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The Lost Sadhanas Project
Methodology: Observer and Participant, Yidams and the Personal Side

In the field of Anthropology, there has recently been interest in the role of the researcher in relation to his or her informants and their systems of belief and practice. While the academic tradition usually has the researcher as a silent observer, staying separate from his or her informants and their beliefs, there has been a surge of interest in participant/observation, and in recent years some scholars in the field have been writing about the ways that they have been personally affected by their research.

An example is Goulet's book Being Changed by Cross-Cultural Encounters: The Anthropology of Extraordinary Experience. It discusses what can occur when the anthropologist is "open to aspects of experience that previously have been ignored or repressed." There is more room here for a methodology of observer-participation, and we see scholar-participants writing about cultures in which they have been immersed. However, this is not a dominant approach in the field, and having religious experiences in your area of study is not widely accepted in most academic departments. It is, however, the origin of this project.

While doing field research in the area of northeastern India, I came upon empowered statues, and through them figures from the Tibetan Buddhist Vajrayana tradition. I was aware of Vajrayana Buddhism and had a basic initiation into the Karma Kagyu lineage long ago, but I had not done much formal practice in it.

Encountering empowered objects is an odd event; you might look at a statue in Kalimpong and it looks back at you. Or you enter a cave in North Bengal and find that there is a conscious awareness in a rock or a stream. In Hinduism, this is darshan, a well-known direct relationship with a deity which is generally based on devotion. The Sanskrit term darshan means sight or vision, and it can refer to a direct encounter with a deity through religious vision (especially when seeing a holy person or a ritually-enlivened statue), and it can also refer to encountering direct truth through philosophy. In Mahayana Buddhism we hear of buddha-darsana, both as awareness of truth and as a religious vision.

However, spontaneous visionary darshan is not as popular in Buddhism as it is in Hinduism. Thus, the following teachings could be understood as a Hindu style of Buddhist experience. They are mostly narrated by three traditionally revelatory figures in Vajrayana Buddhism, the Vajra Dakini, the Vajra Yogini, and the Vajra Bhairava (I should note that this is a different sort of bhairava than that understood by the Shaiva Pashupatas and Kapalikas). These religious figures were concerned that the traditional role of yidams, or inner spiritual guides, has been declining in modern Buddhism. While giving novices yidams at initiation to help with their meditation is maintained in some smaller Buddhist lineages, this has been discontinued in the major ones. Most initiations will involve taking refuge and getting a spiritual name, but not receiving a bodhisattva, dakini or bhairava to help along the spiritual paths of meditation. This is a problem, for without a yidam to guide the novice, many forms of meditation would become difficult or impossible.

Encountering Yidams

Since my early encounters with them in the Himalayas, these yidams have been giving me teachings for well over twenty years. It is an interesting question what to do with such information. Should a historian of religion act as a participant/observer for his or her own revealed information? Organizing the data into a book would be one approach, but putting information online is easier and faster than dealing with publishers and reviewers. The translations from the images and feelings which are sometimes called 'dakini language' into English are also something that can be debated, for often there are no appropriate words in English. So what we have here is the closest approximation for a complex process.

In Tibetan Buddhist tradition, a hidden, lost, or suppressed teaching which is later revealed is called a terma, and the person who receives the revelation is called the terton. The process of translating terma information is difficult to explain. I would not use the modern metaphors of encryption, networking, and computer data storage. These leave out an important dimension of the process, which is the area of feeling and emotion.

The forms of the dakini and other deities that give revelatory information are not the original deities, but rather their emanations. The original forms are much too powerful for human minds to deal with. Emanations have specializations, such as communication. But this is not the abstract, dull data of textbooks and computer-readable languages. It is living and warm, for the dakinis appear to the terton in relatable forms. The information they give is not in the English, Sanskrit or Tibetan languages. It is in what looks like balls of mandalas (the maps and labyrinths which lead to Buddhist paradises or other spiritual goals), held together by feelings. When these 'mandala balls' are given by the dakini, they open up like flowers, and the feelings that bound the mandalas together turn to wonder and fascination, guaranteeing the attention of the terton. These mandalas are like living memories, and change in ways similar to moving kaleidoscopic images. Both form and color have symbolic meanings, and they are tinged by emotion. The stages of opening of these mandalas must then be translated into understandable English.

The translation process is almost automatic, with an occasional question about proper terminology. It would be very slow if each set of geometrical shapes and patterns had to be translated consciously and separately. The information almost translates itself, and it flows out faster than can be written.

Some images and metaphors are quite modern, and they are not consciously chosen. They are simply part of the flow of ideas. These deities seem to have the ability to work spontaneously with the translator's memories and emotions, and this allows them to use modern metaphors.

Yidams are guardians and also teachers, and part of the revelatory process involves their evaluating the skills of those they encounter. Doubtless different tertons have different styles of translation based on different skills, but this is the process with which I am most familiar.

