Wrathful Deities: The First Responders in Meditation; the Psychology of Fearsome Enlightened Buddhas
If you were facing a life-threatening scenario, would you dial 911 on your phone — the law-enforcers or well-trained first responders — or call your kindly relative? If disaster strikes, we inevitably first think of our wonderful first-responders. In almost any scenario, we are conditioned to look for help from those who are best trained and equipped to help us. Although advice can be helpful, you need action and activity when you are in trouble.
In Buddhism, especially Vajrayana, the “action heroes” and activities of compassion and wisdom are embodied in wrathful forms — the First Responders of Buddhism.
The First Responders in Vajrayana Buddhism
Similarly, in our meditational practices, the first responders – at least in some forms of Mahayana Buddhism — are the wrathful deities. Since Buddhas have transcended our mental limitations, they can appear in any form whatsoever. The wrathful forms are our first responder team. Instead of uniforms, guns and rescue equipment, our Buddhist first responders are burly, ferocious, powerful, towering presences that intimidate our psychological demons.
Whether you view “demons” and obstacles as psychological constructs, or as supernatural beings, it is helpful to visualize the Enlightened and helping forces as “wrathful, monstrous, gigantic.” The psychology is obvious. If you are facing an emotional “vampire” you want a more wrathful “emanation” to burn away the negative force. To use a modern comic book metaphor, if you need a super hero, do you want Dr. Bruce Banner, or his monstrous alter-ego the Hulk?
When Buddha faced the assault of Mara and his legions of demons — again, you can think of these as psychological doubts and obstacles or as “beings” it makes little difference — even Buddha called “the earth as his witness”. In some sutras, it is Tara who aided Buddha — as she does for modern practitioners today [For a feature on Tara’s rescues in modern times, see>>]. In another sutra story, the great Bodhisattva Vajrapani, was a subduing force, hovered over Buddha’s head with his threatening vajra. [For this sutra, see our feature on Vajrapani>>]
In Modern Times: Super Heroes?
If it’s helpful, the wrathful deities can be thought of as “monstrous” super heroes, like the Incredible Hulk, or the Fantastic Four (or Godzilla, before Hollywood got hold the story). Just as “Dr. Bruce Banner” is the peaceful scientist, he can become the Hulk in times of emotional stress — just as Amitabha can transform into Hayagriva, or Manjushri into Yamantaka, or Chenrezig into Mahakala. Tara, the beloved Mother of the Buddhas, has 21 forms, 108 forms, and more, many of them terrible and ferocious.
Since our mind provides the context, the key visual point is that “wrathful” means a form “more powerful than the adversary.” For example, in Buddhist Tantra tradition, the great Bodhisattva Manjushri took on his most ferocious form, as Yamantaka, to defeat death itself. The adversary here was not a mental obstacle, but “death” in the form of Yama. [Yamantaka literally means “Foe of Death” or “Destroyed of Death.” He has multiple arms filled with symbolic weapons and a wrathful face that gave ex-President Richard Nixon a double take. For this story, and more on Yamantaka, see>>]
“Westerners can find the wrathful images bizarre and confusing,” writes psychologist Rob Preece in The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra. “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.”
At the same time, there is no denying the “extraordinary power of tantric deity images,” Preece added. 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. From a Buddhist point-of-view, they help us remove the obstacles to Enlightenment.
Wrathful deities in Buddhism can be terrifying, monstrous, and demonic in appearance—but they are actually the “good guys.” People who might be casually interested in Buddhism are often puzzled, even horrified, by Tantric Buddhist Deities depicted as ferocious personas. At first exposure, they might seem almost demonic, sporting garlands of human heads, multiple terrifying faces, often stepping on human forms. When Westerner’s first explored Tibet, they reported that Tibetans “worshipped demons.” What else could they make of apparently horrifying forms more terrible than the demons of Biblical hell itself?
For Buddhists who practice Vajrayana, we know these wrathful deities are Enlightened Beings. Just like Dr. Bruce Banner can transform into the Hulk, the Buddhas can appear in any form, including angry, ferocious, monstrous and powerful forms:
- Manjushri, the Peaceful Bodhisattva Buddha transforms into angry Yamantaka, much more ferocious and powerful than the Hulk — who even can overpower death itself.
- Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, adored many millions of Buddhists, transforms into Hayagriva, the mighty Heruka with three faces, six arms.
- Chenrezig or Avalokiteshvara or Guanyin, the Compassionate Bodhisattva Buddha transforms into Black Mahakala, White Mahakala and many other forms.
- Sarasvati, the Wisdom aspect of Tara, becomes the most terrifying of all, the Great and Glorious Palden Lhamo. [For a feature on Palden Lhamo, see>>]
Writes Preece, from a psychological point-of-view, “beneath the pageantry lies a profound meaning. It’s difficult to comprehend at first, but in our search for a way to understand the transformation of the many facets of the Shadow, Tantra can be of great significance.”
