You are Avalokiteshvara
The buddhadharma is renowned for its skillful methods of meditative
training. In vajrayana Buddhism, many of these methods are based on the visualization
of archetypal wisdom forms, or deities.
Far from being a degeneration of Buddhism,
as some western observers have thought, visualization practices come from a very
profound point of view. For generations of practitioners for more than a thousand
years, such practices have been pivotal in overcoming the basic problems of the
ego's self-centeredness, emotional fixations and frozen perceptions.
not acquainted with these seemingly strange practices, they may raise a host of
* Where do these deities come from?
* Are these actual beings
or symbolic forms?
* How do these images express spiritual inspiration and
* If the highest realization in Buddhism is formless emptiness,
what is the usefulness of these images?
* How do these practices differ from
the worship of deities in theistic spiritual traditions?
Mind Works in Symbols
visualization is not foreign to us. Our mind works in images and symbols all the
time. Many of our daydreams and memories, even our most fleeting thoughts, arise
as images. Our inner aspirations and ideals, as well as our thoughts of authority
figures, lovers and adversaries, all may come in images.
However, there are
some important differences between the ongoing visualization process of our habitual
thoughts and the use of visualization in meditation. First of all, unless we have
trained ourselves to work with our thoughts, our usual visualizations with their
overlay of associations and transferences are largely involuntary. In fact, these
images are the very medium of our emotional torment and confused projections.
the emotional charge associated with these images is generally not free flowing.
It tends to be fixated into one emotional pattern or another, such as desire,
depression, jealousy or anxiety.
Finally, we are often not aware of these visualizations
as being our own thoughts or mental productions. We may not recognize how our
subconscious imagery mixes with our actual perceptions and colors how we see the
world. So in many cases our mind's image-making is a source of confusion and entanglement,
rather than a source of opening.
What vajrayana does is to exploit the image-making
activity of our mind that is already taking place and turn it into a skillful
means. We should be clear at the outset that the wisdom archetypes visualized
in vajrayana are definitely not separately existing external beings, in the way
that theistic traditions often present deities. Rather, these are symbolic manifestations
of buddhanature, the potential for awakening inherent in every living being.
and Fixating: The Creation of Self and Other
In the Buddhist view, the root
of all negativity is our ignorance of the true nature of life, consciousness and
the universe, and our attempt to grasp and solidify what is ever changing and
The original ground of being is vast openness and spontaneously
present, radiant basic intelligence. This is reflected in the buddhanature within
the mind-stream of every living being. Ignorance of this intrinsic radiance and
fear of its limitless openness results in a process of shrinking down, obscuring
and distorting the basic intelligence. What results is the frozen, dualistic mind-body-and-world
we are so familiar with.
This process, called "ego clinging," has
two aspects. The first is the grasping and centralizing of experience around an
instinctive "I, me, and mine." The second is fixating on solidified
meanings and frozen perceptions of the universe. Though described as two aspects,
the creation of a self and its positioning in a frozen universe are two sides
of one coin.
The buddhanature in us represents tremendous creative potential,
yet our habitual being is blinded and distorted by the ego process of grasping
and fixation. This results in the continual recreation of our confused being,
burdened by fear, limitation and conflicting emotions.
Buddhanature: The Ground,
Path and Fruition
The term "buddhanature" refers to our own innate
wisdom and compassion. Often our buddhanature emerges spontaneously in acts of
kindness, courage and inquisitiveness, yet at other times it is obscured by our
clinging to small identities, imagined securities, and emotional fixations. Buddhanature
also manifests as a gnawing dissatisfaction, a search for deeper meaning in life.
This is buddhanature manifesting as the ground, the innate potential in everyone,
whether realized or not.
We can also speak of buddhanature as the path. As
a result of meditative training, a constructive approach to life, and good spiritual
guidance, we begin to let go of obsessive thoughts and small identities. We experience
increased openness to ourselves and to the world. This comes from letting go again
and again of self-centered thoughts and habitual storylines. Instead, we settle
into a genuine sense of being, our buddhanature, which is said to be composed
of openness, compassion and insight. It is our true nature, so to speak.
there is buddhanature as the fruition, the state of being of those who are fully
realized. This manifests as the three kayas, or bodies, of the awakened state.
