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MAHĀVAIROCANA (lit., "the great illuminator"), the Great Sun Buddha, is the transcendent and cosmocratic apotheosis of the historical Buddha, Śākyamuni. Under the earlier designation Vairocana ("the luminous one"), he represents Buddhism's most profound speculation on the emptiness and interpenetration of all elements in the universe (dharmadhātu). As Mahāvairocana he is concretely envisaged as the all-encompassing lord of the cosmos and is the object of worship for a form of Tantric Buddhism that spread from India to Sumatra, China, Japan, and Tibet.

In India, the name Virocana appears in the gveda in connection with celestial phenomena and the luminous residence of Varua. Other Vedic contexts link Virocana variously with Sūrya, the solar deity; Candra, the lunar deity; and Agni, god of fire. In the Chandogya Upaniad, Virocana, king of the asura s (anti-gods), loses a competition for true knowledge of the Self to his counterpart Indra, king of the deva s (gods). Pali Buddhist literature identifies the deity Verocana with the demon Bali, and in the Sayutta Nikāya he again opposes his nemesis Sakka (Indra), this time in seeking knowledge from the Buddha.

Vairocana is mentioned in other Buddhist texts such as the Mahāvastu and the Lalitavistara, but his role as a symbol of ultimate reality is developed only in Mahāyāna scriptures such as the Daśabhūmikā Sūtra and the Gaavyūha Sūtra, both found in the huge collection known as the Avatasaka Sūtra. According to the Chinese Huayan and the Japanese Kegon traditions, both of which are grounded in the Avatasaka Sūtra, Śākyamuni, the Buddha who preached the Avatasaka, had like all buddhas before him spent aeons as a bodhisattva striving toward enlightenment. On the night of his final enlightenment, he ascended to the palace of the Akaniha Heaventhe summit of the cosmoswhere abhieka ("initiation, consecretion") was conferred upon him by the buddhas of the Ten Quarters. He thus attained the "body of enjoyment" (sambhogakaya) and came to reign from the Akaniha Heaven as the celestial sovereign who preaches to highly advanced bodhisattva s. Simultaneously with this attainment, Śākyamuni realized his identity with the dharmakāya (reality as total, transcendent, and ineffable). The earthly body of Śākyamuni took up his preaching, but that body, as well as the "body of enjoyment," were now recognized as manifestations of the transcendent dharmakāya. Thus, Vairocana represents ultimate reality and at the same time permeates all levels of the manifest cosmos and the beings in it. The universe is his infinite body. All things are in him, and his presence shines in all things.

This notion of interpenetrationof the part in the whole and the whole in every partis closely linked with images of light and illumination in the mythology of Vairocana/Mahāvairocana. The Gahavyūha Sūtra describes reality as a universe of infinitely reflected light. As the solar deity, Vairocana is the center of the cosmos, its ruler and sovereign. He is above the cosmos, yet all its variations are reflections of him. A frequently used image is that of Indra's net. The net constitutes the universe, and at each knot there is a jewel that reflects all the other jewels in the net.

MahĀvairocana and Tantra

The name Vairocana points to an ultimate perspective to be realized through insight. Mahāvairocana, in contrast, is realized concretely in ritual practice. Mahāvairocana, the chief deity in much of the Buddhist Tantric tradition, rose to prominence sometime between the fifth and seventh century ce. While sharing Vairocana's symbolism, Mahāvairocana's distinctiveness in iconography, doctrine, and ritual is signaled by the Sanskrit prefix mahā ("great"). The principal scriptures that extol Mahāvairocana and describe his cult, the Mahāvairocana Sūtra and the Tattvasagraha, are no longer fully extant in Sanskrit, but their Chinese translations are the basis of the Chinese Zhenyanand Japanese Shingon (mantra) schools of Buddhism. Tibetan translations of these scriptures are regarded as the root texts of two of the four classes of Tantra in that country, Carya Tantras and Yoga Tantras. Although Mahāvairocana was important in Tibetan Buddhism, his cult was overshadowed by deities of the Anuttarayoga Tantras. For the Tibetans the buddha Akobhya, the "primordial buddha" (Ādibuddha), and the dialectical symbolism of cosmic sexuality represented by yab-yum, or "father-mother," images found in the Guhyasamaja Tantra and Hevajra Tantra, were more compelling.

