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The Buddhist deity Simhavaktra, a dakini

A fierce dancing deity with flaming hair, Simhavaktra is a manifestation of enlightened awareness.

The Buddhist deity Simhavaktra, a dakini 

1736–1795
China; Beijing or vicinity, Hebei province
Qing dynasty (1644–1911), Reign of the Qianlong emperor (1736–1795)
Dry lacquer with inlaid semiprecious stones
The Avery Brundage Collection, B60S600

 

 

The Lion-Faced Sky-Walker

Simhavaktra, the “lion-headed one,” is a sky-walker (dakini), a magical being who inhabits the sky realm. Because Simhavaktra is understood to be a manifestation of enlightened awareness, she is a deity visualized during meditation who helps practitioners master their own internal demons. Simhavaktra’s cape of freshly flayed human skin, strings of bones around her body, and tiger’s skin at her hips symbolize how our perceptions are covered up by illusions. In visualizing Simhavaktra endowed with this regalia, meditators symbolically peel back these illusions. 

Associate Curator of Himalayan Art Dr. Jeffery Durham discusses the Tibetan influences that can be seen in this Chinese sculpture. (3:50 mins)

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Who Is Simhavaktra?

Simhavaktra is a dakini, a Sanskrit term that translates from the Tibetan as “sky-walker” (mkha’ ‘gro ma). Originally derived from imagery and practices associated with female Indian yogis, the dakini in Tibet becomes a deity thought to reside in and dance through the sky. With her legs drawn up in a specific dancing posture, she symbolizes the movement (‘gro) of energy in space (mkha’), and by extension the union of appearance (snang ba) and emptiness (stong ba) whose realization brings enlightenment.

Simhavaktra’s appearance symbolically expresses many aspects of Buddhist thought.

  • Her hair blazes upward with the fire of wisdom.
  • Her lion’s head indicates fearlessness in confronting all obstacles to liberation.
  • Her cape of freshly flayed human skin signifies her transcendence of human limitations.
  • The bone ornaments on her chest indicate that she has passed beyond the cycles of birth and death. 
  • The tiger skin around her waist symbolizes victory over all harmful emotions.
The Lion-Faced Sky-Walker

Simhavaktra, the “lion-headed one,” is a sky-walker (dakini), a magical being who inhabits the sky realm. A Tibetan legend says the buddhas created her to overcome a visually similar demon. When visualized in meditation, she helps practitioners master their own internal demons.

How She Helps

Simhavaktra’s magical third eye transcends ordinary vision. It sees into the core of apparently solid objects, which are completely empty (shunya) in Buddhist philosophy. It also perceives the process of reincarnation in the form of the Wheel of Life and Death, which the Buddha observed with his own divine eye.

Simhavaktra is also responsible for concealing and revealing sacred texts called terma, hidden away during the eighth century to survive an impending dark age.

Hair Ablaze with the Fire of Wisdom

The fire of wisdom blazes in Simhavaktra’s hair. This fire is thought to burn away obstacles to recognizing the illusion that objects are physically solid and different from the mind. Obstacles include negative emotions and thoughts, which we project outside the mind and into the world at large, thus creating the experience of suffering. Her hair floats upward as if in waves of heat; Tibetan Buddhists understand flame to be simultaneously destructive and purifying.

Meditating on Simhavaktra

Because Simhavaktra is understood to be a manifestation of enlightened awareness, she is also a deity visualized during meditation (yidam). By visualizing Simhavaktra, meditators incorporate her fierce compassion within their own awareness. Such meditative incorporation of Simhavaktra is believed to transmute the psychological poison of hatred into wisdom.

The method of meditation on Simhavaktra is very precise and appears in texts called “means of accomplishment” (sadhana). These texts describe how to visualize Simhavaktra with all the correct forms, colors, and positions. The texts also indicate the mantra that will cause her to appear and the type of mandala in which she will appear.

Simhavaktra’s Terrifying Regalia

Simhavaktra’s cape of freshly flayed human skin, strings of bones around her body, and tiger’s skin at her hips symbolize how our perceptions are covered up by illusions. In visualizing Simhavaktra endowed with this regalia, meditators symbolically peel back these illusions.

Flayed Skin: The Veil Removed

The cape of flayed human skin on Simhavaktra’s shoulders symbolizes the stripping of surface appearances from seemingly different things like people and objects. In meditation, this stripping reveals the underlying unity of all phenomena.

