THDL Bibliographies > Tibetan Deity Cults Bibliography > A Review of Stephan Beyer's "The Cult of Tara: Magic and Ritual in Tibet"

A Review of Stephan Beyer's "The Cult of Tara: Magic and Ritual in Tibet" by Christopher Bell (08-12-2004)

In The Cult of Tara, author Stephan Beyer provides an exhaustive survey of major Tibetan Buddhist rituals and ritual constructions. With the exception of errors that do not entirely disparage the content, this book is an indispensable resource. In his work, Beyer examines Tibetan Buddhist ritual through the manageable, contracted lens of the Tara cult. Beyer’s argument is that “ritual forms, especially those in the worship of Tara” (vi) are central to Tibetan Buddhism and give a glimpse into the foundations of Buddhist practice. While some criticism can be directed toward the book’s grammar and organization, the focus of the book remains consistent and invaluable in the content it provides. It is this content that is the heart of Beyer’s book and which has made it a quintessential work in Tibetan Buddhist ritual studies.

Beyer’s main thesis is to examine in detail the ritual cults surrounding a primary Tibetan deity, Tara, and through this medium he examines all of Tibetan Buddhism. Ritual is the key for Beyer. In his preface he examines past seminal works by Snellgrove, Lessing, and Nebesky-Wojkowitz. While excellent resources, the particular concerns of these authors resulted in too limited a space to analyze in detail the complexities of Tibetan ritual. He quotes Lessing: “a book could well be written describing in detail these rites alone, with the ritual books translated, annotated and illustrated by sketches, drawings and photographs” (Beyer xi-xii). Beyer responds to this accordingly and elaborates that he “further attempted to throw light on the basic ritual structures that underlie the relatively few rituals with which [he deals], hoping that these patterns may be extended and used as formulas in the interpretation of other Tibetan rituals” (xii). Again, his direction in this endeavor is that “to understand something of [Tara’s] cult is to understand something of the whole structure of Tibetan culture and religion” (Beyer 3). For Beyer, ritual is the core of Tibetan religious expression, and his work is convincing in proving this thesis.

With content being so important in Beyer’s work, it is appropriate to examine his content and its basic structure in order to better understand his goal. There are anachronistic hints in the foreword written by Kees W. Bolle, which briefly allude to the future of religious studies as a scholarly field. Bolle explains that the direction the field seems to be going in—writing in the early 70s—is from general to specific histories. Bolle sees Beyer’s work as the desirable contrast to this “safe” direction, an endeavor to interpret the specific phenomena, “done with full awareness of the great task of the general histories of religions” (Beyer ix). Beyer certainly accomplishes this endeavor. He begins his book with a general focus on Tibetan religion and, primarily through his first chapter, he slowly constricts his focus into the particular Tara rituals of the Dragon Kagyu (which he spells Kaju) sect. A brief listing of the subchapter headings is enough to see this interesting contraction: Legendary Beginnings, The Earlier Spread of the Law, The Later Spread of the Law, The Sects, The Monastery, The Ritual Day, Ritualization, Contemplative Training, etc. Besides this introductory and historiographic zooming in on Beyer’s part, the three large chapters of his book each focus on particular Tara rituals and ritual loci. Each chapter also provides a concise exploration of the Indian origins of the many ritual concepts the book details.

Beyer appropriately titles his first chapter Worship, as that is its primary focus—Worship of the deity, as well as praises and prayers. This chapter examines the Generation and Perfection stages of Tibetan Tantric practice, which involve the acquisition of the divine ego. In this chapter, Beyer also explores the two major ritual approaches of evocation and offering. He concludes on an extremely detailed, play-by-play exposition on the Four Mandala offering to Tara. As Beyer discovers, it is through the generation and perfection stages, through the replacement of the yogin’s ego with the deity’s ego, that ritual must begin regardless of its goal or intent. These stages are integral to Tibetan ritual practice and must be performed—in a perfunctory manner at the very least—before every ritual type. The ritual is what decides toward what endeavor this acquisition of divine power will be directed. For evocations it is the manipulation of Tara’s power because the practitioner is Tara; for offerings it is to tap Tara’s power through her as a separate deity; both expressions are guided toward any number of soteriological or pragmatic concerns. It is in this first and longest chapter that we see Beyer’s ritual outline (175-77) for the first time. This outline is an efficient representation of the ritual process, each point of which he then expounds upon in grand detail.

