The 9th International Conference Buddhism & Australia
Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia Illustrations
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Understanding the Tantric Tradition’s 3 Major Deities
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Lex Hixon, a scholar, author, and friend of Tricycle since its launch in 1991, spent 17 years hosting a weekly public radio show called “In the Spirit” on New York City’s WBAI-FM. Hixon interviewed religious leaders from many different faiths—including Mother Theresa, Ram Dass, and famed Jesuit anti-war activist Daniel Berrigan. His numerous Buddhist guests included His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Ruth Denison, and Allen Ginsberg.
Hixon died in 1995, and this month a collection of 25 of his edited interviews appear in Conversations in the Spirit: Lex Hixon’s WBAI “In the Spirit” Interviews.
Below is Hixon’s 1976 interview with Sakya Trinzin, during which the head of the Sakya lineage of Tibetan Buddhism explains the important role of deities in Tantric meditation and the possibility of a female Dalai Lama one day.
The 41st Sakya Trizin was born in 1945 into Sakyapa, one of Tibetan Buddhism’s four lineages. His parents and a sister then died in quick succession, leaving him and his surviving sister, Sakya Jetsun Chimey Luding, with their aunt, who trained them to teach. In 1959 the family moved to Rajpur, India, where Sakya Trizin established the Sakya Center, a nunnery, hospital, college, followed by many centers around the world. He married in 1974, and his two sons went on to became teachers themselves.
Today, Sakya Trizin heads the Sakya lineage. His U.S. seat is at Tsechen Kunchab Ling in Walden, New York. Sakya Jetsun Chimey Luding settled in Vancouver, Canada, and founded Sakya Kachod Choling on San Juan Island, in Washington State.
Lex Hixon: We have with us in the studio His Holiness Sakya Trizin, the 41st head of the 900-year-old Sakya Order of Tibetan Buddhism. The Sakya Order has a tradition of married lamas, and His Holiness himself is married with several children.
Yesterday, His Holiness gave a seminar on the feminine principle here in the city. We thought we would continue that discussion here on the air, so all of you can hear while sitting comfortably at home. The dharma is so compassionate that it will even come into your own home and reveal itself to you.
Your Holiness, it became clear during the seminar that the Tibetan Tantric tradition has a special feeling for the feminine aspects of reality. To explain this to the people who are listening, we’ll need to use some technical Tibetan terms, but we’ll try to make it very clear. There are three forms of transcendent, feminine deities: the yidam, dakini, and dharmapala. Could you describe each of them? Perhaps we could begin with the yidam; as I understand it, Tara is a yidam.
Sakya Trizin: Yes, that’s true. Yidam means an emanation or manifestation of the Buddha. In order to help different types of people and situations, the Buddha takes different forms. Some yidams are in wrathful form, some yidams are in peaceful form, and some yidams are female deities, like Tara. Yidams are different forms of the Buddha.
Lex Hixon: Buddhanature, I suppose, must be something neutral—beyond gender, beyond name, beyond form. Why does this pure buddhanature take the form of a feminine deity such as Tara?
Sakya Trizin: It is true that in the ultimate state, there is no such thing as female and male gender, but for people who have not reached that state, who are still thinking in terms of male and female, it may be more powerful and helpful to concentrate on female deities; and for some people, it may even be more helpful to concentrate on wrathful deities.
Lex Hixon: The other example you gave at the seminar of a yidam deity was that of the Vajrayogini. Could you describe Tara and the Vajrayogini and their differences?
Sakya Trizin: The main manifestation of Green Tara is actually a very peaceful one. Tara is more for helping develop common siddhis [someone who has attained enlightenment or a paranormal power possessed by a siddhi], for instance, to prevent disasters and to protect you from evil on the path. If you use it for your own personal benefit, that is not the right way. It is for achieving the ultimate goal and helping all beings. You need a long life and wealth and health for that. If you are involved in Tara’s blessings for that reason, that is the right idea, but it is not just for the worldly benefits. It’s like asking a great emperor to sweep the house.
All these deities came, of course, from the Vajrayana or the Tantra tradition. There are four different classes of Tantra. Tara actually comes into all of the four different classes of Tantra, whereas Vajrayogini is only in Anuttara Yoga Tantra, which is the highest class of Tantra. They are both, in reality, Prajna Paramita, or the ultimate transcendental wisdom, but in form they are very different. The main emphasis of Vajrayogini, of course, is only achieving enlightenment for the benefit of others.
