Yidams, Dakinis, and Dharma Protectors
Yidams are male or female Buddha-figures with which we bond our bodies, speech, and minds as a method for achieving enlightenment. We make the close bond (dam-tshig, Skt. samaya) by visualizing ourselves as the figures, making offerings, reciting mantras, and offering fire pujas.
Dakinis (mkha'-'gro-ma) and dakas (mkha'-'gro) are female and male figures, respectively, who represent and help to increase our experience of blissful awareness of voidness. During a sadhana, we imagine emanating them as so-called offering goddesses and gods, making the various offerings to the Buddhas, all limited beings, and, in Gelug, to ourselves as Buddha-figures. In anuttarayoga practice, we also imagine them on critical points of our subtle energy-systems.
Another name for dakas is viras (dpa'-bo, spiritual heroes), and other names for dakinis are virinis (dpa'-mo, spiritual heroines) and yoginis (rnal-'byor-ma). Often, the terms dakinis and yoginis are used loosely to refer to female practitioners and to all female figures in a mandala. Occasionally, dakinis may also serve as yidams in whose forms we visualize ourselves, such as Vajrayogini (rDo-rje rnal-'byor-ma).
Dharma protectors (chos-skyong, Skt. dharmapala) are male or female figures who help ward off interference to our practice. On the deepest level, they represent our blissful awareness of voidness in strong energetic forms - the best protection against interference. With ourselves as Buddha-figures, we visualize certain protectors in each direction around or inside our mandalas.
In specific yidam practices, we also invite certain other types of Dharma protectors - such as Mahakala (dGon-po) or Palden Lhamo (dPal-ldan lha-mo, Skt. Shridevi) - into our mandalas to make offerings to them and to give them instructions to assist us in our enlightening activities. Many of this last type of protectors were originally powerful spirits, either clutching ghosts (yi-dags, hungry ghost) or divine beings (lha, gods) of non-Buddhist traditions. Some were harmful and others were simply guardians of mountain tops or local regions. Great masters of the past have tamed them and made them swear oaths to protect the Buddhist Dharma and its practitioners.
As Buddha-figures, we are like masters and the Dharma protectors we deploy are like our fierce guard dogs. Unless we have the strength to control them and to feed them regularly, they may turn against us. Thus, the Dharma protector practices in which we invite specific ones into our mandalas are extremely advanced, not for beginners. Engagement in their practices normally requires receiving specific subsequent permissions (jenangs) for them.
Dharma protector practices include elaborate "fulfill and restore" rituals (bskang-gso), in which we, as Buddha-figures, remind the protectors to fulfill the oaths that they promised and restore our close bonds with them by making special offerings. Another common ritual is the golden libation (gser-skyems), in which we offer alcohol or black tea to the protectors, but without tasting it ourselves. We may also simply invite the protectors into our mandalas to make offerings, especially of tormas, and to make requests (gsol-'debs). In the West, people informally call all these practices "protector pujas".
To create an even closer bond with a Dharma protector, we may also do a protector retreat in which we recite the associated mantras hundreds of thousands of times and offer a concluding fire puja.
As Buddha-figures, we may invoke certain Dharma protectors, such as Palden Lhamo, to assist in making prognostications (mo, thugs-dam) with dice or rosary beads. Completion of a protector retreat is required for such practice.
Certain Dharma protectors in certain Tibetan Buddhist traditions may also serve as yidams, such as Mahakala in the Kagyu tradition. Mostly, however, we do not visualize ourselves as Dharma protectors.Source