Destroyer of Death Yamantaka: Buffalo-headed Vajrabhairava, supremely wrathful Yidam manifestation of Manjushri, the Buddha of Wisdom
Death itself is conquered by this towering, wrathful deity, Yamantaka. Conquering death, and the cycle of samsaric suffering, is at the very heart of Buddhism. As the “death destroyer” Yamantaka symbolizes this aspiration, and his meditational deity practice is designed to achieve that goal.
No deity is more misunderstood than the buffalo-headed deity Vajrabhairava. Wrathful barely begins to describe Yamantaka. Yet, he is none other than the great Bodhisattva of wisdom, Manjushri, in his most terrible and powerful form. How should we relate to such terrible aspects of Enlightenment? Why is Yamantaka considered a Highest Yoga Practice? In what way can he “destroy death?” We try to answer these questions, and more, in this special feature.
“When the tantric wrathful deity is understood and related to skillfully, it has the necessary qualities to be a catalyst of transformation. One deity that embodies the power to transform the destructive, aggressive aspect of the Shadow is Yamantaka. Vajrabhairava, as he is also called is practiced to overcome emotional and karmic obstacles, in particular the violence of anger and hatred.” — The Psychology of Buddhist Tantra, Rob Preece
[See “Different forms of Yamantaka” section below.]
Shakyamuni as Vajrabhairava, Foe-Destroyer
There are Tantras describing the manifestation of Buddha as Vajrahairava, the Foe-Destroyer. Foe Destroyer means the opponent of the Maras (representing temptations, attachments, and fear of death.) In some Tantra accounts, it is written that Shakyamuni himself — as he sat under the Bodhi tree enduring the attack of demonic Mara the tempter and Yama (death) — manifested as Vajrabhairava to “terrify and subdue” Mara / Yama. (Yama and Mara are often confounded.) Yamantaka means “death opponent” or opponent of death.
In Sutra, Shakyamuni faced the hoards and temptations of Mara, subduing them mentally, transforming them, and ultimately attaining Enlightenment. In Tantra, this mental process transforms into visualized or manifested forms. Shakyamuni manifested mentally as the Vajra Terrifier (Vajrabhairava) — not only conquering the four Maras (including the fourth: death), thus becoming the Conqueror — but also demonstrating the ultimate Tantra practice. In Tantra, the mental processes go beyond simple meditation and thought — incorporating visualized imagery (deity generation) and sound (mantra) and transformation (yoga.)
“Mara”, meaning the destroyer or tempter” was the demonic ‘evil one’ who attempted to obstruct Buddha’s enlightenment under the bodhi tree… They are also depicted in the form of Brahma (Skandha Mara), Yaksha (Klesha Mara), Yama… Iconographically, the four maras may be depicted as being crushed under the feet of…. Vajrabhairava. In Vajrayana Buddhism, the armies of Mara represent all of the mental and emotional delusions that arise as “demonic enemies or fiends.” 
The Four Maras to be overcome
The four Maras to be overcome (according to both Sutra and Tantra) are:
- the mara of the aggregates (Skt. skandhamāra; Tib. ཕུང་པོའི་བདུད་, Wyl. phung po’i bdud), which symbolizes our clinging to forms, perceptions, and mental states as ‘real’;
- the mara of the destructive emotions (Skt. kleśamāra; Tib. ཉོན་མོངས་ཀྱི་བདུད་, Wyl. nyon mongs kyi bdud), which symbolizes our addiction to habitual patterns of negative emotion;
- the mara of the Lord of Death (Skt. mṛtyumāra; Tib. འཆི་བདག་གི་བདུད་, Wyl. ‘chi bdag gi bdud), which symbolizes both death itself, which cuts short our precious human birth, and also our fear of change, impermanence, and death; and
- the mara of the sons of the gods (Skt. devaputramāra; Tib. ལྷའི་བུའི་བདུད་, Wyl. lha’i bu’i bdud), which symbolizes our craving for pleasure, convenience, and ‘peace’. 