MahĀvairocana in East Asia

The Mahāvairocana Sūtra and the Tattvasagraha were brought to China by two Indian ācārya s ("teachers") from the North Indian monastic university at Nālandā, which in the seventh century ce had become a center for Tantric studies. Śubhākarasiha (637735) and Vajrabodhi (671741) arrived to missionize the Tang court in 716 and 720 respectively. Through their efforts and those of their disciples, the major texts and commentaries concerning Mahāvairocana were translated. A small but stable cult was established under the cautious patronage of the pro-Daoist Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712756). Mahāvairocana as he is revealed in what became known as Esoteric Buddhism (Chin., Mi-chiao; Jpn., Mikkyō) assumes the symbolism of Vairocana. Mahāvairocana is described as the lord of the vast palace of the vajradharmadhātu that has been created by his wondrous power of transformation (adhihāna). This palace is identified both as the Akaniha Heaven and as the entire cosmos. Like Vairocana, Mahāvairocana has received initiations (abhieka s) from all the Buddhas, and the Akaniha Heaven is the scene of these initiations as well as of the revelation of the new Tantric scriptures. In the Mahāvairocana Sūtra, Mahāvairocana is portrayed as the light and sustenance of the manifest cosmos and as its supreme sovereign. He is at once the cosmocrat and the active participant in all manifestation; his presence is felt not only in the salvific action of bodhisattva s but also in weather, constellations, and all other phenomena. The Tattvasagraha tends to emphasize the cosmos as it is reflected in Mahāvairocana. He is the Lord of Light, and the universe is an endless series of reflections of him.

Iconography and Worship

Mahāvairocana's distinctiveness is apparent in his texts, which are almost entirely devoted to ritual. While Vairocana represents absolute reality, to be realized through insight developed over long aeons, Mahāvairocana is realized through an active and immediate ritual participation in his very being. Practice is a ritual drama based upon iconographic conventions detailed in maala s, or cosmograms, drawn from the two major texts, and it consists of two intertwined acts. The disciple first attempts to realize his identity with the deity through imitating the iconographic conventions, or "marks," of the deity as revealed in the texts, and through oral instruction. His body and hand posture (mudrā), ritual incantation (mantra), and meditative vision (samādhi) seek to duplicate the very consciousness of the divinity he worships. Success in this imitatio is termed siddhi ("accomplishment"). The disciple undergoes a series of initiations (abhieka) identifying him with deities at various levels of the maala. Should he be deemed fit, he may attain final realization of his identity with Mahāvairocana, reenacting the Buddha's quest and final ascent to the Akaniha Heaven to become an ācārya. Having realized his identity with the deity, he may now exercise that deity's powers for the good of others. This second act is also called siddhi.

Under the aegis of Vajrabodhi's disciple Amoghavajra (d. 774), under his Chinese successors, and under Kūkai (774835), the Japanese founder of Shingon, the iconography of Esoteric Buddhism took a definitive form. Certain maala s were drawn from the Mahāvairocana Sūtra and the Tattvasagraha to produce the Womb Maala (Garbhakośadhātu Maala) and the Diamond Maala (Vajradhātu Maala). Mahāvairocana of the Womb Maala is usually golden, seated in meditative posture on a lunar disk that rests on a red lotus blossom. He is regally adorned as the master of the cosmos and represents the final achievement of buddhahood. Other divinities depicted in the maala represent his compassionate activity (karuā) in all phenomena and the possibility of illumination. The Diamond Maala is composed of nine maala s selected from the Tattvasagraha. They represent Mahāvairocana's consciousness or wisdom (prajñā). The central image of Mahāvairocana is usually white or blue, seated upon a lotus blossom resting on a lunar disk. He is adorned and crowned and his hands are clasped in the Gesture of All-Embracing Wisdom (Jñānamui Mudra). Shingon tradition describes the maala as representative of the cosmos as Mahāvairocana sees it, the timeless universe of the interpenetrating light of wisdom. These two maala s, which like conditional reality and ultimate reality are said to be nondual, provide a framework for classifying all phenomena. Initiation and ritual practice were organized around the new scheme, and therefore an ācārya must be initiated into both maala s. Kūkai introduced several refinements, the most important of which is the identification of the first five material elements of the cosmos with the Womb Maala and the sixth element, mind, with the Diamond Maala. Thus, for Kūkai, the material cosmos was the body of the transcendent dharmakāya, not an ontologically secondary manifestation as might be surmised from Huayan doctrine.

