Palden Lhamo, the Terrifying Enlightened Emanation of Tara, Drives Off Your Inner and Outer Demons and Obstacles

Sigourney Weaver as Ripley in Aliens as metaphor for Palden Lhamo Motherly Protector BuddhistPalden Lhamo, the ferocious yet motherly Buddhist protector, brings to mind the character Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), decked out in a robotic loader in the movie Aliens, confronting the massive acid-drooling demon-alien and snarling: “Let go of her!” Bam — angry, protective mother Ripley drives away the terrible demon.

In a separate feature on Buddhist wrathful deities, we used Arnold Schwarzenegger as the wrathful icon. We asked, if you were attacked by a violent gang, who would you rather have at your side, tough-guy Arnie or a man dressed neatly in a pin-striped suit. Except here, Palden Lhamo’s protective ferocity is magnified by Her motherly bond. Like Ripley, nothing can stand between Her and Her child.

IMPORTANT NOTE: You do NOT visualize yourself as Palden Lhamo. Her practice is almost always a front-generation practice (visualizing her in front of you) with yourself visualized as your own Yidam. Unless your teacher guides you differently, do NOT self-generate as Palden Lhamo.

Palden Lhamo, despite ghoulish appearance, is the fierce mother protector emanation of White Tara. Her appearance conveys her power and strength to protect.

 

This is symbolically reinforced by Her Ghoulish appearance, horrifying enough to send even the most terrifying demon yelping for cover. “She is almost naked, and her body is wreathed in snakes and adorned with bone ornaments and a necklace of skulls. In her left hand she bears a brimming skull cup. In her right hand she holds aloft a black skull-topped staff… Flames roar and black storm clouds swirl around her…” [3]

“Fierce maker, Fierce Being, Her reality is ferocious

Chief Lady of the retinue of the fierce,

Her symbolic body a glistening dark black!

I bow to the all-terrifying Mother Goddess!

Fiercely pray free of diseases, demons, foes and obstructions!” [4]

 

A fierce mother will do anything to protect her children.

 

The Ferocious Parent?

As a child, who did you go to for protection — the parent who let you do anything and smiled while you did it, or the parent who yanked pulled you back from the brink with a stern voice and scowl?

“It is this ignorance and stupidity that … wrathful deities are directed against,” explains Rob Preece, a Psychologist.  [1] No nonsense, no bull-oney — that’s Palden Lhamo. In Her primary function as a Dharma protector, she protects us — from ourselves. In Tibetan Buddhism, Dharma Protectors serve an important function in cutting ignorance, anger, obstacles, and even dangerous situations.

Palden Lhamo, also known as Shridevi, the dark emanation of White Tara, is like the no-nonsense mother, who so terrifies the neighborhood that none of the bullies dare to bother you. You shout, “Here comes Palden Lhamo” and all the little demon bullies go running.

 

Palden Lhamo, Shri Devi, is the fiercest of the fierce Protectors in Tibetan Buddhism. Like an enraged mother, She protects Her children. At the same time, she reminds us not be be attached to anything, even our own children.

 

Of course, we’re also speaking metaphorically. Palden Lhamo, as the strong shadow of your psyche, if embraced as a Buddhist practice, can stand up against all the little doubts and conflicts and obstacles that arise within your own mindstream — those pesky demons. Or, if you prefer to think of demons as flesh and fang, she’s more than equipped to handle them for you, too.

According to Vessantara: “Not only can Shridevi control dark external forces; She is capable of pacifying all those hindering inner forces that bind us to the ‘wheel of fire’ of mundane existence. Hence she is also known in Tibet as the one who overpowers and crushes the hosts of the passions (Paldan Makzor Gyalmo).” [3]

Beloved, Terrifying Protector

Thinking of Her cannibal-demon face — with the garland of fifty blood-dripping decapitated heads hanging around Her neck — love is probably the last thing that jumps to mind. Your hands probably shake as you make a tea offering to this ferocious persona. Yet, like the stern parent, with wildly glaring eyes, she’s there to keep you on track, to keep you practicing, to keep you focused on Enlightenment.

Her snarling ghoulish face — in some ways more memorable and easily visualized than the lovely face of Her lighter emanation White Tara — is there to caution you: do your practice, get to work, help all beings, bring compassion to the world. Stop wasting time with video games!

