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The Goddess in Tibetan Buddhism and Bon

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 by Rt. Rev. Claudia Wehmeyer, AU
Tara Hedge College Lyceum, Germany

Buddhism is a philosophy far more than a religion. Hinayana Buddhism, the so-called "small vehicle," strictly rejects any existence of deity as a Divine Concept. How different is Mahayana Buddhism, the so-called "big vehicle," teeming with all kinds of greater and lesser goddesses and gods. It would be incorrect to think that the "big vehicle" must be big enough for all the goddesses and gods to have enough space for each of them in that "vehicle." The terms "small" and "big" or "great" vehicle refer to different ideas of liberation from suffering in the different Buddhist traditions.

Followers of the path of Hinayana usually strive for liberation from suffering only for the practicing individual, usually being accompanied by directives and lectures from a spiritual teacher.

Those who follow the path of the Mahayana/Vajrayana or, diamond vehicle, aim for the liberation from suffering not only for themselves, but for all living beings. So practioners of that path eventually will usually take the so-called Boddhisattva Oath, which includes the promise of successive cycles of rebirths to assist in the liberation of all living beings from suffering until even the last dummie of an idiot is liberated.

This idea of one's spiritual goal is neither reduced to everyday life or to spiritual practice alone. The individual is expected to realize compassion and awareness for all living beings in everyday life. The blessing for all living beings, sharing the benevolent energy of the Buddhas even with deadly enemies, including even those who act most spitefully against the practicing devotee of Vajrayan Buddhism, is a vital part in some of the rituals in Tibetan Buddhism of that lineage.

As compassion plays such a vital role in the spiritual and mundane practice, is it any wonder that one finds the Goddess in this tradition behind every serpentine turn of the spiral path? The pantheon of Tibetan Buddhism is populated with many Goddesses. They are called "devis," a term which comes from tantric terminology. They are also "wisdom-dakinis," referring to those goddesses who taught some of the most famous spiritual teachers of many sampradayas, or spiritual lineage.

Many of the Goddesses worshipped in Tibetan Buddhism have their origin in the tribal and local goddesses of pre-Buddhist, shamanic Tibet. We also may encounter Devis and Shaktis, who have their origin in pre-hinduist tantric lineages of Nepal, but sharing a lot of terms and some ideas with early hinduism. There are three main sources for the concept of the Goddess in Vajrayana Buddhism:

Tantric mysteries - The various sampradayas philosophical explanations and viewpoints may differ, but they all have the Great Goddess, playing an important role during spiritual practice and in spiritual growth.

Buddhist philosophy - The reason for this is, those who brought Buddhism through India and Nepal to Tibet often had spiritual teachers from Buddhist as well as from shivaite or shakti related tantric traditions, practiced in India and Nepal at that time. Without the accepted multitude deities of the tantric pantheon and the magickal practice and experience of those lineages it would have been much more difficult to raise interest for Buddhism among the Tibetan people, because most of them were devotees of the pre-Buddhist Bon or Boen.

● Bon/Boen philosophy and magickal practice - Referring to Bon practice, it is mainly a shamanic religion, but at the same time it is not reduced to simple animism, employing the use of obsession, mediumship and clairvoyance as their more or less only magickal tools.

Bon has a highly developed philosophy, containing the idea of spiritual development by means of meditation and magickal practice. Compassion and practicing the virtues are important parts of the dogma.

According to a Bon legend, there were three brothers, studying in Olmu Lungring, a kind of heavenly paradise. Goddesses and gods were their teachers in that realm. When they had been fittingly educated, such being prepared to return to the earthly realm, they were asked to tell their most intense desire. The answers of the elder brothers are not handed down to the present.

But we know the answer of the youngest of the brothers, named Toenpa Sherab, who had said, it would have been his innermost desire to minimize the suffering of all living beings and to heal them. So he was sent to Schenlha Oekar, God of Compassion. This Toenpa Sherab is said to have lived at about 3000 B.C. In the religion of Bon he has a similar status to that of the Shakyamuni Buddha, or first Buddha (also known as the Gautama Buddha) in Buddhism.

