Yidams: a godless approach, naturally!

Rethinking a key Vajrayana Buddhist practice, for skeptics and atheists

I ain’t against gods and goddesses, in their place. But they’ve got to be the ones we make ourselves. Then we can take ’em to bits for the parts when we don’t need ’em anymore, see?

—Granny Weatherwax, in Lords and Ladies

Gods drive most people away from Vajrayana Buddhism before they even know what it’s about. That’s a pity, because it is not about gods.

As an atheist, I rejected Vajrayana for several years when I was told that it’s mostly about gods and demons and magic and stuff.

But Vajrayana (Buddhist tantra) doesn’t need gods anymore. We could take them to bits for parts, if we wanted; or just shoo them back home.

Or, better, we can agree to a new arrangement with them: we will treat them with the respect they deserve, if they stop pretending to exist.

“BUT!” you object, if you know anything about Vajrayana, “what about deity yoga?

“Deity yoga” is perhaps the most important tantric practice. It requires the cooperation of “yidams,” who are…

Yidams are not gods

The textbook definition begins: “A yidam is a species of Buddhist god.” A page or two later, you read: “Not all yidams are gods; some are flesh-and-blood humans from history.”

You ought to be: Wait, wait—what what what what what?

It’s like reading a Wikipedia article that begins “A poguna is a species of Polynesian turtle…” and then the third paragraph says “not all pogunas are turtles; some are sea shells, or carved from wood.”

With that, you realize that to know what a poguna is, you need to understand their function: how people use them and why. It might be that turtles make convenient pogunas, especially in Polynesia, but being a turtle must be mostly irrelevant to the concept. Turtles and carved wooden knick-knacks are fundamentally different kinds of things. Maybe in America we’d use a plastic bowl for the same purpose.

Gods and dead people are fundamentally different kinds of things; so if both can be yidams, being a god is basically irrelevant.

It turns out that, for traditional Asians, gods made good yidams, but maybe in America something else works better.

What a yidam is

A yidam is someone you can consistently consider enlightened. In “deity yoga,” you relate to that person in particular ways. You “become” the yidam in meditation by visualizing yourself in their form, and by replacing your ordinary mind with their enlightened mind. Later, I’ll suggest ways to think about this operation naturalistically.

For this mind-meld to bring about your own enlightenment, you have to be confident that the yidam is already enlightened. Traditional Buddhists find it easy to believe gods are enlightened—easier than to believe in enlightened humans. So gods make good yidams for them. For Westerners who don’t believe gods even exist, it may be difficult to be confident they are enlightened.

There’s another problem. If the many yidams are gods, they form a polytheistic pantheon. Modern people mostly recoil from polytheism. There’s a left-over Biblical taboo against that, which persists even for many agnostics and atheists.

So, nowadays, it might be more effective to use non-gods as yidams.

Undivine yidams

Machig Labdrön: Aro gTér form
Machig Labdrön: Aro gTér form

All sorts of people, other than gods, have functioned as yidams.

Westerners may find it easier to take historical, human figures as yidams. For instance, Machig Labdrön was a Tibetan woman who lived about a thousand years ago.1 She is widely practiced as a yidam. Many Westerners find her inspiring and appealing.

In the Karma Kagyu branch of Tibetan Buddhism, the Karmapa—the human head of the lineage—is commonly taken as a yidam. Typically, his previous incarnations are visualized, but according to theory, those are more-or-less the same person as the one alive now.2

If you are confident that a living person is enlightened, they might make a good yidam—although this is atypical and has some obvious possible pitfalls. Living people may not live up to what you think “enlightened” ought to mean.

Warning sign

Ideally, you might use yourself! If you could convincingly visualize yourself as enlightened, you’d be enlightened—or else psychotic. (The user manual has one of those exclamation-mark-in-a-triangle-road-sign icons here.) Mostly, it’s difficult to to experience yourself as enlightened, so you experience yourself as someone else being enlightened, which turns out to be easier. That’s why yidam practice—or “deity yoga”—works!

Besides gods, dead humans, and fictional humans, all sorts of monsters, demons, and miscellaneous spooks also function as yidams.

The fact that these people are all either imaginary or decomposed is a non-problem. You don’t have to “believe in” someone to practice them as a yidam. Existence is irrelevant to the job.

Non-existence is not a defect

“That one’s got a bit of natural talent,” said Nanny Ogg. “The rest of ’em are just along for the excitement. Playing at witches. You know, ooh-jar boards and cards and wearing black lace gloves with no fingers to ’em and paddlin’ with the occult.”

“I don’t hold with paddlin’ with the occult,” said Granny Weatherwax firmly. “Once you start paddlin’ with the occult you start believing in spirits, and when you start believing in spirits you start believing in demons, and then before you know where you are you’re believing in gods. And then you’re in trouble.”

“But all them things exist,” said Nanny Ogg.

“That’s no call to go around believing in them. It only encourages ’em.”

Lords and Ladies

Yaweh apparently began life as one of the seventy sons of Asherah. Asherah was the wife of El, the king of the vast Israeli pantheon. Little Yaweh grew up to be the most aggressive of her children, renowned for his prowess on the battlefield.

The priests of Yahweh began their drive for domination by having their god take his own mother as his wife. Having displaced his father, Yaweh—according to these priests—became the most powerful of the gods. So if you wanted divine favor, you’d better give gifts to them, not to the priests of Baal, who was Yahweh’s older brother and main rival. Eventually, the Yahwite priests routed the followers of Baal, and of all the other gods.

