Meet the Four Armed Mahakala
What is a mahakala? Do they exist in reality?
by Russell Rodgers
In the previous essay, “The Protector Ritual,” we explored the protector chants as a way of focusing our awareness so that we become super-aware of the active aspect of reality, of impermanence, of constant change, and of the creation and unfolding of karma. The wrathful images in the protector chants encourage us to become super-sensitized to signals from the environment. From that point of view, it could be said that protectors symbolize and point to a deeper level of reality, deeper than the level that we habitually inhabit.
In this essay, we’ll look at the protectors in terms of psychological atmosphere. The hippy generation had a great word, “vibe,” for this. One of the characteristics of atmosphere or vibe is that you can’t tell whether it is in your own mind, or outside in the environment. One could take either position. However, all of us intuit, perhaps unconsciously, the “vibe” of situations and respond accordingly. For instance, we might avoid an ominous-feeling dark alley at night, or be drawn to a part of town that feels exciting to us. Perhaps the shrine room at the Centre has a palpable atmosphere for you. Different towns have different vibes. Some people notice a different feeling tone when they cross the border into Canada, or go from Canada into the United States.
A Tibetan might say that what we are intuiting in these situations are local deities, yidams, protectors, guru’s mind, ghosts, demons, harmful or helpful spirits. Perhaps what we feel in the shrine room is the Rigden, or maybe a space where awareness of basic goodness is being protected by mahakalas. The sense of deity or spirit in these situations can actually be felt. These feelings aren’t as abstract as the belief systems that one commonly encounters in ordinary Western religion. The presence of a certain atmosphere or vibe has a lot to do with the kinds of things that tend to happen in that particular space, and we feel that. These intuitions are very practical, in some sense.
In tantric Buddhism, protectors are more than just a metaphor for heightened intuition about situations. The liturgies and drum accompaniment evoke the feeling of presence of the protectors. It could be that we feel their presence because we have invited them and they have come, or it could be that we are just evoking something that was always there as a possibility in our minds. In either case, because the feeling tone affects our expectation of what might happen, different things do tend to happen as a result. Sometimes we act differently, and sometimes things just seem to happen by meaningful coincidence.
Wisdom protectors, or mahakalas, are a particular class of deities. If one thinks of them in terms of atmosphere, they would be the sense that reality is pregnant with potential change, activity and impermanence. They are “wisdom” protectors because they represent enlightened action, and they have made a promise (samaya) to protect the inherent sacredness of existence, and the dharma teachings that lead one to the truth of that. By “sacredness” we mean the condition of things as they are, in primordial basic goodness, before we have superimposed our projections and conceptual interpretations.
In our culture, shamanism and paganism have been seen in opposition to a single jealous God who does not like having other deities around. In Tibet, the historical situation was different. When Buddhism came in, it incorporated the indigenous shamanistic way of working with energies and enfolded them into a deeper understanding. Since there is no equivalent of protector practice in our culture, and since protector practice dovetails nicely with the Buddhist teachings on mind and reality, it makes sense to borrow the Tibetan imagery. Understanding the meanings of the words and images in the chants is really important to understanding the qualities of the particular protector we are dealing with. Then we will be able to work with these energies in a creative way.
One can invoke the atmosphere of a protector through appropriate rituals. In order to invoke the energy of a certain deity, we have to follow steps that our minds can grasp and that will evoke the appropriate atmosphere. Traditionally, protector chants contain the following elements: they start with a “seed syllable” that represents the essence of the deity. Then there may be a description of the environment that the protector comes from, a request for the deity to approach, a description of the deity and what s/he is holding, an offering to the deity, a request for the deity to fulfill their vow or perform actions, and finally, the mantra of the deity. Probably something like this kind of structure is inherent in shamanistic rituals all over the world. We’ll see how this format applies to the Four Armed Mahakala.
The chant begins:
From Glorious Mount Malaya,
from the red field in the blood lake Koka,
from the charnel ground of Matram Rudra,
I invite the great protector.
HUM is the seed syllable of ultimate mind, empty but radiant. The Mahakala arises from that. What is he like? He comes from a red field in the lake of blood that arose from the slaying of Matram Rudra. Mythologically, Matram Rudra is the ultimate ego, the kind of person who gathers all the confused and neurotic energy and power of the samsaric world into himself. A modern example might be someone like Hitler.
