Khalil Bodhi wrote:
Thank you all. This has been an incredibly interesting and useful discussion. I am thinking of trying to use a sadhana and visualization practice based on Shakyamuni Buddha as it venerating and taking refuge in anyone else (regardless of their ontological status) fills me with a strange sense of dread.
Just FYI, since you are doing Kagyu practice, you should know that Dorje Chang (Skt. Vajradhara) is the iconography used to represent the enlightenment
of Sakyamuni as seen from the Vajrayana perspective. If you look way up at the top of the Rufuge Tree you'll see a small figure of Dorje Chang. That represents the historical Buddha, Sakyamuni. The large central figure that is supposed to be your own lama is also represented as Dorje Chang. So what you're actually taking refuge in is the transmission of Sakyamuni's enlightenment, as passed down through the lineage, and then as it is finally presented/made available to you by your own teacher.
Dorje Chang is also the representation of the Dharmakaya, said to be the formless aspect of Sakyamuni's (and all buddhas) enlightenment, and is the esoteric interpretation of the Buddha Jewel. However since formlessness isn't something very accessible or workable for most people, the Buddha manifests the two form kayas.
The Sambogakaya (deity practice) is the the first form kaya, and the esoteric interpretation of the Dharma Jewel. The Dharma is how Sakyamuni communicated his ideas. The Sambogakaya deities are how he communicates (deliberately using the present tense) his awareness. So at this level of understanding you are still taking Refuge in Sakyamuni's enlightenment. The deities are just different expressions of his enlightenment made accessible to you out of compassion.
The lama is the esoteric interpretation of the Sangha Jewel, the physical representation of the Buddha, as is the one that makes the path accessible to you.
I know Lama Norlha. He's a good lama.