What Is Vajrabhairava – Yamantaka Practice?

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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 interested, 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, and they thought 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 I am 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 some 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. In the context of Mahayana – the “Great Vehicle,” the “Vast Vehicle” – we want to not just gain liberation ourselves, but to attain the state of a Buddha so that we can benefit everybody equally, not just a few. We are aiming to become a Buddha ourselves, and we need to have a body, speech and mind of a Buddha, and to be able to attain all of those in the most efficient way.

There are several ways in which we could work to attain the body, speech and mind of a Buddha, but if we analyze deeply, 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.

What we need to do is to somehow gain access to this subtlest level and not only stay with it but also work with it to transform it into the body, speech and mind of a Buddha. In order to do that, we have to have a very, very strong motivation because it’s really very difficult to do, so this motivation is 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 the 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. These are the real enemy, 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.” We 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 we work with very strong energy, the danger is that we become reckless and the energy takes over, and that quickly goes into anger, doesn’t it? Like in martial arts, we 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, emptiness – that things don’t exist in the impossible ways that our minds project. With this 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.

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 at this subtlest level. I think that’s a clearer way of saying it.

However, 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.

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. 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
  • The subtlest energy of it to transform and appear in the form of a Buddha.

If we do this often and strongly enough, we’re able to stay like that forever. 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. 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 (very peaceful, calm, the complete understanding of reality). This is, just in very general terms, a little bit of what Yamantaka is all about for those who might not have so much of a background.

In the Gelug tradition, this became 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. 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’ll go back to explaining a little bit about the history of the system, the different aspects of the system so that we 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
  • Tsenshap Serkong Rinpoche, my own main teacher, who was also a teacher of His Holiness
  • Geshe Ngawang Dhargyey
  • His main teacher, Gyume Khensur Rinpoche Ugyen Tseten, the retired abbot of Lower Tantric College

I’ve also 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.

I’ve been practicing it every day for more than 40 years. I’m not saying this to say I’m a great yogi – which I’m obviously not – but the point is that if we want to actually practice any of these things, we need to get the teachings over and over again, many teachings, and there are an enormous amount of teachings. Don’t think that any of these systems are simple. They’re not.

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

We have to be 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; we realistically accept that it’s going to be difficult and take a long time.
  • The second is that we take control of ourselves 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, so a lot of supporting circumstances.

The Different Forms of Yamantaka 

Yamantaka is the name of a system of three sets of deities:

  • 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 one 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 we shouldn’t think, “Oh, there’s only one,” and then freak out when we hear that there’s something else.) We have:

  • The one that is commonly practiced in the Gelug has nine heads, 34 arms, and 16 legs. Remember, in tantra, that in 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 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.
  • 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.

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 and two arms, two-legged version.

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 them 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 disciples, 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 the various Kagyu lineages and the Jonang lineage. Here there’s a stacked arrangement of the nine heads – so there are 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, we 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. 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 those forms 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. Everybody really thought this was very special and worshipped there.

These teachings were first spread from Urgyen to India in the 10th century by a great master from Nalanda Monastery called Lalitavajra, and then to Tibet in the 11th 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 see does this make any sense from a historical point of view. How did something like this develop in Ogyen, in Oddiyana? 

First of all, where is Oddiyana? Where is Ogyen? It has been identified archaeologically as Swat Valley in northwestern Pakistan, present-day Pakistan. For ease of discussion, I’ll just call it Ogyen since that’s what it’s called in Tibetan. We’re talking about a kingdom up in the mountains of northwestern Pakistan. We need to understand the emergence of Yamantaka and this practice there, otherwise, it doesn’t make any sense that it was kept there, so we need to look at the history of Yama. Remember, Yamantaka is the one that puts an end to Yama (Yama is the Lord of Death), and remember I explained the whole reason why we want to get rid of ordinary death. 

Personally, I find this very interesting. It’s not just ethnologically fascinating, but actually, it’s very helpful to see that there is historical evidence and a historical development of why we had these practices, why they were in this form, and why they developed where they developed; it’s not just some fantasy story of some Buddhists. In other words, if we can see that history corroborates and fits together with the Buddhist version, then our confidence, I think, is a little bit stronger. At least I find for myself it’s helpful.


Who’s Yama? Yama is a common figure that we find in Indo-Iranian culture, both on the Indian side and the Iranian side. Yama is mentioned in the tenth book of the Rg Veda. That’s the ancient, ancient Indian text. He was the first mortal to die, and thus, because of that, he became the Lord of Death. He’s described as being very wise, and he judges the rebirth of those who die. We find that in so many cultures, some sort of judge who acts as the Lord of Death. This is Yama, and already he’s associated with wisdom, being very intelligent. 

Later, in one of the Upanishads, the Katha Upanishad, Yama is a teacher, and so he’s even further associated with wisdom. Later, Yamantaka becomes associated with Manjushri, who embodies wisdom or the understanding of reality. Already there’s that association from Indian pre-Hindu culture in connection with Yama. 

Sometimes Yama is called Dharma. This is earlier than when Hinduism itself became codified, so it was in the pre-Hindu Indian tradition. Dharma in that tradition means “justice,” justice in the sense of what maintains the order of karma in terms of rebirth. So, he’s called Dharma, the Lord of Dharma, and thus he is called Dharmaraja (Chos-rgyal). Dharmaraja, the “King of Dharma,” is also a name that is applied to Yama, who is then taken later into Buddhism as a protector. He’s tamed by Yamantaka and made into a protector. There are three forms: Outer, Inner and Secret Dharmaraja, so already we get that name Dharmaraja in the non-Buddhist context.

In Buddhism, there are many protector deities that have been incorporated, and many of them come from an earlier Indian non-Buddhist context  and some even come from an Iranian context. They are tamed and then given a pledge by Guru Rinpoche – or by many other figures – to protect practitioners. They’re brought into the Buddhist fold, and so Yama was as well. All these names that we hear for Yama in the protector practices – Dharmaraja, Yamaraja (“King Yama”) – all of that we already have in the non-Buddhist variant.  

