J. Grela

THE CONCEPTION OF DEITIES IN TIBETAN BUDDHISM

 

 

The Tibetan term lha denotes the beings of the status higher than humans. Firstly, it can describe sansaric gods, living for a long time but at the same time mortal, who are subject to the fall into the lower spheres of existence, like the gods of other religions, or any of the beings that migrate within sansara. Secondly, the term also describes the beings that formally do not necessarily belong to the class of gods as one of the sansara classes, but they are worshipped by the believers. They can be both local unenlightened forces and the beings regarded as the enlightened ones. The two latter groups, which are the object of cult, will be hereafter called deities or meditative deities, and my further discussion will be devoted to them.

 

The unenlightened deities are usually domestic ones, and they had been worshipped in Tibet long before the introduction of Buddhism. They are the innumerable genii loci, the spirits of mountains, passes, rocks, and natural phenomena. Buddhist Tibetans claim that the most powerful of these forces were defeated by some guru1 and then they entered the Bud-

 

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dhist path, thanks to which their karman gradually improves and in the course of time they can become the non-sansaric deities, i.e. the enlightened ones. In this way, the change of the status of such deity is possible.

 

The deities that are relatively popular in this group are Tseringma and her four sisters, who, according to the legends are local spirits converted by Padmasambhava (VIIIth cent.) or Milarepa (XIth cent.). The five sisters are popular thanks to the biography and songs of the famous Tibetan yogi Milarepa2. They are presented there as demonesses, who haunt him to examine his level of understanding of the nature of phenomena, and finally they promise to support and protect the Buddhist worshippers. The cult of the five sisters is popular with the Nyingma and Kagyu traditions, where the sisters are regarded as enlightened deities, whereas in the Gelug tradition the deities still belong to the realm of sansara.

 

In folk Buddhism there is a belief in these deities as personal entities. The deities are higher beings, to whom offerings are made and whose qualities are praised, in exchange for which protection is gained. Various local deities are to protect the worshippers against the demons and spirits who are considered to be external endangerment

 

A very important term connected with the expectations concerning the deities or protective spirits is the so-called drib (Tib. Grib)3 — the contamination. In pre-Buddhist Tibet, some actions, like cutting down trees, burning rubbish, burning food (especially milk), contamination of water, digging the ground, building a house, as well as some periods and events in family life, e.g. childbirth, puerperium, and death4, are regarded as causing the irritation of the invisible beings living in a given territory. The more drib in the surrounding, the more a person living there is exposed to the influence of the malicious spirits. Some of them take revenge because of the violation of the territory, whereas others, evil by nature, harm anyone whose life span has been weakened — by magic or by drib — by causing misfortune, illness, natural disasters, death on mountain route, etc. to a given society, their representatives or their posterity. While in Hinduist

 

 

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India ritual purification was usually resorted to in case of contamination, in Tibet clan deities or individual protective deities were called to mediate or to turn away the evil powers.

 

The pre-Buddhist Bon religion, or to be more exact, its original trend called the Bon of causes (rgyu ‘i bon), has taken over from the folk religion the divination practices concerning the recognition of causes of misfortune and illness, as well as placating the furious local powers5. The detailed descriptions of causes and mechanisms of the emergence of illnesses, natural disasters, etc. were made within the Bon tradition from Shangshung (Tib. zhang-zhung), an ancient kingdom in the west of Tibet. The description of various sansaric beings, the cause of their wrath, and the ways of counteraction against the results can also be found in numerous texts of the old Tibetan tradition Nyingma, in the cycle bDe-gshegs bka '-brgyad6. For example, the illnesses of the skin were related to the contamination of water, which irritates the inhabiting aquatic beings with snake bodies, the nagas.

 

The case of the enlightened deities, belonging to the Tibetan Buddhism pantheon, is not the same. They have different genesis and role. The understanding of drib, the contamination, has also changed here.

 

In the primitive Buddhism of India there were no deities and originally the Buddha himself was understood in realistic terms. Together with the evolving conception of the body of the Buddha (Sanskrit kāya), which was probably introduced in order to conciliate the doctrines that juxtaposed the perfection of the Buddha with the imperfection of ordinary beings, as well as to give the metaphysical foundations for the doctrine of the multitude of Buddhas in the universe, the Mahayanist trends distinguished several levels of the manifestation of the enlightened being. One of them is the body of joy, sambhogakāya. It is to be the form of the body that is cognitively accessible to the bodhisattvas advanced on the spiritual way, and it possesses distinctive features7. With the course of time that status was also attributed to other than the historic Buddha Shakyamuni persons, such as eminent disciples who have reached the highest stage of bodhisattva (Pali sammā-sambodhi bodhisatta). The Mahayana scriptures especially praise the great wisdom of Mañjuśri, the conduct of Samantabhadra, the compassion of

 

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Avalokiteśvara, and the devotion of Kşitigarbha. These persons are present in Mahayana sutras but they are not presented as deities there. Avalokiteśvara, inspired by the Buddha, recited the heart sutra, and Mañjuśri or Vajrapani intervened in one or another legendary episode from the Buddha's life.

