Cultures & Traditions

Dharmapalas

Dharmapalas, or Great Protectors, were originally hostile or demonic deities of Tibet’s indigenous Bon religion. According to the Bon tradition, these deities were the primary cause of hardship and suffering in life. In the 9th century, Padmasambava, the “Lotus Born," a Buddhist sage and Tantric master, confronted and tamed the local Bon deities, convincing them to swear allegiance to the developing Buddhist religion. Thus, the Dharmapalas became the ferocious protectors of Buddhist law and scripture against natural or supernatural harm.

The Dharmapalas appear as wrathful deities with fiery hair, flaming aureoles, and crowns made of skulls. Though they appear frightening and demonic, the Dharmapalas’ terrifying appearance is meant to symbolize the necessity of the Buddhist practitioner to relinquish earthly fears and desires in order to gain enlightenment. The Dharmapalas’ violent characteristics symbolize inner transformation and the determination needed to overcome the obstacles within the self to achieve Buddhism’s compassionate practice that renounces harmful thoughts and actions against other living beings. Buddhist devotees meditate in front of such figures, concentrating on transforming violent energy into the creative energy necessary to transcend the human ego and fear of death to ultimately achieve enlightenment.

Excerpt from

  • DMA Connect, 2012.