Bernagchen and Rangjung Gyalmo in union
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Dominating the centre of this composition are the two principal female and male protector deities of the Karma Kagyu Tradition, who appear together as 'Mahakali and Mahakala in Face to Face Union' (Tib. ma mgon zhal sbyor), with Dorje Bernagchen (rdo rje ber nag can), the 'Black-cloaked Vajra', seated upon the lap of Rangjung Gyalmo in their unusual 'mother-father' (yum-yab) posture of reversed sexual union. Palden Rangjung Gyalmo (dpal ldan rang byung rgyal mo), the 'Glorious Self-created or Spontaneously-arisen Queen' (Skt. Sri Swayambhu Rajni Devi), is one of the main manifestations of the 'Glorious Goddess' Shri Devi or Palden Lhamo, whose practice in this unique yum-yab aspect was first instigated and transmitted by the second Karmapa, Karma Pakshi (1203-1283).
Rangjung Gyalmo, the 'Self-Created Queen', sits upon her blue 'three-legged iron' mule, which stands still and upright with its four legs firmly planted upon her large golden sun disc, which is ornamented with scrolling gold roundels. The sun disc rests within an open blue lotus that rises above an ocean of swirling blood and fat, amidst a maelstrom of wind and fire. The term 'three-legged' refers to her mule's swiftness or 'magical wings of wind', and 'iron' refers to the mule's blue colour. The mule's under-saddle blanket is fashioned from the flayed skin of a cannibal-demon, with its head hanging downward and its limbs knotted horizontally around the mule's body. Above this is a flayed tiger-skin that serves as her saddle blanket, and above this is her rhinoceros hide saddle. The mule's leather bridle, straps, reins and copper stirrups are ornamented with gold, red coral and gemstones. Around the mule's neck is an ornamental collar bearing little skull-like bells, and around its breast hangs a golden strap that passes through the mouth of the upturned head of an enemy and two torn-out human hearts. From the front of the saddle hang two of Sri Devi's 'magical weapons', the 'ball of variegated thread', and the pair of 'spotted white and black' divination dice.
Rangjung Gyalmo sits sidesaddle on her mule facing forward, with the embroidered black robes of her consort, Dorje Bernagchen, the 'Black Cloaked Vajra', obscuring much of her bodily form. However, she is extremely wrathful and blue-black in colour, with four arms, three round red eyes, a gaping mouth with sharp teeth and fangs, a twisting red tongue, and upward blazing head and facial hair. Her limbs are stout, her belly is large, her breasts sag, and her forehead, cheeks and throat are smeared with the cemetery unguents of funeral ashes, fresh blood, and human fat. She wears golden ornaments, the five bone ornaments, a five-skull crown, broken iron fetters around her ankles, and a long garland of fifty freshly severed and blood-dripping heads. As garments she wears an elephant skin across her back, a human-skin shawl, a hair petticoat, a tiger-skin loincloth, a serpent belt, and a billowing outer cloak of embroidered black silk. The sun shines from her navel, and a crescent moon and a peacock feather adorn her crown and topknot.
With her first right hand Rangjung Gyalmo holds aloft a khatvanga-trident, which is adorned with a white skull and billowing silk ribbons. With her second right hand she thrusts a golden ritual-dagger or phurba made from meteorite iron. With her first left hand she holds a magical mirror that faces forward, with silk ribbons adorning its handle. And with her second left hand she casts a serpent-noose fashioned from a long black poisonous snake.
Her two-armed 'dwarf' male consort, Dorje Bernagchen Mahakala, the 'Great Black Cloaked Vajra' is very small in stature, and he sits upon Sri Devi's lap facing inward. He is black in colour, and his large 'cloud-faced' head is extremely fierce and wrathful, with three round red eyes, a gaping mouth with four sharp fangs and a twisting red tongue, and upward blazing head and facial hair. He is adorned with ornaments of gold and filigree bone, a five-skull crown, a serpent that serves as his sacred thread, a garland of fifty freshly severed heads, and a garland of small red sandalwood clubs. As garments he wears a tiger-skin loincloth and nine folded robes of billowing black silk, which are embroidered with golden designs of many different kinds of weapons. With his left hand he holds aloft a skull-cup that contains the fresh blood and warm heart of an enemy, and with his right hand he wields aloft a large crescent-shaped chopper with a fiery blade, a makara-headed mount, and a vajra-marked handle.