Yamantaka’s “infamous” notoriety
Yamantaka is, perhaps, most famous in the West because of the intricate and elaborate sand mandalas of Yamantaka:
It is said that when President Nixon was considering aid for Tibet, he saw an image of Yamantaka, complete with horns, and judged that the Tibetan people were primitive demon-worshipers. Of course, modern understanding of the symbolism makes it clear that Yamantaka is a wrathful but compassionate Yidam, whose terrible power is turned against the obstacles to our practice, especially anger, hate, and death.
Also, adding to Yamantaka’s “infamous” notoriety — or misunderstood reputation — is the sometimes violent story of the Ra Lotsawa, the “sorcerous” RaLo who vanquished rival teachers with Vajrabhairava “magic.” [We’ll cover RaLo in an upcoming feature. Suffice it to say, his stories have to be understood in context and are largely metaphorical.]
Despite all of the infamy, Yamantaka is a most profound Highest Yoga practice, as explained by Venerable Zasep Rinpoche: “Yamantaka practice contains every practice you need.” Yamantaka practice in the Gelug tradition incorporates “everything”: Generation and Completion practice, Father and Mother Tantra, Vajrasattva purification practice, Guru Yoga, Protection Wheel, Uncommon Protection Wheel, and even Body Mandala.
“Lama Tsongkhapa said, Yamantaka is the most powerful practice in terms of transforming the mind and purification, ” explained H.E. Zasep Rinpoche during teachings at Nelson B.C. on Yamantaka. “It is a very powerful and important practice in this degeneration age.”
NOTE: Yamantaka practice is a Highest Yoga Tantric practice and REQUIRES initiation to practice as a Yidam.
Not only is Yamantaka the most ferocious of the Tibetan meditational deities, everything about him is fierce and almost deliberately “over the top” in scope and scale:
- His name “Bhairava” means “terrifier.”
- In his name, Yamantaka, contains the name “Yama”, the Lord of Death — although when combined with “antaka” it actually means the “Destroyer of Death”
- He is visualized in an underworld, a charnel ground filled with demons, spirits, cannibals — but all of whom he brings under his power
- He is the “horned” god, and many Westerners see a resemblance to Satan’s horns.
- He is brimming with invulnerable life-force, symbolized through his potently erect penis. (The erect phallus represents “ever-expanding great bliss” which is necessary to many Higher Yogic practices.)
- His “shock and awe” imagery is meant to convey unshakable power that cannot be resisted.
- He has many arms, legs and faces (depending on which form), his arms holding many weapons, ripe with symbolism. The wrathful faces, to a non-practitioner, can appear “demonic.”
- He stamps on bodies — not as a killer, but as a force that brings all things under his control.
- He is surrounded by flames — but not hell-flames; these are the flames of wisdom — for he is none other than the Buddha of Wisdom, Manjushri, in his wrathful form.
Totality: the faces of compassion, wisdom, and activity
Wrathful barely begins to describe Yamantaka. In his Highest Yoga Tantra form as Solitary Vajrabhairava, he has nine heads (the central one being a “buffalo”), all with three eyes, fangs, and ferocious expressions:
- The nine faces represent the nine “scriptural categories” — which is explained in commentary to initiates.
- The two horns represent “the two levels of truth” — relative and ultimate.
- The thirty-four arms (together with body, speech and mind) represent the thirty-seven limbs of Enlightenment.
- The sixteen legs represent the sixteen types of emptiness.
In this astonishing form, he has thirty-four hands, each with symbolic weapons, and sixteen legs. He can also appear in union with his consort Vajravetali. He can also appear with two or six-arms. He is normally blue-black, symbolic of many things, among them wrathful activity.
The top head is Manjushri, the Buddha of Wisdom. The middle face, below Manjushri, and above the ferocious buffalo, is the face of red Hayagriva — the ferocious form of Amitabha or Chenrezig Buddhas of Compassion. These many faces describe the completeness of Yamantaka practice: Manjushri for wisdom, Hayagriva for compassion, the wrathful Buffalo head for Activity (Wisdom, Compassion and Activity together represent a total practice). Surrounding these heads are six more faces: red, yellow and green to the right and grey, white and black, to the right — again associated with vast layers of symbolism.
