The Lightning Path of Buddhism: The Power of Yidams

Guest Contributor: Bhagat Bhandari
Note: This is a personal perspective of the author.

What is the purpose of Vajrayana practice? Purifying one’s impure perception of all appearances and experiences.” —— His Eminence Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche the Third

Yidam practice is a teacher-guided method on the vajra “lightning path” to enlightenment, Vajrayana. In this important path, meditating and honouring your own personal Yidam allows for fast comprehension of the nature of reality — and deeper insight into Dharma. Yidam, literally means “heart bond deity” which points to the close relationship we should experience.

Nevertheless, despite the highly personalized and intense nature of Yidam practice, guidance of a realized Guru or teacher important. It is also a major commitment to a path that achieves goals quickly, but requires focus, imagination, wisdom and compassion. Yidam practice is all about helping us see reality as it truly is. By visualizing ourselves as perfect Yidams, we start to understand the illusory nature of “conventional” perceptions. And, we also reinforce our understanding that we, ourselves, have Buddha nature within.

“When you do these practices, this “I” —– ordinary man or woman ego —– is already gone.” —– H.E. Zasep TULKU Rinpoche

Green Tara meditation tankha

Green Tara is a fully realized female Buddha, and a Yidam to many practitioners. She is the active aspect of compassion, compassion in active, but as an Enlightened Being she is also understood to have all of the qualities of all Buddhas.

 

Personal Yidam Practice

It may seem contradictory, but Yidam practice, where we visualize ourselves as an enlightened deity, is designed to help us overcome our sense of “ordinariness” and to demonstrate, in a sense, the emptiness of our perceptions.

Zasep Tulku Rinpoche described Yidam practice — in an interview in Buddha Weekly — in context with “emptiness”:

“…Every time you do any of these practices, first you meditate on emptiness. You start with the Sanskrit mantra, Om Svabhava Shuddo and so on, “every thing becomes voidness.” Then you visualize your consciousness arising as a seed syllable, then the deity. So, when you do these practices, this “I” — ordinary man or woman ego — is already gone. You transform the I, or ego, by meditating on emptiness. When there is no self, who is there to be angry? Who is there to be terrified?”

 

Although any meditational deity is helpful in focusing the mind on healing the body, Black Manjushri is effective, according to students and teachers, for aggressive diseases such as Cancer.

 

A Yidam is an fully enlightened deity and often becomes the central focus of personal practice, once adopted. Since all enlightened beings have the same realizations, focus on a single Yidam—suited to the student—is beneficial, but not necessary.

A teacher might help a student choose a Yidam particularly appropriate to their current stage of practice, or to focus on a particular obstacle the student is facing. Just as every person is unique, Yidams are uniquely suited to personalized practice. The unique nature of each Yidam relates more to what a student needs in his or her practice, than to a personal preference.

 

Beautiful Sarasvati, the enlightened deity representing inspirational wisdom, a much loved Buddhist deity who is an inspiration for writers, creatives, poets, performing artists and artists.

 

If Tara, for example, is a person’s Yidam, it is important to understand that She is a Buddha with omniscient mind and all the qualities of a Buddha. At the same time, we might choose Tara because of Her active nature. Green Tara represents the active method of pursuing wisdom, compassion and enlightenment. Her practices help people who require an active method. Yet, we can turn to Tara for healing in times of sickness, or to purify karma, if She is our deity—without need to seek out Medicine Buddha practice for healing or Vajrasattva Practice for purification of negative karma.

Vajrakilaya is a popular Yidam

Vajrakilaya is the fierce aspect of Vajrasattva, and is treasured for very powerful karma purification practices. Here, Vajrakilaya is shown with consort.

What is a Yidam?

In the broadest, loosest sense a Yidam is a meditational deity. The symbolic representations of the Yidam—conveyed with attributes such as poses, mudras (hand gestures) and symbolic items—help the mind focus on the needed deity.

The deity can be understood different ways. A buddha has three main bodies (Trikaya), known as Dharmakaya, the truth body — beyond existence and non-existence — the Samboghakaya, or body of Enjoyment, and Nirmanakaya or, the form body. The “body” means a collection of qualities that help us to understand. The Dharamakaya — described in my simplistic way — could be thought of as the enlightened mind, the Buddha that has eliminated all defilements and is beyond our concept of existence.

 

Fierce deities, such as mighty Hayagriva’s ferocious aspect, are are often misunderstood by Westerners as demonic in appearance. The fierce appearance represents skillful means, a ferocious, active aspect of the Yidam. Hayagriva (Tamdrin) is a fierce emanation of Avalokiteshvara, the compassionate Buddha. Here he is in Yab Yum with Vajrayogini (Vajra Varahi) representing the union of compassion with wisdom.