Golden light rays encircle the forms of these two great Karma Kagyu protectors in union, as they abide within a blazing mass of awareness fire. From out of the flames appear four small animal messengers, with a horse and ox at the lower right, and a goat and deer at the left.
In the upper left corner is Vajravarahi (Tib. rdo rje phag mo), the indestructible 'Vajra Sow', the consort of Chakrasamvara and the manifestation of Vajrayogini who is of special importance as a principal yidam deity in the various Kagyu traditions. Vajravarahi is semi-wrathful and ruby-red in colour, and her radiant aura is surrounded by a blazing mass of awareness fire. She stands in dancing bow-and-arrow posture with her right leg raised and left leg extended upon a golden sun disc that rests upon a corpse, a white moon disc and a lotus. She manifests inside a tapering triangular dharmodaya or 'reality source', which in practice takes the form of two intersecting open tetrahedrons that taper downward to a single point in the cross-sectional form of a six-pointed star. This dharmodaya is red on its outside and white on its inside.
Vajravarahi is beautiful, youthful and passionate, with three piercing eyes, and her naked body is adorned with gold ornaments, the five bone ornaments of a dakini, a garland of red karavira flowers, and a long billowing silk scarf that entwines around her nubile body. Her red-yellow hair streams upward above her five-skull tiara, and from the crown of her head emerges the squealing black head of a sow or female boar, with the sow's head representing 'absolute truth', and her human head 'relative truth'. With her raised right hand Vajravarahi holds the 'vajra-handled curved knife of the dakinis', which she circles towards the ten directions to terrify all maras or obstructive demons. With her left hand she holds a skull-cup full of fresh blood in front of her heart, while the long shaft of her khatvanga or tantric staff rests in the crook of her left arm.
Four-armed Mahakala (Skt.Chaturbhuja Mahakala)
Below Vajravarahi in the upper right corner is Four-armed Mahakala or Chaturbhuja Mahakala (Tib. mgon po phyag bzhi pa), who serves as the main protector for the Chakrasamvara cycle of Tantras, which also includes Vajravarahi who appears above.
Four-armed Mahakala is extremely wrathful and blue-black in colour, with four arms, three round red eyes, tawny upward-blazing facial hair, and a gaping mouth that reveals his sharp white teeth, four fangs, and twisting red tongue. He sits in relaxed heroic posture (Skt. virasana) upon two corpses, a golden sun disc and lotus, with his right leg drawn up and his left leg slightly extended. He is surrounded by a blazing mass of awareness fire, and his tawny hair streams upward above his five-skull crown. At the crown of his head is a snake-bound half-vajra that contains the seed-syllable HUM of Akshobhya Buddha, the 'Lord of the Vajra Family' to which he belongs.
Mahakala wears a tiger-skin loincloth that is tied with a silk belt, and a protective vajra-scarf that circles around his upper body, with its long silken ends billowing about his lower body. The freshly flayed skin of an elephant is draped behind his back, around his neck hangs a garland of fifty freshly severed and blood-dripping heads, and a long serpent serves as his sacred thread. He wears golden earrings and necklaces, the six bone ornaments, and small naga-serpents coil around his gold bracelets, armlets and anklets. With his first two right and left hands he holds a crescent-shaped vajra-chopper above a blood-filled skull-cup in front of his heart. With his second right hand he holds aloft a fire-tipped iron wisdom sword, and with his second left hand he holds a skull-topped iron trident with a yak-tail pennon.
At the centre right below four-armed Mahakala is Vaishravana (Tib. rnam thos sras), the 'Lord of the yakshas', whose heavenly palace of Alakavati is located on the northern face of Mt. Meru. Vaishravana is a wealth god and the leader of the 'Four Great Kings' that guard Mount Meru, from where he serves as both a worldly protector and a benefactor who upholds the Buddha's teachings.
Vaishravana appears here as the 'Great Lion-riding King', who is corpulent, regal and golden-yellow in colour, with one face, two arms and two bulging eyes. He has a mustache and curling beard, and his black hair is piled up into topknots above his five-jeweled crown. He sits in the lalita posture of royal-ease upon a fierce white snow-lion with a green mane, which rests upon his golden sun disc and lotus with its head turned upwards towards Vaishravana's face. Vaishravana is adorned with the eight golden ornaments, and wears lower garments of embroidered silks, and a billowing silk scarf that twists around his body. With his right hand he holds the shaft of a victory banner that is adorned with multicoloured silks and crowned with a precious gem. And with his left hand he holds a treasure mongoose that disgorges a stream of wish-granting gems from its mouth. In front of his lotus throne is a stacked pyramid of jewels and four of the seven emblems of a 'universal monarch' or chakravartin (elephant's tusk, rhinoceros horn, queen's round earrings, and minister's square earrings).
