VAJRASATTVA (Tibetan, Rdo rje sems dpa' [Dorjé Sempa]; Chinese, Jingang sadou; Japanese, Kongōsatta), the "Adamantine Being," is a bodhisattva affiliated primarily with the Buddha Akṣobhya (Unshakeable) but in many contexts is identified conceptually with Vajradhara (Vajra Holder). Vajrasattva is traditionally depicted iconographically as white in color with one face and two hands. In his right hand he holds close to his heart a vajra (thunderbolt), representing the active means toward enlightenment, and in his left hand beside his left hip an upturned bell (ghaṇṭā ), a symbol of emptiness (śūnyata ) and the perfection of wisdom (prajñāpāramitā ). Lavishly attired in the colorful garments of a princely bodhisattva, he sits with legs crossed in the vajra posture (vajrāsana ) on a moon disk above a white lotus blossom. In some cases he is shown sitting with his right leg outstretched, and in others he is standing. He wears a crown often inscribed with an image of Akṣobhya. From his richly adorned body, rays of light (often dark blue) radiate outward to form a golden halo adorned with wish-fulfilling jewels and an outer rainbow. In this way he represents the embodied essence of all the peaceful buddhas.
Iconic images of Vajrasattava are found in statuary form and more frequently in paintings, especially of the maṇḍala. As a central deity of esoteric Buddhism or Vajrayāna (Adamantine or Thunderbolt Vehicle), Vajrasattva first rose to prominence in the Yoga class of Tantras. The ritual practices centered on him, including visualization of the maṇḍala and recitation of his hundred-syllable mantra, are popular among all followers of Tantric Buddhism, particularly in Tibet and in Japan. Vajrasattava's significance in the development of the Buddhist Vajrayāna tradition in India and in neighboring regions and beyond is well confirmed, although the precise details of his role in that historical process are complicated and require understanding of his divine adamantine allies, the closely related deities Vajrapāṇi (Vajra-in-Hand), Vairocana (Resplendent), and Vajradhara.
Vajrasattva in India
Vajrasattva first emerges as a central deity in the Yoga Tantras. The foundational text of this literary category is the Sarvatathāgatatattvasaṁgraha (Symposium of Truth of All the Tathagathas), also known simply as the Tattvasaṁgraha. Other significant Yoga Tantras include the Sarvadurgatipariśodhana Tantra (Tantra on the Elimination of All Evil Rebirths), the Vajraśekhara Tantra (Vajra Pinnacle Tantra), and the Mañjuśrīnāmasaṃgīti (The Litany of Names of Mañjusrī). Evidence suggests that the Tattvasaṁgraha and associated Tantric works date to the beginning of the eighth century, although some scholars now argue that the Tattvasaṁgraha itself may have been completed slightly earlier at the end of the seventh century.
Vajrapāṇi, a closely affiliated divine precursor to Vajrasattva, first takes center stage, along with the famous bodhisattvas Avalokiteśvara (Lord Who Looks Down) and Mañjuśrī (Gentle Glory), in the proto-Tantric Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa (Fundamental Ordinance of Mañjuśrī). In this text, the three deities are described as taking up honorable positions around the Buddha Śākyamuni: Avalokiteśvara, identified here as Padmapāṇi (Lotus-in-Hand), to his right; Vajrapāṇi to his left; and Mañjuśrī (Gentle Glory) appearing below Śākyamuni at the center. This formal arrangement of Buddhist deities seems to represent an early and simplified prototype of the more elaborate fivefold arrangement of buddhas that would later become fully systematized in the Yoga Tantras. In the Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa, Avalokiteśvara is associated with the symbol of the lotus, the divine emblem of purity and compassion. The central figure of Mañjuśrī is symbolically identified as tathāgata (Thus Gone), a term synonymous with the Buddha and enlightenment. For Vajrapāṇi and his retinue, the preeminent symbol is the vajra, signifying divine and magical power—the power to pacify, augment, control, and destroy. It is largely for this reason, owing to the power associated with the vajra, that Vajrapāṇi is the one given the daunting task of subjugating and converting to Buddhism the Hindu god Śiva (Maheśvara) in a dramatic and influential tale first recounted in the Tattvasaṁgraha.
It is in this work, also, that Vairocana first appears as a manifestation of the unity of all buddhas. The maṇḍala of Vairocana, introduced in the Tattvasaṁgraha with the name Vajradhātu (Adamantine World), places Vairocana in the center surrounded by the Buddhas Akṣobhya in the eastern quarter, Ratnasambhava (Jewel Born) in the south, Amitābha (Boundless Light) in the west, and Amoghasiddhi (All Accomplishing) in the north. In time this symmetrical arrangement of five principal buddhas became standard, though with the identity of the central deity frequently changing to reflect the affiliated lineage of a particular Tantric ritual tradition. Nevertheless, the Yoga Tantras continue to maintain that in whatever form the central deity manifests, whether as Vairocana, Vajradhara, Vajrasattva, or some other buddha figure, he is always to be understood as the same in essence, that is, as the unity of all buddhas.