 

Palden Lhamo, bottom centre, is one of the many emanations of Enlightened Tara (bottom right). Top left Blue Tara, Centre top Vajrayogini, top right Vajravarahi, bottom left White Tara, Centre bottom Shri Devi (Palden Lhamo), bottom right Green Tara.

 

Yet, despite Her terrifying image, Palden Lhamo, or Shri Devi as she’s known in Sanskrit, is a beloved emanation of Tara with Tibetan Buddhists, a national icon of Tibet, the protector of the Dharma — and the angry parent who keeps you on track. She’s not an abusive parent; she’d never lay a hand on Her child. But Her voice, visage and mantra are the protective mother power personified.

Embracing the Shadow: Wrathful Enlightenment

The Shadow can either be embraced or feared. For healing, psychologists usually describe the “Shadow” of our human psyche as something that should be integrated and embraced — rather than shunned as a cause of suffering. In fact, Psychologist Rob Peerce explains, “deity appears in wrathful form because it embodies potent power …all the destructive demonic characteristics exemplified in the deity are directed at the ultimate destruction of stupidity, selfishness and ego-grasping.” [1]

 

Palden Lhamo embraces the wrathful nature — our Shadow.

 

Why practice or meditate on such a ferocious emanation of Enlightenment? According to Venerable Losang Samtem,

“There are so many Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who are constantly willing to help all living beings overcome suffering… The most important and powerful protector deity in Buddhist history is Panden Lhamo.” [2]

(Alternate spelling of Palden Lhamo.) The Venerable Director of the Tibetan Buddhist Center of Philadelphia adds, “Even though these Enlightened beings, including Panden Lhamo, are always willing to help, it is necessary for us to cultivate the potential within ourselves. We need to be open to receive the blessings of these deities. [Note: Practice suggestions in last section of this feature.]

Begin Your Day With Tara, End with Palden Lhamo?

A 21 Tara tankha. Tara manifests in many emanations, not just these 21 Taras, but in wrathful forms such as Palden Lhamo and Dakini forms such as Vajrayogini.

Tibetan Buddhists often begin their day with the lovely recitation of the Praise to the 21 Taras, a soothing and uplifting practice of lightness and comfort. Yet, for many lay practitioners, even those who do not have initiation into the practice, the Palden Lhamo tea ceremony is a short, but important, daily practice.

In the West, where ferocious and wrathful emanations of the Buddhas are easily misunderstood, teachers normally recommend full initiation prior to practicing. Certainly, to practice the actual sadhana of Palden Lhamo this is required. Why? In part, because the imagery is easily misunderstood unless a student understands the symbolism’s weighty meaning.

Venerable Losang Samtem explains: “In the Himalayas, people may go to temples, or in their own home… At home, they will offer the drink by themselves.”

It may seem odd to consider both White Tara, and dark Palden Lhamo as Mothers — emanations of the same being. Yet, mothers can be ferocious when they need to be. “She is a ferocious looking crone, a wild and terrible demoness, riding a mule across an ocean of blood…”, describes Rob Preece in The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra. [1] “Thus, as in all deities, a dual nature is evident; light and dark, upper world and underworld, peaceful and wrathful. The forcees of the Shadow are not inherently demonic and terrible. Light and dark, good and evil, creation and destruction are relative dualities that have no ultimate true nature.”

 

A Tara That Sends You Screaming?

Yet, one look at White Tara’s wrathful emanation, Palden Lhamo, and — never mind integration of the shadow psyche — She is enough to send one screaming for the light, never to return to the shadows. She is so terrible, that some teachers advise even initiated students to do the practice of Yamantaka — among th emost wrathful of Buddhas — before attempting Hers. Is it because She is so terrible we need the protection of the great “death foe” Yamantaka?  Or, is it because She is so indelibly powerful that we need to be grounded first? Or is it because Yamantaka is Her consort?

Palden Lhamo’s Mantra chanting:

NOTE: With this wrathful protector, even in her Sadhana, usually we do NOT self-generate, but visualize her glorious presence in front of us. To practice Her Sadhana, we generally generate as our Yidam first. (In other words, we visualize ourselves as our Yidam, as given by our teacher, NOT as Palden Lhamo.)