Jinasagara (Red Avalokiteshvara)
In the upper right corner is Red Avalokiteshvara in his form as Jinasagara, or Gyalwa Gyatso (gyal wa gya tso), meaning the 'Ocean of Conquerors'. This four-armed form of red Avalokiteshvara and his consort is of particular importance in the Karma Kagyu tradition as a Highest Yoga Tantra yidam deity practice of the 'Father Tantra' lineage, which emphasizes the development of skilful means (upaya) or compassion. The five-deity or nine-deity practice of Gyalwa Gyatso is traditionally performed as part of a three-year retreat in the Karma Kagyu tradition. The practice of Jinasagara was originally taught by Padmasambhava, and later revealed by a terton named Nyan Rolpa, who then transmitted it to Milarepa's disciple, Rechungpa. The lineage then passed to Karma Pakshi (1203-1283), the second Karmapa, and since then the practice of Jinasagara has been maintained as one of the most important yidam deity practices of the Karmapas. All the incarnations of the Karmapas and Dalai Lamas are recognized as being manifestations of Avalokiteshvara. But while the Dalai Lama is traditionally identified as an emanation of four-armed white Avalokiteshvara, the Karmapa is more commonly recognized as the four-armed red emanation of Jinasagara or Gyalwa Gyatso.
Gyalwa Gyatso is peaceful and ruby-red in colour, with four arms and two eyes, and he sits in vajra-posture upon a white moon disc and lotus in sexual union with his red consort, Vajrayogini. He is adorned with the five divine silk garments and eight jeweled ornaments of a sambhogakaya deity. With his first two hands palms-folded in front of his heart he clasps a blue wish-granting gem. With his second right hand he holds aloft a rosary, and with his second left hand he holds the stem of a red lotus that supports a golden five-pointed vajra. His consort, Vajrayogini, is red in colour and slightly wrathful, and her naked body is adorned with golden ornaments, a five-jeweled crown, and the five bone ornaments. With her left and right hands she holds aloft a skull-cup full of blood, and with her right hand she holds a curved knife as she embraces the neck of her lord.
Six-armed Mahakala (Skt. Shadbhuja Mahakala)
Below Jinasagara in the upper right corner is Six-armed Mahakala or Shadbhuja Mahakala (Tib. mgon-po phyag drug-pa), the main protector of the Shangpa Kagyu tradition, which was founded by Khyungpo Naljor. This form of Mahakala was then introduced into the Sakya, Jonang and other branches of the Kagyu Schools, and he later became the main Gelugpa protector as a wrathful emanation of Avalokiteshvara.
Six-armed Mahakala is fierce and blue-black in colour, with six arms, three round red eyes, tawny upward-blazing facial hair, and a gaping mouth that reveals his sharp white teeth and fangs, and twisting red tongue. He stands in an upright posture with his two feet pressing upon the prostrate form of white Ganapati, who lies upon his golden sun disc and lotus pedestal. Mahakala's tawny hair streams upward above his five-skull crown, and at the crown of his head is a snake-bound half-vajra that contains the seed-syllable HUM of Akshobhya Buddha, the 'Lord of the Vajra Family' to which Mahakala belongs. He is surrounded by a blazing mass of awareness fire, and behind him is a sandalwood tree (not shown) that supports his back.
As garments Mahakala wears a tiger-skin loincloth that is tied with a silk belt; a protective vajra-scarf that circles around his upper body, with its long silken ends billowing about his lower body. The freshly flayed and bloody skin of an elephant is stretched across his back, with its head and forelegs to his right, and its tail and hind legs to his left. Around his neck is a garland of fifty blood-dripping heads, and a long serpent serves as his sacred thread. He wears golden earrings and necklaces, the six bone ornaments, and naga-serpents coil around his golden bracelets, armlets and anklets, which are also garlanded with little silver bells that tinkle from the tremulous energy of his body.
With his first two right and left hands he pounds a crescent-shaped vajra-chopper into a skull-cup in front of his heart, with the skull-cup containing his sustenance of the fresh blood and raw flesh of enemies and obstructive demons. With his second right hand he holds aloft a bone rosary fashioned from ten little carved white skulls, while with his third right hand he rattles a skull-damaru or pellet-drum. With his second left hand he holds aloft a skull-topped iron trident with silk ribbons, and with his third left hand he holds a black vajra-noose.