Then, to salt the earth, they came up with a radical new metaphysical idea. The gods of the other priests were not just wicked and weak—the standard claim of rivalrous priesthoods since organized polytheism began. The other gods didn’t even exist.

Western culture has been obsessed with fighting over what does or doesn’t exist ever since.

This peculiar obsession is shared by Buddhism.3 According to Mahayana texts, nothing exists. At least, “not in some sense”—although exactly which sense has been hotly contested for millennia.

One remarkable feature of the “existence” concept is that essentially no one—in either the Buddhist or Western traditions—even tries to explain what it is supposed to mean. It’s assumed that everyone knows—but no one can say. The harder you look into it, the less coherent and consequential the idea becomes. (I plan to write about this at length someday; there’s a stub version here.)

Be that as it may, many Tantric Buddhist texts particularly emphasize the non-existence of the yidams. The aim of Vajrayana is to actualize the understanding that emptiness and form are inseparable. “Emptiness” is more-or-less “non-existence” according to some Buddhist philosophical schools, so yidams’ non-existence is particularly salient. Vajrayana practice manuals often warn against the error of imagining that you can turn yourself into a concrete, actually-existing god.

So… instead of quibbling over metaphysical technicalities, let’s grant that most yidams are mythical.

Westerners mostly reject myths. Christianity and Science4 both denounce them as false.

“False” is a bizarre, irrelevant objection, though. A myth is a religious fiction, and the yidams are fictional characters. Fictions are “false,” but no one objects to them.

Well, no one except philosophers. They debate the “Paradox of Fiction”:

  1. When watching a movie, or reading a novel, you may have strong emotional reactions to events, and care deeply about what happens to the characters.
  2. For something to matter, it has to exist. Imaginary events have no real value, positive or negative. Rationally, you should only have emotions about things that matter and have value.
  3. You know for sure that fictional characters don’t exist, and that fictional events didn’t happen and never will.

From this, it follows that you are “irrational, incoherent, and inconsistent,” and need a brain transplant.

Well, someone does… maybe it’s philosophers. This argument is obviously stupid.

Fundamentalists have another stupid objection. Some extremists oppose all fiction, because it is untrue and entertaining.5 Others oppose fantasy fiction specifically: the Bible should have a monopoly on supernatural tales, because other gods, spooks, and miracles don’t exist. Reading Harry Potter is the highway to hell.

Myths have great value, which has nothing to do with their literal “truth.” I have suggested that mythopoesis—the creation of explicitly “false” religious fictions—is the best strategy for naturalizing tantra.

(Supposedly I will write much more about that someday. If you believe my outline… but it is is a pack of lies. In the mean time, “Lies in which not everything is false” is a fine essay on Buddhist myths by Will Buckingham, an outstanding philosopher and my favorite ex-Buddhist myth-inspired fantasy fiction writer.)

We all do relate to fictional characters. They are important to us. Fiction is a powerful source of inspiration and insight. Asking “What would Aragorn do? What would Princess Leia do?” might be an excellent way to live. The same goes double for religious fiction: myths.

Once you realize being a god is irrelevant to being a yidam, and that existence and non-existence are irrelevant, and that the supernatural is as harmless in myths as in other fictions—then taking a god as a yidam is unproblematic.

But if it really bothers you, unquestionably existent (albeit dead) humans are also available, and can also do the job.

Enlightenment and other aims

Traditionally, yidam practice aims at “enlightenment,” which is why the yidams have to be enlightened. You visualize yourself as a yidam; that merges your mind with the yidam’s; then you are enlightened too.

You could probably visualize yourself in the form of the Stay-Puft® Marshmallow Man. You could recite the Stay-Puft mantra (“Stays Puft, Even When Toasted”™). This would be pointless, however. Presumably, you don’t believe he’s enlightened.

If you can’t see anyone as enlightened, there’s a problem. You may doubt whether that is possible, even in principle. Is there even such a thing as enlightenment?

I think such doubts are reasonable. Every little branch of Buddhism has its own story about what “enlightenment” means. They are drastically different, and most are obviously impossible or undesirable. Some other conceptions of enlightenment may be useful for particular purposes. I think we’d do better to give those more specific names, and ask hard questions about “what is this thing? is it actually achievable? what is it good for?” (I wrote about this in “Epistemology and enlightenment.”) If you share these qualms, it may be better to ignore “enlightenment.”

Instead, in yidam practice, and in tantra generally, we might aim at developing capacities, adopting stances, and engaging in activities.6 “Enlightenment” is a vague, uniform, singular goal; but capacities, stances, and activities are specific, diverse, and plural.

There are thousands of yidams—wildly different, vividly specific—who help you develop and master their particular capacities, stances, and activities. In consultation with your teacher, you can choose which yidam (or yidams) to practice, depending on what direction you want to head in.

Process and preview

I wrote this post several years ago. It was meant to be the first in a series explaining a naturalized approach to yidam practice. That was to be part of the series on naturalizing Buddhist tantra, which was part of the series on modern Buddhist tantra, which was part of this site’s general project of reinventing Buddhism for contemporary cultural, social, and psychological conditions. I abandoned all parts of that, with regret, long ago; but I’ve noticed this post was mostly done, and thought I might as well polish and publish it.