Yama is also called Kala in these texts. Kala is an interesting word because it has two meanings in Sanskrit: one is “time,” and the other is “black.” In this context, kala means “time” because time is what brings death. The passage of time brings death, doesn’t it? Another name for Yama is Kalarupa, and we find this in the protector practices. Kalarupa, “the one with the form of kala,” which is time, time taking a form as the Lord of Death. We even get Mahakala associated here, which literally means the “great form of time.” What’s interesting is the Tibetans translated kala here as black (nag-po), so Mahakala is called the Great Black One (Nag-po chen-po) in Tibetan. Sometimes the study of Sanskrit and Tibetan is quite useful for clearing up some of these confusing issues. 

In the Upanishadic period, what we also find is directional protectors. There are either eight or ten directional protectors, and Yama is one of them. Because Yama appears in this general Indian context as one of the directional protectors, then in the Yamantaka practice, in Guhyasamaja practice – in so many different practices – when, in the Buddhist context, we call in the 15 directional protectors, Yama is one of them. Yama also appears as one of the eight directional protectors that appear, one each, in the eight charnel grounds that surround many anuttarayoga tantra mandalas, such as Yamantaka, Vajrapani Mahachakra, Chakrasamvara, Vajrayogini and Hevajra. He also appears as one of the eight non-Buddhist deities found, one each, in eight of the skull cups held by Hevajra, so it comes from this general Indian background. There’s nothing especially Buddhist about it.

I think it’s very important to be realistic and understand that Buddhism did not develop in a vacuum. Buddhism is an Indian religion, an Indian system, and it shares many, many, many things in common with what later becomes Hinduism and Jainism. There’s a general pan-Indic reservoir of ideas, concepts – things like karma, rebirth, various deities, and so on. All these different Indian traditions have their own variant of them, their own version. They’re all talking about the same things, so it’s not surprising that we find all these so-called Hindu deities in the Buddhist practices. However, if we understand the way that ancient Indian society functioned, then we see that all of these people lived together, and so we have this common pool there. Then, it becomes a little bit more understandable.

All the various Indian deities, these various figures, are always riding on top of something, so Yama rides on a male water buffalo. Already in this iconography or mythology – whatever we want to call it – we have Yama associated with a water buffalo, and he becomes a guardian of the hells. 

Soon after that, Yama becomes incorporated into the Shiva complex of Hindu deities. In Hinduism, we have a whole group of deities or figures around Shiva and then a whole group around Vishnu and Krishna (we get these two divisions within later Hinduism). Another name for Shiva is Bhairava. So, we get Vajrabhairava in the Buddhist variant, and they’re basically just taking the name of Shiva and adding Vajra in front of it. 

In one of the Puranas – this is a later Hindu text (the Markandeya Purana, if you want to know the name) – Shiva subdues Yama, and then Shiva is called Kalantaka, “the one who puts an end to kala,” and kala, “time,” you remember, was another name for Yama. Kalantaka, and then we have the Buddhist variant Yamantaka, “the one that puts an end to Yama.” 

There is a parallel development and parallel names in the context of the Shiva tantras – there is tantra in the Shaivite system – and in the context of the Buddhist tantras. In many of the tantra systems, we find very similar variants in both the Hindu side (meaning the Shiva side) and the Buddhist side. Many aspects of the Kalachakra myth we find in a Hindu variant as well, for example.

Now, when we learn this, what is the effect on us in terms of our practice? We can look at it I two ways, can’t we? 

  • One way is, “Well, there’s just the Buddhist version. Buddha appears in a stupa, and there are the dakinis and all this sort of stuff. This historical stuff is unimportant. Scientists, who cares about what they say?” 
  • Or we could be Buddhologists, scientists, and look at archaeology and all these Sanskrit texts, and “the Buddhist stories and so on, as just nice mythology.” 

Or we could try to look at it to see if what is said in the Buddhist version does have some historical reference, that the whole development of tantra is really a general thing going on in India, a general way of practicing, and that we have different schools, whether Hindu or Buddhist, each working with it and trying to find the most efficient method for attaining their goals – liberation or enlightenment the way that each of them define it.

Different Views of What a Buddha Is

We have to remember when we talk about tantra and the accounts of how Buddha taught tantra not to think in terms of the historical Shakyamuni Buddha. That’s not the Buddha that they’re talking about. If we think in terms of “Well, it was Buddha Shakyamuni who taught tantra” – in other words, the historical Buddha as described in the Pali canon, the Theravadin canon – then we’re going to see that’s completely contradictory with the Buddhologist study of the history of Buddhism, completely contradictory, and then we fall to one extreme of either “Only this is true” or “The other one is true.” 

There are various depictions of what a Buddha is: 

  • There is a version that we find in the Pali canon, where Shakyamuni was a prince, and he had his life, and there are all these accounts of what he did during his actual historical life. That is one version that fits in with the Pali canon account of what a Buddha is. 
  • The type of Buddha that is in the Mahayana sutras is a completely different type of Buddha. This is a Buddha according to Mahayana, who then manifests in so many different forms and in Buddha-fields, and he teaches to hundreds of thousands of devas and asuras and gandharvas – all these figures from general Indian mythology or whatever we want to call them – all these various beings in these incredible settings, and so on. 

That’s the way that a Buddha is described in Mahayana. Why? Because a Buddha in Mahayana is one that teaches the entire universe. It’s a very different type of Buddha. That’s understanding Buddha as someone who was enlightened many, many eons ago, who just manifests becoming enlightened, and who does these incredible things to teach the whole universe. If we think, “Well, did the historical Buddha do that?” then we get very confused. “How could the historical Buddha teach like that?” 

A Buddha that appears and teaches the tantras is yet another type of Buddha. It is Buddha appearing as Vajradhara or appearing as Yamantaka or appearing as Chakrasamvara or as Kalachakra. A Buddha appears in all these different forms of deities and at any time of history, but it’s not an historically definite time. We’re talking about a very different type of Buddha that will appear when it is helpful and necessary. We’re not talking about the historical Shakyamuni.

