An old saying has it that, “Tibetans ruin it for themselves by having too many deities.” They think they have to practice one, then they have to practice another, then a third and a fourth. It goes on and on, and they end up not accomplishing anything, whereas in India a meditator would practice a single deity for his entire life and he would reach supreme accomplishment. It would be good if we were to take this attitude. If we practice Vajrasattva, it is perfectly complete to simply practice that single yidam. One doesn’t have to be constantly shifting to different deities afraid one will miss something, because there is absolutely nothing missing in the single yidam one practices.
A line from one tantra says, “I apologize for accepting and rejecting the yidam deity.” Sometimes one feels tired with a particular practice, like “It’s enough, practicing this one yidam!” Then you give up that one and try practicing another one, then after a while, another. Try not to do this.
As I said earlier, if you accomplish one buddha, then you accomplish all buddhas. If you attain the realization of one yidam, automatically you attain realization of all yidams at the same time. Of course, there is nothing wrong with practicing more than one. The point is to not skip around between them. Practice whichever yidam you like best. You will naturally feel more inclined towards one yidam than another, and this feeling is a very good indication of which yidam you are connected to. The basic guideline is to choose whoever you feel most inspired by. Once you choose one, practice it continuously.
There are no essential differences between the yidams. You cannot say that there are good or bad yidams, in that all yidam forms are included within the five buddha families. It is not that one buddha family is better or worse than any of the other ones—not at all. People’s individual feelings do make a difference, in that some people want to practice Padmasambhava as their yidam, while some want to practice Avalokiteshvara or Buddha Shakyamuni or Tara. The preference varies from person to person due to karmic inclination. It is not that there is any distinction in quality between yidams. If you take the one hundred peaceful and wrathful deities as your yidam, you have everyone included.
Once you reach accomplishment, you have simultaneously accomplished all enlightened qualities, regardless of which yidam you practice. It doesn’t make any difference. For example, when the sun rises, its warmth and light are simultaneously present. If you accomplish one buddha form, you simultaneously accomplish all buddha forms. The reason is that all yidams are essentially the same; they differ only in form, not essence. The fundamental reason one attains accomplishment is because of recognizing mind essence while doing the yidam practice. The real practice is recognizing rigpa, and you use the yidam as the external form of the practice. Even though every yidam manifests various aspects of different qualities, in essence they are all the same.
You can describe the rising sun in all sorts of different ways: some people will say that when the sun rises, it’s no longer cold, or that there’s no more darkness, or that it becomes light and you can see. It’s the same with describing the different qualities of the enlightened state, in which all the qualities such as wisdom, compassion and capability are spontaneously present.
Try to see yidam practice as a gift which the buddhas have given to us because we have requested it. When we take refuge we are asking for protection, to be safeguarded, and the real protection lies in the teachings on how to remove the obscurations and how to attain realization. The real protection is the yidam practice. Through it we can remove what needs to be removed and realize what needs to be realized, and thereby attain accomplishment.
Although we have this enlightened essence, it is like a butter lamp that is not yet lit, not enlightened yet. We need to connect with, to touch it with a lit butter lamp in order to light our own. Imagine two butter lamps together here: one is not lit, the other is already enlightened. The one that is as yet unlit has to bow to the other in order to get the light.
In the same way, we already have the buddha nature, but we haven’t caught on to it yet. We haven’t recognized, trained in it, and attained stability. There is great benefit in connecting with those other “lamps” because they have already recognized their buddha nature, trained in it, and obtained stability. Our butter lamp is ready to be kindled, to catch the flame, but it hasn’t recognized itself, it hasn’t trained, and it hasn’t yet attained stability.
There is benefit in yidam practice. Mipham Rinpoche had a vision of Manjushri, his supreme deity, and through that became a great pandita, an extremely learned scholar. Many of the Indian mahasiddhas practiced Tara sadhana. They combined recognizing mind essence with the yidam practice and attained accomplishment. All the life stories of those who became great masters tell of yidam practice. You never hear of anyone saying, “I achieved accomplishment and didn’t use any deity. I didn’t need to say any mantra.” The yidam deity practice is like adding oil to the fire of practice; it blazes up even higher and hotter.
~ Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche, As It Is (Volume 1)