My favorite metaphor for Yidams is the Lord of the Rings. Really? How does that work, you ask? Having fun with Tolkien’s verse, “one ring to rule them all…”:
One Yidam to focus them all, One Yidam to manifest all, One Yidam to bring them all and in Emptiness transform them.
Okay, no more on The Lord of the Rings until later (and feel free to skip it that small section if you’re not a fan!)
Yidam is a contracted form of the Tibetan yid kyi dam tshig and is the bundle of practices (yogas) associated with our samaya (commitments). Yid literally means “mind” Yid kyi dam tshig translates as: “samaya of mind.” Many of us, have used the word Yidam as synonymous with the Enlightened deity associated with that cherished practice — strictly, speaking an incorrect morphing of the word. We certainly could say “Yidam deity” to mean the commitment deity, but Yidam, as a single word, strictly refers to the practices associated with that deity.
Yidam is our heart commitment
The defining characteristic of Yidam is Oneness. We choose one practice, a cherished practice for life, as given to us by our teachers, with a proven lineage.
We may, at various times, practice various yogas, but our central, lifetime commitment is to the Yidam. Once chosen, it’s fair to say that your one Yidam then becomes the representative of all forms of Enlightenment. When you practice your Yidam — regardless of which one — you are practicing all Enlightened forms. This is why we have a little fun with the Lord of the Rings and the One Ring below (non-fans, just skip it!)
The incomplete definition of Yidams on Wikipedia and other non-practice oriented sites can lead to confusion. (Hint: Yidam is much more than the deity!) Using the word Yidam as a “noun” to describe your cherished, personal deity is confusing, especially for new Vajrayana Buddhists.
This became clear to when we received this comment on the video “How to choose a Yidam” (embedded below) “Can I make Shakyamuni Buddha my Yidam?” It’s a beautiful sentiment, but it was clear Yidam was being interpreted as the actual deity, which is not quite the meaning of “Yi, meaning “heart” and “dam” meaning “commitment” and “means.”
Venerable Zasep Rinpoche — short teaching on how to Chose and visualize a Yidam:
It is clear the word Yidam is being assumed to mean “deity” by many of us — which leads to a lot of confusion. Yidam is much wider than deity. Yidam is the heart practice that you devote your life to (Yi is “heart” and “dam is “commitment”).
You commit your life to practice with the goal of ultimate enlightenment. Deity is one aspect — one of a dozen aspects — of Yidam. The commitment is to an entire system of meditational practice. In fact, in a Yidam practice, there can be (often) multiple deities.
Vajrasattva as Yidam — practicing the perfection of purification, video:
“Means of Accomplishment”
The shortest, meaningful definition of Yidam would be “means of accomplishment” — since Yidams include a full cycle of practices. What are we trying to accomplish? Transformation and Enlightenment. We don’t need multiple Yidams, because each Yidam is a complete transformative means of accomplishing the ultimate goal of Enlightenment. Mixing multiple methods is usually discouraged, not because you can’t have more than one Yidam, but because it’s confusing to do so.
Yidam, in the context as given by a teacher, are a bundle of practices — used as our “means of accomplishment — that we commit to, revolving around a personally-cherished deity or mandala with a full-system of yogas. Why mandala? Because some Yidam practices involve multiple deities. Nor are these deities limited to one form. Why cherished? Because we are committing to practice the Yidam for life.
A typical series of “yogas” or practices found in a single Yidam practice might include:
- Taking Refuge in the Three Jewels
- Bodhichitta practice
- Guru Yoga
- Praising the lineage
- Self-generation of the deity
- Offerings: mandala, Bodhichitta, sense offerings, inner, and others
- other unique practices as guided by teacher and commentary from the lineage of accomplishing masters.
Contracting “Yidam deity” to “Yidam” — as done on various online encyclopedia sites — leads others to think the word Yidam is no more than our personally cherished form of the Enlightened Buddha (or deity)— a devotional deity in other words. Although we are devoted to our Yidam deity, this is not the correct or complete definition of Yidam (It’s the definition of Yidam Deity, however — confusing, isn’t it?) The Yidam must be associated with a complete system as a “means of accomplishment.”
Ishta Yoga or Cherished Practices
Ishta Yoga means Cherished Practices (more or less) in Sanskrit. Meanwhile, “Yidam deity” in Sanskrit is Ishta-deva or devata (Sanskrit: इष्टदेवता). However, notice Ishta-Deva is the equivalent of Yidam Deity, not Yidam. Ishta literally means “cherished.”
