The Golden Tara of the Philippines
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When you think of Buddhism one doesn’t really think of the Philippines as a nation with a history of the religion. Today Roman Catholicism is the dominant religion of the country followed by Islam. Due to Spanish colonization, missionaries brought Christianity into the islands and over the 333 years of colonization the majority of the people converted from their indigenous beliefs to the new faith. However prior to the colonization, there is a history in the Philippines that is relatively unknown, that is the influence of Buddhism and Hinduism. We have no awe inspiring monuments like Borobudur in Indonesia or Angkor Wat in Cambodia that indicate that Buddhism was prevalent. However we do still have evidence through the oldest document in the Philippines, the Laguna Copperplate, and various recently discovered artifacts. One of these artifacts is the Golden Tara, also known as the Golden Agusan Image, one of the only deity representations recovered in the Philippines.

In the words of UP scholar Dr. Juan Francisco, he described the golden statue as, “One of the most spectacular discoveries in the Philippine archaeological history.” But how exactly was it discovered and who discovered it? In July of 1917 a flood and storm swept through Agusan Del Sur in the barangay Cubo Esperanza. After the storm a Manobo woman named Bilay Ocampo was on the banks of the muddy Wawa River where she eventually found the figure where it washed up from the river. The 21-karat gold figure dating to around 850 to 950 C.E. weighs 4 lbs and depicts a woman sitting in the lotus position in Buddhism, is ornamented with jewelry on her body, and wears a headdress. This figure turned out to be a representation of the Bodhisattva Tara. It is said that the Golden Tara after her discovery was handed to the former Deputy Governor Bias Baclagon then it was passed to the Agusan Coconut Company, because of a debt. It was then being sold and was purchased for 4,000 pesos by the wife of American Governor-General Leonard Wood, Faye Cooper-Cole, who was the curator of Chicago Field Museum’s Southeast Asian department. They then donated the Golden Tara to the Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois, USA where it is currently held in the Grainger Hall of Gems. Dr. H. Otley Beyer, known as the father of Philippine Archaeology and Anthropology, tried to encourage the government to buy the artifact however all attempts failed due to lack of funds.

The story goes that when Bilay Ocampo found her, she decided to keep it as a doll. However she was told to give it over to Baclagon because they believed it was a diwata. Because of this it was previously called Buwawan ni Baclagon or Ginto ni Baclagon. However according to Bilay’s granddaughter, Aling Constancia, the Golden Tara wasn’t handed over but it was stolen from her lola.

The question of the validity of the purchase of the Golden Tara and whether it was acquired legally if it was in fact originally stolen from Bilay remains a debate of history. Regardless of how it was attained, it currently is housed in the Field Museum thousands of miles away from home. Away from the land and people it originated from in which it represents the history and culture of our ancestors and a group of people who practiced Vajrayana Buddhism.

TaraGreen55

The Green Tara


White-Tara-02

The White Tara

 

Now for the majority of Pilipin@s, most don’t know who the Bodhisattva Tara is, let alone what she symbolizes in Buddhism. We don’t really know when Buddhism arrived in the Philippines and how it arrived. Most likely it came through the interaction of trade with those from Java and Sumatra or perhaps under the influence of the Srivijaya Empire which parts of the Philippines was under. In Mahayana Buddhism, Tara is widely known and the Bodhisattva of compassion. In Vajrayana Buddhism, which is the sect that was practiced in Indonesia and the Philippines prior to the arrival of Islam and Christianity, Tara is an enlightened female Buddha who made a promise in her very distant past that after reaching enlightenment she would always reincarnate as a woman and stay to help others achieve enlightenment. She represents the feminine aspect, a Bodhisattva of compassion and action who is fondly called the “mother of liberation” and the “mother of all Buddhas”. She is also known to be a saviour, a deity who hears the cries of those experiencing misery. Her name means “she who saves”, “star”, or “she who leads across”. Ironically enough there is a goddess among the Tagalogs named Tala which is their word for star and a word found throughout the languages in the Philippines.

There are several aspects of Tara with the Green and White Tara the most common. The Green Tara, often potrayed with a half-open lotus is associated with the night, virtuous activity,  Meanwhile the White Tara, depicted with a lotus in full bloom, is associated with the day and symbolizes serenity and grace. They both symbolize the never ending compassion of the goddess who labors everyday to relieve suffering.

