The Mahakala "Black Cloak"

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on Sep 4, 2017.)

The Mahakala called "Black Cloak" on a mural
inside the Lamasery at Splendid China, Shenzhen

It has been over 14 years since I first set foot in Chin. Since then I have traveled to nearly 100 cities. But I have never been to the Tibet Autonomous Region of China. My first taste of it was at Splendid China and the Folk Cultural Villages in Shenzhen, where I was able to see a miniaturized Potala Palace, and enter--for the first time--a full-sized lamasery. (I have since been to several more, notably Beijing's Yonghe Gong and the Guangren Temple in Xi'an).

I'm very familiar with the Chinese form of Buddhism as found in the Han cultural area of the country, as well as the Japanese forms derived from it. But although I have taken one graduate course in Tibetan Buddhism, with its separate source in India, the figures encountered in Tibetan temples, and their iconography, remain something of a mystery to me.

But from time to time, I see a familiar face. One of those is Mahakala, a Wrathful Deity who protects the Dharma (teaching). Unlike Mahakala's other forms with four arms or six, the Bernag Chen (Black Cloak) I saw painted on a wall inside the lamasery has only two arms. The left hand holds a cup made from a skull filled with blood or brains (presumably from an enemy). His right holds a chopper, to cut through delusion, hatred, and ignorance. And he is standing on two human figures, representing the conquering of our lower natures.

And what a face! The third eye symbolizes supernatural perception. The fierce expression frightens away evil. And the crown of five skulls represents five negative afflictions as they turn into five wisdoms.

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