This article first appeared in Buddhadharma, Fall 2007.
In 1974 I was translating for Dezhung Rinpoche, a wonderfully warm and kind scholar and master who had settled in Seattle in the early sixties, soon after the Tibetan diaspora. He had come out of retirement in response to the interest in Tibetan Buddhism that had developed in the seventies and beyond.
A student asked about visualization practice and deity meditation. Dezhung Rinpoche closed his eyes and scrunched his forehead. He bobbed his head up and down as if he were concentrating very hard and said, “You visualize the head of the deity, then you visualize all those arms, then you visualize the implements, then the palace, then you try to see the whole deity clearly, but you lose one part, so you go back to visualize that… And it’s all gone. You start again, and the same thing happens, again, and again.” Then he opened his eyes wide, looked right at the student, smiled, and said, “And then you have a headache!”
Deity practice is one of the central practices in Vajrayana Buddhism, yet many people do not understand how it works and have even questioned whether it is a valid form of Buddhist practice. When you look at the deities depicted in thangkas (scroll paintings) and on temple walls, with their fantastic forms and facial expressions and the obvious but highly elaborate esoteric symbolism, you may well ask, “What do these have to do with waking up?”
Until relatively recently, Sri Lankan and other Theravadin traditions regarded Tibetan Buddhism as little more than demon worship, a misconception that has fortunately waned now that these different traditions are interacting with each other. And compared to the simplicity and directness of Zen, the machinery and complexity of deity practice can be both intimidating and puzzling. While Tibetan Buddhism holds the most complete and vibrant transmissions of Vajrayana methods, even Western students in this tradition can find deity practice confusing. Many of them often have a hard time visualizing the complex forms or relating them to their lives in the modern world.
This difficulty is understandable. Deity practice developed in a very different culture and a very different era: early medieval India, which was a largely agricultural society, with a myth-based traditional culture that defined values, prescribed behaviors, and largely determined what one could or couldn’t do in one’s life — a sharp contrast to the trade-based world full of individual choice that we live in today.
In order to help clarify the nature and purpose of deity practice, I discuss it here in a way that gives one the actual flavor of this practice; that is, the sense of what might actually be happening experientially in deity practice. I also suggest an approach to deity practice that doesn’t depend on one’s ability to visualize vividly. After all, the purpose of this practice is not to generate sparkling imagery but to transform the way we experience the world and ourselves. Finally, for those who take up this practice, I suggest ways you might use the deity to be awake and present in your life.
Classical deity practice uses traditional forms that represent the qualities and characteristics of an awake personality. Perhaps the approach to deity practice presented here will be more accessible to some of us who live and practice in a post-modern, post-industrial society, one that has largely replaced myth with reason (for better or worse), and in which people have to make personal choices about values, behaviors, and directions in their lives (again, for better or worse).
Let’s start by asking, What might deity practice look like if we eliminated the forms and went directly to the actual experience of being awake?
Awake, in One Personality
Spiritual practice is primarily a destructive process. It destroys the habitual tendencies that cause us to take subject-object duality, emotional reactions, conceptual processes, and sensory sensations as concrete realities. In particular, we ordinarily regard ourselves as existent entities, an identification that is intimately intertwined with our personality. In deity practice, we experience personality as a fortuitous accumulation of habitual patterns and see that, at its core, there is nothing with which to identify. With the destruction of the ordinary personality, along with its dualistic fixation, all the qualities of being awake — power, openness, insight, and compassion — are free to express themselves in our lives.
What is personality? Most people take it to be the complex of behavioral, temperamental, emotional, and mental attributes that characterizes us as unique individuals. We usually see personality as fixed. However, we don’t have to look very hard to see that it varies radically from situation to situation. We may display care, patience, and restraint at work but not show the same patience or restraint with our families. Or we may be kind and loving with our spouse and children yet angry and impatient with employees and colleagues. When situations change, everything about us can change, too — what we think, feel, do, how we see the world, even what we believe and understand about life.
Far from having a single personality, we are like the shards of a shattered mirror, each piece reflecting a different picture of the world. Yet we think of ourselves as the same person, a single entity that is consistent throughout the day. We are largely unaware that we are acting on the basis of the reflections of one shard in one moment, and another shard in the next.
What would life be like if we approached life, our world of experience, consistently — that is, with a single personality, an awake personality, rather than as a collection of shards?
