In Focus

Mahottara Heruka and the Nyingmapa Lineage of Tibetan Buddhism

Mahottara Heruka, known in Tibetan as Chemchok Heruka (che mchog he ru ka), is the wrathful form of Buddha Samantabhadra who is the primordial buddha for some lineages. The esoteric tradition reveals how each aspect of Mahottara Heruka represents a transformation of the inner channels, winds, and essences that are primary subjects of Tantric practice. Mahottara Heruka is the principal deity (yidam) among the fifty-eight wrathful deities met in the period between death and rebirth, or bardo, as described in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. He is the main deity in the Guhyagarbha Tantra and is the supreme deity among the eight heru­kas of the Eight Commandments of Accomplishment—treatises comprising eight sadhana (ritual cycle) for developing awareness—that is central to the prac­tices of the Nyingmapa lineage in Tibet. In this thangka painting, these herukas accompany Mahottara Heruka, appearing to his right and left. The eight herukas are Hayagriva, Yamari (Manjushri Krodha), Shri Heruka, Vajramrita, Vajrakila, Mamo Botong, Jigten Choto (Lokastotrapuja), and Mopa Dranag (Vajramantrabhiru). Each of the eight stands in Tantric union with his consort. Eleven major teachers in the Nyingmapa lineage of the Eight Commandments appear at the top right and left, and two buddhas are to the right and left of Mahottara Heruka's topmost head.

Directly below Mahottara Heruka is the wrathful protector of the Eight Commandments Tantric cycle. In the lower right corner are the red lion-faced goddess Simhavaktra and the green sea-monster goddess Makaravaktra. In the lower left are Varahivktra, the golden sow-faced god­dess with the blue head, and Ashvavaktra, the white horse-faced goddess with the red head. In the center of the bottom edge of the thangka are four groups of three colored spheres. These are precious jewels placed as offerings to the peaceful deities. To the left and right of the jewels are two skulls filled with the substances of the six senses (eye, ear, nose, tongue, skin, and brain). This is the offering of the senses made to Mahottara Heruka and the other wrathful deities. This offering may be understood as sig­nifying the practitioner’s gift of his or her entire being to the deities, in exchange for which their teachings, blessings, and pow­ers are expected.

In this image, Mahottara Heruka has nine wrathful heads, eighteen arms, and eight legs. The tradition of tertons deter­mines the configuration of Mahottara Heruka and many other deities in Nyingmapa iconography. A terton _is an individual who typically was a disciple of Padmasambhava, the 8th century founder of the Nyingmapa. _Tertons take rebirth to reveal and propagate the hidden teachings that Padmasambhava put aside for future generations in order to meet changing needs. Mahottara Heruka and other deities therefore appear in differing forms as revealed by different tertons over the centuries. Some images of Mahottara Heruka have just one head, two arms, and two legs. Others have various numbers of heads, arms, and legs. Most have wings in addition to the arms. These can be seen here behind the upper arms.

Adapted from

Robert Warren Clark, "Mahottara Heruka," in The Arts of India, South East Asia, and the Himalayas, Anne R. Bromberg (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Have: Yale University Press, 2013), 185.

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