These teachings are not for everybody. Indeed, with the lack of yidams today, they may be for relatively few Buddhist practitioners. But the information on lost rituals or sadhanas here suggests that sincere students of Tibetan Buddhism should not walk the inner path alone. Ideally, they should have the assistance of a yidam or inner guide. They might therefore consider making an effort to find a teacher who is willing and able to provide one - if not immediately, then in the near future when a certain stage of spiritual maturity and discipline is reached. Though this information is not for everyone, I find these teachings valuable enough to describe and document for those who are interested.

The Vajra Bhairava Describes the Importance of Yidams

As a direct quote from the Vajra Bhairava on the situation of yidams today states:

Most yidams are given through initiation. If we have a lineage that selflessly seeks the happiness of the world, all reasonable and serious seekers are given yidams and connected to guides. If we have lineages vain of power and tradition, relatively few are given inner guides. When we have egotistical lineages that hide teachings, then it is rare to find followers with yidams, and they must wait many years for the lama to decide that they are worthy. This is the lowest type of lineage.

It is not up to the lama or acharya to decide the worthiness of a candidate - it is up to the dakini or bhairava. If these guides do not like the person, they will not come. But they decide the worthiness, not the lama. For the lama to claim that role is to exceed his authority. It is like the butler deciding if the master's guest is worthy to enter the house.

If the Vajrayana lineages give out yidams, then they are doing their jobs. They are yidam distribution centers. But some do not do their job, and they force their novices to depend on the lamas for everything. In such cases, novices may be treated like servants, with bhairavas and dakinis only doled out to those most subservient. It is a violation of the Dharma.

As a general rule, if an obedient novice of good moral character cannot receive a guide within a year, then the lineage is claiming undue power, and the novice must look elsewhere. Very little deep transcendent insight comes from external teaching - all true transformational knowledge comes inwardly, and it should be guided by a dakini or bhairava.

If the lineages clutch their yidams like buried treasure, then the novice must go elsewhere. He or she usually has three choices. One is to go on pilgrimage to sacred sites where monks and saints have done meditation. Sometimes a link is maintained at such sites to the deities involved. Prolonged meditation in such places may rekindle the spark, and the past visionary atmosphere may return and the seeker may contact a yidam there.

The second choice is meditation, which creates a link. Bodhisattvas and other yidams are busy beings, rushing through the worlds in millions of emanations. They are like shooting stars that barely have time to breathe.

However, extended meditation and concentration on finding a yidam can slowly create a brilliant meditative flame around a person, and sooner or later, the sheer intensity of desire and concentration will capture the attention of the bodhisattva, bhairava, or dakini. It is the sheer desire for a guide which will draw one down if the person shines with the light of effort.

The third method to contact a yidam is through dream yoga. There are some bhairavas who prefer to work with people who are fully conscious. However, there are also guides who are willing to work with the inner bodies while the person is asleep. These are specialists and may be called down in different ways.

One technique is to visualize the inside of the physical body as perfectly empty and still. It should appear as dark, with perhaps only a few stars. The only winds are those of peace. Drops of nectar should be visualized as falling on invisible waters which respond with concentric circles of blue light. In the center of one of the circles is the bija [or seed] mantra HUM, lit up in neon blue light. This cleanses the inner body which then sparkles with subtle blue light. As the novice rests, he or she should chant a mantra, such as OM VAJRA DAKINI HUM or OM VAJRA BHAIRAVA HUM. By doing this each night, the mind is cleansed, and a pathway is developed for the entrance of the guide.

It is important to note that guides come at the beginning of a journey, not at the end. To put off a guide until years of philosophical training are over kills the spiritual development of the novice. The guide is most vital at the beginning, to untangle universal truth from lineage jargon.

If you seek a yidam, seek a beautiful one. One's path should begin in a positive way. Yidams can always take on their wrathful forms, but it is no way to begin. Destruction emerges when it is necessary, but first stepping onto the path is a creative choice. Visualize the light that reflects your inner being best, and then surround yourself with it like a great flame. Call upon a specific deity, or any bodhisattva who harmonizes with you. You must see with your heart that you do not have a ghost or demon that responds to your call, but a true guide. Ask his or her name, visualize the name and see if the being stays. If it stays true and bright, ask if it will guide you on the path. If he or she says yes, then this is your yidam.

Some practitioners may be unable to communicate directly with a yidam, but the yidam given during initiation or contacted by other means may still aid the person on the spiritual path. The bhairava describes the importance of having a yidam apart from doing the Bodhi-Tree practice:
Many people can relate to yidams indirectly. Many initiates are able to sense the presence of a yidam in dreams or meditation. However, it is not always recognized as the yidam. The yidam may be perceived in many ways: as an inner light, a sense of presence, an impulse to meditate or do good works in the world, or a sense of appreciation for one's life experience. It is rare that these are attributed to the yidam. Instead, such experiences are understood as spontaneous spiritual feelings.

Even if communication is indirect, contacting a yidam can help with spiritual growth. Yidams can help in subtle ways for people who do not have inner vision.

