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Dharma Protectors Within the Gelug

Are Dharma Protectors Necessary?

This is a continuation of a previous post I did on Dharma protectors within the Gelug tradition. A question I think that needs to be asked is if Dharma protector practice is necessary or even important.

One might argue that even though the Tibetan tradition emphasizes Dharma protector practice quite strongly, in some cases it might not be a good practice for all western practitioners.

Following the Laws of Karma is the Best Protector

For instance, Venerable Thubten Chodron, a well known western Buddhist teacher and abbess of Sravasti Abbey, actually doesn’t encourage the use of Dharma protectors.

She encourages her students to follow the rules of karma as best as possible, and that serves as their Dharma protector. Or they can practice something like Green Tara or 21 Taras to remove obstacles. When she was in the process of raising funds for Sravasti Abbey, she made praises to Tara instead of praises to a Dharma protector, so I think through her example, she is showing a viable alternative.

For myself, I do have Dharma protectors practices, but I mainly do ones that are encouraged by the FPMT and ones that don’t go against His Holiness the Dalai Lama.

Protector Practice is Tantric Practice, and the Vajryana Isn’t For Everybody

Protector practice is a balancing system, done in conjuction with guru yoga and yidam practice, or tantric practice. The best explanations I’ve heard about these systems of practice, is that guru yoga creates an intense longing to merge the mind and heart with enlightened qualities. This develops intense awareness, that for some people, can last for days. My teacher says that within our tradition, guru yoga is what reduces grasping in everyday life.

Chakrasamvara is a semi-wrathful yidam

Guru yoga is combined with yidam practice. Most of us have many shattered views of ourselves. Some people are engineers, but think of themselves as poets. Some run companies, but think they’re really  philantrophists. Some people think they’re too annoying, too uninteresting, etc. Yidam practice says you get one identity, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. For instance, having Chenrezig as a  yidam means that all actions of body, speech, and mind are to be imbued with enlightened compassion.  All the other “shattered” identities get swept up and discarded through the method of yidam practice. If you experience resistence to this, it becomes a chance to examine why. Some people say that you become the yidam. I’ve also heard that it’s actually the opposite, the yidam becomes you. The yidams take over you until what you clinged to has disappeared. For instance, the semi-wrathful yidams look like vampires. This isn’t a coincidence. Over time, they suck away habituated patterns of thinking until you’re completely gone.

I think a lot of people get involved in Vajayana because it’s esoteric and mystical. People want what they feel radiates power, they want the “highest” and “baddest” and “most secretive.” I wonder if they knew what it was for, if they’d dare take initiations. This is the unique quality of vajrayana practice, it’s very intense and effective. At the same time, it’s not for everyone. Just to prepare for highest forms of tantra, someone is supposed to do the practice of ngondro and have a solid basis in sutra, or lamrim teachings.

During the course of this intense practice, sometimes our darker tendencies tend to build up or start putting up a resistence. Not because the yidam is bad or evil, but its because we have skeletons in our closet that haven’t been addressed yet. Protector practice is like the balancing act, that takes care of the darker tendencies that want to get out. It doesn’t suppress them, it skillfully takes care of them. I think if protector practice isn’t seen from the viewpoint of a balancing system, it can make things confusing. Doing too much protector practice, in some cases, can really disturb a person.

My Own Observations

I don’t think many western practitioners will understand protector practices for several reasons. One is for cultural reasons. In a protector practice, someone takes out their darkest recesses of their psyche and is able to deal with it in a skillful manner. Westerners might get a glimpse of the darkest parts of their psyche when they watch horror films, but that doesn’t directly address the problem. If anything, it just comes out more and leaves a person feeling agitated for a couple days. For the most part, the “boogey man” stays in the closet.

I think that’s why a protector practice, at first glance, can be seen as horrifying or simply weird. Protectors are hulking, scary figures that are armed with weapons and appear blood thirsty. In a protector practice, a person basically tells a protector to “take care of this problem (obstacles to awakening) at your own discretion.”  The protector you instruct to “take care of the problem”, wears a necklace with 50 human heads dripping blood and wields a skull-club or a trident, and has teeth like a giant bear. A protector may try to pacify through peaceful methods, or it can simply go the other direction. It may seem primitive, but it works deep and effectively.

I like how Ken McLeod explains protectors. He says people get scared when they realize they’re inviting a protector, but the protector isn’t an external thing. It’s a manifestation of awakening mind present with us, and it knows exactly what needs to be severed in order to keep moving towards awakening. The question is: “Are we prepared to let the process unfold?” I think when a person starts to get a feel for what a protector is, a certain amount of fear arises, and second thoughts can occur. That’s probably natural. As Ken McCleod puts it, when engaging in the process and the protector energy is awakened, there can’t be any expectation that any of you will survive. As Chogyam Trungpa says, you can’t be awakened and still hold on to your idea of self.

This is why I think protector practice probably isn’t good for many westerners, especially those just beginning. Most people get introduced to Buddhism through books and are still trying to intellectually understand things, and that’s probably the safest and the correct method. Protector practice moves beyond intellect because when experiences generate, someone is supposed to let go of clinging and allow themselves to just rest in that exprience. Personally, I think that’s really difficult, unless the experience is so overwhelming that there’s nothing else to do.

Common Dharma Protectors Within the Gelug Tradtion

Palden Lhamo, a common dharma protector with the Gelug, supramundane protector

Palden Lhamo, a common Dharma protector with the Gelug

Palden Lhamo is a protector of the Dalai Lamas, Panchen Lamas, and many practitioners within the Gelugpa tradition. Palden Lhamo is also a wrathful emanation of Saraswati. Palden Lhamo is a supramundane protector.

Setrap, a common dharma protector with the Gelug, supramundane protector

Setrap, a common dharma protector with the Gelug

Setrap is an emanation of Amitabha, and is commonly practiced by Gelugpas. Setrap is also the main Dharma protector of Ganden Shartse. Setrap is a supramundane protector.

Palden Lhamo, a common dharma protector with the Gelug supramundane protector

Hayagriva, a common dharma protector with the Gelug

Hayagriva is an wrathful emanation of Avalokitishvara and is the main Dharma protector of Sera Je Monastery. Hayagriva is a supramundane Dharma protector.

Four-Armed Mahakala

Four-armed Mahakala or Four-faced Mahakala is an emanation of Manjushri. Four-armed Mahakal was propituated by Nagarjuna (a great commentator of the Middle Way), Arya Chandrakirti and Lama Tsongkhapa. Four-armed Mahakala also protects the Chakrasamvara or Heruka tantra. Four-armed Mahakala is a supramundane protector.

Recommended Resources:

I would recommend Ken McClod’s series on Guru, Deity, and Protector, to those interested in understand what this practice is really about.

Related Posts:

Dharma protectors within the Gelug Tradition

Tantric Symbolism and Confusion

Keeping Tantric Commitments After an Initiation

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