Reflections on Tara and her Teachings

Tara with Bow and Arrow

Normally we empower our demons by believing they are real and strong in themselves and have the power to destroy us.  As we fight against them, they get stronger.  But when we acknowledge them by discovering what they really need, and nurture them, our demons release their hold, and we find that they actually do not have power over us.  By nurturing the shadow elements of our being with infinite generosity, we can access the state of luminous awareness and undermine ego.  By feeding the demons, we resolve conflict and duality, fining our way to unity.

                                                                                            Tsultrim Allione

Tsultrim Allione’s words remind us to embrace or demons, the most challenging thoughts, fantasies and feelings that arise in the mind.  The statues in the temple at Tara Mandala remind us of the attributes necessary to work with these demons.  Some of the Tara figures are centered and calm, others with heightened wakefulness or fierce and determined.

Tara with Teaching Mudra

The left hand of every Tara is in the teaching mudra, joining the thumb and third finger to represent the wheel of “dharma” or truth in the Buddhist tradition.  She offers this blessing to all who seek her wisdom.  Known as a Buddha, her various manifestations symbolize qualities associated with enlightenment.  As a Bodhisattva, Tara is a constant seeker and completely dedicates her many actions to the welfare of others.

Tara Mandala Temple

The inspired architecture of the many-sided temple of Tara Mandala shelters twenty-one statues. One can circumambulate the inner chanber to study the distinct characteristics of each Tara and the sacred object above her left shoulder.  A bell, dagger, bow and arrow or dorje are a few of the symbols.  The bell is feminine and represents wisdom.  The masculine dorje is a symbol of lightening or skillful activity.  With the dagger she defeats negativity and the bow and arrow is a sign of her focused attention.

Detail on Throne

The throne in front of the central altar is the seat for the Buddha’s word.  It is occupied by Tsultrim or visiting teachers acknowledged for their deep understanding of the dharma.  Luminous colors and intricate designs are common in the Tibetan tradition of this temple.  The fierce winged garuda on the throne is a protector and guardian figure.

Tara on Central Altar

The central Tara figure occupies the main altar with a knot of eternity above her shoulder signifying many things including the interdependent nature of wisdom and compassion.  Behind her is a brocade of white, green, yellow and red Tara figures.  White Tara is a serene motherly figure, Green Tara is known for her energetic compassion, Red Tara is fierce in magnetizing what is needed and Yellow Tara is known to bring prosperity.

My experience as a photographer and practitioner at Tara Mandala was sublime and I am very greatful for the opportunity.  I am humbled to offer her images and a quote of the founder of Tara Mandala, Tsultrim Allione, are in my forthcoming book The Female Buddha: Discovering the Heart of Liberation and Love.

While representing the feminine in all its beauty, please know the art is sacred and must be respected as an aspect of the Tibetan Buddhist teachings of wisdom and compassion.  To visit the treasures of Tara Mandala in Pagosa Springs, sign up for a retreat, workshop or attend services noted on their website at 

For more photos and inspirational words go to or

A Mother Meets the Buddha: Patacara

Patacara statueThis photo of Patacara is taken in Thailand at Songdhammakalyani Monastery where 12 statues are placed of the foremost Theri (elder nuns) from the time of the Buddha.  

The next photo is from the same monastery of clay sculptures of the Theri by Venerable Dhammananda.  

The last photo shows Rev. Dhammananda and the sisters of the monastary meditating under a Medicine Buddha.


Last night I delivered a speech about Patacara to the 2012 graduating class of Transpersonal Counseling Psychology at Naropa University.  I learned several members of the class would sing Bridge Over Troubled Waters by Paul Simon right before my talk.  Those students inspired the beginning of my speech:

Our job as transpersonal psychotherapists is to be that bridge over troubled waters and to help others to learn to ease their minds.  Our job is also to inspire the depths that are possible below those troubled waters, where the peace of our greatest nature resides.

In an ancient Chinese text, the TaoTe Ching, an old sage expressed it this way:

Some say my teachings are nonsense.

Others call them lofty yet impractical

But for those who have looked inside themselves,

This nonsense makes perfect sense.

And to those who have put it into practice,

this loftiness has roots that go deep.

I have just three things to teach:

simplicity, patience and compassion.

These three are your greatest treasures.

Simple in actions and thoughts,

you return to the source of being.

Patient with both friends and enemies,

You accord with the way things are.

Compassionate towards yourself,

you reconcile all beings in the world.***

Therigatha statues

Simple in our thinking as we start to drop some of our mind chatter and insecurities.  Instead of our ranting or babbling with others, simply saying, “I’m sad or angry and I need support” or “I hear how much pain you are in.”

Patient towards all parts of ourselves, towards the differences of others and what we don’t understand.

Compassionate. Trusting compassion is our basic nature.  When we look within and put compassion into practice our world is righted and we see a human being where we once saw a wrong.

I’d like to share a story on this day before Mother’s day about a mother who lost everything, went mad and then found a bridge over troubled waters.

