Understanding the Practice of Wrathful Deities in Tibetan Buddhism

"Sacred art is not just a representation of symbols and ideas. It is a direct experience of inner peace, free from attachment to the illusory solidity of the ego and the phenomenal world"   ~Matthieu Ricard

vajrayogini iconography

An art form is truly sacred when it awakens in the mind a direct experience deeper than our ordinary selves and the material world.

According to Buddhism, the essence of a fundamental quality of mind is one where it is in the state of peace and lucid clarity, something that lies beyond our thought-process. This transcendent state of mind is the Buddha-nature, the primordial wisdom. The primordial wisdom and compassion are always present within every sentient being, overruled by ignorance. Buddhism says that ignorance is not only a lack of knowledge but a consistent apathy towards the true state of mind. In fact, it is ignorance that divides things into self and other, near and far, good or bad, and that sees things as having a true, substantial existence.

On the other hand, the primordial wisdom sees that the nature of everything is emptiness, Shunyata, the view of emptiness. It is the understanding that phenomena are devoid of intrinsic, autonomous, and permanent existence. Although it might at first seem a nihilistic view of the world, this is far from being the case. Emptiness does not imply nothingness. Rather refers to the infinite potential for phenomena to appear in a vast network of interdependent processes-which would be impossible if everything consisted of inert, immutable, self-contained entities.

So, how can we understand the Wrathful Deities and their gruesome appearances, which are the focus of many contemplative practices in Tibetan Buddhism?

"Wrathfulness is a way of depicting the formidable energy of compassion that cannot bear the sufferings of beings. There is no trace of hatred or anger in it".

It is simply a way in which the peaceful free nature of primordial wisdom  manifest, a very dynamic way required to beings from particular kinds of suffering."

The following symbolisms associated with the wrathful deities will make this view clearer.

  • The hair bristles upward in a blazing mane out of overwhelming compassion for the intense suffering of beings caught up in delusion.
  • If they have only 1 head, it symbolizes the absolute truth, while if they have 3 heads, they represent the three dimensions of Buddhahood Trikaya, as well as the transformation of the three main mental poisons-Desire, Anger, and Ignorance.
  • Their 2 arms represent the union of wisdom (the realization of emptiness) and skillful means (compassion); while if they have six arms, these are to remind us of the six transcendent perfections (Paramita): Generosity, Discipline, Patience, Diligence, Concentration, and Wisdom.
  • Their two legs represent absolute space (dharmadhatu) and awareness (vidya), inseparable; if four, they symbolize the four boundless qualities-Love, Compassion, Joy, and Impartiality.
  • The 58 dry skulls that some wrathful deities wear symbolize the death of the 58 kinds of deluded thought.
  • Their razor-sharp wings symbolize penetrating wisdom.
  • Their 3 eyes symbolize perfect knowledge of the Past, Present, and Future.
  • These deities are not seen as having material, tangible bodies of flesh, blood, and bone, but bodies of light, vivid and translucent like a rainbow, and totally immaterial, like the reflection of the moon in water.

Wrathful deities are full of wisdom and love and the power to alleviate pain/misery. There are many meditational deities that have both peaceful and wrathful forms.

The wisdom-wrath of these deities therefore symbolizes the conquest of hatred and the other mental poisons that create suffering for both ourselves and others as well. It is said that the demon Rudra, who embodied all the negativity of the human mind, was subjugated by the wisdom deities Hayagriva and Vajrapani. As a sign of victory, Hayagriva and Vajrapani clad themselves in the accoutrements of the vanquished demon and assumed his physical appearance, showing that wisdom always lies deep within ignorance, love behind the hideous face of hatred, and compassionate strength behind blind violence.

To reach enlightenment, one should perceive all forms as the manifestation of primordial purity, all sounds as the echo of emptiness and all thoughts as the play of wisdom. One does not require distinguishing between beautiful and ugly, harmonious and discordant.wrathful deities of tibetan Buddhism

Beauty is everywhere and one is fulfilled and serene all the time.

 Ordinary beauty is certainly a source of joy, but spiritual beauty has a unique value, because it inspires in us the conviction that enlightenment both exists and can be attained. It is this beauty that sacred art seeks to express, be it Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, or Islamic, and whether its mode of expression is music, dance, painting, or simple contemplation. 

 

4 comments

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lpvgfwbjjv May 17, 2021

I always thought that they were like guardians guarding you on the path or warning you that you are about to go astray . Like in the bardo. but this teaches me a new way . Thank you!

Christina Vonthronsohnhaus March 19, 2021

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