Deity yoga is a practice of Vajrayana Buddhism involving identification with a chosen deity through visualizations and rituals and the realization of emptiness.
According to the Tibetan scholar Tsongkhapa, Deity yoga is what separates Buddhist Tantra practice from the practice of other Buddhist schools.
Deity yoga involves two stages, the generation stage, and the completion stage. In the generation stage, one dissolves the mundane world and visualizes one’s chosen deity (yidam), its mandala and companion deities, resulting in identification with this divine reality.
In the completion stage, one dissolves the visualization of and identification with the yidam in the realization of sunyata or emptiness. Completion stage practices can also include subtle body energy practices.
The purpose of Deity yoga is to bring the meditator to the realization that the yidam or meditation deity and the practitioner are in essence the same, that they are non-dual (advaya). According to John Powers:
“Deity yoga is a technique for becoming progressively more familiar with the thoughts and deeds of a Buddha until the state of Buddhahood is actualized through repeated practice.”
According to Gyatrul Rinpoche, the point of this practice is to “understand your buddha nature, which is the very essence of your being” and is “intrinsically present” in all beings.
The fact that the deity is a reflection of qualities already inherent in the practitioner is what makes this practice different from mere deluded or wishful thinking.
The yidam generally appears in a mandala and the practitioner visualizes himself or herself and their environment as the yidam and mandala of their Deity Yoga practice. This visualization method undermines a habitual belief that views of reality and self are solid and fixed, enabling the practitioner to purify spiritual obscurations and to practice compassion and wisdom simultaneously:
Deity Yoga employs highly refined techniques of creative imagination, visualization, and photism in order to self-identify with the divine form and qualities of a particular deity as the union of method or skillful means and wisdom. As His Holiness, the Dalai Lama says:
“In brief, the body of a Buddha is attained through meditating on it”
Representations of the deity, such as statues, paintings (Tibetan: thangka), or mandalas, are often employed as an aid to visualization in both the Generation Stage (Tibetan: Kye-rim) and the Completion Stage (Tibetan: Dzog-rim) of Anuttarayoga Tantra.
The mandalas are symbolic representations of sacred enclosures, sacred architecture that house and contain the uncontainable essence of a yidam. In the book, The World of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama describes a mandala:
“This is the celestial mansion, the pure residence of the deity.”
In Tantric Buddhism, the generation stage is the first phase of Deity yoga. It is associated with the ‘Father Tantra‘ class of Anuttara-yoga-tantras of the Sarmapa or associated with what is known as Mahayoga Tantras by the Nyingmapa. An example of a ‘Father Tantra‘ is the Guhyasamāja Tantra.
The generation stage engages creative imagination or visualization as an upaya or skillful means of personal transformation through which the practitioner (sadhaka) either visualizes a meditational deity (yidam) or refuge tree before themselves in front generation or as themselves in self-generation, to engender an alteration to their perception and/or experience of the appearance aspect of reality.
One practices oneself in the identification with the meditational Buddha or deity (yidam) by visualizations until one can meditate single-pointedly on being the deity.
Reginald Ray writes that during the process of yidam visualization, the deity is to be imaged as not solid or tangible, as “empty yet apparent“, with the character of a mirage or a rainbow.
In the generation stage of Deity Yoga, the practitioner visualizes the “Four Purities” which define the principal Tantric methodology of Deity Yoga that distinguishes it from the rest of Buddhism:
- Seeing one’s body as the body of the deity
- Seeing one’s environment as the pure land or mandala of the deity
- Perceiving one’s enjoyments as bliss of the deity, free from attachment
- Performing one’s actions only for the benefit of others (bodhicitta motivation, altruism)
A front generation is a form of meditative visualization employed in Tantric Buddhism in which the yidam is visualized as being present in the sky facing the practitioner as opposed to the self-identification that occurs in self-generation.
According to the Vajrayana tradition, this approach is considered less advanced, hence safer for the sadhaka, and is engaged more for the rites of propitiation and worship.
Self-generation is a form of meditative visualization employed in Tantric Buddhism in which the yidam is invoked and then merged with the sadhaka as an upaya of self-transformation.
This is as opposed to the method of the front generation. According to the Vajrayana tradition, self-generation is held to be more advanced and accompanied by a degree of spiritual risk from the siddhi it may rapidly yield.
An important element of this is “divine pride“, which is “the thought that one is oneself the deity being visualized.” According to John Powers:
“divine pride is different from ordinary, afflicted pride because it is motivated by compassion for others and is based on an understanding of emptiness. The deity and oneself are both known to be empty, all appearances are viewed as manifestations of the luminous and empty nature of mind, and so the divine pride of deity yoga does not lead to attachment, greed, and other afflictions.”
The completion stage is the second stage of Deity yoga. The completion stage may also be translated as “perfection stage” or “fulfillment mode.” In the completion stage, one engages in practices associated with the subtle body energies and dissolves the deity into sunyata.
The practitioner can use either the path of the method or the path of liberation. At the path of method the practitioner engages in subtle body energy practices. These involve the subtle energy system of energy channels, winds or currents (rlung), and drops or charged particles which are said to converge at certain points along the spinal column called chakra.
The “wind energy” is directed and dissolved into the heart chakra, where-after the Mahamudra remains, and the practitioner is physically and mentally transformed. At the path of liberation, the practitioner applies mindfulness, a preparatory practice for Mahamudra or Dzogchen, to realize the inherent emptiness of everything’ that exists.
Jake Dalton uses the terms “practices with signs” and practices without signs. The “practices with signs” are “channels and winds” practices, while in the practices without signs “the enlightened view is accomplished instantaneously, without any effort.”
Subtle energy practices
The completion stage employs the “mystic vortices” of the body, the chakra, the subtle energy of the subtle body, the five pranas or vāyu, together with the channels, the Nadi through which the energy flows in order to generate the ‘great bliss‘ associated with bodhi or enlightenment. According to Keith Dowman:
Examples of fulfillment mode yogas are dream yoga, the yoga of the mystic heat, Mahamudra meditation, the yoga of the apparitional body, the yoga of resurrection, clear light meditation, and the yoga of uniting skillful means [upaya] and perfect insight [prajna] to create the seed-essence of pure pleasure.
According to Berzin:
On the complete stage, we cause the energy-winds to enter, abide, and dissolve in the central channel. This enables us to access the subtlest level of mental activity and use it for the nonconceptual cognition of voidness – the immediate cause for the omniscient mind of a Buddha.
We use the subtlest level of energy-wind, which supports clear light mental activity, to arise in the form of an illusory body as the immediate cause for the network of form bodies of a Buddha.
The completion stage is defined differently in various strands on Vajrayana practice:
The completion stage defined as the dissolving of the visualization of a deity corresponds to Mahayoga; the “Completion stage with marks” based on yogic practices such as tummo corresponds to Anu Yoga: and the “Completion stage without marks” is the practice of Ati Yoga.
According to Keith Dowman,
Fulfillment meditation includes “higher” techniques of meditation, which result in understanding of ultimate truth. But since relative and ultimate truth are two sides of the same coin, creative and fulfillment stages both lead to the same goal. Fundamentally, fulfillment meditation techniques entail the perception of emptiness in form, or the dissolution of form into emptiness: the dissolution of the creative stage vision into emptiness is technically a fulfillment stage practice.