Her name is Patacara and she lived some 2500 years ago in ancient India.   She was making the traditional trip home to her parents to birth her second child.

The baby came midway on the journey and while her husband struggled to make a shelter in a storm he was bit by a poisonous snake and died.

Continuing her journey both her sons died as she attempted to cross a river.

When she came to the town of her family she discovered her parents and brother died when their house collapsed in a fire. The ashes were still smoldering.

Mad with grief she wandered about walking in circles and tearing at her cloths. As a ragged and now homeless person people threw trash at her.

Sitting with the Medicine Buddha

One day she entered a grove where the Buddha was teaching and the audience attempted to keep her away.  Nevertheless the Buddha approached her and said “Sister, recover your presence of mind.”

Her mind became clear at that moment and after hearing his words of wisdom she asked to be ordained.  On the spot he left the audience and  took her to a community of nuns where she was accepted.

Here is a poem by Patacara of her later enlightenment in a moving translation by Anne Waldmen, one of the founders of our Writing and Poetics program:

Young Brahmins plough fields,

sow seeds,

nourish their wives and children,

get wealthy

Why can’t I find peace?

I’m virtuous

comply with the teacher

not lazy or puffed up

One day washing my feet

I watched the water as it

trickled down the slope

I fixed my mind

the way you’d

train a thoroughbred horse

Later, taking my lamp

I enter my cell

sit on my bed and

watch the flame

I extinguish the wick

with a needle

The release of my mind

is like the quenching of the lamp

O the nirvana of the little lamp!

Patacara expresses frustration in this verse yet describes how she returns to a simple practice with patience.  No longer tearing her cloths to shreds or the facets of her mind she finds the compassion that has no boundaries.

The moment the lamp is extinguished so is her final suffering.  Her peace is the bliss of nirvana.

Patacara went on to become a great teacher and many expressed their appreciation her for being their own bridge over troubled waters.

We have a lot to celebrate today.  You’ve followed your own emotional, mental and spiritual path of development these past 3 or 4 years.

You’ve shared what you’ve learned of simplicity, patience and compassion with your clients in internship.  You bring your presence of mind to your work and invite others onto the same path.  This is the transpersonal path.

Now you are about to make your own journey as healers into the world.  I speak for all the staff and faculty of Naropa University in wishing you many, many blessings on your journey.

***translation by Stephen Mitchell

All photos by Deborah Bowman

For more photos and inspirational words go to

For the 2008 Naropa University graduation speech go to

Mind as Vast and Clear as the Sky


We should remember that the true nature of the mind has no solidity; it is rootless, clear, radiant awareness.  Know this, don’t try to block the emotions and sensations that arise in your mind.  Don’t try to analyze them.  Whenever thoughts or memories come up, don’t hold onto them by ruminating on them.  Mind itself is luminous and clear, like immeasurable space, and any feeling, thought, or memory within it is like a cloud in a clear sky.

                                                                                            Tsultrim Allione


Whether or not you are familiar with the metaphor of sky for the vastness of mind it is well worth contemplating.  For me the image of the bodhisattva Guanyin set against cerulean blue evokes the sense of Tsultrim Allione’s inspiring words.

What else captures the immeasurable so profoundly?  The visual tag of space invites the heart and mind to stretch beyond routinely imposed limits on a jet stream of imagination.

The brilliant cosmologist Stephen Hawking inhabits a body he cannot move yet describes his mind as completely free.  He has surely touched a radiant luminosity in his explorations of inner space.

Only when we allow the play of emotion and sensation to naturally form and disperse like clouds in the sky can we touch into the liberation possible in each moment. Reflecting on a big vision is essential when our lives get too little, too stuck in a tight box of anxiety or depression.Welcoming Guanyin

The first time I laid in the grass meditating on the blue sky like a Tibetan yogi I knew these spiritual practitioners were on to something. Supported by the earth my body quieted yet my brain began to chatter. Noticing a layer of cirrus clouds encroaching on the unobstructed view I eventually made peace with the coming and going of the billowy haze.

It’s taken me years to begin to feel the same way about the worries and inflammations that drift across and color the palette of my mind.

In the Dhammapada, a collection of writing attributed to the words of the Buddha, he suggests that an enlightened individual to be “Like a migrating bird in the sky, leaves no trace of a track in the sky.”

Leave No Trace is a movement in wilderness education that suggests we walk lightly on the earth and leave it fresh for others to enjoy.  The Buddhist practice of mindfulness suggests we do the same with our thoughts and emotions, sweeping clean the internal tracks of our experience with each breath.

Letting go of attachment to my thoughts, my feelings, my seriousness and my view takes continuous effort.  Meditation is aimed at breaking up the dense fog of stuck beliefs, repetitive thoughts and painful emotions.

To imagine the mind as transparent as the big blue sky of Colorado or Tibet is a great practice. As the popular song suggests, “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.”  The unclouded heart is open to all possibilities and everyone we encounter.

