The practice of propitiating a Dharma Protector (Sanskrit: Dharmapala) descended from ancient India. It was brought to Tibet by renowned translators who carried on their backs the great Indian Buddhist treatises along with other Protector practices such as Mahakala, Kalarupa, Vaishravana, Palden Lhamo, Setrap and so forth. This was how the Dharma Protector practice arrived and became established in Tibet.
The term Dharma Protector is made up of two words – Dharma and Protector. Dharma is a Sanskrit term to denote law or doctrine. Dharma also means the teachings, code of conduct and philosophies that belong to a certain religion or belief system. Therefore, we can have Hindu Dharma, Christian Dharma and so forth. However Dharma is usually used in the Buddhist context, which is Buddhadharma or just Dharma in short.
The word ‘Protector’ literally means one who stands guard to protect. Therefore, ‘Dharma Protector’ refers to the one who protects the Dharma in you. This is a special friend who acts as a guardian angel to safeguard our spiritual path and our general wellbeing.
In Buddhism, we rely only on fully enlightened Dharma Protectors, which are numerous in the Tibetan Buddhist pantheon. Such Dharma Protectors are emanations of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. This means that they are full of wisdom and compassion and this is why they have the great wisdom and skilful means to decide the best way to protect us and our spiritual path.
A defining feature of a Dharma Protector is his or her wrathful appearance. In Buddhism, wrath reflects the innate quality of extreme compassion. In the teachings, such compassion is usually compared to that of a mother for her only child. In this analogy, the concerned mother is the Dharma Protector and the practitioner is the child. Naturally, this is purely symbolic of the nature of the Dharma Protector’s compassion and concern for our wellbeing.
The Dharma Protector’s wrath also has an element of speed. This is natural and we can observe this within ourselves. When we become angry, we naturally move and react much quicker than usual. Therefore, the wrathful physical demeanour of the Dharma Protector denotes this element of swiftness when he comes to our assistance. The swiftness of the Dharma Protector depends on a few factors – the spiritual relationship we have with our teacher, the affinity we have forged with the Dharma Protector over time, and how well we keep our spiritual vows and commitments. The better we maintain these, the faster the Dharma Protector is able to come to our aid.
Finally, the wrathful, martial-like physical appearance of the Dharma Protector is because he has to go to ‘war’ with our negative karma in order to help us. The Dharma Protector’s demeanour reflects his or her superhuman qualities of perseverance and tenacity in fending off our delusions, negativities and karma. Therefore, many Dharma Protectors are adorned with armour and carry weapons and implements symbolic of their special ability and strength to remove obstacles. The Dharma Protector thus becomes a Bodhisattva or an enlightened warrior that does battle with our negativities and obstacles.
The Purpose of Dharma Protectors
The role and function of a Dharma Protector is to eliminate problems and difficulties that block spiritual progress. As human beings, all of us encounter obstacles on a daily basis. It doesn’t matter if we are rich or poor, young or old, male or female, all of us have difficulties and problems. Most of the time, the problem can be very difficult or even impossible to deal with on our own.
Therefore, a Dharma Protector is extremely helpful in reducing or removing our outer obstacles. In life, obstacles and problems can take on a variety of forms – from illnesses, accidents, failed careers, failing businesses, ailing relationships and marriages to issues with our loved ones. In this sense, a Dharma Protector’s divine assistance is very much needed by just about anybody.
In the ultimate sense however, the core function of a Dharma Protector is to remove inner problems that are obstacles to our spiritual practice. Thus, Dharma Protector practice is a vital aspect of a practitioner’s spiritual path. This is because inner obstacles such as depression, laziness, doubts, anger, jealousy, wishing to give up and other emotional issues can easily lead us away from our spiritual journey.
Most importantly, the actually Dharma Protector creates positive conditions for our spiritual growth. As human beings, we have unique needs and wishes that help keep us focused and centred on the path. This includes finding a Dharma centre, meeting a Guru of an authentic lineage, connecting with spiritual friends and other resources such as monetary and material assistance and so forth. The Dharma Protector can also create conditions to ensure we avert friends and situations that can harm us or take us away from our spiritual goals.
Even if we do not have big issues or problems to overcome, we may have friends and family who are going through difficult times. Thus through Dharma Protector practice, we can dedicate merits towards the removal of their obstacles.
How Do Dharma Protectors Help Us?
The Buddha is unable to remove all our negative karma and thus, the Dharma Protector is likewise unable to do so. However, the Dharma Protector’s power in coming to our aid lies in the purification of negative karma and merits that are accumulated through his practice.
Hence, Dharma Protector practice generates merit and a connection to this enlightened being. This in turn creates the causes for the Dharma Protector to come to our assistance and for us to receive his help. An enlightened Dharma Protector has full compassion and is ever ready to come to our aid but he is hampered by our lack of merits. In other words, we need to do our part in generating merits so he can help us.
One must first understand what merits are before going about generating it. Some people mistake merit for good karma. In actual fact, good karma is not merit; there’s a big difference. Good karma is created through ordinary beneficial actions while merit is collected through beneficial actions that are dedicated towards virtuous purposes, such as the attainment of full Enlightenment.
Merits keep on increasing and can never be depleted while good karma will be exhausted after coming to fruition. An analogy to illustrate this is keeping money at home versus keeping money in the bank. The money at home will eventually be used up while the money saved in the bank will multiply through interest. Thus, saving at home is the generation of good karma and saving in the bank is the generation of merit.
From understanding merit, we can then accumulate it through relying, making offerings, visualising and reciting the Dharma Protector’s mantra, propitiation prayers and verses. Through the generation of merits, the Dharma Protector is able to activate our positive karma and also hold back heavy negative karma from ripening. The Dharma Protector does not eliminate our negative karma but temporarily holds it at bay so that we have the opportunity to purify it until the karma is diminished or completely purified. This is how an enlightened Dharma Protector protects us.
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