Lex Hixon: Can you describe each of these yidams?
Sakya Trizin: Actually, Vajrayogini has many different forms, but the one we normally use is in between wrathful and peaceful. She is usually in the red color, with one face and two hands holding a curved knife and skull cup filled with nectar and she is adorned with bone ornaments. All these different ornaments and objects have many very deep meanings. The curved knife usually represents the fact that she cuts all defilements. The cup represents what in Sanskrit is called mahasukha, which means “the great bliss.” She is in a complete state of great bliss all the time.
Tara usually has her right hand in what we call the “giving gesture.” She is bestowing siddhis on all beings. The left one is holding the utpala flower, which represents the many qualities of the Buddhas.
Lex Hixon: In the Tantric meditation, there’s a union or identity that the meditator experiences with these deities. Could you explain that? People might think that these deities were essentially outside or separate.
Sakya Trizin: Yes, that’s right. Actually these deities are the symbol, or the manifestation, of the ultimate truth. The female deities are more on the wisdom side and the male deities are more on the method [compassion] side. But the ultimate, actual transcendental knowledge of wisdom is the complete union of these two things. So they are not really separate. And this great Dharmadatu, or transcendental wisdom, is actually with everyone, within every sentient being. But we haven’t realized this, so we are thinking in an ordinary way about everything that we see, everything we do. Therefore we cling to this present scene that we have. When you cling to this, then naturally the defilements arise because we take actions based on this present scene, and due to this, we are again and again surrounded by samsara [the cyclic round of worldly existence].
The main method that is used in Vajrayana is to stop seeing things as ordinary. So you should see all these things as transcendental wisdom and oneself in the form of a deity, and all sounds as mantra, and every thought that comes as transcendental knowledge. Although at the moment you are just visualizing, you are just imagining, gradually your attachment to the ordinary vision loosens and you strengthen your path in the Vajrayana tradition.
Lex Hixon: You’ve expressed that this feminine energy or principle is somehow connected with wisdom. Can you give us some suggestion as to why the feminine energy is the wisdom energy? And what do you actually mean by wisdom?
Sakya Trizin: In the actual state of ultimate wisdom, as I said before, there is complete union. There are no two things. But out of this unity, two things arise. Not only method and wisdom, but everything, like day and night, left and right, and long and short, everything; all dual things arise, like man and woman also. Wisdom or the feminine side appeared as more passive and the method or masculine side as more active. Without the two, with one alone, you will not be able to achieve the final attainments.
Lex Hixon: I don’t understand. You describe the Vajradakini as standing with the curved knife that cuts through defilements. It sounds like that’s not passive. It sounds like she has a very active quality, too.
Sakya Trizin: Yes, of course, this does not mean that she has only one facet. But there is more emphasis on the passive side. Of course, she is everything—she is transcendental knowledge.
Lex Hixon: Maybe, in our culture, the word passive doesn’t have the right connotation. Perhaps if you told us what you meant by wisdom we could understand what quality it has. You’ve mentioned the Prajna Paramita, who is another goddess, the primal wisdom that they say is the mother of all the buddhas and bodhisattvas. What is that wisdom, precisely?
Sakya Trizin: That is the wisdom that sees the ultimate truth, and the wisdom that sees the complete final states, where you are completely finished with all the karmic defilements and the impure propensities. Everything has gone and you have realized the very final truth. It’s not only that you know it, but you are completely merged with the absolute state.
Lex Hixon: That gives me a much better understanding than the word “passive.” In that sense, the feminine is totally complete, changeless, encompassing everything, embracing everything. Many times we associate the feminine with the earth, or with the fruitfulness of the earth, or with childbearing, but this sounds like it’s totally beyond what we think of in the ordinary sense as feminine.
Sakya Trizin: We call Prajna Paramita “the mother of all buddhas” because all buddhas and bodhisattvas are born out of this great wisdom. A mother gives birth, so this great wisdom also gives birth to the buddhas and bodhisattvas; therefore, in a way it is in a motherly form, isn’t it?
Lex Hixon: Yes, it is, but not a mother as we ordinarily understand. If she has really given birth to the buddhas, could you say in a certain sense that she is the main focus of the Tantric tradition?
