Dharmapalas, Chos-skyong – “Protectors”
Lama Namse Rinpoche was born in Tsurphu, Tibet in 1930 and became a monk at the age of fifteen. He studied the Tibetan religious language, etymology, grammar, poetry, all major Hinayana and Mahayana texts and commentaries, as well as the philosophy of the various Buddhist schools from ages 16 to 21. Then Lama Namse did a 3-year, 3-month, 3-day retreat and practiced the profound instructions of the Kagyu teachings intensively. From 24 to 26, he concentrated on The Five Treasuries of Jamgon Kongtrul the Great.
From 27 to 30, Lama Namse went on pilgrimage and practiced in many sacred retreat sites. He left Tibet and came to India when he was 30 and did another 3-year retreat. Then he became a retreat master for many new retreatants. He travelled to Rumtek Dharmachakra Centre when he was 37 and received the empowerments of the Kagyu Ngagzod and Damgang Ngagzod. Since 1974 he has served as a teacher of the Kagyu Lineage all over Europe and has helped many students understand the path.
Lama Namse Rinpoche is His Holiness Karmapa's official representative in Canada and is head of Karma Sonam Dargye Ling, the Canadian centre for His Holiness the Seventeenth Gyalwa Karmapa, Ogyen Trinley Dorje.
When receiving precious Dharma instructions, especially those of the Great Vehicle, it is necessary to arouse the pure motivation, bodhicitta, which is the sincere wish to attain enlightened mind for the benefit of oneself and every living being.
Before earnestly studying and meditating the Buddhadharma, it is utterly necessary to recollect the fundamental teachings and to be sure that one has understood them correctly. Every Dharma activity presupposes a good understanding of the basic instructions that Lord Buddha gave to us. For example, any skyscraper that is erected without a fundament will collapse in a storm. It is the same with knowledge of Dharma:
It is only possible to progress in one’s practice if one understands and has integrated the basic instructions in one’s life. It is tempting to think one has understood them, but it happens so very often that practitioners falter if they skip stages while hoping to traverse the path and achieve fruition.
I was asked to speak about the practice of Mahakala, but there must be a misunderstanding. In order to meditate Mahakala, a disciple must have completed Ngondro (the preliminary practices) and a yidam practice. This is the reason why instructions on Mahakala are not presented to a general audience nor in public - it is not common and would not benefit anyone.
Western students are fascinated about the idea of meditating Mahakala, but it is only correct to present the instructions to advanced practitioners. If a student meditates similar practices without having completed the preliminary and yidam practices, then there is the very great danger and probability that many false concepts will arise and as a result that person will err, which would be extremely difficult to heal.
Without the fundamental practices, one cannot understand Mahakala. It is better to refrain, seeing that practicing Mahakala without preparations on the part of a disciple only makes him or her more neurotic and confused. Furthermore, receiving the empowerment that allows one to practice Mahakala involves profound details and a strict commitment.
Living up to the commitment of engaging in the quite complex details of practice that the empowerment entails can become more than difficult for you. I do not want to withhold anything from you, rather I want to protect you from making a promise that you cannot keep. But I will offer the blessing.
Let me explain this with an example: People in the West need to have completed elementary school, then junior high, and later received a high school education before going to college. No parent would think of registering a six-year old child at a university. Wouldn’t a youngster be out of place and suffer frustrating consequences if parents overloaded their child with such high expectations should that child be enrolled in university courses?
Dharma is the same – it is necessary to first fully understand what one is doing. Intellectually reiterating what one has heard will not do. Disciples need to discuss their practice with their teacher. If a meditation master sees that a disciple is ready, then he will suggest which practice is suitable and best. Students must rely upon the insight and decision an authentic and qualified instructor makes when it comes to Dharmapala meditation.1
It is necessary to follow the path properly if one wishes to integrate the Dharma in one’s life. It is of no help at all to skip stages, because something will be missing along the way; sooner or later one will have difficulties, because one would not know how to differentiate mistaken ideas that are so hard to correct. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary to practice step-by-step and in accordance with an authorized Lama’s instructions. It is also important to do the practice that he recommends in order to benefit reliably.