Yidam as a contracted form of the Tibetan yid kyi dam tshig is the bundle of practices associated with our samaya (commitment) deity — unless you’re in the habit of contracting “Yidam deity” to Yidam. Is this being picky? Not at all, judging by comments on a recent Youtube video on Youtube (see below.) Incomplete or contracted definitions confuse new students. They tend to think “Yidam” is nothing more than the word “cherished deity” instead of a bundle of practices bound by commitments, usually associated witth one or more deities. It’s is extremely confusing if you say your Yidam is 62-Deity Chakrasamvara. There are 62 deities in this practice. In other words, think “mandala” rather than deity — but even then, that’s not the definition.
Incomplete definitions online: Yidam is much more!
This is not helped by Wikipedia’s incomplete high-profile definition: “Yidam is a type of deity associated with tantric or Vajrayana Buddhism said to be manifestations of Buddhahood or enlightened mind,”— which is incomplete to the point of being misleading.
The Tibetan Buddhist Encyclopedia has more correct definition: “the focus of personal meditation or retreat for life.”
They further conflate the definition by giving the synonyms “meditational deity” — again not incorrect, just misleading in its incompleteness. Yes, the Yidam deity is part of the Yidam, so it’s not entirely incorrect — but this incomplete definition leads to many misunderstandings.
In other words, practices. Of course the deity is the subject of the practices, but the practices become forgotten in the quest for various empowerments. Empowerments only empower you to practice. Without practice, they are certainly not Yidam. Your central “practice” — is your Yidam. Practice means you practice it, are devoted to it with all your heart, and committed to it by samaya with your teacher. Normally the practice can include several yogas, up to 11 — for example in Vajrayogini practice.
Later, the definition comes closer, when they write:
“Examples of yidams include the meditation deities Chakrasamvara, Kalachakra, Hevajra, Yamantaka, and Vajrayogini, all of whom have a distinctive iconography, mandala, mantra, rites of invocation and practice.” It would be more correct to say “Yidams are a practice with a specific meditational deity, iconography, mandala, mantra, practices.”
Unless you say “Yidam deity” the word Yidam by itself is meant to describe the “teacher-guided practices of a personal meditational deity to which you commit for life.”
Although some of us are led to our Yidam through our karmas and preferences, usually we then must align with a proven lineage and teacher. “Teacher guided and authorized” is an important aspect of Yidam— since no Yidam (certainly none of the ones listed above) can be practiced as a Yidam without a teacher’s empowerment and teachings. (That doesn’t mean you can’t hold Chakrasamvara or Vajrayogini or Tara as devotional deities. You certainly can! But you can’t practice them as Yidams a without teacher’s blessing and training due to the complexity of the in-depth lifetime practices. It is the teaching and training which transmits the various yogas that constitute the true meaning of Yidam — Heart Bond Practice.
Yidam is a short-form of yid kyi dam tshig. Yid literally means “mind” Yid kyi dam tshig translates as: “Samaya of mind.” Because one of the methods incorporated into this mind Samaya practice includes a single-focus Buddhist deity — customized usually to the practitioner’s state of mind and the teacher’s guidance — it became associated with Yidam Deity. This has led to mistranslations on encyclopedias and Wikipedia. It also leads to misunderstandings with newer students to Vajrayana.
For example, on a recent YouTube video, one viewer commented “Can I simply visualize Shakyamuni Buddha as my Yidam?” (paraphrased). Of course, you can devote your mind and practice to Shakyamuni Buddha — but that doesn’t make this a Yidam practice. It just describes our object of devotion. Certainly, Shakyamuni is and would be your cherished deity, but you couldn’t think of that as your Yidam unless it was a complete system, with lineage to prove its effectiveness, given to you by a qualified teacher.
What is a Yidam, then?
Yidam goes far beyond deity and is meant to describe your heart practice as given by your teacher, a full bundle of practices focused on our heart deity, including visualizing the self as the Enlightened Deity, refuge, making offerings, praises, and often a full set of teacher-guided practices up to and including body mandala practice. For example, Vajryogini, as Yidam implies not just Vajrayogini herself, but the 11 Yogas However, the true essence of the Yidam is that it is our practice. As the great teacher Ringu Tulku Rinpoche explained (video embedded):
“We have the three Refuges, Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. At the Vajrayana level, sometimes we say Lama, Yidam, and Khandros. It’s more or less the same. The Buddha is the teacher; the Lama is the teacher. Dharma is the practice, Yidam is the practice. And Sangha is the community or the people who help us to learn the Dharma. Then Khandros — or Dakas, Dakinis and Dharmapalas — they are the community.”