I use the term awake here instead of the more commonly used word, enlightened. Enlightened implies a state of being based on an idealized conception of human perfection — an enlightened person as opposed to an unenlightened one. Awake is probably more accurate, because it points to an experience, not a state. Awake also avoids the rational, political, and philosophical associations connected with the Age of Enlightenment. Finally, when asked what was different about him, Buddha Shakyamuni replied simply, “I’m awake.”
To explore the process of embodying an awake personality, we can start with something noncontroversial, namely, awake compassion. (Strange as it may seem, you can actually use any personality in this exercise. They all work. We’ll come back to that later. For now, we’ll work with awake compassion.)
We all know what unawake compassion looks like: persistent caretaking that can cross over into tyranny; a compulsion to rescue or help that ignores appropriate boundaries; a pitying attitude that masks feelings of superiority; or a blind naivetŽ that fails to see what is helpful or harmful.
Instead, imagine being completely awake and present and, at the same time, embodying compassion. Imagine how you go about your day. How do you walk? How do you sit? When you see your spouse or children in the morning, how do you greet them? How do you prepare for the day? How do you drive to work? When you converse with people, how do you listen, how do you speak? What happens in you when you see another person being mean or unpleasant? What happens when you see them succeeding in their lives? What happens when you see someone in pain or struggling?
Reflect on these questions during your formal meditation sessions and during your day. What comes up for you? In this approach, it’s good to begin with the body reactions, the sensations that come up in your body when you consider being awake compassion. Then include emotional sensations. Only when you can rest in the physical and emotional sensations should you include all the stories and associations connected with being awake compassion.
As you work with these reflections, at first you may feel a release from family, social, or professional constraints and a clarity that allows you to connect with and help others openly and naturally. After the initial opening, the quality of attention often drops a level and you may become aware of other voices and other reactions. Does your body tense up? Do you feel contractions around your heart, in your stomach, in your jaw? Do you feel alone, exposed, or helpless, as if nothing can protect you from the pain of the world? Maybe you discover that you don’t really want to be present with another’s pain. Maybe you withdraw or adopt a posture of pity, feeling sorry for those who suffer, so that a subtle sense of superiority separates you from them. Maybe you feel that there are no boundaries. Maybe you feel a terrible loneliness because you have to help everyone and there is no one for you to turn to.
Just as in regular meditation, return to attention, return to being awake compassion. Remember, you are completely awake and you see everything through the eyes of compassion. Let this feeling permeate your body, your emotions, and your heart. You have infinite resources to open and respond to the pain of others. You know nothing of tiredness or fatigue. You see into the workings of the world. You don’t have to withdraw from pain or difficulty. You are clear, direct, sympathetic, insightful, wise, or responsive — whatever you need to be — in each and every situation you encounter. You do not fear the pain of the world. You don’t need to fix it or make it go away. You can be with the pain, no matter how bad or terrible it is.
As awake compassion, you experience no separation. You know that the apparent division of experience between “I” and “the world” is a misperception and that even the subtlest sense of superiority is a further delusion. Instead, you are present, and you let the pain in the world tell you where the imbalance is. You know the imbalance so deeply that you know what, if anything, needs to be done, and you know how to do it.
Transforming Negative Emotions and Identities
Now let’s consider a “negative emotion” such as pride and explore what embodying awake pride might mean. I remember a conversation I had with a teacher in Nepal, who after about an hour looked at me and said, “Ken, you have a problem. You are a little proud. You can either be completely proud or not proud at all. But to be a little proud is a problem.” To have a little pride, I came to understand, is to not be awake in pride.
With ordinary pride, you feel you are special and arrange your world to be ongoing proof of what you want to be true. You adopt set positions and rigid forms of behavior. You ignore doubts and threats to your self-image and avoid anything that reminds you of them. Such pride is obviously not about being fully awake and present.
How does the awake quality transform the expression of pride? Imagine you are awake and present, yet completely embodying pride. You experience a total and complete equanimity, regardless of what arises in experience. You are so special that you have no need to defend yourself in any situation or to lord your knowledge or abilities over anyone. You don’t need others to treat you with an assumed deference or the appearance of respect. You are truly “above it all,” expansive without being overbearing or overwhelming. You have no reason to be impatient or insensitive. Instead, you are completely respectful and kind in all situations, because from your broad, expansive point of view, they are all the same.
What about going beyond specific emotions to whole identities, such as being a loser? Ordinarily, this self-image leads you to shrink from the world. The world becomes a world of hopelessness, devoid of promise or fulfillment. Every defeat becomes a painful but reassuring confirmation of your identity and status. You fear challenges because you know you will fail and also because success would be as problematic as failure. You are full of grandiose schemes and you tell everyone what you are going to do. But you never start, because to do so would reveal who you really are. When you are forced to, you approach situations unwillingly or with such a defeatist attitude that you undermine any support you might have had. Things turn out badly, once again.
