Yidams - the Source of Accomplishments by Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, Vienna, October 1987.
The special methods of the Vajrayana aim at bringing the appearances, which we generally experience as impure, to a pure level. The central point of this transformation is the understanding that only on the relative level do all phenomena appear as we experience them. On the absolute level, they don't have any real existence - they are nothing but a dream, an illusion. If one understands the true essence of all things, this in itself becomes the experience of their purity.
One cannot transform impure experiences into pure ones just by reciting a mantra in order to change phenomena. It is also not through some special substances possessing such powers, or through offerings to some gods who in return help us. All this has nothing to do with what is happening in the Vajrayana. What it is all about is developing the understanding that the world of appearances does not present itself as confusion; it is our clinging to things which brings up confusion. In order to experience the purity of all things, there is nothing more to do than to understand that on the relative level things appear due to various conditions and due to dependent occurrence, but on the absolute level they are not truly existent. These two aspects are not separate from each other.
What is meant by "impure appearances" or "pure appearances?" "Impure" refers to our belief that things are real and exist independently from each other. The belief that things are truly existent is an extreme view which is not correct because the true nature of all things is emptiness. If one wants to recognize the emptiness of all phenomena one cannot just accept what one is told. In fact, it would be very difficult to understand the true nature of things simply by talking or hearing about it.
It is not the mere appearance of things which brings about confusion, it is the way we relate to things and cling to them as being real. Because things in themselves are empty, they are beyond the categories of arising and ceasing. The fact that they appear is the aspect of unobstructed self-expression. The various methods of the Vajrayana are used in order to understand that.
For the practice of the Vajrayana, one needs the view that things only appear on the relative level but in their true nature they are not really existent. Nevertheless, one still believes things are real. These are the two different perspectives, and what it is all about is to connect both of them so that they are not constantly contradicting each other. The different Vajrayana methods, as for example the meditation on Buddha aspects (Tib.: yidam, lit.: mind-bond) and mantras are used to bring these apparent contradictions to an end.
Among the "three roots" of the Vajrayana - lama, yidam and protector - it is the lama who is the most important; yidam and protector are manifestations of the lama. The mind of the lama is the Dharmakaya, the emptiness of space. The yidams appear out of it as an expression of the mind's inherent compassion and clarity. Thus they do not have the kind of true existence as is attributed to worldly gods.
The reason that the yidams appear in manifold forms, for example peaceful and wrathful, is that the disciples have different attitudes, views and aspirations. In order to meet these different wishes, there are different appearances of the yidams as an expression of the compassion of the lama. The yidams also appear in so many different ways in order to symbolize that the whole spectrum of our clinging to impure appearances is purified.
Now, we have a dualistic perception and are always thinking in dualistic categories. Therefore, we are not able to relate to the ultimate yidam and we need something which represents him. The many forms of the yidams which we know from pictures are in that form symbols for the ultimate yidam. The meditation on the yidam deities is divided into two phases, the so called developing phase (Tib.: Kjerim) and the completion phase (Tib.: Dsogrim). The meaning of it is as follows.
All appearances arise in a mutual dependence. Something arises at a certain time, stays for a while and disappears again. The two phases of meditation are used in order to symbolize that the principle of arising and disappearing is carried on to a pure level. The arising of a deity symbolizes that the clinging to the arising of the commonly experienced world is purified. The developing phases have different elements: first one visualizes oneself as the deity, then one visualizes the deity in the space in front of oneself, one makes offerings and praises, etc. The reason that one visualizes oneself first as the yidam is the following: we all consider ourselves as being very important. If now somebody tells us, "You are not really existent," then this is difficult for us to understand and to accept. In the developing phase one deals with it in a way that one does not think about whether one exists or not, but one simply disregards this question and visualizes oneself in the form of the deity. If one visualizes oneself as the deity, while being aware that the yidam is an expression of complete purity, the clinging to an "I" disappears naturally.
The visualization of the yidam in space in front of oneself works in a similar way. Now we cling to all the outer objects we perceive. In the developing phase one imagines the whole outer world as the palace of the yidam. The yidam is in the middle of the palace, and all beings appear in the form of the yidam. By visualizing the impure appearances in their pure form one overcomes the clinging to them.
