Is Buddhism a religion or a philosophy? This is an on-going debate. Most of us probably tend to fall on the philosophy side and we are uncomfortable with the idea of faith. Most scholars will say that when the historical Buddha used the Indian word shraddha, often translated as faith, he meant confidence, trust, and sincerity, not faith in the sense of belief, or dogma.

But many of the forms of Buddhism that evolved after the Buddha were faith-based, and today most Buddhists in the world do see dharma as a religion and accept the notion of salvation by faith. The faith they generate is toward deities, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, all mythological, many of which come very close to the Western conception of God.

The Sanskrit/Pali word for deity is deva. Sometimes devatta is used. Deva can mean god, God, divine, heavenly,  radiant, along with a number of other meanings, all of which point to the idea of a “higher, holier being.” These beings may not be immortal or omniscient, but they certainly are not human. “Celestial” is a good word.

These beings are numerous, but how they are understood and the ways practice revolves around them can broadly categorized using the two terms “Other-power” (Ch. t’o-li; Jp. tariki) and “Own-Power” (Ch. tzu-li; Jp. jiriki). The origins of these terms are unclear and they are most often associated with Pure Land thought. In his essay, “Pure Land Peity,”* British scholar Roger Corless describes other-power this way: “The experience of . . . the theistic devotee is that one’s own power is insufficient to take one to liberation and so it is necessary to trust in the power of Another.” Own-power is the opposite, it is relying on one’s own efforts .

Corless further states,

Trust in a power greater than oneself is such a common motif in those systems which we call religions that it has sometimes been regarded as a sine qua non for identifying a system as a religion rather than, say, a philosophy. Since Buddhism often seems to be ambiguous on this point, it has got itself called, in English, a ‘religious-philosophy.’”

Ambiguous, too, is the exact nature of the other-power. Corless says that deities such as Amita Buddha “does not stand above the worshipper as an ontologically ‘Higher Power’.” This, however, does not match the reality in the minds of most theistic devotees, who tend to understand these deities as god-like, offering grace and eternal salvation.

Five Dhyani Buddhas
Five Dhyani Buddhas

This brings us to Dhyani Buddhas and Celestial Bodhisattvas. “Dhyani-Buddha, in Mahayana Buddhism, and particularly in Vajrayana (Tantric) Buddhism, any of a group of five “self-born” celestial buddhas who have always existed from the beginning of time. The five are usually identified as Vairochana, Akshobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, and Amoghasiddhi.”

They represent five qualities of the Buddha. Dhyani is a form of dhyana meaning “meditation.” In terms of practice, these mythological Buddhas are used as objects of meditation. There is a vast array of celestial bodhisattvas, such as Avalokitesvara and Tara. In Vajrayana or Tantric Buddhism, practice with these celestial  beings is known as deity-yoga.

Deity-yoga deserves a lengthy explanation, but for now, let’s just say that the practice, performed in the context of sadhanas or rituals, has the practitioner centering his or her mind on the particular deity at hand and then visualizing that they, the practitioner, is a fully enlightened Buddha. I don’t care for using the word “deity” because of the connotation. The majority of tantric practitioners I’ve been with have a rational view of these beings, but there are those who misunderstand or are stuck in superstition.

The late Lama Tharchin Rinpoche was one of my favorite Tibetan teachers. I attended many of his teachings and empowerments. He had a great sense of humor, a wonderful smile, and although he was a proponent of so-called “crazy wisdom,” as far as I am aware, he never used that as an excuse to be irresponsible or to take advantage of his students. He always struck me as sort of a crazy, but wise, hippie.

There is a piece online by Lama Tharchin Rinpoche where he makes it clear that deity-yoga is not other-power but own-power. An excerpt reads:

Mahayoga sadhana is also called deity yoga. Maybe this is a good time for me to explain about deity yoga. I’ve noticed many people practicing deity yoga with the idea that the deity is outside or separate from themselves. This is not right and consequently, their practice is not conducive to wisdom and it even reinforces ignorance or becomes [egoism] . . .

Deity is synonymous with bodhicitta. Deity is a pure state of being that is beyond duality and not constricted by the forces of clinging and grasping. Since all beings have mind, they also have the nature of mind. Therefore, all beings are divine because their nature is pure.”

In other words, these deities are merely tools we can use to help activate our own inner power. They are archetypes, and to see them as being outside of our own lives is to grossly misunderstand the Buddha’s teachings.

Lama Tharchin Rinpoche’s words encapsulate my attitude toward my Healing Buddha practice that I mentioned in the last post – except that the word or concept of “deity” never enters my mind. The Healing or Medicine Buddha (Bhaisajyaguru) is a celestial Buddha that is not only meditated upon, but also worshiped.  Obviously, worship does not interest me, and I am not concerned with the formalities of the practice. I study Healing Buddha teachings for encouragement they provide for wayfaring on the healing path and for the insights on subjects such suffering, emptiness, compassion, and nature of mind.

It is not necessary at all to use a Buddha or Bodhisattva as an object of meditation. I read some Tibetan and Japanese Healing Buddha literature and heard some teachings, and it resonated with me. It’s not superior to any other practice nor is it the whole of my practice, or the only thing I do to generate inner healing. When I chant the Healing Buddha mantra I am making a determination to be healthy. It helps keep my eye on the prize, so to speak, for I have a wandering eye and a monkey mind.

Healing Buddha practice involves visualization, or practice before an image of the Healing Buddha, and the goal is to become a Healing Buddha oneself, to harness the healing energies within. I wrote in Monday’s post “I am the cancer.” Well, I am also the healing. I am the Healing Buddha.

I will write more about this later. In the meantime, this is the first of several posts dealing with the subject of deities in Buddhism. Next up is “The Buddhism of Faith,” followed by “Nichiren and the Supreme Being.” There may be posts on other subjects interspersed.

Finally, please remember that no matter where you are, what you are doing, whether it is rain or shine, cloudy or clear, regardless of what circumstances you find yourself in – it is a beautiful day. Enjoy it.


One thought on “Deities

  1. shraddha, often translated as faith, he meant confidence, trust, and sincerity, not faith in the sense of belief, or dogma

    Indeed. This word is still used in day-to-day language in some indian languages. To put in a sentence, for example, A father scolds a son failing at studies “study with shraddha”.

    Another example – “Without shraddha you will not succeed at any task”. This sounds like “diligence”, but its actually more like “focused sincerity” (as explained by your quote above).

    Regarding Deities, I personally shy away from it all…preferring to focus on “self” (not like deity, more like “self-awareness”, “reality”, “existence”).

    The more one dwells with-in one’s self, the more closer and intimate they get to the core. This helps one be in continuous meditation (“self-awareness”) through out the day, and this continuity is felt even in dreams (if one has them) and onto the next day – so in a way, across “days”! Ideally it should be one continuous awareness life-long, eternally (which is “you” itself) .

    The world is you/yours, make of it what you will.

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