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In Himalayan Buddhism, besides the deities, there are references to a spirit world. From such a perspective, there are three kinds of beings known as protectors. They are called in Sanskrit, Dharmapalas, lokapalas and kshetrapalas. That is, the powerful beings sworn to support and protect the Buddha's Doctrine, the worldly-protectors who guard the directions and the wealth of the world, and the regional or field-protectors. The latter are believed to be attached to physical surroundings such as the places we live.

    Advice regarding the class of deities called Protectors.

Wrathful Forms

People who are not accustomed to the "language" of Tibetan Buddhist images are often surprised to see the wrathful deities for the first time.

One category of these is the herukas, a class of Vajrayana deities such as Chakrasamvara that is semi-wrathful with intimidating, even terrible, features. They are represented as partially nude with an upper garment of human skin and a tiger skin around their hips. They have a 5-skull headdress and carry bone rosaries, a staff or trident and a Damaru (pellet drum) like the Hindu god, Shiva. Herukas are described in Tibetan books as beautiful, heroic, awe-inspiring, stern and majestic.

From Judith Simmer-Brown's, Dakini's Warm Breath: The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism (Boston & London: Shambhala Pub., 2001,) 154-156:

    "The heruka (tRak-thung) is a masculine deity, wrathful or semiwrathful, who represents the dynamic of compassion and skillful means in Tibetan tantra. The heruka traces its origin to the same pre-Buddhist traditions of India as the Dakini, in the retinues of wrathful Siva or Mahakala in which he served as terrifying demon.

    Heruka literally means "blood-drinker," and in a Tantric Buddhist setting this refers to drinking the blood of self-cherishing, doubt, and dualistic confusion.* The tantric interpretation of the term heruka derives a further meaning: his nature is beyond conventional cause and effect, existence, and duality. He is the ultimate expression of the radiantly selfless qualities of the mind. Having drunk the blood, the heruka experiences bliss. He is fearlessly at home in the Charnel ground, and under his gaze it is no longer merely charnel -- it is a palace.


    "The heruka is depicted with nine classical moods (Kartap gu) which gives clues about his manifestation. He is said to be charming, with dazzling ornaments; brave, posing and strutting; threatening, with rolling eyes and a wrathful grimace; laughing, a raucous "ha ha"; fierce, with laughter that mocks, "hi, hi, hum, phat"; fearsome, grinding his teeth and brandishing a weapon; compassionate; with bloodshot eyes and radiant skin; outrageous, with gaping mouth and clicking tongue; and peaceful, gently gazing at the tip of his nose.** The heruka embodies the mountain-like presence of the enlightened masculine principle in Vajrayana Buddhism, with its range of fierce, hearty, and gentle qualities."


Eight Dharmapalas

The eight Dharmapalas, Protectors of the teaching of the Buddhas, have this appearance but in fact they are bodhisattvas -- embodiments of compassion that can manifest out of Emptiness to act in an extremely wrathful way for the sake of Sentient beings. [link is to Nitin's newsletter of Feb. 2001.]

Called in Tibetan, Drag-ched, the Dharmapalas or defenders of Buddhism, are the 8 bodhisattvas: Mahakala, Yamantaka, Kubera, Hayagriva, Palden Lhamo, Changpa, Yama, and Begtse.

Tantric texts describe the very wrathful deities as terrifying. Stout with short but very strong limbs, many have several heads, hands and feet. Their complexions are likened to storm clouds, metals or precious stones: Black as the "cloud which appears at the end of a kalpa,” or “like a mountain of crystal” or like pure gold; of a red as "when the sun rises and its rays strike a huge mountain of coral.”

Their skin is oiled with sesame in the fashion of ancient times, or is dusted like that of a sadhu with ashes from a funeral pyre. More horribly, it is covered with spots of blood and shiny specks of human fat.

They grimace fiercely with a maw from which protrude fangs of copper or iron. Often, in profile view the upper teeth gnash the lower lip. A miasma of disease may issue from their mouths; a storm from flattened nostrils. They glower with three bulging, bloodshot eyes.

Nechung Gompa.jpg

Mahakala (Great Dark One) is the name given to a number of the wrathful forms, mainly of Chenrezig. But not all wrathful forms of Chenrezig are Mahakala.

