When it comes to the idea of a particular supernatural "being" (Deity, Boddhisattva, Buddha, etc) being a projection of aspects of ourselves; while I understand the concept, I still have some difficulties.
I think this is a very good thing to discuss. It represents a real issue that a lot of 'westerners' have, pardon my gross generalization.
It occurs to me, something to consider, is that if the question comes down to whether a yidam is a projection of my mind or is it an independent being, a being who existed even before I was born, then...
if it "exists" outside of the limits of what I can conceive, then how would I possibly know it when I meet one?
To illustrate, consider the artist's representation of, say, Chenrezik, which is always rendered in male form to Tibetan canonical proportions and set guidelines so that you know you are looking at a picture of Chenrezik and not Amitayus or some other fellow. Or, consider the same persona as Kuan Yin, Bodhisattva of Compassion, a representation in female form. Both are Avalokitesvara. But Kuan Yin, more popular in China and Japan, is seated or standing wearing billowing robes, whatever. So, we begin with some idea of "what the deity is supposed to look like"
, even if, depending on the cultural reference, there is no resemblance.
So, no matter what form a deity might actually assume even if they "really existed", unless they assume the shape we are expecting to see, we will not recognize that yidam.
So, regardless of whether you think yidams are just imagined personifications of the true and enlightened nature of one's mind, or an actual cognizant beings who might be living next door, as long as you are regarding the whole situation as having to be one way or the other, this calculating mind cannot grasp the reality of the yidam. As long as you are trying to figure it out "dualistically" you can never see the "oneness".
I was talking to a group of students and i asked them, "how many people have ever seen a painting of Jesus Christ?" and of course everybody raised their hands. then i asked, "who here can tell me what Christ looked like?" and all of the hands went down. How strange! But the point is, even for people who believe in God, what they believe never exceeds what they imagine. So, unless you let go of the "is it real or made up" context, "real or not" doesn't matter because you will only see what you imagine anyway. And if Chenrezik manifests as a chair for you to sit down on, you will only see the chair because in your mind Chenrezik is not upholstered.
(By the way, when I say "you" i don't mean you
specifically, I mean anyone in general).
In another recent thread (pure land) the question came up, if so many people have been reborn in dewachen and can come back here to help sentient beings trapped in samsara, why don't we see them all over the place? And it's sort of the same thing. What do you expect them to look like? Is there a method for "Bodhisattva profiling"? No, I don't think so!!!
So, when we talk about yidams being "real" or just constructs of the imagination, we need to remember that this "real"
we are referring to is itself a construct of our imaginations.