Choje Lama Namse (d. 2009), who was the representative of HH 17th Gyalwa Karmapa in Canada, said that bodhisattvas manifest in wrathful forms only when gentler methods are not effective.
Interpreting the Symbolism
Khenpo Karthar reminds us ("Relating to the Mahakala Practice," Densal:
Mahakala is a Protector of all Tibetan Buddhism
The form varies according to the different teaching lineages. For example, there is the two-armed, big-mouthed Mahakala Bernakchen of the Karma Kagyu, the four-armed Mahakala who is protector of the Drikung Kagyu, and six-armed Mahakala of the Gelugpas described below. They are not all wrathful forms of Chenresi [Skt.: Avalokiteshvara] although
There is a white one associated with prosperity, and also a eunuch and some feminine forms, but it is incorrectly held that there are 75 variants.
" . . . the different Mahakalas with various number of arms are not all the same. The Six-Armed version is the emanation of Chenrezig (in association with the head-blowing-up episode) and was originally the specialty of Shangpa Kagyu, but has now been adopted all over; one of the Four-Armed versions is an emanation of C[h]akrasamvara and the main protector of Karma Kagyu; the two-armed Bernakchen, an emanation of Samantabhadra, is actually not the main protector of Karma Kagyu, but rather that of the Karmapas specifically, although there is nothing that says the rest of us cannot also practice on him; the Sakyapa has the two-armed Panjaranatha Mahakala, who probably is an emanation of Manjushri and holds the rod that emanate[s] many Mahakalas.
Like many of the other protectors, one pair[s] up with any one of these Mahakalas as appropriate to their cycle of practice; in other words, one doesn't just pick up a Mahakala out of the blue."
~ BB to the Kagyu email list, June 2002.
Students do not generally do practices associated with dharmapalas such as Mahakala until they have completed the Preliminary or Foundation Practices and of course, after receiving the empowerment to do so.
The Sanskrit descriptive name, Mahakala (Great Time or Great Dark One) is also used to refer to Lord Shiva, the Hindu god whose tandava dance sustains, but can also destroy, the universe of appearances, and who is associated with Time, another meaning of kala. [The teaching known as the Kala-chakra or Wheel of Time, is a Buddhist tantric system thought of as the key to reality that unites the universe, time and the breath of life.]
Lama C. Reed says that in the liturgy
known as Kha Yig Ma, which is the KTD
daily practice, a short (3-page) Chagdrupa is performed incorporating the visualization, torma offering and mantra recitation.
Kubilai Khan succeeded his Buddhist brother Munga, and fearful of the influence of Karma Pakshi, the second Karmapa, had him confined to the Chinese Imperial Palace where he was tied by his beard (among other terrible ordeals.)
Karmapa prayed to Mahakala Bernagchen, but "Great Black Cloak" took so long putting on his boots, that by the time he got there, the ordeal had ended. However, as he had been summoned, he was obliged by rules of combat to cleave something with the hook-knife that he held at the ready. The Karmapa therefore had him strike the palace. As a result, there is still a gash somewhere in the Imperial Palace.
There is a version saying the Karmapa struck Mahakala for his tardiness, giving him his swollen face! Consequently, no subsequent Karmapa has ever worn a beard.
Origin of Mahakala
The compassion of the red Buddha Amitabha manifested as Avalokiteshvara who took a vow to forgo his own enlightenment until all the realms of samsara had been emptied.
This vow required a renewal of determination, and so with Amitabha's blessing, Avalokiteshvara next assumed a form with eleven heads and a thousand arms. Still he had been unable to benefit even a few beings.
Therefore after reflecting for one whole week, he determined
that by assuming a wrathful form he would be able "to subdue the degenerate
beings of this Age of Darkness." Also he saw that even beings who
practiced Dharma were unable to escape from the Bardo realms (time between
rebirths where beings may face great anxiety and terrifying experiences) and he
thought that in wrathful form he could also protect them in that way.
And lastly, he thought that the beings in this Dark Age were poor and needy,
experiencing only suffering after suffering, and that in wrathful form he could
provide them an antidote to that suffering so that by simply making the wish
(for protection) their needs could be met.
The foundations of all the Pure Lands shook with six kinds of earthquakes, and the Conquering and Transcending One of Immeasurable Light (Amitabha) and all the other Tathagatas of the ten directions proclaimed with one voice:
Ever since, bodhisattva Mahakala is the Dharma (Buddha's Doctrine) Protector of all Buddha fields.
Symbolism of Mahakala in the 6-armed
His three eyes symbolize his knowledge of the past, present and future, and also the manifestation of the three bodies of Buddha.
The crown adorned with five skulls symbolizes the transformation of the five poisons of anger, desire, ignorance, jealousy and pride into the five wisdoms.
His six arms symbolize the attainment of the six Perfections: generosity, patience, morality, diligence, meditation and wisdom. The kartika or triku [or trigu, pron. tigu] the ritual curved knife, cuts attachment to ego.
The kapila or skull bowl filled with blood symbolizes the subjugation of the maras or evil ones. (An alternate interpretation can be found in other contexts.)
The rosary symbolizes his continuous activity for the benefit of beings.
The damaru or hand-drum symbolizes his power over the dakinis. (Also, different interpretations in other contexts.)
His trident symbolizes his power over the three kayas -- the spheres of desire, form and formlessness. (An alternate interpretation can also be found.)
The lasso binds those who break their vows.
His two feet are the means and the wisdom to accomplish his task. That his left leg is straight and his right leg bent symbolize his accomplishment of the benefit to oneself and to others. He tramples on a vinayaka, to symbolize his destruction and dispersal of great obstacles.
The sun on which he stands symbolizes his illumination of the darkness of ignorance.
His lotus seat symbolizes purity undefiled by samsara.
The surrounding blazing fire symbolizes his activity that consumes neurotic states.
The tiger skin stands for purification of desire; the elephant skin for purification of pride, and the snake, for the purification of anger.
His other ornaments together symbolize that he has all the
qualities of a Buddha.