We have to qualify what I just said. Are they all Shakyamuni? Are they all the same person that we find in the Pali canon, that we find in the Mahayana sutras, that we find in the tantra texts? Well, we’d have to say, “Yes, they’re all the same person. They’re not different people.” But how do we understand this person? How do we describe this person? How do we envision such a person in terms of our goal, in terms of our method? We can envision this person with a Pali canon type of vision; we can envision this person with a Mahayana sutra type of vision; or we can work with this person from an anuttarayoga tantra vision. Then, we get three different ways of looking at the same thing. Of course, we can get very complicated and sophisticated here if we want to go further in this discussion, and I find it very helpful to analyze. This is very similar to the water/pus/nectar discussion, that:

  • to humans, it appears as water 
  • to ghosts, it appears as pus
  • to the gods, it appears as nectar, and
  • we can’t find it established as anything from its own side – and yet all three are valid. 

All three of these visions of what a Buddha is are all valid, but they’re valid within their own context, and that we have to understand. Actually, there’s no problem with fitting in the history as well from a Buddhological point of view. We can be very good Buddhist practitioners and not be these religious fanatics that say, “All these Buddhologists and the scientific study of the texts, and so on, we’re not interested in that.” There’s no contradiction. We understand, on a deeper level, a Buddhist analysis of different points of view. So, we have this whole development within the non-Buddhist Indian context of Yama, the Lord of Death, and even putting an end to Yama in the Shiva complex. 

If we look at the Iranian side before Zoroastrianism got codified (let’s call it proto-Zoroastrianism), we have their ancient sacred text. That’s called the Avesta, just as the proto-Hindus have the Vedas. In the Avesta, we also find Yama – here it’s called Yima – and he’s also the first man to die, and he also becomes the guardian of the hells.

The Connection between Yama, Yamantaka and Ogyen

Now, we look: Why Oddiyana? Why Ogyen? What’s so special about this area that Guru Rinpoche comes from, and that the tantras all come from there, and so on? It’s interesting. Why? After all, in Buddhism, it says that a Buddha will appear in a place where people are receptive, where it’s most needed, and will teach in a way that the people of the time can understand. That’s called skillful means. That’s a Buddha as understood in tantra. That’s what a Buddha does. Ogyen was pretty much in the geographic center of a large empire called the Kushan Empire. Its dynasty ruled for a long time that whole area from Eastern Iran all the way over to north-central India, so there was a mixture of Iranian and ancient Indian ideas and mythology and various religious ideas, terminology, and so on. We’re talking about the period from the first to the early third centuries of the Common Era. 

What did we find in this area? There was a mixture of Iranian culture and religions, Indian religions – particularly the early Shiva worship and the Shiva tantras – and also Buddhism, so a mixture of the three. They exchanged ideas. When we talk about different cultures being present in one area, they don’t exist in isolation, do they, in isolation from each other? 

So, these ideas about Yama were percolating in this cultural area, with influence from these three different ways of thinking – the Iranian, the Indian non-Buddhist and the Buddhist. In the Buddhist variant, Yamantaka overcomes Yama, like Shiva overcame Yama using the name Kala, Kalantaka. Both Yama and Yamantaka have a buffalo head, a water buffalo head. I’m always curious why it has a buffalo head. That’s really quite odd, isn’t it?

How Yamantaka Got a Water Buffalo Head

What’s the Buddhist version of the legend? It’s an interesting one. There was a holy man who was told that if he meditated for the next 50 years, he would achieve enlightenment. This holy man meditated in a cave for 49 years, 11 months, and 29 days – so he was one day short of the 50 years – and he was interrupted by two thieves who broke into his cave with a stolen water buffalo. First, they beheaded the water buffalo in front of the hermit, and the hermit pleaded with them – “Please wait a few minutes more till I finish my 50 years of meditation” – but they beheaded him as well, before he could finish. After having his head cut off, this hermit became so angry that he took the head of the buffalo that was cut off and put it on his own head and became Yama, the Lord of Death. He then killed the two thieves and drank their blood from cups made from their skulls, so the skull-cup image. That’s the story. 

He was still so angry and upset that he decided to kill everybody in Tibet. This is the Tibetan story, by the way. The people of Tibet were afraid for their lives, and they prayed to Manjushri to listen to them. Manjushri transformed himself into Yamantaka, looking very similar to Yama but ten times more powerful and horrible, and Manjushri, as Yamantaka, then defeated Yama and made him into a protector for Buddhism. 

What do we learn from this story? It’s very interesting. Don’t just look at these things as little fairy tales to tell children. There’s this whole thing that we get in the study of mythology – to see what are the lessons behind the mythology, and is there a deeper psychological thing that is going on, and so on. We get that in Jungian psychology, for example.

Remember, in the beginning, we were talking about how ordinarily when we die, the level of mental activity that we have is this subtlest clear-light level, the so-called clear light of death. In this highest class of tantra practice, what we want to do is imitate death in our meditation by using very subtle methods to get down to that subtlest level as well. So, we imitate death and imitate the process of death, but without dying, obviously. Yamantaka imitates Yama by both of them having the buffalo head, so it’s the same thing: the practice of Yamantaka imitates the practice of death, what happens at death. That’s why Yamantaka would also have a buffalo head. 

Now, why a water buffalo? I can only guess. Why not a goat or a dog or something like that? It’s a water buffalo. I must say I don’t know. One can guess, though. A water buffalo is very, very strong and used for work in India – and it’s specified as a male water buffalo, not a female water buffalo – so it’s very strong. Maybe it has that connotation. I don’t know.

