Buddhist practice and Buddhist art have been inseparable in the Himalayas ever since Buddhism arrived to the region in the eighth century. But for the casual observer it can be difficult to make sense of the complex iconography. Not to worry—Himalayan art scholar Jeff Watt is here to help. In this “Himalayan Buddhist Art 101” series, Jeff is making sense of this rich artistic tradition by presenting weekly images from the Himalayan Art Resources archives and explaining their roles in the Buddhist tradition.

Meditational Deities

“Meditational deity” (yi dam) is a general term in Buddhist tantra referring to all of the deity subjects, derived from tantric literature, that are forms or emanations of Vajradhara Buddha, the Five Symbolic Buddhas, or the enlightened figures of such notables as Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara, Vajrapani or Tara.

Rakta Yamari (Shelley & Donald Rubin Collection)

Rakta Yamari, the Red Killer of Yama (death), is an example of a meditational deity who belongs to the highest of the four classifications of Buddhist tantra: Anuttarayoga. Rakta Yamari is also one of the many emanations of Manjushri. The figurative form of Yamari is a personification of the Yamari tantra and uses death as a metaphor for structure this specific system of tantric practice.

The painting shown here is of the Rakta Yamari mandala. At the center of the painting is Yamari, embracing the female consort Vajra Vetali and surrounded by four additional couples in similar appearance.

Paintings such as this are often created to commemorate the passing of an important religious teacher or made as a required support for sustained and continuous practice. Strict observance of tantric practice requires the practitioner to keep an image of their chosen meditational deity as a painting, drawing or sculpture.

Black Garuda (Shelley & Donald Rubin Collection)

Black Garuda is also a meditational deity, but unlike Rakta Yamari, he does not have the same breadth and depth of commentarial literature and support teachings. Black Garuda as a meditational deity is more narrowly defined and has the function of removing particular types of obstacles that a practitioner might face during intense and prolonged practice. This type of deity generally plays a support role within a larger meditation system. While a practitioner would rely on a more advanced and developed system of tantric practice, Garuda would be employed whenever required in order to overcome particular difficulties.

It can best be understood as “major meditational deities” and “minor meditational deities.” Examples of major meditational deities are Hevajra, Chakrasamvara, and Kalachakra. These deities embody very large and detailed systems of instruction. Minor meditational deities are used situationally and specifically when and if a need arises—such as for the removal of obstacles, acquisition of wealth, purification, power, long-life and protection. There are of course situations in which minor deities are practiced merely based on the personal choice of the practitioner.

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