 

As Buddhism develops further, especially under the influence of Tantrism, a universal religious trend that penetrated into the Indian culture as well as neighbouring cultural circles, the deities' status change8.

 

Tantrism can be generally characterized by some formal features, among which it includes the following:

 

-idea of personified deity that is a symbol or representative of the highest reality; the deity that constitutes the personal ideal prototype of Tantric practitioners and their aim of adoration;

 

-belief in various manifestations of the deity, e.g. by means of an image (murti), a geometrical diagram (yantra), a sonic code (mantra), or a gesture (mudra);

 

-relation of devotion to the personified sphere of the ultimate reality which one can contact through numerous manifestations represented by powers or the powers possessors.

 

The variety of Buddhism that has become popular in Tibet is just the Tantric one. Sansaric deities are attributed the same status as humans, animals, etc. (in the sense of the mode of existence and dependence upon the general laws of sansara, not in the sense of sansaric hierarchy) by all the particular religious and philosophical schools. However, non-sansaric deities introduced by Tantrism are treated as the quintessence of some aspect of enlightenment which is pictured in symbolic form, e.g. Mañjuśri of wisdom, Avalokiteśvara of compassion, etc9. Here the particular philosophical schools treat the question of the nature of the deities differently, although they do not analyse their mode of existence in a formal way.

 

According to Buddhism the perception of the world in the case of an ordinary being is dependent upon the karmic conditioning and the actual emotional state, which is the mixture of karman and the impure emotional-cognitive states (Sanskrit kleśa). The more frequently one of the states get activated, the stronger the habit (which is the general characterological disposition influencing the way of perceiving and reacting) becomes. It is

 

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based upon the belief in the existence of the substantial self which according to Buddhism does not exist in the ultimate sense but it is merely a construct, a functional entity.

 

Buddhism allows the possibility of the dualist or non-dualist comprehension of the world, which from the soteriological point of view makes a crucial difference. These two possible ways of experiencing reality in Tantrism are among other things connected with the theory of the subtle body. According to Tantra, a given being perceives either the ordinary, so-called impure, world or, when being outside the dualism, perceives the pure world, which is equivalent to the deities and the spheres of their manifestation, the so-called pure lands. From the soteriological perspective, the so-called pure vision (Tib. dag-snang) is regarded as a truer one, or at least more valuable than ordinary perception. According to the Tantra of the highest yoga (anuttarayoga), apart from the ordinary, material body, which is subject to physical changes and death, we have or can have another body built of the subtle energy of light. Like the physical body constituted by the systems (nerve system, circular system, etc.), the subtle body comprises of the system of channels (Sanskrit nādi; Tib. rtsa), in which the subtle energy (Sanskrit prana; Tib. rlung; 'wind') circulates and where the points of the light-energy (Sanskrit bindu; Tib. thig-le; essence drops) are located. Until the subtle energies circulate in the minor channels, the perception is performed in the dualist mode and the actions undertaken under such states of the mind lead to the cumulating of karman and rebirth in sansara. When the subtle energies, responsible for the way of perception, emotional and mental reactions, are in the central channel, the access to the subtle levels of the body and consciousness is facilitated, which according to Tantra can be used to generate one's own body in the form of a Tantric deity, as well as to the non-dual perception of reality and experiencing the real nature of the mind.

 

The deity is the subtle 'pure' aspect of a given being. Tantra assumes that in the negative (from the soteriological ideal point of view) emotions or flaws the positive potential of a Buddha's qualities is hidden, so the same energy can manifest itself in a twofold manner, and the deity yoga (Sanskrit devatāyoga; Tib. Lha’ i rnal- ‘byor) — according to Tsongkapa (XIVth cent.) the basic method of Buddhist Tantra — is to facilitate such a transformation.

 

Buddhist philosophical schools did not analyse directly the mode of existence of the meditative deities. It seems that there were the following reasons. Firstly, the philosophical schools stemmed from the sutras, and the theoretical bases of such phenomena as meditative deities are in much later

 

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Tantras10. Secondly, Tantra renounces philosophical discourse and puts stress upon the transcending the subject-object dualism, reaching the non-conceptual state, in which the perception and reaction are not mediated with words, or limited by abstract concepts. Thirdly, the peculiarity of Tantra among other things consists in the fact that every Tantric teacher explains it in an individual way.

