Deities in Buddhism 

Many Mahayana, and especially Vajrayana, Buddhists utilize images of bodhisattvas [beings who aspire to relieve all suffering, forgoing their own enlightenment to do so] in the practice of Buddhism.  Tibetan Buddhism especially, is famous for the highly developed iconography used to express aspects of the Buddha dharma in the scroll paintings known as tangkas [sometimes spelled thangkas, etc.].  Cast metal images (Skt. rupa, form) are also used on personal shrines and in temples and teaching centres.

This article introduces some of these figures whose origins and qualities are often derived from Buddhist scripture, but also from legends told about the efficacy  of their activities as a means and support for the enlightenment of all sentient beings.

The beings referred to as Buddhist deities perform different types of functions for the practitioner.  They may be a focus or aid to individual meditation and transformation, in which case they are called yidams, or they may function as a protector of the dharma and/or of a class of being.  In all cases, they function as a means to liberation and enlightenment.

For example, though a female deity such as Ushnishavijaya is known as a bestower of longevity, her purpose is not simply as a personal protector,  but as a means to the liberation of numberless individuals via the extended life of just one.

Maitreyanath explained that 

If the causes are fully ripened,
Buddhas will appear there and then
(Performing) wholesome activities.
In accordance with the disciples, the place and the time.

~ quoted by Geshe Palden Dakpo

Buddhas and bodhisattvas - those who in the process of becoming fully enlightened and who out of compassion, choose to stay and help those caught in the cycle of existence - are thought to be accessible to us in one way or another.   We can know and identify them by way of the visions of advanced practitioners who have described them for us in a picture or in words so that we can relate to them. 

Fully enlightened beings are thought of as having the capacity to exist in three levels of reality.   The levels are often thought of as hierarchical, but whether one experiences a dharmakaya, nirmanakaya or samboghakaya form is generally considered to depend upon one's own capacities.

According to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, Buddha Shakyamuni taught the tantric approach, or Vajrayana including the use of deity practices, in a fourth Turning of the Wheel.  In particular, he transmitted the Kalachakra and/or Guhyasamaja tantras.

The Guhyasamaja (Tib. sangwa-dupa) which focuses on the primordial buddha Akshobya is believed to be one of the first Sanskrit works to be translated into Tibetan.  Holding a vajra, bell, wheel, jewel, lotus and sword, this deity symbolizes the essential unity of all buddhas.