Palden Lhamo: Buddhist Dharmapala

Wrathful Protector of Buddhism and Tibet

Palden Lhamo depicted in a traditional tibetan painting
Palden Lhamo. Wikipedia Commons

Dharmapalas are fearsome creatures, but they are not evil. They are bodhisattvas who appear in terrifying form to protect Buddhists and Buddhism. Elaborate mythologies swirl around them. Many of their stories are violent, even repugnant, and none more so than that of Palden Lhamo, the only female among the eight primary dharmapalas.

Palden Lhamo is particularly venerated by the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism. She is the protector of Buddhist governments, including the Tibetan government in exile in Lhasa, India. She is also a consort of another dharmapala, Mahakala. Her Sanskrit name is Shri Devi.

In tantric art, Palden Lhamo often is depicted riding a white mule across a sea of blood. There is an eye on the left rump of the mule, and the mule's bridle is made of vipers. She may be shaded with peacock feathers. She carries with her a bag of diseases.

What does all this mean?

A Grisly Legend

According to Tibetan myth, Palden Lhamo was married to an evil-doing king of Lanka, who habitually murdered his subjects, and who was known to be an enemy of the dharma. She vowed to either reform her husband or see to it that his dynasty ended.

Over many years she tried to reform her husband, but her efforts had no effect. Further, their son was being raised to be the ultimate destroyer of Buddhism. She decided she had no choice but to end the dynasty.

One day while the king was away, she killed her son. Then she skinned him and drank his blood, using his skull for a cup, and she ate his flesh. She rode away on a horse saddled with her son's flayed skin.

This is a gruesome story, but do remember it's a myth. There are many ways to interpret this. I see it as an act of contrition. She took the child of her body back into her body, taking ownership, in a sense, of what she had created. The flayed skin saddle represents the karma of what she had done that she was still "riding." There are other ways to understand this, though.

When the king returned and realized what had happened, he screamed a curse and seized his bow. He struck Palden Lhamo's horse with a poisoned arrow, but the queen healed her horse, saying, "May this wound become an eye to watch the twenty-four regions, and may I be the one to end the lineage of the malignant kings of Lanka." Then Palden Lhamo continued northward.

In some versions of this story, Palden Lhamo was reborn into a hell realm for what she had done, but, eventually, she stole a sword and a bag of diseases from the hell-protectors and fought her way to earth. But she had no peace. She lived in a charnel ground, starving herself, not washing, turning into a frightful hag. She cried out for a reason to live. At this, the Buddha appeared and asked her to become a Dharmapala. She was astonished and moved that the Buddha would trust her with this task, and she accepted.

Palden Lhamo as Protector of the Dalai Lama

According to legend, Palden Lhamo is the protector of Lhamo La-tso, the "oracle lake" southeast of Lhasa, Tibet. It is a sacred lake and a place of pilgrimage for those seeking visions.

It is said that at this lake, Palden Lhamo promised Gendun Drupa, the first Dalai Lama, that she would protect the succession of Dalai Lamas. Since then, high lamas and regents have visited this lake to receive visions that would lead them to the next rebirth of the Dalai Lama.

In 1935, the regent Reting Rinpoche said he received a clear vision, including a vision of a house, that led to the discovery of the 14th Dalai Lama. The 14th Dalai Lama wrote a poem for her, which reads in part,

All beings in the country of Tibet , although destroyed by the enemy and tormented by unbearable suffering, abide in the constant hope of glorious freedom.
How could they bear to not be given Your compassionate hand?
Thus please come forth to face the great murderers, the malevolent enemy.
O Lady who performs the actions of war and weapons;
Dakini, I summon You with this sorrowful song:
The time has come to bring forth Your skill and power.
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
O'Brien, Barbara. "Palden Lhamo: Buddhist Dharmapala." Learn Religions, Apr. 5, 2023, O'Brien, Barbara. (2023, April 5). Palden Lhamo: Buddhist Dharmapala. Retrieved from O'Brien, Barbara. "Palden Lhamo: Buddhist Dharmapala." Learn Religions. (accessed June 2, 2023).