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The Institute of Buddhist Studies would like to thank all the panelists, participants, and guests who made the 2010 Buddhism Without Borders Conference such a wonderful success!

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Buddhism without Borders: Contemporary Developments of Buddhism in the West

at the Institute of Buddhist Studies
Berkeley, California
March 18 - 21, 2010

Panel I: Buddhist Experiences: Expressions and Subjectivities, 2:00 - 5:00 p.m.

Transforming Tara, Meanings in Motion

Ruth Fitzpatrick, University of Western Sydney

Transforming Tara explores what Green Tara, a female Tibetan Buddhist deity means to a group of Australian women practicing Tibetan Buddhism. Centred upon focus groups conducted with Australian Buddhist practitioners, this research offers an opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of the appeal that Buddhist female religious symbols have for Western women, as well as some of the personal and social implications of deity practices.

Through my participants' eyes, Tara’s most noticeable characteristics were her femaleness, her diverse, multiple aspects and her compassionate activity in the world. That Tara was active and dynamic was appealing, even more so because her actions were underpinned by a motive of compassion. Tara’s skill in action was highlighted. The fact that she, as a woman, utilised force, wrath and serenity in her endeavour to assist and liberate others was enthusiastically received by Australian practitioners. This reflected their appreciation of the important Mahayana Buddhist notion of 'skilful means'. Her incorporation of wrath, as part of an ethic of care was also appealing because it challenged the normative gendered identities of their own Australian cultural and religious heritages. Tara provided them with a new narrative for what a woman could be.

The womens’ relationship with Tara was primarily formed through participation in Tara rituals. During such rituals the practitioner identified with Tara as themselves. Adopting the identity ofTara, with the characteristics that that entailed, appeared to create a more positive relationship with being female. The subjective changes that Tara rituals inspired had implications for the social lives of the women involved. Their identification with Tara extended beyond the ritual sphere and influenced their engagement in family and work settings.

One of the themes my paper explores is the changes in subjectivities that stem from participation in Buddhist ritual. In particular I consider the social implications of those changes. This is part of a broader consideration of what constitutes engagement within Buddhism. Current studies of engaged Buddhism rarely include any consideration of the social and subjective implications of ritual practices. Does ritual constitute a form of engagement? Should it? Instrumentality and secularism tends to dominate understandings of engagement within literature on Engaged Buddhism. I explore how appropriate such frameworks are for assessing engagement within Buddhism and the value or otherwise of broadening our definition of engaged Buddhism to include ritual and subjective states. Such arguments reveal the complex meanings and diverse ramifications that occur when contemporary Australian women meet with Tara.

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