According to the outline, the pages in this section were to be:

  1. Yidam—A godless approach, naturally! [i.e., this post]
  2. Yidams are not archetypes
  3. Do we need Western yidams?
  4. How yidam practice works
  5. Body maps, yidam, and tsa lung

It’s likely I’ll never post the rest, so here’s a quick summary.

Yidams are not archetypes


“Yidams are not gods but archetypes” is a common, well-intentioned claim, but it’s inaccurate, and I think mostly misleading and unhelpful.

It’s an example of the psychologization strategy for naturalizing Buddhism. That turns external, supernatural entities into internal, psychological ones. The problem is that meaning is neither objective nor subjective, and yidams are neither independently-existing people, nor mental structures found “deeply within” yourself.

Archetypes are supposedly abstract, general, and universal. Yidams are extremely specific. Vajrakila—the yidam shown above—has three heads, six arms,7 wings, and no legs. Instead, his torso is fused at the waist to a huge three-bladed dagger.

Vajrakila is not universal. You will not find him “deeply within” yourself. When you “look within,” usually all you find are idle fantasies and stale emotional loops. The Protestant, Romantic-Idealist, and Jungian idea that Truth is found “deeply within” is antithetical to Vajrayana, which is about patterns of interaction, not psychology.

Vajrakila is also not an arbitrary cultural creation. He has an extremely specific form, and you aren’t to mess with it. Every detail has a particular significance, symbolism, and function, which weren’t just made up.

Those specifics are utterly bizarre. Westerners, when beginning with Vajrayana, often complain that they “can’t relate” to these “alien” yidams, and want ones that would seem more familiar. We should adopt existing deities from Western mythoi, they say. Athena, or the Virgin Mary, for example.

Do we need Western yidams?

Probably not. The idea is based on basic misunderstandings about the function of yidams.

I expect yidams that reference aspects of Western culture are possible—but I doubt they are necessary. And incorporating Western deities without incorporating Western religious attitudes, inimical to Vajrayana, seems difficult and maybe impossible.

Monk practicing the Western deity Cthulhu as a yidam
Monk practicing the Western deity Cthulhu as a yidam, by José Baetas

Being Vajrakila is equally “alien” to all human beings. Tibetans don’t have three heads any more than Americans do. Initial familiarity with his image might give them a small edge during the first few hours of the thousands it takes to gain some proficiency as Vajrakila. BFD.

Being willing to deal with weirdness is part of what Vajrayana is about. You might as well start with the yidam as anywhere else.

Yeshé Tsogyel
Yeshé Tsogyal: Aro gTér form

Anyway, “starter yidams” are straightforwardly human, and as natural for Westerners as Tibetans. Yeshé Tsogyal is my main yidam. She’s “alien” only in being a teenage girl—and that has its own value.

More significant is that she’s enlightened, and I mostly don’t think of myself as being so. Enlightenment is alien to samsara—but it is natural for human beings.

Where there are humans,
You’ll find flies,
And Buddhas.

Naturalistic yidam practice: how it works

This post would be an experiential—not mechanistic—account of “how it works,” in a naturalistic framework.

It would explain what yidam practice is like, and how to go about it, if you “don’t believe they exist.”

Body maps, yidam, and tsa lung

This post would speculate about how and why yidam practice works mechanistically, in terms of neuroscience and stuff.

I suspect tsa lung (“energy practice”) shares some of the same mechanisms, so this final post in the yidam series would also be a bridge into the next section, which would explain tsa lung in a naturalistic framework.

  1. At least, most Western historians seem to think she actually existed. I haven’t done any serious research on this. Because Buddhist history is always extensively falsified, it’s usually hard to be sure. Most of the famous people in Buddhist “history” turn out to be fictional once you dig into the texts of their supposed era. Dan Martin, one of the foremost historians of Tibetan Buddhism, points out that different sources give significantly different dates for Machig Labrdrön. Her various biographies are contradictory, and are mostly obviously mythological. Nevertheless, he accepts that she did exist. 
  2. I don’t know whether the living Karmapa is ever used as a yidam. Whether he constitutes “the same person” as his previous incarnations is complicated by the general conceptual confusions around anatman and rebirth. In any case, while there could possibly be doubts about the historicity of Machig Labrdrön, the Karmapa incarnations are as real as George Washington
  3. Obsession with existence and non-existence is not found in any other religion, so far as I know. My guess is that Buddhism inherited it from the Middle Eastern traditions. Between about 500 BC and 500 AD, Buddhism was in constant close cultural contact with the West, from Persia and the Middle East to Greece and Rome. See The Shape of Ancient Thought for some relevant history. 
  4. “Science” with a capital S. Pop versions of the scientific worldview take the non-existence of the supernatural, especially gods, as their essential Holy Truth. Elsewhere, I suggest that most problems atheists ascribe to supernaturalism are actually due to eternalism, and that naturalistic eternalisms are just as bad. 
  5. The book Ritual and Its Consequences: An Essay on the Limits of Sincerity insightfully explains the Scientistical, philosophical, and religious opposition to fiction, and especially mythology. I have summarized the book here (but didn’t particularly bring out its application to fiction). 
  6. See what I did there? Those three are the three kayas: dharmakaya, sambhogakaya, and nirmanakaya, respectively. 
  7. If you count eight arms, it’s because he’s having sex with his girlfriend Diptachakra. She’s the one in blue (with two arms); he’s red. 

Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

28 thoughts on “Yidams: a godless approach, naturally!”

  1. Great understanding! When you say that Yeshe Tsogyal is enlightened and you’re not, that’s a very Mahayoga approach or below (in the 9-yana system). What do you mean with this affirmation? What does she has that you don’t and why do you BELIEVE that?

    I guess that better than already existing mythos, one could use comic characters such as Superman. This would avoid eternalism to a great extent, but would have the pitfall of not being an enlightened character.

    So, the difference and the key still remains in what we consider enlightenment to be.

    One could practice Thröma Nagmo as an yidam or be terrified by it if one doesn’t understand why she and her bone ornaments represents enlightenment. That’s why the myth around “bounding demons to oath and becoming Dharmapalas” is all about being or not being enlightened.

    But the pages you intended to summarize are just a description, not a real briefing of their intended contents. Please, develop these summaries a little more. For example, you could briefly point to the cortical homunculus and stuff like that. Please, check this book: https://www.amazon.com/Beyond-Boundaries-Neuroscience-Connecting-Machines–/dp/1250002613/ref=asap_bc?ie=UTF8

    Yidam practice and its relation with the body is of extreme importance to acquaint people with new technologies unfolding from this brain-machine symbiosis. Our dependance on smartphones and similar devices is a hint at that.

    I’ve the same guess that you’ve that somethings in Vajrayana and Yungdrung Bön (not the purely shamanic Bön) are derived from Middle Eastern sources. Not only they mention some geographical locations like that, but you can see pictorial references such as Sidpa’i Gyalmo riding a mule (a sign of connection with the sufis), but Simhamukha is pretty obviously connected to Sekhmet.

    But Cthulhu would never work as an yidam, because it’s not enlightened…

  2. Ah… yes… the pink ones aren’t exactly arms. He’s wearing a complete flayed human skin as a shawl around his back, and its arms and legs are dangling down behind him.

    Near the top, there’s also two dark-blue arms, which belong to the garuda.

  3. Of course you probably know that there’s already an analogous practice (invocation) in Western mystical traditions. A classic relevant quote by a practitioner, “In this book it is spoken of the Sephiroth and the Paths; of Spirits and Conjurations; of Gods, Spheres, Planes, and many other things which may or may not exist. It is immaterial whether these exist or not. By doing certain things certain results will follow; students are most earnestly warned against attributing objective reality or philosophic validity to any of them.”

    You didn’t address the cultural background concerning objects that the yidams hold. It’s obviously more than just odd appendage numbers. What’s a vajra? Dunno if an average Tibetan would know this either but it’s an argument.

    Have you seen Shinzen’s video about deity practice? Can’t link here but you can Google fast if not.

  4. You didn’t address the cultural background concerning objects that the yidams hold.

    When you are given the practice, you get a text, which usually explains those. There’s nothing terribly interesting going on there. Something like: “It’s a noose. For strangling people. Metaphorically, she uses it to choke to death belief in the inherent effectiveness of tantric methods.”

    I made that one unusually interesting via self-reference! Some yidams do wield a series of weapons, one per yana, each of which destroys belief in the magical efficacy of that yana. Cool!

    More usually it’s: “She uses the sword to destroy the illusion of a separate self. She uses the butcher’s knife to destroy the illusion of a separate self. She uses the poleaxe to destroy the illusion of a separate self. She uses the iron club to destroy the illusion of a separate self. She uses the chainsaw to destroy the illusion of a separate self. She uses…”

    Re the vajra, there’s some history and symbolism that’s interesting to geeks, but basically it’s just a little metal knick-knack.

    Have you seen Shinzen’s video about deity practice?

    Yes, thanks, it’s here:

    FWIW, although I like Shinzen and I like this talk, I don’t think what he explains is more than vaguely similar to Tibetan yidam practice. (His background is more in Shingon; maybe it’s closer to that, I don’t know.)

    I think he would agree that this is new practice that is “inspired by” or “draws on” Buddhist deity yoga, but that is not the same in either method or goal.

    I’m afraid I also don’t think invocation in Western ceremonial magic is interestingly similar either. Depending on what you find aspects you find interesting, of course! There’s a superficial similarity in technique, but as my previous post pointed out, the techniques of Buddhist tantra are basically irrelevant. What matters is the attitude, which is quite different.

  5. I went back and read the Techniques post. I wonder how you define “stance” and “attitude” without reference to technique. Also I wonder how you distinguish an attitude from a mindstate induced from meditation. Also I wonder how you distinguish a temporary mindstate induced by meditation and a quasipermanent mindstate induced by meditation.

    For example, I can follow a technique for a time, then drop it when I’m in an “altered state”. From there I can “feel around” to a new “state”. Thereafter that new “state” might be accessible almost any time. Is that an “attitude”?

    Is the point of Tantra having the attitude you describe? If so then isn’t the primary technique “getting” that attitude?

    Where’s the evidence that the attitude you describe is central?

    I must admit the Western invocation and the Tibetan yidams seem pretty much the same to me. Even if you argue the underlying belief system or “attitude” is different I have to say the technical similarities don’t seem superficial to me. In Crowley’s system you’re instructed to spend many hours honing powerful visualization skills. From that point you visualize specific deities with specific qualities for the purpose of accessing desirable qualities (among other things). That no one ever does the concentration work prior is another point.

