What is a Yidam Deity in Tibetan Buddhism?
Buddhists may have spiritual guides or yidams who are wrathful or peaceful, and ones who identify with either gender. Yidams themselves are beyond gender and moods but may manifest in many ways.
Yidam is a type of deity associated with tantric or Vajrayana Buddhism said to be manifestations of enlightened mind or Buddhahood.
During personal meditation practice, the practitioner identifies their own mind, form, and attributes with those of a yidam for the purpose of inner transformation.
Sogyal Rinpoche explained:
„In Tibetan Buddhism practitioners will have a yidam deity, that is, a spiritual practice of a particular Buddha or deity with which they have a forceful karmic connection, which for the practitioner is an embodiment of the truth, and which they invoke as the heart of their spiritual practice (sadhana).
Since in their practice they have perceived the yidam as the inherent radiance of the enlightened mind, they are capable of viewing the appearances with this recognition, and allow them to arise as the deity.”
In Vajrayana Buddhism, the yidam is one of the 3 roots of the „inner” refuge formula and this Buddhist practice is also the essential element of Deity yoga since the „deity” in yoga is the yidam.
There are 6 types of Yidam, with the defining attributes of a given deity depending on gender and the 3 qualities defined as gentle, fierce or semi-fierce. The Yidam signifies awakening and so its appearance reflects whatever is suggested by the practitioner in order to awaken.
Note – a teacher might help a practitioner choose a Yidam particularly appropriate to their current stage of practice.
Are they „real”?
The Yidams reality is no less and no more real than is mine or yours. In both cases, we are talking about a temporary reality projected onto arising phenomena.
Hence, it is not that the Yidam is „real” and we are not. Just as it not that we are ‘real’ but the Yidam is not.
The objective of Creation and Completion (the technical term for the Yidam practice) is to see clearly the temporary nature of all that arises.
Orgyen Tobgyal Rinpoche said:
„When we consider all the great masters of the Tibetan and Indian traditions, we find that in each case, their accomplishment came about through their sadhana (practice) of a yidam.
They chose a deity and defended that practice like their very life force, and on the basis of that total commitment to the path of deity yoga, they practiced the stage of completion, the stage of generation, and unified these arriving at their final realization of complete accomplishment and enlightenment.”
This practice is a commitment that requires empowerment and precise guidance from a Tibetan lama on all aspects of the practice and ritual. It cannot be learned from a book, no matter how wise one is or how much experience one has as a dharma practitioner.
If you have not attained the preliminaries, I recommend you speak with your lama for guidance.