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The Vajra in the Sūtras
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What led the revealers of the Buddhist tantras to name their method Vajrayāna, or Vajra Vehicle?
Here I would like to suggest, to the certain surprise of some people I know, that the reasons are to be found in polarity symbolism developed already in the sūtras of the Great Vehicle, the Mahāyāna.
For example, the Eight Thousand Transcendent Insight Sūtra, often dated by scholars to the first century ce, repeats hundreds of times the phrase “transcendent insight and skillful method,” as the two things most necessary for progressing toward Enlightenment.
Not only that, there are at least a dozen places in the same scripture where transcendent insight is called the Mother of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, since it is She who gives birth to them.
Although we find in this text no corresponding statement that skillful means or method (the translation ‘creative stratagem’ has also been suggested) is the Father, this would certainly be a logical step to take.
The Gaṇḍavyūha Sūtra (perhaps several centuries later than the Eight Thousand) does explicitly take that step when it says, “Oh noble son! Skillful method is the father of all Bodhisattvas. Transcendent insight is the mother.”
The Teaching of Vimālakîrti Sūtra says,
Perfection of insight is the Bodhisattva’s mother,
And skilful means, we may say, is the father;
Of all the leaders of the multitudes
There is not one of them who is not born from these.
Also, in the Eight Thousand Transcendent Insight Sūtra, the ‘Vajra Wielder’ (Vajrapāṇi) makes a brief but perhaps for our purposes quite significant appearance:
Furthermore, oh Subhūti, those Great Heroic Minded Bodhisattvas who do not turn back will always be followed by the great yaksha Vajra Wielder, who is difficult to overcome, and humans and non-human [foes] will not be able to get the better [of them].
Here the Vajra Wielder has a clearly protective function for Bodhisattvas of the highest levels, and in Buddhist art from Gandhāra dating from the first centuries ce, it is common to see the Buddha depicted with an accompanying figure holding a (Gandhāran-type) Vajra in his hand.
Vajra Wielder has often been viewed as the prototype of all the many later wrathful forms of Buddha known to the tantras. What is more certain is that lesser deities with protective and obstacle-overcoming functions were first portrayed in small and simple forms next to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas they followed. In later times, they became full manifestations of those same Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and like them came to form foci for high aspirations (yi-dam) in their own right.
There are numerous places in the sūtras where Vajra is used as a metaphor for various things. It is not always clear in these cases whether the sūtras might not have the weapon of Indra in mind rather than the diamond, and for our present purposes it doesn’t matter very much. In the Vimalakîrti Sūtra, for example, the Vajra is a simile for the firmness of a resolution, for the solidity of the Tathāgata’s form, and for the highly penetrating power of the Full Knowledge of the Buddha.
The last simile is interesting, since Full Knowledge is compared to the Vajra (as is the Bodhisattva’s aspiration to achieve Enlightenment for the benefit of others) several times in the Twenty-five Thousand Transcendent Insight Sūtra as well, and at least six times in the Lalitavistara Sūtra we have Full Knowledge equated with the Vajra or the ‘supreme Vajra weapon.’
In the Twenty-five Thousand we frequently notice a state of contemplative concentration (samādhi) called the Vajra-like Contemplative Concentration, contained in a long and frequently repeated list of samādhis. In commentarial literature,
and most notably in the Abhisamayālaṃkāra (‘Ornament of Clairvoyance’), attributed to Maitreyanātha, teacher of Asaṅga, the Vajra-like Contemplative Concentration is the one associated with the very highest level of the Bodhisattva’s Path, the level therein called the Stage of No More Learning.
Consistent with Vajrayāna’s general practice of ‘taking the goal as the basis,’ this Vajra-like Samādhi may help explain why it was that the tantras took the Vajra as their most important symbol. For them it was the goal that forms the very basis of the Buddhist Path
Now we should go on and start looking at some tantric texts to see how the similes and metaphors of earlier sūtra sources might have inspired the revelation of Vajrayāna symbolism. But first, let’s have a look at a peculiar usage in a work that most scholars today would agree long preceded the historical emergence of the tantras.
