The Dharma Protectors


Mahakala (Tibetan Dharma Protector)


Achala (Japanese Dharma Protector)

In posts on this theme so far, the term ‘The Dharma’ has been used frequently. We now need to introduce the idea of Nirvana too. If ‘the Dharma’ is the laws of the universe, the absolute truth, the essence of everything, then Nirvana is the state that sentient beings can aspire to which matches the Dharma. If you have not yet attained Nirvana, then there are bound to be struggles about accepting or processing the Dharma, which in all religions we call spiritual training. For us to reach such a state, as we have said, we need guidance form a qualified guru or master, and we need to tame our wild minds and open up our hearts completely.

During this training, we need help not only from our Masters, but also from the Dharma Protectors. They are celestial beings which protect the Dharma from damage or corruption, so that it can continue on having its wheel turned and benefiting all beings. They need to be quite fierce in order to do this, and so we should practice in awe of them. The Dharma Protectors are completely intolerant of impure behavior, unwholesome ways of thinking, etc. like guard dogs at the gate to the Buddha’s world.

At a basic level they are Buddha emanations or versions of various aspects of the Buddhas, but their purpose is to protect the Dharma and so liberate all beings. It is such a good feeling to have such protections, and to know that the Dharma will always be safe, and so our hurrying to the revered state of Nirvana assisted! If we keep them close in our devotions, they will ensure we are on track, awaken our hearts when they slumber, and show us clearly the differences between the human mind and the Bodhi mind, or the lower self and the higher self. Let me give you an example.

In my daily chanting, which consists of a mixture of Japanese and Pali, the spoken language of the Buddha Shyakyamuni, certain Dharma Protectors are named and so given homage or Namu. (Skt. which will be discussed in later posts). Of course, as all devout Buddhists do we should aspire to concentrating fully on the mantras we chant so they will reach the Buddha world. But being human, the mind sometimes wanders unconsciously, tempted away by the mundane mind to waste time thinking about trivial or perhaps even negative things. These are traces which surface from time to time and are difficult to wipe away completely.

When this happens to me outside my control, quite often I am suddenly nudged or woken quite fiercely. In a flash I realize what’s happened and deepen my focus on my chanting. Invariably I am jolted exactly at the moment of Namu to the Dharma protectors! In the nick of time, I can chant their names! To me, this personifies the function of the Dharma Protectors. They purify our negative karma, and protect us from further transgression.

At the temple, the Dharma Protectors are always positioned outside the main sanctified areas designed for ceremonies, precious rituals and devotions so that they can ensure that all attendees are pure and prepared to enter such a space. They are Buddha and Bhodisattva emanations of the Wisdom Buddha, in Sanskrit, Manjushri., so they have all-seeing wisdom. They are also totally non-sectarian and universal so they will protect us from evil forces even if we are not pracitising or have no faith.

Once I took a Christian to the temple and as I explained about the Dharma Protectors to him, he said, “I’m not very keen on praying to deities I don’t know.’ I told him he did know them, and they him, as they know and watch over all sentient beings. They have their counterparts in all religions because religions are by their nature concerned with the subjugation of evil forces, which prevent goodness from flourishing. He apologized to me for saying such an insular thing. I attributed it to the workings of the mundane reactive and often insular human mind.

I know it’s hard to imagine, but because Buddhism is a way of being that encourages each practitioner’s individual nature to shine out – ‘the true self’ – the Dharma Protectors work with our karmic burdens individually. They may not be able to protect us completely from harm or calamity, because karma must run its course, but if we allow ourselves to listen to the kindness behind their often fierce exterior, then we can accept our misfortunes and learn from them. This acceptance is a key in our spiritual elevation.

Of course they have the power to promote our material prosperity and health, but more importantly, they protect the inner Dharma – our Bodhichitta (desire to bring all to enlightenment with us), the endless compassion we’ve received, the varying states of shunyata (emptiness) we have reached, and our experiences of faith in general, and so on.