Sakya Trizin: Yes. But as I said, to achieve the final enlightenment, wisdom alone will not be enough. For instance, to get to the final stage, the most important thing the Buddha said to do is the six paramitas, the six perfections. Of these, five—generosity, discipline, patience, effort, and meditative concentration—are method teachings; only the sixth one is the wisdom teaching.
Lex Hixon: When you say “method,” do you mean the masculine principle? So you would say that the goal in a certain sense is wisdom, but somehow the path to the goal . . .
Sakya Trizin: No, to achieve the goal, you need both, because wisdom is like an eye. You have an eye, but if you don’t have feet, you cannot walk. You just sit. You are crippled. The method is like your feet. If you have method with the wisdom, you have eye and feet together, then you can walk and reach your destination.
Lex Hixon: Yesterday in the seminar, it was mentioned that in the Tantric tradition, veneration of all women is suggested because this great wisdom, this mother of all buddhas and bodhisattvas [people who have vowed to save all sentient beings] is so much a part of the Tantric tradition that it is felt that every woman, just by being a woman, reminds one of that great wisdom and therefore should be treated with veneration. And yet it doesn’t say that about men, that you should give special veneration to all men because they represent method. So it seems that there’s a special reverence for the female form.
Sakya Trizin: I think that is from the point of view of mother-line Tantra because one of the samayas, or pledges, after receiving initiation in the mother-line Tantra, is to respect women.
Lex Hixon: So in Tantrayana there is a mother line, a father line, and then the third line is the mother-father that consists of the union of male and female?
Sakya Trizin: It’s called the “neutral line.” It’s the all-non-dual line, I think is a better way to say it.
Lex Hixon: Does everyone go through both father line and mother line in order to reach the non-dual line? Or are some people just temperamentally drawn to the neutral, to the masculine, or to the feminine?
Sakya Trizin: Many people practice both or all, but most people choose one.
Lex Hixon: My friend Madeline Nold was at the seminar yesterday. We are both Alex Wayman’s students in the doctoral degree program at Columbia. She has taught at Wellesley, and she ran the Kalu Rinpoche center in Boston. She has given me five questions from the feminine perspective that she didn’t get time to ask yesterday. So I’m going to pose them to His Holiness right now.
What exactly is a dakini? Are they predominantly the more feminine aspect, like the consort of a male deity rather than the mother aspect?
Sakya Trizin: There are many different stages of dakinis. Usually, a dakini is one who has transcendental knowledge and who is helping sentient beings. I think many times in Tibetan [Buddhism], dakinis are translated as “messengers” who are emanations of the major deities. The consorts also use the name “dakini,” so it’s both the feminine who are helping sentient beings as well as the counterparts of the male deities.
Lex Hixon: What about the dharmapalas, or the wrathful side of the feminine in Tibetan Buddhism? How does one address oneself to that?
Sakya Trizin: There are two different types of dharmapalas: worldly and non-worldly. Non-worldly dharmapalas are deities. The one that is most popular in Tibetan Buddhism is called Palden Lhamo or Mahakali. She is black in color with one face and two hands holding a stake and skull cup and riding on a mule. She is in very wrathful form with many bone ornaments.
Non-worldly dharmapalas are very much the same as deities. You can use them in practicing and visualize them like the yidams. Mostly, when you practice with a dharmapala, you do not become that deity. You invoke them in front of you and then make offerings. You request them to protect the dharma and to protect you, to have great success on your spiritual path.
Generally, these peaceful deities and wrathful deities are meant for different types of people. The wrathful yidams are meant for people who have in themselves a great defilement of anger. For the people who have much anger, it is more reliable to have more wrathful deities. I think this is not something that is only about you yourself, but in a way, all outside obstacles such as enemies are actually your own anger. To destroy this, you have to imagine and worship angry deities.
regular classes in our center, I see usually more women than men.
Lex Hixon: You spoke yesterday about your aunt and the training and the beautiful nurturance and wisdom you got from her. Would you share some of that with us now?
Sakya Trizin: She is a very, very religious-minded person, and she is always in meditation. She sleeps only a few hours a night, never lying down. Even when she sleeps, she just sleeps in the cross-legged position. She doesn’t even have a bed. During our lifetime, she has recited many, many mantras; for instance, her main deity is Red Tara. She decided to recite her mantra 20 million times. Our mother died when we were very young; it was our aunt who brought up me and my sister and gave us our education and arranged for us to meet all the very holy lamas to receive all the teachings, and arranged all the studies and meditations. Especially when we were doing the retreats, it was she who arranged everything.
