Types of Deities
a yidam - an enlightened meditational deity who embodies the union of wisdom and compassion, yet is not separate from the meditator
a guru figure - usually the founder of a lineage; a fully realised being whom one identifies wholly with one's spiritual guide
a Dharma protector - usually portrayed as an enlightened being in wrathful form, a protector's primary function is to eliminate the spiritual obstacles hindering the practitioner
a historical figure - someone who lived as a female human being on this earth and can be placed historically according to tradition
What's a thangka?
A thangka (pronounced TONG-ka) is a Tibetan painting on cloth, stored scroll-fashion when travelling. For those who wish to learn more about what thangkas are and how they are created, the Dharmapala Centre in Bremen, Germany has an excellent English-language page which explains the process.
Female Buddhas and Bodhisattvas according to Tibetan Buddhist tradition
The enlightened women or female figures named below all come from Vajrayana or "Tibetan" Buddhism, the school of Mahayana which originated in India and later moved to Tibet and the other Himalayan countries. Hence, most figures are identified first by their Sanskrit name, with the alternate Tibetan form appearing in parentheses (when it is the other way about, i.e. Achi Chkyi Drolma, Machig Labdron and Palden Lhamo, it is because their practices developed or were practised principally in Tibet).
Table of Contents
Achi Chkyi Drolma - Dharma protector
Dorje Yudronma - Dharma protector
Ekajati(Ralchigma) - Dharma protector
Ekajati - yidam
Kurukulla - yidam
Lamanteri - wrathful yidam
Machig Labdrn - yidam and historical figure
Mahamaya - yidam
Mandarava - yidam and historical figure
Marici - yidam
Mayadevi - historical figure
Nairatmya - yidam
Niguma - guru and yidamv
Palden Lhamo(Sri Devi) - Dharma protector
Prajnaparamita(Yum Chenmo) - guru figure and yidam
Samantabhadri (Kuntuzangmo) - guru figure and yidam
Sarasvati - yidam
Sukkhasiddhi - guru figure and yidam
Tara, Green (Drolma) - yidam
Tara, Red - yidam
(Drolkar) - yidam
Tseringma - Dharma protector
Ushnisha-sitatapatra - yidam
Ushnisha-vijaya - yidam
Vajrayogini / Vajravarahi(Dorje Naljorma/Dorje Phagmo) - yidam
Yeshe Tsogyal(Dechen Gyalm - yidam, guru and historical figure
Achi Chkyi Drolma
Dharma protector of the Drikung Kagyu tradition
Achi Chkyi Drolma (Tib. A-chi Chos-kyi sGrol-ma) is a female Dharma protector whose practice was introduced by Drikung ('Bri-gung) Achi, the matriarch of the Drikung hereditary lineage. She is white-coloured and is portrayed riding a snow lion, the legendary white animal of Tibet. Unusually, for a Dharma protector, Achi Chkyi Drolma's aspect is peaceful, not wrathful.
Dorje Yudronma is said to be one of Tibet's chief protectors. She holds an arrow with the five colours in her right hand and a white silver mirror in her left. The lifestory of the Longchen Nyingthig yogi Jigme Gyalwai Nyugu (from the Dzogchen Lineage of Nyoshul Khenpo) relates that an emanation of this deity appeared and offered him food once when he was suffering hardship and poverty. Dorje Yudronma is associated with a divination practice which uses a mirror.
Return to Top
Dharma protector–protectress of mantras
Ekajati is a female dharma protector especially popular in Nyingma, where she is also considered a protectress of Dzog Chen. Cognate to Palden Lhamo. The Nyingma form of Ekajati (whose name literally means 'One Plait') has one tuft of hair, one eye, one mouth, one breast–and sometimes only one leg!–to demonstrate her singleminded devotion to Dharma.
Yidam - wrathful Black Tara
Ekajati is also the name of a wrathful form of Green Tara known as Black Tara. She is depicted in seated posture holding a curved knife and skullcup. This form is often shown in a triumvirate with Avalokiteshvara and Green Tara.
Yidam - deity of power
Kurukulla is an energetic dancing red figure with one face and four arms - two of these hold a bow and arrow made of flowers. Her practice helps generate energy and power. JBL Statues sell a statuette of Kurukulla, although the accompanying description is, frankly, rather dubious. The FPMT centre in Boston is named after her (Kurukulla Center for Tibetan Buddhist Studies) and includes a nice line drawing of the deity.
The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco summary says, "Lamanteri is the Mongolian name for this wrathful form of the goddess Tara depicted with the third eye and four pairs of hands."