The details of Mahakala's form depend on the different lineages and situation contexts. There are several six-armed ones characteristic of the Dharma protector, and there are also four-armed and two-armed ones.

        :: white or Sita, Mahakala (Gonpo Karpo.)

As protectors of the different teaching lineages, there are: two-armed, big-mouthed Mahakala Bernachen of the Karma Kagyu, four-armed Mahakala, protector of the Drikung Kagyu, and Gelugpa six-armed Mahakala.

Changpa Karpo (White Brahma) is the Buddhist view of Brahma. In this context, the usually 4-faced, 4-armed deity of Indian mythology is here mounted on a white horse, brandishing a sword. He is a "defender of the faith" and does not usually have the fearsome attributes of the others. His head-dress is topped by a conch shell jewel and over his robes he wears Mongolian armor.

One Hindu belief is that Brahma had designs on his own daughter, though she managed always to place herself above his four heads so he could not get at her. However, tradition says he did commit incest, and that is why there is only one temple in India remaining to him. At Pushkar in Rajasthan, it is still one of the most sacred spots.

The Tibetan Buddhist account has a similar motif:

    Changpa Karpo rode a wondrous horse that sailed the sky during the day, but at night descended to earth. Once, while in the heavens, he seduced a goddess named Dhersang, and stole a wish-fulfilling jewel. The guardians of heaven grabbed him by his tongue, flung him to the ground, and took back the jewel along with his very heart.

    This naturally resulted in an increase in his viciousness -- he murdered men and raped women. He met his match in Ekajati, who when he tried to touch her, whipped him so hard on his thigh with her turquoise-bedecked silk undergarment that he became crippled.

Gyalpo Protector.JPG

This wound, similar to that received by Jacob in the Old Testament when he wrestled with the angel, transformed "The White King" into a protector or Dharmapala.

Beg-tse or Baiktse (The Master of War) emerged as a Dharmapala after the Mongols under Altan Khan took Refuge in 1577 via the teachings of the Third Dalai Lama.

Like Changpo Karpo, he is also depicted mounted and in armour. With his right hand he brandishes his scorpion-hilt sword, his left hand clutching his bow is raised to his mouth as he is about to eat the heart of an enemy.

Hevajra is also known as Heruka, who some consider a form of Chakrasamvara. As Shastradhara, (Weapon-wielder,) he is portrayed in conjunction with his consort, Nairatmya (Self-less.) They display sixteen items, each a faculty for overcoming obstacles to Awakening. They are: a hook, trident, staff, cup, wheel, arrow, sword, vajra, lasso, gesture of subjugation (tarjani mudra), jewel, skull cup, ceremonial staff, bow, lotus, and bell.

Vajrabhairava seems derived from Indian god Shiva in his fierce form of Bhairava (Terrifier.) To Buddhists, this dark bull-headed figure has become Yamantaka, Dorje Jigche (Jigji) the Death-Slayer, who is a fierce form of the gentle Mañjusri, one of the Buddha's disciples. Fearsome in appearance though they be, all of these deities are manifestations of Compassion.

Some Nepalese Buddhist deities are particular to that culture such as Mahasamber, The Great Defender, a form of Chakrasamvara:

    He has seventeen heads in five rows, four in each row and one at the top. The main head of the four in each row faces the front and is blue on the right and green on the left. The heads on the blue side are yellow and the pairs of heads on the green side are blue, green and red. The heads are larger at the bottom and smaller at the top. All the faces are demonic, ie square shaped with three bulging eyes, heavy eyebrows, gaping mouths and fangs. The colour division of the main faces is continued all the way down the body, the right half being blue, the left half green. he has two sets of 17 and 18 arms, ie making 70 arms. Each of Maha Sambara’s feet has six toes and he stands with legs astride in alidhasana.

There are also four main arms, besides the four with which he embraces his consort, Vajravarahi.

Nila (midnight blue) Vajravidarana is a manifestation of ultimate Wisdom who is evoked to exorcise evil from individuals and from nations that arise from inner demons. "From the sky of all Buddhas' Wisdom and love, you arise like a band of powerful summer clouds. Able to shower the rain of healing, nourishing, controlling, and liberating deeds -- I salute you, glorious lord of the fierce!"

