“Mahakala: Sanskrit name meaning ‘The Great Black One’. Originally a non-Buddhist deity, sometimes seen as a form of the Hindu god Śiva, he is a wrathful tutelary deity (yi-dam) and protector of the faith (dharmapāla). In tantric Buddhism he is considered to be a manifestation of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, and his worship (pūjā) and related practices are described in detail in the Mahākāla Tantra. Various iconographic forms exist of Mahākāla in Indian and Tibetan tantric Buddhism with between four and sixteen arms. A non-wrathful form exists in Japan where he is associated with good fortune and is known as Daikokuten.”
Some people like to focus on the outer protectors, and some the inner protectors. Since the inner protectors are much more sensible to westerners on a psychological level, I will start with them.
The Inner Protectors
Here is a practical explanation of the protectors, as taught by Chogyum Trungpa Rinpoche. The example given is: Imagine you are arguing with someone, and you are totally red-faced angry, and completely unaware of yourself or your surroundings. Basically you have no mindfulness at all. Now, imagine you were to storm out of the room, go to slam the door shut, and catch your finger, instantly bringing you back (albeit in a not-so-pleasant way) to yourself, and allowing you to sort of reinhabit yourself. It brings your mind back to where you are.That right there is the protector…that’s Mahakala…Ekajati, etc. The protectors are the personification of wrathful wakefulness.
Now, Wrathfulness confuses a lot of people. It can be abused to disguise plan old anger, which is NOT enlightened. There is always a danger of people claiming they are manifesting “vajra anger” in an attempt to wake somebody else up. This is a VERY slippery slope. The comedian/performance artist Andy Kaufman tried to work this ground, to varying results. ( At some point, I am going to have cover “Saint Andy” – He’s had a pretty big influence on how I have manifested myself at different times.) I would suggest to newer students that they go a LONG time before they attempt to act as protectors – unless they are in the Dorje Kasung (‘Vajra protectors’) within the Shambhala organization, which I will cover later also, IAGW.
I like to say it’s like the difference between His Holiness the Dalai Lama saying very gently to some kids playing in a house that has caught on fire, “ok children, you need to get out of the house…”…and Samuel L. Jackson in full-blown Jules Winnfield from “Pulp Fiction” mode shouting at the kids “GET YOUR ASSES OUT OF THE MOTHER FU@KING HOUSE NOW!!!!!”
Both are done for the same reason, out of love and concern for the kids, but one is much more forceful.
Protectors practices are done at dusk, as a way of rousing one’s wakefulness, since after a long day, that is when one would be most likely to indulge in mindless activities in the name of ‘relaxing.’ Doing these practices at dusk is to a great extent a way of saying to yourself “wake up! Keep up your mindfulness! This precious human birth will be over in a flash, so there really is no time for mindlessness.”