Return to Top
Yidam and historical figure - the founder of Chd
The eleventh-century Tibetan founder of the chd (cutting) practice, Machig Labdron is usually depicted in deified form as a peaceful white dancing figure with three eyes, playing a damaru (two-sided drum) with her right hand and holding a bell with her left. (She is also depicted in seated form on Dharma Publishing's Sacred Art site.) She also appears in wrathful form as the dark-blue yidam Trma Nagmo, shown in a on the Padmasambhava Buddhist Center webpage. Machig's name is variously translated as One-Mother, Torch of Lab—Lab being the name of her home district—or One-Mother, Liberator of Lab. See also: Machig Labdrn and the Foundations of Chd by JÈrÙme Edou (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications, 1995); A Study of the Profound Path of God: The Mahayana Buddhist Meditation Tradition of Tibet's Great Woman Saint Machig Labdrn – a Ph.D. dissertation by Carol D. Savvas (University of Wisconsin-Madison, 1990); Women of Wisdom by Tsultrim Allione (London: Arkana, 1984 / New York: Arkana, 1986) – includes the life story of Machig Labdrn
Yidam of Highest Yoga Tantra
I have found very little information on this deity. Her name is the same as that of the mother of the historical Shakyamuni Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama - it means 'Great Illusion.' This was a main practice of the Shangpa Kagyu school.
Yidam and historical figure—long–life deity
An Indian-born princess who became the spiritual consort of Padmasambhava, founder of Buddhism in Tibet (his second consort was the Tibetan-born Yeshe Tsogyel – see below). She appears in deified form as a yidam of long life.
Return to Top
Yidam - goddess of the sun
Marici is a red-coloured female yidam associated with the sun and with dawn. She has three faces (including a sow's face); her eight arms holding various implements, and she rides a throne/chariot drawn by nine pigs. Her mantra is traditionally used as protection by travelers.
Historical figure - mother of Sakyamuni Buddha
Queen Mayadevi (also Maya or Mahamaya) was the historical mother of Sakyamuni Buddha. She died not long after his birth, but is believed to have been reborn in one of the heavens where he later manifested and taught her the Dharma so that she too became enlightened. She is traditionally depicted just as she was about to (painlessly) give birth, standing and holding the branch of a tree in her right hand.
This dark-blue figure appears as both a single yidam and also in union with her consort, the Highest Yoga Tantra male yidam Hevajra. The name means 'No-Self' in Sanskrit; this was also the name of the wife of Marpa, founder of the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism.
Guru and yidam - lineage dakini
This woman was a formidable mahasiddha, variously described as the sister or consort of Naropa. She founded the practice known as The Six Yogas of Niguma (see Glenn Mullin's text The Six Yogas of Sister Niguma, which includes a vigorous line drawing of Niguma).
Return to Top
Palden Lhamo (Shri Devi)
Dharma protector - wrathful protectress of Tibet
Palden Lhamo (whose name translates as "Glorious Goddess") is the only female dharma protector common to all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism. She is very wrathful, and rides her mule through a sea of blood, surrounded by wisdom fire. She is dark blue and has one face with three eyes; she wears a sun at her navel and a moon at her crown, and over her is a peacock umbrella (a traditional symbol of protection). There is also a system of divination by dice associated with her. She is sometimes considered cognate to Sarasvati or Tara . See: a thangka with short description (from the Mongolia exhibit of the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco); "black" thangka of Lhamo, in both thumbnail and a full-sized version (Dharmapala Centre); a thangka of a four-armed version of Palden Lhamo with an extensive description of the deity (Koelz Thangka Collection); a lovely statue of and thangka of offerings to the protectress (Mongolia exhibit)
Guru figure and yidam - Mother of all the Buddhas
Prajnaparamita embodies the bliss/emptiness that gives rise to all phenomena—hence her title as Mother of all the Buddhas. She usually appears as a tranquil seated figure clothed in silks; her body is gold in colour, and she has one face and four arms. Her first two arms are held in meditation posture in her lap, while the other right hand holds a vajra (thunderbolt sceptre symbolising compassion/bliss) and the left, the text of the Heart Sutra which is the essential wisdom-text on the emptiness of phenomena. (There are other forms of the deity, as at right: first two hands in prayer mudra at the heart, second right hand holding a mala [rosary] and second left hand holding a text.) Her name means 'Perfection of Wisdom'; in Tibetan she is also known as Yum Chenmo, or 'Great Mother'. She is closely associated with chd practice (see Machig Labdrn).
Return to Top
Guru figure and yidam - Primordial Mother of all the Buddhas
Samantabhadri (Kuntuzangmo in Tibetan) is the consort and female counterpart of Samantabhadra/Kuntuzangpo, the primordial Buddha of the older schools of Tibetan Buddhism. They are usually shown in sexual union (yab/yum in Tibetan), the blue male figure and white female figure embracing each other in lotus position. Samantabhadri is sometimes shown alone, in which case she is seated in lotus posture with her hands in meditation posture in her lap. Samantabhadri is always shown naked (as is her consort) to demonstrate the unadorned nature of Absolute Truth, the emptiness of all phenomena. She is in some senses an analogue of Prajnaparamita. A near equivalent of the New Translation schools is the dark-blue Vajradhatu-ishvari, shown in union with consort Vajradhara as the yab-yum Vajradhara / Vajradhatu-ishvari.
