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Historically speaking, Vajrapani (Tibetan, “Chagna Dorje,” “Vajra-weilder”) is one of the earliest bodhisattvas to appear in Mahayana Buddhist lore. In the pre-Mahayana period, he is mentioned in texts as one of the constant protectors of the historical Buddha. Here, he is sometimes depicted as a fearful yaksha (daemon) who has pledged to protect the Buddha. Other times, his “daemonic” qualities seem to be emphasized over and above his “protecting” qualities. It is generally accepted that the figure of Vajrapani pre-dates the historical emergence of Mahayana Buddhism. With the emergence of Mahayana, Vajrapani seemed to have evolved from the position of a “daemonic” protector to that of a noble bodhisattva and later on assumed an even greater significance within the tantrayana tradition of Mahayana Buddhism.
In the sutrayana tradition, Vajrapani is commonly found in the popular group of the “Eight Bodhisattvas” and as such is revered as one of the “heart-sons” of the Buddha. Here, he appears in a youthful form, with a peaceful demeanor, two-armed, dark blue in color and holding a golden vajra in his right hand. He is adorned with the royal adornments often seen in images of bodhisattvas.
He is also depicted in this form in the triad consisting of Amitabha, Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezig) and himself. This triad is especially visualized in many phowa practices. This triad is popular not only among Tibetan Buddhists but also among Buddhists of East Asia where pure-land practices dominate to the extent of the formation of pure-land “Schools” such as the “Ching-tu tsung” in China and the Jodoshu and Jodoshinshu in Japan. In East Asia, he is known by another name – Mahasthamaprapta (“Great Strength” - this is his name in the “Sukhavativyuha sutra”). It is useful to note that in this tradition, the earlier “daemonic” side of Vajrapani has been totally dropped in favor of a gentler and tamer image.
In the tantrayana tradition of Mahayana Buddhism, Vajrapani is also known as Guhyapati or “Lord of Secrets.” Just as Shariputra in the pre-Mahayana period and Manjushri in the sutric Mahayana period, Vajrapani became the main recipient of many teachings in the tantric Mahayana period. Hence the name “Lord of Secrets.” He is seen as the protector and holder of all tantric teachings. Other tantric traditions say that before the historical Buddha passed away, he entrusted his tantric teachings to three main figures – Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara and Vajrapani. Hence, in the kriya-tantra cycles of teachings (the first of the four ascending levels of tantras), these three figures are respectively referred to the “lords” of the Buddha, Lotus and Vajra families. On the kriya-tantra level, only three “families” are mentioned instead of the five Buddha families taught in the Yoga and Highest-Yoga tantra levels. Also according to some other tantric teachings, Vajrapani, together with Manjushri and Avalokiteshvara are in actuality fully enlightened beings (i.e. Buddhas) but for the sake of sentient beings appear in the form of bodhisattvas.
Tantrayana iconography seems to have revived the earlier “daemonic” appearance of Vajrapani (see above). Here, he is often depicted in the wrathful form of a yaksha – dark-blue in color, one face, two-armed, three large eyes, wide-opened mouth with protruding canine teeth and orange-flaming hair and beard. He is adorned with a crown of five dried-skulls, a tiger skin skirt and nagas. He wields a golden vajra in his right hand while his left hand holds a noose with the “threatening” hand-gesture. This is perhaps his most common tantric form.
Vajrapani can also be found in several other tantric forms with varying number of hands and colors and with or without consort In tantric Mahayana Buddhism, he is the essence of the enlightened power of all Buddhas of the three periods of time. As such, he is associated with overcoming all outer, inner and secret obstacles. On the outer level, he is particularly effective over obstacles caused by nagas (often manifesting in the form of skin or blood diseases). On the inner level, he cuts off all afflictive emotions of ignorance, attachment and aversion. In the text that Khenpo Konchog Gyaltshen Rinpoche has translated for the use of Drigungpas, Vajrapani is slightly different from the more usual form and mantra.