Therefore, it is important to understand that all the elements of the developing phase have a symbolic content. Without this understanding, for example believing the deity to be truly existent, one just confuses oneself in the meditation and even increases the illusion. If one uses the various developing and completion phases of the yidams, it is important to know the meaning of their different forms. Why, for example, does one visualize 16 arms, four legs, etc., if two are actually enough? To believe that we must visualize this because the yidams actually look like this would be a misconception. To believe in the true existence of the yidam is a little bit ridiculous and very confusing. Instead of that, one should understand that there is something which is purified and something which is a method of purification. The visualization of an yidam with four arms, for example, is a symbol of purifying our general way of experiencing things in so-called fourfold categories. For example the four elements and everything else we believe to appear in a fourfold manner. The three eyes of a yidam symbolize the overcoming of our way of thinking in threefold categories. For example the three times. The same applies to all the other details of the deity; all of them have the meaning to purify our common clinging to the world of our experiences.
Without this understanding, one ends up in the meditation full of misconceptions. One either holds things to be true or to be not existent at all. That is how one enters an entirely wrong path, which does not have anything to do with Vajrayana or Buddhism as such. To believe the yidams to be truly existent and not understand that they are symbols of the purification of our conceptual ideas about the experienced world only increases concepts further. It has the effect that the illusions, which one already has, become stronger, which can then lead to the experience of fear during the meditation or to the appearance of thoughts which one does not know how to deal with. Therefore, it is so important in the meditation practice, especially in the Vajrayana, to acquire the right view.
How does this right view look? It is the understanding that the relative appearance of things and their ultimate reality are a unity, that they are not separate from each other and not contradicting each other.
The developing phases of the yidam-deities correspond to the relative truth, the way things appear. The completion phases correspond to the principle that ultimately things are not truly existent. At the same time one needs the understanding that both form a unity.
The completion phases are used to avoid falling into the extreme view of believing things to be truly existent. The developing phases avert the extreme view of believing things to not exist at all, to only be empty. The understanding that both form a unity gives rise to the understanding that everything is the union of joy and emptiness. By meditating in this way, through the application of the yidam practice, the relative and the ultimate achievements can be obtained. In that sense, the yidam is called "the root of accomplishments."
The protectors, "the root of activity", can bee seen as the manifold expression of the yidams, which again are the expression of the Dharmadhatu mind of the lama. The meaning of the protectors, since the Vajrayana is a very profound path, is to protect one from the many conflicting circumstances and hindrances which may appear while being on that path. One relies on the protectors to pacify and eliminate these hindrances. Yidams and protectors are very important in the Vajrayana, however the lama, the root of blessing, is the most important element. The reason is that only through the lama can blessing and inspiration enter ones own mindstream.
All elements which are used on the Vajrayana path have a profound meaning. The body of the yidam is the unity of appearance and emptiness, the mantra is the unity of sound and emptiness, and the mind is the unity of awareness and emptiness. If one applies these elements to one's own practice, by abiding completely in this awareness, one can let the pride of the deity arise in oneself. But in order to do so one has to understand the real meaning of these things. It is not about simply visualizing oneself as the deity, because by the mere visualization one does not achieve this understanding.
Practitioners have to understand three things. The view is that both kinds of reality make up an inseparable unity. For the path, the understanding that method and wisdom are a unity is important. Concerning the fruit, one needs the understanding that the two kayas which are achieved are a unity. Especially when practicing Mahamudra or Maha Ati, the understanding of these three elements is very important. Otherwise, one cannot realize the fruit through this practice.
What about the so called "ultimate yidam"? Chenrezig (Loving Eyes) for example appears in a very specific form, with four arms, etc. Nevertheless, this is not the ultimate aspect of this yidam; it is just the way he appears. The ultimate yidam is the awareness that Chenrezig's expression is the compassion of all Buddhas.
The form Dorje Phagmo (Diamond Sow) has is a symbolic form. The ultimate Dorje Phagmo is that the space of phenomena is the highest transcendent wisdom, the mother of all Buddhas which gives rise to all Buddhas. She is the paramita of wisdom.
Buddhism Today, No.4, 1995. Copyright ©1995 Diamond Way Buddhist Centers USA