Given by Lama Tsultrim Yeshe on June 12, 2022.
The transcription below contains additional information

Visualizing a deity or deities while meditating or performing a puja is one of the principal methods used in the Tibetan tradition to transform our experience with the world. Deities are highly symbolic representations of awakened minds that have appeared to past masters in visions.

Deity practice involves imagining that you are an expression of the deity’s awakened mind, represented in thangkas and paintings. Realize that you are, and have always been, a Buddha who is completely enlightened with all qualities. You come to realize this through deity practice.

We all want to be free of suffering and to do so we follow three paths: Foundation (Hinayana), Mahayana, and Vajrayana. In the first two paths (yanas), the goal of practice is Buddhahood. In Vajrayana, the goal is to realize the state of Vajradhara.

Who is Vajradhara? From the Karmapa’s website:  “Vajradhara is the primordial buddha, the dharmakaya buddha. Vajradhara, depicted as dark blue in color, expresses the quintessence of Buddhahood itself. Vajradhara represents the essence of the historical Buddha’s realization of enlightenment.” For example, the Karmapa is a manifestation of Vajradhara; the Dalai Lama is a manifestation of Chenrezig.

Deities can be peaceful, semi-wrathful, or wrathful in appearance. They can also be depicted in yab yum, in which the female figure is seated in the lap of the male. This pairing represents the union of wisdom (female) and compassion (male).

The Trikaya

Additionally, there are three bodies of a Buddha—the Trikaya—known as Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya, and Nirmanakaya. The Dharmakaya aspect is enlightenment, primordial mind without origination or reference point, and empty with limitless potential. The Sambhogakaya is the visionary and communicative aspect of Dharmakaya. Called the “enjoyment body” it is in an environment of compassion and communication. The Dharmakaya and Sambhogakaya are non-corporeal and accessed during pujas. Bodhisattvas remain in Samsara to help us reach enlightenment.

The Nirmanakaya is a physical embodiment of the Buddha. It is a manifestation of enlightenment in our world. Traditionally, it is defined in three ways:

  1. As a manifestation of a completely realized Buddha, such as Gautama Siddhartha, who is born in the world and teaches in it;
  2. As a seemingly ordinary being who is blessed with a special capacity to benefit others, also known as a Tulku;
  3. As a being through whom some degree of enlightenment works to benefit and inspire others through various arts, crafts, and sciences.

Kalu Rinpoche explained Nirmanakaya as “a spontaneous expression, just as light radiates spontaneously from the sun without the sun issuing directives or giving any conscious thought to the matter. The sun is, and it radiates.” [Kalu Rinpoche, The Dharma (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986) page 59.]

Three Jewels and Three Roots

Buddhists take refuge in the Three Jewels in the Foundation and Mahayana teachings. These are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Buddha is an example we can follow to gain enlightenment. The Dharma in this context refers to the written and oral teachings that explain the path to Buddhahood. The Sangha is two-fold—those who have taken extensive vows, the ordained sangha, and the lay sangha.

Those following the Vajrayana path also take refuge in the Three Jewels and add to it the Three Roots—the Lama, the Yidam, and the Dharmapalas. A lama, also known as a guru, is the root of all blessings. The guru is the source of the other two roots. The Gyalwang Karmapa is considered our root guru.

A yidam, meaning that which binds the mind, is the root of spiritual attainment. We visualize ourselves as a yidam in some of the pujas. Dharmapalas or Dharma Protectors, are the root of Buddha activity. Dharmapalas protect the practitioner from deceptions or obstacles. Although usually wrathful, Dharmapalas are also compassionate, performing the enlightened actions of pacifying, enriching, magnetizing, and destroying, thereby protecting the integrity of the teachings and practice.

The Three Roots are like a wish-fulfilling jewel. They fulfill all our wishes by showing the way and leading us to enlightenment. The Three Roots are in the Vajrayana path alone but the Vajrayana path is considered part of Mahayana because of the practitioner’s motivation. Practices of the Three Roots guide one to enlightenment. When doing a puja, also known as a sadhana, the primary deity is considered the essence of the body, speech, and mind of the guru.

Qualities for success on the Buddhist path

These are qualities that lead a practitioner to success on the path:

  1. Devotion to the guru;
  2. Trust in the guru that is free of doubt. We trust in the outer guru, our practice, and in our inner guru. The latter is confidence in our inherent Buddha Nature or that you have the nature of the deity you are practicing.
  3. Faith in the teachings. There are three kinds of faith: A) Longing faith—one has an interest in the teachings and wants to learn more about them and be like the guru. B) Trusting faith—you begin to know and trust the guru and open your heart to him or her, letting down your guard and gaining experience. C) Lucid faith—this is the direct experience of emptiness that becomes the guru.

Additional qualities that aid practitioners include one-pointed concentration, being aware of your mindfulness, seeing trees instead of a forest, and secrecy. This means one shouldn’t talk about their practice, especially their realization, except with lamas because this can cause others to become discouraged. Additionally, this kind of speech is usually infused with pride which causes arrogance and obstacles in the path.

Tantra, another name for Vajrayana, is known as secret mantra. (A mantra is protection for the mind.) Employing secrecy is not the same thing as keeping a secret in ordinary life. Secret in the context of Buddhist practice means the powerful tantric methods should be considered a precious treasure and kept between you and your lama.

“In other words, be a great yogi inwardly and outwardly be subdued.

Karmapa Khyenno

Transcribed by Ellie Strand. Any mistakes are mine alone.

To Be Continued…