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This thangka, painted by Chewang Dorje in 2003, depicts the Nyingma Refuge Tree or Merit Field assembly that is visualized in the 'Preliminary Practices' (ngondro) of the Dudjom Tersar or 'New Treasures (tersar) of Dudjom' tradition, which were revealed relatively recently by Dudjom Lingpa and his successor Dudjom Rinpoche. Padmasambhava is said to have composed this concise practice, along with other related practices in the early ninth century, before concealing them as hidden treasures (terma) that would be revealed in a more degenerate time when people had less time to practice the Dharma. The great treasure-finder (terton) who was destined to reveal these 'New Treasures' was Dudjom Lingpa (1835-1904), who in his subsequent incarnation as Dudjom Rinpoche, Jigdral Yeshe Dorje (1904-87), then extensively taught these practices throughout his life. Collectively these practices form part of a cycle known as 'The Wisdom Net of Pure Visions' (daknang yeshe drawa), which was one of the four main cycles revealed by Dudjom Lingpa.
Of this concise ngondro text, Dudjom Rinpoche said: “This is a condensed version of the preliminary practices that clearly elucidates their essential meaning, and is intended for those who do not fully understand or are unable to perform the extensive preliminary practices.”
And of this terma lineage Lama Tharchin Rinpoche stated: “The Dudjom Tersar lineage is fresh, vivid and direct, with no loss of meaning, words or blessing. These teachings, coming directly from Guru Rinpoche to Dudjom Rinpoche, and then to us, are a direct short lineage. Therefore, because this lineage is uncontaminated and knows no degeneration by broken samayas, the blessing and attainments are immediate.”
The Refuge Tree arises from the waters of Lake Danakosha, the sacred lake where Padmasambhava or Guru Rinpoche, the 'Precious Guru who overwhelms the Three Worlds with his splendor', was miraculously born in the form of an eight-year-old child upon a miraculous lotus. Padmasambhava appears at the top of the tree seated upon a lotus and lion-throne, and wearing his characteristic lotus-hat and the three robes that represent his mastery of the three Buddhist yanas or 'vehicles' of the Hinayana, Mahayana, and Vajrayana traditions. His radiant aura is encircled with lotus flowers and a rainbow, and behind his lion-throne are stacks of silk-covered Buddhist texts that represent the Dharma.
Directly above Guru Rinpoche are ten cloud-borne gurus or teachers of the Dudjom lineage, which descend in sequence from Samantabhadra at the top to the late Dudjom Rinpoche at the lower right. As the primordial Buddha, blue Samantabhadra and his white consort Samantabhadri represents the dharmakaya, while the sambhogakaya is represented by white Vajrasattva below him, and the nirmanakaya by the human form of Garab Dorje, who appears to the left of Vajrasattva. To the right of Vajrasattva is Shri Simha, and at the centre of the second row is Vimalamitra, with Padmakara and the dakini Yeshe Tsogyal to the left and right of him. And at the centre of the third row is Dudjom Lingpa, with his main disciple Gyurme Ngedon Wongpo to his left, and Dudjom Rinpoche to his right.
Directly in front of Padmasambhava are the eight wrathful yidam or Heruka deities of the orally transmitted Mahayoga Tantra traditions, who are known as the 'Eight Accomplishing Ones' (sgrub pa bka' brgyad). They are extremely fierce, and each has three heads, four legs, and six arms. In alidha posture they stand in sexual union with their consorts, trampling upon a cushion of demons above a sun disc and lotus seat. They each hold specific attributes and wear the 'ten attires of the charnel grounds', which are: the marks or unguents of human ashes, blood and fat on the 'three bulges' of their foreheads, cheeks and chin; the flayed skins of an elephant, a man, and a tiger; their 'revolting ornaments' of hissing snakes; their ornaments of skulls and severed heads; their mighty vajra-wings, and the blazing mass of awareness fire that surrounds them. The first five of these eight deities are classed as supramundane meditational deities, while the last three are classed as worldly or mundane deities. The eight wrathful deities are:
1. Yamantaka (gshin rje gshed), the 'Destroyer of Death', who is dark blue in colour with white, blue and red faces, and he appears third from the left in the second row. He embraces his blue consort Vetali or Rolangma, who holds an axe and offers a blood-filled skull-cup to his mouth. Together they trample upon male and female figures, although Yamantaka's feet may trample upon two bulls, or his bull vehicle may sometimes be shown either upon or underneath his sun and lotus seat. With his three right hands he holds a club, a sword, and an axe; and with his three left hands he holds a blood-filled skull-cup, makes the threatening raised-finger or tarjani gesture, and holds a spear. Yamantaka represents the aspect of enlightened Buddha-body; he is the wrathful counterpart of Manjughosa (Manjushri), and is associated with the enlightened family of Vairocana.
