Early on, in the Martin Scorsese film Kundun, there is a scene in which the boy-king is frightened. Alone in his bed in the inner recesses of the Potala, the young Dalai Lama hears noises. A large rat scurries through the shadows. He cries out for his mother. His guardian comes in and sits by his side. The boy says, “I don’t like it here,” and the lama nods, “Yes, it’s an old, dark place.” He tells the child to look to the deities when he is afraid, and the child points to a thangka on the far wall, asking,

“Who’s that one?”

“Palden Lhamo, special deity to protect you and the government of Tibet.”

The boy looks up at the lama and asks, “Is she real or pretend?”

“She’s real.” The answer comes without hesitation. “She’s real.”

When I first saw the film, this moment brought a lump to my throat because I was struggling with the same question. What are the deities? No, I mean, really. When I am filled with fear in the middle of the night, can a protector deity provide comfort? Is an emanation of the rainbow body an actual thing? Is it my belief that makes it so? Isn’t that a lot like Santa Claus?

When I set aside what I was supposed to think and just said what I felt, I had exactly the same question as any six-year-old child.

Tara. The Dakinis. Vajrapani. The three protectors of the order of the Gelugpa: Mahakala, Yamantaka, and Palden Lhamo. Real or pretend?

I was originally attracted to Buddhism because of its pragmatism. I became enamored of this tradition when I realized its basic tenet began by saying, essentially, “Life sucks and then you die, so what’s that all about?” This was the religion for me. This was a framework I could use to examine my actual experience. Far from the promise of pie-in-a-big-sky afterlife, this was about dealing with the fear that comes when you realize nothing is going to save your ass.

When I first studied with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche at Tail of the Tiger (now Karme Choling), the emphasis was on facing the reality of your life and your situation. The instruction, and the old farm in Vermont in which it took place, was generally free of the trappings of Tibetan culture. Trungpa Rinpoche used Western examples and illustrations, answered questions in extremely practical terms, and talked about the dangers of “spiritual materialism,” including the trap of mistaking “mind-blowing” experiences for realization. All this made sense to me. I wasn’t looking for visions, I was looking for a real answer to the anxiety and uncertainty of my life.

So I’m sitting in Vermont listening to this Tibetan in a turtleneck sweater, telling how spiritual understanding is grounded in the most basic aspects of your life, in the shitting, pissing fundamentals and not in the woo-woo of New Age razzle-dazzle and the seduction of mystical experiences. Unfortunately, I’m having trouble concentrating on what he’s saying because the light around him is blinding me, crystal bands of color fill the space between us, and the auditory quality of words has changed. At one point during that fortnight, I saw the entire tantric pantheon spread out across a snowy Vermont hillside in bright golden warmth, accompanied by a kind of humming sound. And I was absolutely totally straight. No drugs, no alcohol, no fasting, no isolation, nothing to induce an altered state, just me, peeling potatoes, trying to walk mindfully and having one incredible vision after another.

I particularly remember one early morning, standing in a hallway upstairs in the main house, when Rinpoche opened the door from the office and stepped into the hall. He looked at me and I was suddenly nervous and reflexively squeaked out the word, “Hi,” and he said it back to me, “Hi,” and a white glowing light grew out of him filling my vision while the word changed shape as though I could see it. He began to walk away and the light died down and the sound faded, and then he turned back and looked at me as I stood there dumbfounded. I could see his face clearly now and he smiled and winked with genuine pleasure, the kind of pleasure you’d have seeing a child stunned into breathlessness by an especially good magic trick, stunned by a new view of things and astounded with the possibilities suddenly opening ahead. I was filled with happiness. I knew now that there was so much more than my own little sense of things. I saw consciousness at play in space.

Image 2: Golden Ganesh, Hedy Klineman, silk screen, metallic leaf, and acrylic paint on canvas with antique carved Tibetan frame, 1994. Courtesy Joanne Todaro.
Golden Ganesh, Hedy Klineman, silk screen, metallic leaf, and acrylic paint on canvas with antique carved Tibetan frame, 1994. Courtesy Joanne Todaro.