 

The Nirmanakaya is a skillful means by which the Buddha can communicate with unenlightened sentient beings. Since we cannot, at this time, know the mind of the Dharmakaya, we rely initially on the Nirmanakaya. Personal Yidams benefit us by presenting Nirmanakaya’s that can benefit us now, at our current stage of practice.

Yidams allow people to overcome obstacles, obscurations and defilements. For example, a person who lacks compassion, may follow a Yidam known for compassion. A person, in advanced practice, may follow a fiercer version of the Yidam. It is best to allow your teacher to guide you on a choice of Yidam, even though some people are automatically drawn to specific Yidams naturally.

 

White Mahakala Buddha

The “form body” or Nirmanakaya of the fierce deity White Mahakala represents the nature of his compassionate action. Each of his six hands hold symbolic implements, such as a skullcap of jewels, and he tramples on two elephants, symbolic of overcoming simple material prosperity, and other concepts.

Form Bodies of a Yidam

A Yidam may project a very specific quality. For example, Ekajati may be your Yidam because She projects the quality of having a singleminded focus on Dharma above all else. Ekajati is the protector of secret mantras and “as the mother of the mothers of all the Buddhas,” represents ultimate unity.

Others, might be drawn to Vajrakilaya as your Yidam because of His fierce ability to quash negative karma. Since practice in most Yidams requires initiation or empowerment it is best to work with your teacher to determine your best Yidam.

 

Holy Vajrayogini is a beloved Yidam of Highest Yoga Tantra, perfectly suited to degenerate times.

 

Key to understanding Yidam practice is an understanding that while we speak of many Buddhas and Enlightened Beings, the qualities of all of these deities are the same. Any Enlightened Being has eliminated defilements, including ignorance, anger, attachment and karmic imprints that keep us trapped in Samsara. Yidams, for want of a not-perfect analogy, are like a Neurosurgeon versus a general practitioner doctor—the “specialists among Enlightened Beings. A Neurosurgeon is a fully trained doctor, but with specialty skills, someone you call upon if you need that expertise, but who can also just as readily treat the flu.

Yidam Practices

The Yidam is a teacher-guided practice. By focusing on what you might need at this stage of practice, Yidam practice makes the path “lightning” or fast. Practice would likely involve elaborate visualizations, mantra recitation, meditation practices, Sadhanas and Pujas that are taught by a teacher. The meditation images, often quite elaborate, help the mind understand and work with the energy of the deity. As the mind is trained, the visualizations become more complex. This isn’t worship, in the classic sense of “church worship” even though, as part of the practice, there’s an element of praise.

Ekajati Yidam

Ekajati is a high tantric fierce deity. Her single-minded focus on the Dharma is a very powerful concept.

Wrathful Yidams

Yidam’s can be wrathful, as well as peaceful, a concept often misunderstood by non-practitioners as idolization of demonic images. Often depicted wearing garlands of human skulls, or stepping on humans, elephants or other deities, of holding a skullcap of blood, or wearing a human skin, these images are highly symbolic and meaningful. Wrathful practice absolutely requires guru guidance, and is appropriate for practitioners who need active energy in their lives. There is nothing negative about these practices, but the symbolism is intense.

It’s also to keep a sense of focus on meditation in mind. Practitioners are taught to visualize deity absorbing into themselves, representing the realization of Buddha Nature within all of us. Ultimately, highly detailed visualizations dissolve into emptiness, the nature of mind.

Visualization and focus is a crucial requirement in many Buddhist practices because it relates so heavily to keeping the mind under control. Visualization is not dream-making or illusion creation, but rather a mind discipline and practice.

 

Yamantaka practice is a Highest Yoga Tantra practice. Yamantaka practice is said to help resolve issues with anger and other afflictive emotions. Yamantaka is one of the primary Yidams in the Gelug school.

 

Specialized Yidams

Some Yidams are recommended by teachers with the purpose of encouraging people to overcome specific obstacles or issues. The practice of Yidam Ushnisha-Vijaya may be valuable to someone who has such karma as to likely lead to a short life, as she is the deity of long life in one aspect. White Mahakala, a wrathful manifestation of Avaolokitesvara, the Buddha of Compassion, is thought of in simple terms as a “wealth” deity, and might be drawn upon by those in need. After all, without resources, it is not possible to help other sentient beings.

Focus is not enough for Yidam practice. Even though we can create visualizations and we have empowerment from a teacher, we also need “divine pride”—an understanding of the ultimate nature of the Yidam and a trust in the Yidam. To think of the Yidam as just a meditation focus is not correct practice. At the same time, we understand the ultimate nature of the Yidam is empty.

Lee Kane, Editor

I am Lee Kane, editor at Buddha Weekly since 2009. I practice Vajrayana but am also a student of Zen/Chan, with a major focus on mindfulness as a spiritual practice.

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