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Buddhadharma : Fall 2007
buddhadharma| 33 |fall 2007 In 1974 I was translating for Dezhung Rinpoche, a wonderfully warm and kind scholar and master who had settled in Seattle in the early sixties, soon after the Tibetan diaspora. He had come out of retirement in response to the inter- est in Tibetan Buddhism that had devel- oped in the seventies and beyond. A student asked about visualization practice and deity meditation. Dezhung Rinpoche closed his eyes and scrunched his forehead. He bobbed his head up and down as if he were concentrating very hard and said, “You visualize the head of the deity, then you visualize all those arms, then you visualize the implements, then the palace, then you try to see the whole deity clearly, but you lose one part, so you go back to visualize that ... And it’s all gone. You start again, and the same thing happens, again, and again.” Then he opened his eyes wide, looked right at the student, smiled, and said, “And then you have a headache!” Deity practice is one of the central practices in Vajrayana Buddhism, yet many people do not understand how it works and have even questioned whether it is a valid form of Buddhist practice. When you look at the deities depicted in thangkas (scroll paintings) and on tem- ple walls, with their fantastic forms and facial expressions and the obvious but highly elaborate esoteric symbolism, you may well ask, “What do these have to do with waking up?” Until relatively recently, Sri Lankan and other Theravadin traditions regarded Tibetan Buddhism as little more than demon worship, a misconception that has fortunately waned now that these differ- ent traditions are interacting with each other. And compared to the simplicity and directness of Zen, the machinery and complexity of deity practice can be both intimidating and puzzling. While Tibetan Buddhism holds the most complete and vibrant transmissions of Vajrayana meth- ods, even Western students in this tradi- tion can find deity practice confusing. Many of them often have a hard time visualizing the complex forms or relating them to their lives in the modern world. This difficulty is understandable. Deity practice developed in a very dif- ferent culture and a very different era: early medieval India, which was a largely agricultural society, with a myth-based traditional culture that defined values, prescribed behaviors, and largely deter- mined what one could or couldn’t do in one’s life – a sharp contrast to the trade- based world full of individual choice that we live in today. In order to help clarify the nature and purpose of deity practice, I discuss it here in a way that gives one the actual flavor of this practice; that is, the sense of what might actually be happening experien- tially in deity practice. I also suggest an approach to deity practice that doesn’t depend on one’s ability to visualize viv- idly. After all, the purpose of this practice is not to generate sparkling imagery but to transform the way we experience the world and ourselves. Finally, for those who take up this practice, I suggest ways you might use the deity to be awake and present in your life. Classical deity practice uses traditional forms that represent the qualities and characteristics of an awake personality. Perhaps the approach to deity practice presented here will be more accessible to some of us who live and practice in a post-modern, post-industrial society, one that has largely replaced myth with rea- son (for better or worse), and in which Ken McLeod has coMpLeted two traditionaL three-year retreats in the tibetan buddhist tradition and was authorized to teach by his principLe teacher, the Late KaLu rinpoche. he is the author of Wake Up to YoUr Life: Discovering the BUDDhist path of attention and the founder of unfettered Mind. people have to make personal choices about values, behaviors, and directions in their lives (again, for better or worse). Let’s start by asking, What might deity practice look like if we eliminated the forms and went directly to the actual experience of being awake? Awake, in One Personality Spiritual practice is primarily a destructive process. It destroys the habitual tenden- cies that cause us to take subject-object duality, emotional reactions, conceptual processes, and sensory sensations as con- crete realities. In particular, we ordinar- ily regard ourselves as existent entities, an identification that is intimately inter- twined with our personality. In deity practice, we experience personality as a fortuitous accumulation of habitual pat- terns and see that, at its core, there is nothing with which to identify. With the destruction of the ordinary personality, along with its dualistic fixation, all the qualities of being awake – power, open- ness, insight, and compassion – are free to express themselves in our lives. What is personality? Most people take it to be the complex of behavioral, temperamental, emotional, and mental attributes that characterizes us as unique individuals. We usually see personal- ity as fixed. However, we don’t have to look very hard to see that it varies radi- cally from situation to situation. We may display care, patience, and restraint at work but not show the same patience or restraint with our families. Or we may be kind and loving with our spouse and children yet angry and impatient with employees and colleagues. When situ- (#503)vajrasattva(detail),collectionofrubinmuseumofartwww.rmanyc.org