The Legend of the Dakini Ray of Sunlight (White Tārā)


Artwork by Jensine Eckwall

The Legends of White and Green Tārā are well known and much loved all across Tibet and Mongolia. As ‘The Legend of the Dakini Ray of Sunlight’ demonstrates, the Mongolian version mixes Tibetan and even Indic elements with an unmistakably Mongolian background. (To take one example, Tārā offers her own flesh to her ill mother-in-law, a clear echo of the famous jātaka about Mahasattva feeding the hungry tigress with his own flesh.) A legend such as this would have been continuously told and retold, generating new permutations with each retelling as it passed through phases of both oral and written transmission, a perfect example of Gilles Deleuze’s notion of movement through ‘smooth nomadic space.’ At the same time, the depiction of White Tārā (known as ‘White Tārā Mother’ in Mongolian, Tsagaan Dari eh) as highly fallible yet deeply proactive—and even, to use a contemporary phrase, ‘feminist’—is characteristically and uniquely Mongolian.

This excerpt of the legend finds us with White Tārā just before she is to enter the terrifying infernal realm of Erlig Khan. Having embarked on a journey to find her errant husband, Speaker of Truth, she escapes the evil grasp of the ‘noblemen of thieves’ Tangqu, only to be subsequently poisoned by Lord Lukü. She is taken to Hell, to the throne of the Lord of the Underworld, Erlig Khan (corresponding to the Tibetan gshin rje, or Yamāntaka.) Erlig Khan, searching among his files, discovers that she has been sent there by mistake and is to return to the world of the living. (Depictions of hell in the Tibetan and Mongolian folk imagination tend to be quite ‘bureaucratic,’ an attribute of civilisation more closely connected with their sedentary neighbours.) White Tārā, though, begs to be allowed to see her mother-in-law, who is there by virtue of the fact that she had cursed White Tārā: after her son, White Tārā's husband, left to pursue his studies in the Khan's city, she and White Tārā fell into deep poverty. When they ran out of food and she became ill, White Tārā fed her with her own flesh. Even then, though, the mother-in-law couldn’t wasn't satiated: she accused White Tārā of stealing and cursed her.

Though this section of White Tārā’s legend evidently has much in common with Tibetan revenant narratives, it is marked with a deep poignancy that seems uniquely Mongolian. 

The text used as the basis for the translation is taken from Tsendiin Damdinsüren’s groundbreaking collection of folkloric texts, Mongγol uran ǰokiyal-un degeǰi ǰaγun bilig orusibai, originally published in Ulaanbaatar in 1959 by the Academy of Sciences. (I have used the Inner Mongolian reprint of 2008.) I would also like to express my profound thanks to Professor J. Lubsandorj of Charles University in Prague, who aided me so kindly in clearing up uncertain terms.

Ottilie Mulzet

Then, as two demons came and took away the soul of Ray of Sunlight, the sacred Great Compassionate Bodhisattva Qongsim went upwards and gave this command:

                  You two demons, Asar and Iser, listen to me:

                  Because Ray of Sunlight has assumed a one-pointed mind

                  May her soul be taken to Erlig Khan to obtain the Document of Fate

                  I, in the world of the living, will heal her, and bestow upon her


he said, and the two demons and Ray of Sunlight joined their hands together in prayer, and said:

                  May the wish of the Sacred Great Compassionate One come to be,

they said and the two demons took Ray of Sunlight and they left, they reached the gates of the hell-universe: Ray of Sunlight looked and asked:

                  What kind of place is this,

                  Whose gates are these?

The demons answered:

                  These are the gates of hell,

they said; when they entered through those gates without obstruction, she saw there were many copper dogs, and their eyes sparkled, and their heads were like the heads of a mangas: their fangs were of a sallow iron, and their tails were iron snakes.

The demons said:

                  A person of good merit

                  Shall be taken from here without obstruction

                  A person of dubious mind

                  Shall be devoured without obstruction.

Without fear, Ray of Sunlight left the dogs, and as they went they saw a tall queen: Ray of Sunlight looked at her and asked about her, the demons said:

                  Any soul that died before its time has been imprisoned here—

                  those who have died in water and those who have died in wells,

                  those who have died by the sword, those who have died thrown from a horse,

                  those who have died having eaten poison,

                  and those who died falling off a horse,

                  those who have died at the time not of their deaths:

                  they all are in this place confined.

Ray of Sunlight, tears flowing from her eyes, said:

                  I died, poisoned by Lord Lukü

                  So then I too am imprisoned here.

The demons said:

                  Abai, if your strong intent is true,

                  then here you shall not remain.

As they went on, they saw a river flowing with blood; Ray of Sunlight asked, and the demons answered:

                  When, in the world of the living, a woman sheds her blood, while

                                                                                                        giving birth,

                  on the land where Burqan resides

                  or places unclean clothes next to the sacred dharma

                  or washes dirty clothes in flowing water,

                  then this woman is brought here.

So going, they arrived at the city called Mengki: In that city there was an old woman named Meng; that woman called aloud: if you are hungry or thirsty, please have some tea; and the demons said:

                  There is only one without fault and it is Ray of Sunlight. Why do you

                                                                                                         speak so loudly?

