Who needs a Dharma Protector? Isn’t Buddhist Refuge or Green Tara Enough Protection?

Why do we need Buddhist Protectors? Why are there so many “Protective” Deities in Mahayana Buddhism? All streams of Mahayana have forms of Protectors, from directional guardians to temple guardians to supplicated protector deities. Do we need them in our Buddhist practice?

The short answer is that Buddhist Refuge or Green Tara are more than sufficient “protection” for most of us.

Venerable Zasep Rinpoche explains,

“Understanding of Dharma” and developing “good commitments with the Guru, the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha” are the “true protection.” [1]

However, in Rinpoche’s specialized and practice-oriented book, Source of All Buddhist Protectors, Rinpoche explains that in the modern, degenerated age, “many practitioners still have trouble practicing properly, due to their demanding and busy lives and the many obstacles they face.”

For Tibetan Buddhists facing these obstacles, most turn to the reliable support of swift Green Tara, the Savior Heroine — who saves us all with the unconditional love of a mother. However, for advanced practitioners, with specific obstacles, we may turn to one of two classes of specialized Protector Deities for extra “assistance.”

Two books by Zasep Tulku Rinpoche focused on “protection” in Buddhism. Tara in the Palm of Your Hand is a detailed practice guide to the savior Buddha Tara and her 21 manifestations according to Surya Gupta. The highly specialized Source of All Buddhist Protectors covers advanced permission-based practices of 21 Tibetan Buddhist protectors. Tara in the Palm of Your Hand is available on Amazon. The hardcover version of the Source of All Protectors is available directly; inquire from Gaden Choling’s website (use the contact form.)

Rely on a friend with a black belt

Whether the benefit is by virtue of the effort — sometimes the activity of seeking protection is already psychological reinforcement enough — or due to these deities’ tangible activity, either way, for people coping with difficulties, it can be helpful to have a friend you can count on. That friend may be viewed as “external” or as your own higher Buddha Nature. If you are going to rely on a friend in dangerous times, it can be helpful to recruit friends with black belts in protection.

NOTE: Source of All Buddhist Protectors is an elaborate hardcover book containing many protector practices and permission-based sadhanas with beautiful color illustrations. If you are interested, contact information is below — but you should have empowerment for most of these practices.

 

Don’t let the kind face of Mother Tara fool you — even the most wrathful of deities bow to her Wisdom activity. The question is not whether She can help — there’s no question of that — but whether it’s appropriate to ask an Enlightened Buddha for mundane help, such as help with your expenses. (Hint, She’s a forgiving mother, of course, it’s okay to ask!)

21 Taras is Enough?

For the vast majority of Buddhists, we feel safe in the Refuge of the Three Jewels — Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha — and the Protective Love of an Enlightened Deity such as Tara. No permission or training is required to reach out to the unconditional loving arms of Tara, the Protector. (In our example of black belt, She’d be the highest Dan black belt times 100.) And if Tara isn’t reassuring enough, she manifests in 21 forms — and more — each with highly specialized forms of activities such as healing, protection from natural hazards, and ever-increasing prosperity.

 

21 Taras — all the essence of One Tara — are more than enough protection for anyone. However, it can feel awkward to ask for help on a speeding ticket or job raise from an Enlightened Mother Buddha.

 

Yet, there is something inherently awkward in asking for help from the Enlightened Buddha Tara for mundane, daily obstacles, even if they are important issues to us personally. This doesn’t mean She wouldn’t help; it’s the nature of a Bodhisattva to act as a savior. Tara’s vast Bodhicitta compassion embraces millions of followers — and literally trillions of sentient beings. Still, for some of us, asking Tara to help you settle a “speeding-ticket level of dispute” is like asking the “emperor to sweep the floor” (to quote His Holiness Sakya Trizin, see below.)

 

The great Mahasiddha Surya Gupta had visions of Tara — here in Her highest form Chittamani Tara — and transmitted Tara’s teachings on the 21 Taras. Tara in any form is the savior heroine. Stunning thangka by Ben Christian (Jampay Dorje). (To see an interview with Ben Christian, see>>)

 

Tara, the Savior Hero always helps, of course — she is our ferocious, protective Mother. There are countless stories of Tara’s rescuing activity, several told in Zasep Rinpoche’s popular book Tara in the Palm of Your Hand.[5] (See the feature, Mama Buddha Tara: Compassionate Action; Stories of Tara the Rescuer, for real stories of Her rescues.)

