Deity Practice in Tibetan Buddhism

(From Sarah Harding’s introduction to Jamgon Kongtrul’s classic text “Creation and Completion”) Tibetan Buddhist spiritual practice centers around the deities in its devotional rituals and meditation techniques. It may be disconcerting for those who have heard that Buddhism is a “non-theistic” religion to discover an elaborate system of worship with a pantheon of goddesses and gods.

It is for this reason that some other Buddhist schools have considered the Buddhism in Tibet to be corrupt or untrue to its original form. However, those deity practices are deeply rooted in the very foundations of Buddhist thought and represent an exceptionally skillful use of technique to evoke realization of those ideas on the deepest levels.

One can impute emptiness logically when an independent reality of the self or of other phenomena is sought and not found. One also experiences it directly through meditation when the mind abides without ideas of existence or non-existence or both or neither. Meditators experience emptiness as a kind of fullness. Emptiness allows for the unimpeded radiance of intrinsic awareness. In the experiential sense, then, it is not only a lack of something, but also a quality of knowing, or pristine cognition, a luminous quality that is the actual nature of the mind that can be experienced once the veils of concepts and emotions have been cleared away. This experience is often referred to as clear light or radiance (odsal) and also as “compassion”. It is not something other than emptiness, for without emptiness it could not occur. It is the radiance-awareness that is the primordially pure basis of all manifestation and perception, the buddha nature.
This very nature of mind was always already there and is never corrupted or damaged but only covered up by confusion. As such, it is the basis of spiritual practice, and also the goal or result. For this reason, tantra is called the resultant vehicle, because the approach is to rediscover the result already within. Buddha is not found anywhere outside of the intrinsic state of one’s own mind. In the traditional breakdown, then, of ground, path, and fruition, the ground is one’s own true nature, the fruition is the discovery of that, and the path is whatever it takes to make the discovery. Kongtrul describes the identity of ground (basis) and fruition when he says:

The basis of purification is the eternal, noncomposite realm of reality that fully permeates all beings as the buddha nature.

Since every aspect of ourselves is intrinsically pure, the path can employ any method to bring us back to our own nature. The deities used in tantric practice are a manifestation of this pure nature. In one sense, they exist as a method to undermine our pathetic projection of ourselves and our universe as flawed, a way of connecting with our ture human/buddha nature. At the same time, they are that nature.

Due to the complex process involved in engendering and maintaining a sense of a substantial self and of the world around us, we have lost touch with our basic nature. It is often explained that the actual emptiness nature of mind is misconstrued as a self, while the clear or radiant aspect is projected outward as the separate, external world of others. As the confusion proliferates the concepts of duality, feelings of attachment and aversion, and consequent karmic actions and imprints become self-perpetuating. Thus it is called cyclic existence and is “characterized by the experience of suffering.” But the essential nature of emptiness and clarity has never for a moment been absent.

In contemplative practice we can watch this process in our minds moment and recognized how we create our world. Then there is the possibility of creating it consciously. Now, because of the complications of our confusion, we visualize the world and ourselves a mixture of bad and good, creating a constant tension of dissatisfaction. But we could choose to regard it as continuously manifesting the basic purity of emptiness/awareness. The deities represent an alternate reality that more precisely reflects the innnate purity of our minds. In any case we visualize and create a world with its beings. The tantric approach is to use whatever we have, whatever we do already, as the method. So we use this capacity of projection and creation, which is really the unimpeded radiance of mind, as the path of meditation, but with a radical shift. Instead of imperfect women and men, we have goddesses and god embodying the buddha qualities. Rather than run-down houses, there are brilliant palaces in divine configurations. The whole sorry world, in fact, is the buddha realm of magnificent glory manifesting as the mandala pattern of enlightened mind.

Emptiness and pure awareness allow us to do this. Deity visualization may seem contrived, and it is acknowledged as such, but if the fact that we create our own version of reality is deeply understood, it is very reasonable. We perceive water as something to drink, a fish perceives it as something to live in. We perceive the world now as impure, but we might as well see it as pure, which is closer to the truth if one considers its essential nature. The deities are forms that display the immanence of buddha nature in everything. All the different ways of relating with deities are ways we already have of relating to our experience. In this sense, the practice of deity mediation is a skillful way of undermining our ordinary mistaken sense of solid reality and moving closer to a true mode of perception.

The natural array of perceptions and feelings that arises can be regarded differently through deity practice. For instance, in Jamgon Kongtrul’s last example of transformation, when desire arises, it arises as the deity, and we relate to it, or to ourselves, in that form. The deity shares some familiar characteristics with desire, has the same energy, but is by nature a pure manifestation, untainted by ego’s complications. The deity in this meditation might be an embodiment of pure (com)passion, such as Chakrasamvara, and thus represent an aspect of enlightenment. But the process itself also recaptures and demonstrates that the essential nature of neurotic thought is none other than buddha nature, whatever its shape. By creatively using forms that recall innate purity, the habitual mistake of relating to thoughts and emotions as other than pure is reversed.

This does not mean that tantric deities are merely an abstract, symbolic form representing something other than themselves. This again would be a dualistic concept. They are enlightened form, and they are intrinsic as part of buddha nature. Even the specific forms are understood as an integral part of awareness. This is a difficult point to comprehend. Jamgon Kongtrul refers to this truth when he says:

The basis of purification, which is this very buddha nature,
Abides as the body with its clear and complete vajra signs and marks.
A similar form is used as the path and leads to
The fruition of purification: that the very divine form that existed as
The basis.

“A similar form…used as the path” is the deity visualized in creation-stage meditation. Such practice leads to the realization of that divine form as it already exists within the true nature of mind. The idea of the intrinsic qualities of enlightenment, including actual physical attributes, can be found in such early texts as the Uttaratantra and other sutras and commentaries associated with the teachings ascribed to the third turning. Qualities and activity manifest from the fundamental enlightened nature in response to the needs of sentient beings, and yet are inseparable from that very nature, not something added on to it. In the Uttaratantra, thirty-two specific attributes of the form manifestation are listed, concluding with reminder that they are intrinsic and inseparable:

Those qualities of thirty and two
Are distinguished through the dharmakaya;
Yet they are inseparable like a gem’s
Radiant color and its shape.

Different dimensions or manifestations of the enlightened principle, buddha, are traditionally called bodies (kaya). The most common division is into three bodies. The body of reality (dharmakaya) is the ultimate true nature, beyond concept. Buddha nature refers to the same thing when it is obscured by the incidental veils in sentient beings. Although itself without form, this body of reality manifests spontaneously in ways to benefit beings, just as our intrinsic awareness radiates naturally from emptiness. The enlightened manifestations are called the form bodies (rupakaya). They are the body of perfect rapture (sambhogakaya), only visible to those of high realization: and the emanation body (nirmanakaya), the actual manifestations of the Buddha to our normal perceptions. The Buddha Shakyamuni is said to be such an emanation body. The deities visualized in Tibetan meditation practice for the most part represent the body of perfect rapture. When visualized for purposes of meditation or ceremony, the deity is called yidam, that which binds the mind.

It is taught that the practice of visualizing deities plants the seed for our later manifestation of form bodies for the benefit of beings at the time of enlightenment. This is why the seemingly simple approach of directly apprehending the empty, radiant nature of mind is not enough. The body of reality alone would be the result of that apprehension. But that would be, in a sense, emptiness without form, and would accomplish only one’s own purpose. The body of reality must be accessible somehow to sentient beings in whom it is still hidden. That is the natural function of the form manifestations. It is still necessary to work with the whole phenomenal world, form and emptiness inseparable.