Beyer’s second chapter, Application, examines the actual application of the deity’s power, either through protective purposes or attack. Stories of protection elaborate on devotees yelling out Tara’s name or mantra in distress and, being earnest in their faith, they are rescued by her power in either a personal or impersonal form. A good portion of the chapter also explores the terror of demons and their subjugation through Tara. Other details given are the magical attainments and functions achieved through Tara rituals (245). What is especially intriguing though is Beyer’s listing of ritual types (256-57), which detail the various ritual concepts and their aims in illuminating detail. Yet another excellent ritual outline is given (256-261) on an evocation to Tara, and the chapter concludes with an explanation of thread-crosses that are used for protective purposes, as well as a basic thread-cross ceremony.

Beyer’s final chapter, Acquisition, concerns the acquisition of the divine power; it also involves initiation and permission (empowerment) ritual services. The chapter begins with life empowerment services, rituals for prolonging life and for spying signs of death. Besides its practical concerns, longevity rituals have a moralistic layer. Generally, those who partake in longevity rituals do so under the pretense that they will spend the extra time allotted them toward moral or spiritual endeavors. Beyer provides a number of stories of practitioners asking for a longer life from Tara with the stipulation that they complete contemplative acts or other spiritual endeavors toward a Buddhist aim. As an intriguing aside, in this chapter Beyer also briefly discusses Gelug-pa life rituals and contrasts it with Kagyu-pa; he notes that “Gelug altars are simpler than those of the Kaju” (377). In this final chapter he explores an initiation into life ritual and then moves on to a detailed examination of the ritual of permission, which makes one a fit vessel for the practice of White Tara. The final short ritual explored is ritual service in self-generation. The chapter ends with the instructions and pragmatic details on the ritual service as a whole.

There are two major themes that are consistent throughout this text and that deserve some degree of exploration. The first is the idea of the yogin or practitioner as “universe-maker.” Through the process of generation, the practitioner sheds his own ego and replaces it with that of the deity, in this case Tara. The practitioner becomes the deity, equipped with all her attributes and powers making him for all intents and purposes omnipotent and able to mold reality as he wishes. This process is required because it is only with this reality-shaping power that the practitioner can instill the offerings with power, subjugate demons, or heal the sick. Beyer elaborates:

If [the yogin] firmly places himself in Emptiness and then arises therefrom, he is able thereby to empower the appearance of anything he wishes. He is, then, the owner of the universe, for the [sic] understands and is able to manipulate the very processes that create the cosmos: he can dissolve reality at will and re-create it as a divine mansion filled with deities; he can produce real effects upon ordinary appearances by the merest projection of a mental event. To know a thing is to own it, and to create it from Emptiness is to know it in its essence. (75)

It is on this level that ritual becomes intimately tied to philosophy—praxis with theory. This statement itself provides a glimpse of that connection, as a complete understanding of Emptiness is required for ritual to be effective and with that a proper comprehension of all major Buddhist metaphysical concepts. The practitioner expresses this divinely achieved power through the simulacra, a symbolic representation of the actual. However, with his understanding of Emptiness and the illusionary distinction between subject and object torn away, there is no longer a distinction between the “real” object and its simulacra; yet the yogin’s “image and his object are not superimposed, but rather are primordially one, and this what makes possible his magical ability to manipulate the universe” (Beyer 88). Beyer goes into much greater detail and it is his exposition on such theoretical constructs of the ritual services that greatly broaden understanding.

The second theme Beyer examines is the paradox of power that seems inherent in Tara ritual and worship. This paradox is intriguing for what it says about the Tibetan religious community. Initially, Beyer explains that Tara “is a patron deity in a second sense of the word, a personal deity rather than a monastic patron” (55). However, later he discusses her ties to the monastic community: “in spite of her close touch with the lives of her people, Tara shares in the essential nature of the deities of the monastic cult” (Beyer 64). He further explains:

[Tara’s devotees] have complete confidence in the effectiveness of the ritual, fostered by their reliance upon the basic paradox of Tara’s divine nature: for she is kind and loving, ready to help them in any affliction; and the monks who perform her ritual have imbibed her power, have completed all the recitations of her ritual service, and are empowered not only to arouse her heart but also to employ her, to direct her divine energy by the impersonal recitation of her mantra. (64)

