I’ve experienced an extraordinary number of losses and breakdowns over the past three years (job, greencard sponsor, healthcare, pre-perimenopausal body), many quite recently (my mother, my best friend, my bird companion, my home-office, my vehicle, and all my appliances– *sigh*. This is a partial list).
Anam Thubten asked our sangha recently, “Are you ready to let go of everything?” And I laughed to myself and thought, “You mean there’s more?!” And then thought, “It’s a very good time to be a Buddhist!” Anyway, as I begin to get used to my new home, and tentatively find my footing again, it seems like an appropriate time to share the story of my name.
I get asked about it all the time: “Aren’t “Tara” and “Kali” Tibetan and Indian deities?” Did your parents give you the name “Vanissar?” I usually say, “Do you want the long story or the short story?” Here is the long story of why this WASP (white anglo saxon protestant) woman from Toronto has the name “Vanissar Tarakali.”
I am a woman of European descent who has a commitment to racial justice, and I do my best to avoid appropriating the cultures of others. The two goddesses, Tara and Kali Ma, are not from my culture. And I understand that it might be off-putting to some people of South Asian or Tibetan descent that I have taken the last name Tarakali.
In addition to being a white woman, I am also a person who has experienced myriad visions, spontaneous altered states and spiritual experiences since I was a child. The name Vanissar was given to me in a vision when I was 11, as was my middle name, Zondra. The Vanissar I was shown was in a lush green meadow, using her hands to nurture a rich array of plants and animals. This Vanissar radiated an active compassion for all creatures; she was very similar to Green Tara.
The Zondra I was shown was like a diminutive version of Kali Ma: knife-bearing, hell-raising, deadly, ferociously sexual, wearing red and black. I have never been able to find the name “Vanissar” anywhere until very recently on the internet. “Zondra” is also a rare name. I feel these names are truly mine.
Kali Ma came to me in a powerful dream when I was 14, ferociously dancing among dismembered and burning corpses and dictating a long poem (which I wrote down while still asleep) about how her eternal dance ruthlessly and compassionately cuts through every illusion of duality (and she let me know she intended to cut through mine).
This dark deity in my dream embodied life and death, desire and peace, creation and destruction. She made it quite clear to me that she had claimed me for her path, whether I liked it or not. I was terrified of what lay ahead, and yet filled with a profound sense of purpose and blessing. (In the years since, Kali has validated those fears and hopes by kicking my butt on a regular basis.)
I had no exposure to Tibetan or Indian cultures as a child or adolescent. I was raised a born-again Baptist in a lower middle-class white neighbourhood in Toronto. I knew nothing about Tara or Kali until years later. But that 14-year-old me took Kali seriously. As I had taken Vanissar and Zondra seriously.
Then in my early twenties I encountered a Green Tara thangka. She was immediately beloved and familiar to me, like a long-lost friend. When I read that she had her right foot extended so that she could swiftly respond to the real-world suffering of beings, I sobbed with recognition and relief. I felt like I had come home. [I later found out that Tara is a manifestation of Kali Ma].
When I was thirty, after almost a decade of intense kundalini activity [another story for another time], I changed my name legally to Vanissar Zondra Tarakali. At this time I committed myself to living Kali’s path–a life dedicated to “Compassionate Transformation” of myself and others: passionate engagement in compassionate teaching, healing and social change work.
Over the years I have listened to many responses to my last name [delight, outrage, anecdotes, awe, condemnation, and everything in between] from all kinds of folks, including folks of South Asian descent. I appreciate and respect everyone’s perspective. And I have done much soul-searching about this, and paid attention to several definitions and interpretations of cultural appropriation.
Here are a few:
Is my name an appropriation of South Asian or Tibetan culture? It depends on who you ask. It is a contradiction that I do not know how to resolve.
Where I land is that my name is ultimately between me and the Divine. You could say I am in long-term, committed relationships with both Tara and Kali. So I will continue to live with this contradiction, as I have for the past 19 years, and I will strive–until it’s time to set aside this temporary form–to be a responsible steward of the name Vanissar Tarakali and all that it expresses: Transformation Through Compassion. Compassion That Transforms. I will do my best to be a Compassionate Transformer, or as we say in Canada, “shit disturber.”
Thank you for listening to my story.
I am curious to hear your responses, whatever they are. And I wonder, is your relationship to Spirit hard to fit into an “appropriate” box? Is there some spiritual experience or realization that means a lot to you but that you are afraid to claim?
When I found out a few years ago that most people have profound spiritual experiences, I was surprised. I rarely hear people talk about them. Certainly not in the dominant culture
Before I learned this, I felt isolated and freakish–I was afraid to “come out of the closet” about my own relationship to the Divine. Other’s silence about the ordinariness of spiritual experiences definitely contributed to my fear of surrendering to and embodying these experiences.
My fundamentalist Baptist upbringing also contributed to this isolation and lack of self-trust. As a child I talked directly to God on a regular basis, and felt comfort and connection with something vaster than myself. It was horrifying to be told by my church that I must use Jesus to mediate between me and God. I felt that something precious had been stolen from me.
Is there something about your upbringing, some form of oppression or colonization that has impacted your relationship with the Divine or the Land? What do you need to express, what do you need to affirm to take your spiritual authority back?