They are the dharmakaya, sambhogakaya and nirmanakaya.
The dharmakaya, or "body
of the dharma-nature," is the completely unbounded being of the awakened
state. It is beyond form, beyond experience, beyond relative time and space. It
is the creative potential within and behind everything.
The sambhogakaya, or
"body of complete enjoyment," refers to the unceasing, spontaneous emanation
of compassion, which aims to liberate all beings who live in a contracted, fearful,
Finally, through the nirmanakaya, or "body of
emanation," the dharmakaya and sambhoghakaya are actually embodied, for instance
in the physical presence of an accomplished master or in the form of the wisdom
In the vajrayana view, our life stands on
a twofold ground: the ground of our confused being and also what permeates it-this
tender inquisitiveness of buddhanature, which is something very powerful. So in
common with all Buddhist traditions, vajrayana takes our confused being on the
path as something to refine and purify. In addition vajrayana takes our buddhanature
on the path as something to bring out and acknowledge. The wisdom deities that
are visualized manifest the illuminating force of the buddhanature that is present
in us, and in this sense we bring the wisdom of fruition to the path.
we refer to the wisdom deities as symbolic, we don't mean they are mere symbols.
They are dynamic images that reveal the wisdom, compassion and potency of the
buddhanature that empowers them. They are symbols of a state of being that combines
profound awareness of how things actually are with the active and transformative
power of that awareness. As the Heart Sutra says, "Form is no other than
emptiness, emptiness is no other than form." The vajrayana deities express
this inseparability of emptiness and its dynamic activity.
But how is it that
such images actually spark the insight of emptiness-form in our minds, rather
than being just another mental projection or some neurotic fantasy? This is a
crucial question that goes to the heart of what visualization practice is about.
answer is twofold. First, the practices function this way because they are empowered
by direct transmission from a teacher who represents a living lineage of realization.
Second, their effectiveness depends on appropriate preparatory training of the
Visualizations are sometimes given to beginning students
as objects for mental stabilization, and this is entirely valid. Nevertheless,
on the whole, the visualization of the wisdom deities is an advanced practice
that needs to be understood in the context of Buddhist meditative training in
The Development of Mindfulness and Stability
To understand visualization
practice, we have to understand something of the progressive stages of meditation.
Only in this way can we understand the state of mind from which the wisdom archetype
meditations arise. In the buddhadharma, the meditative journey begins with taming
and pacifying the mind. The crucial element in this is mindfulness.
the ordinary disciplines of life can bring us some mental focus, the inner landscape
of our mind often goes unnoticed. By holding our attention to the breath or another
simple object of focus, our mind becomes sharper and we become aware of a flood
of mental activity. In mindfulness meditation, we acknowledge the thoughts, emotions,
projections, hopes and fears that arise and dissolve in our mind, without judging
any of them as good or bad.
Therefore, in Buddhism our initial task is to recognize
our thoughts as simply thoughts, rather than as ultimate realities, and to make
friends with the unruly cacophony of forces that is our inner world. We accept
everything that arises, and let it go. Accommodating this inner chaos becomes
a means of taming it. Holding to our object of focus and recognizing our repeated
distraction serves to interrupt the obsessive train of thoughts and preoccupations,
so that over time we develop some inner peace and stability.
The buddhadharma, like most spiritual traditions, emphasizes
the importance of compassion and empathy. There is the obvious suffering of people
in extreme distress, such as refugees from a civil war, and of people suffering
loss, grief, illness or poverty. However, a more subtle suffering and struggle
pervades all of life, even among people in fortunate circumstances. Life brings
continual challenges, anxieties and disappointments, and the suffering we experience
in our own life can reduce our arrogance and increase our empathy. So compassion
arises, first of all, from our own experience of suffering and our awareness of
Compassion arises in a second way from our gratitude
and affection for those close to us-our parents, mentors, friends and children.
Starting with this universal instinct of compassion, we can then undertake deliberate
meditation on loving-kindness that removes possessive attitudes and expands our
compassion more universally.