    I don’t know where you get your Devil worshipping instructions from by I assure you my Angel will beat up your yidams.

    Btw, have you gone down the tulpa rabbithole? Millennials may have reinvented a “superficially” similar practice.

    It’s possible Shinzen is is shoehorning the practice onto his system. It’s possible he’s consciously leaving out some detail to do so. I would imagine he knows if the Shingon and Tibetan forms of yidams practice are radically different, but I can’t be sure

  6. Duckland — Hmm. I’ve struggled with how to reply in a way that could be helpful, and eventually gave up. An attempt to reply point-by-point would wind up being enormously long, and probably wouldn’t really help. Sorry!

    If, for some reason, you wanted to understand yidam practice in its own terms, you would… unfortunately… be at a disadvantage relative to someone who knew nothing. I would guess it would take dozens of hours of discussion with a teacher, over a period of a couple years, to unlearn the habit of imposing misleading concepts from other systems on it.

    But, so long as you are happy with the system you practice, there’s no reason to learn yidam! In particular, the fantasy some Westerners have that yidam practice is “like Western magick, but more powerful” is completely wrong. So you aren’t missing out on anything by not knowing about it.

  7. Sorry for the barrage of questions. I’m curious.

    To be clear, I’m not a Western magick practitioner. I know of invocation and yidam practice only from reading.

    Still, I don’t understand how the two are significantly different. I googled around and found a comment made on another page of yours “Reinventing Buddhist Tantra” made by a “Zac”. He seems to draw a connection, mentioning Sam Webster. I remember reading a comment by Israel Regardie (main publisher of Golden Dawn material) that the Tibetan system and Golden Dawn system are essentially similar.

    In that other thread you commented that “This is partly because the Western stuff was influenced by mainly-Hindu tantra that came back from India with British colonial officers in the 1800s and early 1900s.” I wonder if you have a source for that, regarding the Golden Dawn specifically.

    If the above is a waste of time I still wonder how you distinguish stances, attitudes, beliefs, mindstates, etc.

    Thanks for any responses

  8. Thank you for another great piece David! I really enjoyed it. I would really like to read/hear your thoughts on Body maps and tsa lung as well. I hope writing about those topics tickles your fancy at some point.

    Question: You’ve provided a very clear view of yidam practice. I wonder about your thoughts on the Four Nails that are supposed to summarize the four key points of yidam practice in the Nyingma system. Not to throw some obscure Tibet Buddhist stuff at you, but I think the combination of the view you have provided here in addition to clarity on the Four Nails would help a lot of practitioners.

    Oh, and were can I find more info on yidam and tsa lung and neuroscience? That’s sounds killer. Please write more!

    Thanks as always for spreading your wisdom!
    Dave Vitello

  9. Duckland — Yes, people have been pointing out the similarities for more than a century.

    Sam Webster’s book is Tantric Thelema. I’ve read it; it’s good. I recommend it if you want to learn more from a source that emphasizes the similarities (where I would emphasize the differences).

    Israel Regardie was commenting from a Western magick point of view, and he was significantly influenced by Perennialism (the idea that all religions are essentially the same in their mystical core). He also was writing at a time when very little was known about Tibetan Buddhism in the West, and what little was known had been heavily distorted by mis-applying Hindu and German Romantic-Idealist concepts.

    I don’t have a particular source for the Hinduism/Golden Dawn connection in mind. However, simply googling for the phrase turns up what appear to be many discussions.

  10. David Vitello — Glad you liked this!

    Off-hand, I don’t think I have anything to say about the Four Nails. (I haven’t received any detailed teaching on them; I know them only from brief textual discussions.) I’d be interested to hear your thoughts about them! Or, if you are interested in how they’d relate to something in particular I said, it’s possible that would prompt me to have a thought myself.

    There’s been a bit of neuroscience research done on tantric practices. I wrote a little about that here; but I was just summarizing the results of a casual google search three years ago, so I have no significant knowledge. There’s probably more recent work, and probably I missed some that had already been done.

    In the body maps post, I had in mind to speculate wildly, based on a combination of personal subjective experience and my knowledge of some neuroscience that seems like it might be relevant—rather than reviewing experimental evidence on tantra specifically. However, before writing that, it would certainly be worth doing a more serious look at whatever empirical research may have been done on tantric practice.

    The body maps post would start with fact that the brain keeps track of a model of the physical configuration and state of the body. Lots of different sorts of evidence show that this map is highly malleable. It’s somewhat innacurate by default; there are things you can do to make it more accurate (which can help with athletic performance and maybe health). But also you can quite easily fool it into being wildly inaccurate. A famous experiment involves literally adding a third arm, which seems subjectively real. So adding four arms and two heads is not a huge stretch! How and why this would be useful is another story, which gets even more speculative…

  11. This practise seems very widespread, but only extensively systemised and recorded in Vajrayana and western occultism. I’ve had a maori social worker tell me of her visual process of identifying as the Incredible Hulk giving her incredible self-confidence, for example. She was Maori, I suspect there is equivalent practise in Maori culture but that’s pure speculation on my part.

    Method acting also seems similar to yidam practise, which leads me to think that there are better ways and worse ways to do yidam practise. Heath Ledger’s mental health greatly suffered due to extensive identification as the joker, and if someone were to look into picking up atoms of yidam practise, understanding how not to do it would be helpful.

