"Dharma protectors" are deities which are clearly classified as "guardians of the buddhist doctrine" (chos skyong, srung ma, bstan srung ma, Skt. dharmapala). E.g. the many different forms of Mahakala and Palden Lhamo or Ekajati, Rahula, Damchen Dorje Legpa etc. Dharma protectors are further subdivided into either the three classes of: awareness protectors (ye she kyi mgon po), activity protectors (las kyi mgon po) and worldly protectors ('jig rten mgon po), or the two classes of 'jig rten las 'das pa'i srung ma and 'jig rten pa'i srung ma.
While it is true that some deities other than "chos skyong srung ma" are sometimes refered to as "protectors" by name, e.g. the rigs gsum mgon po (Avalokiteshvara, Manjushri and Vajrapani), this is not to be taken literally. Even some great masters or even Tibetan Kings of ancient times, such as several Dalai Lamas are occasionally called "protectors of the Dharma" (much like christian rulers of old would be referred to as "defenders of the faith") but are clearly not treated, let alone worshipped, as protective deities. Western sources are often hazy on this subject and even in museums and art galleries one often finds deities wrongly classified as protectors which they are clearly not. Vajrapani and Vajrakila may serve as two examples of deities which are clearly wrathful YIDAM deities but NOT dharma protectors. This only serves to show how greatly misunderstood the cult of protective deities is in the West, even among the community of western dharma practitioners.
While, in the vast majority of cases, it seems very obvious among Tibetans which deities are to be considered as protectors and which not, western students and even scholars seem to have problems with this. Some even assert, that any deity that is depicted in a wrathful manner, must therefore be a "dharma protector". While it is true, that the majority of "dharma protectors" do appear wrathfully, there are numerous exceptions to the rule, the Five Sisters of Long Life being just one good example.
The cult of protective deities within the Tibetan buddhist traditions is a rich and varied one. There is a vast amount of material available dealing with an equally vast number of individual protective deities, but to my knowledge (TSD) there doesn't seem to be a single particular authoritative work about the classification of dharma protectors as such. The one useful western source I can think of is Rene De Nebesky-Wojkowitz's "Oracles and Demons of Tibet - The Cult and Iconography of Tibetan Protective Deities", Leiden, 1953(?), particularly chapter 1, "Protective Deities - Their classification, appearance and attributes".
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Pages in category "Dharma Protectors"
The following 15 pages are in this category, out of 15 total.