Schwarzenegger as a Wrathful Deity?
Psychologist Preece clarifies wrathful practice with an amusing Western ‘Hell’s Angels’ example, comparing peaceful meditations (as the metaphorical 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? If a man dressed in a pinstriped suit with good intentions said to them, ‘Now look, you fellows, this just won’t do,’ we can imagine how predictably derisory their response would be. On the other hand, if they were addressed as 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.”
Wrathful deities, like the fictional Schwarzenegger character, embody wrathful characteristics. They can appear in apparently demonic aspects, bristling with weapons, fanged, dripping blood, and surrounded by aureoles of fire. When a serious practitioner evokes them, their power to transform is forceful and certainly very tangible. Just as a 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 bodhicitta. The wrathful appearance is an expression of skilful means.
The Embodiment of the Shadow
The non-psychologist tantric practitioner understands these wrathful deities, in part, to be the very embodiment of the negative karmas or emotions they help us confront and control. These protector deities help us remove obstacles of our practice. For example, bull-headed Yamantaka, the “slayer of death”, is arguably the most ferocious of the wrathful deities and is considered a helpful practice for people with anger or hatred issues. At a higher level, Yamantaka—which means literally “slayer of death”—is a form more terrifying than death itself, and by virtue of this, he represents the very power of Enlightenment to defeat death.
Even Avalokitesvara, the peaceful and wonderful Buddha of Compassion, has his terrible form, Mahakala the great black one, as described by Vessantara:
“With a world-shaking cry the figure, now blue black, starts to its feet… The giant figure pounds forward, wild hair streaming upward, tied around with snakes. 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…”
Dharmapalas Protect the Mind
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.” Interestingly, many psychologists, Preece among them, have analyzed wrathful practice and found it psychologically sound. In the same way, a psychiatrist might ask a patient to face his past traumas—often deeply buried in the subconscious—the Tantra practitioner faces the obstacles to Enlightenment.
The highly advanced practices of Tantra actually “transform” the negatives, instead of suppressing them.
“We have lost the symbols and rites of transformation that elevate the dark angel from an unconscious, potentially demonic state into a healthy conscious relationship,” writes Preece. “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 suppress its forces.”
Stated another way, the purpose of wrathful deity practice is none other than converting our negative karmas and emotions into a force for Enlightenment, helping us understand Emptiness. Or, more traditionally stated, removing the obstacles in our practice, whether external or internal. Preece writes, “As a manifestation of the wisdom of dharmakaya, he embodies the power of wisdom to overcome the Shadow’s demonic side, not by repression, but by absorbing its forces into his nature.”
Wrathful Deities Are Usually Higher Tantric Practices
Wrathful deities are usually restricted practices for senior practitioners, often practices of the Highest Yoga Tantra. Because we work with the darkest internal and external forces, unguided practice could be considered dangerous and is actively discouraged. A qualified teacher with lineage is always required.
The Wrathful deities can be of two main types:
- Herukas: Enlightened Beings who manifest as wrathful forms
- Protectors: Wrathful deities who protect. These can be subdivided into three types: Dharmapalas, or “protectors of the Dharma”; Lokapala’s who are the protectors of the world; Ksetrapalas, protectors of a region.
Dharmapalas: Protectors of Dharma
There are eight main Darmapalas, the protectors of the Dharma, who help practitioners remove the obstacles to their practice, advancing them in their cause for Enlightenment.
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 Manjushri, even ‘recruited’ Death, in the form of Yama, as a Dharmapala—demonstrating the psychologically profound principle of absorption of shadow.
Other great Dharmapalas include Mahakala, the Great Black One (an aspect of Avalokitesvara), Hayagriva, and the terrifying Goddess Palden Lhamo.
Wrathful Deities: Vivid, Intense and a Heavy Commitment
Meditating on the ferocious embodiments of Enlightenment, for some people, myself included, can feel more vivid, in some ways more engaging and compelling than calming, peaceful deity meditations. 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. Most wrathful practices are of the highest yoga tantra class. 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 thangkas 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 an 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.
Highest Yoga Tantra
The colorful concepts of wrathful practice can be alluring, and the promise of removing obstacles to practice is irresistible to many serious practitioners. Beyond the immediate goal of removing obstacles, and transforming emotions and aggregates, wrathful practices—at least those of the Highest Yoga Tantra class—profoundly work on our body and mind. 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.” 
Wrathful and Highest Yoga Tantra are obviously not an overnight practice, nor one that can be undertaken without a teacher, yet it is still considered the “lightning path” to Enlightenment. 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 affect us.
 A Guide to the Deities of the Tantra by Vessantara, Windhorse Publications, ASIN B013RNOFJS
 Tantra: The Foundation of Buddhist Thought, Volume 6, Geshe Tashi Tsering.
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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.