Guru, Deity, Protector 4
Contemporary perspective on the three pillars of vajrayana practice.

Deity, part 1 – GDP4 Download

Comments on the Buddhist concept of ‘no self’. Yidams or deities as expressions of awakened mind, deity meditation instruction, questions about this how to do this practice.

» Want to read the transcript or listen to specific sections of this teaching? CLICK HERE

Section 1

Quite clearly from the experience that you’ve been relating to me in the interviews and so forth, you can see how the practice that we’ve been doing yesterday and this morning, is a practice that can actually be done over a longer period of time. [Laughter]

One of the, I think, Drukpa Kagyu masters—I don’t know a lot about him—his name is Gotsangpa, lived in probably the twelfth or thirteenth century. Went off to do a retreat on an island so that he was totally cut off. And his practice was this guru union. And just through this practice, in a month’s time, he had stabilized awareness 24 hours a day. That’s how much energy this kind of practice can generate.

As I’ve said, my intention with everything we’re doing in this retreat is, as much as possible, to give you the flavor, a taste of these practices. So that you yourselves can decide whether this is a path that is appropriate for you. As Dan pointed out yesterday, there are actual practice liturgies that conform to the practice which have other elements in them than we are able to cover right now.

And that becomes one’s practice in the same way that meditating on death and impermanence or doing taking and sending, and so forth. Some of you have taken up the practice of Chenrezig in the retreat we did last year. That’s something you can take up individually rather than trying to teach those things in a group setting. The main reason in approaching it that way is that there’s just too much individual variation from person to person.

Section 2

One of the odd things about Buddhism in Tibet is that it took an esoteric tradition—which was taught very, very much at an individual level when it first developed in India—and made it into a system for large numbers of people. There are quite a few contradictions that developed out of that.

Today we’re going to turn to the second of the three topics. This one will be a little more straightforward for many of you because you were present at the retreat we did last year. It’s the topic of yidam or deity. Historically, as the tantric systems developed, there were steps into this kind of practice. So you had tantra as ritual, tantra as behavior, tantra as union, and tantra as supreme union.

The core insight of Buddhism—the thing that really differentiates Buddhism from most other traditions and which created all kinds of consternation in India and elsewhere—is this notion of non-self. This is a theme that runs through, is central to, every tradition of Buddhism. And it’s not a belief. It is the understanding, the experience, of everybody who looks deeply enough into what they are. And when I say everybody, I’m including all of the other religious traditions.

What differentiates Buddhism is that—and I think one really has to attribute this to the genius of Buddha himself, Buddha Shakyamuni—Buddhism somehow never got stuck in a formulation that was rigidified into doctrine. So, in one sense, there was nothing that you absolutely had to adhere to. So every individual in every generation has been pushed and encouraged by their teachers to know through their own experience. Which is very different from relying on the Koran or the Torah or what have you. Or the Vedas; Hinduism got stuck there.

When we look very, very deeply—and all of you have had some experience with this—we look very deeply at what you are, what I am, one doesn’t see anything. Or to put it a little more accurately, one sees nothing. And as Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland— I think it’s Through the Looking Glass actually—the White King and Alice are watching the race between the lion and the unicorn, and the White King says to Alice, Do you see anyone coming? And Alice says, I see no one. And the King says, Oh, you’ve much sharper eyes than I have! [Laughter]

And while one suspects that for Charles Dodgson it was little more than a play on grammar, from a Buddhist perspective it really touches on exactly what is. Mahamudra prayer, it says, When you look at nothing and you look and you see nothing and you understand the significance of not seeing. That’s very important.

Section 3

Now, even though we may understand that intellectually, even though we may have some experience with it, most of the time we relate to experience with an identity of some kind or another, a sense of self, of being some thing. We have many of them, actually. We have all of the ones that come with being a part, living in a society: parent, child, sibling. Whatever our profession is: artist, poet, doctor, lawyer, plumber, massage therapist, you know, so on and so on, salesman. We also have ideas about ourselves, which is another whole level of identity. So even though we may be a bank clerk, we kind of think of ourselves as a poet. And even though we are directing a corporation, we may think of ourselves as a humanitarian. And, you know, so on and so on.

Then we have another whole level of identities, ones that usually come from earlier when our lives are being shaped: “I’m a person who does everything right all the time;” “I’m a person who never does anything right;” “I’m the best. No matter what situation I encounter, I’m the best person for it;” “It doesn’t matter what situation I encounter, I always do something wrong;” “I’m not lovable;” “Everybody loves me.” And you go on and on and on. I mean, we could take a poll here, different identities. You all know what I’m talking about, right?

