the assembly of peaceful and wrathful deities

The male buddha Vairocana in union with the female buddha Akasadhatvisvari. Thangkas painted by Shawu Tsering and photographed by Jill Morley Smith are in the private collection of Gyurme Dorje.First, an apology for the previous post. Making fun of things by quoting them out of context is unproductive. Another apology-warrantable offence is making fun of things one doesn't know very much about: sorry.

This post is about the so-called "peaceful and wrathful deities" referred to in The Tibetan Book of the Dead (deluxe edition, Penguin, 2005). Available at Amazon.

Here's a crude summary: when you're dead, initially you may encounter things that may seem to be deities but which are really just products of the mind/imagination.

According to the Book (p 387), the deities are symbols that emerge from:

the meditator's own awareness ... and sensory and mental processes.

The 42 symbols of peacefulness:

represent the quiescent natural purity of these fundamental components of our being.

Assembly of the forty-two peaceful deities. Thangkas painted by Shawu Tsering and photographed by Jill Morley Smith are in the private collection of Gyurme Dorje.

In contrast the 58 symbols of wrathfulness are:

transformative aspects... which bring about the natural transformation of the most enduring and deep-seated expressions of our mundane perceptual states.
The wrathful deities represent aspects of transformation, and in that sense are dynamic compared to the "quiescent" peaceful deities, which seem to me to be about abiding timelessly and statically in bliss. (I was going to put quotation marks around "abiding", "timelessly", "statically" and "bliss" but realised that you'd get the point without my having to do that).

The wrathful deity Mahottara Heruka, for example, symbolises the:

natural transformation of fundamental ignorance into pure awareness.
Mahottara Heruka is the wrathful aspect of the peaceful Buddha, Samantabhadra.

But what is the appropriate label: "deities" or "aspects" or Jungian archetypes from the collective unconscious, something else entirely, or none of the above?

The question highlights the unreliability of language, which often conceals more than reveals. Whatever the label, the Book itself says that the "deities" are products of the mind. What's harder to accept is that those minds belong to people whose physical body has died, "people" whose consciousness continues to continue after death.

If there is an afterlife, does the experience vary according to the cultural context of the dead person? Are the names of the beings you might meet there expressed in your language, eg Tibetan? Do those beings keep the same name irrespective of the cultural/linguistic background of the dead person? Is there always the same number of beings of each type, "peaceful" and "wrathful", and do they always represent the same thing/aspect of being?

Maybe, just maybe, you get what you expect. The observer creates the outcome of the experiment, collapses the wave function, kills the cat.

I do wonder, though, that if the deities are symbols emerging from a person's awareness, why call them deities? Why not call them symbols? Or is that just a second-order, translating/linguistic issue? And, why "wrathful" not, eg, "transformative" or even "catalytic"?

Isn't the artwork great though?

ASSEMBLY OF THE FIFTY-EIGHT WRATHFUL DEITIESAssembly of the fifty-eight wrathful deities. Thangkas painted by Shawu Tsering and photographed by Jill Morley Smith are in the private collection of Gyurme Dorje.

Wrathful deities of the Ratna familyWrathful deities of the Ratna family. Thangkas painted by Shawu Tsering and photographed by Jill Morley Smith are in the private collection of Gyurme Dorje


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mgeorge said...

You get what you expect: Yes, this is what I meant in an earlier comment about sanitised near-death experiences in a US TV series.

I agree about the scepticism (baby-boomers were only more publicised, no unique) but expect that as one gets more helpless, one will resort to the after-life as a sufficiently mysterious topic to obsess on; after all, the mind needs something to work on. Assuming we are to take this seriously, and keeping in mind that this was a serious doctrine competing with others, we could conclude that the dogshit and protruding ankle bone stuff were deliberate booby-traps to put off the less serious ones who had taken up reading (as opposed to listening to sermons). Current reading material, it could be argued, contains a lot more canine faeces through which we wade effortlessly.

masterymistery said...

Hi mgeorge, yes, there's also the maths of reincarnation. I've been trying to find a tame actuary to work out whether at any moment, the number of dead people is greater than, less than or equal to the number of living people. Given the assumption that one soul incarnates within one body only, and no more than one soul incarnates within one body. Because if you didn't get the balance right, you'd either run out of souls, or out of bodies.

Re the dogshit, the booby-trap idea is a possibility. But the Book itself (or the Dalai Lama's preface anyway) also provides a plausible explanation: That the content of the Book is a mixture including rituals that are "idiosyncratic" and "not commonly practised".

Thanks for your comment: it's given me a great idea that I'll eventually put up a post about, but that's all I'll say for now!

cheers, MM

mgeorge said...

On reincarnation: Given the increasing display of zombie behaviour, my bet is that they are running out of souls at the Factory. Just look at the US politicians promoting themselves as saviours of not only their own hellhole but of the world. Look at average Joe glued to his maya-generating gizmo that reassures him he is in the best of all possible worlds - even as he sinks deeper into debt and heads into a future of devastation.

masterymistery said...

Hi mgeorge, a future of debt and devastation is a pretty bleak assessment. But not one, unfortunately, I can disagree with.

I love the language in your comment: maya-generating gizmo. That's pure gold!

Talking of humans and their zombie behaviours, I'm struck by the possibility that we'll all starve to death: humans just don't have enough brains to eat, or feed themselves (sustainably)!

Thanks for your comment.


Tempest Nightingale LeTrope said...

My life has become such a boring hamster-wheel of nothingness that I'll probably imagine a black nothing of oblivion and just fall into it. Either that or stay stuck on Earth as a ghost who thinks it still has to get to work on time.

masterymistery said...

Hi Tempest,

Great to hear from you.

I think oblivion's got a bad rep., perhaps undeservedly.

Hamsters can be cool, as long as they don't work themselves up into a steamy sweat upon the wheel!

As far as "Earth", "ghost" and "time" are concerned: there's so much to talk about on those subjects it's not surprising so little real work gets done around these here parts.

Forgive facetiousness -- my heart's in the right place (or it was the last time I looked).

Thanks for stopping buy. Cheers, MM