Palden Lhamo’s mantra [6] is:

Jo ramo jo ramo jo jo ramo thun jo kala ra chen mo ramo acha dacha thun jo rulu rulu hung jo hung

What is it about the ferocious deities of Enlightenment that is both repellent and fascinating to Westerners? What are we to make of fangs, a necklace of fifty blood-dripping (freshly cut) human heads, and a bag of diseases for destroying enemies? Not to mention, She’s a cannibal-demon, carries the skullcup of an incest-born child and… well, enough said. You’re either repelled and revolted at this point — or — you nodded your head with understanding of the deep, deep symbolism of these wrathful ciphers. For advanced Tantric Buddhist practitioners, there is nothing revolting about wrathful deities. The symbolism is vastly profound, made the more so by the fact that the imagery is so terrifying.

 

The Dark Cipher of Palden Lhamo

And ciphers they certainly are. Psychologists as early as Carl Jung have long understood the importance of embracing the Shadow.

The language of the psyche is symbol and cipher, which is certainly why so many psychologists see Tantric Buddhism as very grounded and effective. In Vajrayana Buddhism we visualize symbols with all the senses. We integrate the shadow and the light both.

Unlike some paths, that might shun the dark — or turn the unsavory into Devil and Demon — Tantric Buddhists take a holistic, psychologically sound approach to spiritual practice.

So, we might meditate on the merits of beautiful White Tara, emblematic of compassion, love, vibrant long life and healing — and then with as much enthusiasm visualize Her darker side, Palden Lhamo, the Cannibal Queen, riding on a black tornado, across an ocean of blood.

“The sun shines from her navel and her hair is adorned with a crescent moon – peacock feather jewel… Her steed is bridled and trimmed with vipers… from which hang a bag of diseases…” [7]

What do all the symbols mean? There are too many to cover in a short piece — a teacher might spend a weekend just explaining them all — but here are some of the most noticeable:

  • a bag of dice — to determine men’s lives
  • Lion decorating her ear: given by Kubera for protection
  • a hammer given by Vajrapani (maybe to pound some sense into her children?)
  • her saddle made of the flayed skin of her own child — to remind us not to be attached to worldly things
  • red flaming hair, indicates her wrathful nature and also wisdom
  • crown of five skulls symbolizing the transformation of the five passions
  • skullcap filled with nectar: blissful emptiness
  • In her form as Tsomo Remati, holds a peacock feathered triple-blade dagger, symbolizing the “goddess’s triumph over the three poisons” [8]

 

Captain Kirk, Anyone? (Skip This Section if You’re Annoyed by Trek Metaphors)

I know, I know, Kirk metaphors are so tiresome, but I’ll throw one in anyway. For those who remember Star Trek, one of the most fascinating episodes involved a “transporter” malfunction that split Captain Kirk into a “Good Kirk” and a “Dark Kirk.” Although, at first, we see the Dark Kirk as revolting, as he foams at the mouth and is layered in sweat, with a leering, evil look on his face, it soon become apparent that “Good Kirk” can’t function without him. He can’t make life-changing decisions. He can’t save the Enterprise. He can’t even decide what food to eat. He’s full of compassion, and sweetness and love — very White Tara.

The Star Trek Scene “I’m Captain Kirk!” 

 

Then there’s the Dark Kirk. He’s nasty, inappropriate, selfish, angry, emotional, driven, nearly psychotic. And, he too, it seems, can’t function without his better half, “Good Kirk.” Only when the two are fused together in the transporter, can they, together, save the ship from destruction. Good Kirk-White Tara, and Dark Kirk-Palden Lhamo, together are powerful and perfect.

Okay, enough Star Trek, I promise. But that episode of the old sixties television show, was soundly based on psychology (in my opinion).

 

Psychology of Shadow

The bottom line, Tibetan Buddhism has long embraced sound psychological aspects to practice. Palden Lhamo helps practitioners to face up to their Shadow psyche, then welcome and absorb the darkness into their entire integrated and whole being.

 

Palden Lhamo.

 

Psychologist Rob Preece explains: “It is important to distinguish between two different dimensions of the Shadow; one that has become sick and demonic because it is repressed, and the other… yet it is still an aspec tof Buddha Nature… We fear this side of the Shadow as antithetical to the ego’s need for security and predicatability, but it cannot be made light and beautiful; that is not its nature.” Repressed shadow can lead to illness.