There are different types of Dharmapalas - male and female, with one or two faces, with two or many arms, and in powerful and ferocious forms that bewilder and frighten those who aren’t initiated but see them. So, if a student isn’t ready but meditates a Dharmapala, there is the great danger that he or she might think it is all right to destroy enemies or carry out harmful activities with the same force as a specific protector.
This problem is not new; it occurred in Tibet for hundreds of years - there are always people who misuse these most peaceful yet powerful techniques of practice. Misled individuals might accomplish their malicious aims by relying on Dharmapalas.
One thing for sure, though, meditating a Dharmapala with the wrong intention and understanding will directly lead to rebirth in a lower realm of existence, horrendous states in which beings are doomed to suffer extreme anguish and pain for a very long period of time. In that case, the favourable freedoms and advantages that we all have got now and that are so hard to get - a precious human birth - will have been totally wasted.
It is generally said that the task of a Dharmapala is to protect the doctrine, its upholders, and practitioners. It is not that easy for lay practitioners to appreciate the various Dharmapalas, though. Mahakala, for instance, is depicted stomping on two human beings, who symbolize death of the two main obscurations that, like a corpse, will not stand up again.
Hagiographies of great realized masters tell us that they recited millions of mantras of Chakrasamvara or Hevajra, for instance, before they concentrated on a guardian deity. These practices must be perfectly accomplished before one even hopes to meditate a Dharmapala correctly. It is of utmost importance to be very cautious, to be honest with oneself, and to be concise.
There are three kinds of protectors: wisdom, activity, and worldly protectors. A few wisdom protectors are indivisibly united with Avalokiteshvara, Chenrezig, the “Lord of Compassion.” Other wisdom protectors emanate directly.
They are completely enlightened bodhisattvas who have taken the vow to guard wisdom-holders and the Buddhadharma for the benefit of sentient beings. When reciting the Refuge Prayer in Ngondro, we seek refuge in the Dharma protectors who are wise and who do not harm a single being, not even in slightest ways. Practitioners must be careful about the larger number of worldly protectors.
There are more worldly protectors than wisdom Dharmapalas. Worldly protectors still have subtle veils. They can be compared with human beings like us, who are apt to do good but do bad things too, and they do cause problems. We can compare worldly protectors with someone who blackmails us or expects a lot in return for any help they may give. We are bound once we have such an unfortunate relationship, because they demand regular offerings from us - if we fail, we’re in for a surprise.
There are protectors even more mundane than the worldly protectors; they control the worldly protectors. If these mundane beings become upset because we didn’t satisfy them in one way or another, then trouble is in store, for example, mental and physical illnesses. It is extremely hard to please such beings; they become very nasty if they don’t like something we did or failed to do for them.
There are wisdom Dharmapalas who protect a lineage; for example, the six-armed Mahakala is the guardian of our Kagyu Lineage. The two-armed Mahakala is not the main protector of the Kagyu Lineage, rather specifically a protector of the Karmapas. Wisdom Dharmapalas are emanations of bodhisattvas like Avalokiteshvara.
It is said that he once saw that it was necessary to emanate a wrathful form. Light flowed from the dark blue syllable HUNG in his heart and spontaneously became a protector that was perceived in such a form.
Avalokiteshvara did emanate for specific purposes - to give advanced masters powerful practices that enable them to pacify severe situations with wisdom and compassion and to continuously benefit beings through the unimpeded play of the enlightened mind. Even though a Dharmapala is an emanation of Avalokiteshvara, it is not possible for ordinary practitioners to deal with him adequately, and therefore I want to warn you to please not even think about meditating a Dharmapala at this stage in your practice.
Most Dharmapala practices belong to the Secret Mantrayana, which is synonymous with Vajrayana. It is important to understand what is meant by “secret.” The term ”secret” that is used in association with higher tantras is not something like a secret military force that an evil opponent may not discover, rather it means that the instructions are only given to disciples if they are useful to them and if they can practice without taking or causing harm.
