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Adi Buddha & Principal Buddhist deities: Concept & Practice in Vajrayana Buddhism in Nepal
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By Ramesh Bajracharya
Among the many endowments with which Nepal Mandala is blessed, few are more significant than its Buddhist heritage.
The closely packed Viharas distinguishing the townscapes, the glittering Stupas add lustre, and the glory of stone sculptures is everywhere.
Bronzes, paintings, and manuscripts on Buddhist themes have spread the Valley's name far afield.
But it is perhaps of great significance that here alone Mahayana Buddhism has survived as a living tradition. The Kathmandu Valley is not an immense museum of Buddhist antiques, but it is unique oasis of surviving Mahayana Buddhist doctrine, cultural practices and colorful festivals.
These opening remarks of Mary Shepherd Slusser in Nepal Mandala, vol. 1, chapter 10, need no commentary as her sharp observation with academic understanding is a well established factor among the Nepalese Buddhism-scholars.
Buddhism in the Valley, is believed to have influence people from the Buddha's time as there is ample evidence of Ananda's, the dearest disciple of the Buddha, visit of the Valley.
But the traditional Buddhists believe that this Valley-a big lake in the pre-historic time was chosen by the Adi-Buddha-the Primordial or the Self-existent Buddha- who had revealed himself in the form of a flame issuing out of a lotus (Swayambhu Purana-a Buddhist chronicle- supports this belief).
This Adi Buddha concept was conceived by Vajrayana-tantric sect in Mahayana- as an afterthought to five Dhyani Buddhas (meditating Buddhas).
But he was accepted as the progenitor of the five Dhyani Buddhas and their families. In Nepal he is worshipped as Swayambhu-unborn or self-created- and the main stupa in Kathmandu is devoted to him.
Originally, since there were no divinities in Buddhism, there were no objects of worship, but during Hinayani phase the symbolic stupa, foot-prints, empty throne, bodhi tree, and the Dharma chakra filled this void and, at length, the image of Buddha himself-the credit for image cut goes to Mathura Art School of India, started most probably during the 1st century B. C. and 1st century A. D.
As time went on, the orthodox Mahayana was superseded by more humane and liberal tantric aspect resulting in the powerful Vajrayana Buddhism which swept the religion-culture scene of India since 7th century A. D.
Because of the free communications between India, Nepal and Tibet, this Vajrayana spread in the same century with changes as in Tibet it accepted the native Bon shamanism and the result was a powerful Lamaist tradition- hitherto maintained with great respect.
In Nepal it seemed to have accepted the local Shivite cult.
The rituals performed by the tantric Buddhist Priests of Nepal, Tibet and Shingon sect of Japan are based on the same tantric texts. Anyway, from 7th century onwards, we have ample evidence of this influential tantric Buddhism flourishing in the Valley.
Lord Buddha had revealed the path of Mantra- later it was termed as Vajrayana- to his disciples having exceptional power as a shorter path to achieve enlightenment of buddhahood in a single life-span.
The iconography from Adi Buddha:
Though an abstract concept, he is given the iconography from of either Vajradhara or Vajrasattva open represented with his consort locked in sexual union (Mithun in Sanskrit and yabyum in Tibetan):
seated in meditating position, heavily ornamented. with two of his four arms crossed on front of his chest, carrying in his hands the Vajra (thunderbolt) and the Ghanta (bell), the former, symbolizing shunyata (the Ultimate Reality or void), the latter Upaya (Skill in Means) .
To sum up, the Adi Buddha or Swayambhu or Vajradhara or Samantabhadra is the abstract concept of the Ultimate Reality, which Vajrayana equates with Void or emptiness to imply that is a state of being of perfect spirituality, totally free from and existential of phenomenal bonds.
Hitherto found evidence confirm his presence since 10th century onward. Vajrayanists believed from him the pancha dhyani Buddhas emanated.
Pancha Dhyani Buddhas:
Vajrayana introduced the theory of the five Dhyani Buddhas as embodiments of the five cosmic elements- ether, water, earth, fire and air and formulated the theory of the family of the five Dhyani Buddhas from which deities emanate according to need.
