Is Vetali Real?
Our series of essays on the Shambhala chants continues, with a look at the “reality” of another protector
by Russell Rodgers
“Is Vetali real” seems like a simple enough question, deserving a “yes” or “no” answer. In fact, this question has many levels. In one of the previous essays about the protectors, we looked at the protector ritual as a doorway to deeper understanding and awareness of impermanence, karma, auspicious coincidence, and sensitivity to signals from the environment. In a second essay we looked at the protectors as an atmosphere, or “vibe.” This kind of atmosphere can be invoked through a particular chant or ritual, and it may seem to exist in the environment outside of us. However, in neither of these two interpretations is there any definite way of separating our personal psychology from the protector being invoked. In this essay we’ll examine the Vetali chant from the point of view of whether she actually exists or not on two levels: the relative and the absolute. First we’ll look at these two levels of truth, and then we’ll look at the chant itself.
If you ask a Tibetan about the protectors, most will tell you that they are bodhisattvas who have promised to protect the dharma. This sounds pretty real. Trungpa Rinpoche, as a young man in Tibet, is reported to have had terma (hidden) teachings delivered to him personally by Ekajati. (Ekajati is a protectress of the Ati teachings). Chagdud Rinpoche recounts that he was given a written page with a practice liturgy on it by a man that only children could see. Later in his life, a protector manifests as a mysterious one-legged herdsman and tells him how he can escape the invading Chinese communists. This sort of story is not unusual in Tibet. Except for the fact that we might be ethnocentrically suspicious of how imagination works in a foreign culture, it sounds like a “real” occurrence.
On the other hand, Trungpa Rinpoche encouraged his students to take a non-theistic view. In other words, deities are not to be understood as independently existing entities, but as expressions of one’s mind. I think that this is actually a very subtle statement. Those who take it superficially, without understanding what is meant, risk over-simplifying or dismissing the protectors as a sort of useful superstition.
I was present when a student asked Trungpa Rinpoche whether protectors were real or not. His answer was: “they’re as real as you are.” Let’s look at this statement more closely, from absolute (ultimate truth) and relative (everyday understanding of reality) points of view. “Relative” refers to the fact that we live in a world where concepts are embedded in our sense of what is real. The nature of concepts is that they are always relative to other concepts: tall has meaning relative to short, human is relative to non human, bad to good, and so on, like a house of cards leaning on each other. When we experience the world, it is very hard to experience it without concepts about it. When we look at the wood floor, we project a concept of solidity that is not present in just the visual image. But if we question the embedded concept of solidity, other cards start to wobble: if it’s not solid, what is the nature of wood? This is a beginning experience of emptiness.
As good Buddhists we are supposed to know that we don’t exist, ultimately, in absolute truth. When we study the skandhas, we find that we have conceptually isolated some groupings of phenomena (sensory snapshots of body over time, feelings, impulses, conceptual pigeonholing, and a vague sense of consciousness) from all the other phenomena in the world, given this arbitrary grouping a name, “me,” and taken it to be a real entity simply because it has been named. This is the working of relative truth. The understanding that “me,” “I,” or “John” is only a name is absolute truth. If we truly understand that, we have discovered emptiness.
Another way of looking at the absolute point of view is expressed in the Sadhana of Mahamudra: “All apparent phenomena are the play of the mind. All qualities are complete within the mind.” In other words, mountains, oceans, people, tornados, and galaxies do not physically exist in our craniums, but their appearances do, along with their qualities: vastness, force, solidity, fluidity, wonder, the magic of existence, and so on. These are not expressions of the small mind that struggles on the cushion with self-centered discursiveness, but big mind, Buddha mind. So this big mind has an empty, space-like quality that can accommodate all phenomena, and also an expressive quality that plays in the form of the appearances that we experience.
The view expressed above in the Sadhana is similar to the one implied by modern brain science: the world as we know it is actually images in the brain, based on electrical impulses coming in from the senses. The scientific view is similar to that of the chittamatra school of mahayana Buddhism, which is also called the “mind only” school. Chittamatrans were great meditators—they looked into their experience of duality and found that mind could not be separated from their experience of reality. From this point of view, Vetali is part of mind, but so is everything else. What this means is that the dualism between inner and outer, objective and subjective, is only an apparent dualism. So it’s not surprising that the question of whether protectors “exist” or not gets different answers depending on how you ask the question.
Turning now to the Vetali chant, the first line goes:
Vetali, Vetali, life, life! Vetali is dark blue with red hair, and wears a crown ornamented with skulls. She has bone ornaments, and is seated on a saddle of human bone over a saddle cloth of human skin. She has chains around her ankles. She rides over a blood lake. She is the consort of Four-Armed Mahakala.