The Religious Meaning of MahĀvairocana

The Great Sun Buddha Mahāvairocana represents one of the world's most profound religious conceptions. Like the physical sun, Mahāvairocana Buddha is the pivot of the manifest cosmos, the source of light and life. Yet this is far from pantheism, since Mahāvairocana transcends the universe just as he is the universe. Nor is this docetism. Indeed, no better term may be found than that coined by Masaharu Anesaki (1915), who speaks of Shingon's "cosmotheism." The full meaning of Mahāvairocana is apprehended in Tantric practice, for there Mahāvairocana functions as an icon, as both the embodiment of the divine and as a symbol pointing to divine transcendence. Thus, in the ritual drama of Tantra the practitioner realizes his own iconic nature. He is both the worshiper and the object of worship; he experiences the paradox of divinity that is the world and yet transcends the world. He is Mahāvairocana in this very body.

See Also

Amoghavajra; Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, article on Celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas; Maalas, article on Buddhist Maalas; Shingonshū; Śubhākarasiha; Sun; Vajrabodhi.


The best introduction to the cult of Mahāvairocana in the context of Tibetan Tantric practice is David L. Snellgrove's Buddhist Himalaya (Oxford, 1957). On Vairocana and his symbolism in the Huayan and Kegon traditions see Francis D. Cook's Huayan Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra (University Park, Pa., 1977) and Thomas Cleary's Entry into the Inconceivable: An Introduction to Hua-yen Buddhism (Honolulu, 1983). The only study of the Zhenyan school in China is Chou I-liang's excellent annotated translation (with introductions) of the lives of Śubhākarasiha, Vajrabodhi, and Amoghavajra, "Tantrism in China," Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 8 (1945): 241332. Studies of Esoteric Buddhism and thus of Mahāvairocana from the doctrinal perspective of Japanese Shingon are Minoru Kiyota's Shingon Buddhism (Los Angeles, 1978), which includes an explanation of the two maala s, and a hard-to-find but excellent work in French by the Shingon priest Tajima Ryūjun, Étude sur le Mahāvairocana-sūtra (Paris, 1936). Tajima's study includes a translation of the first chapter of this important text. Yoshito S. Hakeda has provided a fine introduction to Kūkai's life and thought and translations of some of his works in his Kūkai: Major Works (New York, 1972). The best study of the Shingon maala s is also by Tajima Ryūjun but again his Les deux grands maala s et la doctrine de l'ésotérisme Shingon, "Bulletin de la maison franco-japonaise," n.s. vol. 6 (Tokyo, 1959), is in French and hard to obtain. Somewhat easier to find is Beatrice Lane Suzuki's article on the Womb Maala, "The Shingon School of Mahāyāna Buddhism," part 2, "The Mandara," Eastern Buddhist 7 (May 1936): 138. Finally, a brief but excellent understanding of the two maala s may be found in Masaharu Anesaki's "Buddhist Cosmotheism and the Symbolism of Its Art" in his Buddhist Art in Its Relation to Buddhist Ideals (1915; reprint, New York, 1978).

New Sources

Abé, Ryūichi. The Weaving of Mantra: Kūkai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse. New York, 1999.

Hodge, Stephen. The Mahā-Vairocana-Abhisambodhi Tantra: with Buddhaguhya's Commentary. London, 2003.

Payne, Richard K., ed. Re-visioning "Kamakura" Buddhism. Honolulu, 1998.

Wayman, Alex, and R. Tajima. The Enlightenment of Vairocana: Book I Study of the Vairocanabhisambodhitantra: Book II Study of the Mahavairocana-Sutra. Delhi, 1992.

Yamamoto, Chikyo. Mahāvairocana-sūtra: Translated into English from Ta-p'i lu che na ch'eng-fo shen-pien chia-ch'ih ching, the Chinese Version of Śubhākarasiha and I-hsing, a.d. 725. New Delhi, 1990.

Charles D. Orzech (1987)

Revised Bibliography