Yamantaka as a Protector

First, Yamantaka already appears as a protector early in the development of Buddhist tantra. Yamantaka appears in Guhyasamaja already. According to some scholars, that’s already by the 4th century. According to tradition, however, Buddha taught Guhyasamaja to King Indrabhuti of Ogyen, who ruled during the second half of the 8th century. Remember, Lalitavajra, the master who found it there in Ogyen, he’s in the 10th century. Already in the 4th century, we find Yamantaka. 

In Guhyasamaja, there is what’s called a protection-wheel practice – it’s in Yamantaka and Hevajra as well, very strongly in Yamantaka – and this is a protected space in which there protectors in all the directions. Psychologically, it’s very important, actually, because in order to feel safe – even in a group-therapy session or in any type of psychological session – we need to have a protected space in which we feel that no harm can come from the outside and we can relax. Similar to that, we always set up a protection space. It’s done in so many of the tantra practices, so we have a protection wheel, it’s called. 

Yamantaka is already one of the protectors on this wheel in Guhyasamaja, as well as on this wheel in the Yamantaka and Hevajra practices. Plus, in the palace itself of Guhyasamaja, there are four gateways, and Yamantaka is there in one of the gateways as a protector also. In Kalachakra as well, Yamantaka appears as the protector of one of the gateways of the body mandala and as one of the 60 protectors in the protection wheel. In all these instances, Yamantaka has three heads, six arms and two legs, and is in the Buddha-family of Vairochana. Already before we get the development of Yamantaka as a meditational deity, that we actually visualize ourselves in that form, Yamantaka appears as a protector to chase away interference. 

Yamantaka in Other Tantras before Lalitavajra

Yamantaka also appears in other tantras before Lalitavajra’s time. There’s the so-called Manjushri Root Tantra (Arya-manjushri-mulakalpa). Yamantaka appears there. That’s in the 7th century. He’s also mentioned in the Manjushri-namasamgiti, that’s the Concert of Names of Manjushri, a Kalachakra text (probably also the 7th century). Remember, this association of Yamantaka with Manjushri? It comes already in this early time.


Now, we get to Lalitavajra (Rol-pa’i rdo-rje) in the 10th century. He was a master at Nalanda University. He came from Orissa. Lalitavajra was studying this Concert of Names of Manjushri, and in that text, he came across some lines in the section “Praising Mirror-like Deep Awareness.” I won’t read the full lines because we don’t have so much time, but just the parts of the lines. It says:

(66d-67ab) He’s Vajrabhairava, the terrifying vajra terrifier. Ruler of the furious, six-faced and terrifying, six-eyed, six-armed, and full of force…
(68ab) He’s the destroyer of death, Yamantaka, king of the obstructors, Vajravega, vajra might, the terrifying one...

Vajravega is the forceful form of Kalachakra. Note that Vajravega’s root mantra contains the praise in Sanskrit: “To the one who acts on behalf of Vajrabhairava.”  The name Vajrabhairava also appears in Vajravega’s 72-line garland mantra.  

(76) He’s Manjughosha, with a lovely voice. enormous volume, a tremendous sound unique in the world’s three planes, a voice resounding to the ends of space, the best of those possessing a voice. 

Manjughosha is another name for Manjushri. 

Lalitavajra read these lines, and here there are all these names of Yamantaka and Vajrabhairava and Manjughosha. He wondered, “Who is this Vajrabhairava? Who’s this Yamantaka?” He tried to locate a tantra text in India of Vajrabhairava, but he couldn’t find anything, so he practiced another tantra teaching, called the Net of Illusion, the Mayajala Tantra (rGyu-‘phrul drva-ba). That’s one of the early tantras that was translated into Tibetan and incorporated in the Nyingma textual tradition. In this tantra, there’s Manjushri. He practiced for 20 years to get a vision of Manjushri and finally succeeded and had a direct manifestation of Manjushri. Manjushri told him, “Go to Ogyen, to Oddiyana, and there you’ll find the full teachings of Vajrabhairava.” So, he traveled from Nalanda. Nalanda’s in central India, north of Bodhgaya, not that far from Bodhgaya. He walked all the way over to Swat Valley in western Pakistan. That’s not an easy trip. 

I always find it quite helpful to think of these things as actually happening, not just some legend. This guy does this practice, and he gets a vision – “Go to Swat” – and he believes it. He walks all the way over there, and, in fact, he meets a female practitioner, a so-called deep-awareness dakini (ye-shes mkha’-‘gro). She’s called Vajravetali, or Dorje Rolangma (rDo-rje ro-lang-ma) in Tibetan. That is the female partner of Vajrabhairava actually, which is a very interesting point, that the one who was the guardian of these teachings was a woman. Very often, women think that women didn’t play a very major role in the historical development of Buddhism. Well, here’s a very good example. It was a woman who transmitted all of this and got it all started. He met this dakini, and she gave him the initiation of Vajrabhairava. So, the teachings were, in fact, there.

He did all the practices – and obviously, he was very, very advanced – and in three months, he gained the actual attainments. So he asked, “Can I take the tantra teachings back to my homeland, to India?” She said no, “You can only take back what you can memorize in seven days.” That in itself is a very interesting point, that these teachings are really very, very sacred, special, not to be made public, and if we really want them, we have to really, really want it and work really hard, which means to memorize them. It’s not easy to memorize these things. 

He realized that it was beyond his ability to memorize so much, because it was quite large, so he circumambulated the stupa and made requests to Manjushri for inspiration and, as a result, he was able to memorize three texts. Remember, Manjushri is the embodiment of the discriminating awareness, the clear mind, the intelligence, the so-called wisdom of the Buddhas. Tibetans and Indian practitioners have always focused on Manjushri in order to gain super intelligence, super clarity of mind. 

We could ask, “Well, how does that work? We’re just praying ‘Oh God, give me a clear mind,’ and God in the form of Manjushri gives us it – woo-woo – and now we have a clear mind?” It’s not like that. This whole thing of making requests, we have to really understand what that means. It’s not this Janis Joplin song of “Oh Lord, why don’t you give me a Mercedes-Benz,” that type of request. It’s not like that.

