BUDDHA NATURE.COM Songs and Meditations of the Tibetan Dhyani Buddhas

Unseen Beings

The Value of Yidams and other Unseen Helpers
in Buddhist Ritual and Meditation

Avalokiteshvara with his thousand arms which 
reach out to help all suffering beings The Buddhist scholar Reginald Ray in an article titled On the Importance of Relating to Unseen Beings in Lion's Road Magazine (January 2001) discusses the native Tibetan Buddhist view on non-material beings.

In his article, he describes the tendency of Westerners to see non-material beings such as dakinis as a mental "projections" or as "symbolic" or as non-objective. But in the classical Buddhist view, he notes that

... the world is defined not only by what we can perceive with our physical senses and think about rationally. It is equally made up of what cannot be seen, but is available through intuition, dreams, visions, divination, and the like. The senses and rational mind provide access to the immediate physical world, but it is only through the other ways of knowing that can one gain access to the much larger context in which this physical realm is set.
In the Buddhist cosmos, the are infinities of "impure" worlds and beings, and an endless cyclic existence of birth and death. But there are also "pure realms" where "realized ones" aid those in samsara or the "impure realms" and help them on the path to enlightenment.

He notes that,

These beings are: the celestial buddhas with their various manifestations; the yidams (personal deities), male and female, also called wisdom dakinis and herukas; the great bodhisattvas such as Avalokiteshvara and Tara, who will come to the aid of beings; the dharmapalas (dharma protectors), who watch over and guard the dharma itself and those on the path; the enlightened men and women who have passed beyond this world, and others. These various enlightened ones represent a state of realization that is available to suffering sentient beings.
For traditional Tibetan Buddhists, acceptance of and relationship with unseen beings is essential to living a "full and successful human life."

From a philosophical perspective, these beings are aspects of the individual's mind and "mistaken projections of psychological states." However, so are the material phenomena we experience through the physical senses. In the Tibetan Buddhist view, all phenomena, both internal and external, are nothing other than "false objectifications and solidification of non-dual awareness." In this sense, the seen and unseen worlds are equally "objective" or existent from a relative point of view and equally subjective (or projected fantasies and illusions) from an enlightened point of view.

From a traditional Tibetan Buddhist point of view, we need to establish a relationship with these unseen beings and helpers to have a full and complete religious and meditative life, and the most common way to relate to them is through religious ritual.

Common methods of ritual include offering salutations, making offerings, rejoicing in the existence of bodhisattvas, etc., requests for teaching, communicating directly with them when possible, and dedicating any merit gained through such ritual to helping all beings gain wisdom. But unseen beings who take the role of Yidam or inner teacher are also expected to be guides and helpers in meditative practices.

Just as there are cultural and linguistic rules about how to communicate with other human beings, there are ways and methods to communicate with unseen buddhas, bodhisattvas, and dakinis. Ray also emphasizes that these rituals should not be repetitive and lifeless but rather should be full and rich as they deepen our relationship with enlightened beings and draw us towards enlightenment.

The full article can be found on the Ray article page on the Lion's Roar website.


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