Now the extraordinary thing is that, even though we have this multiplicity of identities, and we actually operate as different people in different circumstances with a different view of things and different behaviors and so forth and so forth, we have the idea that there’s just one thing. We don’t even notice that we’re switching personalities. We’re like the shards of a shattered mirror and we don’t know when we move from the reflections in one shard to the reflections in another. So, this is a mess. [Laughter] One can say—and this may be a little different perspective for some of you—that the function of yidam meditation is to tidy up this mess. You adopt one identity and that’s it. [Laughter] You don’t get to choose all the other ones.

Section 4

In the scheme of things, it doesn’t actually matter which identity you choose. Kongtrul, a great teacher in the nineteenth century, once said, If you know how to do this, you can adopt the identity of a clay cup..

Student: Identity of a what?

Ken: A clay cup.

Student: Thanks.

Ken: And if any of you want to work with your yidam of a clay cup, we’ll talk about it. You relate to every situation as a clay cup. It could be very enlightening. This is something that Suzuki Roshi picks up in another way. He says, You know, when you get right down to it, a rock is much more enlightened than we are. Why?

Student: It’s always a rock.

Ken: Yeah. Absolutely a rock. And it doesn’t matter where you put it or what it is. It’s just a rock! It can be on the bottom of a stream bed. It could be on the side of a mountain. It can be in your garden. It can be right in front of your door. And it’ll just be a rock. Okay?

Now. The purpose for adopting an identity is to be able to let go of having any identity. So, in a certain sense, we’re sweeping up the shards, one mirror and then we discover we don’t need the mirror. Or, as Trungpa said once, If you’re going to use a crutch, you might as well use a gold crutch.

This is a very, very profound method of practice and quite unlike anything through any of the western spiritual traditions—at least that I know.

Section 5

So, we use identities and these are called yidams or deities. What are they? Well, they are expressions of awakened mind. That’s the gold crutch. They’re expressions of awakened mind. Now, how do they arise? That’s not very clear. Some of them have very, very deep roots, anthropologically speaking. You could go back, far, far in history to what Jung would call archetypes, but I’ve not found that such a useful framework.

Others—or the particular form of them—very, very definitely shaped by culture. The ones that we inherit in the Tibetan tradition are all Gandharvan princes and princesses. That is they’re decked out in the regalia, the clothing of royalty, from a very specific period of Indian history. And some of them come through visionary experiences of great masters. So they come in a variety of ways.

Student: Ken?

Ken: Yes.

Student: How about dreams?

Ken: Including visionary experiences, yeah.

What we do know about them is that the ones that come down to us work; they’re effective. They’ve been effective over a long period of time. And here, now, in this culture, we face a very interesting—and in my opinion—a very open question.

When Vajrayana moved to China, the Chinese, “Okay, you guys decked all these out in the regalia of Indian royalty, we’ll deck them out in the regalia of Chinese royalty.” And Vajrayana barely survived in China. There are schools of Vajrayana, but it never became a main form of practice. It became a very, very esoteric tradition. And only fragments of it actually made it to Japan, in the Tendai sect.

Section 6

So it’s not clear whether changing the forms is a good idea or not. It’s a very, very open question. In retreat, you know, I thought we’d come up with appropriate yidams for the western culture: Vajra paperwork. With a word processor here and a cell phone here. Who knows, I have no idea how this is going to evolve in the future.

That it does evolve? Definitely. You can see this in the evolution of the depictions from India to Nepal to Tibet. Change in the way that they’re depicted in the thangkas. And the arising of new forms, periodically. So that’s a totally open question.

For our purposes today and tomorrow, we’re not going to use any of the traditional forms. I want to go to the heart of the matter. And I’m going to give you a way of practicing—something to work on in your meditation—which I hope will give you the flavor here. I want each of you to pick something, a trait, an ideal, an emotion, doesn’t matter what, and make that your identity.

So one can, if you wish, take one of the immeasurables. Chenrezig for instance is compassion. You can also, if you wish, take an emotion. Hevajra is vajra anger. One could look at Vairocana as pride. Or you can take an ideal. Guhyasamaja literally means “master” or “lord of mysteries.” That’s what it means.

