Embodying Tara – Twenty-One Manifestations to Awaken Your Innate Wisdom

By Chandra Easton

Shambhala Publications 2023
pp. 330
ISBN – 9781645471141

Review by Alex Studholme

Quite frankly, I am amazed by how political this book is. Donald Trump gets it in the neck in the first few pages, representative of “the renewal of autocracies, extremism, and white supremacy” in the world. Chandra Easton, a senior teacher at the Tara Mandala centre of the American lama Tsultrim Allione, makes no bones about which side of the political divide she occupies. “It is not enough to sit on our meditation cushions and pray,” she writes, “We should also find ways to put our prayers into action.” To this end, her exploration of the 21 Taras becomes a left-liberal feminist call to arms, embracing the climate activist Greta Thunberg, Black Lives Matter and Me Too. Is this really wise?

First, the more conventional stuff. Easton has done her academic research. In successive chapters on each of the 21 Taras, their names (both Sanskrit and Tibetan), iconography, verses of praise and action mantras are all put under the microscope. Following the same scheme of the 21 Taras that Chogyal Namkhai Norbu taught – the system originally devised by the 18th century terton Jigme Lingpa – there is plenty here that can happily be embraced by members of the Dzogchen Community to enrich our understanding of the goddess. Easton does a fine job in harmonizing these disparate elements to bring to life 21 well-defined Taras, each with a distinctive character – not an easy task to achieve.

I would have been glad to read more of this material. I enjoyed learning, for instance, how the 21 Taras syncretize certain Hindu deities into the Buddhist fold and how some of these Taras are worshipped in their own right throughout Buddhist Asia. Or that the image of the goddess pounding the earth with her feet, a feature common to several of the Taras, is a metaphor in Vajrayana for ironing out the wrinkles in our minds. But Easton has other ideas – many other ideas. She is not writing a mere monograph, but a wide-ranging handbook of Buddhist theory and practice that revolves around the 21 Taras.

Thus, there are digressions on topics such as the Eightfold Noble Path, and the Ten Virtuous and Non-Virtuous Actions. Every chapter ends with instructions on the visualization and recitation of the action mantra of each Tara. Easton is a thoughtful and energetic teacher, always looking for ways to bring her material to life. She has a bright, conversational style. “Tears are medicine that arises from the raw energy of an emotion like anger or jealousy,” she writes. Or, more demotically: “We need to spend some time with our AOC: ass on cushion.” She advocates the practice of a kind of imaginative journeying with individual Taras. And to help enter the dimension of Tara Shabari, the “medicine Tara” who is clothed in medicinal leaves, she recommends a return to nature: “Go camping, rent a cabin in the woods… soak in rose-petaled baths, roll around on the leaf-strewn ground.”

Her main innovation, though, which takes up a good chunk of each chapter, is to present brief biographical sketches of women that “embody” the different Taras: as she puts it, “real-life examples of the Taras that bring them into a modern perspective.” Many of these are not overtly political figures: scientists such as Vandana Shiva, who campaigned against genetically modified crops; healers such as Annie Dodge Wauneka, a native American elder; philanthropists such as the media star Oprah Winfrey; artists like the Tibetan singer Ani Choying Drolma; and spiritual teachers, such as the Hindu guru Amma and Lama Tsultrim Allione herself.

But gradually, the established tropes of the left-liberal orthodoxy emerge and coalesce. The first Tara, Tara Turavira (the “swift”), for example, is embodied by the black heroine Harriet Tubman, who guided many slaves to freedom during the American Civil War. The eighth Tara, Tara Aparajita (or “invincible”), is illustrated by the life of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the second woman and first Jewish woman to serve on the US Supreme Court, celebrated for her advocacy of gender equality and women’s rights. Ethnic diversity is prioritized over representation of whites: of the 24 women chosen here to personify Tara, seven are white, while Easton, herself white, studiedly “checks” her own “privilege” and urges her readers to do likewise.

Having embarked on this course, she cannot stop. Some of these connections seem tenuous and forced: Greta Thunberg is presented as the embodiment of Tara Mangalartha (who “brings about auspiciousness”) and Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani campaigner for girls’ education, Tara Vidyamantra Bala Prashamani (who “destroys the power of evil spells”). And occasionally, Easton even abandons the premise of finding specific people to exemplify the Taras: the seventeenth and nineteenth Taras come to be identified not with actual individuals, but with the generalized political agendas of, respectively, the Black Lives Matter and the Me Too movements.

The amount of political content included here in a teaching on Vajrayana Buddhism is highly unusual – I would say, in my experience, unprecedented. Lamas that I am familiar with always present the Dharma in an apolitical and non-partisan fashion, presumably because they know that expressing political opinions can have an inflammatory and divisive effect on their students, alienating them and acting as an obstacle to their appreciation of the Dharma. No doubt Easton is right in saying that we should put our prayers into action, but I am not sure that it is the role of a Dharma teacher to be quite so directive.

It is not a question of whether or not one agrees with Easton’s views. Even people on the same page as her might feel uneasy about the way she has turned the 21 Taras into a vehicle for her own personal political preferences, not to mention a little queasy about having to digest some rather preachy political sermons in the course of a book about a much-loved Tibetan deity. Personally, I am no great fan of Donald Trump, but I must confess my heart sank when I read Easton’s uncompromising denunciation of him. It seems so confrontational, particularly towards those people who may sincerely have had good reasons to vote for Trump and are also interested in Buddhism.

In a society as polarized as the United States, Dharma teachers can provide a valuable service by creating a space where people can temporarily set aside their political differences and focus instead on deeper values and truths that they have in common. By aligning herself so unambiguously with one side of the west’s culture wars, Easton seems to be shutting down that possibility rather than opening it up. Imagine a Tibetan lama with conservative views on abortion – there are some – who, using the same pedagogical device, illustrates the compassion of Tara with the example of Gianna Beretta Molla, an Italian woman made a saint by the Catholic Church in 1994, who died in childbirth while knowing from an early stage in her pregnancy that carrying her baby to full term was very likely to kill her. Would that be helpful?

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