Should we even ask for help for obstacles relating to mundane matters? Probably not. (Although Tara is typically the exception; she is the kind Mother who protects all her children.) Yes, we ask for help with noble activities or the “big” protections — such as safety in a pandemic or life-threatening scenarios — but it feels awkward to ask an Enlightened Buddha to intervene on your speeding ticket or to help you achieve your needed pay raise at work.

 

A stunning image of Palden Lhamo by Jampay Dorje (Ben Christian) featured in the book Source of All Buddhist Protectors by Zasep Rinpoche. Palden Lhamo is both a protector emanation of  Tara. She is flanked by blue Makaravaka on the left; and red Simhavakra on the right. One key difference, typically, with Tara practice, versus Palden Lhamo practice, is you never visualize yourself as Protector Palden Lhamo. With permission and empowerment, however, you can visualize yourself as Tara. For a feature on Palden Lhamo, see>>

 

Where do Protectors Come in?

In the book, Source of All Protectors, Zasep Rinpoche writes in his introduction,

“Traditionally, Tibetan Buddhists rely on Dharma Protectors in their daily lives to prevent obstacles, to make their Dharma practice run smoothly, and assist in their livelihoods… Protectors can also protect the practitioner from sickness, accidents, enemies and other dangers in daily life.”

Later in the book, Rinpoche adds, “many practitioners have trouble practicing properly, due to their demanding and busy lives and the many obstacles they face.” In Buddhist practice, “good motivation and practicing consistently in everyday life” are important. “…Protectors assist our Dharma practice by removing all kinds of inner and outer obstacles.”

Note: The hardcover version of the Source of All Protectors is available directly; inquire from Gaden Choling’s website (use the contact form.)

Zasep Tulku Rinpoche is the spiritual head of Gaden for the West and several meditation centers around the world.

 

His Holiness the Sakya Trizin expanded on the theme of “appropriateness” in choosing a deity to appeal to for help — explaining when it is appropriate to ask (for example) Tara for help versus another deity such as a protector:

“Tara is more for helping develop common siddhis…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 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.” [3]

 

Om Tare Tuttare Ture Soha is Green Tara’s mantra — and has been credited with countless miraculous rescues through the centuries. Green Tara is the rescuer, the mother of all the Buddhas and of all beings — Wisdom is mother — and she is known for her quick action on behalf of those who call her name for help.

 

Protectors — Not for everyone

Protector practice is not for every Buddhist practitioner. The practices are typically advanced, require daily attention, time, and commitments, and must be transmitted by a teacher. Some protectors can also appear terrifying, monstrous, and demonic in appearance — to symbolize their power —but they are actually the “good guys.” [2]

Many of the Peaceful Buddhas, such as Tara and Avalokiteshvara, have wrathful Protector Emanations. For Tara, one of these is Glorious Palden Lhamo, the Queen of Protectors. [For a feature on Palden Lhamo, see>>] The 11th chapter in the book Source of All Buddhist Protectors extensively covers Palden Lhamo’s story and practice sadhana. [Empowerment required.] For Avalokiteshvara, there are many, including most Mahakala forms. [Six of the chapters in Rinpoche’s book are Mahakala forms.]

 

White Mahakala thangka image from the color section of Zasep Rinpoche’s book Source of All Buddhist Protectors. White Mahakala is a protector emanation of Avalokiteshvara. The hardcover version of the Source of All Protectors is available directly; inquire from Gaden Choling’s website (use the contact form.)

 

This begs the question, why do we need these wrathful protector forms of Tara and Avalokiteshvara and others?  Psychologist Robert Preece, in the book Psychology of Buddhist Tantra, explains,

“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.” [2]

It is the profound, transformative nature of these more wrathful practices that make empowerment and guidance from a teacher mandatory.