    Tabletop Roleplaying(D&D et al) can also resemble yidam practise. I’ve recently had experience around a game table as identifying as a character with different gender, along with significantly different internal emotional dynamics. Looking back on it, that process has had me incorporate aspects of that character’s behavior into my own over time, some of them undesirable.

    An instruction manual or at least resources on “How to Yidam real good” would be really helpful for anyone looking to do any of the above in effective ways, and avoid potentially catastrophic mistakes.

  12. “The body maps post would start with fact that the brain keeps track of a model of the physical configuration and state of the body. Lots of different sorts of evidence show that this map is highly malleable. It’s somewhat innacurate by default; there are things you can do to make it more accurate (which can help with athletic performance and maybe health). But also you can quite easily fool it into being wildly inaccurate. A famous experiment involves literally adding a third arm, which seems subjectively real. So adding four arms and two heads is not a huge stretch! How and why this would be useful is another story, which gets even more speculative…”

    David, I wonder what you think about VR in relation to this. I read and heard Jaron Lanier talking about this. Very interesting. Probably can’t post the links but there are a couple papers I found. The titles are: “Transcending The Self in Immersive Virtual Reality” and “Homuncular Flexibility in Virtual Reality”. The latter is from 2015, very new.

  13. Two scientific articles I recently encountered might be of interest to you. There haven’t been many neuroscience studies of the advanced practices of Vajrayana, but a researcher at the Nalanda institute in New York, Joseph Loizzo, argues that the third wave of the scientific study of meditation will focus on Vajrayana practice. Last year he published a model connecting the Western neuroscience model with the Kalachakra model from the Nalanda tradition. He doesn’t have a lot of experimental evidence on which to base his model but from what I can tell what he proposes about the “subtle body” is plausible and interesting. Basically, he argues that mindfulness approaches target high level, evolutionarily modern brain areas (prefrontal and parietal areas), whereas advanced Vajrayana practices target deeper, evolutionarily older areas (midbrain, brainstem). I don’t see anything about visualization practices per se in his model. He seems to be more focused on subtle regulation of the autonomic nervous system through breath retention and advanced tantric practice. I do think as the field matures in the next decade we’ll see more studies of this kind coming out.

    I’m not sure if I can post the links to the article here but if you do a pubmed search you’ll find it. Here are the titles.

    1) The subtle body: an interoceptive map of central nervous system function and meditative mind-brain-body integration. Loizzo JJ. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2016 Jun;1373(1):78-95. doi: 10.1111/nyas.13065.

    2)Meditation research, past, present, and future: perspectives from the Nalanda contemplative science tradition. Loizzo J. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2014 Jan;1307:43-54. doi: 10.1111/nyas.12273. Review.
    PMID: 24673149.

    The other researcher whose work is worth looking at is Zoran Josipovic from NYU. He’s a Dzogchen practitioner and has at least one preliminary study of long-term Vajrayana buddhists.

  14. The following research was not exactly on Yidam as a whole, but it helps understand at least the mantra aspect of it:

    Tibetan sound meditation for cognitive dysfunction: results of a randomized controlled pilot trial.
    Milbury K, Chaoul A, Biegler K, Wangyal T, Spelman A, Meyers CA, Arun B, Palmer JL, Taylor J, Cohen L.
    Psychooncology. 2013 Oct;22(10):2354-63. doi: 10.1002/pon.3296.
    PMID: 23657969


    This practise seems very widespread, but only extensively systemised and recorded in Vajrayana and western occultism. I’ve had a maori social worker tell me of her visual process of identifying as the Incredible Hulk giving her incredible self-confidence, for example. She was Maori, I suspect there is equivalent practise in Maori culture but that’s pure speculation on my part.
    (…) Tabletop Roleplaying(D&D et al) can also resemble yidam practise. (…)

    That’s what I think David was stressing not to confuse yidam practice with invokation.

    In both terms, a child impersonating a superhero or any other fictional character has much the same tool at hand. This is the starting point for both Yidam and Invocation.

    However, Yidam is ultimately concerned with complete liberation (ugh!), recognizing non-duality, while invocations are almost always concerned with secondary benefits.

    Well, there’s a kind of supreme invocation in the Western Occult lore, such as the Akephalos prayer, the Unborn practice. If you practice Western occult at large, even those kind of higher summonings, those of becoming God Himself (theourgia) are very much polluted by eternalism and monism.

    So, Yidam is NOT equal to Invocation nor even to Nyása (as found in the Guhyakali section of Mahakalasamhita), which is similar to any animistic, polytheistic or monotheistic invocation.

    Role-Playing Games and even Acting are very good tools to enhance your Yidam practice, but are not imbued – as said above – with the view that is far from the edges of eternalism and nihilism.

    I prefer some Live-Action rather than TableTop playing. It’s more intense, especially when using fake blood inside a building under construction.


  15. The body-map section sounds really intriguing. You should write it! Thanks for a great post.

  16. David, I like how you apply “false” in quotation mark. It leaves a much more relativistic impression on the reader. Speaking of myself, since I abandon the urge to create opinions, to classify into right or wrong, life got so much easier.

    Thanks for pointing out Yahwe’s story. A troublesome adolescent, besieging the ruling god and turning into the new one and only god. The story reminded me a bit of Milarepa who also did wrong but inverted this into something new and remarkable later (and through this previous experience, some Katharsis).