As the awake loser, however, you know you are going to lose. It’s a done deal! You have nothing to lose, nothing to risk. You accept losing as a given and engage your life, your practice, your interactions with absolutely no expectations of what you may get or how you may benefit. Victory and defeat or success and failure become meaningless considerations. You pour your energy into new situations because you are not concerned with status or outcomes. You engage whatever you are doing without personal expectations or projections. Instead of talking about grandiose schemes, you end up doing just what needs to be done.
Adopting the awake manifestation of an identity in this way connects you with expressions of power, opening, understanding, and compassion that are not based on a sense of self.
No Half Measures
Needless to say, fully embodying an awake personality as a means of letting go of self is not a beginning practice. It assumes that you have a solid relationship with basic attention, mindfulness, compassion, and some experiential acquaintance with non-self and emptiness. You have to be able to tolerate not being you, at least for short periods of time.
From these examples, you can see that any personality can be used in this practice. But there is one requirement: whatever personality you pick, you have to embody it completely. No half measures! You have to completely embody whatever you choose, and you experience everything in terms of the union of awake mind and that personality, so that there is no separation between you and what you experience. You leave no part of your ordinary self in the picture. In fact, you let go of any notion of a centralized, solid self altogether.
That release is the very point of deity, or yidam
, practice. The Tibetan term yidam
is often explained as being composed of two words, yid
means mind, the emotional mind, the mind associated with personality. Dam
means to join to or to commit to — you commit to being awake in this personality.
A key step in deity practice is empowerment. In empowerment, the energy, experience, and understanding of the teacher join with the confidence, trust, and ability of the student. This joining creates the conditions for the student to experience vividly, if momentarily, what it is like to be the deity — for example, what it is to be awake compassion, awake pride, an awake loser, or, to name some traditional yidams, The Great Sorcerer (Skt., Mahamaya), The Lord of Mystery (Guhyasamaya), or The Savior (Tara). The personality or deity we work with is decided in consultation with our teacher, who knows us and knows both our potential abilities and our internal patterns.
If we are embodying compassion, for example, the experience of empowerment puts us in touch with the emptiness, clarity, and fearlessness of awake compassion. We come to know the difference between awake compassion and conventional forms of compassion such as sympathy, pity, or doing good, which are often tainted with subtle expressions of identity, pride, and control. For pride, the empowerment plants the seed of all-embracing equanimity, free from any sense of complacency, and the seed of delighting in the richness of all experience, pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. If we practice without these seeds of experience, we may flail around in a fog, grasp at phantoms, and be led astray by the ghosts of our ordinary, self-obsessed personalities.
Some personalities will have more energy for us, some will bring more challenges, but each of them can transform our understanding of what we are and how we experience the world. The key is commitment, and the personality we commit to is called the commitment being
In the Tibetan tradition, deities fall into three categories: peaceful, semi-wrathful, and wrathful. The personalities of the semi-wrathful and wrathful deities often embody the energy of strong reactive emotions, such as anger or sexual desire. While they may resonate more closely with a particular set of emotional knots, they are a little more dangerous to practice. If the energy in our attention drops, we will fall right into a full-blown emotional reaction. The peaceful deities, which typically embody the energies of compassion, compassionate activity, intelligence, and so forth, are powerful in a more subtle way, as their energy seeps deep into our reactive patterns and dissolves the corresponding identifications.
Practicing as the Commitment Being
In formal meditation sessions, we let the mind settle, resting in the experience of breathing, perhaps, or resting in natural awareness. Then we imagine being the embodiment of awake compassion, awake pride, or whatever we are using, drawing on the seed of direct experience planted through empowerment. We let the sensations connected with being awake compassion or awake pride soak into us. As Suzuki Roshi once said, practice is like going for a walk on a misty day — we don’t notice it at first, but we end up completely soaked, wet right through.
This kind of practice requires an effort that is simultaneously gentle without being soft and unyielding without being hard. Resistance may arise. Reactive patterns associated with the ordinary sense of self push us to ignore, shut out, manipulate, or control what arises in experience.
The commitment is to meet that resistance as the embodiment of whatever personality we are using. If we are embodying awake compassion, for instance, we don’t harden against the resistance but rather are completely present with the resistance and the pain it protects. If we are identifying with awake pride, we experience resistance with complete equanimity, not judging it as good or bad. If we are working with the awake loser, we have no expectations about the outcome of practice; we just meet whatever is arising.