 

Protector Begtse Chamseng is a wrathful protector associated with Hayagriva practice. Hayagriva is the wrathful emanation of Amitabha Buddha. From the color section of Zasep Rinpoche’s book Source of All Buddhist Protectors.

 

When is a Protector Helpful

If you are a serious practitioner, but facing obstacles, your teacher may recommend a protector to remove the distractions that are interfering with your practice. Since Protector practice usually comes with practice obligations (for life) it’s certainly not lightly undertaken. Daily tea offerings and sadhanas with torma offerings may be a requirement, for example.

 

Tea offering to protectors. Hot tea represents the “activity” aspect of protectors.

 

If you’re not familiar with Protector practice, be aware that they are advanced practices and have very particular requirements. For example, specific tormas may be required. Tea offerings every day are often called for. It is also not a practice for the uncommitted. If you start a protector practice, it’s best to keep it up every day. Do you have time? While “modern obstacles” are stated as one of the key reasons for protector practice, time is often one of those obstacles. Do you have the extra time for an additional sadhana or offering?

Book: Source of All Buddhist Protectors

Although this isn’t a review since Protector Practice is typically permission-based — not a casual read — it is worth describing Zasep Rinpoche’s book in more detail for those who have their teacher’s blessing. As with all of Venerable Zasep Rinpoche’s books, this is beautifully written and authoritative. Rinpoche translates many sadhanas not previously available in English.

 

Hardcover edition of Source of All Buddhist Protectors by Zasep Rinpoche.

 

Zasep Rinpoche is well-known as a translator. In 1976, he was invited to translate for Geshe Thubten Loden in Queensland Australia. Since then, he has translated countless sadhanas and written several books, including one of the first — and certainly the most complete — book on the 21 Taras according to Surya Gupta tradition.[5] Many of the color plates in the book are from well-known dharma artist and teacher Ben Christian, notably Palden Lhamo. The color plates run from pages 213 to 236 and include Thangkas, lineage teachers, and torma designs.

Although it is written clearly for practitioners and advanced students, Zasep Rinpoche explains all practices from the Western student’s point of view. Each chapter contains a protector practice, with stories, anecdotes, lineages, and a Sadhana (which requires permission to practice in most cases.) The book is step-by-step, easily comprehended. Even specific torma designs are covered. Nothing is missed, and many of the practices covered are not published elsewhere.

Virtually every protector of Gelug lineage is covered in the 461 pages, 21 protector practices in all, most with illustrations. The book ends in a very detailed and helpful index. It is a hardcover dharma book, with actual practice sadhanas, and not meant for light reading.

If you are interested in this very complete and beautiful Dharma book, but you are uncertain if you have permission to read about these practices, contact information is below — especially as the book is $80 in hardcover (paperback and Kindle is currently not released, but planned for summer 2021.) Email for information (contact form here>>) about the hardcover.

Book Details

Source of All Buddhist Protectors, author Zasep Tulku Rinpoche, 2020 ISBN 978-0-9920554-2-4

Author Website: https://www.zaseptulku.com

The hardcover version of the Source of All Protectors is available directly; inquire from Gaden Choling’s website (use the contact form.)

 

NOTES

[1] Source of All Buddhist Protectors, Zasep Tulku Rinpoche, from Wind Horse Press, 2020, 6425 Sproule Creek Road, Nelson, BC V1L 6Y1 Canada. To ask about ordering, contact here>>

[2] From a feature on Buddha Weekly, “Tantric Wrathful Deities: The Psychology and Power of Enlightened Beings in their Fearsome Form.”

[3] Interview with His Holiness Sakya Trizin: Understanding the Tantric Tradition’s 3 Major Deities: Trike Daily

[4] “Why Have a Protector” from a feature on “What Are Dharma Protectors” by Dr. Alexander Berzin.

[5] Tara in the Palm of Your Hand: A guide to the practice of the twenty-one Taras according to the Mahasiddha Surya Gupta tradition ·  Publisher : Wind Horse Press (January 3, 2013)  ·  Language : English  ·  Paperback : 176 pages  ·  ISBN-10 : 0992055407  ·  ISBN-13 : 978-0992055400

 

 

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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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