As I say, it can be an ideal, a trait, or an emotion. The one thing I require of you is that you relate to this in its awakened manifestation. That’s your identity. So Avalokiteshvara, awakened compassion. White Tara, awakened compassion manifesting as healing. Green Tara, awakened compassion manifesting as protection, a little different energy, a lot heavier energy. Manjushri, awakened intelligence. Or you can go to his very wrathful form which is called the Vajra Destroyer, which is the ultimate expression of awakened intelligence, that destroys all conceptuality whatsoever. So you have this 16-headed, 32-armed, 16-legged thing. It’s got an answer for everything. [Laughter]

Student: And if you don’t agree, it’ll just kind of nail you. [Laughter]

Ken: Well, that’s one of its answers, isn’t it? Very closely related to the lord of death, which is an answer to everything. So you can take pride, jealousy, greed, whatever. And if you’re not certain, we’re going to leave a little time at the end of this. We can go through this individually.

Section 7

You’re to assume this identity: put it on, take it in, absorb it, become it. But what I want you to do is first spend some time feeling it. And feeling it very, very deeply. Now one of the first things you’re going to run into are a bunch of parts in you which will go, “But…but…but…but…” So if you take some ideal such as Vajrapani, for instance, which is awakened power, there are those parts in some of us that’ll go, “But…but I have to be a nice person.” Sorry, this is about one identity. We don’t get that. So all of that stuff gets, you know, gathered up, swept away, and absorbed.

Or if you take something like Hevajra, awakened anger, you can feel all kinds of parts of you recoiling against that,“AHH!” Vajrayogini, awakened sexuality. Lot of people start that practice and they have no idea who she is. It’s very interesting. “Oh, oh, I’ll just do this.” And they have no idea what they’re working with. It’s amazing. Khorlo Demchok, male expression of the same thing—awakened sexuality. That’s why his name is awakened bliss.

Once you begin to feel what this is like—remember you’re only allowed one identity. You don’t get to switch. You start walking through every aspect of your life with this identity. Every aspect. We get up in the morning, your family, your children, your work, your friends. What you do. How you do it. How you speak. What you wear. Everything. Being just this. That should make life interesting.

Student: I can’t even imagine.

Ken: Pardon?

Student: I can’t even imagine.

Ken: Well you’re going to very shortly.

Student: No shape-shifting.

Ken: No shape-shifting. No, no, that’s another kind of dakini. Actually, if you want, you can be the shape-shifter dakini and see what that involves. That would be exciting. Actually, that’s more for tomorrow than today. Any questions?

Josephine: Are you going to give us the enlightened aspect of all of our, you know, [traits], so we can do the enlightened version?

Ken: Josephine, I wouldn’t dream of insulting your intelligence by doing that! No. That’s for you to discover and that’s really important, very important. Your awakened pride. Hmmm. No. I had a wonderful meeting with Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche. And I was so grateful. It was years and years ago—1988. It was the only time I met him. Just so kind and so generous. In the middle of our conversation, he looked at me and said,“ You have a problem, Ken.” I go, “Oookay. What is it, Rinpoche?” “You’re a little bit proud.” I said, “Yes, I know.” He said, “You either be completely proud or not proud at all. Your problem is you’re a little bit proud.”

So, it doesn’t matter. You go all the way here. No holding back. Okay? Kay, you had a question.

Kay: I was just wondering on what basis do we select? Like is it something that I would like to be? Or is it something that I would seemingly hate to be and find the awakened version of, or—

Ken: Yes. Yes. Okay?

Kay: Okay.

Ken: Deborah.

Deborah: What is the awakened version? Of anything, of pride, of envy, of love?

Ken: That’s for you to discover.

Deborah: How should I know what’s awakened?

Ken: I say the same thing to you. You know. It’s there. That’s part of the purpose of this. I mean, think. This is part of Vajrayana where we take what is and work it to the nth degree. Vajrayana is called the result-based path. Okay. Now, whatever we are, it’s transformed into something when we wake up. Right? So, we just go straight there. You see, you have an identity you’re working with right now.

Deborah: Yes.

Ken: What’s the voice inside saying?

Deborah: What the hell I’m doing?

Ken: Exactly. Vajra stupidity. [Laughter] “I DON’T KNOW ANYTHING!” Every situation you go into, you don’t know anything! See what comes out of it. Okay?

Now, one of the forms of Vajrayogini is Vajravarahi. What’s this mean? The vajra sow. And in Buddhism, in Vajrayana, the sow is the symbol for stupidity. It’s a pig. And you know why—actually, pigs are very intelligent animals, but they’re symbols for stupidities because a pig just goes through whatever it encounters. It’s going to root. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a linoleum floor or concrete floor, a forest, a field, or whatever. It’s just going to root for vegetables. It’s just going to do it. That’s what Vajravarahi’s about. So, there’s a deity of vajra stupidity. It’s got all the bases covered. This is a one-stop shop.

