythological lives and her veneration across India and beyond. Part two focuses on the red forms of Tara and explores Wang rituals centered on subjugation and magnetization. It provides a detailed account of the lineage and practices, including concise and extensive cycles, as well as the crystal healing practice of Red Tara, in the context of Apong Terton and Chagdud Tulku (a revered Tibetan Buddhist teacher and recognized Tara siddhas born in 1930) and traces the transmission of teachings from one to the other, highlighting the importance of Red Tara in their spiritual journey. Stevens also offers insight into the spiritual legacy of Chagdud Tulku and the Chagdud Gonpa Foundation he founded, providing comprehensive information for newcomers and seasoned practitioners alike.
Filled with appendices of translated practices, footnotes and a comprehensive bibliography, the well-detailed chapters offer an overview of the history, origins, roots, worship and practices associated with Tara, and the importance of initiation and lineage in tantric practices. duly underlined – shows the author's respect for tradition.
Stevens' book carries the weight of sacred teaching, inviting the reader to imbibe Tara's wisdom. It serves as a guide, showing the way for those venturing into the world of Dharma, and should be on the desk of anyone interested in Buddhism, the sacred feminine, history, meditation, or enlightenment.