Yab-yum (Tibetan literally, "father-mother") is a common symbol in the Tibetan art of India, Bhutan, Nepal, and Tibet. It represents the primordial union of wisdom and compassion, depicted as a male deity in union with his female consort through the similar idea of interpenetration or "coalescence" (Wylie: zung-'jug; Sanskrit: yuganaddha), using the concept of Indra's net to illustrate this. The male figure represents compassion and skillful means, while the female partner represents insight. In yab-yum the female is seated on the male’s lap. There is a rare presentation of a similar figure but reversed, with the male sitting on the female’s lap, called yum-yab.
The symbolism is associated with Anuttarayoga tantra and, while there are various interpretations of the symbolism in twilight language, the male figure is usually linked to compassion (karuṇā) and skillful means (upāya-kauśalya), while the female partner is linked to "wisdom" (prajñā).
Yab-yum is generally understood to represent the primordial (or mystical) union of wisdom and compassion. In Buddhism the masculine form is active, representing the compassion and skillful means (upaya) that have to be developed in order to reach enlightenment. The feminine form is passive and represents wisdom (prajna), which is also necessary to enlightenment. United, the figures symbolize the union necessary to overcome the veils of Maya, the false duality of object and subject.
In Tibetan Buddhism, the same ideas are to be found concerning the bell and the dorje, which, like the yab-yum, symbolize the dualism that must be transcended. The sacred Tantric practice leads to rapid development of mind by using the experience of bliss, non-duality, and ecstasy while in communion with one's consort, either visualized, or in the case of advanced practitioners, in some cases physical. In one important Anuttarayoga text, where Tilopa expounds the meaning to Naropa, it is said:
When you rely on a consort, the wisdom of empty bliss will arise, so enter into union—the blessing of method and wisdom. Bring it down slowly, retain it, reverse it, and draw it back up. Bring it to the places in the body and let it spread throughout. When you remain free of desire, the wisdom of empty bliss will appear.
Indicating the advanced nature of the actual practice with consort, the verses are the last in what is already widely considered as a text for the most advanced practitioners, a fact clearly evident in the story about Naropa's receiving the teaching.
In Hinduism the yab-yum has a slightly different meaning. There, the embraced posture represents the divine strength of creation. The Hindu concept is of a passive masculine deity embracing his spouse, called shakti, which represents his activity or power. The yab-yum of Chakrasamvara-Vajravarahi is directly influenced from the Hinduist depiction of Kali and Bhairava in union.
As a tantric practice, Yab-yum is akin to the Karmamudrā or "actionseal". This is the tantric yoga involving a physical partner. However, the aim of the practice is to control one's winds. This sadhana is part of the completion stage.
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- Media related to Yab-yum images at Wikimedia Commons