We want so much, because of our motivation, to have a clear mind, that we focus. Manjushri acts as the focus for this – with a sword, sharp, to cut through our confusion – and because we have such force for wanting to get that clarity of mind and that understanding, our mind comes together; it is clearer, and it works, but not by some power of some magic or miracle. It dependently arises.

The Three Main Vajrabhairava Texts 

Now, he wanted to take more, and the dakini told him, “That’s enough. People can attain enlightenment with these.” What are these three texts? These are called the Three Rounds of Tantras (rGyud-skor gsum). They are: 

  • The Condensed Chapters of the Root Tantra (rTsa-rgyud rtogs-bsdus
  • The Three-Chapter Explanatory Tantra (bShad-rgyud rtogs-gsum
  • The Musk-Shrew Chapter (Til-la’i rtogs-pa, Chu-cchu-nda-ra’i rtogs-pa). Musk shrew is the name of a small animal. 

I have here what each of the chapters talk about. It’s very interesting what’s actually here in the root tantras. What we find in all the chapters of these three texts are very, very strong rituals that are dealing with overcoming harmful beings. When we read them, they really sound absolutely violent and horrible. 

The first one, the Condensed Chapters of the Root Tantra, has seven chapters condensed from that 100,000 chapter version (either 100,000 chapters or verses – it’s unclear because the text is lost). 

  • The first chapter describes the mandala palace that’s to be revealed during the initiation, the offerings to be made, the attainments that we can get, and some brief instructions on doing the retreat to gain powers against harmful interferences. 
  • The second chapter describes the rituals using various devices for extremely forceful actions against harmful beings. Among these rituals, there’s the construction of what’s called a weapon wheel, so a “wheel of sharp weapons.”  

One of the people later in the lineage is Atisha, who was one of the people who brought the Yamantaka teachings originally to Tibet. One of Atisha’s teachers was Dharmarakshita, who was the author of this mind training (lojong) called Wheel of Sharp Weapons (Theg-pa chen-po’i blo-sbyong mtshon-cha ’khor-lo). In that, he says, “Yamantaka, throw your wheel of sharp weapons.” All this is in the condensed root tantra. It’s very clear in that text, the Wheel of Sharp Weapons, that the weapons are intended to overcome our self-cherishing, our grasping for our self, and so on. Those are the real harmful ones. 

The remaining chapters of The Condensed Chapters of the Root Tantra deal with:

  • The ritual for collecting the syllables of the three Vajrabhairava mantras 
  • The arising of Vajrabhairava from voidness and then Manjushri, as in the sadhana, with the full description of the visualization of the full Vajrabhairava (single deity), with mention of recitation of the mantra 300,000 times for the short retreat 
  • Instructions for painting the full single-deity Vajrabhairava, with a repeat of the full description of the deity as well as of the charnel grounds (cemeteries) 
  • Instructions for accomplishing various extremely forceful actions against harmful beings through fire pujas
  • Meditation practices for extremely forceful actions against harmful beings and warnings about keeping secrecy about these practices.  

The Three Chapter Explanatory Tantra contains: 

  • Detailed instructions with measurements for drawing a weapon-wheel used for pacifying, increase, control and forceful actions, then the gathering of the syllables to be placed on the weapon-wheel. Then, joining the deep awareness wheel with the drawn commitment wheel. Then, mantras to be recited for various actions. Then, warnings against disasters that will happen if we don’t do each of the steps properly. 
  • Rituals for transforming closely bonding substances into a potion for gaining various powers. 
  • Subsidiary factors for success in the rituals – namely helpful factors, the sequence of the practices, and the results attained when they are performed successfully: (a) pacifying brings protection from the eight fears, (b) increase brings the six good qualities, (c) controlling brings success in attaining the white appearance, red increase, black near attainment and clear light, (d) separating brings maintaining secrecy and avoiding the various types of demonic interference, (e) suppressing brings binding the six senses. The text emphasizes the need for confident belief in the practices, having no doubts or dualistic thinking, not separating the rituals from the mantra recitation, relying on a spiritual teacher and confidence in him. 

The Musk Shrew Chapter deals with the attainment of powers through the use of the skin of an animal called the musk-shrew (til-la). 

Secrecy in Tantra 

In these texts, we find a very clear description of what Yamantaka looks like: how many arms, how many legs, what the arms are holding, what are underneath his feet. All of that is completely clear in these texts. Plus, it has all these horrible descriptions of these rituals for smashing and killing and doing all sorts of horrible things with these sharp weapons, this wheel of weapons. It says that this is supposed to be kept secret, private, so why? It’s supposed to be kept that way because it could be completely misunderstood as some horrible thing, and that practitioners actually go out and kill people. However, that wasn’t the case because we can see from Wheel of Sharp Weapons that the image is intended for having this strength, as I was saying before, to cut through our ignorance, our self-cherishing, our self-grasping. So, it has to be explained by a teacher, and that’s the aspect of secrecy in this tantra system.

Guhyasamaja has a whole different system of secrecy than we have here in Vajrabhairava. There is this division in anuttarayoga tantra, the Gelugpa version of anuttarayoga tantra, of the obscure (or hidden or secret) tantras (sbas-rgyud) and the clear tantra (gsal-rgyud) (which is Kalachakra). What’s the point here? What’s the difference between the two? In the highest class of tantra, there are four initiations (or four empowerments), and the fourth one is to empower us to do the final, final, final practices where there is the practice of the two truths simultaneously. What is hidden concerns this fourth initiation.

That’s the only point that is hidden or secret in terms of that division. Otherwise, we get very confused. I mean, these three tantra texts have been translated into English, by the way. [Siklos, Bulcsu, The Vajrabhairava Tantras (Buddhica Britannica, Series Continua VII). Tring, U.K., The Institute of Buddhist Studies, 1996]. We read them, and we see that they have a full description of Yamantaka and what he looks like and what he’s holding. So much is explicitly explained there, and we say, “What? What does it mean in the text that it’s to be hidden or secret?” 

