VAJRADHARA (Tib., Rdo rje chang [Dorje chang]; Mongolian, Ochirdana) is, in the last stages of Indian Tantric Buddhism and in the continuing Tibetan traditions, the distinct embodiment of the highest state of being, the primordial Ādibuddha, and the revealer of all the Tantras. But he was not always thus, for in the beginning in India Vajradhara was simply another name for Vajrapāṇi (Tib., Phyag na rdo rje [Chagna dorje]), both bodhisattva and deity. One can explain this development as the logical expansion of the tiny terminological difference between the less concrete "bearer (-dhara ) of the vajra " and the unambiguous "vajra in hand." Vajrasattva (Tib., Rdo rje sems dpa' [Dorje sempa]; Chin., Wo tzu lo sa tsui; Jap., Kongosatta) further complicates the historical picture. "Vajra being" was at first another early synonym for Vajrapāṇi, then both a synonym for Vajradhara and a distinct deity in his own right. Nor had Vajrapāṇi played a single unitary role in the history of Buddhism in India and beyond.
The Real Vajradhara
Given the logic of terminological abstraction, one might expect Vajrasattva to be loftier than Vajradhara (when they are distinguished). But it is Vajradhara alone who represents one of just two possible representations of the dharmakāya, the highest, in Tibetan Buddhism. The other is Samantabhadra ("All Good"; Tib., Kun tu bzang po [Kuntu zangpo]), depicted completely naked to illustrate his distance from conventions. In the Mahāyāna and Tantric Buddhist analysis of the nature of enlightenment, the dharmakāya is the least compromised form of the Buddha or a buddha, out of space and time. Thus its representation should not be taken literally, however anthropomorphic in appearance.
Vajradhara is indeed depicted seated cross-legged in a vajraparyaṅka pose, on a moon disk and lotus, two-armed, hands crossed over his heart in the vajrahūṃkara or union gesture. His left, female hand is inside (signifying his inner wisdom and emptiness) and bearing the bell; his right, male hand holding the vajra is above the left to symbolize the method and compassion directed outwards. He is blue, like his historical "forefather," Vajrapāṇi. If in union, Vajradhara's consort is red Vajrayoginī (Vajravārāhī), embodiment of prajñāpāramitā (the "perfection of wisdom"), skull in left hand and flaying knife in right. Emptiness expanded, like the personification of prajñāpāramitā, he should not be mistaken for an individual buddha-being. Although dharmakāya, and therefore not individual, he wears the regal finery of a saṃbhogakāya —eight jewel ornaments and five silks. In paintings he is frequently surrounded by the eighty-four mahāsiddhas, Tantric Buddhist saints.
In Rdzogs chen (Dzogchen), the "Great Perfection," or Atiyoga traditions of the Rnying ma (Nyingma, "old") school of Tibetan Buddhism, and in Bon, the so-called pre-Buddhist religion of Tibet, Samantabhadra, not Vajradhara, is the dharmakāya, albeit also known as Mahāvajradhara Samantabhadra (Kun bzang rdo rje chang chen [Kunzang dorje chang chen]). Vajradhara instead manifests as the saṃbhogakāya, while the Rdzogs chen Samantabhadra is utterly separate from the Mahāyāna bodhisattva of that name.
At these rarefied elevations of the dharmadhātu, the pure dharma realm, Vajradhara is real, definitive (Skt., niścitārtha ; Tib., nges pa don gi ), sheer concept, and the nature of everything. Such pantheism requires that nothing is not Vajradhara, if one could but realize this truth. Vajrasattva, meanwhile, is simply the saṃbhogakāya of the intangible Samantabhadra.
To teach bodhisattvas and humans, the ultimate essence takes a form, a provisional symbolic (Skt., neyārtha ; Tib., drang don rtags ) one. This side of the dichotomy further subdivides into saṃbhogakāya and nirmāṇakāya, bodies of so-called "enjoyment" and "emanation." The first is supramundane, visible only to enlightened audiences such as dwell in paradisiacal buddha-realms, Akaniṣṭha, and so forth. The nirmāṇakāya is a buddha's manifestation in the world, as Śākyamuni or bodhisattva.
Vajradhara revealed the mahāmudrā teachings in India to Tilopa (c. 988–1069), thereby founding the Bka' brgyud (Kagyu) lineage. Bka' brgyud subsects agree that Tilopa instructed the Bengali Nāropa (1016–1100), who taught the Tibetan seeker Mar pa (Marpa, 1002/12–1097), who then carried the lineage back to Tibet and passed it on to Mi la ras pa (Milarepa, 1028/40–1111/23). In the Bka' brgyud traditions, Vajradhara receives special worship as both the revealer of mysteries and the mystery itself.
Vajradhara's ultimate position is as Khyab bdag rigs drug pa, all-pervasive lord of the sixth family (Khyab dag, Samantabhadra in Rdzogs chen traditions). The six families are the typical Indian upward extension of the earlier maṇḍala of five, in turn the expansion of the earlier three (via an occasional intermediate four). These structures belong to different historical phases of Tantric Buddhism, chronologically successive, but carried along and incorporated into succeeding classification systems. Kriyā Tantras have three families; Yoga Tantras, five; and the highest, Yoganiruttara Tantras, six. The sixth is overlord of the five as the zenith above four cardinal directions around a unifying center. Sometimes Vajrasattva, a further essentialization of Vajradhara's immanent nature, is conceptually located symmetrically opposite him at the nadir.
More than a millennium earlier, Vajrapāṇi had been a mere yakṣa sprite, albeit the "master of the mysterious [yakṣas ]" (guhyakādhipati ). The epithet stayed with him and grew ever more meaningful until he was the "master of the mysterious" truth at the heart of the secret esoteric tradition, and, as Vajradhara, the ultimate source of all its unfolding scriptures.
Vajradhara was once but a synonym of Vajrapāṇi, originally the Buddha's humble attendant who happened to wield a mighty weapon. In early Indian Buddhist art his weapon is personified, in the form of Vajrapuruṣa. But by the time Vajradhara is clearly distinct from his namesake, the attribute has been further de-personified into its essence, with the vajra no longer a weapon but the underlying principle of phenomenal reality.
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Himalayan Art. "Buddhist Deity: Vajradhara." Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation. Available from: www.himalayanart.org. A collection of Tibetan paintings, bronzes, and prints of Vajradhara, thirteenth to twentieth centuries ce.
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Isabelle Onians (2005)