Ringu Tulku Rinpoche introducing Yidams:
Lord of the Rings — One Ring, One Yidam?
This brings us to my metaphor of the One Ring — if you don’t know Lord of the Rings, skip down a couple of paragraphs! (To “One Yidam to focus them all”).
Yidam literally means “heart bound” practices (referring to our cherished path given to us by our teachers). Since it is a practice, it has the power to transform our mind — just as the One Ring seeks to transform all the rings in the Lord of the Rings.
One ring, or one Yidam — focus for transformation
Like the One Ring in the Lord of the Rings, we can use our personal one Yidam to gather all concepts and forms of Enlightenment into one foci — and to focus singularly on our Bodhisattva goal — to benefit all sentient beings. It is skillful to practice one Yidam to perfection, rather than trying to do a “little of this, a little of that.” In other words, be the master of one domain.
In the fantasy epic Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, a simple ring in the hands of a simple hobbit — from a little-known shire — threatens to topple the world. Variously called the Ruling Ring, Master Ring and Isildur’s Bane, the One Ring has the “magic” power to bind all the powers of the world — all the other rings. The inscription reads:
“One Ring to rule them all, One Ring to find them, One Ring to bring them all and in the darkness bind them.” 
How did the evil one, Sauron, accomplish this? He invested all his power and focus into the creation of One Ring to subsume all the others. (Of course, that’s a problem in his case, since he lost the “precious” ring.)
As a metaphor, this works to illustrate the power of One Yidam:
One Yidam to focus them all
Our personal Yidam binds all concepts of Buddha and Enlightenment in one form that resonates perfectly for us. In the context of singular Yidam instruction, as famously taught by the great Lord Atisha, we could paraphrase as “One YIdam to rule them all.”
One Yidam to focus them all, One Yidam to manifest all, One Yidam to bring them all and in Emptiness transform them.
Single Yidam focuses us
Although we don’t seek to “bind” anything in darkness, the single-focus Yidam, or meditational hear practice, has the power to supercharge our accomplishments. (Remember, the Yidam is our practice!) Yidam is not a deity we worship — although we have devotion, of course — it’s a practice we undertake diligently to transform our minds.
From this point of view, it’s not entirely accurate to think of your Yidam as Buddha — even though a Yidam is an Enlightened Buddha. Yidam is actually the heart practice from our teacher that conveys the practice of Dharma. It is what we practice for our lifetime to achieve our own ultimate Enlightenment for the benefit of all beings.
We don’t have to have a Yidam. Many Buddhists don’t. Yet, as a method, like the One Ring in the epic fantasy, the one Yidam method is very powerful, empowering our meditations in a tangible, profound and rapid way. This is one reason Vajrayana is defined as the “Lightning” Path — “Vajra” literally translates lightning bolt, and “yana” means path. Why Lightning path as a metaphor. Lightning is both awesomely powerful and “speed of light” fast!
In meditational practices, nothing is more effective than a single focus. There is no one Yidam with the power to bind all the others — the bottom line is they are all, in essence, the same. We choose a Yidam that resonates with us.
Venerable Zasep Rinpoche describes our feeling for our Yidam as “passion, without attachment, even though the metaphor he used to explain the level of passion was of a child’s passion for a favorite toy. [See embedded video for more of this excellent 6-minute talk, ” How can we visualize Buddhas and Yidams — even if we have no imagination or skill at visualization?”
Rinpoche said, “So, when you have that, it’s like a child, a little child, fantasizing about toys. You go to the toy shop, and all you think about are toys. Like a little boy with his toy truck.
Automatically, boom, your mind is gone. Drawn in. Because you want this, you like this, you are so excited. Yogis, or Yoginis, should have this kind of excitement or passion.
That’s one of the purposes of Yidams. The Enlightened qualities of all the Buddhas are the same, but the visualized characteristics of one Yidam is different from another. We choose the one that “draws us us” like the child with his new toy.
As Zasep Rinpoche explains, that “with that inspiration that energy, then you can visualize — faster. That means your visualization skills will improve faster. Your concentration will improve.”
The great teacher Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche mirrored this level of enthusiasm when speaking about Tara:
The devotees of Tara, especially the devotees from great universities like as Nalanda, they go bananas. They long for her, they praise to her, they really supplicate, they beseech her.”
