Deity Visualization and the Placebo Effect

Quick, think of how to meditate!




What came to mind? Watching the breath? Letting thoughts come and go? Maybe dwelling on compassion?

What about something like this?

In the sky there appears a dark blue lotus
With mats of sun and moon.
Standing proudly on the sun mat
Is the wrathful figure of Vajrapani.

His immensely powerful body is dark blue in colour
And stepping to the right he stands with legs astride.
His expression is intensely wrathful
As he looks in all directions of space.

His right hand brandishes aloft a golden vajra
With which he overcomes the obstacles of all beings.
With his left hand he makes the demon-defying mudra
Whereby he subdues the spirits and demons of the six realms.

These lines, which seemingly out of a fantasy novel, actually are part of a meditation on Vajrapani, the Buddha of Spiritual Power* in esoteric Buddhism (pictured at the start of this article). They represent a type of meditation prominent in Tibetan Buddhism: visualization practice, especially on deities (called yidams). When you see a Tibetan Lama sitting in meditation, it’s likely that, rather than ‘thinking about nothing,’ they are perceiving a hallucinatory array of lights, syllablesobjects, palaces and deities parading through their mind.

As an example (and this is quite technical), in one of the the preliminary practices of ngondro, you imagine a specific Buddha, Vajrasattva, above your head in union with his consort. You then chant a mantra and imagine that the mantra activates the seed syllable ‘hum’, which causes the clear white light of enlightenment to shoot down from Vajrasattva into your head, purifying your body, speech and mind. At the end of the practice, you visualize Vajrasattva and his consort dissolving into that same clear light, merging with you, and instantaneously transforming you into a fully enlightened Buddha. In essence, you are trying to become enlightened by imagining you already are. This is a preliminary practice, mind you – full-blow deity yoga can get much more complicated.

Not exactly watching the breath.

These psychedelic and seemingly supernatural practices seem to be in direct contradiction to the common perception of Buddhism as a ‘scientific religion,’ that avoids the gods of Hinduism and the God of Abraham. However, to write off these meditative techniques as outdated, superstitious, or ineffective is quite close-minded. Indeed, there is a profound philosophical and psychological rationale behind visualization practice, which boils down to maximizing our ability to intrinsically manipulate our own neurochemical and somatic states through the power of belief. In essence, the visualization of the deity can be thought of as riding the placebo effect all the way to enlightenment.

What, what? Isn’t the placebo effect when something doesn’t work?

Technically, no. A placebo, in the strictest definition, is actually something that works in spite of having no active therapeutic ingredients.

In modern medical parlance, though, the term ‘placebo effect’ is indeed almost always used with a negative connotation. A placebo is considered something ineffective, faulty, a false prescription to be contrasted with ‘real’ treatments that ‘actually work.’

This definition makes perfect sense within the confines of a pharmaceutical trial. From a holistic perspective, however, it is ultimately self-limiting, as it essentially deems anything the body or mind does its own as ‘fake’ or ‘not effective.’

The irony is that modern medicine itself readily admits the effectiveness of the placebo as a healing method, especially if a patent has faith in the treatment. Placebos have been shown to substantially affect dopamine and mu-opiod levels, and have been clinically shown to reduce lower back pain, as well as relieve a large number of other conditions. In fact, within medicine, there is a term for this: the placebo paradox, where a doctor must choose between prescribing that doesn’t meet modern medical notions and not using a form of treatment that could help somebody.

Such an ethical bind assumes that the placebo is a sugar pill, something clearly false that nonetheless works because people have faith in it. In our secular world, this tends to be anything that isn’t an external allopathic treatment (i.e. medication or surgery). While there is no denying the ethical imperative to prevent people from following treatments that don’t work, our working definition of ‘legitimate medicine’ often writes off anything that doesn’t come in the form of a pill or a scalpel. Even demonstrating a statistically significant positive outcome in scientific studies isn’t sufficient to be viewed as reliable; if it were, the placebo itself, with a plethora of studies in its favor, would be considered a valid method of treatment.

But what does this have to do with Buddhist deities? Isn’t the notion of an external supernatural entity exactly the kind of thing we should be avoiding?

It is – but that’s not what a deity is in Tantric Buddhism. These deities, or yidams, are not magical beings that we summon or invoke to help us. They, on the most fundamental level, are us; they are aspects of our own inherent Buddhahood, of our own enlightened mind.

Vajrasattva: more real than your insecurities.

Indeed, yidams are considered a mechanism to discover ‘one’s own intrinsically pure awareness.’ This points to one of Buddhism’s fundamental truths, that of emptiness.  Buddhism views everything in existence as being transient and unreal, as having the nature of ‘a flickering lamp, an illusion, a phantom, or a dream.‘ To believe anything exists on any ultimate level is to be profoundly deluded. As Dr. Alexander Berzin puts it, “an impure appearance is an appearance of things as if existing in a solid manner – in other words, a crazy projection of something impossible.

