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.”


Squaring the Circle of All-Encompassing Awareness.

November 19, 2016 § Leave a comment


There is a simple power that grows as we learn to just sit in the present moment. Each time we return to the moment from distracting thought and emotion this power grows. Each time we disengage from the constant chatter in our heads, it becomes stronger. At first we do not notice anything different. Yet behind the stories we endlessly tell in our heads there is a change going on. Deep within, adjustments are being made. These we need not attend to. In fact, we cannot attend because they are taking place in a realm beyond thought. All we need do to promote it is to just sit. This power is the power of awareness squared.

In mathematics, a square is the result of multiplying a number by itself. In life, awareness is squared when it becomes aware of itself. It is Life realizing Life! In meditation and mindfulness, awareness is squared when there is a continuous waking to the present moment from each distraction.

Waking is a good word as we are always aware but not always awake to this simple fact. At any given moment we experience many things. The breath, the pressures of clothe on the body or some distant sound. All lay within the awareness even though we are not attending to them. When we turn to these sensations we do not say we were unaware of them. We know we were. We were just not aware that we were aware.

In the practice of meditation and mindfulness we cultivate the awareness of being aware or, if you like, awareness squared. It starts with the simple act of focusing upon a single object or activity. As the mind settles on this activity it becomes aware of being aware of the item. This awareness squared is not long maintained, however, as the mind soon slips back into distracting thought and feeling. When the mind becomes aware of this distraction it brings its attention back to the meditation object or activity. Again and again this dropping from awareness squared to awareness and back again takes place, all with the aim of training the mind to remain mentally alert.

Over the course of weeks, months and perhaps years, practice unfolds as a matter of continuously returning to the present moment from each distraction. During this time many things are happening behind the scenes, not the least of which is the appearance that thoughts are becoming more and more numerous.

In spite of appearance, thoughts are not becoming more numerous. They are always arising in a manner that neither increases nor decreases their number. What in fact has happened is that the awareness of thought that has always existed has been squared. The mind has become aware of all the thought that has been going on all the time.

Just as certain sensations (as in the above example of clothes and sound) always exist in awareness, so the mind is constantly thinking. It takes an act of effort to be aware of this thinking and a continuous effort to maintain this awareness. Even with effort there is no initially awareness that these thoughts lack substance and exist only in the mind’s imagination. Only through constant practice does this awareness develop.

When the awareness squared has reached a certain level of maturity the mind will have a sudden insight and see that thoughts are just thoughts. They are not things that exist in the outer world but insubstantial dream illusion with no power to rule or dictate the terms of how you are to live and feel. For that brief instant the mind is free from the tyranny of thought.

If the ground has been properly laid there may arise a deeper awareness that the self, too, is just a thought or construct in the mind. The identification with thought will stop, if only for a moment, but there will remain a lasting Value regarding the true nature of self. The self is not thinkable. Identity lies outside the realm of thought where it sits watching the ever-flowing stream of thought.

This, by the way, is not the end of practice. It is just the first resting place along the Path.

The Moving and the Non-Moving

June 16, 2015 § Leave a comment

Absolutely Pure

In filmmaking, an immediate transition from one scene to another is called a cut. A gradual transition is called a dissolve with the start and end of the dissolve called a fade out and fades in, respectively. It is interesting to consider that these techniques may have evolved from the eye’s tendency to blink when we turn to look at something new. Blinking may be the natural way for us to fade out one scene and fade in another.

In Evans-Wentz’s “Tibetan Yoga and Secret Doctrines” there is a section in the ‘Yoga of the Uncreated’ that refers to the analyzing of the ‘moving’ and the ‘non-moving’. When I first read this years ago I did not understand it. I thought it referred to some advanced practice I was yet unprepared for. I now think that the moving and non-moving is something that can be observed in meditation at any time.

Transitions similar to those in films are observable in meditation where one moment you’re attending to the breath and the next you’re lost in thought. If you carefully watch these transitions you’ll note they are quick cuts from one state to another. One second you are alert and concentrated, the next you’re in a mental world far removed from the present moment lost in thought and daydreams. We may consider these transitions as ‘moving’.

We are constantly moving from one thought to another, and one thing to another, throughout the day. In meditation we can observe this movement and thereby slow it down. Turning the awareness to that place where the movement starts does this.

The place where movement starts is nowhere other than your own mind where you are first distracted from your meditation. There you watch yourself transition from an alert meditative state to an alternate state that arises as you follow a thought. This transition is a quick one that draws and merges you into the thought so it might take a few tries to see it.

