In Tibetan Buddhist circles, it will not be long before to hear someone talk about their yidam. Especially if they have been meditating for some years you will gather from the way they talk that it is something of the greatest importance for them. This Tibetan word literally means oath, vow, or promise, and connotes the Buddhist deity to whose meditation you are committed to whom you are linked by a promise or vow, your main focus of spiritual practice.
Any Buddhist deity can be a yidam. For example, many of the early Kadampa geshes had Tara or Avalokitesvara as theirs. However, the word is sometimes reserved for deities of the anuttarayoga or Highest Tantra. Initiations into this level of practice require great seriousness on the part of the initiate. When receiving them, one takes various vows and pledges. Some initiations may include a commitment to practice the sadhana every day for life. In this way, the initiate is ‘bound by oath’ to the yidam.
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Who are Yidams?
These yidams are all embodiments of Tantric teachings, in the same way, that the goddess Prajhaparamita came to embody the Perfection of Wisdom literature. Each of them has a Tantric text, or collection of texts, of whose teachings they are the living symbols. None of them, to the best of my knowledge, is found in the Mahayana sutras.
As always with the profusion of forms in the Tantra, there are a great number of these yidams. We will talk about at five of the most important, and try to gain a feeling for them.
In particular, we shall concentrate on the yidams Cakrasamvara and Vajrabhairava, as representatives of the two main divisions of the Highest Tantra. The tantras of this level can be divided into Mother Tantras, which are primarily concerned with the development of wisdom (Sanskrit prajna) and Father Tantras, which emphasize the development of compassionate skillful means (Sanskrit upaya).
Bodhisattva embodies Enlightenment
The view of existence which the yidams express is more multifaceted than that of other figures. Broadly speaking, we can say that each Buddha or Bodhisattva embodies a particular approach to Enlightenment. For example, the Green Tara practitioner strives to develop infinite compassion Vajrapani’s is a path of liberating energy and so on. The yidams however are more multidimensional.
Rather than one approach to the universe they present an all-encompassing vision of it. They are complex symbols that have many levels of interpretation, outer, inner, and secret. At the diamond gates of their mandala we enter a cosmic labyrinth of multiple meanings in which truths echo and re-echo forever.
This vision is made more total because, unlike the majority of practices of the Lower Tantras, one aims to keep the meditation going all the time. After the Green Tara sadhana, when we rise from our cushion, the meditation has had its effect, but we return largely to our old self. Practice of Highest Tantra aims to cut off the old self altogether.
At initiation, we become the yidam, and we aim to live as the yidam from then on. After finishing the sadhana we get up still trying to maintain the feeling that we are the yidam, that everything we hear is the mantra, and that our environment is our mandala palace and attendant deities. Through transforming ordinary appearances and concepts in this way, we aim to superimpose our meditative vision on every aspect of our lives, to transform them totally.
The complex and radical nature of these practices is reflected in the yidams iconography. Here we move away from a more naturalistic vision to one in which we may encounter twin figures with perhaps twelve, sixteen, or thirty-four arms.
According to Chogyam Trungpa
Many of these forms are based on those of yaksas – powerful spirits of ancient Indian legend – who appear in the sutras. Generally, though, they bear a close resemblance to the Shiva figures of Hinduism.
Many of the figures are recognizably human in physique, though some are heavily built. Many are neither peaceful nor wrathful, but somewhere in between smiling, but also sneering. This semi-wrathful expression suggests a balanced attitude to the world, as though the yidams fuse in themselves the natures of both the peaceful and wrathful Buddhist deities.
The yidam is also known as the ‘esoteric’ Dharma Refuge. While some of these practices may be genuinely secret, the word ‘esoteric’ here also suggests something that is a matter of personal experience. The yidams become hardly less esoteric by being unveiled in the West in exhibitions and coffee-table picture books on Tibetan Buddhism. It is only when we enter their mandala, and actually see for ourselves their total vision of the universe with its interplay of energies, that their secrets will be revealed.
Why should the yidam be a Dharma Refuge?
We have seen that the term ‘yidam’ can be applied to any Buddhist figure who is the main focus of our meditation and devotion. Let us suppose that the beautiful young female bodhisattva Green Tara is our yidam. We may spend quite a bit of time reading and studying the Dharma, but if for an hour a day, say, we become Tara, in a world of light in which we see the sufferings of sentient beings before us, and play out the drama of rescuing them, and in which everything ends by dissolving into the sky of Emptiness, that is the experience likely to leave the deepest imprint on our minds.
It is contacted with the yidam through meditation that will give us the strongest taste, the most direct experience, of the Dharma. It is through our Tara meditation that we take the Dharma into our heart and make it our own. Hence the yidam is the esoteric Dharma Refuge.
The tradition of meditating on this yidam is based on the Sri Cakrasamvara Tantra. This tantra has been widely studied by all Tibetan schools, and there are many sadhanas and commentaries associated with Cakrasamvara. He is a yidam of particular importance to the Kagyu school, though as with all the yidams we shall be meeting, devotion to him crosses all sectarian frontiers. His practice is very widespread among the Gelukpas. There is a sadhana known as the Yoga of the Three Purifications of Sri Cakrasamvara’ that is quite widely practiced at Gelukpa centers in the West.