 

In order to reach the interpretation of the question of the mode of existence of the deities, I was analysing the two most popular in Tibet philosophical schools, Madhyamaka Rangtong, which is generally practiced in the Drikung Kagyu (Tib. 'bri-gung bka'-brgyud), Gelug and Sakya (dge-lugs; sa-skyd) religious traditions, as well as Shentong, which gives the theoretical basis for the remaining Kagyu schools (kar-ma; 'brug-pa; shangs-pa bka '-brgyud) and Nyingma (rnying-ma).

 

The Sanskrit term denoting the lack of self-being (nihsvabhāvatva), which is a synonym for emptiness (śunyatā), can be interpreted in two ways: as the lack of qualitative provision or non-self-being — the nonexistence on one's own11. In Rangtong (rang-stong; emptiness in itself, emptiness on one's own), the emptiness is understood in both of the above mentioned senses, it is the lack of self-being of all the phenomena, including those of consciousness. In Shentong the emptiness is understood in the second sense. Shentong (gzhan-stong; the emptiness of the other) is the standpoint proclaiming emptiness in relation [to anything else], which is the view that the inherent Buddha's nature (identical with the nature of mind) is devoid of the accidental features that are other than the features ascribed to a buddha12. This is the way of interpreting Buddha's nature and kayas, the bodies of a buddha. Therefore, the emptiness of Buddha's nature is the emptiness qualified with the 'features'.

 

According to the Rangtong standpoint, the nature of a buddha (Sanskrit tathāgatagarbha) is not a static product but the disposition of mind, the possibility of functioning, and not an everlasting actuality. After a proper training, when the mind works in a non-dual mode, that state is being constituted from moment to moment through the subsequent moments

 

 

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of consciousness and it requires the ceaseless sustaining of the consciousness. According to Shentong, however, the nature of a buddha is the actual form from the very beginning, which simply can be recognised or not.

 

On the basis of the above statements, which are held by the adherents of the schools, one can reach the interpretation of two different understandings of the way of deities' existence. For Madhyamaka Rangtong all the phenomena, including the deities, are compound phenomena that are produced,13 and are subject to the scheme of relation. Shentong school attributes to the deities (as the phenomena that are not karmically conditioned) the status of non-compound phenomena14, which are outside the conditioned origination, and only their appearing to the beings is conditioned15. In other words, they are conditioned from the point of view of the spiritual way, but not from the perspective of the result because the ultimate reality is unconditioned.

 

In practice, for the worshipper of Rangtong the deities make just a method, one of many possible ways of comprehending, perceiving of the world, which is dependent upon the whole sequence of circumstances. On the other hand, for those who hold the view of Shentong, the deities are the ultimate reality: the world is the pure land and the sentient beings are Buddhas or deities16. Only the karmic conditionings, accumulated under the influence of the dualistic perception, prevent the proper perception of the reality.

 

Independently from the ontological status ascribed to the deity, the adept goes through the three-stage process of contact: the initiation, the creative contemplation, and the integration. One of the vital factors of this process is making aware the meaning of the elements of iconography of the deity to oneself. As I have mentioned earlier, a Tantric deity is an example

 

 

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for every Tantric practitioner. The colour of the body, the number of the arms and legs, the attire, ornaments or the things held in hands have symbolic meaning, encode the features of character which the Tantric adept wants to manifest.

 

In the West there are two approaches to researching the iconography. The most popular one consists in recognizing art as the aim in itself, not related to what it presents. The descriptions concern the style, school of painting or sculpture. Another approach, which is closer to the Tibetan one, consists in the description of the symbolic representation that is presented by the deities. The first attempts of this kind were begun in 191417.

 

A few examples: according to the interpretation assumed by all the Tibetan schools, the green colour stands for the jealousy transformed into the enlightened, compassionate activity, blue is the ignorance transformed into wisdom. The male deities symbolise the aspect of action, effective methods, whereas the female ones stand for wisdom, the insight into the nature of the reality, and those presented in sexual intercourse — the lack of subject-object dichotomy. Nowadays there are many secondary sources on this subject, e.g. monographies devoted to Тага, Avalokiteśvara, Padmasambhava, or Vajrakila.

 

The basic function of such deities consists in showing the adept other possibilities of experiencing and, as the result of exercise, the change of emotional and perceptive standards of themselves and the surrounding world. Together with the buddhisation of the country, the concept of contamination, drib, has lost a part of its original meaning. According to the Buddhist doctrine of karman, the result cannot reach the posterity or neighbours of the 'agent', and additionally childbirth or death in Buddhism are not the source of the contamination. After the XIth century drib (with slightly changed spelling sgrib) is understood as the unacquaintance with the nature of the reality. The meditative deities are to be the antidote for it, and their protective functions — earlier ascribed to the unenlightened deities of pre-Buddhist provenience — were in large extent taken over by the Buddhist enlightened deities called the guardians of dharma (Sanskrit dharmapāla; Tib. chos-skyong).