In Tantric Buddhism, Preece continues, “All the forces of the Self in the aspect of the wrathful deity are directed against egoistic abuse of power… Only when this egotistical disposition is tamed and transformed can the Shadow be integrated into the spiritual path, rather than remaining a cause of suffering.” [1]

 

Palden Lhamo’s Many Roles

Not only is she an enlightened Dharma Protector, a ferocious motherly protector, she has also been taken as the chief Dharma Protector of the Dalai Lama and the Ganden monastery. A special scoll painting of Shridevi travels with the Dalai Lama’s wherever they go. Interestingly, for centuries no one looked at this thangkha, kept sealed in a special red tube, until, in 1940 “the present Dalai Lama, then aged about seven and on his way to be enthroned, was met close to Lhasa by a great crowd of officials and notables, one of whom had brought the painting, hidden as usual in its case. On seeing it near the entrance to his tent, he promptly grabbed it, took it inside and opened it. The picture that had not been unveiled for so long was revealed. The Dalai Lama surveyed it and then replaced it in its case. Everyone present was amazed at what he had done.” [3]

Palden Lhamo’s retinue is “so large that the desciption of it would fill a whole iconographical book.” [3] It includes four Queens of the Seasons, five Goddesses of Long Life, and a retinue of female protectresses known as mahakali.

 

Jho!

Mind-essence working the four miraculous activities,

Not deviant from the essence, neither being mind alone,

Absolute indivisible, free of color or form

Her miracles mere magic, fitting each being’s mind;

She manifests, She the ferocious Glory Goddess!

 

Fierce maker, Fierce Being, her reality is ferocious

Chief Lady of the retinue of the fierce,

Her symbolic body a glistening dark black!

I bow to the all-terrifying Mother Goddess!

Fiercely pray free of diseases, demons, foes and obstructions! [4]

 

 

 

NOTES

[1] The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra, Rob Preece

[2] The Panden Lhamo Tea Ceremony from Losang Samtem. Losang Samten is spiritual director of the Tibetan Buddhist Center of Philadelphia, Chenrezig Tibetan Buddhist Center of Middletown, Connecticut, Chenrezig Himalayan Cultural Center of El Paso, Texas, and a frequent visitor and teacher in Lake Tahoe and Chico, CA, as well as in Canada. He travels extensively, sharing his knowledge of Buddhist philosophy and meditation, as well as his skill in Tibetan ritual arts. Download PDF>>

[3] Female Deities in Buddhism, Vessantara

[4] Essential Tibetan Buddhism, Robert Thurman, HarperCollins, San Francisco 1996

[5] Serkyem: Golden Libation Offering to the Glorious Goddess Palden Lhamo.

[6] Losang Samten

[7] Khandro Net “Palden Lhamo” 

[8] The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols, page 128, Serinda Publications

Lee-Clark-buddha-weekly-5

Lee Kane

Author | Buddha Weekly

Lee Kane is the editor of Buddha Weekly, since 2007. His main focuses as a writer are mindfulness techniques, meditation, Dharma and Sutra commentaries, Buddhist practices, international perspectives and traditions, Vajrayana, Mahayana, Zen. He also covers various events.
Lee also contributes as a writer to various other online magazines and blogs.

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2 Comments

  1. Avatar Danica on January 9, 2019 at 1:40 am

    This is very interesting. Thank you for the interpretation. She must have a longer history than Buddhism though. The retinue sounds more like calendar symbolism. The flayed skin of her own child thing sounds to me more like a warning of excessive criticism. I’ve lived in multi generation households and I immediately understood the meaning of that. I came here because i was reading about Tsagaan Sar, the lunar new year among Mongolians. I’m not convinced that they are Buddhist though. Not with the resurgence of Tengri. Really fascinating reading, thank you.

    • Lee Kane Lee Kane on January 9, 2019 at 10:52 am

      Thanks Danica,
      That’s a really insightful and interesting interpretation. Regarding Mongolians and Buddhism, (I think, not being an expert in Mongolia by any means!) there’s always going to be a mix of beliefs. In Japan, many people embrace both Shinto and Buddhism. In Tibet, Bon is equally embraced and treasured. In China, it’s very common to find temples with both Buddhist and Daoist deities (or even here where I am in Canada, the Tai Chi centre near me is described as both Buddhist and Daoist temple.) I don’t know much about Mongolia per se, but there are many Buddhist teachers travelling there yearly to give teachings. I think there’s an overall resurgence in spirituality and the culture of ancestors. Metta, Lee.

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