We read and study Guhyasamaja – which is actually the main thing that is studied in the tantric colleges in the Gelug tradition – and we see that the Guhyasamaja Root Tantra is written in the so-called vajra language (rdo-rje’i tshig). Vajra language is completely symbolic, so it says, “The vajra with the lotus and the ‘this’ and ‘that,’” and we have no idea what they’re talking about. But in Chandrakirti’s commentaries to the Guhyasamaja Tantra, he gives a structure of six alternatives and four modes (mtha'-drug tshul-bzhi) for explaining these so-called vajra expressions.

[See: Explaining Vajra Expressions: 6 Alternatives & 4 Modes]

Out of these words, we can derive all the different levels of practice, and it presents a system. Then, we think, “Well, that’s what it means for it to be a hidden tantra.” It’s not. That’s not the meaning. Because if we think that secret and hidden means this system of these vajra expressions, we become totally confused when we read the Yamantaka root tantra or the Chakrasamvara one, and we see, “Well, it’s all explained there very explicitly. A lot is explained.” So, we have to understand what’s going on here. The main point of what is secret or hidden is the explicit explanation of the fourth initiation. In the so-called hidden tantras, the fourth initiation is explained in analogy with the third initiation. Only in the clear tantra, namely Kalachakra, is the fourth initiation explained explicitly. 

Within those so-called hidden tantras in which the fourth initiation is hidden, there are different systems: There is mother tantra (ma-rgyud), and father tantra (pha-rgyud). Father tantra emphasizes the practices to get the illusory body (sgyu-lus) and the physical bodies of a Buddha, the Form Bodies of a Buddha. Mother tantra emphasizes the practices for getting the clear-light mind (‘od-gsal) and the understanding of voidness and the mind of a Buddha. Both do both, but the emphasis is different. So, there is this division of mother and father in Gelugpa. 

Within father tantra, there are tantras that use or transform into a path of practice: 

  • Desire – for instance, Guhyasamaja 
  • Anger – for instance, Vajrabhairava
  • Naivety or unawareness – Vajra Arali, which I’ve never heard of anybody actually practicing. 

Guhyasamaja talks about all the very, very advanced practices where the energy of desire is harnessed for getting down to the subtlest level, and they are hidden with these vajra expressions. Rather than saying hidden – maybe that’s not a good word here – they are encoded into these vajra expressions, and then they have to be decoded from them. For that, we need a teacher. 

Vajrabhairava is using the forceful energy, like anger – but not really anger, because, with anger, we are completely exaggerating the negative qualities of something, grasping to it to be truly existent, and then “I have to get it away from me.” It’s not that kind of anger, but it’s the energy of that – and it’s using that, as I said, to forcefully cut through all our ignorance and our self-cherishing and selfishness and so on. All of that is implicit in these various rituals and things that are explained in the texts, which sound as though they are horrible black magic for actually harming others, harmful beings, whereas the intention is for harming the internal enemy, our own selfishness. That has to be explained by a teacher. 

In the highest class of tantra, we hear a lot about using or transforming the disturbing emotions into helping us in the path. This is very, very dangerous, very delicate. We really have to have already reached the point at which we are no longer affected by the disturbing emotions, but where we can still call upon the energy of them in order to use them in a beneficial way in our internal yoga practice. It’s very, very delicate. If people try to do these practice and use these disturbing emotions before they are at a sufficiently highly developed level, the danger is that they really come under the influence of anger and desire, and then it’s a disaster. We have to be very, very careful. As everybody says – although a lot of people don’t take it very seriously – tantra is very, very advanced.

The Later History of the Teachings 

Lalitavajra brought these teachings back to India from Ugyen and gave them to Lilavajra, his disciple at Vikramashila Monastery. They passed down the line of Vikramashila masters, and there were many commentaries written to them in India. As Bulcsu Siklos explains in his book, the lineage of the Vajrabhairava tantra texts was brought to Tibet by Atisha, who had many Indian masters. It is possible, though, that in western Tibet (Ngari), where Atisha taught, Vajrabhairava teachings were already present directly via Ugyen.  
Eventually, Atisha brought the tantras of Vajrabhairava to Tibet, and his disciple Dromtonpa (‘Brom-ston rGyal-ba’i ‘byung-gnas) founded Radreng Monastery (Rva-sgreng rGyal-ba'i dben-gnas), so the tantra texts were available there, but people didn’t really know what they were all about. One monk from there – Ra Lotsawa he was called, Ra (Rva) from Radreng Monastery – went to Nepal to try to get more understanding of the teachings. It was very, very difficult – there’s a whole long story and account of how much difficulty he had to get these teachings and translate them with his Indian master Bharo Chag-drum (Bha-ro Phyag-drum), with whom he studied in Nepal – but anyway, he translated them and brought them to Tibet. 

Although a Yamantaka lineage was present at Radreng Monastery, teachings on it were not easy to find. Ra Lotsawa came from Tibet to Nepal to get the Yamantaka teachings, and all that the Guru he met did was give him a subsequent permission for a different tantra. He went to return to Tibet, and a lady pulled him back when he was about to go. She asked, “Have you received the full teaching?” He told her what he had received. “That is not the full teaching.” So, he went back to the Guru and requested the actual teaching. The Guru refused and said, “Ask my disciples if I have any further secret teachings.” The disciples said no. Ra Lotsawa requested further, but they didn’t even know the name or form of Yamantaka. 

One day, Ra Lotsawa followed the Guru to a cave, where the Guru always went. When he went in, he saw a Yamantaka painting on the wall with five offerings before it. He grabbed onto the Guru when he was going into voidness meditation and said, “You’ve been lying and withholding from me!” and requested again. The Guru said, “It was worthwhile to lie. In general, Buddha’s teaching is as wide and deep as the ocean, and tantra is like a wish-fulfilling gem in the ocean. It is not to be given lightly. The teaching of Yamantaka is even more special. To receive it, there are many requirements: (1) very strong faith in the Guru, (2) many offerings made to please the dakas and dakinis, (3) offerings of what is most precious to you as a way to overcome your self-grasping and perfect your practice of far-reaching generosity. I am not being miserly about the teaching, but the Yamantaka teaching is like the heart of the dakinis. Exposing these teachings is like exposing their heart. Therefore I feel guilty to teach them.” At this, the Guru disappeared. 

