The home altar has become an increasingly popular tool for contemporary seekers, allowing them to tap their spirituality informally, at any time of the day. This charming book puts a new twist on the phenomenon by showcasing female Buddhist deities in a delightfully unusual format. Designed to resemble a Tibetan temple, the book presents stunning three-dimensional renderings of traditional thangka paintings. It features doors that open from the middle of the front cover, a sturdy tab-insert closure, and elastic loops to hold each altar firmly in place. Four important goddesses appear here. White Tara pacifies illness and removes obstacles; Vanshudara increases prosperity, fertility, and happiness; Kurukulla helps attract and influence through the power of love and desire; and Vajrayogini aids in developing the enlightened union of Great Bliss and Emptiness. With the assistance of these colorful altars and an informative text about the symbolic art, visualization can blossom into multidimensional meditation.
The Pop-Up Altar
In the comparative freedom of our modern era, the rigid patriarchy of monotheism is no longer the only spiritual option available to us. As more and more of us are drawn to other, sometimes older, traditions that revere the vulnerable sensitivity of Gaea, or Mother Nature, the archetype of the goddess has again reasserted herself.
Two of the great spiritual traditions of ancient India, the Buddhist and Hindu Tantric traditions, place a profound significance on the role of the goddess. In Hindu Tantra the goddess or devi is frequently identified by the Sanskrit term shakti, meaning ìall-pervasive power or energy,î or by the term vidyadhara, meaning ìknowledge holder.î Many of these Hindu Tantric goddesses are extremely wrathful in appearance and manifest as the dynamic warlike consorts of Bhairava, the ferocious form of Shiva. The rituals of worshipping these often dark and bloodthirsty goddesses are commonly known as the vama-marg or ìleft hand pathî of Tantra.
In contrast, the early Indian Buddhists and their Tibetan successors have always identified the goddess with the tranquil feminine quality of wisdom (prajna) or discriminating awareness. Within Tantric Buddhist (or Vajrayana) traditions, the roles of the male god and the female goddess are viewed as being completely complementary and equal, with the male deity representing the ìmethodî (upaya) aspect of compassion or skillful means, and the female consort, or prajna, representing the ìwisdomî aspect of the enlightened intelligence that directly realizes emptiness.
As pure polarity symbols of compassion and wisdom, the male and female Tantric Buddhist deities are frequently depicted in ecstatic sexual union (Tib. yab-yum), with the father (yab) symbolizing boundless compassion or great bliss, and the mother (yum) representing perfect wisdom or emptiness. In the Vajrayanaís ìHighest Yoga Tantraî systems these polarity symbols are vividly expressed through a vast array of sophisticated images and metaphors, such as the alchemical union (yoga) of form and emptiness, penis and vagina, moon and sun, and the various ritual implements and weapons that the deities hold in their right male or ìmethodî hands and their left female or ìwisdomî hands. Many of these attributes have multiple levels of meaning, and visually encapsulate the entire spectrum of the Buddhaís teachings as the ìpuritiesî of the great compassion and wisdom qualities of the fully enlightened human mind.
The first three goddesses illustrated in this collection have been chosen to represent the first three of the ìfour Tantric rites or activitiesî of an enlightened being: pacifying, enriching, subjugating, and wrathful activity. White Tara personifies the calming ìwhiteî activity of pacifying, or purifying and increasing the lifespan by removing hindrances and illnesses. Yellow Vasudhara embodies the rich golden or ìyellowî activity of increase, or bestowing prosperity, fertility, and abundance. Red Kurukulla symbolizes the magnetizing and passionate ìredî activity of subjugation, or attracting power and influence to give control over situations. The fourth ìblackî activity of wrath has not been represented here, as this function is more specifically assigned to the extremely powerful protective deities.