    Shinzen notes in the video that the purpose of the deity yoga is “to gain insight into the arbitrary nature of self-identification”. I think he is right about that. Do you object? If you want to practice loving kindness, where is the difference between choosing Avalokiteshvara or Virgin Mary as yidam? I believe that (a) it is essential to commit your actions to the well-being of others (bodhicitta vow), (b) engage as many sensory fields and visualize the yidam as detailed as possible, and (c) always end the yidam visualization in the void (anatman). As long as you can do this with The Hulk, why not? There was a day on which the Green Tara was promoted a yidam. Maybe it’s about time to promote The Hulk!

    There is a philosophical book written by a German guy “Who am I and if yes: how many?” There is also this practice of the Inner Team by a guy called Schulz von Thun, it is applied in NLP for inner conflicts: name different objectives you have, give them a personification including a name and convene a meeting. You remain the boss and determine that the work has to be consensual and that the meeting won’t be finished until the conflict is solved. We have so many personalities and objectives in ourselves. The deity yoga is a practice, in my eyes, just to add another team member to the table. That can help to widen what you call self-identity. And also learn about concealed parts of the self. You can extend your own potential towards your objective to incorporate into the Dhamma. I thought this is why the Tantra is called the “elevator” as opposed to the stepwise path(?) Is the choice of yidam rather a question of preference and liking (rigpawiki mentions you have to have a strong karmic relation to it), of bravery (to look at concealed parts) or of coincidence (whom you meet to get acquainted / good description of the practice / empowerment)? And would it be recommendable to visualize more than one yidam in one period? (Yes I know, refer to the teacher, you are no teacher. But still. There aren’t many good teachers around. And they have their own biases -hence my asking).

    You said “unquestionably existent (albeit dead) humans are also available”. I think the notion in brackets that they should be dead is very important for the psychic health of the practicioner. No living person is free from mistakes, so also the guru.

    David you write “The Protestant, Romantic-Idealist, and Jungian idea that Truth is found “deeply within” is antithetical to Vajrayana, which is about patterns of interaction, not psychology.” I read and re-read this sentence and really would like to understand what you mean David. My first ventures into wanting to understand what life is about I spent with videologs of a therevada monk Yuttadhammo. He was told that his name meant ” one who is composed of Dhamma.” or as he interprets it “Truth Is Within.”. This is why I stumbled over this sentence. Does the understanding Theravada vs. Vajrayana differ? I thought that Dhamma is the Truth and I myself made experience of insight. This information lies within each of us and avails itself for revelation, if wanted.

    Maybe it’s due to not having read all of your posts yet, David. But the term “enlightenment” -with and without quotation marks is being used quite inflationary (namely 24 times). It may have been worth so summarize in one sentence. Or maybe a short extra blog? I wonder whether the state of “enlightenment” is irrevocably attained until end of life? My guts tell me that the enlightened state can refer to no more than an instant, what is your understanding? Do you really think that “developing capacities, adopting stances, and engaging in activities” can have some ultimate level equal to the label “enlightenment”? And no, I haven’t passed the test to see the three kayas in there =)

    @Duckland Your notion ” I can “feel around” to a new “state” ” reminded me of an interview with G.J. Perelman who solved the Poincaré conjecture. I don’t find the quotation but I heard that he described his approach to the solution just as ‘you are in a room that has no light. And you spend time getting acquainted to this room. After some time, you find a door, you open it. Just to enter another black room that you then again start to get acquainted with until you find a door -and so on. I try hard to stay in meditation in the nonverbal realm. As soon as I attribute words to it, remembrances follow. But I think it takes courage to just stay there.

  17. Late to the party again. I wanted to reiterate confusion on the claim re: Jung, archetypes and psychology. I am not a Jungian but I have a passing interest in Jung and post-Jungian analytic psychology. Best I can says it, something in it just ticks an aesthetic box for me. My understanding of archetypes is that (if) they exist in the unconscious as unclear abstract patterns that require individual human beings and cultures to provide them with explicit manifestations in images, myths and so forth. Given this basic distinction between the undifferentiated unconscious form and the specified, specialised differentiation of the activated archetype in a given iconic representation (ie. a yidam) I see no contradiction. In simpler terms there is a distinction between the archetype and the archetypal image. The archetype is said to seek a representation to be expressed in (?anticipating meme theory). That the archetype is expressed in historico-cultural forms suggests that the truth is not to be found inside but in the participatory to-and-fro across the membrane of the psyche.

    There are other reasons to critique Jung. We can critique him for being a mysterian and for failing to produce theories that are amenable to falsification. There again I think a Jungian could reply that depth psychology is not scientific but aesthetic, it is an aesthetic of relations. This might require that we judge Jung on other grounds. If we pursue him for his subjectivism (meaning is neither subjective nor objective but participatory) then we are limited to critiquing Jung. The quick extension of the criticism to “psychology” seems rushed. In fairness I may be placing too much weight on a word chosen more casually than I am reading it. Nonetheless there are plenty of modes of psychology- and psychotherapy- that are about “patterns of interaction.” Indeed, psychoanalysis and psychodynamics begin from the assumption that the psyche is not unitary such that it’s analysis can be demarcated between internal (object relations) and external (interpersonal/group/transferential) patterns. If we go even further afield into the fringes of Deleuze and Guattari’s insistence on the machinic unconscious then we dive headlong into what is arguably among the most complex process-relational ontologies that exists.