To the uninitiated, seeing his ferocious image for the first time — just imagine, for example, the early Christian missionaries arriving in Tibet and seeing a near-demonic deity in the temples — he seems frightening, the stuff of nightmares. This is, as it should be. Yamantaka (Vajrabhairava in Sanskrit) is meant to be so fearsome that even the demons — whether you view them as metaphorical inner demons or external entities — tuck tail and run. Even Yama bows down (the ancient equivalent of Satan or Hades).
Ultimately, death itself is conquered by this towering, wrathful deity, Yamantaka. Conquering death, and the cycle of samsaric suffering, is at the very heart of Buddhism. As the “death destroyer” Yamantaka symbolizes this aspiration, and his meditational deity practice is designed to achieve that goal.
Yamantaka — overcoming anger and hatred
Yamantaka’s ultimate mission is “destroyer of death” (see below)— in the same way, for example, Medicine Buddha’s main mission is “healing” — but, as with all manifestations of the Enlightened, Yamantaka embodies all of the qualities of a Buddha. He does, however, have other well-known “specialties.” His practice is famous for overcoming “emotional and karmic obstacles, in particular the violence of anger and hatred.”
Dr. Alexander Berzin explains: “What is it that is going to prevent us from attaining that state of a Buddha? Our own confusion, our own laziness, our own bad temper and anger, our own attachments. This is the real enemy – it’s all these disturbing emotions and negative attitudes in our own minds. So we really need some very, very strong force not to just give in and let ourselves be ruled by this confusion.”
He continues: “We need a combination of compassion – we want to help others – and force and strength that “I’m not going to let all this junk that’s going on in my mind prevent me from being able to help others,” like laziness: “I don’t feel like doing it. I don’t feel like going and helping somebody.” You have to cut through that.”
How does Vajrabhairava “destroy” death? By helping us to understand the true nature of reality.
Dr. Alexander Berzin explains why an assertive Yidam, such as Yamantaka, can help us break through: “In order to overcome that confusion and laziness, we need the full understanding of reality – in Buddhist terms, voidness – that things don’t exist in the impossible ways that our minds project. So with understanding, we want to cut through these grosser levels with all the confusion – with a lot of strength – and get down to the subtlest level.
As a Highest Yoga Tantra practice it includes generation and completion stage practices, which are the ultimate meditational practices for helping us see reality as it truly is. The assertive and complex imagery of the “destroyer of death” requires us to really concentrate on the task of “creating” (generating) the visualization. Where softer, gentler meditational deities might allow us to relax and coast, Yamantaka’s sheer ferocious complexity demands full attention. Then, just as we master this awesome and frightening imagery — suddenly, we are guided to deconstruct our hard work, to dissolve away the intensely real visualization.
In what way can this possibly “destroy death”? It has nothing to do with immortality or staying young forever. Destroying death means to understand that we are already Empty of inherent existence, that our egos are a construct. When the ego is stripped away, we are no more than part of the whole — but that, in itself, is an amazing truth and joy. And, that whole that we are a part of, Shunyata, is eternal and timeless. Understanding this concept is a deep and vast topic, not explainable in a book or a simple feature article. This is why we have great teachers to guide us. [For a story on Shunyata, or Emptiness, see>>]
We destroy death, in this case, by deconstructing the ego, the bringer of our pain and suffering. It is the ego’s clinging to pleasure and aversion to pain that causes our suffering. The moment our parents put a label on us (as children) — we became that label. The ego naturally followed. In its extreme form, the narcissistic personality, the ego is everything. In its subtlest form, that of a humble monk who has renounced most of the pleasures of so-called reality, the ego is very unimportant. Compassion for others takes precedence, taking us yet another step towards Enlightenment.
Highest Yoga Tantra — understanding Emptiness, overcoming death
Alexander Berzin explains the Highest Yoga Tantra, such as Yamantaka practice, and how it helps us understand Emptiness (Voidness) and, with practice, ultimately overcome death, for the benefit of all beings:
“Now, normally we get down to that subtlest level when we die. During that period of death – what’s called the clear light of death – before the Bardo (the in-between state) and rebirth, we are just experiencing that clear-light level. (Pardon the dualistic way of saying that – that we are experiencing it, as if there’s a separate me. There’s no separate me experiencing it.) In other words, our mental activity during that short period of death is just this subtlest, subtlest level. I think that’s a clearer way of saying it.