We may plainly see that in Tibetan Buddhism all these experiences and cognitions from Buddhism, Tantra and Bon form a beautiful new pattern, where male and female in their highest fullfillment create a synthesis of analysis and wisdom. Beside those highly spiritual ideas Tibetan Buddhism has all support for the simple devotee and her or his mundane needs. Uncountable Goddesses, Gods and Buddhas listen to the devotees´prayers. Christian missionaries all over the world still try to "recruit" by demonizing any religious view or practice different from their own Christian ideas. Buddhist missionaries, who brought their philosophy to Tibet had sufficient spiritual insight to pay respect ot the people´s belief in uncountable goddesses and gods who had been in Tibet long before the first stranger fought his path over the high peaks and through the hidden valleys of the Himalayas.

As those Buddhist missionaries lacked the exclusive attitude of monotheistic patriarchal religions, all the mountain deities and local deities and tribal and clan deities got a place in the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon, because missionaries said that all these deities had taken refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma (law, cosmic law, law of nature, law of Buddhism) and the Sangha (Community of living beings). Uncountable legends tell about magical duells, where the hero-hermit Padmasambava or Milarepa succeeds in convincing a local deity or a naga or nagini to take refuge to Buddha, Dharma and Sangha.

So the most furious goddesses became lineage protectresses, protecting places, monasteries, people as they did before, but now without the pre-condition of bloody sacrifices, because they had taken refuge. Sometimes some of these Goddesses also protect a certain spiritual practice, in these cases they are called "Yiddams."

One of this type of female deity is the Naga, or Nagini (already mentioned above) is a water spirit, mountain spirit, nature spirit, often living in lakes or caves, sometimes guarding a treasure, sometimes being responsible for bad weather, flood and thunderstorms. They often appear in the shape of a serpent or with the upper half as a human and the lower half in the shape of a serpent´s body.

In some exercises the Yogi or would-be magickian has to meditate in a graveyard. Western culture knows such places as tidy lawns with stony tablets, usually decorated with the names of the deceased and sometimes also with a quotation from one or the other Christian source.

For a better understanding of this practice one should know, that graveyards from western culture are totally different from such places in India, Nepal and Tibet. Here the practising yogi, magickian or lama is meditating between the smouldering piles from the leftovers of human corpses, between half burnt bones and more or less burnt or rotten leftovers from earlier cremations. As the cremation ground is usually situated in the wilderness, far away from places of civilisation, the meditating individual has to share the place with tigers and other animals from the wilderness.

According to myths some of the greatest teachers as Milarepa (Founder of Karma Kagyue Lineage) and Padmasambava (first bringer of Buddhism to Tibet) meditated in such places, feeding on the offerings, relatives had brought for their deceased family members, mainly rice.

It is here, where sometimes the wisdom-dakini appears, granting highest initiations to the meditating devotee after long and regular practice. These dakinis are usually described as wearing an apron of bones, jewellry and crown decorated with skulls. Initiation by such a dakini is not to be misinterpreted as sexual intercourse in a slightly bizarre place. Initiation by the dakini means the revelation of deep truths to the practioneer, the union of analysis and wisdom, preceded by the sacrifice of Ego, which implies giving up wrong ideas and the development of means of objective analyses and inner insight.

Although these Dakinis play an important role in many stories, referring to the spiritual growth and magickal adventures of many of the great yogis and lamas, they have no great importance for the everyday spiritual practice of the Tibetan People. Anyway they are mentioned in many pujas, or devotional, meditative rites, and friendly well wishing is given to them. Let us turn now to those Goddesses, who play an important role in the belief of the People of Tibet as well as in their everyday life.