Becoming aware of this movement is the first step. Turning your awareness to it just as it starts is the next. Here is what Dayi Daoxin wrote about this in “The Fundamental Expedient Teachings For Calming The Mind That Attains Enlightenment.”

“…the moment when you realize this (movement) occurring then immediately concentrate on the fact that the place where it arises ultimately does not come into being. When this mind does begin to attach itself, it does not come from any place in the ten directions and when it goes there is no place at which it arrives.”

Through self-study you discover that the mind before it moves does not originate from any place. And when movement stops, it does not arrive anywhere. It is just ‘here’ all the time but you cannot see it directly. This is your mind before thought arises. It is non-moving mind and you are identical to it.

The moment you try to think of the non-moving it becomes the moving mind. Hence you can never conceptualize your non-moving mind but only obscure it with thought. Daman Hongren in his, “Treatise on the Supreme Vehicle,” puts it this way:

“Why is there no light? The light is never destroyed; it is just enshrouded by clouds and fog. The pure mind of all living beings is like this, merely covered up by the dark clouds of obsession with objects, arbitrary thoughts, psychological afflictions and views and opinions. If you can just keep the mind still so that errant thought does not arise, the reality of nirvana will naturally appear. This is how we know the inherent mind is originally pure.”

The originally pure mind is not lost. It is right here, right now. All we need do is stop following after thoughts and things, then it naturally appears.

On Tibetan visualization practice

January 11, 2015 § Leave a comment

(FYI: image is originally from “The Secret of the Golden Flower”  Click here to go to it.)Stage 4 meditation ii

A common Tibetan Buddhist practice uses visualization to hallucinate a central figure, usually a deity, out of which many other figures are then made to appear. When all these personages have appeared they are reabsorbed back into the central figure that is then reabsorbed back into the practitioner. The ultimate aim of this practice is to realize that all phenomena are but a dream illusion born from our imagination. A central part of this process is realizing the emptiness of the central and accompanying figures before they are reabsorbed.

In the West we have little time to spend on elaborate visualizations but in a way it isn’t necessary, as we already have created in our imagination numerous “others” to amuse and berate us. It only takes a little bit of self-observation to see that this is true. We are always imagining our self as happy or sad, worthy or unworthy, or in some other fashion as a “this or that” kind of person. Or that we often have on going dialogues with the image of some significant other like a father, mother or spouse (who often take positions opposing our own).

It is easy to see how others act as if their inner persons are real. An individual who was historically abused will often behave, for example, as if an abuser is still around when no such person exists, except but in memory.  What is not so easy to see is the strength of our own belief in these inner others and how it leads us to live a life of dream illusion.

In the Tibetan practice the solution to living in dream illusion is to reabsorb the inner personages back into the mind. This may sound mysterious but in fact it has its parallel in modern therapeutic psychology that directs us to make unconscious content conscious. The lesson we learn from the Tibetan practice is that it was only when our thoughts were identified as self or not self that they became autonomous figures. To reintegrate them we must reverse this process by realizing that the inner faces we put on our thoughts are not real people but our own imagining. This allows us to accept the thoughts we disowned, denied or projected out into the world and to reabsorb them back into consciousness.

Inner others are not the result of an overactive imagination. As social beings it is natural for the brain to present ideas as people. But the mind does not stop there. These others also serve as guardians of our mental health in that they act to prevent unwanted or dangerous thoughts from rising into consciousness. It is because of this that Tibetan practices emphasize the need to first realize the emptiness of these figures and the thoughts they represent before reabsorbing them.

There is a positive effect on consciousness that comes from realizing the emptiness of your inner others that has its negative counterpart when this realization is lacking.

Whereas before it seemed that your awareness was crowded by thought, this new state of consciousness has an open and spatial quality to it that creates a feeling of distance between you and your thoughts. When the effect is positive your mind is clearer and more open. When negative, the effect is like suddenly stepping off a cliff.

People who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder can and do experience this “stepping into mid-air” effect quite strongly. It arises when their sense of safety is suddenly stripped away leaving them feeling completely vulnerable, exposed and terrified. Needless to say this can be quite debilitating.

Even if you do not have PTSD you still need to take care. Your inner others guard you from undesirable content by directing your attention away from the unconscious. Once you realize their essential emptiness they lose that quality. But as you have yet to realize the emptiness of the new content, encountering it can be as debilitating as a PTSD attack. It is advisable to expand your awareness in this new space gradually by nurturing the realization that the true nature of your unconscious is also emptiness.

Tibetan meditation and emptiness.

