In Vajrayana Buddhism, an Ishta-deva or Ishta-devata (Sanskrit: इष्टदेवता) (Yidam in Tibetan) is a fully enlightened being who is the focus of personal meditation, during a retreat or for life. The term is often translated into English as tutelary deity, meditation deity, or meditational deity. The Ishta-deva appears in the ‘Inner’ refuge formula of the Three Roots and is also the key element of Deity Yoga since the ‘deity’ in the yoga is the Ishta-deva.
Nomenclature and etymology
The Sanskrit word iṣṭadevatā or iṣṭadevaḥ is a compound of iṣṭa (desired, liked, reverenced) + devatā (a deity or divine being). It is defined by V. S. Apte as “a favorite god, one’s tutelary deity.” Though this term is used in many popular books on Buddhist Tantra, the term işţadevatā has not been attested in any Buddhist tantric text in Sanskrit. The word corresponding to this concept is adhideva, though of rare occurrence. The unrelated Tibetan version of the term, possibly of entirely native origin, is yi-dam is said to be a contraction of Tib. yid-kyi-dam-tshig, meaning “samaya of mind”- in other words, the state of being indestructibly bonded with the inherently pure and liberated nature of mind.
The Ishta-deva appears as one of the Three Roots in the Tibetan Buddhist ‘Inner’ refuge formulation. The iconography of the Ishta-deva may be ‘peaceful’, ‘wrathful’ (Tibetan tro wa) or ‘neither peaceful or wrathful'(Tibetan: shi ma tro), depending on the practitioner’s own nature. The Ishta-deva represents awakening and so its appearance reflects whatever is required by the practitioner in order to awaken. The guru will guide the student as to which Ishta-deva is appropriate for them and then initiation into the mandala of the Ishta-deva is given by the guru, so that Deity Yoga practices can be undertaken. In essence, the mindstream of the guru and the yidam are indivisible. The yidam is considered to be the root of success in the practice.
|Buddhist Vajrayana Refuge Formulations|
|Outer (‘Triple Gem’)||Buddha||Dharma||Sangha|
|Inner (‘Three Roots’)||Guru||Iṣṭhadevatā||Dharmapala and Dakini|
Ishta-devatas in East Asian Buddhism
The Vajrayana traditions of China, Korea and Japan, while smaller and less prominent than Indo-Tibetan tantric Buddhism, are characterized in part by the utilization of isha-devatas in meditation. One prominent ishta-devata in East Asian vajrayana is Marici (Ch: Molichitian, Jp: Marishi-ten). In the Shingon tradition of Japan, prominent isha-devatas include the “five mysteries of Vajrasattva,” which are Vajrasattva (Jp. Kongosatta), Surata/Ishta-vajrinī (Jp. Yoku-kongonyo“慾金剛女”), Kelikilā-vajrinī (Jp. Shoku-kongonyo“触金剛女”), Kāmā/Rāga-vajrinī ((Jp. Ai-kongonyo“愛金剛女”), and Kāmesvarā/Mana-vajrinī ((Jp. Man-kongonyo“慢金剛女”).
Ishta-devatas in Nepalese Newar Buddhism
The principal ishta-devetas in the Newar Vajrayana tradition of Nepal are Chakrasamvara and Vajravarahi. In that tradition, three components are essential to a temple complex: a main shrine symbolizing Svayambhu Mahachaitya; an exoteric shrine featuring Buddha Shakyamuni and other buddhas and bodhisattvas; and an esoteric shrine dedicated to the ishta devatas, to which only initiates may be admitted.
According to The Tonglen and Mind Training Site which discusses Tonglen and Ngöndro, Yidam is:
Visualized representative of your enlightened energy, or Buddha-nature. Tricky concept for Westerners; closest concept might be that of a patron saint in Catholicism, except that a yidam is not a historical figure and is not necessarily supposed to ‘exist’ in the same way human beings do. Other related concepts might be a totem or power animal in the Native American tradition, or even the fairy godmother in children’s tales.
Brennan (2006) draws a comparison between Ishta-devas and “tulpas”, Tibetan spirits, (Tibetan) and uses the English rendering “thoughtform“. The sacred architecture of their instrumentation, the magic circle, is (Tibetan: kylkhor; kyil khor).
During the (meditation) practice of the generation stage, a practitioner (sadhaka) establishes a strong familiarity with the Ishta-deva (an enlightened being) by means of visualization and a high level of concentration. During the practice of the completion stage, a practitioner focusses on methods to actualize the transformation of ones’ own mindstream and body into the meditation Deity by meditation and yogic techniques of energy-control such as kundalini (tummo in Tibetan). Through these complementary disciplines of generation and completion one increasingly perceives the pervasive Buddha nature.
Judith Simmer-Brown summarises:
… a yidam, a personal meditational deity, a potent ritual symbol simultaneously representing the mind of the guru and lineage of enlightened teachers, and the enlightened mind of the tantric practitioner. Recognizing the inseparability of these two is the ground of tantric practice.
Berzin (1997: unpaginated) in discussing Buddhist refuge commitment and bodhisattva vows frames a caution to sadhana:
More specifically, this commitment means not taking ultimate refuge in gods or spirits. Buddhism, particularly in its Tibetan form, often contains ritual ceremonies, or pujas, directed toward various Buddha-figures or fierce protectors in order to help dispel obstacles and accomplish constructive purposes. Performing these ceremonies provides conducive circumstances for negative potentials to ripen in trivial rather than major obstacles, and positive potentials to ripen sooner rather than later. If we have built up overwhelmingly negative potentials, however, these ceremonies are ineffective in averting difficulties. Therefore, propitiating gods, spirits, protectors or even Buddhas is never a substitute for attending to our karma – avoiding destructive conduct and acting in a constructive manner. Buddhism is not a spiritual path of protector-worship, or even Buddha-worship. The safe direction of the Buddhist path is working to become a Buddha ourselves.
In the Vajrayana practices of Tibetan Buddhism, ‘safe direction’, or ‘refuge’ is undertaken through the Three Roots, the practitioner relying on an Ishta-deva in Deity Yoga as a means of becoming a Buddha.
Some common Ishta-devas include Hayagriva, Vajrakilaya (Dorje Phurba), Samputa, Guhyasamaja, Yamantaka, Hevajra, Kurukulle, Cakrasamvara, Vajrayogini, and Kalachakra. Also, other enlightened beings such as the regular forms of the Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Padmasambhava, certain Dharmapalas, Dakinis, Wealth Deities, and yab-yum representations, among others, can also be practiced as an ishta-deva. Avalokiteshvara, Tara, Manjusri, Hevajra and consort Nairatmya, Heruka-Chakrasamvara and consort Vajravarahi, etc. are frequently chosen as Ishta-devas, but any deity of the tantric pantheon may be adopted as such. The Ishta-deva is used as a means or a goal of transformation towards full enlightenment. According to certain traditions, the Ishta-devas are considered as the emanation of the adept’s own mind.
Ishta-devas with accoutrements and attributes