Ray of Sunlight said:

                  Why do you forbid me that tea offered by that compassionate


                  Both of you please wait a little bit:

                  My mouth has grown dry

                  I would taste some of that tea.

The demons said:

                  After having tasted some of this tea

                  to return to the world of the living will be hard

                  this tea is a poison that makes one forget all

                  Abai, do not desire to drink this tea

and at that point, a mountain was seen made of ice; its wind blew cold and there were many naked people who sat there on the mountain in the cold: the chill grew deeper, they wept and lamented without cease. Ray of Sunlight saw them and asked, and the demons said:

                  In the world of the living

                  He was a wealthy nobleman

                  He severed the lives of many obscure beings

                  He scorned the teachers and lamas

                  And with a barbarous lying heart

                  Disregarding the Khan’s laws, and            

                  defiling objects of great value, he has been sent here.

Then, as they went on, Hell with its pillars was seen: many people were tied to the pillars.

Ray of Sunlight saw this and asked, and the demons answered:

                  In the world of the living

                  They lied and were thieves

                  took bribes and seized many worldly goods

                  isolated people who had been slandered,

                  abandoned stupas and

                  so they have been sent here.

Then as they went on, they saw the fire-smelting Hell: Ray of Sunlight asked, and the demons answered:

                   Those who have killed their mother and father,

                  who have whispered to their husbands,

                  who have desired their mothers, and

                  who have stolen from the Buddhist clergy of the ten directions:

                  they are sent here.

And as they went on, a platform was seen: Ray of Sunlight saw this and asked, and the demons said:

                  Looking from the top of the platform,

                  you will see the world of the living.

They saw people performing acts of merit and becoming widowed and mourning and burning incense; Ray of Sunlight, asked, tears flowing from her eyes:

                  Ay, my husband has become wealthy

                  covetous of goods and chattel

                  for his mother even by a little

                  he has not performed acts of merit.

And, as they came down from the platform, seeing all of the eighteen hells without hindrance they arrived at the door of Erlig Khan: It was a door covered with the seven precious jewels, and above the door were written the words sin long ching in gold; entering the door without hindrance, they came to the presence of Erlig Khan: They prostrated three times, they bowed four times, and Erlig Khan asked:

                  You are a woman from what place?

                  With what matter have you entered the great doors?

He uttered these words, and Ray of Sunlight answered:

                  By the source of Nandai River

                  In the town of Ninjeng, I was born

                  The name of my husband is Speaker of Truth

                  My name is Ray of Sunlight,

And she spoke in detail about how, in the world of the living, she had nourished her mother by her own flesh, how she had been seized by Tangqu, and killed by Lord Lukü’s poison; furthermore, as concerned her other two fates, she had seen all kinds of suffering:

                   As I have no other person to investigate this matter,

                  I have come to you, Khan.

Erlig Khan, hearing these words, opened up the Book of Fates, and looking at it, uttered this command:

                  Ray of Sunlight, until the age of twenty-one,

                  is fated to undergo the three great sufferings

                  to feed her mother-in-law by cutting her own flesh, without fatigue:

                  this was the first suffering

                  To be seized by Tangqu of the mountain:

                  this was the second suffering

                  To eat the poison of Lord Lukü:

                  this was the third suffering

                  But apart from this, Ray of Sunlight

                  is fated to live for eighty-one years

                  You two demons, take the soul of Ray of Sunlight

                  to the world of the living

                  The blessings of life shall be granted

                  by the great compassionate Qongsim Bodhisattva.

Ray of Sunlight, joining together her palms in prayer, said:

                  My great merciful Khan

                  If you truly have compassion for me

                  My mother, oppressed by suffering, is here

                  May I visit her, my Khan of Dharma?

Erlig Khan gave the command:

                  Wondrous Ray of Sunlight

                  Go to darkened Hell

                  Visit your mother-in-law, and return

                  but then go on the world of the living.

He pronounced the command, then the two demons came and took Ray of Sunlight to her mother: there were iron fetters around her neck, she was guarded by demons with horse and cow’s heads—suddenly, mother and daughter-in-law embraced, and the hearts of all the demons who had gathered there fell; Ray of Sunlight, with tears flowing from her eyes, told how she had been seized by the thief Qangqu, and how she had eaten the poison of Lord Lukü and died, and how she had been indicted at the court of Erlig Khan and how she must return to the world of the living; then her mother said:

                  In this dream-like world, alone

                  all kinds of suffering I have seen

                  suffering, I have given birth to a son

                  wearily, for three years

                  I gave him suckle with my milk

                  and nourishing variously, he grew big

                  unsparing in giving him goods and chattels

                  teaching him in knowledge and wisdom

                  he has become a prince

                  and all my benefaction he has forgotten.

                  When shall I leave this Hell?

                  My daughter-in-law, after you have left

                  Assemble the teachers and the lamas

                  Perform actions of unbending merit

                  If you, my abai, get out of this indestructible hell

                  My beloved son left you:

                  Tell my son I am lying here in darkened hell, my abai

                  If he should recall the benefaction of his mother

                  Tell him to save me from this darkened Hell, my abai . . .

she said, crying, and the two demons came and took Ray of Sunlight to the world of the living.

translated from the Mongolian by Ottilie Mulzet