Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly

Forum: Unseen Realized Beings

I HAVE NEVER FELT ALONE. I have always felt touched by an unseen world; the world of ghosts, spirits, demons, and angels has dwelled at times as close as a hand’s length, at others as far as a galaxy away. I understood as a child that these two worlds maintain a precious balance, that they are continually rubbing up against one another. I knew people with psychic ability who could see and talk to spirits. It was a gift I yearned to have.

I grew up in the Black church in the South. My upbringing was rich in mythologies passed down from our African and slave ancestors. Though we rarely talked about them, we intuitively knew we were inhabiting a world with many different reflections. Even in the context of a colonizing Christianity that my ancestors were forced to buy into, significant portions of our African mythologies trickled down into our churches.

When we spoke of the “spirit moving” it felt like we were experiencing a kind of possession. The way people moved, shouted, jostled, eyes rolling back into their heads, speaking in tongues was communion with and expression of the unseen world, a connection with nonmaterial beings. It was also a method for releasing the energy of trauma accumulated through the impact of systematic oppression.

Through these experiences, I learned at an early age not only that there are unseen forces around us but also that we can enter into dialogue with them. So much of my yearning as a child was to find strategies for communicating with this world and with the beings that inhabit it. I didn’t want to be afraid or in denial, as some around me were. I wanted to be empowered. I think it was a feeling of being helpless that spurred me into thinking about embracing the ways of communication I had learned in my community. But it wasn’t until I began practicing dharma that I felt I, too, could communicate with these beings—and that they would listen.

Vajrayana Buddhism gave me permission to openly develop a relationship with this unseen world. And it gave me a language to express it. Yet nonmaterial enlightened beings are not limited to the Vajrayana tradition. Their world is the place of dharma protectors, yidams, and enlightened dakas and dakinis, but it is also the realm of the buddhas and bodhisattvas. These are the beings who express their commitment to help us achieve enlightenment. Though we call them beings, they are none other than reflections of our own innate wisdom, our own basic mind, our buddhanature. And just as it can be difficult to recognize and abide in our true nature, it can be difficult to recognize these beings who are expressed from our true nature. Many of the rituals—prayers, chanting, fire pujas, meditations, and contemplations—are skillful means to bring us into direct dialogue with them. From this dialogue, we understand that we are not alone, that we are being guided and protected.

Several years ago, at the beginning of my practice, a lama offered a poignant teaching on the female buddha Tara. She said she related to Tara as a girlfriend she could simply speak out to. The practice of speaking to Tara in this way, or to any deity, has become the core of my deity practice. In essence, as I speak to the deity, I am speaking to my ultimate nature.

As I deepen in my practice and tradition, I find myself recalling my early years in church. In particular, I am reminded that

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