When I was a child, my hero was the cartoon character Mighty Mouse:
“Here I come to save the day!
Mighty Mouse is on the way!”
I used to dream about being a girl superhero. I had a ponytail and flew through the air and rescued people from “bad guys.” That was when I was about six years old. I soon gave up the fantasy and caved in to reality: I was just another powerless kid who had to go to school every day and do my chores and homework, and when I grew up I would be a powerless adult who went to a boring job and paid insurance premiums.
Guess what? Though there is undeniable truth to the “reality” version of things, the fantasy turns out to be no less true. I might not have known this had I not encountered the path of Vajrayana Buddhism, in which imagining ourselves as superheroes is not only allowed, it’s the fast track to enlightenment! And it’s not considered a fantasy; it’s an equally valid—even a more valid—way to see ourselves.
Though the Vajrayana (the type of Buddhism that came to us from Tibet) includes all the types of practice done in the other Buddhist traditions (Foundational/Shravakayana and Mahayana), it is distinguished by what are generally called deity practices, in which we visualize “deities” who have superhuman abilities to help beings in particular ways; in some cases, we even visualize these deities as ourselves.
These Buddhist deities are not deities in the way we usually understand the word. They are indeed like superheroes whose mission is to rescue beings in all the realms of existence from all types of harm. For example, Chenrezi, a four-armed luminous white superhero, relieves suffering with light rays of compassion; Green Tara, a green female superhero, stamps out fear, danger, poverty, and other types of distress. Medicine Buddha, who looks like a blue Buddha, dispels illness. There is a whole class of superhero “protectors,” some of them quite fearsome looking, who make it their business to quash the enemies and demons that get in the way of our spiritual practice progress. They are benevolent, but their fierce appearance makes an impression in circumstances where a peaceful one won’t do the job.
According to the Buddha, everything we experience is in some way a reflection of our own mind: the superhero deities thus correspond to various fully developed aspects of our innate potential, and the “bad guys” they take out are our own familiar disturbing emotions—anger, desire, jealousy, greed, pride, etc.—which they magically restore to their true identities as aspects of our underlying, unrealized wisdom.
In the Mahayana traditions of Buddhism, which include the Vajrayana, all practitioners aspire to be bodhisattvas, or enlightenment warriors. Bodhisattvas can look quite ordinary and show up anywhere—your next-door neighbor could be one. They don’t generally announce themselves, but work quietly to help beings in whatever way is needed. That could be as dramatic as stepping in front of a train to save a child, or, as Tai Situ Rinpoche once explained in a teaching at KTC, it could be as simple as making someone a cup of tea. You might even see one rescuing an insect from certain death—to a bodhisattva, every living being counts.
The most powerful bodhisattvas are those who have attained realization of the true nature of mind, and can therefore see what beings really need and exercise their powers to provide it; Chenrezi and Green Tara are considered realized bodhisattvas. However, anyone can become a beginner bodhisattva simply by making a formal commitment to attain full awakening in order to help others do the same, and then setting out to make it so.
A few years ago, a college student showed up at one of our Dharma center meetings in rural New Hampshire in a log cabin in the woods overlooking a quiet pond, where we met one evening a week to do calm abiding meditation and the practice of Chenrezi. This young man had just seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and he wanted to learn to do the magical feats and airborne acrobatics displayed by the characters in the film. We looked at each other for a moment, then welcomed him to our practice: Yep, Chenrezi practice is a perfect place to start!