November 3, 2014 § 4 Comments

Geogia Bay 0097

While in Vancouver the Dalai Lama spoke of the need to have some realization of emptiness for Tibetan meditation to be effective.

Tibetan meditation involves visualization. An image of a deity is visualized with such force and lifelike quality that at times others may see it. Then, having created this tulpa, as it is called, it is withdrawn back into the meditator so he or she may realize their identity with the deity. Without realizing the inherent emptiness of that deity, however, the self fails to realize its own emptiness and lack of self-existence. The meditation thus fails in its intended purpose.

As realizing emptiness is a cornerstone of Buddhism I often remind myself of what science tells us about the elementary particle called the electron. That is, that it has no size.

Now I should qualify this remark by saying that some physicists do say the electron has size. They have even made extensive calculations to show what it is. But beyond theoretical calculations there is no evidence that an electron has size.  Furthermore, it does not matter in science whether an electron has size or not, as science only deals with relationships and interactions, not things!

A scientist can happily tell us about an electron’s spin, mass and charge without ever being bothered by the fact that nothing actually need be there for her observations to be correct. She knows that properties are a quality of relationships. Similarly, a Buddhist can tell us that form is emptiness without ever denying the validity of our experience.

Form and emptiness are not mutually exclusive whether you are a Buddhist or a scientist.

It is not easy to break the habits of a lifetime and accept that experience does not require the presence of a self-existent thing.  Today you might nod with agreement as you quote Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice and ask, “If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge? – (Act III, scene I).”  Through such questions you may feel justified in your belief that permanent, solid things exist “out there”.

But if you realize emptiness, even if only slightly or with one thing, then tomorrow you might say, “There is pricking. There is bleeding. There is tickling and laughter, poison and death. But who is there to be wronged? Why, therefore, seek revenge?”

A small realization of emptiness can chip away at your belief that there are things that have power over you. This can then be expanded to a realization that judgments of your own worth and value are also empty and therefore powerless to affect you. Fear will begin to dissolve. Your demons will lose their false power as your realization of emptiness grows.  Then, one day, you may apply this knowledge to your self and find emptiness there, too.  That your true self is no self.

So whether you find emptiness in contemplating the electron or see it in the stories you tell yourself everyday, use that seed of realization to slowly transform your life.  You have, after all, nothing to lose.

His Holiness, the Dalai Lama

October 26, 2014 § 2 Comments

The Dalai Lama at UBC

His Holiness the Dalai Lama was in town this past week. As my last few posts addressed emptiness when viewed with fear and avoidance, I thought I’d try to tell you what he had to say about it.

From the perspective of Tibetan Buddhism, a proper understanding of emptiness must include an understanding of concepts, self-existence and dependent origination. Once understood, this knowledge can then be applied to the Buddhist notion of no self. Of course, all of this would fill many posts so I shall try to be as brief as possible.

Simply put, something has self-existence when it exists on its own or independently of anything else. For example, most would say the moon exists whether we look at it or not, so the general belief held by humanity is that the moon is self-existent. A Buddhist would tell you, however, that an analysis of this belief would lead to a different conclusion.

Through analytic meditation the Buddhist would examine his or her experience of the moon to see that it is collection of concepts, or ideas about something, and not an actual thing in itself. Different concepts of the moon include those held of it before the advent of the telescope, the moon before humanity set foot on it and the moon as seen in it’s various phases. Considering the different ways of conceiving of the moon, “Which one, is any,” the Buddhist would ask, “is the actual moon?”

It is important to note that the Buddhist is not saying the experience doesn’t exist. The experience of the moon is a real experience but one that is organized by the conceptual mind. The conceptual mind takes a collection of experiences and organizes them together under one name. That ‘somewhat’ that appears in the sky at various times during the month in various shapes or phases, that telescopes tell us has craters and our astronauts say is made of dust and rock, are all organized under the general concept that we know as the moon.

In addition to creating concepts out of a collection of experiences, the human mind assigns these concepts a sense of reality that lends the appearance of self-existence.  This assigned self-existence is a matter of convenience that gives the world a sense of stability.

Consider, for example, how efficient it is to name a file and place it in a folder of similar items stored in your computer. Having done so, you know where it is or “exists”. All you have to do to find it is to look in that file. But suppose you didn’t name your files or make any folders. As more and more items are entered into your computer, finding them becomes more and more difficult. And if you couldn’t find any particular file, you’d begin to doubt its existence. In a similar way, the human mind assigns names and words to your experiences and files them accordingly, giving them the appearance of self-existence. But whether any thing does exist independently of the mind is a matter of philosophical debate, not proven fact!