Palden Lhamo and Tara are two of the favourite Goddesses of the Tibetan People. Palden Lhamo is one of, if not the original manifestation of the Lady of The Lake. Laymen, laywomen, monks, nuns and lamas had been among the pilgrims, undertaking the quest of getting an oracle from her, before the Chinese annexed Tibet and destroyed a lot of Buddhist culture.

Before the Chinese came to Tibet many devotees wandered to the holy lake of Palden Lhamo at the feet of the Himalayan`s snow covered peaks to consult the oracle of The Goddess. It was Her oracle, that played an important role in the quest for a new incarnation of the Dalai Lama.

Highly educated lamas as well as simple farmers made a pilgrimage to the magickal mirror of Palden Lhamo. She answers either by an oracle, which may be received by the devotee in a dream or by pictures rising on the surface of her lake. It is reported that some who ask, neither get the dream nor the picture on the lake´s surface. In these cases the Goddess may answer during a meditation or even in allday life during a stay at one of her many sacred places in the Himalaya.

As many Tibetans had to flee from Chinese cruelty and genocide to India, nowadays Palden Lhamo is worshipped in many places. Tibetans and devotees of Tibetan Buddhism all over the planet pray to Her for answer, clarity and support before asking an oracle, drawn from one or the other technique of divination. Those, often used in Tibetan magick and folklore are the Weathers Shoulder Blade oracle, the Mahla oracle and divination by the use of casting dice.

In her aspect of the protectress, Palden Lhamo has some fiery attributes, in which She resembles Kali of India, the Destructive Mother. The destructive power of that Goddess destroys inner enemies and / or inner poisons, some of which may be hate, greed, egotism, and last not least wrong ideas of the world and oneself. As a destroyer of inner poisons She is also a Goddess of healing and of health.

Sherab Chenma, loving Mother of Wisdom, is another of those goddesses, equally being honoured in Tibetan Buddhism and in the Yungdrung Tradition of Bon. In Tibetan Buddhism She is the Loving Mother of Wisdom – Sherab Chenma and the Loving Mother of Compassion – Thugje Chamma.

In the Yungdrung Bon lineage one of Her names is Gyalyum or Rgyal Yum, the Mother of Buddhas. In the Buddhist tradition of India Chamma becomes "Tara, the Liberator" or "Prajnaparamita," the latter meaning "all- embracing, all pervading Wisdom."

In Bon Chamma is one of the "Four Main Sugatas," which means that She belongs to those four "Peaceful Deities," who guide the spiritual development of humankind. A Bonpo text gives Chamma the title "Queen of Waters," which She shares with Palden Lhamo, who had been mentioned earlier in this article.

Chamma's mythology tells that She appeared in a blue bubble of the size of a pavillon above the water´s surface when the winds of karma blew above the world sea. An egg of blue light was inside the bubble. When the egg burst open, the Goddess appeared as the Blue Turquoise Woman, who with Her beauty charmed Sangpo Bumtri, the God of Creation, so that he called Her "Queen of Waters" and united with Her. Bon manuscripts offer a lot of material referring to The Great Mother, who either appears in fivefold or, as Buddhist Tara, in eightfold manifestation. In each of Her appearances she is able to avert a certain danger.

In Buddhist iconography She appears wearing a diadem decorated with skulls and gemstones. Her hair is formed into a bun, which is hold with a golden net. She wears colourful skirts and green veils. In her left hand she holds a lotus-flower, which has a magickal mirror in it´s blossom. With Her right she puts a golden vase towards Her heart. Her female companions, all with two heads and eight arms appear in the four corners of the thangka.

Devotees also turn to Tseringma to pray for help in their daily worries as well as for support in their spiritual practice. Tseringma appears together with Her four sisters, summarized under the term "Sisters of Long Life." Tseringma is The Fortune-Promising Mistress of Long Life. Tseringma and Her four sisters also represent the awe inspiring spiritual power of the high peaks of the Himalayan mountains. According to legend, these four sisters were quite savage, representing occasionally the fear inspiring force of nature from the mountain peaks, which surround the Tibetan high plateau.