The fourth goddess depicted herein is the important meditation deity Vajrayogini, who belongs to the ìMother Tantraî (yogini-tantra) class of the ìHighest Yoga Tantras,î which emphasize the development of wisdom and the realization of absolute emptiness as the ìclear light of great bliss.î Like all liberated Buddhist yoginis or ìsky-goingî dakinis, Vajrayogini is ravishingly beautiful and endowed with all the divine characteristics of a fully enlightened being. She wears the five bone ornaments, which represent the five ìmethodî perfections (paramita) of patience, generosity, discipline, effort, and meditation. Her luminous naked form embodies the sixth transcendental perfection of ìperfect wisdomî (Prajna-paramita)óa name synonymous with the Buddhist goddess of wisdom and the ìMother of all the Buddhas.î Vajrayoginiís sophisticated meditation practice utilizes passion as a potent energy of spiritual transformation, and her visualization techniques are extremely popular with advanced Buddhist practitioners.
To use this pop-up altar, simply open the page to the goddess of your choice, secure the upper corners with the elastic loops, and fold open the two doors of the cover to create a standing personal shrine. The fold-out lower flap contains a brief description of each goddess on its inside and her Sanskrit mantra on its outside. Mantra is ìenlightened speech,î and when one vividly imagines oneself in the form of a deity while reciting the mantra repeatedly and meditating upon the deityís divine qualities, then one can rapidly purify all aspects of the body (actions), speech (words), and mind (thoughts). The Dalai Lama explains it simply and beautifully: ìIn brief, the Body of a Buddha is attained through meditating upon it.î
Tara, the ìSavioress,î is the female bodhisattva of compassion and the patron goddess of Tibet. In her form as White Tara (Tib. Drolma Karpo), she is invoked for pacifying rituals of healing, longevity, and removing obstacles, and along with the bodhisattvas Amitayus and Usnishavijaya she completes the ìTrinity of Long Life.î
White Tara is exquisitely beautiful and peaceful in appearance, ìwhite like the autumn moon,î with two arms, a sweetly smiling face, and seven wisdom eyes. She sits in vajra-posture upon a white moon disc and multi-colored lotus, which here rests upon a dew-spangled lotus leaf that floats above a tranquil lake. She is youthful and attractive, with soft black hair, firm round breasts, and a slender waist, and is adorned in the divine silk and jewel ornaments of an enlightened goddess.
Her right hand rests upon her knee in the open-palmed gesture of supreme generosity, representing her ability to grant realization to all beings. With the thumb and ring finger of her left hand she holds the stem of an immaculate lotus, with its three stems bearing a fruit, the main blossom, and a bud, representing the Buddhas of the past, present, and future. The circle formed by her thumb and ring finger represents the union of her wisdom and compassion, and her other three extended fingers symbolize her giving refuge in the ìThree Jewelsî of the Buddha, dharma, and sangha. The three eyes in her face represent the purity of her body, speech, and mind; and the four eyes in her palms and soles represent the ìfour immeasurablesî of love, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. Red Amitabha Buddha is seated upon a cloud-throne above her head.
The Mantra of White Tara, which pacifies illnesses, removes obstacles, and bestows long life: Om Tare Tuttare Ture Svaha (OM TA-RAY TOO TA-RAY TOO-RAY SO-HA).
Vasudhara (Tib. Nor-gyun-ma), meaning ìtreasure holder,î is a goddess of prosperity, fertility, and abundance, and as the consort of the wealth god Kubera she is evoked in rituals of enrichment or increase. She is beautiful and peaceful, with three faces and six arms, and a yellow body that scintillates like refined gold. Her three smiling facesóred, yellow (center), and redórepresent the purity of her body, speech, and mind; and her six arms symbolize the ìsix perfectionsî of generosity, morality, patience, effort, meditative concentration, and wisdom.
She is adorned with all manner of divine jewels, flowers, and silks, and her three faces display the subtle expressions of concentration, divine pride, and joy. A topknot binds her jewel- and flower-ornamented tiara, while her remaining black tresses flow freely over her shoulders. She sits in the posture of ìroyal easeî upon a white moon disc and pink lotus, with her left leg drawn upwards and her right foot slightly extended to rest upon a conch shell and a golden treasure vase, which stands within a bowl of jewels.
Her first right hand rests upon her knee in the gesture of supreme generosity, with its palm miraculously manifesting a ìrain of jewels.î Her second holds three radiant gems, symbolizing the ìThree Jewelsî of the Buddha, dharma, and sangha. She holds a golden rosary of equal-sized beads in her third right hand, symbolizing her perfect equanimity. Her first left hand holds a small, golden treasure-producing vase in her lap. Her second holds two fertile ears of grain, and her third a text on the ìperfection of wisdom.î The elliptical border or torana of this painting is decorated with auspicious mythological creatures.