This leads us to the Buddhist notion of dependent origination.

Dependent origination is said by the Buddha to be a very deep subject so I will try to cover it here only in relation to what the Dalai Lama said about emptiness.

An example given by the Buddha was that of a flame in an oil lamp. When the oil and wick are present, the flame burns. If either is absent, the flame is not there. This is a simple example of the principle of dependent origination. In it, the flames existence is dependent upon the wick and the oil. The experience of the flame is real but in itself the flame has no self-existence.

In his talk last Thursday the Dalai Lama briefly applied the Buddha’s reasoning to himself. If we were to look for His Holiness we would not find a self-existence that we could call him. We could find an arm or face, thoughts or feelings, but eventually we would have to conclude that the Dalai Lama, himself, was like a flame in an oil lamp whose origin was dependent upon other things that, in and of themselves, too, ultimately had no self-existence. Yet, said the Dalai Lama, when he pinches himself, he experiences pain. So what is that which experiences this pain? What is this no self?

Without answering that question the Dalai Lama went on to state that through the process of analytical meditation one can see how all things are dependent upon everything else, such that no thing can be said to arise independently or have self-existence.   And that if we introduce here the Buddhist notion of emptiness, we can see that emptiness does not mean nothingness but merely the lack of self-existence. There is form, but it is empty of self-existence.

There is experience. There is the conceptual organization of experience. Yet none of this, including the self, exists independent of anything else or with permanent form. Understanding this, the Dalai Lama went on to say, we can see what is meant when it is said that form is emptiness and emptiness is form.

*** Please note that the Dalai Lama’s visit to Vancouver was in association with the Tibetan Cultural Society of BC and organized in part to help the Society raise funds to sponsor the resettlement of Tibetans to Canada.  Click on the Society’s name to open a new window that links to their site if you are interested in this cause.

Buddhist Cartography: You Are Here.

April 14, 2014 § 5 Comments

You are here 0264

I was in Stanley Park looking at the park map when my friend asked, “If we are here, then who are these people by the restrooms?”

Site maps often show two figures to indicate restroom facilities while using a marker of some sort to tell us where we are. As these maps emulate the workings of the human brain it should come as no surprise to learn that the brain also has an inner marker that says, “You are here.” What might come as a surprise is that, as with the site map, there isn’t actually any “you” there at the tip of the marker.

Just as the brain creates inner maps of the outer world, so does it create a map of a self that relates to the world. And just as the maps of the outer world are not the actual world, nor is the map of self your actual Self.

Identifying with the map of self has us believing we are such traits as “unreliable,” “worthless” or “bad” when, in fact, our true nature is clear; just as the water of a lake is clear and only reflects the blue of the sky or the green of the forest.

Most of us have been reading our inner maps for so long that we have forgotten our true nature.   Mindfulness and meditation are two practices that train us to turn our attention away from these maps so we may focus, first, on the outer world and, then, our true nature.

In mindfulness we focus our attention on whatever task we are doing at the moment. This turns our attention outward and away from our inner maps. As we progress in this outer focus we become more aware of the inner maps that our brains have superimposed on the world. We begin to see the difference between what “is” going on in the world as opposed to what we “think” is going on.

As part of my practice, I see my inner maps as constructs of the brain that exist only in the brain. I find this a great help in seeing the unreality of thought, as whatever exists in the brain alone can have no real existence in the outer world. This has helped dispel many fears, false beliefs and delusions; and is quite consistent with Tibetan Buddhism where the essential point is to see the world is an illusion.

In meditation the awareness is once again focused away from the inner maps, but this time it is turned back upon itself, i.e., one’s clear, true nature.

Here words become misleading. There is no actual “back” or “upon” in any sense that implies an objective self looking outward at the world. To think there is some person, mind or soul being aware of itself merely replaces one map of self with another, subtler one.

The ultimate form of meditation is Dogen’s shikantaza where one just sits as awareness itself. However, before most of us can “just sit” we need to disengage from our inner maps.   We need to put our maps of self and the world aside.

As I mentioned above, I have found it helpful to see my inner maps as fabrications of the brain. This applies not only to the maps I superimposed over the physical world but to my map of self, as well.

The inner map I have of myself is purely a construct of this brain and body. I did not have this map before incarnating into this body and, upon taking a new form, any new map of self will be just as illusory and impermanent as the one I use now.

Ultimately, self is nothing more than a marker on a map that says, “You are here.”   The only truth of that marker is that it points to emptiness, which is your true nature and your real Self.

Where Am I?

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