The four Sugatas are Sherab Chamma, perfection of wisdom; Shenlha Oekar, god of wisdom or Sambhogakaya Buddha. Sambhogakaya symbolizes the Buddha-activity of the higher Boddhisattvas. He often is described as „life-giving“, because he is the one, inspiring the desire for attaining Buddha-nature in all living beings.Sangpo Bumtri, god of creation, also called Srid pa, and Shenrab Miwo, the world´s teacher or Nirmanakaya Buddha.

Nirmanakaya Buddha represents the multitude of functions the Buddha may exercise on ordinary people. He may appear as art or in the artistic talent, as an ordinary being, as His Holiness, the 17th Karmapa, Gyalwa Karmapa, acknowledged by His Holiness, the Dalai Lama and enthroned in 1982, or as a Buddha born into a certain aeon; an example for the latter is Shakyamuni, the historic Buddha. Because of his ability of taking on the appearance of the beings surrounding him, to exercise his functions,Nirmanakaya often is referred to as „body of transformation“ or „body of Illusion“, which enables the Buddha to get into communication with all kinds of beings, so that he can execute the most effective influence on them.

In the 8th century BC the Great Yogi Padmasambhava managed to convince these four ladies of the Buddhist teachings of wisdom and compassion as keys to spiritual development for deities and human such managing to placate them.

A later legend reports on the encounter of the great Yogi Milarepa with The Sisters in the 11th century. The divine ladies wished to test the yogi´s true heart behind his motives. In the end Milarepa was able to convince the sisters of his spiritual strivings´ truly motives by offering them his body as food so that they could satisfy their hunger. Such convinced of his true heart The Sisters renewed their oath to protect the Dharma and it´s disciples.

Iconography shows Tseringma surrounded by her sisters Tinghi Shalzangma, the Beautiful bluefaced Lady, Miyo Langzangma, the unchanging Beautiful Lady of the Sky, Choepen Dinzangma, the Crowned Lady with the Beautiful Voice, Taekar Dozangma, the Beautiful Lady of Virtue and Activity.

One of the most popular Goddesses for the Tibetan people and outside Tibet is at the same time the most honoured Goddess of Tibetan Buddhism, Tara. Nearly every Buddhist knows her simple mantra, wich in popularity follows in high frequency after the Om Mani Peme Hum mantra, such being one of the most recited mantras of the Tibetans and many followers of the Tibetan Buddhist path outside Tibet.

Tara is the "Mother of Buddhas." According to legend she sprang from a tear of Buddha Amithabha. When Amithabha Buddha went on his way towards higher spiritual realms, he had to say good-bye to all living beings on earth. And all the animals and humans cried bitter tears of grief. And the Buddha cried tears of compassion. From one of these sprang the Goddess Tara as the legacy of compassion from Buddha Amithabha to all living beings. In the Tara Puja practiced by Tibetan Buddhists of the Karma Kagyue lineage (Karmapa lineage).

Green Tara is honoured with many names and attributes. She "destroys all negative energies," "raises great joy“, is the "experience of peace rising above all misery," drives away illness, awful epidemics, plagues, afflictions and disasters" and removes quarrels and nasty dreams with "Her shining Armour of Joy." She is "the united activity of all Buddhas of the three times," "Mother of all Buddhas" and "Tara, the Liberator."

In the ritual devoted to Her, people pray to Her for the removal of "all illness, malevolent energies, armed conflicts, and quarrel and strife, wherever these will come into appearance between the living beings" and that "the precious teaching and all things fortunate may prosper by the power of the prayers and hymns,“ offered to Her.

Her peace creating energy expands through and from the devotee to all beings in his/her surrounding, and finally to all living beings, even to the devotee's deathly enemies, who, guided by greed and fear have nothing but bad wishes for those, who work for the spiritual development of beings.