“But normally when we experience death, we’re totally unaware of what’s going on – we don’t recognize the potentials and abilities of that subtlest level of mind. We have all these habits of our confusion – all these habits of compulsive behavior based on confusion and disturbing emotions – and because of the momentum of so many lifetimes of being under the influence of these habits, what happens? New rebirth – samsaric rebirth – with another cluster or configuration of these habits being activated and generating the next samsaric life filled with the same types of compulsive behavior and confusion. That’s our ordinary type of death.
“So what we want to do is to be able to overcome that kind of death and instead be able, in our meditation, to get to that subtlest level of mental activity. And we’ve used great force to get down there. But now it’s with a totally calm understanding of reality that we can apply in meditation at this time of clear light in order to be able to get:
- That clear-light state to have the understanding of voidness or reality
- The subtlest energy of it to transform and appear in the form of a Buddha.
“If we do this often enough and strongly enough, we’re able to stay like that forever. So this is basically the tantra path of the highest class of tantra.”
Of course, as a Highest Yoga Tantra practice, Yamantaka requires huge dedication and commitment. It comes with practice commitments, Tantric commitments and Guru commitments. It’s not for dabblers. It takes daily practice for years to master — and it always requires a teacher, to answer those tough questions that will inevitably arise.
The benefits of Vajrabhairava practice
Yamantaka (Vajrabhairava) is treasured in the Gelug tradition because the great sage, Lama Tsongkhapa, himself an emanation of Manjushri, recommended the practice as “most important.”
Yamantaka is treasured, in part, because it’s a “container practice.” You can wrap other practices around Yamantaka practice. For instance, if you invite protectors, you first visualize yourself as Yamantaka. It incorporates Guhyasamaja and Chakrasamvara practices. Yamantaka practice incorporates both Father and Mother tantra. Father tantra is the practice of the “illusory body” and Mother tantra is the practice of “clear light.”
Dr. Alexander Berzin explains: “You remember I said that Vajrabhairava is the container within which you combine Guhyasamaja practices and Chakrasamvara practices in the Gelugpa way of practicing? He has thirty-four arms, right? The second of the five special features is that in two of his hands he holds intestines and a triangular fire stove. This represents two types of practices in Guhyasamaja: illusory body and clear light. So that means that he incorporates the Guhyasamaja type of practices.”
The main feature of Yamantaka practice is “overcoming the obstacles” or “defeating the maras.” How does Yamantaka overcome the four Maras? Dr. Berzin explains:
- The mara of death: by understanding, with the clear-light mind, emptiness, you come close to experiencing death, without dying. As you understand the illusory nature of reality, and the reason for our suffering, you come closer to escaping samsara.
- The mara of disturbing emotions: anger to fight anger, wrath to fight wrath, using the psychology of wrathful deities to suppress the mara of disturbing emotions.
- The mara of aggregates: Once we learn how to transform the clear light of death into the Wisdom of Emptiness, the aggregates of samsara can no longer affect us.
- The mara of the sons of gods: With the Wisdom of Emptiness we overcome doubt and incorrect views.
Gelek Rimpoche explains: “Yamantaka basically falls into the father tantra category, Heruka/Vajrayogini into the mother tantra. Heruka is known as the ‘jewel tip’. If you have the mandala you put the important jewel on the roof top and the queen of England does so with the crown jewels. In that sense Heruka male and female is the outstanding mother tantra, and likewise, in the Gelugpa tradition, the Guhyasamaja tantra is considered the outstanding father tantra.”
Even though it is considered primarily “Father Tantra”, the symbolism and attributes and practice do incorporate elements of Mother Tantra. Since Yamantaka is the wrathful aspect of Manjushri, this shouldn’t be too surprising. Usually, Highest Yoga practices are either Father practice — emphasizing “illusory body”, compassion and “blissful awareness” — or Mother Tantra — emphasizing “illusory mind” (rather than body) clear light (or brilliance) and wisdom. Heruka Chakrasamvara and Vajrayogini practices, for example, are Mother Tantra primarily; Guhyasamāja is the classic example of Father Tantra. [See symbolism of implements below.]