If a disciple has not met preparations and is not ready, then it would be too early and even dangerous - therefore wrong - to impart the instructions, since a disciple could have mistaken thoughts and distorted ideas about them. For instance, a misled disciple might think Dharmapalas are malevolent spirits who are about to attack - one of the dangers that the Secret Mantrayana brings along.
Therefore it is said that if one wants to embark on the vehicle of Mantrayana, it is absolutely necessary to rely on a Lama and to practice the instructions that he imparts. Sincere trust and devotion in a Root Lama enable a follower to traverse Vajrayana correctly, to practice the profound techniques, and attain fruition very fast. If a Lama sees that further deep instructions cannot benefit a disciple, they are kept secret.2
There is a reason why there are three vehicles in Buddhism; they are differentiated according to the time it takes for a diligent follower to achieve fruition. Hinayana practitioners need many eons to accumulate merit, to eliminate negative habits, and to engage in beneficial activities.
Mahayana practitioners advance faster, but they need many lives to attain fruition. Vajrayana practitioners can attain buddhahood within one single life, but they need unwavering trust and devotion; they did meet preparations in former lives to understand the teachings correctly now and to have the opportunity to practice them diligently in this life.
Lord Buddha did not teach Vajrayana in public. It is recorded in the tantras that the Buddha did not appear in his usual form when he taught Vajrayana, rather he manifested as the deity of a specific tantra when he spoke to those few individuals in India who were ready to receive the quite profound teachings.
When the great councils were convened many years after the Buddha’s Parinirvana, nobody knew what Vajrayana followers were doing – they did not speak about this openly. Noble followers of Vajrayana did not talk about their practices with anyone except their personal meditation master, their Root Guru, which enabled them to mature and advance quickly and efficiently.
This very silent approach changed when the Dharma was brought to Tibet and Vajrayana became the spiritual reference for an entire nation of citizens. Of course, Vajrayana spread like wildfire in Tibet, but after it became institutionalised, the number of great practitioners who attained realization rapidly declined.
There are life-stories of great Indian masters, particularly life-stories of the 84 Mahasiddhas, who practiced the techniques of Secret Mantryana, i.e., Vajrayana. They attained realization very quickly due to their diligence and manifested amazing activities for the benefit of all sentient beings – they flew through the sky, walked through walls, left their footprints and handprints on rocks, and so forth. It is a truth that the saintly Mahasiddhas studied and practiced Hinayana and Mahayana and developed deep devotion to their teachers for many lives and were ready and prepared to receive deeper instructions when they did.
The Mahasiddhas did not speak about their practice in public – they kept it a secret. This is true of our great Kagyu forefathers, too. The life-stories of Tilopa and Naropa are well-known. We have heard and read about the hardships and difficult tests that Naropa had to go through before he was even allowed to ask Tilopa for profound instructions and became worthy to receive them.
We also know about the hardships that our other Kagyu forefathers endured in order to receive profound transmissions. Their life-stories show us that we - all the more so - still need to become worthy vessels for the profound teachings and that anything we do is small in the light of what they went through for our sake and for the welfare of future generations.3
The Dharmapala tradition as we know it arose in India during the 6th, 7th, and 8th centuries. The most popular Dharmapala practice that spread within the context of Buddhism was the four-armed Mahakala, which originated in a vision that Tilopa had while practicing meditation intensively and for quite a while before he accepted any pupils.
Residing in utter solitude near Somapuri, the site of one of the great Indian monastic universities,4 Tilopa fervently meditated the Chakrasamvara Tantra for twelve years. During this time, Chakrasamvara often manifested to him - it is said “face-to-face.”5 It was during the most advanced stage in Tilopa’s practice that immense hindrances arose and subtlest clouds of obscurations had to be removed.
Therefore Chakrasamvara manifested from his heart the four-armed Mahakala, who taught Tilopa supplication and offering prayers, syllables, and mantras. Tilopa wrote down these instructions and transmitted them to most worthy disciples. This was the beginning of Dharmapala practice in Vajrayana.