Yidam - goddess of learning
As the goddess of learning and arts, Sarasvati (also spelled Saraswati) is in many ways a counterpart to Manjushri, the male Bodhisattva of discriminating wisdom. Sarasvati is a peaceful yidam who holds a vina (a sitar-like lute) on her lap; she also sometimes holds a text. She is white-coloured with one face, two eyes, and two arms. A thangka reproduction can be seen on Dharma Publishing's Sacred Art site. There is also a Hindu deity named Sarasvati with near-identical attributes. She is sometimes connected to Palden Lhamo, who may be regarded as Sarasvati in wrathful form.
Yidam - lion-headed Dakini
Simhamukha (Tib. Seng-gdong-ma) is a wrathful dancing dark-blue figure similar to Vajravarahi in appearance and ornaments, holding a curved knife in her right hand and a skullcup in her left, except that she also has the face of a lion - hence her name in Tibetan and Sanskrit (meaning "lion-face"). Her practice was founded by a woman, Jetsun[ma] Lochen; Simhamukha is regarded as a dakini form of Padmasambhava, the (male) founder of Buddhism in Tibet (see also Mandarava and Yeshe Tsogyal. Examples of her iconography on the Web are a statue on the Dharmaware website, and a thangka painting from the Padmasambhava Buddhist Center gallery, in either thumbnail form or as a full-page 500-Kb file.
Return to Top
Guru figure and yidam - lineage Dakini
This mahasiddha belongs to the chod lineage. Her name means 'good or blissful siddhi (a Sanskrit word meaning a miraculous accomplishment, which can be either mundane, e.g. healing, flying, etc., or supramundane, i.e. the siddhi of full Enlightenment.
Yidam - beloved Saviouress
Also known as Drolma (Tibetan), Tara embodies the compassionate activity of all the Buddhas (her name means "the liberator" or "one who saves"). She is pictured with one face, two arms and a green-coloured body. Her right hand is outstretched in the mudra (sacred gesture) of generosity, and her left holds the stem of a blue lotus which blossoms at her left ear. See the: Supplication to Tara; Tara Page; Blessed Arya Tara Page; Thangka of Green Tara (Andrew Stinson's thangka pages); Several thangkas of various forms of Tara (Dharma Publishing); Talking image of Tara (Dzogchen Community); Silver statue of Tara (Dzogchen Community). See also the statues of: Peaceful Tara with vase and lotus; Peaceful Tara with lotus; Wrathful Tara; and Wrathful Tara with chopper and skullcup (see Ekajati, above). All from the sculptures of the 21 Taras by Zanabazar now showing at the Mongolian exhibit at SFAsian.
Books devoted to Tara include:
In Praise of Tara: Songs to the Saviouress by Martin Willson (London: Wisdom Publications, 1986).
The Cult of Tara: Magic and Ritual in Tibet by Stephan Beyer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973)—a study of Tibetan beliefs and practices concerning Tara.
Longing for Darkness: Tara and the Black Madonna by China Galland (New York: Viking, 1990).
Bodhisattva of Compassion: The Mystical Tradition of Kuan Yin by John Blofeld (Boulder: Shambhala, 1978)—a study of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, in the female forms of Kuan Yin (Chinese) and Tara (Tibetan).
This form of Tara, Green Tara, is the most common one; but Tara also appears in other forms, such as White Tara, Red Tara and the Twenty-One Taras. In the Gelukpa school there is also a Highest Yoga Tantra form of Tara known as Cittamani Tara.
Return to Top
See Kurukulla. I believe this is an alternative name for her commonly used in Nyingma.
Yidam - she who grants long life and wisdom
Also known as Drolkar (Tibetan) or Sitatara (Sanskrit), Tara embodies the compassionate activity of all the Buddhas (her name means "the liberator" or "one who saves"). White Tara is especially associated with long life and wisdom. Unlike the green form of this deity, White Tara has seven eyes - one in each hand and foot, and a third eye on her face—to show that she sees and responds to suffering throughout the universe; and she sits in full lotus posture. Some examples of her are: A statue of Sitatara (the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco); A fetching small statuette (JBL); An on-line thangka (500 KB or thumbnail (Padmasambhava Buddhist Center); Three different images of White Tara in small and large format (Dharmapala Centre)
Dharma protector - goddess of the mountain
Tseringma is the foremost of the Five Long-Life Deities - formerly mountain-guardian spirits - who plagued the great Tibetan yogi Milarepa during his cave retreats. They were converted to Buddhism and Tseringma became his consort. She is a white figure shown riding a snow lion and carrying a long-life vase in her right hand.