Yamantaka has elements of both Father and Mother Tantra — although his practice is generally considered Father Tantra — as indicated by the symbolism of their visualized implements: the Khatvanga (Mother Tantra and suggestive of Tummo practice, see below) and Yamantaka specifically carries the triangular stove and intestines, standing for illusion body and Father Tantra practice.
Gelek Rimpoche: “The method of developing the illusion body. If you look at Yamantaka’s hand implements, out of his thirty-four hands, one is holding the intestines of a human being and another one is holding a stove. He is not going to make a barbecue, but stove and intestines symbolize something … Human intestines is a sign of the illusion body. So showing that, is telling: ‘I also carry the quality of Guhyasamaja – developing the illusion body’. So the second quality is that the Yamantaka practice has the whole complete method of developing the illusion body.”
Illusion body is associated with “Father Tantra” by definition. However, Gelek Rimpoche explains the “Mother Tantra” aspects as well:
“Again, if you look at Yamantaka’s hand implements, you see he carries a khatanga. What is a khatanga? There are different kinds of these sticks they carry around. One is the trident [tib. katvang tse sum], normally known in the west, then there is the one with the single pole, and the mother tantra deities carry a khatanga which has a vajra on the top and then [three] skulls. The khatanga normally is the exclusive sign of the mother tantra, but Yamantaka carries a khatanga, too. That gives you another message: just like the Heruka or Hevajra tantras have a method of developing the psychic heat power [tib. tummo], burning and melting the source of joy from the head, Yamantaka has that too.”
Symbolism of Yamantaka
Yamantaka carries many implements, which are the most direct symbols of his practice, benefits and completeness — and it is here we have suggestions of the blend of Father and Mother Tantra. From Gelek Rimpoche’s “Solitary Yamantaka Teachings” the symbolism is defined as:
Right side (his right):
“First right hand: skin of an elephant – victory
“Remaining right hands:
I . curved knife (in front!) – cutting through ignorance
2. dart – piercing conception of subject and object
3. pestle – destroying degenerated mindfulness
4. fish knife – cutting off cyclic existence
5. harpoon – destroying the faults of body, speech, mind
6. ax – cutting imprints of obscurations of sentient beings
7 spear – piercing wrong views
8. arrow – transfixing pain of preconception
9. hook – keeps spirits and demons away
10. skull-headed club – destroying the obstacles of karma
11. Katanga – transforming into nature of great practice too – tummo)
12. rimless wheel – turning the wheel of Dharma
13. five-point vajra – being in the nature of the five wisdoms
14. vajra-hammer – destroying avarice
15. sword – bestowing the eight siddhis
16. hand-drum – invoking the buddhas
“Under the right feet: eight siddhis
1. human – pill
2. buffalo -eye lotion
3. bullock – underground movement
4. donkey – sword
5. camel – flying in space
6. dog – becoming invisible
7. sheep – immortality
8. fox – the destruction of sickness
NOW, the LEFT (his left):
First left hand: skin of an elephant – victory over narrow-mindedness
Remaining left hands
1. skull-cup filled with blood (in front!) restoring degenerated commitments
2. head of Brahma – working with great compassion
3. shield – victory over the 4 maras
4. leg – practitioner proceeding to enlightenment
5. lasso – enveloping the mental continuum with pure wisdom
6. bow – victory over the 3 worlds entrails -possibility of developing illusion body (YT holds method of father tantra)
7. intestine – represents the “illusion body” according to Gelek Rimpoche: “shows that within this practice are included all the teachings from Sangwa dupa which focuses on the illusion body” 8. bell – sound of Prajnaparamita
9. hand – performing the four activities
10. cotton shroud – eliminating the veil of obstacles to wisdom
11. man impaled on a stick – directly realizing emptiness by penetrating all things through voidness (YT practice not easy, but forcefully
you get through.)
12. brazier (stove) – possibility of developing clear light (YT practitioners — a quicker chance to develop wisdom)
13. scalp – mental continuum being filled with compassion
14 threatening mudra – threatening the demons: ‘You should give priority of bestowing Siddhihood on my practitioners’.