One of the effects of Tara Puja is it's limitless ability of healing and destroying inner delusion and wrong ideas of oneself and the cosmos. Regular practice destroys obstacles, gives health and abundance, protection and peace. According to some teachings initiation into and regular practice of Tara Puja is highly recommended, if the individual´s Tibetan astrological birth chart gives hints to any illness and/or a tendency towards cholerical fits.

This may be, because one effect of Tara Puja is the dissolution of opposites. Also hate and other delusions of spirit may be easily identified as obstacles on the path towards inner clearness and awareness by the practicing individual. Even deeply rooted fears are dissolved by spiritual practice of the Goddess Tara.

Tara plays an important role in the meditational practice of the four main lineages in Tibetan Buddhism. In Germany Tara Puja is a popular part of the regular practice in many Tibetan Buddhist centers. This may show, how urgently Western "civilisation" (or whatever is left from it in these barbarous times of late capitalism) needs the Goddess! Individuals feel and experience the blessing, beneficial and healing energy which radiates forth for all living beings from spiritual communion with The Goddess.

When the desire for compassion, joy, health and abundance for all living beings is steadily channelled anew, so that the blessing of the Goddess Tara may manifest, as this is the case with practice of Tara Puja, the individual may experience deep inner peace, enabling her or him to face the living beings with friendliness and frankness.

About the Author: Rt. Rev. Claudia Wehmeyer has been a member of the Fellowship of Isis for more than twenty years. She and her husband Thomas head Tara Hedge College which is comprised of a community of Iseums, Lyceums, Priories and Groves concentrated mainly in Germany and Switzerland, along with other centers they helped to establish throughout Europe. Claudia helped to translate portions of the FOI liturgy from English into German, and in her own words has provided a place where “newcomers may find guidance, information and a working rainbow network of Isian/Danaan pilgrims on the spiral path of the Goddess.” She is one of the organizers of the first international pagan and Goddess conventions on the European Continent, with Olivia Robertson attending the latter. Claudia is one of the publishers of three goddess based magazines, 'Hinkelstein' and 'Heckenkurier' which focused on the religion of the Goddess worldwide, and 'Zeit der Goettin,' a German language Isian journal.
Website of Tara Hedge College of the Fellowship of Isis
In German:
In English:
Authors Note: This article was originally published in German in 2001 as part of the Tara Hedge College/Lyceum correspondence course. It may be useful for tutors in F.O.I. Centers to offer this article as an additional grade paper for those students undergoing the workings of the Adept spiral, in conjunction with performance of the ritual from the Alchemy spiral, "The Jade Pylon of Earth" from the Fellowship of Isis liturgy book, "Isis of Alchemy - Transformation Through The Goddess" by Olivia Robertson, published for Cesara Publications by Neptune Press of London, 2002.

Sources: "The Goddess in Tibetan Buddhism and Bon"

Guiseppe Tucci and Walther Heissig, "Die Religionen Tibets und der Mongolei," Verlag W. Kohlhammer, Stuttgart, 1970

W.Y. Evans-Wentz, "Tibet´s Great Yogi Milarepa," Oxford University Press, 1937, several reprints available, including those by Pilgrims Publishing, India, 2002, and New Age Books, India, 2004

Jamgon Kongtrul, "Das Licht der Gewissheit," (The Torch of Certainty) Aurum Press Ltd., London, 1979, later reprints available.

"Prajnaparamita-Hrdaya-Sutra," Zero Verlag, Rheinberg,1982

Rene De Nebesky-Wojkowitz, "Oracles and Demons in Tibet: The Cult and Iconography of the Tibetan Protective Deities," Book Faith India, Katmandu, India, 1956, reprinted 1976, 1996

Dr. Andrea Loseries-Leick, "Thangka-Kalender," Windpferd Verlagsges, Juni, 1999

Marilyn M. Rhie and Robert A. F. Thurmann in association with Harry N. Abrams, Inc. Publisher, "Wisdom and Compassion – The Sacred Art of Tibet," New York, 1991