Home » Excerpts » How Death Realised Deathlessness

Whether a myth is true or not
differs from
whether it has truth or not.
– Stonepeace

In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, where ornate visual representations of Buddhist insights were established or elaborated, this transformation in the understanding of death is symbolized by one of the fiercest deities of the Tibetan archetypical pantheon. There is a figure called Yamantaka, the death destroyer, who is said to be the form adopted by the bodhisattva of wisdom, Manjushri, to conquer Yama, the Lord of Death. Manjushri’s idea was to assume a form more frightening than death itself, capable of scaring death into submission, of showing death its ultimate unreality. Rather than allowing death to put an end to being, Manjushri’s aim was to expose the illusory nature of the fear of death… (Click http://tinyurl.com/yamayami for Yama’s picture and http://tinyurl.com/yamantaka for Yamantaka’s)

The deity is certainly awesome. With nine leering, blue-black buffalo heads, each with three eyes, and with thirty-four arms, two fire-sprouting horns, a halo of flames arising from his burning hair, a headdress of skulls, and a perpetually erect phallus, Yamantaka is nothing if not a nightmare. Yet sprouting from his central head and rising toward the sky are two more heads: one a red, fanged demon face with diaphanous skin oozing blood; and the other the golden, shining, eternally youthful and handsome Manjushri, the bodhisattva of transcendent wisdom, an oasis of understanding in the midst of death’s horror.

The story of Yamantaka is that Manjushri decided to tame death by assuming this intimidating form and simultaneously creating a huge mirror that magnified and reflected death’s horrible appearance back to him, using death’s own face to frighten and subdue him. This is consistent with the most basic Buddhist meditative approach: To stare something straight in the face is the best way to bring it under control… Manjushri trapped death ‘in the endless terror of eventually having killed himself.’ Manjushri caught death in the habit of imagining things to have an inherent and fixed reality, turned that thought habit back to him, and then used the resultant fear to bring him into submission. After paralyzing death in this way, the bodhisattva showed him the way out of his terror, revealing to the demon the transparency and interconnectedness of life, dissolving ‘the absolute severance death is imagined to be.’

Going on Being: Life at the Crossroads of Buddhism and Psychotherapy
by Mark Epstein, M.D.
Get it at Awareness Place shops or Amazon

Share This:
Tags: ,

No comments yet... Be the first to leave a reply!

Leave a Reply

Name (required please)

Email (required, will not be published)

Website (optional)