Two weeks ago, I spent a sunny Saturday down on the Gowanus canal performing the general Kamstang Kagyu Mahakala sadhana. I decided to also bring a vase full of water mixed with water blessed by the breath of his holiness the 17th Karmapa, water from the annual bumchan ritual at Tashiding Monastery in Sikkim, blessed nectar pills from the late Kyabje Bokar Rinpoche and H.E. Gyaltsab Rinpoche, and other substances that I’ve come to acquire over the years to bless the canal.
In my last post I wondered if the protector Shingkyong may be a powerful protector for those who wish to benefit others through the aid of Amitabha practice, specifically chaplains. After further thought, I feel that it is true; Shingkyong is a protector of chaplains.
Or perhaps he and his retinue can be, if we let him.
What then of Mahakala?
Mahakala Bernakchen is the protector of the Karma Kagyu lineage. Mahakala Chakdrupa, a form of Mahakala with six-arms trampling Ganesha, is the main protector of the Shangpa Kagyu lineage, and was also introduced as a protector within the Gelug lineage by Tsongkhapa.
Mahakala has even been approached as a geo-political weapon of international influence. Indeed, the Mongols during the 12th and 13th centuries were quick to adopt Mahakala as their patron deity. Recognizing his power, Mahakala became a powerful symbol of spirituality amidst their larger militaristic expansion. Mahakala both empowered and justified their growth. During the difficult struggle to maintain a favorable relationship with the Mongols by the Sakya and Kagyu lineages, there was a change of succession between Kubilai Khan and his Buddhist brother Munga who was a disciple of the second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi
. Fearful of the powerful influence of Karma Pakshi, the new story goes, Kubilai Khan had Karma Pakshi confined to the Chinese Imperial Palace where he was tied by his beard and suffered other forms of mistreatment.
Several sources say that Karma Pakshi prayed to Mahakala Bernakchen, but Mahakala took so long putting on his boots, that by the time he got there, Karma Paskshi’s mistreatment had ended. However, as he had been summoned, he was obliged to strike something with the hook-knife that he always holds ready to destroy obstacles. The Karmapa had him strike the palace. Apparently, there is still a large gash in the Imperial Palace.
I think that the imputed meaning in this story is that Mahakala is extremely powerful, and that one should watch out when calling upon him. Ronald M. Davidson in his wonderful book, Tibetan Renaissance: Tantric Buddhism in the Rebirth of Tibetan Culture, describes in great detail some of the palpable terror that was known to have swept the Tibetan plateau as the political stage changed around this time period. The fear of the roving Mongol armies and the seduction of the wealth and power of the Tangut empire attracted many towards the very destructive forces that acted like plagues, often destroying everything in sight. This kind of political instability is something that many of us in the West have little experience with, but that Mahakala was relied upon when perhaps nothing else seemed to help speaks to the power of his commitment to benefit beings, not to mention his swift efficacious response.
Mahakala is the manifestation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara. Below is a description of the origin of Mahakala as presented by thrangumonastery.org
, the website for Thrangu Rinpoche’s monastery in Canada:
Origin of Mahakala:
The compassion of the red Buddha Amitabha manifested as Avalokiteshvara who took a vow to forgo his own enlightenment until all the realms of samsara had been emptied.
This vow required a renewal of determination, and so with Amitabha’s blessing, Avalokiteshvara next assumed a form with eleven heads and a thousand arms. Still he had been unable to benefit even a few beings.
Therefore after reflecting for one whole week, he determined that by assuming a wrathful form he would be able “to subdue the degenerate beings of this Age of Darkness.” Also he saw that even beings who practiced Dharma were unable to escape from the Bardo realms (time between rebirths where beings may face great anxiety and terrifying experiences) and he thought that in wrathful form he could also protect them in that way. And lastly, he thought that the beings in this Dark Age were poor and needy, experiencing only suffering after suffering, and that in wrathful form he could provide them an antidote to that suffering so that by simply making the wish (for protection) their needs could be met.
These three motives made his determination even greater than before and so from the heart of Noble Avalokiteshvara emerged a dark blue HUNG syllable that immediately became the Instantaneous Protector of Wisdom, Mahakala.
The foundations of all the Pure Lands shook with six kinds of earthquakes, and the Conquering and Transcending One of Immeasurable Light (Amitabha) and all the other Tathagatas of the ten directions proclaimed with one voice:
“Son of the family, it is well that you have made this resolution. You shall have the empowerment of all the wisdom dakinis. You shall have the strength of the wrathful Yama, Lord of Death. You shall have the mountain spirits, the yakshas, the devils and the demonesses as your messengers. You shall embody the great wrathful empowerments of the Body, Speech, Mind, Qualities and Activity of all the Buddhas throughout the three times.”
Ever since, bodhisattva Mahakala is the Dharma (Buddha’s Doctrine) Protector of all Buddha fields
Lakes of blood, wild stallions, human hearts, flayed elephant and human skins, and ravens; Mahakala, the compassionate protector, is intense. I am reminded of the protector shrine at Rumtek monastery in Sikkim where the ceilings and walls are adorned with weapons and animal skins, the room is thick with an atmosphere of near viscous intensity. I have also spent time in the protector shrines of Ralung Monastery and Bokar Rinpoche’s monastery; each one has a similar feeling. They are seats of great power: pithas. When in a place like these special shrine rooms it seems that at any moment Trakshe, one of the protectors in Mahakala’s entourage, will swoop down riding his demonic horse. While he is oath-bound to protect us, he and the rest of Mahakala’s retinue is nevertheless terrifying in many ways.
The importance of these protectors is paramount. As we wander throughout our lives, often blinded by our own presuppositions and assumed projections about what things mean and who we are, Mahakala and other dharma protectors help us to clear away these missapprehensions. They tear away our blockages, and they are completely comfortable to bring a gun to a knife-fight. There is no amount of force that they are afraid to bring. As they approach, bringing tempestuous clouds and waves of powerful shock, they are also gentle, their hands are experienced, like those of a surgeon or artist. They act so that we suffer less; so that we become ever more clear.
Mahakala is magnetizing. Perhaps this is so because we find him, and other protectors like him, very representative of emotions that we are not so comfortable with as they arise within ourselves. Wrathfulness and anger. Most of the time we don’t want to own these emotions when they burn through us. When our pulse quickens, as you can feel your veins and arteries constrict; when we redden in the face, and actually become hot with rage… …what is there? What is happening right then? What is that anger? That rage? Or the need to destroy?
In reality, in an ultimate sense, that feeling- that impulse- is just an appearance. The arousal of feeling and emotion- a fleeting adventitious stain (to use a wonderful term from the 3rd Karmapa Rangjung Dorje’s Mahamudra Aspiration Prayer
),a cloud no different from any other cloud that arises in the sky.
What happens when we sit with that hot rage, and just let is arise? No repression. No alchemical transmutation; just letting it arise with nothing to feed on other than itself. What happens to it? Does it go anywhere?
Sometimes I wonder why so many people are attracted to wrathful Buddhas. In the spirit of critical inquiry I wonder if perhaps there is an element of seduction in seeing something that appears similar to our worst qualities (misapprehended anger and rage) personified and celebrated. It almost lets us off the hook, right? “Hey, why can’t I just get angry? I’m like Mahakala!” I hope that whenever I think this way Mahakala smacks me with smokey smoldering rage. Mahakala doesn’t empower us to be emotional libertines; but he does raise us up through our power of clear direct action. Sometimes this can be motivated by anger and rage, and that’s okay when it is known, when it is conscious, and when we are mindful of what the process is.
I don’t think that Mahakala is necessarily enlightened anger; but perhaps he is the underlying force that anger touches upon. Somehow enlightened anger sounds too simplistic, Mahakala is a strong force of compassion, a need to act; the level to which his compassion is expressed, it’s very strength and ferocity is easily mistaken for anger.
I have been told many times to offer tormas to my yidam and also to the dharma protectors. Bokar Rinpoche often stressed the importance of the Short Torma Offering for Chakdrupa, and I still remember my fist experiences making these offerings. I shuddered with electrical excitement at the power that Chakdrupa is embodies. The power of the act of honoring, supplicating, and maintaining samaya (pure relationship) with Chakdrupa was very moving. This is an aspect of practice that is very important- not because someone who practices tantric Buddhism should just do this kind of thing (in a religious kind of way)- but because it feels vital to have a relationship with the forces of great inner change, great protection, and great expansive growth. In having a relationship with these things our relationship with Mahakala becomes intimate; this type of intimacy and reliance helps to make use more whole and more engaged. Engaged open freedom.
So, I offered tormas to Mahakala and his retinue to bless the Gowanus Canal, the navel of Brooklyn and a sacred pitha, and all sentient beings throughout space, so that all obstacles would be dispelled; so that auspicious conditions for dharma practice may arise. I tried to bring my awareness to the clouds of Mahakala’s entourage as it filled the space around me. His cloud of intense blessings mixed with my smoke offerings, and the rain of his flaming amrita blessed the contents of the bumpa vase which in turn blessed the canal and the entire area. In this way Mahakala arose to aid in removing all illness, all famine, untold unexpressed suffering, all injustice, and all inner and outer pollution leaving behind the cool breeze of mahamudra-just-sitting-there-by-the-canal. Somehow I feel that some benefit occurred…
…I pray that we may all know, feel, and be included within the canopy of activity of Mahakala in all of his forms, and that Palden Lhamo, Trakshe and all of the others ride swiftly by our sides as we glide through this wonder world.