The Heart Mantra of Vasudhara, which increases prosperity, fertility, abundance, and happiness: Om Vasudhare Svaha (OM VASU-DHA-RAY SO-HA).
This gold on vermilion thangka depicts the four-armed form of the red subjugating goddess Kurukulla (Tib. Kuru-kulle), whose function is to influence all beings and to enchant them through her bewitching power of love and desire.
She stands in ìbow and arrowî posture, with her right leg raised and her left foot dancing upon a prostrate corpse of egoism, a golden sun disc, and a red lotus. Her resplendent beauty is dynamic and potent, and she entices with her firm breasts, three alluring eyes, and a slightly wrathful expression. Dancing blissfully within a blazing aura of wisdom fire, her orange hair streams upwards and her passionate naked red body radiates light. She wears a long flowing silk scarf, a tiger skin loincloth, a crown of five skulls, a long necklace of fifty freshly severed heads, and the ìfive bone ornamentsî of a dakini or tantric goddess.
Her four arms symbolize the ìfour immeasurablesî of love, compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity. With her first pair of hands she draws a flower bow and arrow at the level of her ears, symbolizing the union of her compassion and wisdom. With her second pair of right and left hands she holds a hook and a noose of flowers, with the hook symbolizing her power to influence and attract beings and the noose her power to bind them to her will. These four attributes, which are fashioned from red utpala lotus flowers and leaves, are the emblems of Kamadeva, the Cupid-like Indian god of love and sexual desire. Above Kurukulla is blue sixteen-armed Hevajra, with King Indrabhuti of Uddiyana to his left and a Sakya lama to his right. In the bottom corners are two dakini attendants of Kurukulla.
The Mantra of Kurukulla,which attracts, influences, and subjugates all beings through the magnetizing power of love and passionate desire: Om Kurukulle Hrih Svaha (OM KURU-KULEE HRIY SO-HA).
Vajrayogini (Tib. Dorje Naljorma), the consort of Chakrasamvara, is one of the most important female yidam or ìHighest Yoga Tantraî deities, and she is represented here in her solitary form as Naropaís Dakini, or ìsky-goerî (Skt. Naro Khechari).
In warrior stance, she stands upon a golden sun disc and a multi-colored lotus that rests within an intersecting red double triangle, which is known as a dharmodaya or ìreality source.î With her bent left leg she tramples upon the head of four-armed black Bhairava, the wrathful form of Shiva; and with her extended right leg she presses upon the breasts of Bhairavaís consort, red Kalaratri.
Vajrayogini has a radiant red color, one face, two arms, and three eyes that gaze upwards towards the Dakinisí Paradise. She is naked, blissful, attractive, and youthful, with firm round breasts, erect nipples, a slender waist, and a laughing expression that combines the sentiments of wrath and passion. She abides within a blazing aura of wisdom fire, with her long black hair hanging freely below her waist, and she is adorned with a crown of five dry skulls, a long garland of fifty white skulls, and the five bone ornaments of a dakini.
She extends her right hand downward and holds a vajra-handled curved knife, which she circles toward the ten directions. With her left hand she holds aloft a blood-filled skull-cup, which she pours into her upturned mouth as a symbol of her spontaneous great bliss. Across her left shoulder she carries a ìtantric staffî or khatvanga, a highly symbolic implement with a hanging hand-drum, bell, and triple silk pennant, which essentially represents her inseparable union with her male consort Chakrasamvara.
The Heart Mantra of Vajrayogini, which develops the enlightened union of Great Bliss and Emptiness: Om Om Om Sarva-Buddha-Dakiniye Vajra-Warnaniniye Vajra-Vairocaniye Hum Hum Hum Phat Phat Phat Svaha (OM OM OM SARVA-BUDDHA-DAKINI-YAY VAJRA-WARNANINI-YAY VAJRA-VAIROCHANI-YAY HUM HUM HUM PHAT PHAT PHAT SO-HA).