If you feel stuck in your practice, as though your meditation is not creating a permanent shift away from your tired old patterns, consider introducing some deity practice from the Tibetan tradition.
In the last couple of weeks, I’ve heard from a couple of folks in Buddhist traditions famous for plain sitting practice that they’ve found some deity practice to their routine after many years in quietude. One man mentioned that he’d adopted a rarely done Korean Zen practice of self-visualization as Buddha with all symbolic the marks and signs of Buddhahood. Isn’t that interesting?
In deity practice (called by various names in the different schools of Tibetan Buddhism) you move away from viewing yourself as an ordinary human being and make your practice finding your natural Buddhaness. To to this, you re-envision yourself, born as fully awakened. Instead of a human mother’s womb, you can see that you are born from a perfect lotus flower that supports you. Your stainless mind does not split into two, taking a position based on conceptual judgements—that kind of wisdom—is represented as a flat sun on top of your lotus. Because of your vast realization, you’re always helping others in the most effective ways. The moon disk that you sit or stand upon represents this ability. The world around you is a perfect palace and the people you meet are Buddhas: you may look around and see them arrayed in all directions. Think like that.
Deity as Accelerant
There are many, many Buddhas in Tibetan Buddhism and all are ways of depicting the qualities of enlightenment. The teachings of the Buddha as told in the Mahayana sutras, say that gathering the necessary merit and wisdom to reach enlightenment takes aeons. Whole worlds can end and new ones form before you reach enlightenment from doing good deeds and peacefully meditating. If we believe that, then it is an understatement to say the pace of spiritual development from practicing Mahayana is glacial. Deity practices, and the practices that follow them, are for those who don’t want to wait that long.
Remembering the Deity means Forgetting Your Engrained Habits
There are many traditional deity practices in Tibetan Buddhism. What I have seen be a very powerful approach is for people to practice the deity/Buddha who represents the karmic habit that is most prominent in their mindstreams. We believe in karma, don’t we? Karma means our tendencies, disposition.—the ones that guide our trajectory in this life, propel us into the particular style of dumb-ass situations that we find ourselves in, over and over again. For example, when I was a kid, I tried unsuccessfully to fight off a certain kind of physical abuse. The feeling of being embattled comes up repeatedly for me, and can drag me down. Practicing the deity Vajrakilaya, a great big blue Buddha who radiates flames and wields a mighty dagger, leads the recurrent storyline in a new direction. As Vajrakilaya, I am leading an army—but it is a force raised against my own delusion. The mandala of the deity becomes a theater in which I can slay my own seemingly perpetual drama. I can wage a heroic struggle to wake up in this very life.
Someone who feels they must always strive for more and more knowledge might be drawn to the peaceful deity Manjushri, who uses a book and a great sword that cuts through stupidity with incisive clarity as tools. Ironically, he or she will develop a mind less cluttered by a multitude of thoughts become accustomed to resting in a state of pristine clarity beyond thought.
Someone who holds kind protective motherhood as the highest ideal might find him or herself working with Tara practice. In the process she may find she becomes a mother to herself and expands her love from being narrowly focused, caring for the people closest to her, and a state of uniform adoption. Everyone—human and non-human—are her children. Even within this motherhood paradigm, there are twenty-one different styles to suit every kind of divine mother; the activist Green Tara, the sensual Kurukulla, the immortal White Tara, the creative and musical Saraswati, and so on.
Guru Rinpoche is the embodiment of the ultimate guiding principle, the spiritual teacher. And within that archetype, Guru Rinpoche practices many professions, from wizard, to religious scholar, to peaceful monk, to a fierce and powerful Superhero subduing negative forces.
How to Enter into the Practice
You don’t enter into this practice on your own. A lama who has done the practice in-depth themselves initiates you. If you’ve ever seen an announcement for something called an “empowerment,” that’s it. It is usually a group event.
Before you decide to attend an empowerment, it’s critical that you investigate the lama. He or she must be someone you will be able to view purely for your entire lifetime. I suggest Googling them (“_lama’s name_____ controversy”, “_lama’s name_____ fake,” etc) and ask around before you go. Check to see that they are truly recognized and respected within their lineage of Tibetan Buddhism—Kagyu, Nyingma, Sakya, Gelug, Jonang, or Bon.
The order of things goes like this, ideally: 1. Empowerment/initiation ceremony 2. Reading transmission. 3. Instructions how to do the practice. 4. You ‘re given a practice text to take home with you.
Make a practice of viewing the lama, and circle of student were also present for the empowerment, in the best light. Leave with the contact info of someone, be it a senior student or the lama, to follow-up with if you have questions.
How to Wrestle with the Practice
Until recently, these practices were initially done in a three to six-month secluded retreat. Afterwards, you would practice it in daily life, often with a quite abbreviated text. Nowadays, most of the lamas have developed guidelines for doing these practices in working life. They are delighted when folks show up saying they want to seriously wrestle with the practice they have been given, on a daily basis. If you have already developed a disciplined daily practice routine, such as mindfulness, zen, shambhala, or vipassana, it’s appropriate to tell the lama that. You can say “I already do x minutes of silent sitting practice a day.” You can ask “How can I work this into my routine?” How you integrate the practice with your life should be in harmony with the lama’s instructions. Because the great lamas of today often travel the world and have many students, you may or may not see them again in the near term. But, still, you should think that tyou are practicing in concert with the lama and the specific lineage of enlightened masters that preceded him or her.
You will recite mantras and count them with a mala or counter, apply yourself to visualizations, cultivate an enlightened perspective. At its most basic level, the practice is like any mindfulness meditation of the various Buddhist traditions. You bring your attention the object of focus. Your attention wonders. You gently bring it back. Sound familiar?
This is one way you can take the fruit as the path. By that I mean you can focus on deities, representations of enlightenment itself, as a practice. Your need to chatter is given something to do; recite mantra. Your busy thinking mind is given something to do; visualize. Your restless body is given something to do; count mantra.
While maintaining a trusting and respectful attitude toward the lama, you can have some curiosity and an open mind. Notice what your experience is after a day or a week of doing a deity practice daily. Has anything shifted? What? After another week or month, you can ask someone close to you how you have seemed to them lately. While it’s a long shot that you will break through to the Bodhisattva levels in that time (maybe everyone has but me, I have no way of knowing) changes are possible in a short period. These can be built upon over months or years.