They are completely intolerant of impurities and defilements of body, mouth or mind, so they keep our levels of moral discipline high. They can be wrathful if mistakes are made, but their wrath is the reverse side of great loving-kindness (Skt: maha meta), so they chide us and then allow us to repent. ‘Wrath’ as opposed to anger will be the theme of a future series of posts. But briefly, anger is negative, potentially damaging to others and to yourself; whereas wrath is positive, constructive, creative in that it produces the conditions for transformation.

On the other hand, the Dharma Protectors applaud our successes and talents, and wish all our dreams to come true. They joyfully encourage us to step forward and fully realize our true nature, allowing the light of our Buddha Nature to dazzle all around us. They want us to be rid of the gremlin that sits inside our head emphasizing our limitations, our plainness, our stupidity, being overly-influenced by what others say to us. We can hear those negative voices in our heads, the threatening voices of the envious, the greedy, the possessive. But the more we polish our Buddha natures, the more the Dharma Protectors will work with us to reach enlightenment.The protectors carry sharp weapons and tools so that they can sever the root of ignorance and wake us up to our spiritual training. Let me give you an example.

I was sitting in meditation working towards elevating surrounded by many other practitioners when I suddenly felt strongly that the people all around me were much worthier of elevation than I was. So I started to withdraw, to shrink away. The mundane voice in my head was telling me I was not good enough, not ready. Then in a flash of light, the Dharma Protectors stepped in and lifted me into my higher self, and I immediately elevated! My higher self had complete confidence and belief in my purity and my enduring practice.

My Nirvana guru is emphasizing the harmonization of the Dharma Protectors that protect our order – The Earthly Protectors and the Heavenly Protectors are becoming one so that we can build up our protections and intensify our practice. This means that we will reach Nirvana more quickly because they are watching over our minds to make certain they are pure. Their role is similar to the protections we get from our parents when we are dependent children.

In the invisible world, the world of prayer and meditation, of emptiness of the human ego, in the same way that it is possible to accrue virtue/merit to dedicate to others in need, it is possible to get protections. In the interface between karma manifestation and the wild roaming of the egocentric mind like a stampeding elephant, conditions can become dangerous and frightening, so we need the strong calm backing of these Protectors.

In my Tibetan practices, Mahakala was the most revered of Dharma Protectors. Mahakala is a wrathful emanation of Avoloketishvara, the Lord Buddha of compassion, known as Chenrezig in Tibetan. Chenrezig is said to be reincarnated in the modern world as the present Dalai Lama exactly because the world needs great compassion at this time. This reincarnation was engineered by the Dharma Protectors so that the suffering can receive as much compassion as possible.

In Japan, Achala is a fierce protector with his sword to cut through human delusions and his lasso to lead stubborn beings to spiritual awakening. It was the warrior-like Achala Buddha emanation that inspired Nirvana Buddhism in Japan. I am truly a devotee of the massive determination this figure generates, the same determination that Shyakyamuni Buddha had 2,600 years ago as he got closer and closer to Enlightenment. So, we can see that all forms of Buddhism have their protectors, and they are all utterly compassionate beings with fierce determination to keep the Dharma inside each of us safe.

The mantras of these strict Buddhas are often rousing and rhythmic to express the incredible determination we need to overcome samsara (the suffering finite human world) and reach Nirvana (the state of blissful and eternal emptiness). In Tibetan Buddhism, my Kagyupa Master, Lama Seunam, was a virtuoso musician and ritual expert. His rich deep Bhutanese voice came into its own when conducting the ritual of Mahakala. He was able to extemporize and produce breath-taking vocal feats which evoked the incredible wrath and strength of this protector. He also played huge cymbals and massive drums to really bring the deity to life. It was awe-inspiring to participate in such a ritual with such a master.I am certain that my Mahayana determination to liberate all sentient beings was set in stone during this period of my practice.

On a human level, in our interactions with each other, we ideally want to behave in the best possible way – fair, considerate, compassionate, patient – which entails listening to others closely and sincerely before acting or commenting. It is the Dharma Protectors who allow us, no urge us, to listen carefully, to really hear the Buddha nature in the voices of those we interact with. All of these virtuous qualities revered by human beings in general, are within our range because we have a Buddha within. So the Guardians or Protectors, deeply cognizant of that fact, and tenderly helping to nurture us until our Buddha can float to the surface and our delusions drain away, accompany us, never leaving our sides until every last delusion is flushed away! This pristine state, this state empty of our human ego, is Nirvana, but without the Protectors nudging us away from our ignorance and delusions, we could never reach it.