2. Hayagriva (rta mgrin), the 'Horse-neck', who is red in colour with white, red and blue faces, with a neighing green horse's head above his crown, and he appears at the second left of the second row. He embraces his pale red consort Padma Zilnon, who holds a khatvanga and a skull-cup, as together they trample upon figures that represent obstructive forces. With his three right hands he holds a vajra, a khatvanga, and a serpent-noose; while with his left hands he holds a bell, makes the threatening raised-finger or tarjani gesture, and holds a spear. Hayagriva represents the aspect of enlightened Buddha-speech. He is regarded as the wrathful counterpart of Avalokiteshvara, and is associated with the enlightened family of Amitabha.
3. Shri Heruka (yang dag he-ru-ka), the 'Glorious Heruka, who is dark blue in colour with white, blue and red faces, and appears at the far right of the second row. He embraces his blue consort Khrodishvari, who holds a khatvanga and a skull-cup, as together they trample upon figures that represent the demonic forms of rampant egotism (Rudra). With his three right hands he holds a vajra, a khatvanga-trident, and a drum; while with his three left hands he holds an upturned bell, a blood-filled skull-cup, and a noose of entrails (shown here as a rope-noose). Shri Heruka represents the aspect of enlightened Buddha-mind, and he is associated with the enlightened family of Akshobhya
4. Vajramrita (bdud rtsi yon tan), the 'Nectar of Indestructible Reality', who is dark blue in colour with white, blue and red faces, and he appears at the middle of the top row. He embraces his blue consort, who holds a khatvanga and a skull-cup, as together they trample upon the figures of male and female enemies. With his first pair of hands he holds a vajra and a nectar-filled skull-cup; while with his other two right and left hands he holds nectar-filled skull-cups and vajras. Vajramrita represents the aspect of enlightened Buddha-qualities. He is regarded as a wrathful counterpart of Ratnasambhava, and is associated with the consecration of medicinal substances and elixirs.
5. Vajrakila (rdo rje phur ba), the 'Dagger of Indestructible Reality', who is dark blue in colour with white, blue and red faces, and he appears fourth from the left in the second row. He embraces his blue consort Triptichakra who holds a khatvanga and a skull-cup, as they trample of the forms of Mahadeva and Mahadevi. With his first pair of hands he rolls a phurba or ritual-dagger (Skt. kila) between his palms. With his other two right hands he holds a nine-pointed vajra and a five-pointed vajra; and with his other two left hands he unleashes a flame and holds a khatvanga. Vajrakila represents the aspect of enlightened Buddha-activities; he is regarded as a wrathful aspect of Vajrasattva and is associated with the enlightened family of Amoghasiddhi.
6. Matarah, or Mamo Botong (ma mo rbod gtongs), the 'Liberating Sorcery of Mamo', who is dark blue in colour, with white, red and blue faces, and appears at the left of the second row. He embraces his blue consort Mukha, who holds a skull-cup and a bell, and together they trample upon two worldly 'mother' or matarah spirits. With his three right hands he holds a vajra, a great garuda, and a serpent-noose; while with his left hands he a blood-filled skull-cup, a human skin fly-whisk, and a casket or 'skull amulet'. His fierce consort Mukha may also be depicted with five heads and six arms; with her lower four heads coloured dark blue, yellow, red and white, and her fifth upper head coloured dark green. With her three right hands she holds a vajra, a sword, and a golden vase; and with her three left hands a blood-filled skull-cup, a bell, and a flayed human-skin. Mamo Botong's function is to retain the service of dakinis as an aid to enlightened activity.