Ucchusma (Ususama Myo'o) is a Japanese protector.
Overcoming Hindrances

There is a category of wrathful deities who are believed to help in the removal of obstructions or obstacles. An example of one of these is The Immovable, Achala (or, Acala. Tib.: Mi yo wa, Jap.: Fudo.)
Transmuting Emotion

Yamantaka Vajrabhairav.jpg

Ragaraja ( Jap.: Aizen Myo-o) is a Buddhist tantric deity practiced in Japan who is believed to act in such a way as to transform negative habits associated with desire.
In Female Form

     Gorgeous figure of Palden Lhamo ( Glenbow Museum, Calgary.) Photo by Darquinn.

In her extensive entourage (not depicted) are the 5 Long Life Sisters, along with the Protectrices or 12 Tenma.

Rachigma is described as acting out of wrathful compassion like a mother grabbing her child out of the way of traffic. She is only called upon in the most desperate situations.

Troma (Tronyer Chenma) is a dark Dakini used in a form of the Chod practice.
Other wrathful protectors will be found in Female deities linked below.

     Visit Making Offerings for an account of procedures concerning ritual practices of wrathful deities.

Attributes of Wrathful Deities

Some of the attributes (symbolic implements) wielded by Dharmapalas such as Mahakala and other wrathful manifestations can include:

Sword (T. rtse-mdun, Skt. khadga) symbolizes the Wisdom, knowledge or ability to cut through delusion or obstacles.
Flags, standards and banners (Skt. dhvaja) which represent the victory of Buddhist teaching over delusion.
An elephant goad or ankh (Skt. ankusa) for taming desires.
Spears (T. mdun) that fix or pin down.
Hammer (Skt. mudgara) mace or club (Skt. gada) that crush opposition.
Bow (Skt. ripa) and arrows (Skt.sara): action at a distance.
Vajra staff (Skt. vajradanda)
Trident (T. rtse-gsum, Skt. trishula) symbolizing the Three Jewels.
Lasso (Skt. pasa) that constrains negative forces.

~ Mirrors of the Heart-mind at Kaladarshan Arts, Ohio State U. No longer accessible.


Different teachers give variant explanations for these weapons or tools.
The Lokapalas

A belief in Four Guardian Kings defending the Dharma at the quarters of the compass arose in association with the early sutras and is common in the Mahayana including Himalayan Buddhism.

The fiercest of the four is the blue, pop-eyed, sword-wielding protector of the South, Virudhaka (Tib. phag pa'i kye po.) He is leader of the Kumbhanda, a class of "titan," or ashura, the opponents of the Indian gods. To some degree, he resembles, GuanDi, the "Heavenly General" of the Chinese, but like the other Kings: Vaishravana (or his sometime equivalent Kuvera, Lord of Wealth,) Virupaksha, and Dritarashtra, he is sworn to the protection of the Dharma of Buddha Shakyamuni.

There is a tradition that Virudhaka was the actual name of the King of Kosala, who defeated the Sakyas in a battle that was followed by a massacre. In Chinese, he is called Zeng-zhang; in Japanese, Zocho.

In the Asian tradition, East is usually at the top of a chart, diagram or mandala. Normally we would begin there and continue clockwise, but as we have already discussed the Protector of the South, we will continue clockwise and go to the West.

Red, Virupaksha, (Tib. Mig midang) King of the West, is depicted as a Naga or with a snake coiling around him; in China he is called Guangmu. Komoku, in Japanese.

Green, Vaishravana, King of the North, holds an umbrella (as Kubera, he is golden, in association with wealth.) A Chinese source gives his Sanskrit name as Dhanada (Bestower) and as such he is known as Duowen. Then, his animal is considered an ermine or "snow weasel." In Japan, he is called Bishamon or Tamon.

White, lute-playing Dhritarashtra, (Tib. Yul Khorsung) King of the East is called Chiguo in Chinese. Jikoku, in Japanese.

    Chapter XXI of The Lotus Sutra includes the dharani of protection associated with each of the 4 Guardians. These "spells" are helpful only in the context of Universal Compassion, since they include the invocation of companies of wrathful Dakinis.