    I guess I stumble on the distinction “psychology”/”patterns of interaction.” There are a host of questions lurking behind that distinction.

  18. David,

    Would you be so kind to talk a little bit more about the difference between Shinzen Young’s formulation of deity yoga, versus your own understanding. Perhaps you can mention the ways in which you see why it works, in contrast to the way Shinzen’s interpretation of why it works.

    Any further comments would be appreciated.


  19. Hi James,

    That’s an excellent question; but not one I can answer, I’m afraid. I know almost nothing about the practice Shinzen teaches beyond what’s in that video.

  20. Hi David,

    Thanks for the reply.

    I was about to follow up with another question – ‘If you can’t say anything more in relation to Shinzen’s formulation, could you say something more about the way you personally understand deity yoga to work?’ – but then I remembered that the answer to that question would have come under the ‘how it works’ two hypothetical blog post titles you give at the end.

    FWIW, Ken McLeod has an interesting way of discussing/formulating how it works. I think he has several recordings and blog posts about it, particularly on guru yoga. From what I can remember, he focuses a lot of the discussion on the affective-somasthetic component of devotion, and talks about how various yanas use emotional energies to raise the level of attention. It’s a somewhat shaky way of categorising, but he says that as loving-kindness is used in Hinayana, and compassion is used in Mahayana, devotion is used in Vajrayana (and non/post-tantric Mahamudra/Dzogchen) to raise the level of energy in attention, letting the warmth of awareness transform stale and dualistic fixity, into a more alive and fluid state, where one becomes identified with the immanence of process-relational intimacy…..so to speak. Excuse my own nonsense babble, but it gives a very rough idea of the direction in which Ken takes the discussion of ‘how’.

    Anyway. I, look forward to reading more of your work in the future. And thanks for the DeconstructingYou podcast with Michael Taft – great stuff!

  21. Mostly referring to this: “FWIW, although I like Shinzen and I like this talk, I don’t think what he explains is more than vaguely similar to Tibetan yidam practice. (His background is more in Shingon; maybe it’s closer to that, I don’t know.)”, for people who stumble here and scroll to the bottom of the comments later.

    I once chatted briefly with Shinzen about the deity work during one of his “phone retreats”. At least at that level of practice it was greatly abstracted. Maybe he gives more specific advice to advanced students. But he’s done to deity yoga what he does to everything: Incorporated it into his system. He’s great at it.
    I have great respect for that system. It’s a beautiful and useful and it has helped me many times. But it isn’t the same as the source material.
    In the latest version of Five Ways to Know Yourself deity yoga is listed under the heading of “Nurture Positive Ideal”. Like the picture above (and ceremonial magic of Crowley, as well as in chaos magic etc.) suggests you can use anything. Grandma or Cthulhu. Shinzen uses examples that are more towards “grandma” though.
    There are other videos where Shinzen talks about his experiences in Shingon deity yoga. He won’t go into the full details because of the vows of secrecy, but he speaks more and more clearly than most teachers. What’s clear from these accounts is that the full ordeal entailed prolonged solitude and exposure to cold (with dumping buckets of ice-cold water on ones self daily) with rituals and meditation taking up rest of the time. So besides the technicalities of the practice there’s that. Page 5 in the outline above mentions tsa lung, so that’s an interesting similarity.

    So yes. The deity stuff Shinzen currently teaches, at least to beginners, is “not more than vaguely similar” to anything else probably, since it’s a novel formulation. Not really Vajrayana or Shingon, but I’m glad it’s there.

  22. “It is essential to remember that the protectors, as well as deities altogether, are nothing else than projections of the richness of our own minds. Representing our own potentialities, they have no independent existence. By supplicating them, we are in fact rousing confidence in our own Buddha nature.”


    “The ignorant think that gods dwell in celestial worlds and have power to control human destiny. Such gods are merely projections of one’s internal organization; the creation of gods in the external world is a projection of the unconscious. The belief in gods was created to help those who are not aware of their internal resources and are in need of an objectification of supernatural powers. They need to believe in gods that will help them fulfill desires that they feel inadequate to fulfill through their own means. It is said that those who have seen gods are fools, for they have seen something of their own self and mistakenly believe that they have seen gods. Externalists have created gods for their own convenience, but in actuality those gods are symbols of unknown phenomena that occur within.”


    God are man-made tools called yantras that are designed to bring out certain gunas (qualities) like love, intelligence, wisdom, compassion, will power etc…. As Sadhguru once said on youtube, god is OUR making not the other way around.

  23. Hello David,

    I couldn’t find a better place to send you this. You seem quite aware of certain facts that Nietzsche and others have laid out elsewhere, and yet (with respect!) you seem to chicken out wherever these facts would become genuinely unpalatable for most people. For instance, you point directly at the idea that monstrosity is a prerequisite for nobility and then hedge it with a “perhaps” – you make the usual overtures acceptable to any (with respect) dumbly smiling, cow-sagely Jungian or Petersonian about embracing your shadow, but stripped of all genuine transgressiveness (or immoralism – or amoralism, for that matter!) . Your eyes are too kind, but you don’t know what kindness is. Please send me an email if you’d like to talk about this (owensworth@gmail.com). Otherwise, thank you for your time.

    God bless you

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