Vajrakilaya: A Complete Guide with Experiential Instructions

Kyabje Garchen Rinpoche
Boulder, Colo.: Snow Lion, 2022. xx + 479 pp., paper, $34.95.

Few esoteric traditions have aroused such fascination, and proved so impermeable to investigation, as the secret tantras of Tibetan Buddhism.

Fortunately, the immense outpouring of Tibetan knowledge in print form over the past generation has made this tradition somewhat less opaque.

For many people today, the word tantra evokes tantric sex (usually involving some delay of orgasm so as to heighten ecstasy). But Tibetan tantra is something quite different.

This comprehensive new work, Vajrakilaya, gives some glimpse into what the secret tantras are all about. They involve, at least in part, an intense practice of deity yoga. In Tibetan Buddhism, not all gods are the same. Some are beings caught in the wheel of reincarnation like all others, except that they happen to have been reborn in realms of exquisite happiness. These gods are of little use in helping one gain enlightenment. “What worldly god, himself also bound in samsara’s prison, is able to give protection?” as a text quoted in this volume says.

The deities involved in tantric practice are quite different: elaborate thought-forms embodying some aspect of enlightened mind, usually in either peaceful or wrathful form. No matter how menacing or ugly the wrathful deities may look, they are simply manifestations of mind, and working with them enables the practitioner to absorb that quality of mind.

The deity in question in this book, Vajrakila, is one of the wrathful deities. As pictured, he is a winged, bearded figure with a flaming headdress, copulating with his equally wrathful female consort in something that resembles rough sex. At the same time, he is trampling on the squashed bodies of some unfortunates. Because wrath is just another form of energy, contemplating and uniting with this deity is a way of gaining enlightened mind.

Here is my understanding of the basic tantric practice: One begins by cultivating bodhicitta—compassion and a devout wish to liberate all sentient beings. Then at first, one approaches the deity as an external god, making offerings and prayers in a more or less familiar fashion. In the next phase, the student engages in an intense visualization of the deity, to the point where it becomes a quasi-autonomous figure—rather like a moving animated character in the mind. The practitioner imagines himself or herself as the deity and finally unites with it. As both image and self dissolve, the practitioner’s mind unites with the form of enlightened mind embodied by the deity.

This is an intense project, and although this volume does contain instructions for practitioners, it is very hard to imagine that a person could go very far with this practice purely individually. Indeed the text repeatedly highlights the need for group practice.

Nonetheless, the details for practice are minutely described: the mantras to use, the hand positions, the texts to chant. Many of these are not for the weak-hearted, such as, “In every pore of myself and the Foremost Prince are tiny blue-black wrathfuls the size of barley grains. With gaping mouths, bared fangs, one face, and two arms, they wield diverse weapons. As Kilaya’s sound is resoundingly proclaimed, they fill us without interstice.”

Although these specifications are hair-raising, they point to one of the basic doctrines of Tibetan Buddhism: all phenomena, no matter how alluring or repellent, are mere manifestations of mind.

Even apart from its more exotic qualities, this book is not for beginners. It presupposes knowledge of basic Tibetan Buddhist doctrine and does not always explain even relatively unfamiliar terms or provide a glossary. It will be hard to make much use or sense of this volume without such a background.

Even so, this book is an extremely valuable embodiment of Tibetan Buddhist wisdom, which has been in danger of perishing in the years since the Chinese conquest of Tibet. Like many texts of its kind, it reflects the devotion to this tradition not only of Tibetan lamas but of their American students.

Richard Smoley