Palden 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 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.
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…” 
“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!” 
Note: For a Tea Offering ceremony to Palden Lhamo and Her Mantra, see end of this feature.
Contents of Feature (click to navigate)
- 1 The Ferocious Parent?
- 2 Beloved, Terrifying Protector
- 3 Embracing the Shadow: Wrathful Enlightenment
- 4 A Tara That Sends You Screaming?
- 5 The Dark Cipher of Palden Lhamo
- 6 Captain Kirk, Anyone? (Skip This Section if You’re Annoyed by Trek Metaphors)
- 7 Psychology of Shadow
- 8 Palden Lhamo’s Many Roles
- 9 A Palden Lhamo Tea Ceremony
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.  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.
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).” 
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!
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.” 
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.”  (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?
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. [Note: a tea ceremony at end of this feature.] 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.  “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 — an equally ferocious Buddha— 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:
Palden Lhamo’s mantra (which can be chanted by anyone as long as the deity is visualized “in front of you, instead of self generation” ) 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…” 
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” 
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.
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.” 
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.” 
Palden Lhamo’s retinue is “so large that the desciption of it would fill a whole iconographical book.”  It includes four Queens of the Seasons, five Goddesses of Long Life, and a retinue of female protectresses known as mahakali.
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! 
Palden Lhamo’s Lama beautifully sung (non-traditional) by Mahayana Dharmaraja:
A Palden Lhamo Tea Ceremony
Although the raw power of Palden Lhamo’s practice requires teacher guidance and initiation, certainly for Sadhana practices, many Tibetan Buddhists never-the-less make offerings to the Dark Mother ShriDevi in the form of tea ceremony to ask for Her blessings, help, protection, and prosperity. Like any mother, Palden Lhamo will freely give help to Her children.
On the FPMT site, where there is a downloadble PDF of the Serkyem Golden Libation Offering to the Glorious Goddess Palden Lhamo, it specifies:
“This practice requires the student to have permission/empowerment received from a qualified master in order to engage in the self-generation of the deity. However, it is permitted to do this practice without such an empowerment as long as you do not generate yourself as the deity. Instead, you should generate the deity at the crown of your head or in front of you instead of self-generation.”
Basically, you symbolically bless dark tea and pour into a cup (with a layer of rice or grains) within a bowl (Serkyem). By deliberately overflowing the tea cup into the bowl, you express abundant merits and virtues, the overflowing nectar of bliss. In the tea cup you symbolically heap a teaspoon or so of five grains, again representing abundance and prosperity. Tea is used because in ancient times it was quite precious. In theory, any valuable liquid would be fine, although the hot tea is best as heat represents your requests for swift help.
Palden Lhamo Prayer, chanted:
A very short form of the tea offering, which can be used with any tea with cup and bowl:
I go for refuge until I am enlightened
To the Buddha, the Dharma and the Supreme Assembly.
By my merit from giving and other perfections,
May I become a Buddha in order to benefit all sentient beings.
WISHING AND REQUESTING
For myself and all sentient beings, from here until eternity,
I wish for us to never be separate from our secret female dakini.
And whenever any obstacles arise,
Please remove them and grant us your protection.
Pour tea into cup while reciting mantra, allowing it to overflow into the bowl:
PANDEN LHAMO’S MANTRA
JO RAMO JO RAMO JO JO RAMO THUN JO KALA RA CHEN MO RAMO ACHA DACHA THUN JO RULU RULU HUNG JO HUNG
OR the Sanskrit version:
BHYOH RAKMO BHYOH RAKMO BHYOH BYHOH RAKMO TUN BHYOH KHALARAK
CHENMO RAKMO ABYA TABYA TUN BHYOH RULU RULU HUM BHYOH HUM
You could then make your wishes, requests out loud, and then continue reciting the mantra while visualizing Palden Lhamo in FRONT of you (unless you have initiation), for as long as you can.
As with all Buddhist practices, you normally end by dedicating the merit:
I dedicate the merit of this practice to the cause for enlightenment for the benefit of all beings.
NOTE: It is important to take the offering tea outside to a clean place and offer it to “nature” rather than flushing it down the drain (which is somewhat inauspicious and certainly disrespectful.)
For more elaborate practices, and in general for wrathful protectors, a teacher is recommended along with initiation and teachings.
 The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra, Rob Preece
 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>>
 Female Deities in Buddhism, Vessantara
 Essential Tibetan Buddhism, Robert Thurman, HarperCollins, San Francisco 1996
 Losang Samten
 The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols, page 128, Serinda Publications