Return to Top
Yidam - goddess of the glorious white umbrella
This white-coloured deity, a form of Tara, is a female counterpart of the thousand-armed form of Avalokiteshvara. She has one thousand faces, arms and legs; each face has three eyes, and she has one eye in the palm of each hand and the sole of each foot, showing that she watches and protects sentient beings. Her central faces are white (as is her body); her right faces are yellow, the faces at the rear of her body are red, and the left faces green; there is also a "tier" of blue faces at the top of her head. Her right hands hold wheels of the Dharma (dharmachakra) and her left hands hold arrows; one of her other left hands also holds aloft a white parasol which also symbolises her protection. There is an untitled thangka of this figure at the Dzogchen Community website, and there is a thangka with description on a webpage by two Belgian thangka-collectors.
Yidam - the long-life deity
Ushnisha-vijaya is a peaceful white deity and an emanation of Vairochana Buddha. She has three faces, ten eyes and eight hands. Her right hands hold a lasso, bow, and vase with the nectar of immortality; her fourth right hand bears an eye in the palm and is in the mudra (posture) of generosity. Her left hands hold a miniature Buddha image, a double (crossed) vajra, and an arrow; the fourth left hand is held in meditation posture in her lap. Ushnisha-vijaya is often shown in a triumvirate with the other two principal long-life deities, red (male) Amitayus and White Tara (see above). There are also two thangkas of her (let's call them one and two) on the Dharma Publishing webpages.
Return to Top
Vajrayogini / Vajravarahi
Yidam - the queen of Dakinis
Vajrayogini (Tib. Dorje Naljorma, Adamantine Female Practitioner) is the principal female yidam of Highest Yoga Tantra of the New Translation schools of Tibetan Buddhism. She is a slightly wrathful red female figure shown holding a curved knife in her right hand, a skullcup in her left and a khatvanga (trident or staff) in her left elbow. The Naro form of Vajrayogini, most commonly seen in the Sakya and Geluk traditions, is shown standing with her face turned upwards and to the left, with the skullcup held up to her mouth and the curved knife pointing to the ground.
The Vajravarahi form of Vajrayogini, generally more frequent in Kagyu, is shown in dancing pose with the right leg bent; this form holds the curved knife up in the air and the skullcup to her heart. Vajravarahi, whose name means Adamantine Sow, is usually shown with a small sow's head, representing triumph over ignorance, emerging over her right ear.
The website of Lama Surya Das includes two short teaching tales about her: Naropa Meets the Queen of Dakinis, and Crossing to the Other Shore. Good pictures on the Web include: Modern thangka of Vajrayogini (Andy Weber, Tharpa); Thangka of Naro Vajrayogini, Nyingma tradition, fullsize and thumbnail (Padmasambhava Buddhist Center); Statuette of Naro Vajrayogini ("Dakini") (JBL); Statue of Vajrayogini Naro Khacho (Dharmaware); Statue of Vajravarahi (Vajradakini) (Dzogchen Community); Thangka of Vajravarahi (Dzogchen Community); The mandala of Vajrayogini (Dzogchen Community); Iconometric drawing of Vajravarahi (Asian Art Museum of San Francisco).
Yidam, guru and historical figure - mother of Tibetan Buddhism
This remarkable hermit-saint, the Tibetan consort of Padmasambhava, is sometimes shown in Nirmanakaya form - the 'emanation body' a Buddha takes so as to be visible to ordinary beings - as a woman in everyday Tibetan clothes, seated and holding curved knife and skullcup. She is also shown in deified form as the Queen of Great Bliss (Tib., Dechen Gyalmo) as a red standing figure with a damaru (double-sided drum) raised in her right hand and a curved knife held to the ground with her left. A thangka of Yeshe Tsogyal as Queen of Great Bliss can be seen on the Padmasambhava Buddhist Center website, either in thumbnail size or as a full-page 500 KB picture file.
Her sacred biography may be read in Kevin Dowman's Sky Dancer: the secret life and songs of the Lady Yeshe Tsogyel (London: Arkana, 1989) and Tarthang Tulku's Mother of Knowledge: The Enlightenment of Ye-shes mTsho-rgyal (Berkeley: Dharma Publishing, 1983). The meditation practice of Dechen Gyalmo, Queen of Great Bliss, is discussed in Anne C. Klein's Meeting the Great Bliss Queen: Buddhists, Feminists, and the Art of the Self, which has a lovely cover illustration of the deity.
Return to Top
*This material was compiled by Julia Milton