The flayed skin also appears in legend. In one of Simhavaktra’s manifestations, she is an attendant of Palden Lhamo, who also sits upon a flayed human skin. This skin belongs symbolically to her own son, who had disrespected the teachings of Buddhism. The fierce imagery symbolizes an uncompromising commitment to the Buddhist teachings.

Impermanence Revealed through Skin and Bones

In Buddhist philosophy, ultimate reality is not what our senses report. Senses veil reality, preventing us from seeing the empty, nonpersonal nature of our experience. The flayed face on the skin wrapped around Simhavaktra’s waist emphasizes the removal of this veil. 

Simhavaktra also wears strings of bone beads around her body. They symbolize simultaneously the emptiness (shunyata) al the core of things and the notion that all things are impermanent (anitya).

Her Implements Transform Poison to Nectar

Missing now, two symbolically powerful objects would have been held in Simhavaktra’s hands: a flaying knife symbolizing spiritual techniques (upaya) in her upraised right hand and a skull bowl symbolizing transcendent wisdom (prajna) in her left. Simhavaktra uses the knife to puree the poisonous raw material of ordinary sense experience; the skull bowl holding this material then transmutes it into the elixir of immortality.

Simhavaktra’s Fierce Dance

Simhavaktra’s pose evokes classical Indian dance, which symbolizes her unobstructed movement as a dakini (sky-walker), a being capable of time-transcending travel in space. Her dynamic posture, fierce expression, and flaming hair is typical of deities that appear to be fierce.

The Fierce and the Peaceful Moods

Himalayan Buddhist deities manifest in two primary moods: peaceful and fierce. Peaceful deities appear with calm expressions, meditative postures, and light-emitting haloes with jeweled crowns. With her focused expression, powerful stance, and hair flowing upward with waves of heat, Simhavaktra is a fierce deity who dances her powers into full functionality.

Simhavaktra and Hidden Texts

Most practices focused on Simhavaktra derive not from any Tantric texts translated from Indian sources, but rather from texts developed only in Tibet called “hidden treasures” (gter ma, pronounced “terma”). Such treasures — of which the famous Tibetan Book of the Dead is an example — are texts that, according to tradition, Padmasambhava composed and hid in the eighth century so they might survive an impending crisis: the ninth-century proscription of Buddhism in Tibet. Padmasambhava intended that his treasures be recovered only by the right persons at the right time. Accordingly, he encoded these texts in the script of the dakinis, which can only be decoded with their aid. 

The Relationship of Simhavaktra to Padmasambhava

Simhavaktra is closely associated with the Indian adept Padmasambhava, the man credited with taming the native demons of Tibet and establishing Buddhism in the Himalayan region. According to some legends, Simhavaktra trained Padmasambhava during his time in the western Indian kingdom of Oddiyana. One of his eight forms, the “Lions’ Roar,” (Sanskrit: simharaurava), is the aspect he took while training under Simhavaktra. Sometimes she is even regarded as a secret form taken by Padmasambhava.

Padmasambhava created meditations based on Simhavaktra’s form, and by some accounts she assisted him in the creation of the meditations. By encountering Simhavaktra, whether in meditation or as an artwork, the meditator can access the power of the termas hidden so long ago by Padmasambhava.

Tibetan Book of the Dead: The  Most Famous Terma

Padmasambhava implanted the locations of his treasure texts in the minds of selected disciples whom he foresaw would discover them in future births. Only dakinis like Simhavaktra have the ability to decode the cryptic calligraphy of these texts. The most famous treasure text is the Tibetan Book of the Dead (Bardo thodol). It describes the 42 peaceful (zhi) and 58 fierce (tro) deities who appear to a person when they die. If the dying person recognizes these deities as their own mind, they may attain liberation.

A Hidden Treasure Inside Simhavaktra

Just as dakinis like Simhavaktra helped recover treasure texts (terma), this physical sculpture guards a different kind of hidden treasure. Recent photography has enabled our conservators to discover consecration materials (seeds and herbs) deposited inside Simhavaktra’s head.

Consecration Materials Inside the Dakini

Consecration deposits might contain scrolls upon which mantras, or sacred verbal formulas, have been written. The consecration deposits in many sculptures were rifled in antiquity for the small gems or coins they often contained. While no scrolls, gems, or coins have been identified in this deposit, a variety of dried seeds and herbs that play important roles in Tibetan consecration practice had been inserted.

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