So what does one make of such experiences? Are they brain-chemical imbalances or acid flashbacks? A sign of psychosis? Or perhaps a phenomenon of physics, like the northern lights but occurring within the electromagnetic field between human beings?

Whatever this was, I came away with a new view of what was possible, a wider, more enlivened view of myself and the world. It was, for want of a less discredited word, inspirational, and the result was to spur me on to study and practice.

And that was that. I went home and settled into the ordinary difficulties of finding the discipline to sit regularly and the skill to incorporate what I was learning into my daily life. As I studied further, I learned more about the deities, the whole array of gods, consorts, lamas, yoginis, dakinis, emanations of this, and emanations of that. Becoming affiliated with a Tibetan lineage can feel like entering a Byzantine hierarchy on psychedelics, or a really good computer game with very high production values.

I began to realize that Tibetans pray to statues of Tara like Catholics pray to statues of the Virgin Mary. This felt kind of uncomfortable, retrograde, like something I was trying to get away from. I decided it was a cultural thing, “folk Buddhism,” arising out of pre-Buddhist traditions and social conventions.

I was more comfortable with the idea that these deities represented aspects of human experience or enlightened mind, not real beings. Or maybe they had once been real historical human beings who had been very good practitioners and had now, over all the years, become idolized and turned into gods or saints, the way people are inclined to do with their heroes. Searching for a savior, something like that. To my mind, the trikaya—the term referring to the three bodies possessed by a Buddha manifesting in the world—was a metaphor for the principles of Buddhism, the teachings personified, again, for the unsophisticated. People need to have something to identify with, turn to, pray to. I believed my early experience at Tail of the Tiger was in that vein. I had been more naive then. Now I was a mature practitioner. I thought I understood the rigor of “no escape.”

Image 3: Palden Lhamo, protective Tibetan deity. Courtesy Dharmachari Maitreya.
Palden Lhamo, protective Tibetan deity. Courtesy Dharmachari Maitreya.

Then, several years ago, this thing started happening. I started to see Ganesh. I don’t mean pictures of Ganesh, I mean Ganesh, the multiarmed, elephant-headed Son of Shiva, god of wisdom and remover of all obstacles. It’s impossible to describe such an experience and I’m not going to try. By its very nature it is beyond language. But let me say that what happened was more than my own projection. It was some combination of my perception and his existence.

Simultaneous with this experience came a shift in my understanding. I had a glimmer of something new to me, a gentleness, a softening. I was getting a glimpse of the possibility that maybe I’d misunderstood some stuff here, mistaken a certain harshness for discipline, abnegation for rigor, unrelenting self-criticism for clarity.

But old habits die hard. While I understood the concept of gentleness, I didn’t know how to do it. I wanted control over my fear. I wanted to conquer it. I wanted control over the person I thought I was. I didn’t trust the softening thing.

Ganesh kept showing up. I started to wonder about the invisible friend syndrome, about personality disorder. Did Son of Sam start this way? I imagined headlines reading: “An Elephant Told Her to Take an M-16 to the Congressional Building.”

Visualization as a focus for meditation was one thing, this was something else. Furthermore, if I was going to have actual discussions with an etheric representative of the teachings, it should be some cool Tibetan yogini. But this was a Hindu mahadeva, and he wouldn’t go away.

I went to my teachers, Khenchen Palden Sherab Rinpoche and Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal Rinpoche. I was apologetic. I said, “Well, I’m having this experience but I’m trying not to pay any attention to it.” They laughed. At me, not with me.

They described the difference between no escape and no comfort. They talked about the need for gentleness toward oneself as well as toward others. They explained that Ganesh, while known in the West as a Hindu deity, also has a place in the Tibetan pantheon. In Tibet he is Tsog Dag, dharmapala (“tool of the dharma”). With a great deal of kindness and tact, the lamas said what more bluntly might have been stated as “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” and “You should be so lucky as to be thinking like a child.”