Ra Lotsawa had a difficult time finding him again. Many months passed. While trying to find him, one day at the bank of a river, he saw a boat without an oarsman overturned, and all of the passengers drowned. Then, he saw a boat with an oarsman cross over. He got the insight that we need a Guru to cross the ocean of samsara. He took these as manifestations of the teachings of the Guru. Another day he saw several parrots involved in eating rice while another larger bird was killing them. He took this as a teaching about impermanence and how we are oblivious to the Lord of Death. Then another time, a lady told him, “The Guru will manifest himself as a bird. Don’t fail to request him!” However, the next day, when he came, he had missed the Guru. Then, the lady said that the Guru would manifest as a dog. The next day he requested a dog who transformed into fire, water, wind and earth, the four elements, to show that he has power over the elements. Then the Guru appeared and said, “When the sun rises in the east, and there are no clouds, then the sun shines. Now you have no more obstacles and have been uplifted by Buddha’s compassion.”  

The Guru then told Ra Lotsawa to make preparation for the teachings in a different place. Ra Lotsawa asked him to please come to the monastery to give teachings, but the Guru said, “This is the place. It should be given only to as few disciples as possible. Anywhere else would be too distracting.” The Guru was very stubborn. He said, “I am in complete possession of wealth as vast as space. I don’t need any expensive offerings or praises.” Ra Lotsawa had been thinking in too limited a way. When he gave the teachings, the Guru manifested from his heart a huge mandala with myriads of dakas and dakinis making preparation for teachings, arranging the throne, etc. It was like a dream to Ra Lotsawa. He just stood by doing nothing, fully amazed. By dawn of the next day, the dakas and dakinis were singing. It was like the greatest occasion of his life. 

Then, the Guru gave the full series of initiations. He said, “If you keep the secrecy and do the practice, there is no doubt that you will attain enlightenment in this lifetime. Only give it to a few disciples.” Later, Ra Lotsawa regretted that he had given it to too many disciples, so he couldn’t attain enlightenment in his lifetime. After the initiation, the Guru snapped his fingers, and the mandala disappeared. Then the Guru disappeared, and Ra Lotsawa was left alone.

Ra Lotsawa meditated for 11 months. Then, he was ready to do more meditation; there was no need for further teachings. After the 13th month, he had a full vision of Yamantaka. After these 13 months, he met the Guru again at the monastery and reported all of his insights. The Guru said they were all successful, “The vision was correct; you have had non-conceptual cognition of voidness. I am fully satisfied with your progress.” In this way, Ra Lotsawa had much hardship in bringing this teaching to Tibet.

The lineage of the practices, like the sadhana, goes down the line from Ra Lotsawa in the Kadam tradition as well as in the Sakya tradition, and it goes down to Tsongkhapa. Tsongkhapa made it a very central practice because of its association with Manjushri. Manjushri is the one that Tsongkhapa had all these visions of and relied on for getting non-conceptual cognition of voidness. 

Then, it goes down the Gelugpa line to, eventually, the Fourth Panchen Lama. The Fourth Panchen Lama was the tutor of both the Fourth and the Fifth Dalai Lamas. The Fourth Dalai Lama was Mongolian, so the Fourth Panchen Lama had a strong connection with the Mongols. At the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama, he went back to his own monastery, Tashilhunpo (bKras-shis lhun-po), and many Mongols came to Tashilhunpo to study with him. 

So already, through the influence of the Fourth Panchen Lama, Yamantaka practice had reached the Mongols. One Eastern Mongol, a Torgud Mongol, came to study with the Fourth Panchen Lama, called Neiji Toin. He was very fanatic. He went back to Mongolia, to the very most eastern tribes of the Mongols, and he was like a missionary. Many of the Eastern Mongols had already accepted Tibetan Buddhism at this time, but Neiji Toin wanted to convert the remaining shamanistic Eastern Mongol tribes and get them to accept the Gelug lineage of Tibetan Tantric Buddhism, particularly with the practice of Yamantaka. This is because Yamantaka is very strong and powerful, and Mongols are very strong and powerful people, so they would like that type of practice. The local Khan Tüsiyetü Khan of the Qorcin thought this was a really good idea and financed this Neiji Toin, so he bribed people. He said, “Memorize the mantra. If you memorize this verse, we’ll give you cattle. If you memorize this, we’ll give you a yak, we’ll give you a camel,” stuff like this. They basically bribed the people to adopt Yamantaka, like the Christian missionaries are doing now in Mongolia, paying people to go to church, so it’s a similar type of thing.

Next to where the Eastern Mongols lived were the Manchus. By the way, if you don’t know the geography, we’re talking about the region which is… You know where Khabarovsk is? It’s the region just south of that. We’re talking about this region. The Manchus were getting their power together, and eventually, they’re going to conquer China and rule China as the Qing dynasty. We’re talking about the early 17th century. Before the Manchus conquered China (in 1644), they had already accepted certain elements of Gelug when they built the Yellow Temple in Mukden, their capital (1636-38). However, as they extended their hold over the Eastern Mongol regions, they needed to incorporate Yamantaka so as to win over the Eastern Mongols. Since the Manchus wanted to rule over the Mongols as well, they adopted Yamantaka also. They made this association that Manchu – well, that sounds like Manju of Manjushri – so their rulers eventually became recognized as emanations of Manjushri like the association of Avalokiteshvara with the Tibetans and Vajrapani with the Mongols.

