Buddhism is a non-theistic tradition. Whether or not it can be termed a religion is debatable—the etymology of the word ‘religion’ refers to God. Many of us think of Buddhism as a practice-based psychology rather than a belief-based religion. Nevertheless, Buddhism has some of the outward trappings of a religion, such as temples, iconography, prayers and incense. Tibetan Buddhism also has deities. This opens up a world of confusion for Westerners, who may unwittingly impose preconceptions on what these deities represent.
Let’s start with a blank canvas.
The main objective of Tibetan Buddhism is to help us attain enlightenment—Buddhahood—so that we can be of greatest benefit to all living beings. Enlightenment is a state beyond concept or description. How do you help people achieve something for which there are no words? Something which is multi-dimensional. And how do you make this accessible to people whether they are highly intelligent or not very bright, cerebral or passionate, practical or visionary, intense or laid back?
Part of the genius of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, was that he taught different and complementary versions of the Dharma to different audiences according to their temperament and abilities. Buddhism is not a ‘one size fits all’ tradition; you’ll find a huge range of authentic Buddhist tools used by different people.
Among these practices, in Tibetan Buddhism we find many deities. Shakyamuni Buddha is central to the tradition, but there are numberless millions of other Buddhas and bodhisattvas, or enlightened beings, some of whom are portrayed in statues and paintings representing specific qualities of enlightenment, such as compassionate action, energy, purification, healing, power, wisdom and so on.
If enlightenment is like a diamond, it may be seen as having many different facets. Each of the deities may be likened to a different facet. Trying to understand the nature of the whole diamond may be well beyond us initially, but we can focus on a particular facet. By drawing our minds close to a specific deity, we gain access to the whole diamond.
How do we draw close to a deity? One way is by reciting the mantra associated with that deity. In reciting the mantra, we invoke the deity, opening up the possibility of accessing the qualities the deity represents.
Do these deities exist? Yes—in myriad manifestations. When we seek enlightenment, we, ourselves, seek to manifest to benefit all beings—and countless people have become enlightened. Their many consciousnesses exist. They are out there wanting nothing more than to help us. But they are restricted in what they can do by our own karma.
We can shift that karma when we open ourselves directly to them through mantra recitation. This is like creating a metaphorical hoop which deities can hook onto, drawing us into their orbit of influence. The more we practice, the more, different experiences we have of the deity, both while awake and in dream states. These experiences strengthen our confidence, empower our practice, and support our own non-conceptual experience of the mind of enlightenment.
Here are three mantras you may find useful:
1. The Buddha of Compassion/Chenrezin (Tibetan)/Avalokiteshvara (Sanskrit)
His Holiness, the Dalai Lama, is believed by many Buddhists to be the manifestation of this Buddha:
Om Mani Padme Hum
Pronounced: Om man-ee pad-me hung
2. Tara/Female Buddha of Compassionate Action:
Om Tare Tuttare Ture Soha
Pronounced: Om tar-eh too-tar-eh too-ray so ha
3. Medicine Buddha—for healing:
Tayatha Om Bekadeze Bekadeze Maha Bekadze Bekadze Radza Samungate Soha
Pronounced: Tie-ya-tar, Om beck-and-zay beck-and-zay ma-ha beck-and-zay beck-and-zay run-zuh sum-oon-gut-eh so-ha (The oon syllable to rhyme with the double ‘o’ in ‘look’).
There are many resources associated with each of these deities online, including the pronunciation of their mantras. Spelling, pronunciations and even the mantras themselves, may vary slightly depending on lineage, but toe-may-toe versus toe-mah-toe is of no great consequence. What’s important is the attitude with which we recite a mantra, and the process of connection which deepens with each repetition.
The paragraphs above are an extract from my book, Buddhism for Pet Lovers.
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