The first in the line of Cakrasamvara practitioners is generally considered to have been the Indian mahasiddha Saraha. He was a brahmin who had become a Buddhist scholar-monk. However, he was not satisfied by his learning and set out to find a Tantric teacher. In a market-place, he saw a young low-caste woman making arrows. He became deeply engrossed in watching her work, and finally approached her and asked if she made arrows for a living. She replied, “My dear young man, the Buddha’s meaning can be known through symbols and actions, not through words and books.”
Her arrow hit its mark. Flouting all convention, Saraha went to live with her, receiving her Tantric teachings. As a result, he became one of the greatest of all Tantric adepts. He is particularly renowned for his dohas or songs, in which he expresses the profound realizations he has gained through Tantric practice.
This yidam is known by various names in Sanskrit. Sometimes he is known as Samvara or Sambara, sometimes as Heruka. In Tibetan, he is called Khorlo Demchok or Khorlo Dompa. Here we shall refer to him as Cakrasamvara. Though it literally means ‘restraint’, samvara is associated, by Tibetan lamas explaining the significance of this yidam, with ‘supreme bliss’.
Cakra means wheel. It is also the Sanskrit word used for the psychic centers within the body of the meditator, whose manipulation by performing the Cakrasamvara sadhana gives rise to the ‘supreme bliss’.
As seen, texts of Highest Tantra are often classified into Mother and Father Tantras. Mother Tantras emphasize wisdom – particularly the realization of the indivisibility of bliss and Emptiness. They are particularly suited to those of passionate temperament, providing methods of liberating the energy tied up in greed and attachment and making it available for the pursuit of Enlightenment.
Cakrasamvara is a central deity of the Mother Tantra class. He can appear in a number of different forms. Here we shall describe just one very well-known and characteristic form.
He appears standing on a variegated lotus. Even in this small detail, we see how this world of Highest Tantra differs from the world of the Mahayana occupied by the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, most of whom were symbolized by one predominant colour. In the world of the yidams we are gazing at an all-encompassing vision, so colours become more varied.
Vajrabhairava (Tibetan Dorje Jikje) can be translated diamond terror or ‘terrifying thunderbolt’. Vajrabhairava appears in a very powerful and wrathful form indeed. However, he functions as a yidam or high patron deity. Indeed, he is one of the most commonly invoked.
He is one particular form of a deity called Yamantaka (Tibetan Shinjeshe). This means Slayer of Death. Yamantaka is the wrathful form of the peaceful Bodhisattva of Wisdom, Manjusri. One Tibetan legend delivers an account of how he acquired his name. Ayogin was once meditating in seclusion in a mountain cave. He was on the brink of Enlightenment when some robbers who had stolen a yak entered his cave, lit a fire, and started to cook it.
The yogin was lost in contemplation, and it took them some time to notice his silent figure. Fearing that he would act as a witness to their theft, they killed him by cutting off his head, thus denying him the prize of Enlightenment in this life, which had come so close. In fury, the yogin used magic power to attach the yak’s head to his headless trunk. He then killed the robbers and stormed through the land slaying everyone he met.
The tradition of meditation on the yidam Hevajra (Tibetan Kyedorje or Gyepa Dorje) stems from the great king of Uddiyana, Indrabhuti. From him, it was passed down through a chain of Indian Tantric practitioners including Mahapadmavajra, Anangavajra, and Saroruha, and found its way to Tibet in the eleventh century.
The Hevajra Tantra, of which the yidam Hevajra is the personification and embodiment, is a tantra of the Mother class. It has been very influential in the whole field of Tantric practice. The word he is a joyful exclamation, meaning something like ‘oh!’ Vajra, of course, is the diamond thunderbolt.
Guhyasamaja (Tibetan Sangwadupa, sometimes abbreviated to Sangdu) means Secret Assembly. The full title of the Guhyasamaja Tantra literally means ‘the secret union of the body, speech, and mind of all the Tathagatas’. This tantra is concerned to produce an experience of Enlightened consciousness that is without beginning or end, whose nature is the union of wisdom and luminosity.
The Guhyasamaja Tantra was one of the earliest to be committed to writing. Tradition has it that King Indrabhuti of Uddiyana saw some monks, whose spiritual realization had given them supernormal powers, flying in the air over his lands.
He wanted to emulate them but insisted that he would need a method of meditation suitable for those who had not renounced sense-pleasures. In response, Sakyamuni taught him the Guhyasamaja Tantra. By following this practice the king and all the people of Uddiyana attained Tantric realization.
Kalacakra is a yidam who has become quite well known in Tibetan Buddhist circles in the West. This is because a number of lamas have given mass initiations into his practice.
The Dalai Lama has given Kalacakra initiations attended by thousands of people in a number of places in Europe and America, as well as in India. In consequence, several books on the Kalachakra system are now available in the West.
This practice of giving mass initiation for a yidam of Highest Tantra is very uncommon and gives Kalacakra a peculiar significance for the Tantric tradition.
In a way, the initiation is regarded as more general, and the commitments one takes are not seen as being as serious as those for other Highest Tantra initiations. The Tibetans consider that, while of course, one should make every effort to take the initiation and the commitments seriously, the act of simply attending and participating will be beneficial. The initiation will plant seeds of a positive nature in one’s mind which, if tended, can ripen at a later date as catalysts of spiritual progress. These initiations then take on the significance of large festive occasions, auspicious for all those who attend them in good faith.
Fig: Plate Four Vajravarahi
Fig: Plate Six Six-Armed Mahakala