What Is Vajrabhairava – Yamantaka Practice?

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This evening I’ve been asked to give an introduction to the Vajrabhairava (rDo-rje 'jigs-byed) system of the highest class of tantra, anuttarayoga tantra. I believe the intention of the person who requested this was that, because in the Gelug tradition there’s a large emphasis from Tsongkhapa on the three deities of Guhyasamaja (gSang-ba 'dus-pa), Chakrasamvara, ('Khor-lo bde-mchog), and Vajrabhairava, it would be helpful to have some general idea of these three systems. I’ve already spoken in previous visits about Chakrasamvara and Guhyasamaja, so now we have Vajrabhairava left.

[See: What Is Guhyasamaja Practice? See also: What Is Chakrasamvara Practice?]

This is a little bit awkward, of course, when there are not so many people who are actually involved in the practice, so one is a little bit puzzled as to what to actually say. I think that basically what is possible is to just give a little bit of information about it.

Anuttarayoga Tantra

As general background, we need to have just some general idea of what is tantra about. As we see with how we set our motivation in the Buddhist practice, we are moved by compassion. We want to help others as much as possible. And so in the context of Mahayana – the “Great Vehicle,” the “Vast Vehicle” – we want to not just gain liberation ourselves, but we want to attain the state of a Buddha so that we can benefit everybody equally, not just a few. So we are aiming to become a Buddha ourselves, and we need to have a body, speech, and mind of a Buddha, and we need to be able to attain all of those in the most efficient way.

Now, there are several ways in which we could work to attain the body, speech, and mind of a Buddha. But if we analyze deeply, then we see that what we need to really work with is the subtlest level of our minds and the subtlest energy of that subtlest level of our minds. This is the level that goes on from lifetime to lifetime and will continue into Buddhahood. All the confusion and disturbing emotions and compulsiveness of our samsaric, karmic type of life is occurring on grosser levels, not this subtlest level that just provides the continuity.

So what we need to do is to somehow gain access to this subtlest level and not only stay with it, but work with it to transform it into the body, speech, and mind of a Buddha. But in order to do that, we have to have a very, very strong motivation because it’s really very difficult to do that. And so this (motivation) is an enormous, tremendous compassion for everybody. We think how awful it is that everybody’s suffering, and we really want to work with an unbelievable amount of effort to actually attain the state of a Buddha so that we can be of best help to everyone.

What is it that is going to prevent us from attaining that state of a Buddha? Our own confusion, our own laziness, our own bad temper and anger, our own attachments. This is the real enemy – it’s all these disturbing emotions and negative attitudes in our own minds. So we really need some very, very strong force not to just give in and let ourselves be ruled by this confusion. We need a combination of compassion – we want to help others – and force and strength that “I’m not going to let all this junk that’s going on in my mind prevent me from being able to help others,” like laziness: “I don’t feel like doing it. I don’t feel like going and helping somebody.” You have to cut through that.

So we have to use some very strong energy. But very strong energy is very dangerous to work with. If you work with very strong energy, the danger is that you become reckless and the energy takes over, and that quickly goes into anger, doesn’t it? So, like in martial arts, you have to be very strong externally and totally 100% calm internally.

In order to overcome that confusion and laziness, we need the full understanding of reality – in Buddhist terms, voidness – that things don’t exist in the impossible ways that our minds project. So with understanding, we want to cut through these grosser levels with all the confusion – with a lot of strength – and get down to the subtlest level.

Now, normally we get down to that subtlest level when we die. During that period of death – what’s called the clear light of death – before the bardo (the in-between state) and rebirth, we are just experiencing that clear-light level. (Pardon the dualistic way of saying that – that we are experiencing it, as if there’s a separate me. There’s no separate me experiencing it.) In other words, our mental activity during that short period of death is just this subtlest, subtlest level. I think that’s a clearer way of saying it.

But normally when we experience death, we’re totally unaware of what’s going on – we don’t recognize the potentials and abilities of that subtlest level of mind. We have all these habits of our confusion – all these habits of compulsive behavior based on confusion and disturbing emotions – and because of the momentum of so many lifetimes of being under the influence of these habits, what happens? New rebirth – samsaric rebirth – with another cluster or configuration of these habits being activated and generating the next samsaric life filled with the same types of compulsive behavior and confusion. That’s our ordinary type of death.