Already there was an association between the Manchus and the Dalai Lamas. There was one big Sakya lama who was out there, and he complained to the Manchu ruler, saying, “Come on, it’s totally improper to bribe people to practice this tantra.” The Manchu ruler didn’t want to get involved with this, and so he said, “Take it to the Fifth Dalai Lama. Let him decide.” The Fifth Dalai Lama instructed his representative at the Manchu court to banish this Mongol missionary to Hohhot, present-day Inner Mongolia, to get him to stop this improper practice of bribing people to do Yamantaka practice. I hope that when you took the initiation, you weren’t given a cow as well to bribe you into doing the practice! 

Anyway, what followed from this is very fascinating. When the Manchus conquered China, they identified themselves with Yamantaka and Vajrabhairava and Manjushri. They built the Forbidden City and the Imperial City, and all these things, and it was envisioned and laid out like a Yamantaka mandala, and the emperor was Yamantaka in the center of this. More precisely, the Manchus identified Beijing as the Vajrabhairava mandala with the Forbidden City, the Imperial City and the Outer City forming three concentric mandala circles, with the Emperor as Vajrabhairava in the center. They built big statues of Yamantaka and so on in the Beihai Temple in Beijing, and one of the main halls of the Yungho Gung temple was devoted to Vajrabhairava practice, with a portrait of Qianlung Emperor as Manjushri/Tsongkhapa hanging inside it.

I find this very interesting, this very odd way in which Yamantaka practice then becomes so popular among the Mongols and the Manchus, and we find big statues and things in Beijing and in other parts of China. This is how that came about.

Anyway, enough of history and stories. I personally find it quite fascinating and actually quite helpful to see what actually has happened with this practice, how does it actually fit into history, the religious development, and so on. It gives it a context.

Five Special Features of Yamantaka Practice 

One last thing I want to mention is that there are five special features of Vajrabhairava practice that were revealed to Tsongkhapa by Manjushri.

[1] The first is that in this age of degeneration, practitioners will not be harmed by interferences. How do we understand that? Interferences are the four maras. Mara is the embodiment of interference, and mara is from the Sanskrit word meaning “death.” 

  • The mara of death. We already explained how this practice transforms death so that we don’t experience ordinary death; we change that experience in terms of the clear-light mind, using that to get the understanding of voidness.
  • That clear-light level of mind is more subtle than the disturbing emotions, so it defeats the mara of the disturbing emotions.
  • If we’re able to transform the clear light of death into this understanding of voidness, we won’t get the aggregates of another samsaric rebirth, so it overcomes the mara of the aggregates.
  • We’re getting the understanding of voidness with this, with the clear-light mind, so we overcome the mara of what’s called the sons of the gods, which is referring to the non-Buddhist philosophical views.

If we understand this whole system of Yama and the maras and so on, then when it says that we won’t be harmed by interferences, we understand what that means. Otherwise, it sounds really weird, like “Wear an amulet, and you’re not going to be harmed” – a red string, the whole red-string Buddhism thing.

[2] Remember, I said that Vajrabhairava is the container within which we combine Guhyasamaja practices and Chakrasamvara practices in the Gelugpa way of practicing? He has 34 arms, right? The second of the five special features is that in two of his hands, he holds intestines and a triangular fire stove. This represents two types of practices in Guhyasamaja: illusory body and clear light. That means that he incorporates the Guhyasamaja type of practices.

[3] Then, the third point is that he holds a khatvanga staff, which indicates that he incorporates the teachings of voidness and bliss from Chakrasamvara.

[4] The fourth point is that the fire stove also indicates not just the clear-light practices from Guhyasamaja but also that the deep awareness gained through this practice is greater than any other. The understanding is the same in all practices, of course, but we’re using the forceful energy of Vajrabhairava to get to it, so it’s strong – with, of course, bodhichitta; that’s to be understood).

[5] The fifth point is that to attain enlightenment, we need to rely on the deep awareness of Manjushri. In this practice, we have this forceful form of Vajrabhairava externally, and internally, we have a Manjushri in our heart; it combines all the practices always with Manjushri in our heart.

These are the five special features of Vajrabhairava or Yamantaka. As I mentioned, most people will refer to it as Yamantaka. The reason is it’s easier to say in Mongolian, and because it’s so strong with the Mongols, everybody calls it Yamantaka usually. 

If we have received the empowerment, it’s a very, very important, very helpful, and very strong practice to involve ourselves with, very effective. In the Gelug tradition, it is the container, as I said, in which all the other practices can be done. With all the protector practices, they are done as being Vajrabhairava ourselves, and then we invite the protector into our mandala. The protectors are like a dog, a very vicious, powerful dog. As Serkong Rinpoche used to explain: We want to chase thieves away from our gate. As a strong man, Vajrabhairava, we can stand by the gate and chase them away, but why do that? We could have a dog that does that. And so the protectors are like this vicious dog, and we have to be the very strong Vajrabhairava in order to control that dog; otherwise, it’s going to bite us.

If we want to do these more advanced practices and so on, we have to have the strength of conviction, the understanding of reality (Manjushri in our heart), and this forceful energy to be able to chase away interferences – our confusion, our selfishness, and so on – chase away the interferences and stay steady in our practice. For this, Yamantaka is the best, strong on the outside, and Manjushri (wisdom, calm, clear) on the inside.

Let’s end here with a dedication. Whatever understanding, whatever positive force has come from this discussion, may it act as a cause for all beings to reach enlightenment as quickly as possible through a sincere practice such as this Yamantaka system.

As Shantideva dedicates in the 10th chapter of Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior:

(53) Whenever I might wish to see or might wish to ask about any little thing, may I behold the Guardian, Manjunatha himself, without any impediment.
(54) Just as Manjushri works to fulfill the aims of all limited beings to the far reaches of space in the ten directions, may my behavior become just like that.
(58) I prostrate to Manjughosha, through whose kindness my thought has become constructive; I prostrate as well to my spiritual teacher and friend, through whose kindness, I've been able to have it expand.

Thank you.

Original Audio from the Seminar