7. Lokastotrapuja, or Jigten Choto ('jig rten mchos bstod), the 'Offering and Praise to Worldly Deities', who is dark blue in colour, with white, blue and red faces, and he appears at the right of the top row. He embraces his blue consort Khamsum Chidul, who holds a khatvanga and a skull-cup, and they both stand upon a cushion of demonic corpses. With his first pair of hands he holds a vajra and a blood-filled skull-cup. With his other two right hands he holds the severed heads of the 'eight great gods', and with his other two left hands he holds the severed heads of the eight great serpent-kings or naga-rajas. The severed heads of the eight great gods and naga-rajas may be depicted as small rosaries of eight coloured heads that he holds in each of his four extended hands, or as groups of four heads that he holds by their hair in each of his four hands. His function is to protect the teachings from obstructing negative forces, in particular those connected with the proud or 'haughty spirits' (dregs pa).
8. Vajramantrabhiru, or Mopa Dranag (dmod-pa drag-snags), the 'Mantras for the Power Activity of Subjugation', who is black in colour, with white, black and red faces, and he appears at the left of the top row. He embraces his blue-black consort Jung-nga Dagmo, who holds a khatvanga or bell and a skull-cup, and they both trample upon demonic figures that represent hostile and obstructive forces (dgra bgegs). With his first pair of hands he holds a vajra and a blood-filled skull-cup. With his other two right hands he holds the torn-out hearts of the 'eight great gods', and with his other two left hands he holds the torn-out hearts of the eight great naga-rajas or serpent-kings. His function is to forcefully liberate the hostile and obstructive negative forces that assault the Buddhist teachings.
On the large lotus-branch that extends to Padmasambhava's left is a rainbow circle that encloses the central form of Shakyamuni Buddha seated at the centre of twenty-four other Buddha's, who collectively represent the thousand Buddha's of our era. Below the Buddha assembly is the standing white form of Vidyadhara Heruka, who embraces his consort with his arms crossed in vajrahumkara-mudra as he holds his vajra and bell, while his light-red consort holds a skull-cup and makes the threatening tarjani gesture.
And on the lotus-branch that extends to Padmasambhava's right is another rainbow containing an inner circle of the eight great bodhisattvas with white Avalokiteshvara at its centre, and circling clockwise from Avalokiteshvara's lower right are:
1. White Sarvanivaranaviskambhin - the dispeller of defilements.
2. Orange-yellow Maitreya - the lord of loving-kindness.
3. Orange Manjughosha - the gentle and melodious-voiced one.
4. Flesh-coloured Kshitigarbha - the essence of earth.
5. Flesh-coloured Samantabhadra - the all-good.
6. Blue-green Akashagarbha - the essence of space.
7. Blue Vajrapani - the holder of the vajra.
Surrounding the eight bodhisattvas in an outer circle is an assembly of the Sixteen Arhats with one of their two attendants, Upasaka Dharmatala. The Sixteen Arhats or 'Noble Elders' are: (1) Angaja; (2) Ajita; (3) Vanavasin; (4) Kalika; (5) Vajriputra; (6) Bhadra; (7) Kanakavatsa; (8) Kanakabharadvaja; (9) Bakula; (10) Rahula; (11) Cudapanthaka; (12) Pindolabharadvaja; (13) Mahapanthaka; (14) Nagasena; (15) Gopaka; (16) Abheda.
Upon the large branch of lotus petals that encompass the bottom of the tree is an assembly of the principal male and female dharmapalas or protector deities of the Nyinga tradition, which are known as 'The Assembly of Haughty or Arrogant Deities that are Oath-bound to the Three Inner Tantras.' From the left these are:
1. Tashi Tseringma, the 'Auspicious Lady of Long-life', who rides upon a white lion, and holds the attributes of a vajra and a golden nectar-flask in her right and left hands. Tseringma is the leader of the group of 'Five Long-life Sisters', who are particularly associated with Milarepa and Padmasambhava.
2. Zhing-kyong Dudgon Nagpo, the 'Black Demon Field-protector' with the head on a lion, who is also known as Lion-headed Mahakala. He rides upon a horse holding a trident and a blood-filled skull-cup in his right and left hands. His fierce lion-headed red consort, who also rides a horse and holds the attributes of a trident and a warm heart, accompanies him.