To take the practice deeper, in our meditation sessions we can imagine taking the sense of awake compassion or awake pride into specific scenarios and explore how we might meet them. Maybe I’m a schoolteacher with a difficult and demanding principal, and I have to meet with her to discuss my contract for the coming year. Or maybe I have a beautiful and valuable carpet in my home and a painter I’ve hired has just spilled a can of paint on it. Or perhaps a great job opportunity has opened up and the choice is between my co-worker and me. My boss pulls me aside and asks for my opinion on my co-worker’s abilities.
We don’t think about these situations or try to figure out what we might or might not do. Instead, we put ourselves right into the situation and meet what arises as the embodiment of the awake quality we have committed to. In other words, we don’t try to figure things out — we experience being the awake quality and work from there.
During the day, we live our lives as the commitment being — walking, talking, sitting, eating, working, working out, everything. As reminders, we constantly ask questions. How does awake compassion walk? How does awake pride eat? How does awake compassion talk? We drop into being awake compassion and see how the conversation goes. We drop into being the awake loser and walk into a job interview. We don’t try to figure any of this out. We just drop into being awake compassion and see what knowing arises. Surprisingly, perhaps, if we don’t try to figure out what we are meant to do, we may discover that we already know. That knowing is naturally present in each of us. It is buddhanature, natural knowing, original mind. It has a thousand names and it is the aim of all Buddhist practice.
We may not meet every situation as the expression of awake compassion or awake pride, but our commitment and the continuity of our effort will bring us in touch with the resistance whenever we don’t. We can open to the experience of resistance and meet it with our commitment, directly, naturally, without any particular idea of “I should be doing this” or “I should be doing that.” In fact, the feeling of “should” will undermine our efforts. When we try to live life based on an idea of being awake, our behavior will likely be strained and artificial.
The point is to make the awake principle alive and present in everything we do, to take it from an ideal encumbered with mythical projections and make it the core principle by which we live. Everything we encounter — through our senses, through our feelings, and through our mind — we meet as awake compassion, or whatever we’ve chosen.
If this seems impractical, you might keep two considerations in mind. First, the reason we do this practice isn’t to become competent, knowledgeable, well behaved, or skillful. We are engaging in this practice because we want to wake up and be present in life. Second, as awake pride or awake compassion or awake loser, we are free — free to find new ways to relate to situations, free to envision possibilities in situations that we used to ignore, and free to uncover abilities and qualities that we didn’t know we had. A side effect of our efforts may be making life choices that are more creative or intelligent or practical, but those are side effects, not the intention, of the practice.
Practicing as the Awareness Being
The commitment being is like a commitment to be a musician, a teacher, or a doctor. We may earn a license or certificate that certifies our competence in the relevant skills, but the certificate doesn’t really make us a musician, teacher, or doctor. We become that when we play music, teach students, or treat patients on a regular basis. In this practice, we start with a seed of direct experience and then we cultivate it through our commitment, approaching all experience as the commitment being, and we do so day after day, month after month, year after year.
Down the road, something happens. An understanding or awareness arises: we know what it is to be a teacher, musician, or doctor. Something relaxes and opens inside. We notice a confidence that wasn’t there before, and we practice our profession in a different way. We aren’t caught up in all the rules and regulations. We know what they are for, but we also know their limitations. We realize that we do know how to teach, or we know how to make the music sing, or we know how to diagnose and heal. It’s the same in this approach to practice. At some point, an intelligence or awareness arises and we just see the world this way. Concerns and fears about who we are or how others see us evaporate. The sense of being awake becomes alive in us. We’ve stepped into open awareness. This shift signifies the arising of the awareness being
With the arising of the awareness being, we are freed from the polarity of subject-object fixation. Everything that arises as sight or sound is now experienced differently, not as something “out there.” In the simple experience of “I see a red car,” we know that every element in the formulation is a construction. What does “I” actually refer to? What is “seeing”? And “red car” is only a phrase used to convey a whole set of associations. Experiences arise like the appearances in a dream. The energy of our commitment and the presence of awareness enable us to experience this dream with extraordinary clarity, knowing it and everything in it to be empty of independent existence.
The awareness being and the commitment being have come together, just as the commitment to being a teacher and the understanding of the profession come together. We continue to approach the world as the embodiment of awake compassion, or pride, or whatever we are using, but now it comes naturally. In both formal practice and our daily life, we maintain a sense of being the union of the commitment and awareness beings and meet everything that arises accordingly.