Third, compassion arises as an inherent quality
of awareness. As such, it manifests warmth and communication toward all beings
and all things, without history, without memory, without cause or reason. This
boundless compassion is one aspect of the vajrayana deities.
a Spiritual Master
Fundamentally, our spiritual development is our own responsibility.
Nevertheless, a relationship with an authentic teacher who embodies a lineage
of spiritual instruction brings immeasurable help. Such a teacher has gone through
much training and is aware of the many sidetracks and blind alleys that spiritual
practitioners may get themselves into, as well as the various ways they can resist
the process of waking up.
A competent teacher will know how to instruct aspirants
stage by stage, according to their capabilities. But the inspiration of such a
teacher goes beyond guidance and instruction. An evolved teacher also manifests
an enlightened state of being, and the atmosphere of wide-open mind, compassion,
directness and wakefulness around such a teacher is very inspiring.
example is not mere charisma in the ordinary sense; it is authenticity of being.
From the presence of such a person, one gains confidence that the awakened state
is not just a myth from the past. It is real and can be realized by people of
the present generation. This brings confidence, a deeper glimpse into the nature
of one's own mind, and a sense of admiration, respect and devotion.
in the vajrayana arises from trust in the dharma, gratitude for the benefit one
has received, and longing to realize one's true being, which is inseparable from
the teacher's realization. Sometimes devotion is misunderstood as placing oneself
in a dependent position and regarding the teacher as an all-wise parental figure.
No doubt the teacher's wisdom and vision in spiritual matters is beyond our own.
Nevertheless, taking such a dependent position is an obstacle that has no developmental
value. Whether in the basic Buddhist approach of self-liberation, in the bodhisattva
path of compassionate action, or in the vajrayana discipline, what is called for
is confidence in one's inherent potential, trust in one's own insight, and a brave,
even heroic attitude.
At the same time, devotion to an authentic teacher allows
students to open up to their most basic fears and neuroses and also to discover
their most far-reaching potential. It is by acknowledging the feast of our ego
clinging that we learn to transform confusion into wisdom. The ngöndro, or
vajrayana foundation practices, help to make this surrendering process deep-seated
Change of Allegiance
The development of mindfulness, of compassion,
and of a relationship to a genuine teacher brings about a certain change of allegiance
in the practitioner. We begin to realize that our habitual aggressions, avoidances,
indulgences, jealousies, slanders, arrogance and so forth are the source of only
bewilderment and suffering. Gradually we lose faith in these habitual strategies.
Both in our mind and behavior, we begin to shift our allegiance to a saner approach.
change of allegiance is sharpened by several additional insights. First, we begin
to realize that human life has a precious task-opening ourselves up to the spiritual
foundations of existence. Our own existential restlessness, as well as our encounter
with accomplished teachers, confirms this.
Second, we realize that our life
is impermanent; its conditions are constantly changing. Life is unpredictable;
however, it is certain that eventually we will have to leave this life and this
body behind. At the time of death, our only resource will be the pattern of sanity
and openness we have developed.
This realization of impermanence might bring
with it a certain element of panic and groundlessness. We realize that although
there are temporary securities, nothing in this life can provide the ultimate
security we crave. All this brings a certain immediacy and urgency to our path.
we can see that many people lead life in a way that is bound to be self-defeating
in the long run. Not being in touch with our deeper nature, we suffer from spiritual
emptiness, and no matter how many diversions we seek, that emptiness remains.
Visualization Practice: Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion
our mind bears the imprint of the above foundations, we are ready to be introduced
to visualization practice. As a result our training, when we visualize the wisdom
deity it has the following qualities:
First, the visualization has the imprint
of our teacher's mind and the way he or she has pointed out the nature of mind
to us. Second, it is stamped with the immediacy of mindfulness. Third, it has
the nature of compassion. Fourth, it represents a change of allegiance from our
habitual, fixated mind.
In vajrayana there are three classes of visualization:
the gurus, the wisdom deities, and the protectors. Commonly, we visualize our
own root teacher in the form of Vajradhara Buddha or Guru Rinpoche. This expresses
the insight that even though we meet our teacher in human form, his or her realization
is continuous with the realization of the lineage as a whole. Second, we visualize
the wisdom archetypal deities. These deities are always understood as inseparable
from one's own teacher and lineage. Third, we visualize assisting and protective
forces, the dharma protectors.