She is just living an ordinary life. She is living in a household with many children and many ordinary people, but she recited more mantras and did more meditation than people who are in complete seclusion in a cave! I think it is just a matter of one’s own endeavor and efforts. If you make the right efforts, you can do it even in your own house. You don’t need to go anywhere else.
My sister is now living in Vancouver, and anything I could teach, she could also teach. I think [that] as her children grow up, she is going to have more time, and I hope that she will later have the opportunity to teach. That will be a very good thing. Usually this tradition has male heredity, but as far as qualities are concerned, she could also have been the head of the Sakya Order.
Lex Hixon: Could a female become the Dalai Lama?
Sakya Trizin: The Dalai Lama is not appointed, he chooses his birth. If he chooses to be born in a female form, I don’t see any obstacle, but so far, all the Dalai Lamas have chosen to be born as a male. There’s nothing saying that a male is more precious in actual theory and philosophy. But so far, the tradition has been like this.
Lex Hixon: We’ve talked in detail about feminine deities, but I’m sure a lot of people are wondering, do these deities really exist? Are they just expressions of psychological temperaments? Or are they somehow actually transcendental?
Sakya Trizin: No, they are not something solid outside. They are the manifestations of the ultimate transcendental wisdom. For people who believe in outer appearances, things appear in an outside way. But the real truth is they are all manifestations of the great transcendental wisdom, which is everywhere. The whole appearance is this. Everything—the transcendent part and the worldly part—came out of that.
Lex Hixon: In the seminar yesterday we were talking about a Tibetan nun who was very close to Mahakali. Evidently, Mahakali would come and appear to her as vividly as we are appearing to each other now. A psychological understanding of the dharma might say, “Well, the deities are just ideas. They’re just forces inside the mind.” But then, how could they appear as vividly outside as other human beings appear?
Sakya Trizin: In Buddhist tradition, we have two truths: the relative truth and absolute truth. In absolute truth, there’s no deity. There’s nothing. It’s inexpressible. In other words, it is something that is completely beyond our present way of thinking and being. But relatively, we have everything existing. We have “I,” and “you,” and all this. Empty it is, also. All these deities are different, with different categories. Some deities are called yidams, some deities are called dharmapalas. It is not just an idea that we have created. They are all truly like this. They protect you and they bless you, they help you, and sometimes they even punish you.
Lex Hixon: So we should take the deities as seriously as we take other beings.
Sakya Trizin: Yes, of course.
Lex Hixon: One final question on the nature of the ultimate reality. When you say that there’s nothing in the ultimate reality, it sounds like you are going to the extreme of nihilism. As far as I understand the Buddhist philosophy, the ultimate is neither existence nor nonexistence.
Sakya Trizin: When I say it’s nothing, it means it is neither existence nor nonexistence. It’s just like space. It has no color, no shape, no sign. The absolute truth is described many times in many scriptures as completely beyond our ordinary way of understanding things. Until we realize that, it will be difficult to describe.
Lex Hixon: But in the Tantra, it describes deities and, indeed, all phenomena as rising up out of that pure open space, and not separate from it. So it seems to me that one could be in the ultimate way of looking and still even see trees and deities and people, but of course they would appear in a totally different way. They wouldn’t necessarily have to disappear.
Sakya Trizin: Yes, that is true relatively, of course. And when you get enlightenment you have constant, ultimate, inexhaustible, compassion flowing to all sentient beings.
Lex Hixon: I want to thank His Holiness for being on the program with us. I hope people who are listening realize what a major cultural event this is, to be talking to a man who is the head of an ancient lineage and who is himself regarded as an emanation of Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom. He’s speaking to us in our own language, and he’s so kindly accepting all of our limited questions. We’re very grateful to you, Your Holiness.
Sakya Trizin: I also enjoyed it very much. It’s definitely a pleasure to answer whatever I know for all the people to hear.
From Conversations in the Spirit: Lex Hixon’s WBAI “In the Spirit” Interviews; A Chronicle of the Seventies Spiritual Revolution, edited by Sheila Hixon. © October 2016. Reprinted with permission of Monkfish Book Publishing Company.