The cult of the Dhyani Buddhas, who are assigned definite positions in the cosmogony of the stupa is quite popular in Nepal and may have been introduced from India as early as the 7th century A. D.
The emmence popularity of this cult can easily be seen and the hundreds of votive chaityas in and around the Valley. Of the five Dhyani Buddhas the senior, in Nepali hierarchi, is Vairochana (ether) who occupies the center of a Mandala but is not represented in the roadside votives which depict only the other four Dhyani Buddhas, Akshobhya (water) of the East, Ratna-Sambhava (earth) of the South, Amitabha (fire) of the West, and Amoghsiddhi (air) of the North.
In the Swayambhu stupa, Vairochana is placed between Akshobhya and Ratna-Sambhava.
Their female counters are placed between them.
These Buddhas are always shown in the seated posture of meditation- Dhyanasana or Vajrasana- also called the lotus posture- Padmasana on a lotus seat, with half- closed eyes.
Each Dhyani Buddha has specific iconographic characteristics by which he can be easily identified.
As part of the psycho-cosmological system, developed by the Vajrayana, these Buddhas echo the cosmic elements and the human nature by which this mundane universe is made up.
The Bodhisattavs are seen as emanations (or spiritual offspring) of the Dhyani Buddhas, who, being pure abstract concepts, are taken as too remote and blissfully detached from this world to serve as cult objects.
A Bodhisattva (Bodhi-enlightenment, and Sattva-being) is one who has become enlightened (has attained the knowledge and insight necessary) to enter Nirvana- a state of mind of blissful detachment and the end of the birth-death cycle) but refuse to accept since he desires to guide all mankind to the true path of the Buddha.
That's why, Bodhisattvas were created to act as intermediaries between Samsara (this world of illusion and suffering) and Nirvana, and as objects of devotion and ideals for identification with. There are several Bodhisattavas in Mahayana Buddhism, but those most popular in Nepal are:
Vajrapani symbolizing wisdom, compassion, and power respectively.
Manjusri: he is the oldest of the Bodhisattvas.
He is depicted with the raised sword in his right hand, a book resting on a lotus on his left side, and his left hand teaching gesture.
According to tradition, he was a Chinese saint whose intuition told him of the Flame on a lotus in a big lake in Nepal.
He went there but could not reach the Flame-symbolizing the Adi Buddha to offer worship because of the water.
He then cut his sword the southern hill (Chobhar) and the water was drained out.
Thus, he founded the Kathmandu Valley civilization and built a shrine to cover the Flame on the very spot from where it had been issuing out which later became the most sacred pilgrimage-site-Swayambhu.
One of his manifestations, Vagiswara is considered the protector of Nepalese Buddhism and is widely worshipped in the Valley.
Avalokiteshvara: he is depicted holding a lotus and looking down onto the world,
He is invoked as the Savior and the Protector from danger, and his mantra-invocation-OM MANI PADME HUNG (blessed be the jewel in the lotus) is inscribed on rocks, Prayer wheels, Chaitya walls, and loose stones heaped as Mani (jewel) on roads, paths, mountain passes, and the approaches and exists of villages and hamlets.
He is the spiritual son of the Dhyani Buddha Amitabha (the Lord of the Western Heaven).
His another manifestation is Karunamaya or Machhendranath, the much-worshipped god of the Newars, the great rain-maker of the Valley.
Vajrapani: he is depicted holding the Vajra and is shown sometimes with the Buddha or with other Bodhisattvas. He is emanated from the Dhyani Buddha Akshobhya (the Lord of the Eastern Heaven).
His wrathful gesture, snake ornament, and his pose as warrior, all serve to convey the force and vitality of the enlightened energy as it combats ignorance, greed, fear and other delusions.
Where as under the Mahayana, the pantheon had been limited to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and just few goddess like Tara and Bhrikuti, under the new dispensation of Vajrayana there was a vast increase of the pantheon and it introduced the worship of the Prajna (female deities) in Buddhism for the first time although the worship of Mother goddess as a fertility cult was quite prominent in all those archaic cultures from the prehistoric time. In Nepal, Vajrayanists have been worshiping her since the early 7th century.
