Another Reality

Do the strange and potent images of Tibetan art-so often misunderstood-represent a deeper and truer reality? Francesca Fremantle explains the symbolism of awakened mind.
Brightly-colored buddhas holding strange ritual implements, meditational deities wearing human bone ornaments, voluptuous goddesses and terrifying, wrathful manifestations-the exotic Buddhist art of Tibet is often misunderstood through ignorance of its meaning and purpose. We ask, how can such strange images have a spiritual function? More fundamentally, since the teaching and practice of Buddhism is concerned with realization of the nature of the mind, what place can these gods, goddesses and demons have within it?

The characteristic images of Tibetan art are those of the Vajrayana deities. Based on the inspiration of the Indian tantric tradition, Tibetan artists interpreted these visions with their own genius, depicting them with great subtlety and expressiveness and imbuing them with numinous power and mystery.

Although, perhaps confusingly, they are known as gods and goddesses, these great deities are buddhas, awakened beings. They are not like the inhabitants of the realm of the gods (devas), who are still within samsara, the cycle of death and rebirth. They are the living presence of all the various aspects of enlightenment-both its qualities and its activities-envisioned as male and female buddhas, bodhisattvas, protectors of dharma, and so on.

The Vajrayana deities belong to the sambhogakaya, the second of the three bodies, or dimensions, of enlightenment. The sambhogakaya is the level of communication between the dharmakaya, the formless essence beyond concepts, and the nirmanakaya, its physical manifestation in the six realms of samsara. The sambhogakaya deities are spontaneous expressions of wakefulness, appearing in a multitude of forms in order to liberate sentient beings.

The visionary forms in which the deities are perceived in meditation and portrayed in art are simply appearances-their compassionate play, as the tantras say. Yet for the practitioner these conventional forms are of great significance, for every detail of their bodies, their adornments, the instruments they hold, and their environments conveys some aspect of dharma, which is absorbed into one's own being through meditation upon them.

There is no sense in which Buddhist deities are ever treated like the eternal God of a monotheistic faith. Nor are they worshipped as independently existent, external beings. Even when they are imagined outside oneself for the purpose of meditation, at the end of the ritual the visualized images dissolve into light and enter the meditator's heart.
The forms of the deities are imagined as hollow and insubstantial. Made of light, they appear from the emptiness of space like the colors of a rainbow, and they dissolve back into space leaving not the slightest trace behind. The purpose of meditating upon them is to realize one's total identity with them, for our true nature is none other than buddhanature itself.
Excerpted from Another Reality by Francesca Fremantle, Shambhala Sun, November 2004