An early Buddhist work of praise, one that was written by Mātṛceta in about the second century and one that we know was popularly recited by the monks of India in the seventh century, makes clear metaphorical use of the Vajra in one of its lines in which it praises the power of the Buddha’s Speech-acts: “Because [Your Speech] overcomes the mountain of pride, it resembles the weapon of Śakra.”
Here Śakra means Indra, and the weapon of Indra is of course the Vajra.
Pride resembles the mountain because it is high and made of hard stuff. Yet the Vajra of the Buddha’s Speech is equal to the nearly impossible task of overcoming it.
In making metaphorical usage of the Vajra as equivalent to Buddha Speech, this early source is quite anomalous, but perhaps just for that reason very much worth noticing.
One early tantric text is quoted as saying,
[Question:] You [keep] saying “Vajra, Vajra.”
Why must you call [things] “Vajra?”
[Answer:] It is hard and has no hollowness at its core.
It cuts and cannot be torn apart.
It cannot be burned and knows no destruction.
That is why we call Voidness the ‘Vajra.’
It is free of any and all interfering thoughts
and has abandoned all grasping onto phenomena.
The reality of all phenomena —
Voidness — is expressed in Vajra.
In some tantra texts, such as the Secret Meeting (Guhyasamāja) Tantra* the word Vajra occurs on almost every line.
Particularly in the opening chapters of the Secret Meeting Tantra, Vajra is frequently used to qualify the Thought of Enlightenment (Bodhicitta);
the Buddha’s body, speech and mind; but also the divinized sense faculties and elements, which are called such things as
and identified with specific Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.
The illusory interplay of our internal senses and the objects of the external world which they seemingly confront (but which are actually pre-painted to accord with our subjective projections) is deliberately re-experienced as deities, both gods and goddesses, in mutual embrace.
In a ritual context, it isn’t enough that the offering substances and instruments to be employed in the ritual remain in their familiar conventional form.
Rather, they need to be amplified, brought to life, dissolved into Voidness, divinized or, if we may coin an appropriate word, ‘vajraized.’
(*The translation Esoteric Community is favored by some highly regarded translators. My translation has only half the syllables, although I doubt that will impress them.)
. Literary references .:::
2000 The Diamondness of the Diamond Sūtra, Acta Orientalia Hungarica, vol. 53, nos. 1-2 (2000) 65-77.
BAILEY, D.R. SHACKLETON
1951 The Śatapañcāśatka of Mātṛceṭa: Sanskrit Text, Tibetan Translation and Commentary, and Chinese Translation, Cambridge University Press (Cambridge 1951). Have a look here.
1992 Mother Wisdom, Father Love: Gender-based Imagery in Mahāyāna Buddhist Thought, contained in: J.I. Cabezón, ed., Buddhism, Sexuality and Gender, State University of New York Press (Stony Brook 1992), pp. 181-199. Have a look at it here.
HOCHOTSANG, KUNGA YONTEN
1970 What is Vajra? Bulletin of Tibetology, vol. 7, no. 3 (1970), pp. 42-43. Find it here.
1999 Ruthless Compassion: Wrathful Deities in Early Indo-Tibetan Esoteric Buddhist Art, Serindia (London 1999). Get a glimpse here.
1987 Illusion Web: Locating the Guhyagarbha Tantra in Buddhist Intellectual History, contained in: C. I. Beckwith, ed., Silver on Lapis: Tibetan Literary Culture and History, The Tibet Society (Bloomington 1987), pp. 175-220. Available here.
2007 Mapping the Path: Vajrapadas in Mahāyāna Literature, Studia Philologica Buddhica series no. 12, International Institute for Buddhist Studies (Tokyo 2007).
1978 Skilful Means: A Concept in Mahayana Buddhism, Duckworth (London 1978). A rather old book, it has been reprinted, and may even be possible to get as an ebook.
SAUNDERS, E. DALE
1960 Mudrā: A Study of Symbolic Gestures in Japanese Buddhist Sculpture, Routledge & Kegan Paul (London 1960). This book is still in print.
1987 Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, Shambhala Publications (Boston 1987).