To explain some further aspects of visualization
meditation, we can go through the basic stages of a short practice of Avalokiteshvara,
the bodhisattva of compassion.
The Front Visualization
At the beginning
of the practice, we visualize the wisdom archetypal form, in this case the bodhisattva
Avalokiteshvara, in front of us and surrounded by the masters of the lineage.
The front visualization represents the presence of higher wisdom and awareness
that we, in our more undeveloped state, open to and aspire to emulate. It is good
to cultivate the attitude that this visualization is not merely in our imagination,
but that the wisdom mind and compassionate activity of the deity and our teacher
are actually present. In this way our visualization can be empowered because it
arises from our connection with our teacher.
At this stage, the visualization
is an external object of refuge and devotion. Just as we take refuge in the Buddha
as an example, the dharma as a path, and the sangha as companions, here we take
refuge in the masters of the lineage and the sambhoghakaya deity forms as the
embodiments of enlightenment. In their presence and with their support, we take
refuge and also arouse a motivation of compassion.
this, the visualization is dissolved into oneself, and one rests in the open awareness
of formless meditation. This dissolves any boundary between the visualized form
and the meditator and opens us to the deeper awareness of unconditioned mind.
Here, the afterglow of the visualization practice and the inner clarity it provoked
is merged with the unstructured mind of complete openness.
This is the emptiness
phase of the meditation session. Vajrayana practices always alternate between
these two phases-between dynamic but transparent form, and empty awareness pervading
whatever arises. This formless phase of meditation is also influenced by whatever
direct instruction the student has received from her or his teacher concerning
the intrinsic nature of awareness.
Following this state of unstructured awareness,
the self-visualization is invoked.
When we have completed
the vajrayana foundation practices, or ngöndro, which have made our being
more open and workable, we may be empowered to visualize ourselves in the form
of the deity. In this case it is that of Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of compassion.
The reason we do this is to acknowledge the buddhanature within ourselves by identifying
with Avalokiteshvara's nature of compassion and emptiness.
Each deity practice
has its own special characteristics, which should be learned through the oral
instruction of one's teacher. However, several points are emphasized concerning
all these practices: a vivid but empty form, recollection of the significance
of the deity, and an uplifted mind full of confidence in one's inherent potential.
the form, or "generation" stage of the meditation, the deity's symbolic
form serves as the focus for mental stabilization. This form is like a rainbow
or a body of light-empty and transparent. Thus it is the union of appearance and
emptiness, rather than a solidified mental projection. There is a definite object
to engage the mind, but it is held loosely and openly. At the same time, the image
is evocative. In the case of Avalokiteshvara, he is handsome, white and very radiant,
shining with lights of the five wisdoms, smiling and gazing compassionately, peaceful
While visualizing the form of the deity one also meditates
on its significance. We understand that Avalokiteshvara's body is empty and translucent
because he is free of clinging to concepts, ordinary forms and solidified emotions.
His faultless form symbolizes complete freedom from all the negativities that
should be abandoned. His four arms symbolize the four immeasurable qualities of
loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. In his heart center
is a seed-syllable that represents his wisdom mind, which is inseparable from
the mind of the teacher. His ultimate nature is the union of compassion and emptiness.
one should have an uplifted mind and the conviction that the deity is a real representation
of our nature. We are not imagining something that is not so; we are acknowledging
the wisdom-compassion nature that is actually present within us, in order to manifest
it further. Sometimes we might find this perspective encouraging, and at other
Beyond this, special instructions concerning the meaning of
the visualization are received orally from one's teacher, especially concerning
how to unify the visualization practice with the recognition of the mind's essential
Having manifested the deity, we call down additional blessings from
the lineage and then begin the recitation of the appropriate mantra. While some
mantras have conceptual content, this is not primary; on the whole, they are the
manifestation of the deity in the form of speech and inner energy.
the visualization period of the session, the deity dissolves into one's heart
center and one again rests in formless meditation. This serves as an antidote
against thinking of the deity, or of oneself, as a solid external entity or a
focus of neurotic grasping.
The images of the vajrayana
deities arose within the experience of realized practitioners as wisdom display.
