In Sanskrit, dharma means “the truth,” “the teachings,” or “things as they are,” and palameans “protector.” So dharmapala means “protector of the truth.” The function of the dharmapalas is to protect us from deceptions and sidetracks on the path, to detect and clear away any obstacles to fully awakening in the phenomenal world. It is essential to remember that the protectors, as well as deities altogether, are nothing else than projections of the richness of our own minds. Representing our own potentialities, they have no independent existence. By supplicating them, we are in fact rousing confidence in our own buddha nature.

Situations themselves give one messages, simply and directly, whenever one is losing a sense of openness or awareness. For example, perhaps you have lost your temper with a friend. Blundering through unskillfully, you have freaked out yourself and him. Totally disgusted with the situation, you walk out and slam the door behind you, catching your fingers in it. The protectors are that kind of direct message.

When chanting, we have been instructed to pay attention to the meaning of the words and to be aware of the atmosphere, but not specifically to visualize the protectors.


In general, there are three types of protectors: wisdom protectors, action protectors, and worldly protectors. A wisdom protector, or dharmapala, is an emanation of the enlightened mind of the Buddha. Action protectors, such as Raven-Headed One, are the assistants of the wisdom protectors and are part of their retinue. Worldly protectors, or lokapalas, have power of an ordinary, worldly type.

Wrathful dharmapalas are known as mahakalas (masculine) and mahakalis (feminine), which mean “great black ones.” Mahakalas are fierce, black, and wear the charnel-ground ornaments, symbolizing that the emotions and negativities are not just destroyed or abandoned, but worn as adornment. “The mahakala is surrounded by flames, representing the tremendous, unceasing energy of [wrathfulness]—anger without hatred—the energy of compassion.”-VCTR, Myth of Freedom

Mahakalis also wear bone and jewel ornaments. They are fierce and swift in destroying whatever obstructs the dharma. They can also be tricksters who deliberately lead one into trouble if one’s attention lapses, as well as mistresses of the realm of passion, seducing one into samsaric involvement. For the accomplished practitioner, they act as maidservants, carrying messages and doing services. Being the root of action, the main role of the mahakalas and mahakalis is to fulfill the four karmas, or enlightened actions: pacifying, enriching, magnetizing, and destroying.

Lokapalas, literally “worldly protectors,” are beings who inhabit one or more of the six realms. They are worldly rather than transcendent deities. Although they are more powerful than ordinary people, they lack the complete realization of a buddha. Their power is of an ordinary, worldly type.


Most of the protector chants that we use in daily practice have traditional components:

A Sanskrit seed syllable represents the basic energy of the deity, from which it arises. Often HUM is the seed syllable of masculine protectors; BHYO, of feminine protectors.

A description of the environment, such as a charnel ground or a palace, from which the deity arises.

A request for the deity to approach and be present. This presence is confirmed by the mantra SAMAYA JAH, which invokes the protector’s vow to guard the teachings and practitioners.

A description of the deity’s appearance and symbolic characteristics.

Attributes held in the hands often symbolize the qualities of this activity.

An offering is always made to the deity.

An exhortation for the deity to fulfill his or her vow: to protect the practitioners, the practice, and the teachings by performing the enlightened activities of the four karmas.

The mantra of the protector, the sound of which energizes the principle of the deity.


The Vidyadhara associated certain protectors with specific practice centers, based upon their qualities:

Four-Armed Mahakala was special to Surmang monastery and particularly involved in the propagation of dharma. He was chosen as the protector for all the Shambhala Centers (not including Karma Dzongs or contemplative centers), to foster the principle of extending and spreading the dharma.

Vetali was chosen as a protectress of all Vajradhatu centers; she has been a protectress of the Kagyü lineage since the time of Naropa and Marpa. She is the consort of Four-Armed Mahakala.

Ekajati’s turquoise lock of hair links her to Karme Chöling, since it is situated in the Green Mountains of Vermont. Ekajati has a further link to Karme Chöling, as well as the London Shambhala Center in that she is a protectress of the ati tantras; the Vidyadhara felt there was a special connection between Karme Chöling and the London Shambhala Center with those teachings.

The choice of the lokapala Vajrasadhu for Karma Dzong, Boulder, was a bit of a pun; he is said to dwell in rocky mountainous places.

The Vidyadhara chose Magyal Pomra, an ally of the warrior-king Gesar, for Rocky Mountain Dharma Center in connection with the Magyal Pomra Encampment held there. In addition, this lokapala’s original home is known for its blue lakes; therefore his association with Nova Scotia is natural, where blue lakes are a prominent feature. Magyal Pomra is also the protector for Dorje Khyung Dzong.

Thrangu Rinpoche chose Gampo Lhatse as the protector of Gampo Abbey, since he was the original protector of the monastery and teachings of Gampopa, after whom the Abbey is named.

The Abbreviated Offering to Gesar was transmitted to the Dorje Kasung by His Holiness Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche after the Vidyadhara’s parinirvana. Subsequently, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche chose Gesar as a protector for Dechen Chöling and Dorje Denma Ling.


The order of the protector chants reflects the natural hierarchy of dharmapalas first, then lokapalas. Thus mahakalas come first (Four-Armed Mahakala) followed by mahakalis (Vetali and Ekajati). Then we have the lokapalas: Vajrasadhu, Magyal Pomra, Gampo Lhatse, and Gesar.


“The Goddess Tserinma’s Attack,” from The Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, pp. 306-9. Obstacles and protectors viewed as aspects of one’s own mind.

“Working with Negativity,” in Myth of Freedom, pp. 73-80. Includes description of Four-Armed Mahakala and the four karmas.

Secret Beyond Thought: The Five Chakras and the Four Karmas, pp. 25-41. Description of the four karmas.

Visual Dharma: The Buddhist Art of Tibet, pp. 18-26. A general essay on iconography.

Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism, pp. 217-43. A general discussion of vajrayana, including the four karmas and the five buddha families.

Journey Without Goal. General introduction to vajrayana.