The most important contribution of the yidam is guidance and protection in meditation. But these advantages also appear at death, when the whirlwind comes, and the elements of the body are scattered in all directions. The bodily chaos is often reflected in the mind, and its separation from the brain is so chaotic that meditation is difficult or impossible. The yidam then appears as a calming influence, a sense of peace amid destruction and violence, and shows the road out of the darkness. Where the road leads depends on the person's karma, but the yidam eases the way, brings organization to the process, and lessens fear and distress.

The yidam for the Bodhi Tree meditation, our first "lost sadhana", is a bhairava emanation of Vajradhara (not the more well-known bhairava form of the Hindu god Rudra/Shiva but rather a Buddhist bhairava). As he states:

I have been assigned by Vajradhara to direct your progress. My role as bhairava is both guardian and guide. As guardians, we accompany buddhas on their adventures in their emanational forms, make straight the path, clarify the winds, and create the backgrounds. We make the celestial gardens and mountains where the buddhas sit.

As guides, we accompany those blessed by the buddhas. We work with their karma, opening cramped passageways causing the seeds of karma (bijas), which contain past frustrations and anxieties, to blossom. We try to motivate these individuals and direct their minds. We put on terrifying forms to frighten them into obedience.

There are many bhairavas, and Vajradhara is our lord. We spread out in concentric circles around him. Some circles have yoginis and dakinis in human form. These circles retreat far back into space. They move inward and outward at the same time. The meditator must jump from one spinning wheel to another to pass from the guardians who surround the buddha, to the buddha's realm.

As bhairavas, we are dedicated to Vajradhara, who is the Adi-bhairava, the primordial buddha form and bhairava form in one. As Adi-buddha, he is the origin of universal order and stability. As Adi-bhairava, he acts to maintain this order in a continually shifting universe. We are his emanations, and we work in the more manifest worlds.

We are linked with practitioners through initiation. This ritual creates a karmic link, which allows us to interact in the practitioner's life. It also creates mutual obligations and responsibilities.

It is the Buddhist practitioner's obligation to show respect, and to listen to the guide's words. It is the guide's obligation to help the practitioner in meditation, if he or she is distracted, of weak concentration or endangered.

Bhairavas who act as guides normally specialize in one of three areas. These are karma, purification, and performance of ritual. Karma bhairavas can see the webs of karma in which people are bound, and work with past lives in order to cleanse the mind. Purification bhairavas work primarily with mantras to rid the body of impurities by vibrating each region or aspect of it. Ritual bhairavas oversee both temple and private ritual.

I am a karma bhairava. As karma bhairavas, we look at the karma of the practitioner, analyze the information, and draw conclusions. We act without generating karma ourselves. We do our duty. This is the best way to act in order not to create karma. Figure out your responcibilities and your goals in life, and act without passion to perform your duty and attain those goals.

Most bhairavas are described in the literature as wrathful. This is only one form that we take. Like bodhisattvas, we may appear in both peaceful and frightening forms. But our deeper forms are light.

By acting as yidams, bhairavas and dakinis guide the meditative practices of novices. They have been concerned recently that modern Buddhism has neglected this aspect of meditation. Inner guides are important for deeper practices.

Sometimes the worlds of the celestial buddhas are understood as imaginal worlds, which are worlds deliberately accessed through the imagination. There is some debate whether these are created consciously or unconsciously, or they exist independently in ways similar to Jung's understanding of autonomous complexes. In Western interpretations of Vajrayana Buddhism, their pragmatic uses are emphasized. These worlds are understood as sources for personal healing, creativity, and insight, as well as inspirations for social, cultural, and political transformation. We see descriptions of the sambhogakaya (or inner) realms in Buddhist literature, ritual, meditation, and art, and also as a part of Buddhist philosophical theories on the creative dynamic between mind, action, and world.

In these writings, the sambhogakaya can be understood to exist in many ways. It can be shaped by the perceiver, but also exists separately from the observer. It can be understood as full or empty, a stepping-stone to limitless light or formless emptiness. If we wish to add a psychological comparison, Jung's ideas of autonomous complexes could be relevant. However, Jung placed these in the archetypal realms of the collective unconscious, which he understood to be limited to human beings. He avoided discussing issues of theology and the divine, on which he felt that he was not qualified. In the writings that follow, consciousness is much broader, underlying the energies which are the ground and source of matter. The human collective unconscious would be a narrow surface on the vast realms of consciousness which act as the foundation for the material world. Deeper still, we have the interplay of wisdom and compassion which make up the supernatural worlds, and beyond that is pure, infinite potential. This perspective requires a different understanding of the mind than is generally found in modern psychology.

The next few sections will add some historical background by discussing the situation of esoteric groups within Buddhism. Then we will return to the Bodhi Tree meditation which is directed by the Vajra Bhairava described in the previous few paragraphs. To go directly to the introduction of the first lost sadhana, the Bodhi Tree meditation,
click here.

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Introduction | Methodology - Participant/Observer | The Bodhi Tree Sadhanas | Vajra Dakini Discussion | Vajra Dakini Commentary | Vajra Dakini Sadhanas | Vajra Yogini Commentary | Maitreya Sadhanas | Vajradhara Speaks About yidams | Lost Sadhanas Conclusion


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