Nomenclature and etymology
The unrelated Tibetan version of the term, possibly of entirely native origin, is yidam 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 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.
|Buddhist Vajrayana Refuge Formulations|
|Outer ('Triple Gem')||Buddha||Dharma||Sangha|
|Inner ('Three Roots')||Guru||Iṣṭhadevatā||Dharmapala and Dakini|
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").
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
If we have built up overwhelmingly negative potentials, however, these ceremonies are ineffective in averting difficulties.
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.
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.
Ishta-devas with accoutrements and attributes
- Element: Ether
- Chief Buddha: Vairochana
- Consort: Dharma-Dhatu
- Color: White
- Enemy: Stupidity
- Virtue: All-accommodating, embodiment of emptiness
- Element: Water
- Chief Buddha: Vajrasattva
- Consort: Mamaki
- Color: Blue
- Enemy: Violent Anger
- Virtue: Mirror-like Wisdom
- Accompanying Bodhisattvas: Kshitigarbha, Lasema, Maitreya, Pushpema
- Element: Earth
- Chief Buddha: Ratnasambhava
- Consort: Sang-Yay Chan-ma
- Color: Yellow
- Enemy: Egotism
- Virtue: Equality
- Accompanying Bodhisattvas: Akasha Garbha, Mahlaima, Samantabhadra, Dureme
- Element: Fire
- Chief Buddha: Amitabha
- Consort: Cokarmo
- Color: Red
- Enemy: Attachment
- Virtue: Discrimination
- Accompanying Bodhisattvas: Chanrazee, Chirdhima, Jampal, Aloke
- Element: Air
- Color: Green
- Chief Buddha: Amoghasiddhi
- Consort: Dolma
- Color: Green
- Enemy: Jealousy
- Virtue: All-performing Wisdom
- Accompanying Bodhisattvas: Chag-na-Dorje, Gandhema, Dibpanamsel, Nidhema