So what we want to do is to be able to overcome that kind of death and instead be able, in our meditation, to get to that subtlest level of mental activity. And we’ve used great force to get down there. But now it’s with a totally calm understanding of reality that we can apply in meditation at this time of clear light in order to be able to get:

  • That clear-light state to have the understanding of voidness or reality
  • The subtlest energy of it to transform and appear in the form of a Buddha.

If we do this often enough and strongly enough, we’re able to stay like that forever. So this is basically the tantra path of the highest class of tantra.

General Introduction to Yamantaka

Yamantaka (gShin-rje gshed, gShin-rje mthar-byed) is specifically the type of practice that is done to overcome death. Yamantaka: Yama is “death,” the “Lord of Death,” and antaka, “the one who puts an end to,” so “the one who puts an end to the Lord of Death.” Yamantaka is in the form of a very, very strong, forceful figure and has Manjushri in his heart (so very peaceful, calm, the complete understanding of reality). This is, just in very general terms, a little bit of what is Yamantaka all about for those who might not have so much of a background.

In the Gelug tradition this became very, very strongly practiced. In this system of putting together the three practices of these three deity systems – Guhyasamaja, Chakrasamvara, and Yamantaka or Vajrabhairava (two names) – Yamantaka is the container within which the other two practices can be included. And all the protector practices that are done in the Gelug tradition are all done within the context of oneself arising as Yamantaka.

Yamantaka practice became especially popular and widespread not only among the Tibetans, but also in the Mongol and Manchu regions in which Tibetan Buddhism spread.

My Background

Now I can go back to just explaining a little bit about the history of the system, the different aspects of the system – now we just get information – so that you get a little bit of an idea of all the different aspects of it and how this practice actually developed and spread (since it’s not too appropriate to speak in very much detail about the actual practice, especially to people who are not practicing it).

First about my own background. I’ve received the empowerment of the Single-Deity Vajrabhairava (rDo-rje ‘jigs-byed dpa’-bo gcig-pa) many, many times, from:

  • His Holiness the Dalai Lama
  • Yongdzin Ling Rinpoche, who was the Vajrabhairava teacher of His Holiness
  • Tsenzhab Serkong Rinpoche, my own main teacher, who was also a teacher of His Holiness
  • Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey
  • His main teacher, Gyume Khenzur Rinpoche Ugyen Tseten, the retired abbot of Lower Tantric College.

And I’ve received:

  • The Thirteen-Deity Vajrabhairava (rDo-rje ‘jigs-byed lha bco-gsum) empowerment from His Holiness and Yongdzin Ling Rinpoche
  • The jenang (rjes-snang), the subsequent permission, of the Four-Headed Vajrabhairava from Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey
  • Discourses on the main commentary of the text of the Single Deity from Serkong Rinpoche and Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey
  • Numerous discourses on the fire puja, the self-initiation, the mandala measurements, and many of the auxiliary practices of Yamantaka from Serkong Rinpoche.

And I’ve been practicing it every day for more than forty years.

I’m saying this not to say I’m a great yogi – which I’m obviously not – but the point is that if you want to actually practice any of these things, you need to get the teachings over and over again, many teachings. And there’s an enormous amount of teachings. Don’t think that any of these systems are simple. They’re not.

One needs to be very serious about any type of tantra practice. And if you’re going to do it, you do it every day for the rest of your life. So it’s not for the weak-hearted ones that “Ooh, I’ll try doing a little bit” and “Do I like this? Do I not like this?” It’s dangerous if you try to get into tantra practice like that. You go a bit crazy because you’re working with all these images in your imagination and so on, especially if you start to try to work with the energies of your body. Disaster. Right?

One has to be very, very well prepared and have a very realistic idea of how difficult it’s going to be. Not that I want to scare anybody, but be realistic. This is not children’s games here. That’s one of the teachings of what’s called virya, perseverance, one of the six far-reaching attitudes. Shantideva points out that there are two supports of it:

  • One is a realistic attitude – you realistically accept that it’s going to be difficult and take a long time.
  • And then the second one is that you take control of yourself and just do it.

Excuse me if I’m speaking a little bit strongly, but this is Yamantaka, and I had strong coffee before I started the lecture – supporting circumstances.

The Different Forms of Yamantaka

Yamantaka is the name of a system of three sets of deities (now we just get information):

  • Vajrabhairava is one of them
  • Krishna Yamari (that’s Black Yamari, gShin-rje gshed nag-po)
  • Rakta Yamari (or Red Yamari, gShin-rje gshed dmar-po).