In Buddhism it is said that Tara was born out of the tears of compassion of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. The reason for his tears was upon looking at the world of suffering beings and through his tears formed a lake in which a lotus sprung up. When the lotus bloomed, Tara was born. In another tradition the White Tara was born from the tears of Avalokiteshvara’s left eye and the Green Tara born from those of his right. A third tradition is that she was born from a beam of blue light emanating from one of the eyes of Avalokiteshvara, in which to some traditions she is the consort of.

Representing the feminine aspects she has become a sort of symbol among women and resonates among women interested in Buddhism. In a quote from His Holiness the Dalai Lama spoken at a conference in California in 1989, :

“There is a true feminist movement in Buddhism that relates to the goddess Tārā. Following her cultivation of bodhicitta, the bodhisattva’s motivation, she looked upon the situation of those striving towards full awakening and she felt that there were too few people who attained Buddhahood as women. So she vowed, “I have developed bodhicitta as a woman. For all my lifetimes along the path I vow to be born as a woman, and in my final lifetime when I attain Buddhahood, then, too, I will be a woman.”

Tara’s emergence as a Bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism thus shows the positive influence and emergence of women in Buddhism.

Here is a poem written by Christine Godinez-Ortega, a poet, educator, author, & journalist.

“Butuan’s kinship to the Srivijayans is assured,
dark balanghais still buried in the clay
and antiques safe in rich homes have pushed
historians to twaddle and twirl the globe
probing Magellan’s landing in Masao.
The Golden Tara surfaced after a storm
but we’ve lost it like we had the Balanggiga Bell.
Tara’s journey from a glorious time
lighted up another type of storm in Butuan.

Manobo brushed off clay and nature’s call
for Diwata told Man to claw and dip into
that carpet of mud, the throbbing star
by Wawa’s roiling waters rushing
with the mighty Agusan River.

Historians fussed at golden deity’s name,
Manobo’s rough hands took salt and rolled bills
from cold, brown hands until the glit’ring icon
rested on pale, eager palms for free.

Butuan’s kinship to the Srivijayans is assured,
dark balanghais still buried in the clay
and antiques safe in rich homes have pushed
historians to twaddle and twirl the globe
probing Magellan’s landing in Masao.

Today, the Haves gloat in Tara’s glow in Chicago’s
Museum of Natural History but in the dark,
far from this museum, the Have-Nots
spend their time polishing shadow plasters
of Paris dipped in paint.”

 

Backside of the Golden Tara. Photo by Chris Pace

Back view of the Golden Tara. Photo by Chris Pace

Now the lingering question remains. Will the Golden Tara find her way back home? Will she be returned to our people to learn from her and her history? As of right now I personally feel that at this present time that she isn’t ready to be brought back to the Philippines. My reasons why is that of the corruption of our government and their lack of interest in archaeological and anthropologic findings and studies. If she does come back home where will she be displayed? In the National History Museum? Back to Agusan? Perhaps it will be in the hands of the private Ayala Museum collection? Unless we can fix our corrupt government and support the field of archaeology and anthropology as well as our museums, the Golden Tara is safer in Chicago. Do I dream of her returning back to us? Indeed I strongly do and I hope one day she does as she represents a history and culture that is barely known to us. But right now I feel that until we do what we must do that she should stay in the Field Museum until the day she can safely be returned back home.

About The Author

Executive Editor & Founder

Ligaya is the Executive Editor & Writer at Pinoy-Culture.com. She lives in NYC with her two dogs and spends her time reading, writing, collecting and buying books online and in safe haven, Strand Bookstore, watching her guilty tv show pleasure Vikings, and overdosing herself in coffee as a certified caffeine addict. Her book, Diwatahan: A Look Into the Precolonial Beliefs, Practices, Myths, & Folklore of the Philippines, is currently in progress and is scheduled to be published in Summer of 2017.

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2 Responses

  1. Nita

    I been practicing meditation, learning Buddhism (raised catholic) practicing yoga for more than a year now. Now I understand fully. I feel at home when I read and listen to dharma, I am a sangha and there’s Buddha – in all of us. Thank you for this article. Me and my husband just went to see the “Philippine Gold” in Asia society museum here in New York City. I am truly fascinated by how Buddhism started in Philippines. Thank You.

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