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 The Wrathful Deities

[The following exerpt is from The Bardo Thodo, or
Tibetan Book of the Dead]

Now the manner of the dawning of the Wrathful Deities is to be shown.

In the above Bardo of the Peaceful [Deities] there were seven stages of ambuscade. The setting-face-to-face at each stage should have [caused the deceased] to recognize either at one or another [stage] and to have been liberated.

Multitudes will be liberated by that recognition; [and] although multitudes obtain liberation in that manner, the number of sentient beings being great, evil karma powerful, obscurations dense, propensities o too long standing, the Wheel of Ignorance and Illusion becometh neither exhausted nor accelerated. Although [all be] set face-to-face in such detail, there is a vast preponderance of those who wander downwards unliberated.

Therefore, after the cessation [of the dawning] of the Peaceful and the Knowledge-Holding Deities, who come to welcome one, the fifty-eight flame-enhaloed, wrathful, blood-drinking deities come to dawn, who are only the former Peaceful Deities in changed aspect-according to the place [or psychic-centre of the Bardo-body of the deceased whence they proceed]; nevertheless, they will not resemble them.

This is the Bardo of the Wrathful Deities; and, they being influenced by fear, terror, and awe, recognition becometh more difficult. The intellect, gaining not in independence, passeth from one fainting state to a round of fainting states. [Yet], if one but recognize a little, it is easier to be liberated [at this stage]. If it be asked why? [the answer is]: Because of the dawning of the radiances -- [which produce] fear, terror, and awe -- the intellect is undistractedly alert in one-pointedness; that is why.

If at this stage one do not meet with this kind of teaching, one's hearing [of religious lore] -- although it be like an ocean [in its vastness] -- is of no avail. There are even disciplines-holding abbots [or bhikkhus] and doctors in metaphysical discourses who err at this stage, and, not recognizing, wander into the Sangsāra.

As for the common worldly folk, what need is there to mention them! By fleeing, through fear, terror, and awe, they fall over the precipices into the unhappy worlds and suffer. But the least of the least of the devotees of the mystic mantrayanā doctrines, as soon as he sees these blood-drinking deities, will recognize them to be his tutelary deities, and the meeting will be like that of human acquaintances. He will trust them; and becoming merged into them, in at-one-ment, will obtain Buddhahood.

By having meditated on the description of these blood-drinking deities, while in the human world, and by having performed some worship or praise of them; or, at least, by having seen their painted likenesses and their images, upon witnessing the dawning of the deities at this stage, recognition of them will result, and liberation. In this lieth the art.

Again, at the death of those discipline-holding abbots and doctors in metaphysical discourses [who remain uninstructed in these Bardo teachings], however assiduously they may have devoted themselves to religious practices, and however in the human world, there will not come any phenomenal signs such as rainbow-halo [at the funeral-pyre] nor bone-reliques [from the ashes]. This is because when they lived the mystic [or esoteric] doctrines were never held within their heart, and because they had spoken contemptuously of them, and because they were never acquainted [through initiation] with the deities of the mystic [or esoteric] doctrines; thus, when these dawn on the Bardo, they do not recognize them. Suddenly [seeing] what they had never seen before, engendered, they pass into the miserable states because of that. Therefore, if the observers of the disciplines, and the [or esoteric] doctrines, such signs as the rainbow-halo come not, nor are bone-reliques and seed-like bones ever produced [from the bones of their funeral-pyre]: these are the reasons for it.

But those who have meditated upon the Great Perfection and the Great Symbol will recognize the Clear Light at the moment of death; and, obtaining the Dharma-Kāya, all of them will be such as not to need the reading of this Thödol. By recognizing the Clear Light at the moment of death, they also will recognize the visions of the Peaceful and the Wrathful during the Chönyid Bardo, and obtain the Sambhoga-Kāya; or, recognizing during the Sidpa Bardo, obtain the Nirmāna-Kāya; and, taking birth on the higher planes, will, in the next rebirth, meet with this Doctrine, and then enjoy the continuity of karma.

The Bardo Thodol, or Tibetan Book of the Dead
[OUP, ed., pp 131-133, first paragraph, 137]

In our text for this evening we learn an important lesson. It is an insight revolutionary for religious thought, an ultra-modernistic insight, though it occurs in an ancient text used in the context of a religion one might judge to be filled with magical superstition. The religion is the Tantric Buddhism of Tibet, Vajrayana Buddhism, and the text is the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The insight? Simply that one must some day face an assortment of terrifying monsters and wrathful deities, and that if one is to face them well, there is one crucial thing to know: they are but the projection of your own mind! Should you be afraid of them? Yes! They are no less frightening for being the products of your own mind!

