Anyone introduced to the practice of Tibetan Buddhism surely entertains confusion on account of the many and varied deities whom we picture in meditation. At some point everyone must ask themselves: are they real? or just symbolic archetypes? Are they separate? or are they one? And how exactly should I relate?
These are points not easily addressed, since an exact English equivalent for their status cannot properly be expressed. There is no precedent. It doesn’t translate. In its place we use the term emanation.
Here is roughly how it works. Let us draw a parallel, but in the ordinary sense, an altogether mundane example. Take the case of a human being. Let us call him George Blatz. George appears a simple being, but in fact has many roles. To his children he is Father: tall, strong, maybe even a bit imposing. This is how his children see him. Others view him as an equal. Still others meet him very differently.
Say George works as a paramedic. To many he presents the face of a kind physician. But due to his post in the Fire Department sometimes he wields hose and ax so as to rescue of those in peril. While in the summers he serves a stint in the National Guard, and then may appear as a fearsome warrior. The list goes on... With each role George portrays a different aspect. But underneath he’s still the same. The uniforms and implements only serve to underscore the situation of the moment with respect to those who need his special attention.
Bearing all of this in mind, let us consider Four-Faced Mahakala, the dharmapala for the Lama Tsongkhapa Center. Mahakala with four faces is the guardian-protector emanation of Heruka Chakrasamvara, who is the wrathful emanation of Vajradhara, who is the tantric emanation of the Buddha Shakyamuni. Here is the key: in no way whatever are they wholly separate one from another. They are one. And yet, the roles for each seemingly are very different. Enough so that we incline to always distinguish their separate guises, just as we might with Mr. Blatz, Dr. Blatz, Fireman Blatz and Sgt. Blatz.
Who would follow Dr. Blatz’s kind advice at the clinic if he wore his fireman’s suit? How would persons trapped inside the burning house react to the sight of fireman Blatz in warrior guise? How much faith could beleaguered defenders muster ranked behind Sgt. Blatz armored in his doctor’s coat? Mr. Blatz is still the same. All these skills are his to command. But without a convincing presentation of his role those in need will be caught quite unawares. It would not be fair at all to expect them to know quite how to relate, how to react or participate. Lacking this, they could hardly then enjoy the fullest measure of his support.
It is the minds of sentient beings which impose these limitations. We are not well able to accept all roles in just one figure. So when we picture Mahakala, the Wisdom Being whom we invite into the image comes to us as Mahakala. When we picture instead Heruka, then He comes to us as Heruka. When we picture Vajradhara or Shakyamuni, then He comes to animate our imagery in the form which we have requested, each according to our need. All are different, all are one, all together, all at one and the same time.
This is true for all such cases where we need to meet the Buddha. Buddha emanates a form suited to our special needs. It is even my belief that for those who need them thus, these Enlightened Holy Beings would not shrink from sending angels.