Therefore, they are not like the projections of conventional mind. Traditionally,
these images were often kept secret because they are symbols of inner transformation,
transmitted to the meditator by the teacher. Of course, in Tibet they became quite
well known because the culture was so thoroughly permeated by the vajrayana tradition.
Today in the West one can see these images on calendars or in art books, but needless
to say, the inner experience of these images is quite different from what can
be grasped by looking at a book. They were never intended as poster art.
the peaceful deities might seem quite soothing and familiar, many of the semi-wrathful
forms are somewhat paradoxical and shocking, from ego's comfort-oriented point
of view. They are splendid, magnificent, beautiful and awe-inspiring, but at the
same time they might be cutting and menacing.
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche
emphasized that these archetypal forms are transcultural. They do not belong to
any ethnic background; rather, they address raw and rugged energies of human existence,
which are universal. Apart from elements of royal Aryan garb that some of the
peaceful deities wear, they do not wear Chinese or Indian or Tibetan costumes.
Instead, they wear elephant skin cloaks and tiger skin skirts. They wear ornaments
of human bone, which remind us of death, impermanence and renunciation, and as
adornment, they wear ashes from cremation grounds. They brandish various scepters,
implements, and weapons. Their moods are peaceful and contemplative, friendly
and magnetizing, outrageous and gallant, threatening and menacing.
Wrathful, and Semi-Wrathful Archetypes
Some deities, such as Avalokiteshvara,
present a peaceful way of magnetizing us into openness. However, we are not so
easy to tame by peaceful methods alone. We have lots of conflicting emotions and
entrenched arrogant attitudes. Therefore the semi-wrathful and wrathful deities
are made to order for people like us. They can communicate directly to the raw
and rugged qualities of our conflicting emotions-they help to provoke, uproot
and transmute them. This type of practice makes many demands on the practitioner.
One has to have a very clear understanding of the intent of the practice, the
confidence to jump into the purifying fire, and the willingness to ride one's
mind and emotions in all situations of life.
The semi-wrathful or wrathful
forms do not mean the deities are angry. Rather, they are dynamic: their energy
can manifest in whatever way is necessary to tame and transmute. For instance,
the semi-wrathful deities are often described as "enraged against the four
maras," which represent personal and societal ego-fixation. The four maras
are the skandhamara, the deception of clinging to solidified personality; the
kleshamara, the liability of getting lost in storms of conflicting emotions; the
devaputramara, which entails the arrogance and complacency of god-like existence,
exemplified by forgetting one's bodhisattva motivation; and mrytumara, the obstacle
of death and interruption. These are the obstacles the wisdom deities help us
Lineage Gurus, Wisdom Deities and Dharma Protectors
visualize the masters of the lineage, our main emphasis is tuning into the support,
blessing, and realization of the tradition as the basis for everything that follows.
Then, the meditation on the wisdom archetypes is as briefly explained above. Finally,
based on our relation with the master and the wisdom deity, we also invoke the
assistance of the dharma protectors, who embody action principles of awareness.
An example of such a protector is Vajrasadhu, whose image is on the cover of this
The protectors' role is to create reminders for the practitioners if
they lose their discipline, and to help pacify or subdue obstacles and neurosis
in the physical or psychic environment. Their form is often wrathful, as an expression
that liberated awareness can reach without hesitation into the raw and rugged
energies of existence to tame and transmute them. The result of the protectors'
activity is to restore situations to a workable and wholesome ground.
practice is based on recognizing that the confused ground of our being is also
permeated by the presence of buddhanature. Therefore, under the guidance of an
authentic teacher and lineage, we can practice by employing fruitional principles
of awareness on our path. These principles are both without form and with form.
This kind of practice is very helpful but it also demands real surrendering of
one's ego-agendas. It requires appropriate preparation and real commitment to
Dorje Loppön Eric Holm, a close student of the Vidyadhara
Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, was apppointed by him to oversee practice and study
at Vajradhatu centers from 1976 until 1991. As Dorje Loppön he was responsible
for the hinayana, mahayana, and especially vajrayana training of students. As
well as teaching dharma and Shambhala Training programs, he currently works as
a technical lead in a software company.