2001 The Vajra and Bell, Windhorse Publications (Birmingham 2001).
2002 Buddhist Insight: Essays by Alex Wayman, ed. by George R. Elder, Motilal Banarsidass (Delhi 2002).
***The English Wikipedia entry “Vajra” (accessed today) isn’t bad, really, although you may notice it has hardly anything to say about the sūtra sources,* which seem to me to be too tremendously significant to be overlooked.
(*except an inevitable casual mention of the Vajra Cutter Sūtra)
 We find significance in the fact that the Tibetan text of the sūtra uses the honorific word for ‘mother,’ yum, in this context.
The Vajrayāna portraits of deities in sexual embrace called ‘father-mother’ or ‘parental’ (yab-yum) figures are most frequently interpreted as symbolic of the union of Method and Insight, and I think this will become still more clear in what follows.
Note, too, that the following quote from the Gaṇḍavyūha employs the non-honorific forms for father and mother, pha and ma.
 For the text and a discussion, see Martin (1987: 191-192, 216). See also this blog page from Janus. Other examples from Mahāyāna literature may be found in Cabezón (1992).
Wayman (2002: 107) cites a similar statement from the Śrîparamādya (Tôhoku no. 487). For a quite extensive listing of occurrences of Vajra in Mahāyāna sūtra literature, see now Pagel (2007: 5-6). It ought to be clear that I haven’t attempted to account for every single scriptural occurrence of the word rdo-rje, although canonical usages may now be located with remarkable ease at the Vienna site featured in this blog page.
 Translation taken from Pye (1978: 90; it is from chapter 2 of the Sūtra). The same work by Pye (pp. 90, 104) argues that the ‘maleness’ of method, not found at all in the earlier Transcendent Insight literature, received increasingly greater emphasis as time went on.
 Compare Snellgrove (1987: 60). See the same work, pp. 134-141 for an interesting study of the significance of the Vajra Wielder. In the fifth- to seventh-century Vinaya Sūtra composed by Guṇaprabha, it is recommended that two Vajrapāṇis (since a Sanskrit dual ending may be indicated by the Tibetan syllable dag) be painted next to the doors of monasteries,
and this may be a source of literary inspiration for the sets of two temple-guardian figures encountered in the art and architecture of Buddhist countries (of course, the practice could well have been established prior to the text recommending it, and the idea of placing protective figures on both sides of a door is a rather obvious one, I’d say).
For a remarkable story told about Vajrapāṇi as a personal protector of the Buddha in a Pāli Buddhist scripture, see Vessantara (2001: 4-5).
 This type of development is a major theme of Linrothe (1999).
 Full Knowledge is our translation for Sanskrit Jñāna, Tibetan Ye-shes.
In general, Full Knowledge means an Enlightened kind of knowing in which all obstacles due to phenomena (‘knowables’) have been overcome (in the Enlightenment narratives, this took place at dawn under the Awakening Tree).
This Full Knowledge must not be understood as a simple private satisfaction of abiding in the knowledge of the Enlightened experience itself, since it also includes knowledge of the factors that will aid others in reaching that experience.
Buddhists have indeed understood Full Knowledge to mean or lead to ‘omniscience’ (sarvajñā), but rarely in the usual theistic sense, as a knowledge of every single particular event, rather as the knowledge of all causal conditions and factors that aid or prohibit progress on the Path to Enlightenment.
Growth in the two factors of Merit and Full Knowledge is what defines progress on the Path according to Mahāyāna Buddhism.
In the Buddhist tantras (with clear roots in sūtras and sūtra-based treatises) it is usually said that there are five Full Knowledges.
These will be mentioned in a later blog entry in relation to the five types of “Buddha Family Bells.”
 For more along these lines, and suggestions about still other implicated meanings in the sūtra usages of Vajra, see Agócs (2000).
 Bailey (1951: 89).
 Saunders (1960: 185) identifies the source of this quote as the Vajraśekhara Sūtra (despite the word ‘sūtra’ in its title, this is a tantra of the yoga-tantra class, and one of the most important scriptures of the Japanese school of tantric Buddhism known as Shingon).
Compare Saunders’ translation: “Void, the nucleus of all things, like a diamond, may not be demolished by axe, nor be cloven, nor burned, nor destroyed.” Our translation is based on the Tibetan text supplied by Hochotsang (1970: 43), who doesn’t attribute the quote to any particular scripture.