Peaceful and Wrathful Deities.

May 10, 2018 § 4 Comments

The other night I dreamed of a woman who dissolved into the right side of my body. As she did, she transformed into razor sharp saws and scissors that began to cut away at my stomach from the inside out.

I’ve had similar dreams in the past in which normal people turned into fearful monsters and others in which I had been attacked by vicious animals with razor sharp teeth. It was only with this latest dream that I looked at these nocturnal events in light of “The Tibetan Book of the Dead,” by W.Y. Evans-Wentz, © 1973. In it I found the following passage concerning Peaceful Deities and Wrathful Deities.

“By fleeing, through fear, terror, and awe, (you) fall over the precipices into the unhappy worlds and suffer. But the least of the least of the devotees of the mystic mantrayana doctrines, as soon as he sees these blood-drinking deities, will recognize them to be his tutelary deities, and the meeting will be like that of human acquaintances. He will trust them; and becoming merged into them (italics mine), in at-one-ment, will obtain Buddhahood.” (p. 132)

There are forty-two mild or Peaceful Deities and fifty-eight angry or Wrathful Deities associated with the intermediate states between life and death known in Tibet as the Bardo. If they have heard of it at all, most people believe the bardo to be the Tibetan version of the after-life. There are, in fact, six intermediate bardo states, only two of which are associated with the after-life. A third refers to the actual state of dying and the other three to, a) existence in the womb, b) a state found in deep meditation and c) the bardo of the dream-state. (Ibid. 102.)

In spite of their fearsome appearance, Wrathful Deities are actually disguised Peaceful Deities who come to you to help. Regardless of which of the six states they are found, they act to awaken you to the fact that all people and objects encountered in the bardo, including the Deities themselves, are nothing but reflections of your own consciousness.

In Western terms Wrathful and Peaceful Deities are what the psychologist Carl Jung called archetypes of the collective unconscious. Archetypes may be thought of as universal ideas that exist in the unconscious as empty concepts until they are fleshed out by personal experience. Within their culture Tibetans have specific images of these deities while Westerners would be more likely to imagine Wrathful Deities as, for example, Satan or the Devil; and Peaceful Deities as, perhaps, angels. In my own bardo dream state, Wrathful Deities take various forms but all seem to be monstrous or have a razor component that identify them as the same wrathful dream character.

Dreams and dream interpretation have been an interest of mine for a long time. Over the years I’ve learned that the dream consciousness isn’t something that disappears when I wake up. Often what I dreamed the night before may still be found in the periphery of my consciousness after I awake. There the dream imagery and dream characters follow me around, so to speak, appearing as vague feelings or subtle mental images that influence my behavior as I go about my day.

Sometimes it is the Peaceful and Wrathful Deities that accompany me through the day. When they do, according to the Tibetans, they come to show me that something I believe to be real is really nothing more than a reflection of my own consciousness. Understanding this may be easier if looked at it through the Buddhist lens.

Buddhism states that everything we experience exists in a state of constant change. There is nothing that exists underneath any experience that is fixed or unchanging (i.e., has self-existent). All is impermanence. In our hearts we know this to be true, which means we also know that this fundamental fact applies to the self, as well. The self that we like to imagine we are, the one that thinks and acts, doesn’t really exist. This makes the core of our being seem to be apparent nothingness. And that scares us.

Believing our true nature to be nothingness, we run from it towards the world of appearance. Even though that world is also empty, we try to make it real by clinging to whatever fills the void and avoiding what might bring us face to face with our apparent emptiness.

Enter the Peaceful Deities come to tell us that if we let go our attachments we will find our true nature, which is not nothingness but Fullness and Light. Yet because we believe our true nature to be nothingness fear kicks in, distorting these peaceful messengers into wrathful demons come to throw us into the proverbial fires of hell.

In my dream the woman was a Peaceful Deity who became Wrathful due to my own clinging and aversion (not shown in the dream but taking place in my waking life). Her turning into razor sharp saws that cut away at me from the inside was an obvious symbol of my own suffering. At the same time it was a symbol of her attempt to sever my attachments. She was not the author of my suffering. It was my own clinging and aversion that wrote that chapter of my life.

As can be seen from my own dream experience, we do not have to wait for death and dying to come to use the teachings of the Bardo. Right now (and more so for practitioners of the Way) we are all in an intermediate state where Peaceful and Wrathful Deities are working just off-stage to help release us from attachment. We may know them as thoughts and images that pop into our minds during the day that cause us to be afraid, angry or sad. When they do, our task is not to turn away from these unpleasant feelings but, in the words of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, meet them like “human acquaintances,” for they are valuable allies in our effort to uproot attachment.

Finally, “becoming merged into them,” as quoted above from The Tibetan the Book of the Dead, has the same meaning as becoming attached to nothing. In the process of dropping our clinging and aversion we merge into that apparent nothingness that we feared lie at the core of our being. Only in this merging we find that it is not nothingness. Existence has not ceased. It continues completely free of all things. That is why the Book say, “becoming merged into them, in at-one-ment, will obtain Buddhahood.”


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