Sringon Thod Tengwa Chen
To the left of Sri Devi's golden sun disc is the wrathful form of Sringon Thod Tengwa Chen (srin mgon thod phreng can), the 'Lord of the Rakshasa's with a Garland of Skulls', and his consort. Sringon is deep blue in colour, with one face and two arms. He stands in pratyalidha posture amidst a turbulent ocean of blood, a swirling mass of red fire and black wind, with his left foot trampling upon a human corpse, and his right foot trampling upon the corpse of a horse. He has three round red eyes, a gaping mouth with sharp teeth and fangs, a twisting red tongue, and upward-blazing facial hair. He wears gold and bone ornaments, a garland of freshly severed heads, a five-skull crown, and his dark brown hair-locks are extremely long and drag upon the ground. A flayed human skin is looped around his neck as a shawl, and an embroidered black silk cloak billows loosely around his body, such that his erect penis is revealed. With his right hand he wields aloft a skull-club, and with his left hand he holds a skull-cup full of blood, which here is hidden behind his consort's back. The skull-club symbolizes his conquest of the three worlds of gods, demons and men; and the skull-cup, that he drinks the blood of enemies who have broken their commitments.
To his left is his consort, Srinmo Jigje Barwa Marmo (srin mo 'jigs byed 'bar ma dmar mo), the 'Mistress of the Rakshasas, the Blazing Red One'. She is very wrathful and red in colour, with one face, two arms, sagging breasts, three round red eyes, a gaping mouth with sharp teeth and fangs, and upward-blazing facial hair. Her naked body is adorned with gold and filigree bone ornaments; she wears a human-skin shawl, a five-skull crown, and her dark brown hair-locks also trail upon the ground. With her right hand she wields aloft a sharp iron sword with a curved blade, and with her left hand she holds a skull-cup full of blood.
Kshetrapala or Shing Kyong (Tib. zhing skyong)
To the right of Sri Devi's sun disc is Kshetrapala (zhing-skyong), the 'Protector (pala) of the Fields' (kshetra), with 'fields' originally referring to the eight great meeting-places or sacred tantric sites of ancient India. Kshetrapala is a lion-headed yaksha form of Simhamukha Mahakala, who is known in Tibetan as Shing Kyong Kunga Zhonnu (zhing skyong kun dza' gzhon nu), the 'Field Protector of Youthful Joy'. He is regarded as an emanation of Four-armed Mahakala and is likewise a protector of the Chakrasamvara Tantra cycle, and his sacred site is at Tsari Mountain in southeast Tibet. As a field-protector he guards the Buddha Fields, and especially serves as a protector for Sukhavati or Dewachen (bde-ba chen), the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha. He is venerated in both the Nyingma and Kagyu traditions and serves as a Karma Kagyu protector for the Benchen Monasteries in Nepal and Tibet, where he is particularly associated with the lineage of Sangye Nyenpa Rinpoche.
Kshetrapala is black 'like monsoon rain clouds', with a ferocious lion's head, two round red eyes, sharp white teeth, a twisting red tongue, an upward-blazing tawny mane and facial hair, and two small white horns. He wears gold and bone ornaments, ornate black leather boots, an inner robe and a billowing outer robe of embroidered black silk, and a jeweled belt – from which hang a tiger-skin bow case and a leopard-skin quiver (not shown). With his right hand he brandishes a long spear-flag with a flowing black silk pennon, and with his left hand he lifts a vast skull-cup that contains the wrathful offerings of 'ritual cakes' or tormas. His mount is a blue-black horse with white fetlocks, which bears a black silk saddle, iron stirrups, golden harnesses, and a jeweled yak-tail pendant. He rides swiftly amidst a maelstrom of swirling wind and blazing fire.
To his left appears his consort, 'The Lion-headed Demoness' (bdud-mo seng-gdong ma) who rides bareback upon a red horse with white fetlocks. She is fiery red in color, with the fierce head of a lioness, two round red eyes, sharp white teeth, a twisting red tongue, and a tawny red-yellow mane and upward-blazing facial hair. She wears gold and bone ornaments, and billowing garments of embroidered black silk. With her extended left hand she feeds the warm heart of an enemy into the mouth of her lord, while with her right hand she wields aloft a skull-topped trident. She similarly rides her horse swiftly through the billowing clouds. Below Kshetrapala can be seen one of his two monkey attendants, who run upside down upon their hands, with their feet supporting skull-cups that contain a fiery triangular 'ritual cake' or torma. The second monkey is hidden behind the lower clouds, with his skull-cup and torma appearing just in front of Kshetrapala's horse.
