White Chakrasamvara
A short biograph of Chogyam Trungpa


Yidam (S.: ista devata) means personal deity. Yidams are sambhogakaya buddhas, particular forms of which are visualized in accordance with the individual psychological make-up of the practitioner. A practitioner’s yidam represents his particular characteristic expression of Buddha-nature. Identifying with his yidam, therefore, means identifying with his own basic nature, free from its distorted aspects. Through seeing his basic nature in this impersonal and universalized way, all aspects of it are transmuted into the wisdom of the spiritual path. This leads directly to the service of all sentiment beings, because in this way the practitioner becomes fearless. His hesitation gone, his action automatically becomes skillful and lucid; he is able to subdue what needs to be subdued and care for whatever needs his care.

The student first develops intense devotion towards his guru. This relationship with the guru makes it possible for the student to experience an intuitive kinship with the guru’s lineage and then with his own yidam.

Yidams belong to particular Buddha families. For example Cakrasamvara belongs to the padma family, Vajrabhairava to the ratna, the vajrakilaya form of Vajrakumara to the Karma family. Yidams are not to be equated with patron saints or guardian angels found in the Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions. They are not regarded as protectors from danger or saviors. They are simply acknowledgments of the student’s basic energy. The student visualizes the outstanding characteristics of the yidam until he achieves complete union with him.

There are different kinds of yidams. There are wrathful yidams, peaceful yidams and some semiwrathful yidams. The three mentioned above are examples of wrathful yidams. Wrathful yidams are always associated with what is known in tantric terms as “vajra anger.” Vajra anger is without hatred, a dynamic energy which, no matter which of the five wisdoms it belongs to, is invincible. It is completely indestructible, imperturbable, because it was not created but discovered as an original quality. Wrathful and warlike, it devastates the tendency towards idiot compassion and cuts through the hesitations that come from disbelieving in one’s Buddha-nature. Doubt is destroyed and confusion is chopped into pieces. Thus the wrathful yidams are portrayed treading on the corpse of ego, wearing ornaments of human bones and skulls, drinking blood, holding lethal weapons of all kinds.

In general the wrathful figures wear the five-skull crown, the garland of fifty-two heads, the six bone ornaments, the six jewel ornaments, the five ornaments of the naga castes. The five-skull crown exhibits the five klesas (emotional hindrances) as ornaments of the dharma. These are anger, pride, passion, jealousy, stupidity. The garland of fifty-two heads symbolizes triumph over the fifty-two kinds of neurotic concepts. The six bone ornaments are necklace, garland, armlets, bracelets, anklets, crossed bands across the torso. The jewel ornaments double the bone ones. The nagas, snakelike water spirits, represent passion. The naga ornaments represent the five levels of the Hindu caste system in the naga world, thus the five levels of passion. The ornaments are a ribbon in the hair, armlets, bracelets, body garlands, anklets. They signify that the passions have been transmuted into attributes of dharmic action. Many of the wrathful yidams also wear the tigerskin (male) or leopardskin (female) skirt representing fearlessness, the elephantskin shawl representing strength, the humanskin shawl representing compassion.

The peaceful yidams inspire the student’s non-aggression and gentleness. Rather than destroying the dullness and hesitation of ego, identification with peaceful yidams awakens it into openness. The peaceful yidams wear the raiment of archaic Aryan kings. They wear crowns and hold scepters and attributes such as the vajra, a golden wheel, wish-fulfilling gems, a bowl of amrta (the elixir of immortality), etc.

Peaceful yidams wear a five-medallioned tiara with gems in the colors of the five Buddha families. They wear a triple topknot adorned with ornaments of gold, diamonds, lapis lazuli and ribbons. They wear three necklaces, earrings, armlets, bracelets and anklets, all of gold and lapis lazuli. They wear rainbowcolored, pantlike lower garments under a short brocade skirt. The upper body is naked except for a shortsleeved blouse coming just below the nipples and, over it, a short, draped mantle. A long scarf floats from the neck.

The semiwrathful (T.: shimatro; Tt.: shi ma khro) yidams are described as a union of passion and anger. They both attract and reject. In visualizing them, the practitioner feels his basic being enriched by a sense of resourcefulness and flexibility in that magnetization or destruction could both be expressions of the awakened state of mind.

Yidams have both male and female forms. The male wrathful yidam is known as heruka, which means “blood drinker,” he who drinks the blood of ego. The female wrathful yidam is called a dakini. The dakinis are tricky and playful. The male and female of the peaceful yidams are known as bhagavat and bhagavati meaning “glorious one.”

The male figures signify awakened energy, skillful means, bliss. The female aspect is compassion, emptiness and intellect (which, as the emptying of confusion, is passive rather than active). The emptiness signifies fundamental accommodation and also ultimate fertility in the sense that emptiness is the mother of form. Through union with the heruka, the dakini can give birth to enlightenment. The dakinis in general reinforce the nature of their consorts and the bhagavati has the role of asking the bhagavat on behalf of all sentient beings to proclaim the teachings.

In general the union of the male and female aspects, known as the yab-yum (“father-mother”) form, is a symbol that skillful action is impossible without compassion, that energy cannot be effective without intellect and that bliss is impossible without emptiness. This symbolism denotes the interaction of these elements as aspects of enlightenment, rather than on the ordinary confused level of indulgence in passion and aggression.


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Essay © 1975 Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche
copyright © 2003 Shelly and Donald Rubin Foundation