As a result, in deity meditation practice, neither the deity and the practitioner are considered to have any inherent existence to themselves. In terms of ultimate truth, this is actually a more accurate view than the idea that you are so-and-so who lives in such and such place and so on. Even from a strictly scientific perspective, it is more accurate to describe your existence in terms of countless elementary particles in perpetual flux than as a specific person.

Okay, but how does this relate to the placebo effect? What’s the connection?

To put it simply, the practice of visualizing the deity during meditation is the perfect mechanism to make use of the placebo effect.

One key element of the placebo effect is that its effectiveness is, in a large way, based on the expectations that are attached to it. Believing that a placebo can cause a complete remission of back pain, for example, produces a stronger effect than just believing it will make the patient feel a little better. This is where much of the ethical dilemma stems from, as a doctor who passionately sells a placebo will give the patient greater relief than one who halfheartedly prescribes it.

In this regard, the visualization of deities represents a perfect vehicle for the placebo effect. Why? According to Vajrayana, successful deity practice results in nothing less than the purification of all obstacles, the attainment of omniscience, a series of magical powers, and complete enlightenment. According to the dynamics that undergird the placebo effect, such a profound expectation and goal will maximize the placebo’s potential benefits – that is, it will maximize your mind’s ability to intrinsically transform your body and mind. It is worth mentioning that while much of meditation focuses on mental transformation, deity visualization – such as the purifying light of Vajrasattva – also involves what can be considered energy healing, which affects the body directly and brings these techniques into the realm of physical medicine.

The instructions around deity practice continually encourage this level of trust in the effectiveness of the teachings. This is not blind faith by any means – Buddhism clearly rejects believing something simply because you were to believe it – but rather a sense of truth created by a profound understanding of Buddhist philosophy and the emptiness of all things. For the scientifically minded, who are skeptical of the more supramundane aspects of esoteric Buddhism, the empirical neurological results of intensive practice ought to speak volumes.

Regardless of how one comes to trust the techniques, that trust – and the transcendental expectations that go with it – is essential for the practice to work. Simply playing make believe won’t cut it. When you visualize a yidam above your head, for example, it’s extremely important to actually feel the deity there, even if it’s not a very clear visualization in terms of detail.

On a deeper level, you must actually believe that these practices have to power to radically heal and transform your body, speech, and mind. In the words of the great Lama Yeshe, ‘if you continue to hold on to the idea that you are basically confused and angry, [when you arise from the meditation after merging with the deity] you will manifest as a confused and angry person, not as a blissful deity.’

Where is the science behind all this? In many ways, there isn’t any – yet. As properly practiced deity yoga is an advanced and esoteric technique, it hasn’t been comprehensively studies to the extent of, say, mindfulness meditation or Vipassana. However, all studies that have been done demonstrate an extraordinary transformation in the minds of senior practitioners, right up to and including what can reasonably be considered superpowers.

One hypothesis I have is that the practice’s effectiveness stems from activating multiple neural networks at once: you’re working with your posture, your breath, your visual network, your auditory network, and your (imagined) somatic network as well. I would not be surprised if future studies show that cultivating all of these pathways through rigorous practice is sort of the meditational equivalent of rigorous physical cross-conditioning.

So that’s it? I just visualize one of these Buddhas and believe that it will make me enlightened and it will fix all my problems?

In a nutshell, yes. However, it’s incredibly important to have a comprehensive understanding of Buddhist philosophy, particularly the notions of emptiness and universal compassion. If we believe that these deities – or ourselves, for that matter – are real, self-existent entities, and that we’ve actually become some sort of divine being, we’ve completely missed the point. Similarly, if we engage in these practices with just our own problems in mind, we run the risk of simply reinforcing our own selfishness by making us think it’s divine. Even the preliminary ngondro is to be done alongside a thorough study of traditional Buddhist sutras.

If deity visualization are practiced with the right intention and concentration, however, it represents one of the most remarkable and effective meditation techniques Buddhism – or any spiritual practice – has to offer. Indeed, I believe that deity visualization holds within it a seed to transform both our modern understanding of the placebo effect and, more broadly, the mind-body connection as a whole.

Plus, it’s just kind of awesome.

*For those new to Mahayana Buddhism, there are considered to be as many different Buddhas as there are grains of sand in the Ganga, of which Gautama Buddha is just one.

Published by

Carter Ruff

"Meaning is entered into words as objects in the dark are revealed by a lamp."

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