3. Vaishravana (Namthosay), the 'Learned Son', who is the lord of wealth and lord of the yaksha spirits. He is corpulent and golden-yellow in colour, and rides upon a white lion. With his right hand he holds a victory banner, and with his left hand he holds a treasure-producing mongoose.
4. Nodjin Shenpa Marnag, the 'Yaksha Dark-red Butcher' and his consort, who both sit in sexual union upon a flying garuda. With his first two hands he holds a curved-knife and a blood-filled skull-cup, and with his second pair a flaming sword and a trident.
5. Ekajati, the 'Single Hair-lock' and extremely fierce protector of mantras. She is maroon in colour, with a single eye, tooth and breast, and a single braided 'hair-lock' (ekajata) that rises above her crown. In her two hands she holds a corpse-club and the torn-out heart of an enemy.
6. Gonpo Chak-zhi-pa, 'Four-armed Mahakala', who is extremely wrathful and blue-black in colour, seated together in union with his dark blue consort. With his first right and left hands he holds a curved knife over a blood-filled skull-cup. With his second right hand he holds an iron sword, and with his second left hand he holds a trident.
7. Gonpo Legden, the 'Excellent Mahakala', who is extremely wrathful and blue-black in colour, wearing silk robes as he stands leaning towards the right, holding a curved knife above a blood-filled skull-cup with his two hands. His fierce dark blue consort stands astride his left leg, as she offers a blood-filled skull-cup to her lord.
8. Palgon Maning Nagpo, the 'Glorious Black Eunoch', or neuter manifestation of Mahakala, wearing silk robes as he stands leaning towards the right and tramples upon two corpses. With his right hand he holds aloft a spear, while with his left hand he feeds a warm heart into his mouth.
9. Lha Chenpo (Mahadeva), the red Great God Shiva with his red consort Mahadevi. He is wrathful, naked and red in colour with an erect penis. He wears jewel ornaments, a silk scarf and flower garland, and holds an iron hook and rope noose of subjugation in his right and left hands. Mahadevi, his naked consort stands astride his left leg.
10. Khyabjug Chenpo Rahula, the 'Great Planetary and Eclipse Deity' Rahu or Rahula, who is maroon in colour with nine wrathful heads and the crowning black head of a raven. His lower body has the form of a naga-serpent, and is enclosed within a triangular dharmodaya filled with blood. His upper body is endowed with a thousand eyes with a voracious face in his stomach. With his first pair of arms he holds a drawn bow and arrow, and with his second pair of hands he holds aloft a makara or 'water monster' banner and a serpent-noose.
11. Damchen Dorje Legpa (Vajrasadhu), the oath-bound 'Indestructible Excellence', who rides upon a fierce white lion. He is wrathful and dark red in colour, wearing silk garments and a golden lacquered hat. He holds a nine-pointed vajra in his raised right hand, and feeds a warm and blood-dripping heart into his mouth with his left hand.
12. Zhing-kyong Durtro Mamo, the fierce 'Field-protector and Mistress of the Charnel Grounds', who is wrathful and blue-black in colour, adorned with bone ornaments and a human, elephant, and tiger-skin. She tramples upon a corpse as she feeds a warm heart into her mouth with her left hand, and holds a magic mirror that reflects all the deeds of the 'three realms' in her right hand.
13. Dorje Yudronma, the 'Indestructible Turquoise Lamp', is one of the 'twelve tenma' or mountain goddesses of Tibet, who also functions as a treasure-guardian and female oracle in the Nyingma tradition. She is peaceful and crystal-white in colour, and she wears jewel ornaments and various garments of multicoloured silks. With her right hand she holds a nectar-filled skull-cup, and with her left hand she makes the abhaya-mudra of protection.
In the upper sky of this composition are cloud-borne gods and goddesses who hold various sensual offerings, such as banners, parasols and musical instruments. And in the lower landscape are: birds, fishes, deer, an elephant and trees; an assembly of auspicious offerings; a table bearing the five sense offerings; prostrating practitioners, the palace of a chakravartin or 'universal monarch', and a monk making a mandala offering.
© text by Robert Beer