Longing and love and passion and wonder are methods. We need to praise, adore, pray, prostrate — not just for merit and purification, but to come closer to that ultimate truth that: “The deity is none other than the union of clarity and emptiness, the union of emptiness and compassion. 
“All Buddhas are One”
In the Avatamsaka Sutra, it says “All Buddhas are One Buddha.” Many of us have fragmented practices. One day we’re doing our Medicine Buddha Practice, the next day Tara, the next day, Manjushri — and on it goes. Also, One Buddha can have many forms, such as Avalokiteshvara, the Buddha of Compassion, who has wrathful, female, male and other forms suited to the minds of his practitioners:
Padmasambhava, the Lotus Born master, likewise explained the concept that all Buddhas are of one essence, in a teaching to Lady Yeshe Tsogyal.
“The body, speech, and mind of all deities are manifested by the three kayas in accordance with the perception of those to be tamed. In fact, no matter how they appear, if you practice one you will be practicing them all. If you accomplish one you will have accomplished them all.”
He reinforced this further in answer to the Lady’s follow up question:
“Although the Sugatas manifest as various kinds of families and forms, out of skillful means to tame beings, they are in actuality inseparable, the state of equality.
If you were to practice all the Buddhas with this realization of their inseparability, your merit would be most eminent. But if you were to do so while regarding the yidam deities as having different qualities which should be either accepted or rejected, you would be immeasurably obscured.”
Why are there so many forms?
His Eminence Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche the Third.
“Why are there so many? Yidams are visualized pure forms that manifest from dharmadhatu’s empty essence as the lucid self-display of our Lama’s compassion.” The goal of Yidam practice is critical to understanding these forms: ” What is the purpose of Vajrayana practice? Purifying one’s impure perception of all appearances and experiences.”
Skillful practice — choose one and only one!
Of course, most sophisticated meditators know the Enlightened qualities of one meditational deity are the same as all the others. No Yidam is more powerful than another. No Yidam is right for everyone. With skillful means, the Enlightened Buddhas can take any form. It is a symptom of our own fragmented mindstreams that we flit back and forth between one practice and another, even when our teachers tell us “one practice is all you need.” (One ring… okay, beating it to death…)
Somewhat less skillful is our practice. We are told by our teachers to choose one Yidam and focus for a lifetime on the practice — or until we attain realizations. That worked well in ancient India and Tibet, where great Maha-Siddhas choose one practice and devoted themselves with full focus. Today, our modern world, drives us this way and that way. One day we are bursting with enthusiasm to practice Vajrayogini. The next week we are excited to “try out” Yamantaka.
We should take to heart the advice the great Indian sage Atisha gave to the Tibetan master Rinchen Sangpo: “Some of you Tibetans have tried to accomplish a hundred deities but have failed to gain a single attainment, while some Indian Buddhists have gained the attainments of a hundred deities by accomplishing the practice of one.”
Zasep Rinpoche reinforced this idea in his short teaching (video):
You don’t need so many Yidams. That’s why Atisha said ‘It’s better to practice one Yidam.’ If you practice properly one Yidam and you achieve that, then you achieve all of them together.
Choosing your One Yidam
Guru Rinpoche advised Lady Yeshe Tosgyal how to choose a Yidam — and why there are so many forms:
“Since means and knowledge are practicing the spontaneously present body, speech, and mind through the method of yoga sadhana, all the countless sugatas, peaceful and wrathful, chief figures and retinues, manifest in accordance with those to be tamed in whichever way is necessary — as peaceful and wrathful, chief figures and retinues.
But as they are all of one taste in the state of dharmakaya, each person can practice whichever yidam he feels inclined toward.” 
The secret: remained focused on one Yidam
In other words, for each of us, individually, our “one ring” can be any Yidam — but the secret is to remain focused on one deity with all your heart, mind and focus.
Once we choose, and remain focused, as the late, great Gelek Rimpoche famously taught: “That is why you don’t have to think, ‘Yeah, I have Lama Vajrayogini here, but I have forgotten Shakyamuni, I forgot the Medicine Buddha, I forgot Tara there. What has happened to my refuge?”
What is the Yidam ultimately?
Guru Rinpoche explained the nature of the Yidam, ultimately, to the Lady Yeshe Tsogyal:
“Realize that you and the yidam deity are not two and that there is no yidam deity apart from yourself. You approach the yidam deity when you realize that your nature is the state of nonarising dharmakaya.” 
 Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien
 Feature “Go Bananas for the Buddha” on Buddha Weekly>>