Tilopa’s outstanding disciple was Naropa, who – like his teacher – rebelled at a young age against his royal training. When he was eight years old, he left his home in Bengal and went to Kashmir to study. Having gone through the curriculum in three years, he then studied logic, science, grammar, rhetoric, and art with the best teachers. Meanwhile his parents arranged for his marriage; eight years later Naropa left wife and home and was ordained as a monk in far-off Kashmir.
He sought a better education and went to Nalanda University near Pullahari in the district of Bihar and soon became abbot there. But a dakini told him that meditation was more important than studies, that he should seek Tilopa and ask for instructions, which he did. Without recognizing Tilopa when he did find him, he was put through twelve excruciating tests, persevered, and mastered the instructions;
then he took disciples of his own. Why did Tilopa put Naropa through so many hardships before he transmitted the teachings to him? Although Tilopa saw that Naropa was a most perfect vessel for the teachings and more advanced than he realized that he himself was, through the clarity of his enlightened mind he saw that Naropa was still proud and had less obvious subtle obscurations that needed to be purified.
Naropa went through much pain before he even dared ask Tilopa for instructions. There is a story that describes how difficult it was for Naropa to even be accepted as Tilopa’s student. The story goes that they were walking through the country and arrived in a little town. They passed an empty building and Tilopa murmured out loud so that Naropa could kind of hear, “If I had a pupil who really trusted me, he would jump from the roof of that building without hesitating.” Naropa looked around, didn’t see anyone, and thought to himself, “He didn’t mean me, did he?”
Realizing nobody else could be meant and due to his great devotion and trust, he climbed on the roof, jumped, and landed on the hard ground, smattered and smashed. When Tilopa casually returned from his walk around the area and saw Naropa more dead than alive, he asked him, “What happened? How do you feel?” Naropa answered, “I feel awful, like a corpse.” This is why Naropa has come to be known by the name Naro, which means “human corpse.”
Naropa had to go through further hardships and, having withstood them, he then received precious instructions during the many years he spent with his wonderful teacher. He practiced diligently and achieved perfect realization. Among the teachings he received were rare Dharmapala practices. Other great Mahasiddhas received other Dharmapala practices and they shared them with each other, aware that future generations would benefit immensely.
Naropa’s most excellent pupil was Marpa, who visited India three times, learned from a hundred teachers, and spent many years at the feet of his Root Guru. Marpa practiced all teachings he received, achieved realization, brought the teachings to Tibet, and translated them from Sanskrit into Tibetan. And so, the precious teachings of Tilopa were handed down to Naropa; he passed them on to Marpa, who brought them to Tibet.
The Dharmapala practices developed further at this time; the main ones that Naropa gave Marpa are the four-armed Mahakala and Palden Lhamo, called Shri Devi in Sanskrit. Palden Lhamo, the “Glorious Goddess,” also known as Düsum, is the only female among the eight Dharma protectors.6 We know that Naropa told Marpa, “These practices are very efficient but difficult to practice. They are not meant for everyone. Please, only give them to disciples who are advanced enough to practice them correctly.
There are protectors who originated when Guru Rinpoche came to Tibet and subjugated spirits that did everything in their power to prevent Buddhism from being established on Tibetan soil. In the life-stories of Guru Rinpoche, Padmasambhava, we read that he ran into many negative forces when he arrived in Tibet; he bound them to the oath that they would not only stop harming others but would protect anyone involved with beneficial activities for the welfare others. As a result, many Dharmapalas arose in Tibet.
In the ancient texts that are continuing to come to light, we read that it is certainly not good if every devotee meditates a Dharmapala, that only a very small number of practitioners are qualified and eligible, and that others should not become involved with them.
The ancient scripts also state that before even thinking about taking up the practice of a Dharmapala, a student needs to have studied and understood Lord Buddha’s fundamental teachings, the purpose of the teachings, why it is necessary to strive for enlightenment for the benefit of all living beings, and so forth. Furthermore, a practitioner needs to have completed the common, the special, and the very special preliminaries.