Really, it’s a simple as that. It is only your deluded ego-centric mind which separates you from your own Buddha, your incredible potential. If we clean away our delusions – negative emotions like anger, envy, drunkenness, greed, lust – we will reach Nirvana and take up our rightful positions in the universe. Just think therefore that there are millions upon millions of potential Buddhas around you every day, as well as millions already in the celestial realms and Buddha Worlds. You have the potential to behave like a wise and compassionate Buddha in your daily life, but only by enlisting and appreciating the close surveillance of the Dharma Protectors.

The human behavior of a true Buddha is exemplified in the Nirvana Sutra. Chunda, a local blacksmith, had heard that the Buddha Shyakyamuni lay on his deathbed in a forest grove. The congregation of those coming to pay their last respects was huge, its members enlightened disciples, Kings, other nobles. They were competing in offering opulent gifts such as herds of oxen, treasure chests full of priceless gems, and so on, each in the hope that the Buddha would accept their offerings to liberate the multitude from suffering.

Chunda however had come to pay his respects bringing with him his 15 friends and a modest offering of home-cooked food. His motivation was completely pure. He was not seeking fame or fortune or favour, not interested in wielding power or influencing anyone, but instead genuinely seeking the final blessings of the Buddha in his final teaching. Chunda’s offerings were the only ones the Buddha accepted, and he was rewarded with instant enlightenment and entrance into Nirvana.

What are the qualities of a Buddha? A Buddha is simply a reflection of our pure potential.

‘A human life, a Dharma Body, power, a tranquil and immovable state, and unhindered eloquence to convey the Dharma to anyone, and all of these gifts will be ever-present.’

This is what the Buddha bestowed upon Chunda, and by so choosing this lay man (householder) above all the dignitaries present, he disclosed his intention that all sentient beings should achieve enlightenment in their human lives, not only the ordained monastic practitioners.

Some people around me say that I am an idealist trying to become a Buddha, to live like a Buddha. But this way of being is simply the pinnacle of goodness and purity and sincerity, which we all have the potential to be; we all, secretly or not secretly, strive for. I do not hide my desire to become the epitome of human goodness and purity and sincerity. Why should I? After all, we only have one human life in which to reach this pinnacle.

Think of those we admire: great musicians and writers, in whatever tradition, miracle workers like Mother Theresa, Princes and Princesses, Heroes and Heroines, etc. We all have the potential to be these things if we simply get some guidance from qualified gurus, and gradually learn to believe in ourselves totally: in other words, to let our Buddha Nature shine through all the delusions and ignorance like a massive uncut diamond. So with the Dharma Protector’s constant vigilance and compassion, we can all become Chunda.

Post 6: The Dharma Crisis and the Last Days of the Law is next in this Dharma theme.

5 thoughts on “The Dharma Protectors

  1. Janet Sono says:

    Glad to make comments on this article. What I wrote before was fresh and alive but it got deleted. First of all, I read it in bits in three sittings. It was just too much to digest at one go. The language is clear and eloquent. Really love the way you put sentences together. The part about the Dharma Protectors was fascinating and new to me. You explained that so well. I was just taken by everything–it was interesting, informative, loving, and stated in simple language. Although I’m a devoted Baha’i and am not tempted to turn to Buddhism, it’s intriguing and I saw so many things that are similar with Baha’i. Makes me feel very good to know that. Speaking of which, I’m looking forward to an interfaith meeting sometime. Haven’t seen anything posted in a while. Also, I owe you a dinner. Once we both find a calm time in our busy schedules how about getting together at KoKon again? Many congratulations on this article. Is it a chapter from a book? You really have a way with words and the prose is compelling. Your scholarship is right on and the tone is just right. It is not condescending in any way.

  2. linden thorp says:

    Thank you so very much for such praise, and such loving comments. I am also so thankful for your open-mindedness and generosity given your commitment is to Bahai! Interfaith is essential. There will be a meeting in September-more of which anon!
    I feel the Nirvana pathway is thoroughly appreciated!

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