The Naga King, Lu Gyelpo
To the right of the rump of Sri Devi's mule is Lu Gyelpo (klu'i rgyal-po), the 'Naga King'. He is also known as the 'Servant Mantra Lord' (las mkhan sngags bdag), and his mantra gives his Sanskrit name as Nagarajamantrapati, the 'Naga King, Lord of Mantras'. Lu Gyelpo is orange or red-yellow in colour, and the upper part of his body is human in form, while his lower part is that of a serpent. His coils rest upon a white moon disc and an eight-petal lotus that arises from a lake, and with his two hands placed palms together in front of his heart he clasps a wish-fulfilling gemstone. He is beautiful, peaceful and youthful, adorned with various jeweled ornaments and he wears a billowing silk scarf around his upper body. Above his jeweled crown and topknot ascends a canopy of seven naga-serpents, and his golden aura is studded with jewels. In front of his moon and lotus seat are the offerings of a blazing pyramid of gems, elephant tusks, a white conch shell, and a branch or red coral.
The Naga King, Karnag Dorje Gyelpo
Below, and in the lower right is the Naga King, Karnag Dorje Gyelpo (mkhar nag rdo rje rgyal po), the 'Vajra King of the Dark Citadel', who is a local protector of Tsurphu Monastery, the Karma Kagyu seat of the Karmapas in central Tibet. He is black in colour, with a human upper body, and a serpentine lower body. He sits upon the silk saddle blanket of a jewel-holding blue elephant, which stands upon a white moon disc and a lotus that arises from a lake. With his two hands placed palms together in front of his heart he holds a wish-fulfilling gemstone. He is beautiful and youthful, adorned with various gold and jewel ornaments, and a billowing silk scarf and crown-ribbons. Above his jeweled crown and topknot appears a canopy of seven naga-serpents, and his radiant aura is studded with gemstones.
Garwa Nagpo (Damchen Dorje Legpa)
At the bottom centre is Garwa Nagpo (mgar-ba nag-po), the 'Dark Blacksmith', who is the principal 'minister' or emanation of the oath-bound protector Damcan Dorje Legpa (dam-can rdo-rje legs-pa). Garwa Nagpo is extremely wrathful and blue-black in colour, with one face, two arms and three round red eyes. His gaping mouth reveals his four sharp fangs and twisting red tongue, and his tawny-yellow hair, eyebrows and facial hair blazes upward like an uncontrollable forest fire. He wears a golden crown with five jewel-topped dry white skulls, gold earrings and necklaces, bone bracelets, and a pair of white-soled leather boots. As garments he is attired with nine black silk cloaks, which he wears in layers one above the other. The inner three layers of his black silk robes are bound together by a jeweled golden belt, while his six outer robes billow about him. All of his black silk robes are embroidered with gold brocade designs of various weapons, particularly open-pronged vajras.
With his extended right hand he wields aloft his indestructible foundry-hammer, with which he crushes and pulverizes the enemies of emotional defilements. The hammer's head is fashioned from a solid lump of cast iron, with a jeweled handle and sealed with three half-vajras at its top. With his left hand he pumps the wind through his 'black bellows', which has an enormous air capacity and is fashioned from tiger-skin, with a long copper nozzle that emerges from the tiger's fierce mouth. The upper aperture of the bellows is fashioned from two pieces of flat wood, and the nozzle is shown with a mighty gale emanating from it, which blows all enemies into dust.
Garwa Nagpo's vehicle is a brown male goat with twisting blue horns, which he rides amidst a maelstrom of storm clouds, and above a swirling ocean of blood that is encircled by a range of sharply pointed iron or copper mountains. This rare breed of Tibetan goat is known as a 'blacksmith's goat' and was employed as a scapegoat in Tibet's new-year ransom ceremonies, where it was symbolically laden with the obscurations of the old-year and driven out of town into the wilderness. Above Garwa Nagpo is a billowing black storm cloud, from which descends a mass of downward-pointing tongues of fire. Like Dorje Legpa his retinue consists of his three hundred and sixty brothers, but he is shown here with his five principal animal messengers: a soaring falcon who flies above him; a black-faced grey monkey who runs in front of him; a brown bear who crouches to his left; a playful bear-cub who leaps to his right; and a fierce iron wolf who guards his rear.
© text by Robert Beer