Tibetan Buddhist Holidays – Dharmapala Day
Today is one of the Tibetan Buddhist holidays called Dharmapala (Dharma Protector) Day. This year it falls on March 8, 2016 which is incidentally International Women’s Day as well.
Tibetan Buddhism is part of the Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhist tradition dating back to the first millennium CE. This is a branch of Buddhism that was influenced by tantric in Hindu practices that were popular in the centuries following the Buddha’s death. These are the more sublime and imaginative teachings of the Buddha which centers around the Mahayana idea of becoming a Bodhisattva for the sake of all sentient beings.
Dharmapalas (Dharma Protectors)
Dharmapala translated from Sanskrit simply means “guardian of the teachings” or “protector of the Dharma”. They are deified guardians that guard the teachings of the Vajrayana (Diamond Vehicle) school.
They look fearsome and often are depicted in Vajrayana art as having multiple limbs and with fangs. But the truth is that though they do look pretty angry, they actually symbolize the force of fierce compassion as Buddhist teacher Robert Thurman likes to say.
Before I go on, I’d like to point out that although it may seem from an outside perspective that Buddhists are worshipping all of these various forms of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas as gods this is not exactly the case.
These are considered to be Buddhas and Bodhisattvas who attained enlightenment as humans and made the vow to be available to all sentient beings until all beings have attained enlightenment.
There are Eight Dharma Protectors that are depicted in Tibetan Buddhist iconography which are detailed below.
This is the fierce form of Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of gentle compassion. He is depicted as having black or dark blue skin, multiple arms, three bulging eyes, flames for eyebrows, a beard made of hooks, and a crown made from six skulls.
Among the Tibetan people, Mahakala is regarded as the protector of the nomadic tents or yurts and of monasteries. He removes the hindrances of confusion and ignorance and promotes the cultivation of virtue and wisdom.
Yama is the god of death and lord of the so-called “hell realms” who symbolizes impermanence. He is portrayed with a bull’s face, a third eye, and a crown of human skulls. Before Buddhism, Yama was the Hindu god of the dead who acted as judge of the underworld.
Yama is most commonly depicted as holding the Wheel of Life and in Tibetan Buddhist legends, he was considered to be originally a holy man (sadhu) who had meditated in a cave.
One night a few robbers entered the cave with a bull they had stolen and decapitated it, and when they found the holy man they beheaded him as well. Enraged, the sadhu put on the bull’s head and assumed the fearsome form of Yama and killed the robbers and then went on to threaten all of Tibet.
However the Tibetans went to Manjushri for protection, who then assumed the fierce form Yamantaka and defeated Yama. After this Yama became a dharmapala (dharma protector) of Buddhism.
Yamantaka is the fierce form of Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom who defeated Yama when he threatened all of Tibet. In appearance he mirrors Yama, though he had many more heads, arms, and legs and he is often shown riding a bull that is trampling Yama.
It is said that when Yama beheld Yamantaka he saw himself infinitely multiplied. If Yama represents death, then Yamantaka symbolizes the Enlightened Wisdom that is stronger than death.
Hayagriva is yet another fierce form of Avalokiteshvara the Bodhisattva of Compassion. He wears a horse’s head and frightens the demons of the hell realms by neighing like a horse. He is depicted with multiple arms and is considered to be the avatar (or emanation) of Lord Vishnu in Hinduism.
It is said that he has the power to cure skin conditions and functions as the protector of horses.
Vaisravana is a form of Kubera, the Hindu god of wealth. In Vajrayana Buddhism, it is said that he bestows prosperity that gives people the freedom to pursue their spirituality.
- Palden Lhamo
Palden Lhamo is the only dharmapala that is depicted in female form and is the consort of Mahakala. She is considered to be the protector of Buddhist governments, such as the exiled Tibetan government. She is also the protector of the Dalai Lama. She is shown in iconography as riding a white mule across a sea of blood.
In Tibetan mythology, it is said that Palden Lhamo was once married to an evil king who would murder his subjects on a whim so she resolved to either reform him or end the dynasty. In the ensuing decades she tried to reform him but to not avail so she resolved to end his dynasty.
She saw that her son was already being raised to be a destroyer of Buddhism, so she killed her son, skinned him, and drank his blood and rode away using her son’s flayed skin as a saddle.
For her actions she was reborn in the hell realms but she managed to steal a sword and a bag of diseases from the hell beings and fought her way back to the earth realm. But still she had no peace and she cried out for a reason to live. Buddha hearing this appeared to her and asked her to become a Dharmapala.
Keep in mind that these are not descriptions of literal events but are more symbolic and allegorical in nature.
- Tshangspa Dkarpo
This is technically the Tibetan name of the creator god Brahma in Hinduism, though the Tibetan version is more of a warrior god that is depicted mounted on a white horse brandishing a sword.
According to legend, Tshangspa once attempted to attack a sleeping goddess who then awoke and struck his thigh, turning him into a Dharmapala (Dharma Protector).
Begtse is actually another Tibetan war god whose representations date back to the 1500s CE. He is usually depicted in Mongolian boots and armor with a sword in one hand, and an enemy’s heart in the other
According to legend, when the Third Dalai Lama went to Mongolia to covert Altan Khan to Buddhism Begtse tried to stop him. But when he confronted him the Dalai Lama took on the form of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.
Upon witnessing this, Begtse became a Buddhist and a Dharmapala (Dharma Protector).
I think it is very appropriate the Dharmapala Day and International Women’s Day fall on the same day this year since women are in fact guardians as well. I think the power of women can be clearly seen in the story of Palden Lhamo who took back her son into herself (symbolism of killing and eating him) and ended a corrupt anti-Buddhist dynasty.
And we find the power of the female also evident in the story of Tshangspa Dkarpo who was transformed by the touch of a sleeping goddess.
I think we should take some time today to reflect on the contribution of all women without whom we would not be here today.