The power of solitary deities

************************
I would like to prefix a few personal words here. As you may already know, on Losar morning (Feb. 9), the University of Copenhagen has dismissed me from my position as associate professor for Tibetan Studies. In our institute, in particular, “small subjects” and regional studies have been targeted. Their staff was fired, or their intake of students was frozen, making them more vulnerable for future closures of study programs. As a consequence, hundreds of letters, emails, and Facebook posts from individuals and institutions around the world expressing concern about this development have reached us. Many people, from Beijing to Berkeley and from Oslo to Rome, have written personal letters of protest to the rector and the chairman of the board of directors. This outpour of solidarity means a lot to me. I do not know if the protest will have any effect on the decision of the management of the university, but the support has definitively touched me in a deep way and strengthened me in my conviction to continue my work whatever may happen. Thank you!
************************

Historical texts describe how Sherab Jungne, on several occasions, rearranged the vajra-statements and finally arranged them in seven chapters, keeping ca. 50 of the 200 vajra-statements separate from the main text as “supplements” (Tib. lhan thabs). Some (but not all) authors comment on these supplements, too. They either keep them separate from the main text, as an independent work, or, like Rigdzin Chökyi Dragpa, include them in the main text as the eighth chapter of their commentary. The commentary of fourth Zhamar Rinpoche, for instance, composed in 1516, even presents the supplements as its first chapter. Interestingly, Togden Rinpoche Könchog Thubten arranges the supplements in his commentary so that they are attached to those vajra-statements that deal with a similar topic. One of these clusters of statements that are formed in this way, consisting of one vajra-statement and two supplements, will be the subject of the present posting.

The vajra-statement under investigation and its two supplements focus on the nature of a “solitary deity.” “Solitary” means that it is a single deity, like, for instance, Avalokiteshvara or Tara. It is not in union with another deity or appears with an entourage of other deities surrounding it. The vajra-statement occurs in the fifth chapter in the context of a discussion of empowerment. It focusses on the question whether empowerment can be bestowed based on a solitary deity like Tara. Although it is not explicitly stated in the commentaries, “empowerment” refers here clearly to an empowerment on the level of the highest yoga tantra. This assumption creates the tension of the statement: Can an empowerment of the highest yoga tantra be conferred through a solitary deity like Tara? Rinchen Jangchub quotes some former scholars, who say that “one cannot open the Dharma gate with the Lady Tara.” They provide the following reason: “Because the three seats – the seat of the male and female wrathful deities, the seat of the male and female Bodhisattvas, and the seat of the Buddhas and their consorts – are not complete [in Tara].” Dorje Sherab refers in his commentary to a view of people who claim that one cannot obtain the empowerment through any solitary male or female deity, and their example is Vajrayogini.

This point, in fact, alludes to several debates that were going on in Tibet already at a very early time, but here I will mainly focus on the topic of the nature of the solitary deity.

Kyobpa Jigten Sumgön states – in contrast to those people – that (5.3) the empowerment functions even through a solitary deity. If we just look at that formulation, it is clear that it has empowerment on the level of the highest yoga tantra in mind, because otherwise there would not be a problem at all. Nobody doubts that a solitary deity can confer an empowerment of a lower class of tantra.

The claim made by others is that the “three seats” are not complete in a solitary deity. The “three seats” (Tib. gdan gsum) of a deity are usually explained in the following way. The first seat are the five male and female Tathagathas, which are, according to the highest yoga tantras, the nature of the five constituents of the person (Skt. skandha). The second seat comprises the eight male and eight female Bodhisattvas, who are the nature of the sense organs and their objects. There is some confusion about the third seat, but for our purposes, it is sufficient to state that other elements of a person’s existence are identified as the male and female wrathful deities. The opponent’s claim that the three seats are “not complete” in a solitary deity is in our commentaries taken to mean that they are “not directly visible.” If “not visible” is the point, however, the consequence would be that even many deities of the supreme yoga tantra class (such as Vajrayogini) would not qualify as a basis for an empowerment of the highest yoga tantra, because the complete deities of the three seats are directly visible only in very few mandalas.

Our commentators of the Single Intention point out that in most cases, the three seats are only complete “by implication,” as for instance in all cases of the solitary deities. It is nevertheless important, they state, that the implicit completeness is understood by both the vajra master who bestows the empowerment and the disciple who receives it. They have to understand that the master’s and the disciple’s skandhas and so forth are by nature the five Buddhas, their consorts, the male and female Bodhisattvas, and the male and female wrathful deities. Furthermore, master and disciple have to understand that both the external physically created mandala (such as a sand mandala) and the mandala visualised in front of themselves comprise the five Buddhas, and so forth. Finally, they also have to be aware that the substances of the empowerment, such as the water of the vase, and the crown, vajra, jewel, lotus, bell, sword, and wheel, which the master uses during the empowerment, are similarly the five Buddhas, and so forth. These identifications, therefore, have to be visualised in every empowerment of the highest yoga tantra. Within that, which seems to be incomplete, because the three seats are not directly visible, namely the solitary deity, one must know the three seats to be complete because the ritual would otherwise be impure and incomplete. In short, one must know how the three seats are complete also in each solitary deity.

Furthermore, the three seats are present in the empowerment of any deity whatsoever when one visualises that the five Buddhas perform the activities of bestowing the empowerment, that their consorts sing vajra songs, that the male and female Bodhisattvas utter auspicious verses, and that the male and female wrathful deities expel obstructors.