1 E. g. cf. biographies of Padmasambhava, Milarepa, or Drugpa Kunleg. It is worth adding that the conception of subordination and converting the local powers to one's own doctrine can be encountered as early as in the pre-Buddhist Bon, cf. Shardza Rinpoche Trashi Gyentsen. Legshed Rinpoché Dzŏd, in: Karmay S. G. The Treasury of Good Sayings: A Tibetan History of Bon. London: Oxford University Press, 1972. P. 30.

2 Cf. chapters 28, 29 of the collection of his songs (Mi-la mgur- bum).

3 Cf. Schicklgruber Ch. Grib: on the Significance of the Term in a Socio-Religious Context // International Association for Tibetan Studies. Narita. P. 723-735 (paper delivered at the Vth conference that took place during 27.08-2.09.1989).

4 More staining situations of the kind are enumerated in Bod-rgya tsig-mdzod chen-mo. In 3 vols. Beijing, 1984. Vol. I. P. 399. See also Das Ch. Tibetan-English Dictionary., Delhi: Paljor Publications, 2000. P. 244.

5 Samuel G. Civilized Shamans: Buddhism in Tibetan Societies. Washington: Smithsonian Institute Press, 1993. P. 177: Snellgrove D. L. The Nine Ways of Bon: Excerpts from gZi brjid. London: Oxford University Press, 1967; see also Karmay S. G. The Treasury of Good Sayings. P. 31-34.

6 Myang-nyang gter bka'-brgyad bde-gshegs. Ed. by Nyi-ma 'od-zer, Gangtok: Sonam Topgay Kazi, 1978.

7 Concerning the form, place, time, and the way of appearing.

8 E. g. in Japan, where Doryo Daisatta from Daiyuzan Saijoji, a monk living in the XIVth century, is nowadays regarded as the deity - form of the eleven-head Avalolriteśvara.

9 Kalou Rinpoché. La voie du Boudha selon la tradition tibetaine. Ed. and tr. by D. Teundroup. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1993. P. 292.

10 Cf. Sen, śnienie, umieranie. Zglębianie świadomości z Dalaj Lama.. Ed. by F. J. Varela. Tr. M. Góralczyk-Przychocka. Kraków: Wydawnictwo Mudra, 2001. P. 105.

 

11 Cf. Jakubczak K. Filozoficzne szkoty buddyzmu mahajany - madhjamaka i jogaczara // Filozofia Wschodu. Ed. by B. Szymańska. Kraków: Wyd. UJ, 2001. P. 217-218.

12 Shentong «empty of the other» interpreted according to Ratnagotravibhaga I. 154 as deprived of other than itself, that is accidental flaws, but not deprived of the Buddha properties. Dolpopa (Tib. dol-po-pa or dol-bu-pa; Xllth/XIVth cent.) is believed to have been the founder of the systematic version of the Shentong doctrine.

13 On the basis of the interview from 7.11.2003, Ygrande, France, with Geshe Mogchog Rinpoche (rmog-lcog rin-po-che) now form the Gelug tradition but regarded as the incarnation of an important teacher from the Shangpa Kagyu school.

 

14 Dŏlpopa, when quoting «Mahaparinirvanasutra», states that every skandha and every element of the phenomenal world have their own, pure, simple equivalent (underlined by JG).

Cf. Hookham S. K. The Buddha Within. Tathagatagarbha Doctrine According to the Shentong Interpretation of Ratnagotravibhaga. State University of New York Press, 1991. P. 139.

 

15 Hookham S. K. Op. cit P. 243.

 

16 From the ontological point of view, there are two main modalities that actually coexist and they are concurrent. Usual phenomena, which are known from common experience, are of relative character. The deities are treated as the so-called pure phenomena that constitute the actual mode of existence of the animate world, the non-dual wisdom of the buddha, and they are regarded as the ultimate truth. Cf. also Abhisamayālarnkāra acc. to: Kelsang Gyatsho, geshe. Guide to Dakiniland. London: Tharpa Publications, 1991. P. 22.

 

17 Getty A. The Gods of Northern Buddhism. London: Oxford Clarendon Press, 1914; Gordon A. The Iconography of Tibetan Lamaism. New York, 1914. Nowadays this approach is used by, e. g. Landaw J., et al. Images of Enlightenment. Ithaca, 1993.