The 8th International Conference Buddhism & Australia
Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia Illustrations
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Tantric Wrathful Deities: The Psychology and Extraordinary Power of Enlightened Beings in Their Fearsome Form
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“Early encounters with Tibetan culture, with its ferocious and erotic deities, led its religion to be viewed with great suspicion. Those of missionary disposition even tried to convert the Tibetans… to save them from what they saw as demon worship.”
In fact, these forms are deliberately more terrible than demons; they represent forces that help us transform these very demons—whether you see them as psychological shadows of the mind, or tangible entities.
Schwarzenegger as a Wrathful Deity?
He clarifies wrathful practice with an amusing Western ‘Hell’s Angels’ example, and comparing peaceful meditations (the pinstripe-suited man) and wrathful practices (Schwarzenegger): “If we think of a gang of Hell’s Angels that has become totally wild and anarchic, how might their energy be brought under control?
On the other hand, if they were addressed by a Schwarzenegger-like figure, who looked powerful and tough, dressed like a wild man, disheveled and scarred, carrying chains, knives and other weapons, the response would be different.
They might develop respect or interest and be drawn into some kind of relationship, even to the point where, becoming their leader, he could change the direction of their behavior… and their aggression would be gradually channeled.”
They can appear in apparently demonic aspects, bristling with weapons, fanged, dripping blood, and surrounded by aureole’s of fire. When a serious practitioner evokes them, their power to transform is forceful and certainly very tangible.
Just as Schwarzenegger-like character puts on a show of force and ferocity, to accomplish his ‘tough love’ agenda, the Wrathful Deities of Tantra are motivated by compassion. Their cause is Bodhichitta. The wrathful appearance is an expression of skillful means.
At a higher level, Yamantaka—which means literally “slayer of death”—is a form is more terrifying than death itself, and by virtue of this he represents the very power of Enlightenment to defeat death.
“With a world-shaking cry the figure, now blue black, starts to its feet…
The massive body, nearly naked, girt only in a tiger-skin, wears skulls—pretty, staring skulls—as jewels. Snake-enwreathed, fang-mouthed, three eyes glaring bloodshot from an awesome face, he marches onward bellowing challenge…”
Why would anyone wish to conjure up such apparently horrible images of Enlightenment? Vessantara explains: “On a deeper level, dharmapalas throw back into the shadows the forces of nightmare and madness which always threaten to tear loose and subjugate the human psyche.”
“Despite our best efforts at curbing and containing aberrant human nature, the daily news is filled with its shadowy effects. The question still stands as to how we transform rather than supress its forces.”
Wrathful Deities Are Usually Higher Tantric Practices
The Wrathful deities can be of two main types:
These can be subdivided into three types:
Yamantaka is probably the best known, and possibly the most ferocious; he is the bull-headed wrathful deity who overcame death itself. Yamantaka, an aspect of Manjusri, even ‘recruited’ Death, in the form of Yama, as a Dharmapala—demonstrating the psychologically profound principle of absorption of shadow.
Wrathful Deities: Vivid, Intense and a Heavy Commitment
There is no question you are working with the mind. The images jump vividly, snap to clarity. Perhaps it’s the massive scale of the imagery, so intense and fierce that makes it easier to visualize for some people.
It’s neither for the faint of heart, nor the lazy of practice.
Tashi Tsering, in the book Tantra: The Foundation of Buddhist Thought explains: “Different vajra masters give different commitments when they give initiations—such as doing the full sadhana every day—and while this may not be the determining factor, you should consider whether you have the time and energy to follow such a practice.
Perhaps a wrathful highest yoga tantra deity with many arms and faces is attractive to you, but is that the best practice for you to do?”
Although the actual practices and visualizations are passed teacher to student, together with all-important instructions, a quick study of any of the many famous tangkhas of fierce deities, reveals an intensity of images that make’s the middle earth world of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings seem tame.
Yet, this isn’t an exercise in fantasy, or a dream-filled trip to a wondrous mindscape. The practice of wrathful deities is difficult, rewarding and a extremely advanced. It is also not for everyone. Most wrathful practices are the highest yoga tantra class, typically only introduced to practitioners after many years of successful foundation practices.
As explained by Geshe Tashi Tsering, “The main objective of highest yoga tantra is to move the subtle winds or energies through the central channel to eventually enter the heart chakra and abide there.
When all of the subtle winds are dissolved into the indestructible drop at the heart chakra, we experience the clear light mind. When the clear-light mind eventually comes into union with the illusory body, the resultant state—enlightenment—is achieved.”
By harnessing fierce aspects of Enlightenment, for those who are suited karmically and emotionally to the practitioner, progress can be very fast in relative terms—although, only under the guidance of a qualified guru.
For those karmically blessed enough to find their perfect teacher, and willing to make an unbreakable commitment, the lightning path of wrathful deity practice is an extraordinarily rewarding and enlightening experience.
- The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra, Rob Preece, Snow Lion, ISBN-13 978-15559392631.
- Commonly used psychology term referring to Shadow of the mind, the subjugated darker feelings we are ashamed of that unconsciously effect us.
- A Guide to the Deities of the Tantra by Vessantara, Windhorse Publications,
- Tantra: The Foundation of Buddhist Thought, Volume 6, Gesh Tashi Tsering.