Yamantaka is the name for all three, but in the Gelug tradition the main thing that we practice is Vajrabhairava. Vajrabhairava is sometimes called just Yamantaka. It’s much easier to say Yamantaka in Mongolian than to say Vajrabhairava, and so because of that, most of the time it’s called Yamantaka and not Vajrabhairava. That’s the reason.

Vajrabhairava is the one with the buffalo head and the Manjushri head above it, and he appears in three basic forms. (In tantra every deity appears in so many different forms, so you shouldn’t think “Oh, there’s only one” and then freak out when you hear that there’s something else.) So we have:

  • The one that is commonly practiced in the Gelug has nine heads, thirty-four arms, and sixteen legs. (Now, remember in tantra that having all these faces and arms and legs – they all represent different realizations, different aspects of the path that we want to be able to have fully realized simultaneously. By representing them by all the arms and legs and heads, it helps us to keep all of these things simultaneously in our consciousness. So it’s a method.) This nine-headed form appears either in a forty-nine-deity mandala, a thirteen-deity mandala, or a single-deity mandala. (The mandala is the palace in which we live as this figure: not that there’s a kitchen and a living room or anything like that, but we’re in this palace. And the palace – every little feature of it represents some other aspect of the path and realization.)
  • Then there’s a six-headed, six-armed, six-legged version or variant, which is mentioned in the Chorus of Names of Manjushri (’Jam-dpal mtshan-brjod, Skt. Manjushri-namasamgiti). That’s a Kalachakra text.
  • And then there’s a four-headed, eight-armed, four-legged variant, which is in the collection of jenangs (these subsequent permissions) called Rinjung Gyatsa (Rin-’byung brgya-rtsa, Source of Precious Means of Attainment of an Ocean of Yidam Buddha-Figures), a collection of about a hundred of these subsequent permissions. So there it’s in this other form.

But all of these have a buffalo head and a Manjushri head on top. Black Yamari and Red Yamari don’t have a buffalo head.

For those who are interested in iconography, Black Yamari is either with:

  • Six heads, six arms, and six legs
  • Three heads, two arms, and two legs
  • One head, two arms, and two legs.

Red Yamari is usually just in the one head, two arms, two-legged version.

So what does this tell us? It tells us that there are many, many ways and many appearances of all these various Buddha-figures. And underlying it is what? It’s the fact that a Buddha can appear in any form whatsoever in order to be able to benefit others. For some disciples, one type of form is more helpful; for other types of disciple, another form is helpful. If one form becomes too popularized so that it becomes commonplace and trivialized – as in having Kalachakra T-shirts and this sort of thing – then there’s usually a revelation of another form because it really has to be something sacred and private, not something popular.

Let’s focus on the nine-headed Vajrabhairava. There are two main traditions:

  • One comes from Mal Lotsawa (Mal Lo-tsa-ba Blo-gros grags). We find that in Sakya and in the various Kagyu lineages and the Jonang lineage. Here there’s a stacked arrangement of the nine heads – so there’s three, and then three on top, and three on top of that. By the way, the nine heads represent the nine classes of the Buddhist texts, the Buddhist scriptures.
  • In the Ra Lotsawa (Rva Lo-tsa-ba rDo-rje grags-pa) lineage, which is what is practiced in Gelugpa, you have what’s called the circular arrangement of the heads – so a central one, two (stacked) on top of it, and three on each side.

Okay, enough of art history or iconography. So don’t get too attached to one form, thinking that “This is the way that it is” and “My tradition is correct, and all the others are wrong.” That’s a very closed-minded attitude. There are many variants of everything. Welcome to the world of Tibetan Buddhism!

The Origin of the Teachings

The Traditional Account

The traditional account of how Buddha gave these teachings was that he arose in the form of Yamantaka – just as when Buddha gave the teachings of other tantras, like Guhyasamaja and Chakrasamvara, he arose in that form and gave the teachings – and he gave these teachings in 100,000 chapters. This was preserved in the land of Oddiyana, which is Urgyen (U-rgyan) in Tibetan (that’s where Guru Rinpoche came from). That was kept in the Dharmaganja Stupa – it was kept inside – which was venerated by all the dakinis. So everybody really thought this was very special and worshipped there.

These teachings were first spread from Urgyen to India in the tenth century by a great master from Nalanda Monastery called Lalitavajra, and then to Tibet in the next century, in the eleventh century. From Tibet it spread to Mongolia, and then the Manchus took it up and it was a big practice in Beijing, where the Manchus ruled. This is what we hear from the Buddhist version of the history.

Where Is Oddiyana (Urgyen)

Now let’s become a little bit like scientists and look to s