When I told Khenchen Palden Sherab I was afraid that my visions of Ganesh meant I was incapable of understanding the subtle levels of the teachings, he said to me:

“Don’t worry so much. You cannot be someone else; you can only be this person who has seen Tsog Dag. To understand this is very important. To accept yourself, to accept what life presents to you is very important. Everything else is aspiration and desire, which creates suffering. If you think you should be someone else, someone who needs nothing, you will suffer from that. Accept the fact that you are living in this world and have need. Meditate and study and use the help that arises for you.”

I had confused “reality” with harshness. Growing up in a puritanical tradition, I had, over the years, turned the teaching of “emptiness” into a tyranny masquerading as discipline. I had become very involved in trying to “get it right,” making my practice yet another requirement I could not meet properly, another reason for self-criticism. And I had lost my respect for the inexplicable nature of experience, for that which is beyond the “rational.” I’d lost sight of all those possibilities I’d glimpsed over twenty-five years ago.

When I stopped trying to push him away, Ganesh showed me that taking responsibility for myself actually requires being gentle. He showed me the difference between giving over and giving up. He showed me what acceptance really means.

Ganesh is often described as the “remover of obstacles,” and this is certainly one of his historical attributes. But the Hindu traditions of Shaivism and Shaktism and the Tibetan master Longchenpa teach that he might better be understood as the one who empowers unfolding, as karma manifesting itself; and this unfolding is not necessarily within the limitations of what we perceive as “good” and “bad.” It is not restricted by our desire. In other words, this is not a deity who will grant your wishes, this is a deity who will grant you, period. Ganesh represents the unfolding universe altogether—the Holocaust as well as your own private Idaho.

Image 4: Mahakala, a wrathful Tibetan deity. Courtesy Jon Ortner.
Mahakala, a wrathful Tibetan deity. Courtesy Jon Ortner.

This distinction is not simply a fine point of interpretation. I believe that understanding this, really understanding it, is the key to avoiding delusion. One does not approach the deity with a request or demand. One approaches with vulnerability, as you would a lover or a true friend. Your exposure is the greatest gift of intimacy and trust, it is your offering, it is the key. This is not about praying for what you want, this is about surrender to what is, surrender to the fact that there is truly no escape from vulnerability.

We walk around awash in unseen worlds and forces. Sound waves, electromagnetic waves, the subatomic universe, the human aura, the famous quantum soup. All of these are examples of real things that we don’t see. Not only do they exist, they impact our lives continuously, they influence us, they affect us all the time.

Compassion too is real, it’s a solid physical thing, as powerful as gravity, and it affects outcome, turns one thing into another. Compassion, and the lack of compassion, affect us all the time. The fear we feel in the middle of the night can be traced to a lack of this “force.”

When there isn’t enough compassion being generated (either for ourselves as individuals or in the world in general), we become unbalanced; we suffer from it as we would from a lack of fresh air and clean water. It is not an incidental element, it is mandatory. We will not survive without it.

In the most wonderfully ironic way, compassion is generated out of vulnerability. In the dark night, when fear arises, if I turn to the deity with complete surrender, there is a softening and an acceptance out of which compassion comes and comfort appears. In other terms, this is about giving over and letting go. It is the same act, the same surrender. It’s over, it’s done, you are finished. In that moment you know there is no escape, no escape in the past, now, or in the future, no escape in the mind. There is only what is.

What I have learned from Ganesh has changed my awareness. This in turn has changed my reality. How real is that? It’s as real as I am. As real as cukes and quarks and black holes and butter and you and me and the world we have created for ourselves.

The Buddha taught that the true nature of reality is intrinsically empty, that we live in a web of projection, a vast network of “pretend” within which we struggle and suffer. Each of us finds our own way to awareness through this jungle of projection. For me, Ganesh has seen fit to arise in front of my face, bestowing comfort in the midst of the entanglement.

Perhaps one day quantum physics will discover a “proof” that explains the deities. In the meantime, I’m going to accept the tool of the dharma given to me by my life: Ganesh, Tsog Dag, Ganapati, Lord of the unfolding universe in all its pain and pleasure, and solace to my aching heart. For real, not pretend.

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