Imagine You're Enlightened

This article first appeared in Buddhadharma, Fall 2007.

In 1974 I was translating for Dezhung Rinpoche, a wonderfully warm and kind scholar and master who had settled in Seattle in the early sixties, soon after the Tibetan diaspora. He had come out of retirement in response to the interest in Tibetan Buddhism that had developed in the seventies and beyond.

A student asked about visualization practice and deity meditation. Dezhung Rinpoche closed his eyes and scrunched his forehead. He bobbed his head up and down as if he were concentrating very hard and said, “You visualize the head of the deity, then you visualize all those arms, then you visualize the implements, then the palace, then you try to see the whole deity clearly, but you lose one part, so you go back to visualize that… And it’s all gone. You start again, and the same thing happens, again, and again.” Then he opened his eyes wide, looked right at the student, smiled, and said, “And then you have a headache!”

Deity practice is one of the central practices in Vajrayana Buddhism, yet many people do not understand how it works and have even questioned whether it is a valid form of Buddhist practice. When you look at the deities depicted in thangkas (scroll paintings) and on temple walls, with their fantastic forms and facial expressions and the obvious but highly elaborate esoteric symbolism, you may well ask, “What do these have to do with waking up?”

Until relatively recently, Sri Lankan and other Theravadin traditions regarded Tibetan Buddhism as little more than demon worship, a misconception that has fortunately waned now that these different traditions are interacting with each other. And compared to the simplicity and directness of Zen, the machinery and complexity of deity practice can be both intimidating and puzzling. While Tibetan Buddhism holds the most complete and vibrant transmissions of Vajrayana methods, even Western students in this tradition can find deity practice confusing. Many of them often have a hard time visualizing the complex forms or relating them to their lives in the modern world.

This difficulty is understandable. Deity practice developed in a very different culture and a very different era: early medieval India, which was a largely agricultural society, with a myth-based traditional culture that defined values, prescribed behaviors, and largely determined what one could or couldn’t do in one’s life — a sharp contrast to the trade-based world full of individual choice that we live in today.

In order to help clarify the nature and purpose of deity practice, I discuss it here in a way that gives one the actual flavor of this practice; that is, the sense of what might actually be happening experientially in deity practice. I also suggest an approach to deity practice that doesn’t depend on one’s ability to visualize vividly. After all, the purpose of this practice is not to generate sparkling imagery but to transform the way we experience the world and ourselves. Finally, for those who take up this practice, I suggest ways you might use the deity to be awake and present in your life.

Classical deity practice uses traditional forms that represent the qualities and characteristics of an awake personality. Perhaps the approach to deity practice presented here will be more accessible to some of us who live and practice in a post-modern, post-industrial society, one that has largely replaced myth with reason (for better or worse), and in which people have to make personal choices about values, behaviors, and directions in their lives (again, for better or worse).

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