Think for a moment of the fears of mankind in this century, the greatest horrors we have faced. Think of Nazism and Communism, the great totalitarian Antichrists. They were ideologies, complicated systems of ideas, terrible ideas or at least ideas terribly wrong, that were simply the projection of someone's mind. The trouble was that they were taken as more than that by enough individuals that they began to assume a life of their own. What happened was what sociologists call "reification." Something that is the product of human ingenuity grows out of control, like the Frankenstein monster (a venerable name on this strange night of nights!), and begins to threaten its creator. And it is a real threat! A living, breathing terror that will not be again confined to the drawing board! Nazism is not yet dead, despite the fighting of the greatest war in history to stamp it out.

Remember the nightmare of nuclear war? Some of us grew up beneath the looming shadow of the mushroom cloud. As Bultmann anticipated, ancient apocalypticism had come alive again for us because in school we had been drilled on what to do, how long to stay under the house, after the Bomb fell! The Bomb! "Nothing is hid from the heat thereof!" So ran the liturgy of the Doomsday Bomb in the marvelous movie Beneath the Planet of the Apes. Yet it began as a mere idea in the advanced brain of a Princeton scientist. "O nobly born, it is but the projection of your own mind!" Yet was it wrong to be afraid of it? No, and yes! It was right to take its danger seriously, but wrong to be so scared that we lost sight of the human origins of the thing! And now, I believe, the danger is over! It is simply a terrible potentiality. It is easier to see it for what it is now. Perhaps the only dangers and horrors that are not the offspring of the human mind are the natural disasters over which we have no control. Those born of human ingenuity will escape our control only if we let them. And that is what the passage from the Bardo Thodol bids us not to do, not to forget the origin of what would frighten us to distraction.

But let me return to a point a bit closer to the text. Let me raise the question of wrathful, terrifying deities in a more traditional form.

Does Christianity, does your Christianity, keep a shrine for wrathful gods? I dare say it does, at least if you are like most Christians. You know of one wrathful deity called Satan, Lucifer, Beelzebub. What is he? He is the tempter to evil. He is the voice of blasphemy, the bidder to self-exaltation before God. He holds the glories of the material world in thrall and spins them before you to hypnotize you, to bend you to his will. Much Christian preaching has been a series of warnings against this being, not to be ignorant of his wiles, not to surrender to them. You fear this wrathful deity. "Woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, for he knows that his time is short!" Who is this devil, of which Christian preaching has made you so afraid? I invite you to behold him with eyes open -- ­in the nearest mirror­! He is but the projection of your own fears and lusts and hates! Stop denying that he is you, that you are he! Do not wait till the Battle of Armageddon to see him fall. You can gain ground over him now. And the first step is to realize that he is your shadow side. Not something else, not someone else, who is more powerful than you, virtually an almighty god in his own right!

Martin Luther said that the devil is a proud spirit who cannot endure to be laughed at. Well, there is your strategy! Laugh at your own effrontery, you who would be god! Laugh in contempt at the vain pretensions of such a pigmy as yourself! To fear the devil is at once to take your own evil too seriously and not to take it seriously enough! You overestimate its power when you transfer the evil from your own psyche and make a bogey man out of it. Once you see it is your own face behind that horned mask, you have the liberty to laugh at your own pretensions.

Yet once you have attributed the evil in you to some imaginary being, you have too innocent a view of yourself as a poor victim. Once a seminary professor of mine asked if I didn't see the Jonestown massacre as a clear evidence of the devil at work. I said I did not. Instead I regarded it as a sobering instance of the depth of human moral perversity. The more we attribute to the devil, the more we let ourselves off the hook. This devil, your evil, only grows so powerful once we lend him divine status by separating him from ourselves. It is we who make him a god! Do not lend him that power! Remember, he is but the projection of your own mind! And thus you will be more ready to deal with him.

But there is another wrathful deity. This is the angry Jehovah who hovers over your thoughts and moral decisions waiting to cut you off if you displease him. He is the frowning Super-Ego Freud described so well. And his scorching bolts are those of an over-scrupulous conscience. You have aimed them at yourself. After a period of renewed appreciation of Evangelical pietism, which influenced a good many of my early sermons, I have come again to reject it. Again I regard it as a sucking quagmire of introspective morbidity, an all-devouring idol to which every loved thing, especially peace of mind, must be sacrificed.

If there is a God, by definition he or she or it must be beyond all human definition. So any concept or mental image or emotional impression we may have of God cannot be other than what the Book of the Dead said it was long ago: a projection of your own mind. And if that God is an ever-condemning God who demands the sacrifice of every beloved Isaac, then he is a bogey-man incarnating your own self-hatred and neurosis! Have done with him! As the Book of the Dead tells you, look past that subjective projection to the Clear Light of the Truth, which is a simple thing stated in 1 John. "God is love. There is no fear in love. Indeed perfect love casts out fear." One casts out demons, and the fearful deities are demons haunting your mind that you must exorcise!

Meditate on the clear light of God's love, a love that accepts you as you are, even with the selfish pride and egotism that you have deified as Satan. It is only you, but God loves you as you are. And it is his love alone which can make you what you are not. It is only love, and by no means fear, which can transform you into the likeness of Christ.




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