15. trident with flags – understanding the emptiness of the three doors as being one entity
16. fan – indicates that all things are like illusions
Under the left feet: eight powers
1. vulture – power of body
2. owl – power of speech
3. crow – power of mind
4. parrot – power of miracles
5. hawk – power of going anywhere
6. kite – power of abode
7. mynah bird – power of wish-fulfillment
8. swan – qualities (be of use for others)
The legend of Yamantaka — a story of anger and death
Legend and myth are the languages of the subconscious, according to various schools of psychology. The legend of Yamantaka is no different. It’s essence, of course, is that Manjushri, the Buddha of Wisdom, took on a form more terrible than Yama himself — Yama being the personification of death — and prevented Yama from decimating Tibet. At that level, the symbolism is clear.
Deeper into the legend you gain a lot more in terms of mysterious symbolism and messaging. The story is told of a monk, a hermit really, who was in his fiftieth year of isolated meditation in a cave in the mountains. Just as he was about to achieve a profound insight, two thieves burst into his cave, with a stolen Water Buffalo. Despite the monk’s pleas to stop — just for a few minutes until he finished his meditation — the thieves beheaded the poor buffalo. Then, out of spite, the two thieves also beheaded the monk.
The monk, who had attained great siddhis, became suddenly very angry and, using his great powers, arose bodily with the head of the bull in place of his own. He killed the two thieves, then — even more furious, now, that his bloodlust had risen — he went on a killing rampage all over Tibet, as Yama, the personification of Death.
Alexander Berzin, from a lecture on Yamantaka, finishes the story: “So the people of Tibet were afraid for their lives, and they prayed to Manjushri to listen to them. And Manjushri transformed himself into Yamantaka, looking very similar to Yama but ten times more powerful and horrible, and Manjushri as Yamantaka then defeated Yama and made him into a protector for Buddhism.
“So what do we learn from this story? It’s very interesting. Don’t just look at these things as little fairy tales to tell children. There’s this whole thing that you get in the study of mythology – to see what are the lessons behind the mythology, and is there a deeper psychological thing that is going on, and so on. You get that in Jungian psychology, for example.
Of course, there’s anger and hate, to be tamed by our practice. Anger and hate arise from ego and clinging. The monk was so attached to his achievement, his anger could not be stopped — except by the wisdom of Manjushri. The Buddha of Wisdom used fierce appearance to fight fierce appearance, manifesting as Yama with a water buffalo bullhead, only many times more ferocious. All to say, in Yamantaka practice, we can overcome anger — and, ultimately, death — by understanding appearances are deceptive, attachment is the root of samsara, and escape lies in Emptiness.
Different forms of Yamantaka
There are three very popular forms of Yamantaka, all of which have a main “buffalo head” with Manjushri head on top (on the crown) except for Black Yamari and Red Yamari, who have no buffalo head:
- Vajrabhairava with 9 heads, 34 arms, 16 legs: this form can appear in any of three mandalas: solitary (single-deity), 49-deity mandala and 13-deity mandala
- Vajrabhairava with 6 heads, 6 arms, 6 legs (found in the Kalachakra text).
- Vajrabhairava with 4 heads, 8 arms, 4 legs.
Yamantaka himself has many forms, some solitary, some in union with consort, and all requiring empowerment from a lineage teacher:
- 5-Deity Rakta Yamari (Virupa)
- 13-Deity Rakta Yamari (Shridhara)
- 13-Deity Manjushri Krishna Yamari (Rwa Lotsawa)
- 21-Deity Sanmukha Manjushri Yamari (Rwa Lotsawa)
- Vajrabhairava w/ 8 Vetalas (“ghouls”) and 32 Ayudhas (ritual objects) (Rwa Lotsawa/Ngor)
- Vajrabhairava w/ 8 Vetalas and 32 Ayudhas (Mal Lotsawa)
- 13-Deity Vajrabhairava (Rwa Lotsawa/Tsongkhapa/Gelug)
- 17-Deity Vajrabhairava (Kyo Lotsawa)
- 49-Deity Vajrabhairava (Chang Lodru Sherab Lama; zhang lcog-gru shes-rab bla-ma)
- Ekantanayaka (Ekavira) Vajrabhairava w/ 32 Ayudhas (Buton)
- Ekantanayaka (Ekavira) Vajrabhairava (Rwa Lotsawa/Tsongkhapa/Gelug) [Source: Yamantaka.com]
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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.