This paradox is very influential in the relationship between the monastic and lay communities, “for the necessity of prior ritual service, even for the worship of the deity, limits access to the magical powers of the ritual, which are available only to those able to invest the time required for the contemplative training that alone makes one fit to use them” (Beyer 67-68). So while Tara is more ubiquitous and personal to the laity, she is more potent and impersonal to the monastic community. This contrast between monastic and lay traditions is a common dichotomy within Tibetan Buddhist studies. However, this book suggests a much more fluid interaction between the monks and the laity—monastic cult and pragmatic concerns. Beyer sees it as a duality as well, even distinguishing the first two chapters along such lines, but the actual content of the book seems to suggest a much more complex relationship, a range of expression and interaction along monastic and lay intersections.

Beyond the content of the book, there’s Beyer’s methodology to consider. He doesn’t have a well-defined methodological apparatus beyond his organization and ritual expositions. What initial glimpse we get of a methodology is open to a degree of criticism. When he discusses the construction of Tibetan religious reality in his first chapter, he “proposes three models to aid…understanding, based on Western concepts of schizophrenia, surrealism, and alchemy” (Beyer 82). This bizarre departure from the focus of the book is an attempt by Beyer to conceptually understand the mental states of the Tibetan practitioner. In this regard he isn’t very successful, and while the material is intriguing, it is also inappropriate. The only other methodological construct that Beyer utilizes, but fortunately in a successful manner, is his development of ritual types, previously examined in the second chapter. These ritual types are classified into four: general function, soteriological function, ritual function, and magical function. Through this classification system Beyer is able to properly identify various functions, many of which overlap in the numerous rituals that he examines. This organization style is effective and the addition of charts and graphs to aid conception provide a sturdy methodological outline with which to categorize the various aspects of ritual exercise.

Certainly a great deal of positive criticism can be directed at Cult of Tara. It’s been stated numerous times before how detailed the work is, and indeed this is its greatest attribute. The information provided is indispensable in its sheer bulk. Each ritual is clearly outlined and portions of the outline are vividly described, including the mantras, chants, prayers, visualizations, and the physical accoutrements prepared and utilized. These descriptions work down to the most basic action and verbal expression, and one could easily attempt to imitate these rituals—no doubt poorly due to a lack of training—acting upon these expositions like reading a play, with its descriptions of placement, character actions and interactions, and specific dialogue. The diagrams, pictures of deities, mudra charts, drawings, and photographs only add to the flavor, showing the reader how the various tormas look, how the hand gestures are made and their meaning, and providing drawings of the hearth and the ladles used in burnt offerings. The photographs of the thread-cross construction and ceremony are especially impressive; indeed, the photos are so attractive and expressive that one wishes more of them were provided. It is this detail that is so exemplary and what makes the book stand above most as invaluable.

Along these lines of detail is the scope of resources that Beyer utilizes. His approach takes full advantage of both textual and personal resources, creating a broad and fuller image of Tibetan ritual than could have been developed using either of these approaches alone. Beyer uses an extensive amount of quotations from various Tibetan texts. He cites primary resources to either flavor his descriptions with folklore or examples, or to vindicate his arguments regarding certain ritual origins and forms of expression. Secondary resources are also used well and comprise a good amount of Beyer’s evidence for certain conclusions and speculations. A glimpse at the book’s bibliography shows just how all-encompassing Beyer’s research is; a look at the Tibetan texts used is especially impressive. Beyer complements this textual backing with ethnographic data, having witnessed the majority of these rituals himself (and even sponsoring a few). The photographs are taken by him of ritual preparations he observed, the chants are likewise culled from his presence at these ceremonies and personal correspondences with Tibetan Buddhist monks at the Dragon Kagyu monastery where he stayed. With these two approaches the work has a completed feel to it, as if every angle has been explored and indeed it certainly seems that way.

