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.The male buddha Vairocana in union with the female buddha Akasadhatvisvari.
This post is about the so-called "peaceful and wrathful deities" in The Tibetan Book of the Dead (deluxe edition, Penguin, 2005).

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.Assembly of the forty-two peaceful deities.

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?

How eating dogshit can avert death is another post about the Book, in this blog.

Assembly 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. Assembly of the fifty-eight wrathful deities.

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


eBooks by Cosmic Rapture
(for kindle, tablet, smartphone or e-reader.)

NIGHTMERRIES: THE LIGHTER SIDE OF DARKNESS. This so-called "book" will chew you up, spit you out, and leave you twitching and frothing on the carpet. More than 60 dark and feculent fictions (read ‘em and weep) copiously and grotesquely illustrated.

AWAREWOLF & OTHER CRHYMES AGAINST HUMANITY (Vot could be Verse?). We all hate poetry, right? But we might make an exception for this sick and twisted stuff. This devil's banquet of adults-only offal features more than 50 satanic sonnets, vitriolic verses and odious odes.

MANIC MEMES & OTHER MINDSPACE INVADERS. A disturbing repository of quirky quotes, sayings, proverbs, maxims, ponderances, adages and aphorisms. This menagerie holds no fewer than 184 memes from eight meme-species perfectly adapted to their respective environments.

MASTRESS & OTHER TWISTED TAILS. An unholy corpus of oddities, strangelings, bizarritudes and peculiaritisms, including but not limited to barbaric episodes of herring-flinging and kipper-kissing. A cacklingly bizarre read that may induce fatal hysteria. Not Recommended!

FIENDS & FREAKS and serpents, dragons, devils, lobsters, anguished spirits, hungry ghosts, hell-beings, zombies, organ-grinders, anti-gods, gods and other horse-thieves you wouldn't want to meet in a dark cosmos. Immature Content! Adults Maybe.

HAGS TO HAGGIS. An obnoxious folio featuring a puke of whiskey-soaked war-nags, witches, maniacs, manticores and escapegoats. Not to mention (please don't!) debottlenecking and desilofication, illustrated. Take your brain for a walk on the wild side. Leave your guts behind.


mgeorge said...

Reported experiences of dying suggest that you do get what you expect. The gung-ho preachers will mot mention that. I seem to recall that the Book of the Dead says you should then strive to smash (go beyond) these illusions. However, it may also say that what lies beyond may be reincarnation. If we wipe out most of the larger animals, perhaps that means taking the form of smaller ones and microbes. To those who seek the liberation of non-existence (my terminology), any reincarnation is bad.
Others say that liberation is permanent or unending existence.

On the subject of deities being aspects of awareness, Brahmins (when they were less circumspect) said that since mantras controlled the gods and they controlled (had restricted access to) mantras, they controlled the gods.

masterymistery said...

Hi mgeorge,

Couldn't agree more: "You Can't Take it With You, Apparently":

Of course, getting (in death) what you expect is no less mysterious, unverifiable, controversial or divisive than the idea that "you" continue "living" as an entity after death.

Re "liberation", yes, in my opinion some schools of Buddhism are fundamentally "anti-life": the primary goal is to "escape the wheel of cyclic existence".

Thanks for your comments. Cheers, MM