The Devi with one face and four arms approaches and accepts the offering.
Vetali has one face because she has arisen from primordial emptiness and her single nature is emptiness. This means that she doesn’t exist ultimately as an entity. Perhaps she is a grouping of auspicious coincidences that has simply been named. Perhaps she is a way of symbolizing an underlying reality. Perhaps a Tibetan lama “saw” her as the play of his mind, which was culturally Tibetan. Going back to our original question, her one face of emptiness seems to carry a simple message: she doesn’t exist. She’s just a figment of our (or some Tibetan’s) imagination.
But wait! If Vetali is as real as I am, there might be other levels happening here. Firstly, absolute truth means truth un-obscured by conceptual overlays. If we say that Vetali doesn’t exist, that is a conceptual overlay. So absolute truth is empty of both existence and non-existence. Absolute truth is empty but full of unconfirmed possibilities. This leaves us with relative truth: the conventional, apparent truth of seeming common sense.
On the common sense level, as I go about my life, I act as though I am real, and as though there is a real world out there. When I see a door, I open it to walk through. I don’t say it’s all in my mind: just a concept about the solidity of doors based on past memories and cultural programming. I don’t try to walk through the closed door. I’d get a bloody nose and bruises. I think like this most of the time, except when I remember my Buddhist logic. So is it appropriate for a person who is in dualistic reality to adopt superficial, convenient parts of absolute reality when he or she is not actually functioning on that level? Is it possible for Vetali to exist on a relative, perhaps invisible, level, just as we seem to exist ourselves? I suspect that Tibetan culture would say “yes.” Should we ask for Vetali’s help in the same dualistic way that we might ask for help from one another? This, in fact, is what we do in the chant. Let’s see how the rest of it goes:
Bhyo, protector and friend of the yogin, guardian of the practice lineage, you enjoy drinking the blood of ego. “Bhyo” is a seed syllable that embodies her energy. The “practice lineage” puts especial emphasis on meditation experience, as opposed to purely intellectual study. Your sword cleaves the heads from the destroyers (this might be us) of the teachings. Holding the mirror which reflects the three worlds, brandishing the phurba, you fulfill all actions. The three worlds are different ways of being with the mind. Our confused world is one of them. The other two are dead- end meditational states: the form and formless god realms. The mirror reflects them as they are, without partiality. The phurba is a three bladed knife, triangular in cross section, which slices through passion, aggression and ignorance.
You ride on a donkey with a white blaze. As day downs, you guard the meditator. In mythological history, Vetali was a trickster who lived in the realm of the gods. The gods are beings that have discovered ways, some of them “spiritual” to blank out suffering and dwell in pleasure. Vetali sowed discord, plague, famine and war, interrupting their blissful ignorance. Trying to banish her, the gods shot arrows, one of which hit her donkey. The wound turned into an eye, symbolizing that whatever you try to do to her, it just turns into more awareness.
As night falls, you cut the aortas of the perverters of the teachings. Nightfall is a regarded as a time of shifting energy, good for contacting the energy of the protectors. The perverters of the teachings are those, including ourselves, who try tomake a nest out of the teachings to support our own egos. As a female protectress, she is especially concerned with protecting prajna, the insight that discovers emptiness. When we try to solidify the dharma, there will be consequences.
You send out a million emanations. As our mother, sister and maid, please look after us of the lineage of Marpa the translator. At first, like a small child with its mother, we don’t understand what she is up to and the karmic feedback that she represents seems capricious. Later, we appreciate her as a sister. At this stage we are tuned into the kind of action and consequences that she symbolizes and represents. Psychologically we aren’t quite one with it, but on a par with it. Finally, she acts as a maid. There is no separation from the flux of the universe. Karma works for us. We can use it for enlightened action.
Accept this amrita, blood, and torma as token of samaya. Amrita is an alcoholic drink with blessed substances in it. It intoxicates concepts and emotions and liberates them back into awareness. Blood represents life force. These are symbolized by the tea offering at the back of the shrine room. Torma is a kind of barley cake offering which is omitted in our normal protector ritual.
Fulfill the actions of the four karmas. The four karmas are enlightened actions that are used to transform the world: pacifying (providing perspective, cooling out), enriching (bringing out the natural richness of situations), magnetizing (the warmth of connection), and destroying (bringing unworkable situations to an end.)
So should you regard Vetali as a “real” entity? That completely depends on the reference points imbedded in your question. This is called “relative reference point” thinking and is characteristic of the way Buddhists approach the truth. It enables us to shift into another person’s point of view and empathize with that person. It is anti-dogmatic. It’s groundless. You might as well get used to it.
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.