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Barbara O'Brien

Why Palden Lhamo Ate Her Son

By June 12, 2008

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Late last night I finished compiling a list of the Eight Principal Dharmapalas, or dharma protectors, of Vajrayana Buddhism. Vajrayana is most closely associated with Tibetan Buddhism, and since my practice is Japanese Zen I'm still learning about Tibetan iconography, which is richer than a New York City cheesecake.

Dharmapalas are fearsome critters, 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 dharmapalas.

Palden Lhamo was married to an evil-doing king of Lanka, who habitually murdered his subjects. She tried to reform her husband, but failed. Further, their son was being raised to be the ultimate destroyer of Buddhism. One day while the king was away, she killed her son, drank his blood and ate his flesh. She rode away on a horse saddled with her son's flayed skin.

On first reading, I thought this story unnecessarily icky. But on reflection I came to appreciate the symbolism of Palden Lhamo's act. She was doing what we Buddhists are all challenged to do, which is to fully acknowledge and avow whatever harm we do. Palden Lhamo's consumption of her son was an act of atonement -- at-one-ment -- for the malevolent being who came from her own flesh.

Why the flayed skin saddle? I'm reaching a bit here, but this calls to mind a teaching that the realization of enlightenment, in a sense, rests on delusion. The great Japanese Zen teacher Eihei Dogen wrote in the Genjokoan,

Those who have great realization of delusion are buddhas; those who are greatly deluded about realization are sentient beings.

As I said, I'm reaching. If you see another interpretation, please add it to the comments.

Palden Lhamo is, among other things, the protector of the Tibetan government in exile in Lhasa, India. You can read more about her on the Tibetan Buddhist site Khandro.Net. Scroll down to read the poem about Palden Lhamo written by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. Here is just a little bit of it:

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?

Comments
June 15, 2008 at 10:21 am
(1) Richard Prangnell says:

I think the flayed skin saddle represents two ideas. Firstly that it is possible to make some use of even the most wicked monster, once it has been tamed (the murderer Angulimala who became an Arahant under the Buddha’s guidance is a less extreme example of this). Secondly that using the flayed skin as a saddle represents the ultimate debasement and utter rejection of the son’s wholly evil ambition in life (to destroy the Dharma).

June 16, 2008 at 2:04 pm
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

Richard — Very thoughtful interpretations. Thank you.

August 12, 2008 at 1:10 am
(3) Khail says:

The flayed skin means the dominion in the skillfull mean of do not create future karma. A son is a karma’s representation… in the same way that using a tiger skin like seat means the dominion of the animal impulses, using this skin means the dominion of the karma and karmic progression.

Khail

P.d.- sorry for my very poor english.

January 21, 2010 at 5:38 am
(4) Israel says:

She rode away but yet she sat upon her actions, causes and effects.

November 11, 2010 at 11:12 pm
(5) Nate says:

Khail, awesome comment! I have wondered about the guru images who sit on tiger skins or have tiger skins wrapped around them! I feel so lucky I just happened to come here and learn this bit of information. It’s funny but your answer is the most accurate and it seems to have gone ignored up until this point! Your english was fine; I understood perfectly. Thanks again!

January 23, 2011 at 3:13 pm
(6) Gyurmay Sangay says:

I am very happy to have come across your web site, because iconograpgy(Tibetan) is something that intrests me alot. I wish to share something more that i have learned over the years, hoping to be corected if i am wrong. The worship of Palden Lhamo gained more importance after her propetiation by the third Dalai Lama and by the fifth Dalai lama, hence becoming more important to the Geluk sect of tibetan Buddhism. She is also favoured by Kagyu sect as a consort of the Mahakala.dfsa

January 24, 2011 at 1:12 am
(7) Gyurmay Sangay says:

Palden Lhamo, gained great importance after the propitiation of the great Third and the fifth Dalai lama, hence iss more favoured by Geluk sect of tibetan buddhism. One of the legends recounts that Palden lhamo vowed to slay her own son if she failed to convert her evil husband. Having failed she killed her son and assumed the terrific/wrathful form.

March 16, 2011 at 2:55 am
(8) Luke says:

Um, “we Buddhists”… you can’t study Buddhism and be a “Buddhist”… that goes against the primary understanding of Buddhism in that we have no labels, we just “are” :)

March 16, 2011 at 9:31 am
(9) Barbara O'Brien says:

Um, “we Buddhists”… you can’t study Buddhism and be a “Buddhist”… that goes against the primary understanding of Buddhism in that we have no labels, we just “are”

Your comment reveals a common beginner’s misunderstanding. While it’s true that all labels are arbitrary, here in Relative World sometimes we have to discuss things, and language requires nouns. So, while we may realize there are no Buddhists, yet we talk about Buddhists. Read the Diamond Sutra sometime.

June 25, 2012 at 2:33 pm
(10) PlainLearner says:

My little passing thoughts:
1. It is impossible for a mother to forsake a child, and more so in murdering him. The reason why this was done was to i) to prevent the child from creating the sin of harmong other beings thru evil ways, esp that of eliminating the teachings leading to liberation ( ii) be the one to create the deed of killing rather than to allow others to sin this way. (iii) to show that such extreme ways is only for extreme situations and to be done out of love and never hatred, how could a mother hate her child?

Thus, it is a teaching about having love for all beings like a mother to her child and not to harm them in hatred even if they are insufferable, to the very end of even to eliminate them, it was done as a last resort, in order to prevent others from being harm and out of greatest compassion.

In short, if you dont have this kind of compassion to all beings yet, dont use the wrathful forms of enlightened beings as your excuse to be wrathful. :)

As for taking the skin as a saddle, it can also be seen as a way to make good the remains of the son’s remains. We are all so attracted to this piece of skin, its a symbol of our attraction to form and fleeting beauty and enjoyments and most of all the self, Ego.

As such, by using it as a saddle, it is to let the son (spirit) see thru the delusion of form and to use the body (skin) as a way to make merit for him. Being used as a saddle, mother goes around benifiting beings, the son gets the merit to be liberated from ignorance.

Just some passing thoughts. Thanks for reading. :)

September 7, 2013 at 8:50 am
(11) KSL says:

To me, Llamo kept the skin to always be reminded of her son. The outward beauty that had been him, She ate the core of his being, the evil in him, so that she, not him, would hold all that was bad. She accepted as her promise to hold all suffering, all illness, all evils, that beings may have,
within herself.
If you think of her as the protector, imagine her standing in front of a castle, an army is coming to destroy all the beauty that can exist or does exist within its walls.
Llamo knows and understands absolutely how important the contents of the castle are, understands she is the only thing that stands between the castle and the suffering of others.
She is willing to take on all hatred, every bad thing you can imagine beings possess, in order to protect. It would be like someone saying, I will eat all the cancers that others may have inside of them, so that they will not suffer.
She gave up what she held most dear, to live a life constantly reminded of her action. She is seen as a beast, but holds beauty and compassion, in a way few understand. Maybe she is the protector of the Dalai Lama, because he does.

October 21, 2013 at 9:26 pm
(12) AGF says:

The tantric symbolism should not be rationalized, serve in helping us to achieve a non-dual state, free from concepts.

The son of Palden Lhamo can be interpreted as our self-attachment. As a mother and her son, we always feed our self-attachment and we even see it as something that gives us pride, even when it is only a source of suffering. Thus, Palden Lhamo devours the product of her own illusions, self released the suffering it would cause to himself and other beings.

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