Isabelle: Discriminating awareness. Or is that too vague?

Ken: I think we have to go further there, Isabelle. How about vajra prejudice.

Isabelle: Okay. Thanks.

Student: Do you have any—

Ken: Just a second. Karen.

Student: I’m sorry.

Karen: Can we start at the bottom of this instead of starting with the awakened state? I mean if I start with the awakened state, I’m going to end up underneath all of that. So could I just start underneath and work my way up, sort of?

Ken: That’s not the instruction.

Karen: I know that.

Ken: Good. Chris.

Chris: Hi. Is there any literature out on all these little characters? [Laughter] It’s kind of cool stuff.

Ken: Yes. There are—

Chris: I mean, that’s in English.

Ken: Actually there is quite a bit in English. has quite a bit of stuff on it.


Ken: Yes. It’s unbelievable what’s out there.

Student: What was that?

Ken: K-h-a… I think it’s k-h-a…

Student: Yes it is.

Ken: K-h-a-n-d-r-o dot net. Khandro is the Tibetan word for dakini. And they’ve just compiled a whole bunch of stuff. And Gail and I were having a conversation about something a couple of years ago about the 24—

Gail: The 24, yeah.

Ken: —locations for dakinis.

Gail: Yeah. Locations. Yeah.

Ken: You know, and she typed “24 locations” into Google, and I typed “24 locations,” and we both ended up on with 24. That’s a very esoteric little bit of knowledge. I didn’t know…I’ve never come across that before. There it is. So, there’s all kinds of stuff out there.

Student: So Ken, what you’re saying basically is that there is a deity for just about everything, every idea [unclear].

Ken: Pretty well. Yeah. But will you find something that will be actually helpful for you? Probably not. There’s vast literature on this, but they don’t describe the deities really in terms you would recognize or you feel you could form a relationship with. They’re very high-flown praise. And the same kind of thing that we have in the Far Reaching Cry to the Guruprayer. When you really look at it, and study it, and think about it, you begin to get a feel for the personality. What I’m trying to do here is get you right into the personality of this because this is where the emotional stuff takes hold.

Section 9

I remember, there’s a person in Los Angeles who was quite helpful to me. He’s a very irritating person, but he had a very good heart. And he really worked very hard helping people. We had dinner one evening. And he said he just spent five days with Sakya Trizin on Vajrayogini. And I said, “So, what’s her personality? I mean what’s she like?” And he couldn’t answer the question. Because it was all in this formal stuff and then the technical aspects of the visualization—she has a chopper here and a skullcup here and a trident here and got the three heads and a dagger on the skull and drigug, and so forth. It symbolizes this and symbolizes that and the neck of 50 dripping heads, which symbolizes this and so forth. That’s usually how they’re described—all the symbolism.

If you’re going to become this. You’re assuming this identity. You have to know the personality. Josephine.

Josephine: I think I’m making an advertisement for yidam practice, but my experience is that if you actually do the practice rather than study about it that, and if you are actually paying attention to what you experience despite the technical—

Ken: Right.

Josephine: —you know, weight of it, that it does work. It will reveal itself to you.

Ken: You’re quite right.

Josephine: You know. So.

Ken: But that part.

Josephine: Well, this seems more…in a way it’s easier and more powerful to take what you know rather than try to know something that you don’t know. In other words, when you start yidam practice, you don’t know, and so that creates an obstacle to knowing the awakened part of it.

Ken: Exactly. Yeah. Because we’ve got to get into it. All of it’s very confusing. But you’re quite right. I’ve had the same experience.

The purpose here—a lot of people here have not been exposed to this—is to get the flavor of it. If you have the flavor of it, you know, then you do what you feel is going to be most useful to you. And if you want to explore something new, that is, “Okay, here’s something I’m working with. What would it be like to assume this and really live it completely?” That could be a very fruitful exercise. If, on the other hand, you say, “You know, let me just take this opportunity and deepen the relationship with something I already have a relationship with.” That also is going to be very fruitful. And that’s why I’m not saying you should do this or you should do that.

Student: I’m in the middle of something…

Ken: Right.

Student: A mind state.

Ken: Okay.

Student: And I am living it.

Ken: Yes.

Student: And I don’t have an awareness that is big enough to see it.

Ken: Are you living it 100 percent?

Student: No. Of course not.

Ken: Would you like to live it 100 percent?

Student: I hate it.

Ken: That wasn’t my question.

Student: Well. If that’s what it takes to get bigger than it so I can see it, yes.