Like a rain cloud adorned with lightning, please enter this place of practice. His presence and atmosphere are awesome, and we invite him in and confirm his presence with SAMAYA JAH.
The vajra Mahakala is savage and terrifying. In the iconography, he is surrounded by flames representing wrathful compassion that burns away delusion, the source of suffering. He is savage in the sense that his action is without hesitation, abrupt. He wears garlands of human heads that represent emotional negativities that are not rejected but transformed and worn as ornaments.
The next section of the chant tells us something about the qualities and dynamic energy of this particular protector.
Holding a hooked knife with your first right hand. A hooked knife represents the energy of enriching. “Enriching” is the energy of appreciation of the richness inherent in all phenomena. It’s also connected with equanimity, since everything has the same basic richness or basic goodness in its essence. It could be that the protector enriches by gathering in more elements that express richness and basic goodness. This is one way of moving a situation that may be stuck.
Holding a skull cup of blood with your first left hand…. The skull cup contains a kind of nectar of the gods that pacifies situations. Intellect, for instance, can be pacifying because it puts things into a sense of perspective. Pacifying has a quality of cooling out.
Brandishing a sword with your second right hand…. When the sword is waved about, it magnetizes all the energies of the situation. The energy of magnetizing is warm and attractive.
Thrusting a khatvanga with your second left hand… The khatvanga is a kind of trident, which destroys confusion and annihilates obstacles. So here we have a description of the four karmas, or the four different modes of enlightened action: pacifying, enriching, magnetizing and destroying. Although we think of mahakalas primarily as fierce destroyers of ego, it is clear from this description that his energy has other qualities besides destruction.
You, the warrior with a tiger skin round your waist, are surrounded by your retinue, with the Raven-Headed one among them. The Raven-Headed one represents the masculine aspect of destruction. He is a servant of the mahakala, and he preys upon and consumes whatever endangers the teachings. He holds a hooked knife and a skull cup.
In accordance with your vajra oath proclaimed before the great Trungpa, Kunga Namgyal, at the hermitage of Dorje Khyung Dzong, protect the heart teachings of the Kagyu. Kunga Namgyal was the 4th Trungpa (our founder was the 11th). Kunga Namgyal spent six years in retreat. He established the Four Armed Mahakala as protector of his monastery and also of the Chakrasamvara teachings and practice. Seasoned practitioners in our centre do Chakrasamvara practices. Chakrasamvara practice uncovers the primordial sacredness of the world. This sacredness needs protection from degrading and corrupting influences. As well, there need to be situations created that are conducive to practice. The protectors are responsible for the auspicious coincidences that make supportive circumstances possible.
The evil beings with two tongues who pervert the dharma and delight in disrupting the teachings—eat them as your food, O black protector. Sometimes we pervert the teachings, and use them to become bloated and arrogant. It’s good to get feedback.
By the fierceness of your compassionate wrath, instantly accomplish the karmas of pacifying, enriching, magnetizing, and destroying. Lead the faithful holders of the Practice Lineage to the state of Vajradhara. The practice lineage refers to the Tibetan Kagyu and Nyingma lineages. These lineages form much of the basis of Shambhala Buddhism and are famous for their emphasis on meditation practice as opposed to purely intellectual learning.
OM MAHAKALAYA DEVA-RAKSA SAMAYA HO BALIM TE KHAHI. This mantra invokes the energy of Mahakala. It translates roughly as “Homage to Mahakala, O protector of devas (gods), keep the samaya vow. Eat this food.” In our centres, the food referred to would be represented by the tea offering that is carried out at the end of the protector chants. The tea could be just tea, or it could represent blood, or life force.
The atmosphere created by the drum and the imagery can sometimes be quite electric. At this point we have not only tuned our awareness to the action aspect of reality, but we’ve also invoked an atmosphere or vibe. Within this pregnant atmosphere, it might not be too surprising to experience auspicious coincidences associated with the action of the protectors.
When we do a chant, it’s good to pay especial attention to the atmosphere we invoke. You can then ask yourselves whether it is just purely psychological or whether it’s a kind of presence that you have actually invited in from the outside. Perhaps you have met the mahakala and didn’t realize it, or maybe it’s your projection. If you have a definitive answer, you can tell the rest of us.
Russell Rodgers has been wondering about this kind of topic for the 39 years that he has been practicing. He resides in the Kootenay mountains of British Columbia, in the town of Nelson, and has graciously agreed to allow publication of his beautiful essays on the Shambhala chants here in the Times.