The Celtic tradition, more than 2,0000 years ago, celebrated Samhain at this time of year. It was considered the time when the yearly cycle was coming to an end and the new cycle was to begin. The Celts believed that the in-between places were thresholds between the living and the spirit world. The mist of fog and waterfalls--the in-between of water and air--were such thresholds. Twilight--either at dawn or at dusk--another threshold, an in-between time neither night nor day. Doorways themselves were in-between places, being neither in nor out. Similarly, this time of year another threshold--the in-between of the season of light and the season of dark. Thresholds between the living and the spirits could be treacherous, and so such places of thinning between the realms were often avoided otherwise one must be prepared to protect oneself when traversing an in-between space.
While mists can be avoided, even staying inside during twilight can protect one from the in-between time, there was no escaping the turning of the year. The Celts saw this time of year as a perilous time because the veil that separates the living and the spirits was so thin that it could be easily crossed over. That meant evil spirits could wander freely among the living and wreak havoc. The Celts had some ways to protect themselves from the dangers of the season. They built great bonfires to light dark places, the priests wore terrifying costumes of human/animal hybrids, and the people carved rutabagas (yes rutabagas, as pumpkins, a new world plant, had not yet crossed the ocean to Ireland) to resemble skulls. All of these practices were meant to frighten away the evil spirits that may be wandering amongst them.
2600 years ago, at the time of the Buddha, the natural world was a terrifying place. There were deep, dark jungle forests filled with poisonous and dangerous animals, treacherous mountain passes with rock-slides and avalanches, and bandits and criminals roaming the places in-between populations. Belief in spirits inhabiting these dark and dangerous places was strong among the population. The Buddha taught us a way to face these fears and gain insight into the fears that haunt us. Often, we discover, the fears tell us more about ourselves than the things our fears are projected upon.
When I attended the temple in New York City there were two paintings on either side of the entrance to the dharma room. These paintings depicted fearsome, demonic-looking beings, with snarling faces, mouths full of fangs and tusks. One appeared with corpses and the other wore the bones of humans. I wondered why such artwork appeared in a temple. Wasn't the temple supposed to be a place of peace and safety? When I asked my teacher Ven. Myoji about these paintings she informed me that they were the Dharmapala: Wrathful Deities or Dharma Guardians. She explained that they prevented evil from entering the dharma room. They also served as mirrors, keeping those who had unwholesome intentions from bringing their negativity inside, by reflecting back the evil they carried. Sort of like how a person who feels guilty about something begins to see accusing eyes everywhere.
Much like the actions of the ancient Celts in their attempt to frighten away the evil spirits, the Dharmapala appear fearsome in order to frighten away evil from the temple and from our own beings so that we stay on the path of practice. Their method is similar to the way homeopathy works. The toxic, negative energy is used to intensify and transform it into positive, nurturing energy.
These wrathful beings can be viewed as actual supernatural beings or psychological constructs, it doesn’t matter which because either way the function is the same. The Dharmapala are forces of transcendent wisdom that appear monstrous and terrifying in order to dispel the negative forces within us. The notion behind the fearsome appearance of the Dharmapala is that they are so fearsome that they overpower any evil. Think of calling upon the raging, angry Hulk when in need of help, or of the terrifying beauty of an Angel of Heaven to protect us. When the Buddha faced Mara and his armies beneath the Bodhi tree, he called upon the fearsome power of the Earth Goddess herself. She appeared so powerful and terrifying, shaking the earth with her booming voice, that she sent Mara and his demons fleeing.
To the Westerner, the depictions of these terrifying beings can be perplexing. It may not make sense to see them as the good guys here to protect us. But, as the traditions of the Celts show, this is not unheard of in Western culture--we have just forgotten the function of embracing the fearsome in service to our growth.
It may surprise you to learn that the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have wrathful forms. They are called the Heruka:
Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, takes on the wrathful form of Yamantaka (the name meaning "conquerer of Yama, the god of death). He is the oldest and most fearsome of the Dharmapala. He holds power over the hell realms and controls the messengers Sickness, Old Age, and Death who are sent out into the world to remind us of impermanence.
The wrathful form of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara is Mahakala. He appears standing on two corpses, which represents the defeat over negative patterns and negative habits. Despite Mahakala's terrifying appearance, he has never harmed a living being.
The wrathful form of the Buddha Amitabha is Hayagriva. His is the most powerful of the Dharmapala, who hold the awesome power of speech and the dharma. His scream of pure Wisdom is so fearsome and powerful that no being can resist it.
In psychological terms, the Dharmapala embody the shadow, the parts of ourselves that we avoid and try to keep hidden. But the power of the shadow only exists in it remaining hidden, we are meant to expose and face the shadows within us. In Tibetan tradition, the wrathful beings appear in the Bardo (the in-between realm after life and before rebirth) and originate from the negative karma that the individual created during their lifetime. If the individual responds to the wrathful being with fear, the individual is doomed for rebirth in a lower hell realm, ruled by that negative karma. If, however, the individual faces the Dharmapala with wisdom and understands that the wrathful being is a projection of their own mind, it cannot harm them.
Dharmapala serve to protect our minds by subverting the shadows that threaten to overcome our psyche. They help us face past traumas and fears that often lay buried in the subconscious and are hindrances to our liberation. Unfortunately, our culture has lost the transcendent symbol of the dark angel from our inner shadows--the unconscious--who serves to transform the inner demonic state into a healthy, well-balanced one. Wrathful beings show us that the answer is not to suppress or avoid, but to embrace and transform.
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A blog by the Lotus Heart Zen Meditation and Study Group members