With the development in the Yoga Tantras of this fivefold buddha maṇḍala coincided the expansion of various buddha families (kula ). It was in the proto-Tantric Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa that this concept of families first emerged, with the introduction of three divine groups, Tathāgata/Buddha (Mañjuśrī), Lotus (Avalokiteśvara), and Vajra (Vajrapāṇi). The Tattvasaṁgraha added to this list a Gem (ratna ) family, and a fifth, Action (karma ) family, seems first to have been introduced in the Vajraśekhara Tantra. The Yoga Tantras, moreover, refer also to a transcendent sixth family represented by a supreme primordial buddha (Ādibuddha), understood as the source of the five principal buddhas. This supreme buddha is known variously as Mahāvairocana (Great Resplendent), Samantabhadra (Universal Goodness), Vajradhara, or more commonly, Vajrasattva.
Given the overall emphasis on power in Tantric Buddhism, it is the Vajra family that reigns supreme in the Tantras. Thus, it is the buddhas and bodhisattvas who embody the symbolism of the vajra— identified as such in the very names themselves—that stand at the center of the Tantric universe represented graphically in the form of the maṇḍala. Although originally Vairocana held the central position in the maṇḍala outlined in the Tattvasaṁgraha, it is Vajradhara, the transcendent sixth buddha, who, linked by name and power to the older Vajrapāṇi, comes eventually to replace Vairocana as the quintessential Tantric deity. Vajradhara is also identified with Vajrasattva, the bodhisattva associated most closely with the fierce Buddha Akṣobhya. In some of the later Tantras, therefore, Akṣobhya is placed in the center of the maṇḍala and Vairocana is shifted to the east in Akṣobhya's former position. Vajradhara and Vajrasattva, both symbolically identical, and thus interchangeable, remain the transcendent embodiments of adamantine power, the source and unity of all buddhas.
Vajrasattva in Tibet
In Tibetan Buddhism, the iconography and ritual traditions of Vajrasattva are derived largely from the class of Indian Buddhist Yoga Tantras referred to above, though additionally in Tibet there are other primary Tantras associated with this deity. The most significant is the eighth-century Gsang ba'i snying po (Sanskrit, *Guhyagarbha, "Secret Nucleus"), a work belonging to a distinctively Tibetan cycle of mahāyoga scriptures collectively titled Sgyu ʿphrul drwa ba (Sanskrit, Māyājāla, "Web of Magical Emanation"). In the Gsang ba'i snying po, Vajrasattva appears at the center of the maṇḍala of the peaceful deities (Tibetan, zhi ba'i lha ). This maṇḍala is the tranquil counterreflection of an elaborate arrangement of fierce divinities (Tibetan, khro bo'i lha ). Together, both maṇḍalas constitute the Tantric system of the peaceful and wrathful deities most famously represented in the Tibetan Book of the Dead literature.
In Tibet there are numerous ritual programs (Tibetan, sgrub thabs; Sanskrit, sādhana ) dedicated to Vajrasattva, and their practice is widely popular among all the main orders of Tibetan Buddhism. These Vajrasattva rituals serve as purificatory practices and constitute a key component of the preliminaries (sngon ʿgro ) to Tantric initiation and empowerment. In this context, Vajrasattva's hundred-syllable mantra, recited during the preliminary rites, is held to be a particularly potent method for purifying past sins and unwholesome karma.
For the Rnying ma pa (Ancient Ones) school of Tibetan Buddhism, Vajrasattva is also celebrated as a key lineage holder of the Rdzogs chen (Great Perfection) teachings, and is credited with the transmission of this esoteric system into the human realm in a vision revealed to the Indian mystic Dga' rab rdo rje (Sanskrit, Prahevajra).
Vajrasattva in Japan
The identification of Vajrasattva as a divine lineage holder of the Tantric Buddhist teachings is found also in Japan, specifically in the esoteric (mikkyō ) sūtras of the Japanese Shingon tradition. Here, Vajrasattva, known as Kongōsatta in Japanese, is recognized as the direct recipient of the esoteric teachings of the supreme Buddha Mahāvairocana (Japanese, Dainichi), the teacher of the Mahāvairocana and the Vajraśekhara Sūtras. Vajrasattva thus appears as second patriarch after the Great Vairocana in all established Shingon transmission lineages. From Vajrasattva the teachings were then transmitted in the human world to Nāgārjuna, and, through a succession of further Indian masters, eventually extended to the Japanese Buddhist priest Kūkai (774–835).
As in the Indian and Tibetan traditions, Vajrasattva in Japanese Shingon represents the adamantine enlightenment of all buddhas. Recognized as the active and manifest power of Mahāvairocana, he holds leadership positions within the two exclusive maṇḍalas of the Shingon tradition, the taizō (Sanskrit, Garbhadhātu, "Womb/Matrix World") and kongōkai (Sanskrit, Vajradhātu, "Diamond World"). In the ritual arena, during the esoteric initiation ceremonies and construction of the maṇḍala, Vajrasattva is invoked by practitioners to help them attain buddhahood in this lifetime.
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