Ken: Then you might try that. A teacher is helpful in guiding, supporting, giving instruction, and so forth. It’s also very important for the student to develop an intelligence about their own practice, too. And so, none of you are beginning students here. And, yes I can say this will probably be helpful to you. Given the way that I’ve experienced practicing with all of you, you’ll do it and something good, something beneficial very, very often happens. And that’s good.

But it’s also good to explore. And also very good to sense what you are able to do or where you are able to go at each point in practice, and what feels right. So for some people, it may be appropriate to deepen things. And others may be appropriate to go in other directions. If you’re experiencing something you know, I’ve brought this up, “Well, this is a different way of approaching it,” do that. Or you may actually think, “I’m just going to deepen this experience and bring that to what I’m experiencing now.” All of these approaches are good.

Student: My difficulty is that, if I don’t know what it is, I have no idea what its enlightened aspect is.

Ken: Then your first step is to experience it completely.

Student: Okay. Thank you

Student: So, what would be the enlightened loser?

Ken: Well, that’s for you to find out.

Student: Perfection of wisdom.

Ken: Pardon?

Student: Perfection of wisdom.

Ken: In a certain sense, yes. But the thing isn’t to get an idea, okay? You’re going to be totally a loser and—and that and is very important—totally awake. Okay. What is that like? And there’s a cartoon person like this. Who is it? It’s not Mr. Magoo, but it’s something like that.

Student: Donald Duck.

Ken: Yeah, well, he’s not really awake. But if you think of…a…

Student: Linus?

Student: Homer Simpson?

Student: Homer Simpson. [Laughter]

Ken: Closer. Actually I was thinking of Peter Sellers in Being There.

Student: Clouseau.

Ken: Pardon?

Student: Inspector Clouseau.

Ken: No Being There.

Student: Oh, oh Chauncey Gardner.

Ken: That was his character?

Students [Several at once.] Yes.

Ken: Yes.

Student: Same as The Idiot.

Ken: Who brought all of this change into the world. Yes? Okay.

Student: Red Tara?

Ken: I don’t know a lot about Red Tara but that would be…red is the color of magnetization. And so that’s the particular form of activity. So awakened compassion as…I think it’s fair to say awakened compassion is the expression of power. It’s very similar to Kurukulla. The same kind of thing. Yeah.

Student: Would it be useful to think of something and then get the deity name from you?

Ken: No. I’ve been throwing out examples from the Tibetan tradition. For the purpose of the meditation over the next day, what I want you to do is to take a trait in yourself, an ideal, or an emotion—reactive or otherwise, reactive or higher emotion—and be it. In every aspect, that’s your identity. And it doesn’t matter whether it corresponds to a particular deity in the Tibetan pantheon. It really doesn’t matter, that. What I’ve been doing is going through this and everything that someone’s showing there is actually a deity that corresponds to that so this is not like I’m telling you to do something that’s totally bizarre. It is, but so what. [Laughter] Deborah.

Deborah. So the practice is take a trait, ideal or emotion and be it. And are there other steps?

Ken: And then walk through every aspect of your life.

Deborah: Okay. Thank you.

Ken: That’s going to take you a little while. So, it should keep you busy for the next few hours. Susan.

Susan: You said that we’re to experience this as awakened, but are we to step into presence the way we did yesterday?

Ken: You are this quality, and you are awake. Now go about your life.

Susan: So we can forget about yesterday.

Ken: Yes. [Laughter]

Student: Is it sort of like we wake up in the morning and imagine ourself going through the day, encountering what we encounter?

Ken: That’s one way of doing it. Yep. Okay. Everybody got the idea?

Student: Yes.

Ken: [Laughter] Thank you for speaking for everyone.

Student: Sure. I’m starting my practice.

Ken: Deborah.

Deborah: So, if we start with a reactive emotion, we immediately go into awakeness…

Ken: Yes.

Deborah: …we don’t hang out in the reactivity.

Ken: No. You’re angry and you’re totally awake in your anger. Vajrakilaya. I mean, for instance, if you’re totally awake in your anger, what are you angry at?

Student: When you say “go through the day,” you mean we imagine not the retreat day but a day in our life?

Ken: Your ordinary life, yeah. Your regular life. Every aspect of it. Everything you’ve done. Go through whole sections of your life, you know, your career, your family. Little bits, big bits. This is the one identity. You don’t get to change anymore. This is it. Okay? All right.

That’s it for now. If anybody doesn’t have anywhere to go or any identity to assume, then come and speak to me. I’ll be—

Student: You’ll assign one!

Ken: I may suggest one, but this comes under the thing you’re better off not asking. Okay.

» Close transcript