In a nutshell: Jigten Sumgön maintains that if the vajra master and the disciple skilfully visualise the deities of the three seats, a solitary deity can bestow empowerment even of the highest tantra class. Thus, Dorje Sherab states:

If one recognises all skandhas, dhatus, and ayatanas as the Buddha, one obtains empowerment just as it is. Based on that one will also obtain the [other] three empowerments.

This statement provides an important clue how Dorje Sherab understood the matter. He mentions “the other three empowerments,” i.e. the secret, wisdom, and word empowerment. We can conclude from this that the empowerment he refers to is the vase empowerment of the four empowerments of the highest tantra class. In other words, Dorje Sherab maintains that a solitary deity can bestow the vase empowerment of the highest tantra class. By stating that the other three will be obtained based on that, he leaves it open whether those empowerments can be bestowed by a solitary deity. Dorje Sherab furthermore adds: “It is necessary to treat empowerment as detailed, medium, and brief.” He, thereby, appears to be saying that abbreviated forms of the empowerment of the highest yoga tantra are based on the vase empowerment alone, whereas more detailed forms include all four empowerments. These brief statements, however, do not suffice to conclude anything about Dorje Sherab’s opinion regarding the ability of solitary deities to confer the other three empowerments.

The first supplement that is attached to this vajra statement is more generally concerned with the accomplishment of activities through a solitary deity.

The position of others, as it is presented by our commentators, is that there are a hundred Buddha families, which all perform their individual activities. This would imply that immeasurable forms of Buddhas are necessary to accomplish all activities. According to supplement 8.27, however, Jigten Sumgön maintains that a solitary deity, too, accomplishes all the activities.

The comments of Rigdzin Chökyi Dragpa on this supplement are closely connected with the vajra-statement discussed above. Accordingly, a solitary deity, since its skandhas are the five Buddhas and so forth, indeed contains the hundred families completely. The skandhas alone are the five male and female Tathagatas, and each of them accomplishes their activities. Since the parts and elements of the body, speech and mind of a deity are filled with numerous other deities, its activities are countless. There is, therefore, no difference between a principal deity with a retinue of a thousand deities and a solitary deity. The Hevajra Tantra says: 1

The great mind is one.
It is represented, however, through this fivefold embodiment.
From these five families
many thousands arise.
Therefore, all these are of one nature.

Chökyi Dragpa points out that if all families are summarised, they are combined in the single vajra family of the mind. He quotes an (unidentified) Mantra text:

The characteristics of all the mantras
exists in the mind of the Sugata.

Thus, whether the practising disciple is successful or not does not depend on whether the deity of his practice is one that resides in a mandala with a retinue of hundreds of deities, or whether it is a solitary deity. What counts, says Chökyi Dragpa, is whether the practitioner “obtains or not obtains the warmth (Tib. drod) in his samadhi” and whether he “accomplishes the activities or not through having received or not the firm sign.” It is, however, “very deluded” to evaluate the quality of a practitioner according to whether his deity has a large or a small retinue.

The second supplement that is connected with the vajra-statement discussed above has to do with the names or marks of deities. The earlier commentaries seem to discuss the individuality of deities primarily with respect to their names, such as “Cakrasamvara” or “Hevajra.” Indeed, in the Tibetan language, the term mtshan may be a honorific form of “name” (Tib. ming) or an abbreviated form of “mark, sign, symbol” (Tib. mtshan ma). Thus, while many people claim that every deity possesses an individual name or (more broadly) individual marks, Jigten Sumgön maintains in supplement 8.28 that [one’s] chosen deity possesses the names / marks of all deities. (The “chosen deity” is the one that is at the heart of a person’s deity practise.)

Rigdzin Chökyi Dragpa evidently reads the statement in its more broad form, saying that one’s chosen deity possesses the marks of all deities. He says that if one purifies on the path all one’s mental afflictions, just that will be the cause of obtaining Buddhahood. Having become a Buddha, one is “the essence of the qualities of the results of separation and maturation, one possesses – no matter which body [of a deity] one has trained – the major and minor marks of maturation, and one possesses the results of separation such as the power of the mind (Tib. thugs stobs).” Thus, one accomplishes the result of Buddhahood by separating from unwholesome factors and by bringing wholesome factors to maturation. One separates, for instance, from the afflictions. The result of that is the three (or, depending on the system, five) bodies of a Buddha. In particular, the quality of separation is the obtainment of the dharmakaya, from which all other bodies arise. The quality of bringing to maturation all the wishes of benefiting sentient beings is the arising of the sambhogakaya, and the necessary activities manifest as the nirmanakaya. For this process, it is of no significance, which deity one trains since all deities function in a similar way. Therefore, they are all “Exalted Ones” (Skt. Bhagavan) and when one supplicates a deity, no matter which deity one chooses, the blessing that arises is always the same.

In this context, Chökyi Dragpa quotes the well-known and often quoted, but rarely followed instruction of Lord Atisha:

Tibet is poor due to its many deities. At the time when one establishes the practice of one’s chosen deity and invites its wisdom beings, by inviting whichever deities one wishes in the form of one’s chosen deity and absorbing them when one accomplishes that deity, it will be one that accomplishes all.

Notes:

1 Hevajra Tantra 2.2.58-59a. Snellgrove (1959: 53).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: