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Yidam is a type of deity associated with tantric or Vajrayana Buddhism said to be manifestations of Buddhahood or enlightened mind. During personal meditation (sādhana) practice, the yogi identifies their own form, attributes and mind with those of a yidam for the purpose of transformation. Yidam is sometimes translated by the terms "meditational deity" or "tutelary deity". Examples of yidams include the meditation deities Chakrasamvara, Kalachakra, Hevajra, Yamantaka, and Vajrayogini, all of whom have a distinctive iconography, mandala, mantra, rites of invocation and practice.
Yidam is said to be a contraction of Tib. yid-kyi-dam-tshig, meaning "samaya of mind"- in other words, the state of being indestructibly bonded with the inherently pure and liberated nature of mind.
The Sanskrit word iṣṭadevatā or iṣṭadevaḥ a compound of iṣṭa (desired, liked, reverenced) + devatā (a deity or divine being) is a term associated with yidam in many popular books on Buddhist Tantra but has not been attested in any Buddhist tantric text in Sanskrit.
The yidam appears as one of the Three Roots in the Tibetan Buddhist 'Inner' refuge formulation. The iconography of the yidam may be 'peaceful', 'wrathful' (Tibetan tro wa) or 'neither peaceful or wrathful' (Tibetan: shi ma tro), depending on the practitioner's own nature. The yidam represents awakening and so its appearance reflects whatever is required by the practitioner in order to awaken. The guru will guide the student as to which yidam is appropriate for them and then initiation into the mandala of the Ishta-deva is given by the guru, so that Deity Yoga practices can be undertaken. In essence, the mindstream of the guru and the yidam are indivisible. The yidam is considered to be the root of success in the practice.
|Buddhist Vajrayana Refuge Formulations|
|Outer ('Triple Gem')||Buddha||Dharma||Sangha|
|Inner ('Three Roots')||Guru||Yidam||Dharmapala and Dakini|
In East Asian Buddhism
The Vajrayana traditions of China, Korea and Japan, while smaller and less prominent than Indo-Tibetan tantric Buddhism, are characterized in part by the utilization of yidams in meditation, though they use their own terms. One prominent ishta-devata in East Asian vajrayana is Marici (Ch: Molichitian, Jp: Marishi-ten). In the Shingon tradition of Japan, prominent yidam include the "five mysteries of Vajrasattva," which are Vajrasattva (Jp. Kongosatta), Surata/Ishta-vajrinī (Jp. Yoku-kongonyo"慾金剛女"), Kelikilā-vajrinī (Jp. Shoku-kongonyo"触金剛女"), Kāmā/Rāga-vajrinī ((Jp. Ai-kongonyo"愛金剛女"), and Kāmesvarā/Mana-vajrinī ((Jp. Man-kongonyo"慢金剛女").
Yidam in Nepalese Newar Buddhism
The principal yidam in the Newar Vajrayana tradition of Nepal are Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi. In that tradition, three components are essential to a temple complex: a main shrine symbolizing Svayambhu Mahachaitya; an exoteric shrine featuring Buddha Shakyamuni and other buddhas and bodhisattvas; and an esoteric shrine dedicated to the yidam, to which only initiates may be admitted.
Visualized representative of your enlightened energy, or Buddha-nature. Tricky concept for Westerners; closest concept might be that of a patron saint in Catholicism, except that a yidam is not a historical figure and is not necessarily supposed to 'exist' in the same way human beings do. Other related concepts might be a totem or power animal in the Native American tradition, or even the fairy godmother in children's tales.
During the (meditation) practice of the generation stage, a practitioner (sadhaka) establishes a strong familiarity with the Ishta-deva (an enlightened being) by means of visualization and a high level of concentration. During the practice of the completion stage, a practitioner focusses on methods to actualize the transformation of one's own mindstream and body into the meditation Deity by meditation and yogic techniques of energy-control such as kundalini (tummo in Tibetan). Through these complementary disciplines of generation and completion one increasingly perceives the pervasive Buddha nature.
Judith Simmer-Brown summarises:
... a yidam, a personal meditational deity, a potent ritual symbol simultaneously representing the mind of the guru and lineage of enlightened teachers, and the enlightened mind of the tantric practitioner. Recognizing the inseparability of these two is the ground of tantric practice.
More specifically, this commitment means not taking ultimate refuge in gods or spirits. Buddhism, particularly in its Tibetan form, often contains ritual ceremonies, or pujas, directed toward various Buddha-figures or fierce protectors in order to help dispel obstacles and accomplish constructive purposes. Performing these ceremonies provides conducive circumstances for negative potentials to ripen in trivial rather than major obstacles, and positive potentials to ripen sooner rather than later. If we have built up overwhelmingly negative potentials, however, these ceremonies are ineffective in averting difficulties. Therefore, propitiating gods, spirits, protectors or even Buddhas is never a substitute for attending to our karma – avoiding destructive conduct and acting in a constructive manner. Buddhism is not a spiritual path of protector-worship, or even Buddha-worship. The safe direction of the Buddhist path is working to become a Buddha ourselves.
In the Vajrayana practices of Tibetan Buddhism, 'safe direction', or 'refuge' is undertaken through the Three Roots, the practitioner relying on an Ishta-deva in Deity Yoga as a means of becoming a Buddha.
Some common yidams include Hayagriva, Vajrakilaya (Dorje Phurba), Samputa, Guhyasamaja, Yamantaka, Hevajra, Kurukulla, Cakrasamvara, Vajrayogini, and Kalachakra. Also, other enlightened beings such as the regular forms of the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Padmasambhava, certain Dharmapalas, Dakinis, Wealth Deities, and yab-yum representations, among others, can also be practiced as a yidam. Avalokiteshvara, Tara, Manjusri, Hevajra and consort Nairatmya, Heruka-Chakrasamvara and consort Vajravarahi, etc. are frequently chosen as yidams, but any deity of the tantric pantheon may be adopted as such. The yidam is used as a means or a goal of transformation towards full enlightenment. According to certain traditions, the Ishtadevas are considered as the emanation of the adept's own mind.
- Buswell, Robert E.; Lopez, Donald S. (2013). The Princeton dictionary of Buddhism. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-15786-3.
- Harding, Sarah. "The Dharma Dictionary." Buddhadharma Magazine, Spring 2005. Dharma Dictionary: Yidam.
- where the Hindus take the Istadeva for an actual deity who has been invited to dwell in the devotee's heart, the Yidams of Tantric Buddhism are in fact the emanations of the adepts own mind. "The Tantric Mysticism of Tibet: A Practical Guide to the Theory, Purpose, and Techniques of Tantric Meditation by John Blofeld. Penguin:1992.
- Simmer-Brown, Judith (2002). Dakini's Warm Breath:The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism. Shambhala Publications Inc. pp. 327 n.51. ISBN 978-1-57062-920-4. Simmer-Brown cites evidence that Three Roots is a Tibetan Buddhist formulation from the time of Padmasambhava.
- Palmo, Tenzin (2002). Reflections on a Mountain Lake:Teachings on Practical Buddhism. Snow Lion Publications. pp. 229–231. ISBN 1-55939-175-8.
- Tantric Buddhism in East Asia by Richard Payne, Wisdom Publications: 2005. ISBN 0-86171-487-3.
- Dina Bangdel, "Tantra in Nepal," The Circle of Bliss: Buddhist Meditational Art Serindia Publications: 2003. ISBN 1-932476-01-6, p. 32.
- Source: Lojong Mind Training: Yidam (accessed: December 6, 2007).
- Simmer-Brown, Judith (2001). Dakini's Warm Breath:The Feminine Principle in Tibetan Buddhism. Shambhala. p. 149.
- Berzin, Alexander (1997). Taking the Kalachakra Initiation: Part III: Vows and Closely Bonding Practices. Source: Taking the Kalachakra Initiation (accessed: July 14, 2016). NB: Originally published as Berzin, Alexander. Taking the Kalachakra Initiation. Ithaca, Snow Lion, 1997.
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