So what's Deity-yoga?

Posted by Konchok Yedor on

You've stumbled into a Tibetan Buddhist center or their website and you hear or read about the practice of deity-yoga or sādhana practice. After paying a little attention, you can perhaps discern that this seems to be one of the main practices of Tibetan Buddhism. You've also heard it said that Buddhism is a "non-theistic" religion and so you wonder, what's this deity-yoga? Who's this deity? So what's deity-yoga? How do we relate to vajrayāna sādhana practice?
In simple terms, in terms that beginners like us can appreciate rather than the ideal that most texts and teachers tend to present - perhaps to inspire us or to show us what we have to aim for - deity-yoga can perhaps be understood in the following way: 
Buddhism starts with the premise that we are where we are - in this cycle of birth and death - because of confusion and its consequences. This confusion is fundamentally a confusion of identity - we mistakenly believe that what we see (smell, taste, touch, hear, think) exists ultimately in the way we see them. Furthermore, we deeply believe in a particular identity, self, personality to be who we truly are. But here, in deity-yoga, instead of believing in our present mistaken notions and conceptions of who we are - such as rigidly holding on to the identity that I have a doctoral degree in religious studies, founder of Urban Dharma North Carolina, blessed with the title of "dorjé lopön" by HH Drikung Kyabgön Rinpoché, in my 40s, worried about this or that, feeling rather unremarkable on some days, sometimes worrying about not being able to accomplish a laundry list of ambitions, other times recklessly throwing away opportunities and resources - instead of such limited conceptualizations, we drop them all and try to relate to who we truly are. We give up our personal narratives of suffering and happiness, successes and disappointments. We let go of our manufactured truths about ourselves and others. In deity-yoga, instead of continuing to hold on to our constructed self, we manifest the budddha that we are. In this practice, we take a leap of faith and trust that we are buddhas. This is the fundamental point of buddhanature, tathāgatagarbha. So in fact, the theory behind deity-yoga is shared with all traditions of Buddhism that accept the teachings on buddhanature and not just Tibetan Buddhism.

Thus, although not known as a vajrayāna figure, the Zen master Dōgen 道元禅師 (1200-53) has some words that aptly express how the vajrayāna practice of deity-yoga works. Dōgen writes in the essay Shōji 生死 ("Birth and Death"): "When you simply release and forget both your body and mind, you throw yourself into the house of Buddha, and when functioning comes from the direction of Buddha and you go in accord with it, then with no strength needed and no thought expended, freed from birth and death, you become Buddha."  Elsewhere he writes: "Only Buddha can become Buddha" - just as in vajrayāna, it is said that "only a deity can (truly) worship a deity."

So here, according to Dōgen, we have to throw ourselves "into the house of Buddha" and let the buddha that we are manifest. Instead of trying to muster all the power we can to force ourselves into becoming buddha while chanting our sādhanas, "let functioning come from the direction of Buddha." Then, as Dōgen goes on to explain, "there can be no obstacle in any man's mind," and it becomes "extremely easy to become Buddha." This is also the vajrayāna perspective - that the swiftest path to buddhahood is deity-yoga.

Of course we feel a bit awkward, a bit klutzy going through the sādhanas, imagining ourselves as "one face, four arms. Top two hands holding a lotus and a crystal-māla, bottom two holding a wish-fulfilling jewel." Am I really Avalokitesvara? Me? The compassion of all buddhas? Isn't this just silly - or even worse, sacrilegious - to pretend to be a buddha? But this is where faith comes in - faith not in the theistic sense of believing in some deity, some omnipotent other who will deliver us from evil. But faith in our truest identity as buddha.

Conversely, if you prefer to look at this from the side of doubt, then deity-yoga is the practice of casting doubt on our rigid views and narratives as limited and miserable creatures incapable of overthrowing the tyranny of confusion.

The greater a doubt we can muster up and direct towards the limited and confused view of who we believe we are, the greater the breakthrough and experience that we will have via the practice of deity-yoga.

It is unfortunately true that there's much in the world today to justify us being pessimists and not much to persuade us to be optimists. There is much in the news today to convince us that we're all wretched souls and not much to inspire us to be wisdom buddhas. But one thing is sure - pessimists don't change anything. While not all optimists actually change anything, in the end only optimists ever make a difference. 
So why not be the ultimate optimist? Take that leap of faith and trust that buddhas did not appear in this world to dupe us with some tall tales about all of us beint buddhas but instead they have appeared for the sole purpose of showing us who we truly are. Give it a try - practice your deity-yoga!
Read more →