Who is Palden Lhamo?
The lone female that is included among the traditional defenders of Tibetan Buddhism is Palden Lhamo. She is what is known as a Dharmapala which is a Sanskrit term for “Dharma protector or defender”.
These protector deities are portrayed in Tibetan art as fearsome beings. Typically, they are depicted with morbid accoutrements such as human skulls, skin, blood and bones. Additionally, they drink human blood, eat human flesh and they are usually depicted standing on human corpses. Indeed, Palden Lhamo is the most fearsome of them all.
This horrific portrayal belies the fact that she is the appointed protector of the Panchen and Dalai Lamas. Additionally, her ultimate nature is as a protector of the ways of peace and compassion. Nonetheless, this ferocious deity is integral to the Gelug school and she is considered to be the savior of Tibetan Buddhism.
Palden Lhamo “Dharma Protectress of Lhasa”
Initially, her dedication to the Gelug school emerged in a vision of the 1st Dalai Lama while he was meditating near her sacred mountain home outside Lhasa. In his vision, Palden Lhamo appeared and promised that she would “protect the reincarnation lineage of the Dalai Lamas”.
Thereafter, regents and monks charged with the selection of succeeding Dalai Lamas have sought her counsel through visions that appeared during meditation. As a result, the selection of every Dalai lama since the 15th century has been influenced by Palden Lhamo.
However, the influence of Palden Lhamo predates the existence of the Gelug Buddhist school. For instance, she was the chosen protector of the “Trulang Shrine” in the 7th century. The shrine belonged to the Tibetan King – Songtsan Gampo – who was responsible implementing Buddhism as Tibet’s national religion.
After Tibetan Buddhism experienced a period of disintegration beginning in the 9th century, Palden Lhamo reemerged. She is believed to have advised the Tibetan monk – Lhalung Pelgyi Dorje – to kill the anti-Buddhist King Langdarma in 841 A.C.E. Indeed, the king was assassinated and Tibetan Buddhism experienced a renaissance soon afterwards.
The Mythical Origins of Palden Lhamo
In a past existence Palden Lhamo was named Remati and she was married to the King of Lanka. The King of Lanka was very hostile to Buddhism and he had killed many Dharma practitioners. Additionally, he had turned their son against Buddhists and they both killed Buddhists against her will.
Therefore, Remati defiantly vowed to destroy the lineage of the king if he did not convert to Buddhism and stop his persecution of Buddhists. However, the king was not sympathetic and he continued with his evil ways.
One day when the king was out hunting, she slaughtered their son in the most gruesome manner imaginable. After she killed him, she flayed him and used his skin to make a saddle. But she also ate his flesh and drank his blood using his skull as a cup called a “kapala”.
Using her son’s skin as a saddle, she made her escape riding side saddle on a mule that was gifted to her by the gods. As she was galloping away the king returned and learned of the horrific death of his son. As a result, he became enraged and shot a poison arrow at Remati. The arrow struck the mule in its hindquarter.
Remati pulled out the arrow and healed the wound with her magic powers. She then converted the wound into an eye while cursing her husband “May the wound of my mount become an eye large enough to watch over the twenty-four regions, and may I myself be the one to extirpate the lineage of the malignant kings of Lanka!”.
She then rode her mule all the way to eastern Siberia passing through India, Tibet, China and Mongolia.
Does Palden Lhamo have the Buddha’s Blessing?
After her death, Palden Lhamo was reborn in hell. However, she was unrepentant and she fought her way out. During her escape from hell she grabbed a bag of diseases and a sword, she then emerged from hell in the charnel grounds.
Feeling exhausted and depressed, she prayed to the Buddha and she asked for a reason to go on. The Buddha Vajradhara (the tantric version of Shakyamuni Buddha) appeared before her and suggested that she become a Dharma protector. As such, she has arisen as the Dharmapala that she is.