In order to practice the special preliminaries, a diligent student needs to have received the empowerment of the yidam deity and should have meditated this deity for quite a while. There are outer, inner, and secret aspects of each yidam. If one practices correctly and discusses one’s experiences with one’s meditation master, quite a number of years will pass. If one’s teacher then says that one may begin meditating a protector or if he says one should not, then it is only proper to respect and heed his advice.
Should a devotee even start studying and contemplating the Dharmapalas, then it is truly necessary to first have completed the preliminaries and to be certain and sure that bodhicitta has arisen and developed in one’s mind. It is absolutely necessary to have the pure motivation and to know that Dharmapala practice is not carried out to increase one’s own power and profit.
Negative intentions of any kind may not be, so a practitioner must have vanquished the greatest number of negative thoughts and emotions in the own mind - that everyone does have - and he or she needs to rely on a meditation instructor who can truly judge whether this is the case or not.
Therefore, at this stage in practice it is very important that disciples increase bodhicitta, “loving kindness and compassion,” so that one day they can reliably benefit others. How does one practice properly? By receiving the instructions, by contemplating them ever more deeply, and by meditating them so that one actually experiences the truth of the teachings.
If one succeeds, then one will achieve liberation from suffering in cyclic existence and be able to benefit others; one will not go astray by thinking that one can do practices one is not really ready for and that will present great obstacles. So it is much better for you to concentrate on a few essential practices and to practice them for the rest of your life as sincerely and diligently as possible. Thank you very much.
May virtue increase!
Presented at Theksum Tashi Choling in Hamburg, July 2007. In reliance on the German rendering kindly offered by Thomas Roth, translated into English and edited by Gaby Hollmann, with sincere gratitude to Madhavi Simoneit and Lama Dorothea Nett.
1 Dharmapala is the Sanskrit term that was translated into Tibetan as chos-skyong, which means „protector of the teachings.” Dharmapalas are either enlightened beings, or spirits and gods who have been subjugated by great masters and bound under oath to guard the teachings.
2 Secret Mantrayana is gSang-sngags in Tibetan and refers to the esoteric instructions. The tantra called dGongs-pa-grub-pa’i-rgyud states: "One should know that all mantras are divided into three classes, gnostic mantras which are the essence of skillful means, dharanis which are the essence of discriminative awareness, and secret mantras which are the non-dual pristine cognition." Dharani is the Sanskrit term that was translated into Tibetan as gzungs. It is a verbal formula blessed by a buddha or bodhisattva, similar to the mantras of Vajrayana, but found in the sutra tradition.
3 For example, Tilopa benefited from the expulsion he experienced by travelling throughout India, searching out many teachers, and learning their methods. He earned his living during this period by grinding sesame seeds (til in Sanskrit) for oil, the connotation of his name. He was a perfect vessel and received direct transmission of the Mahamudra and other teachings from Buddha Vajradhara, Dorje Chang, who was his Root Guru. Although he chose to live in remote and inhospitable regions, Tilopa’s fame as a master brought him excellent students.
4 The six celebrated Buddhist centres of learning in India were founded in the 7th century A.D. by the first ruler of the Pala Dynasty upon the model of Nalanda University, which was probably built during the reign of King Kumara Gupta (415-455 A.D.). The six Buddhist universities of ancient India were Nalanda, Vikramashila, Odantapuri, Somapuri, Jagaddala, and Vallabhi. They were destroyed along with other major centres of Buddhism in India when Muslims invaded the subcontinent and unleashed a period of destruction and genocide. The staff and students of the large Indian universities fled and sought safety in Tibet.
5 Chakrasamvara is very important in many schools of Vajrayana, especially in the Kagyu school. Translated into Tibetan as ‘Khor-lo-bde-mchog, it literally means “wheel of bliss” and is a male yidam practice, particularly associated with bliss. He can have one face and two arms, or three faces and six arms, or four faces and twelve arms. 6 The eight Dharmapalas are Mahakala, Palden Lhamo, Yamantaka, Kubera, Hayagriva, Changpa, Yama, and Begtse.