This approach is not without its dangers. If, when resistance arises, we don’t know how to stay present in the awake expression, we run the risk of becoming a cosmic gorilla, tearing up or consuming the universe because our reactive patterns are running amok.If we are unwilling to stay present in the emotional turmoil, this practice will, at best, do nothing. At worst, the energy generated and released through our efforts will feed and power habituated emotional reactions. We will end up worse off than we were before. Traditionally, Vajrayana practice is likened to a snake entering a bamboo pipe. The snake either goes up or it goes down. We, too, have only two ways to go: up, opening into progressively higher degrees of awake presence as the energy generated in practice is transformed into attention; or down, falling into progressively stronger reactive patterns as energy decays into emotional reactions.
To guard against these possibilities, we need to receive instruction and guidance on how to meet resistance, decide with an appropriately trained teacher what deity (or “personality”) to use, and make sure we have had a direct experience of its awake expression.
Tradition and the Post-Modern World
This description of yidam, or deity, practice is based on notes from my teacher, Kalu Rinpoche, comments from Chšgyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the writings of Jamgon Kongtrul the Great, and my own limited experience. Traditionally, in doing yidam practice, one uses a form that symbolizes the awake ideal or the reactive emotion. These forms have been faithfully handed down from generation to generation. But once we genuinely know the principles, you could, as Kongtrul famously said, use the personality of a clay cup.
Teacher and student, in the ceremony of empowerment, create conditions for the student to have a direct experience of the deity; that is, the union of the quality of the deity and the empty awake mind. The commitment being and the awareness being are generated through a ritual practice known as a sadhana (method of practice) in which one works, as it were, from the outside in. You first imagine the form of the deity as clearly as possible, then bring in an appreciation of qualities represented in each aspect of the deity’s form, and then cultivate an unshakeable confidence that you are this expression of awake mind. As you follow the ritual of the method of practice, you die (symbolically) to your ordinary life and are reborn as the deity; you then live your life as the deity, die (as the deity), and come back to your ordinary life, which, in deity practice, is regarded as a bardo, an intermediate state between successive lives (i.e., practice sessions) as the deity. Mantra repetition transforms the energy of speech into higher levels of attention, and other techniques generate and transform emotional energy into attention and awareness. Using these energies, you progressively internalize the experience of the deity, until the experience of being the deity has replaced your fragmented habituated personality.
This form of practice plays a central role in Vajrayana practice in the Tibetan tradition. Yet many people today have experienced difficulty understanding how to approach it and place their hopes in just doing it as best they can. Yidams, in traditional societies, were living presences first and symbols second. For many Westerners, they are symbols first and living presences a distant second, if at all. We live in reason-based modern societies, not the myth-based traditional cultures where these practices were originally developed. Some Westerners try to regard yidams as a living presence, but relatively few people are able to shed the cultural conditioning of a reason-based society to the point that they can live in a mythic world in a healthy way.Instead of first visualizing the form, then incorporating the symbolism, and finally identifying with the deity, you may find it more effective to focus on the feeling or sense of being the deity and let the other aspects follow. While awake compassion is traditionally depicted as a white being with four arms (representing the four immeasurables of loving-kindness, compassion, joy, and equanimity), in deity practice one has chosen to commit to being awake compassion, not simply to having a certain form. The deity, after all, is not the form. The deity is the actual expression of compassion and emptiness in life.
Visualization of a symbolic form and precise performance of rituals are not the only way to connect deeply with awake compassion or other expressions of awake mind. By connecting first with the sense and feeling of being awake compassion or awake pride, we stop shifting from one personality shard to another. We stabilize personality and work from the inside out, letting the awake expression permeate our lives and everything we do. In this approach, the formal sadhana or method of practice is the training — the equivalent of hitting tennis balls against a wall or playing scales and studies on a piano or guitar. The actual practice is living our lives as the union of form and emptiness, feeling and emptiness, and awareness and emptiness that each deity expresses.The compassion at the heart of Buddhist practice is not just the compassion that arises from reflection on the sufferings of others, nor the more natural compassion that arises when we see someone struggling with difficulties we know through our own experience; for these are, in the end, emotions. It is the unrestricted expression of direct awareness itself, an expression that arises because emptiness frees awareness from the restrictions of self, thought, and projection, frees it to respond to the imbalances that generate struggles and suffering in this world we experience, and frees it to respond in any appropriate way.