The History and Significance of the Dharmapalas


‘Dharmapala’ – hoary Sanskrit from India, terra firma giving birth to the Vedas;’ The End of All Knowledge’, innumerable deities, home of the Ganges river and Buddha The Awakened One – means “…guardian of the teachings” Variously, the term is also used to mean defenders or protectors of the law of the ‘Diamond Vehicle’.

Vajrayana, or the ‘Diamond Vehicle’, is a Buddhist school of Indian Mahayana teachings that, so far, can be archeologically traced to the first millennium. Dharmapalas are deified protective agents for the Vajrayana teachings (an evolved style of yoga practice and philosophy derivative of the historical Buddha’s practice). As history in the far eastern traditions is constantly being updated and rewritten, it is also possible that these deities were first used in Tantric teachings.

A practical ritual application of all or any one of the Dharmapalas is for today’s Tibetan yogi or sadhana practitioner to call them forth during ritual and meditation in order to protect against negative influences that will keep one from advancing along the path of sadhana or practice.

While the Dharmapala deities figure heavily in Tibetan art as horrific and angry, it’s understood that here the end justifies the means; actually these are compassionate, Buddhist deities, whose angry sneers, heavily ornamented, husky bodies, and deadly weaponry are protective camouflage devices for the good of the practice, to drive away illusion and evil; in Judeo-Christian parlance we refer to this type of deity as an archangel.

Eight Dharmapala deities are known – each one may be known by several designations – and called upon, each for its specific specialized areas of protection: “Mahakala, Yama, Yamantaka, Hayagriva, Vaisravana, Shri Devi, Changpa, Prana Atma.[ii] ” This listing is the traditional hierarchical accounting with Mahakala appearing in the number one position as that Dharmapala who protects the Dalai Lamas (those highest spiritual leaders in the Buddhist community).

Two principle viewpoints are offered for the importance of Dharmapalas: the fundamental and literal; and the metaphorical and often mystic. The fundamental is covered above in the definitions of, and traditional use of these deities. However, what of the metaphorical and mystic?

It is the goal of all yoga to return to the source, and that life in the human body is transcendental. The body and finite mind therein is a powerful instrument of return. Could these Dharmapalas be part and parcel of our higher, dedicated, and as sadhana practitioners, disciplined self?

Taking a Jungian view, perhaps these are archetypal elements of self-discipline towards yoga practice. It is not uncommon protocol for a group meditation in the Zen Buddhist school to have one monitor with a fierce face and wielding a bamboo rod skulking the crowd waiting to sharply strike that one – with compassion, of course – who has fallen asleep at his sitting.

‘The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen’ –Shambhala Publications, 1991.
[ii] As above.

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  1. This is a good article for Buddhists and non-Buddhists, looking at the role of Dharma protectors from a different angle. The author is knowledgeable about different religious beliefs and is able to make comparisons. He refers to the Dharmapala as an archangel and as a Zen monitor who, out of compassion, strikes the student who has fallen asleep. Not bad at all. However, only eight Dharmapalas are mentioned. In fact there are more and I think Dorje Shugden should be in the list because the beings of this time have a strong karmic link with him. As Morchen Dorjechang Kunga Lhundrup, the Sakya master, said: “Now is the time to rely upon Dorje Shugden.”

  2. Dharmapalas, in Tibetan Buddhism , are guardians and protectors of the teachings of Buddha in general, and also protectors of teachings of a specific Holy Being with whom the Protector has great affinity. These Dharmapalas also protect Dharma practitioners along their path to Liberation from suffering and Enlightenment. They are wrathful emanations of Buddha deities. These compassionate wrathful protectors help practitioners overcome especially their inner obstacles.

    Though the history of most Dharmapalas go back a long way, some Dharmapalas , like Dorje Shugden, go back to about 400 years. This is because Dorje Shugden is an uncommon supramundane Protector – a wrathful emanation of Manjushri, the Buddha of Wisdom – who arose to fulfill a vow to protect the teachings of Je Tsongkhapa, particularly his teachings on Nargajuna’s Middle View on Emptiness, which he( Je Tsongkhapa) had taught with unsurpassed clarity. These teaching are particularly precious for these degenerate times and hence a powerful and swift dharma protector is needed to protect and spread these teachings, as well as to protect the practitioners of these teachings.

    In Trijang Rinpoche’s classic of a book on Dorje Shugden (Music Delighting an Ocean of Protectors) he praises Dorje Shugden as a Dharmapala “whose actions are swift, like lightning compared to tens of millions of sworn Dharma Protectors”.

  3. I understand there are two types of Dharma Protectors or Dharmapalas. One is Supramundane that is an enlightened being. The other is Mundane or worldly. The Supramundane Dhamapala can grant you worldy things and protection and at the same time lead you to enlightenment. In the Chinese Mahayana pantheon I also understand they have Dharma Protectors except that different names are used. And if you look and study deeper into the Dhamarpalas history you may find the similarity with Dharmapalas of other schools. I believe the Dharmapala practice of the Supramundane form will lead you into the yoga practice which needs discipline for Highest Yoga Tantra.

  4. This article draws a parallel on the wrathful forms found in Vajrayana buddhism to the Judeo-Christian type of deity called archangel which, I thought is a valid observation perhaps on the mystical and physical looks. However, the function is very different. Dharma Protectors ultimate goal is to help us stay on the Dharma path to attain the state of enlightenment while archangels in Greek term, plays the role of a messenger for God.

    Regarding the metaphorical aspect, I’ve never thought of associating the view of Dharmapala to the Zen Buddhist school, example of the teacher wielding a bamboo stick, ready to deliver a compassionate strike to “awaken” the student.

    The pantheon of Buddhas and Dharmapalas in Vajrayana buddhism manifests a certain way to bless our mindstream and serves as an object of meditation to remind us of the inner buddha nature and qualities. Are the manifestation of these wrathful qualities meant to jolt our mind just like the strike of a Zen Master? That would be very welcoming… if not, understanding the iconography of deities is very important and beneficial.

    Here’s more information on Iconography of Dorje Shugden

  5. This is a great article, it not only let the readers know more about Dharma Protectors. Not only explaining to us what is the purpose of Dharma Protectors, but also giving us examples of them.

    I really like the way this article is written as well. Not only does it link to the normal things that an average reader would think of, but the article also links to Zen Buddhism. The minority within Buddhism, I have never thought that it would be possible to link the article over to Zen Buddhism like that.

  6. This is a good article but i wish it was more extensive. It is almost like watching a trailer without making the movie. Perhaps it is to make the reader contemplate more and do our own research! :)

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.…Instead of turning away people who practise Dorje Shugden, we should be kind to them. Give them logic and wisdom without fear, then in time they give up the ‘wrong’ practice. Actually Shugden practitioners are not doing anything wrong. But hypothetically, if they are, wouldn’t it be more Buddhistic to be accepting? So those who have views against Dorje Shugden should contemplate this. Those practicing Dorje Shugden should forbear with extreme patience, fortitude and keep your commitments. The time will come as predicted that Dorje Shugden’s practice and it’s terrific quick benefits will be embraced by the world and it will be a practice of many beings.

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