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The yidam is the spiritual guide who reveals inner truths. It can take various forms and roles. These include mother, brother or friend, teacher, protector, bride or lover, and God-emperor. The person should gain a yidam through initiation, when the lama or guru will sense who the yidam should be. It can be any bodhisattva or dakini or bhairava, or in some cases a deva from an older fusion with Hinduism. The initiate will worship the yidam through several basic relationships to determine the one that is most powerful.
First he (or she) will see the yidam as mother. In this role, the yidam is the parent of the true spiritual self. As the earthly mother gives the person a body, the yidam as mother reveals the soul.
Then the yidam is brother or friend. It evokes the trust that is so important for the growing child. The friend role encourages individuality rather than just obedience, and brings greater responsibility.
Then there is the teacher role. This is the most widespread role, for the initiate must learn the ways of the inner as well as the outer world. The yidam here is the guide and pathfinder.
The yidam may also be the protector and guardian, the warrior or soldier who helps the initiate tread the paths he has learned. The yidam guards against distractions, and can be called upon to rescue the soul in times of danger. The protector role is usually wrathful, as the powerful relative who comes in to protect the soul when it is attacked.
The yidam may also be the bride or the lover, who holds the mystery of the universe within his or her heart. As bride, her love is pure, and she transforms lust into beauty and bliss. While the iconography shows the consort in sexual union, this is only symbolic. Sex is far too narrow and limited. When the yidam is a heavenly consort, she transforms the initiate into ever-expanding bliss. The body of the initiate becomes like an exploding star, whose rings of light expand into the universe. For female devotees, the yidam may be the god who comes down and embraces the soul, filling her with brilliance.
The yidam may also appear as a God/emperor, the absolute ruler, while the initiate is his servant. The emanation form is then gradually withdrawn, and the original form revealed. The yidam may appear as buddha or bodhisattva, in celestial form, with ornaments and a paradise. This vision is so bright that it dissolves the ego, and it takes up the entire range of vision. The initiate may take the role of slave, servant, helper, admirer, or emanation. The last is the highest, for the yidam itself is an emanation. From this perspective, the initiate fuses into the yidam, which is revealed as the emanation of the bodhisattva or other deity. In multiple levels of unity, the initiate is merged with both emanation and origin.
When the decision was made to stop giving yidams at the ceremony of taking refuge, this practice was hidden, only to be used by advanced practitioners. But things which are hidden can become lost and forgotten, and that is what has largely happened with this practice.
Today, the intuitive skills of the guru and lama have declined. This ritual would have kept them sharp. Now yidams must act almost totally on their own.
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