Due to these attributes the book is definitely an exemplary work, but it is not without fault. The first noticeable issue with the book is that it is full of misspelled words. This is a minor point, and could perhaps be chalked up to the editor, but at times it becomes almost ludicrous how frequent “from” is misspelled as “form” or “diverse” reverts to its older incarnation of “divers.” The number of misspelled words are too numerous to count for any practical purpose, but the annoyance is in danger of becoming a hazard to the integrity of the text when non-English words—and thus words not easily deciphered by the casual reader—are misspelled. One glaring example is the Sanskrit chant “OM A-KARO MUKHAM SARVADHARMANAM ADY-ANUTPANATNVAT!” (Beyer 220). The final word is actually “ANUTPANNATVAT.” This kind of confusion is unacceptable in a scholarly text.

Another minor annoyance is the over-simplified organization. While the content of the book is well-organized and structured under informative headings, the table of contents is lacking in detail. The book is divided into three huge chapters, and while that’s fine, it would better suit quick research purposes to have an expanded table of contents with headings listed and numbered. The short and almost empty table of contents page doesn’t express much of the structure or content of the book. Indeed, the table of illustrations is even more detailed. Likewise, while the book began well, its ending was not so complete. The book lacks an introduction, but the preface and the first pages of chapter one do a suitable job of working into the content with a strong foundation. However, there is not an equally complete conclusion at the end of the third chapter. The last chapter ends as a chapter should, but Beyer fails to follow it up with any concluding remarks that would tie the entirety of the book together. Because of this there is a somewhat incomplete feeling to the otherwise complete content of the book and the information it provides. Even a few pages to clean up arguments or impressions would have sufficed, but sadly the book lacks in this regard.

The most glaring fault of the book however is the seeming use of inappropriate material. The attempt to explain the motivations and mental states of the practitioner through schizophrenic, psychedelic, and surrealist literature was touched on previously as an apparent tangent from the focus of the book. That this book was written in the early 70s is ostensible through these signs-of-the-time conjectures and mental musings. It is fortunate that Beyer only briefly stays on this drug-induced track for a few dozen pages because this foray into western attempts at explanation detract incredibly from the central thesis of the book. While the concepts are intriguing and perhaps deserve examination in a separate essay, they don’t belong in a detailed account of Tibetan ritual structures. With the added use of alchemical documents, one wonders in just what direction Beyer was hoping to go in with these bizarre cross-cultural references. Was he attempting to reconcile western and eastern states of mind? Was he hoping to justify certain mental states or religious expressions? Perhaps he was attempting to write Tibetan ritual conceptions in a language his readers at the time could understand and possibly even accept. In any case, this portion of the book is outdated and should be removed.

Similarly, other inappropriate quotes and ideas find their way into Beyer’s book. While it is interesting for literary merit to find a sudden quote from T. S. Elliot or Jorge Luis Borges, it is quite jarring to go from complex concepts on the natural awareness of the Clear Light to poetic sighing: “Our gaze is submarine, our eyes look upward/ And see the light that fractures through unquiet water./ We see the light but see not whence it comes” (Beyer 139). Of course, Beyer is just trying to illustrate his points but he can do that well enough without having to cite Archibald MacLeish or Karl Shapiro. The book would be much more compact and succinct without these minor hiccups in the text. Beyer’s quoting of the Circular Ruins or Dreamtigers, though pleasant, feel more like the author’s self-indulgence than elaborations on his primary thesis. Again, these kinds of tangents could be removed without sacrificing the integrity of the text in the least—indeed it would improve its integrity.

These problems with the text, though annoying and sometimes diminishing, do not compare to the overall benefits of the book. Beyer’s Cult of Tara is a grand contribution to the field of Tibetan studies and he most assuredly succeeds in his goal. Bolle is correct in his assertion that “the image of the goddess Tara…is of great importance to our understanding of Tibetan religion” (Beyer vii). Taking this assumption to heart, Beyer, through exceptional means and detail, examines the cult of Tara, the numerous ritual ceremonies attributed to her, as well as her importance in Tibetan religion. His shift from a general to a specific context maintains the scope of both in its exploration of religious expression in Tibetan ritual. The book’s detail is amazing and its errors minor or potentially correctable. However, that Beyer no longer concerns himself with Tibetan studies is disappointing and makes the prospect of a second edition unlikely. Overall, The Cult of Tara is a quintessential resource for the study of Tibetan Buddhist religion and ritual regardless of its need for revision and redaction.