This unimpeded view is without division.  Mind and heart is not “mine” or “yours.”  “We” dissolve into the vastness.  It’s a lot to grok yet well worth investigating.  A brief glimpse is a great start to a new day.

For more photos and inspirational words go to

Open Engagement: Relationship and Empathy

Spirituality is the movement from our prison of self-blame and self-preoccupation to an inclusive and open engagement with life.
-Sharon Salzberg

This week I’ve been under a deadline to write an academic paper for a conference I attend every year in Bangkok sponsored by the International Association of Buddhist Universities.  I have struggled to write again as a scholar after enjoying the free flow of sharing as a blogger, personally and upfront.

I’ve fallen behind in my blog schedule and just realized that a few fragments from the paper I’ve been laboring on addresses Sharon’s invitation into a more open engagement with life.  Here are some excerpts on relationship and empathy, topics addressed in my paper: Slang, Freud and Buddhist Psychology: Clarifying the Term “Ego” in Popular, Psychodynamic and Spiritual Contexts.  Quite a mouthful.


The Buddhist concept of interdependence informs our understanding of relationship and the natural reciprocity inherent in all of life.  While a psychodynamic perspective understands the autonomous development of the individual as a necessity, Buddhism points to the danger of the extremes of self-sufficiency creating a false sense of “I.” This “I” or ego manipulates and misperceives self and other.

Suffering in relationships stem from the extremes of independence and dependence.  One is marked by the painful experience of isolation and the other is an immature fusion where our demands on others do not reflect our chronological age.  Learning to walk the interdependent path begins with the practice of attending to the present moment, seeing through the impermanence of past wounds and trusting the guidance of our teachers to mirror our yearning for compassion and liberation from suffering.

The Bodhisattva Vow, to liberate others before oneself counters the tendency of the individual to attend to oneself and not the other.  From the Buddhist point of view we are all narcissistically wounded in clinging to the “I” and it’s delusional views and habits. Waking up requires the development of clear seeing and the reversal of painful self-centric patterns in relationship.


Compassion is Buddhism is related to empathy as it is based in entering the experience of the other.  The Latin root of the word refers to having deep feelings (passion) with (com) another.  Compassion implies a further response of an action to bring relief to the passion (suffering) of the other.  In this case passion is understood as the impossible desire to escape “what is.”

A compassionate response can pierce the ego-encasement that an individual has built to protect him or herself from pain.  Compassion acknowledges and accepts loss and other feelings imagined as too big to bear.  Compassion understands the ultimate boundarylessness of experience and the natural exchange continuously occurring between all beings.

In the Buddhist view any wall created to protect the self from others is the creation of ego or a false sense of self.  At the same time Buddhism does not deny the uniqueness or the different experiences of each human being.  The task to hold both a relative and an absolute understanding of self and “no-self” is embraced on the path of liberation. Holding this paradox we open to embracing other and “no-other” as well.

If this were a blog I’d add it’s kind of like having your cake and eating it too!

Blossom — 7 Quotes and Articles

A deep week of #14Buddha posts has wrapped up and your comments and sharings in the blog comments, across Twitter and FB have been inspiring and greatly appreciated.

#14Buddha posts will take place every other day this week.

Please do continue to share your reflections and writings that are inspired by the women writers featured here at The Female Buddha.

Did you miss a post?  Highlights and links below….

“All of the sudden I woke from my hazy reverie. This was the photographic moment!
The statue was lovely yet these few minutes brought it to life. I had almost missed it.”

— September 19th

“Here is one of my worst habits and a true confession.  I don’t exercise my photography muscle and find myself at square one every year when I go overseas to shoot in Asia, the land of amazing photo opportunities.”

September 20th

“For years after the accident I dreamt of climbing down anything and everything vertical.  My spiritual work was to come down to earth and to be in my body.”

September 21st

“She was a quirky, sad, funny and beautiful lady. She turned me on to bugs and Indian paintbrush and the smell of rain through a rusty screen door. ”

September 22nd

“Laying down and closing my eyes the sun melted my last resistance. Then hearing a birdcall, I sat up and looked across the lake where a massive cottonwood was speaking to me.”

September 23rd

“Taking the extra time for self-care can seem like an indulgence but it rights my world. A bath or a walk in the woods provides alone time in a supportive, sensual environment. Digging weeds in the garden is a great alternative.”

September 24th

“The mental computer loops through tasks while I practice coming back to my breath again and again. I always imagined I was 180 degrees different from the engineering lineage of my grandfather, father, uncles and brother…”

September 25th

This post is a part of the 14-day The Female Buddha community dialogue visual arts and writing invitation. Artist Deborah Bowman has gathered inspirational quotes from global women teachers to reflect on your life travels and creative practice.
Feel free to  reply to today’s prompt on your own blog. Share your link in the comments.
Join the dialogue on The Female Buddha page on Facebook@thefemalebuddha on Twitter and #14Buddha hashtag.