The female divinities of Kathmandu Valley are unified by the common bonds of tantrism. A basic concept that links and confounds all the Valley goddesses is that of Shakti, literally meaning energy.
But in India, it acquire a particular religious significance when Shakti came to denote the cosmic force that energizes the universe and all its manifestations, including the gods.
In the course of time the abstract concept became transformed as a personified Shakti, a supreme female divinity conceived as the embodiment of cosmic energy.
Though Buddhist theologians embraced it in essence, but they did not employ term Shakti or consider energy to be embodied in the female principle.
But as tantra gained supernatural power during the Medieval period, female deities, now, identified as source of creative cosmic energy, were transformed into active counterpart of the tantric gods-hence the theory of sexual union or divine copulation gained the ground.
The Taras: the female principle in Buddhism represents the Supreme enlightened activities of all Buddhas.
In a Sutra- a Buddhist scripture- it is mentioned that once Avalokiteshwara bodhisattva was moved by the severe misery of the human beings and out of great compassion he shed tears from where two beautiful maidens appeared and prayed to the Lord that they would help him in liberating the pitiful mankind.
Later they were known as Savioress Green Tara and White Tara and are worshipped by the devotees to be protected from dangers and for longevity.
There are 22 forms of Tara accepted as Savioress emanated from Avalokiteshvara but Bhrikuti Tara has historical personality too, as a daughter of king Amsu Verma- the great Lichhavi king of early 7th century Nepal.
The Tibetan source mentions that once rays of light from Lord Avalokiteshvara had simultaneously descended into the world at the three royal palaces of Tibet, Nepal, and China blessing the lineages of these kings, whose children were destined to work for Dharma-Buddhism.
By marrying the princesses of Nepal and China, the Tibetan king Srong-bstan-sgam-po established the Dharma firmly in Tibet.
He was considered Bodhisattva in his own lifetime.
According to some accounts, when he passed away, the two Buddhist queens also disappeared together with the king into the eleven-faced Avalokiteshwara statue, but according to the kakhol-ma tradition, this was witnessed only by the ministers.
Among the other popular Taras: Vasundhara, Prajnaparamita, and Kurukulla are worshiped for seven kinds of prosperity.
Similarly, Vajrayogini and Vajravarahi, two very popular tantric Dakini goddesses, are worshiped for wish-fulfillment as well as to get eight magical powers by the tantric practitioners.
Among the popular tantric gods in the highest yoga tantra in Vajrayana tutelary gods, such as;
Hayagriva are very mush popular in the Valley.
They are called Istadevas the tutelary deities. Apart from these principal Buddhist deities, there are numerous others worshipped with different names at different places. In Nepal, Vajracharyas are the tantric priests to guard the secret tantric knowledge and the Tibetan Lamas guard the Tibetan version of Buddhism.
Lydia Aran's apt remarked, which are extensively used in this text, would be seemingly fitting as concluding scene of the present day Buddhism in the Valley.
She writes that both Lamaism and Newari Buddhism share the heritage of the Mahayana- Vajrayana School of Buddhism, yet their respective ways of adapting this important religion to their own environment have been different.
Lamaism, though assimilated to a considerable degree to the indigenous Tibetan Bon shamanism, retained the essential characteristics of Buddhism, such as monasticism, tradition of scholarship, and rejection of caste.
The Nepali Buddhism, on the other hand, having become assimilated to the Hindu culture of Nepal, has given up both monasticism and scholarship (?) and accepted caste, thus acquiring characteristics totally incompatible with Buddhism in any conventional sense.
However, despite the gloomy scene academically, the religious fever had shifted over to the artistic expression of the Dharma-devotees, too, found an easy way of worship like those of Hindus instead of awakening inner conscience- in the form of images of gods and deities housed in stylized shrines, another great expression of art, which in fact is the present day glory of the Valley.
However, Madame Aran seems to understand only the outer surface activities of Kathmandu's living Buddhist traditions.
Since, it's the Kathmandu Valley only where the powerful Vajrayani sect of Buddhism has flourished and is also a prime seat to learn this traditions which she herself has accepted. Here her allegation that scholarship is abandoned in Nepalese Buddhism is counter pointed by herself.
Time and again, Nepalese Buddhist scholar have been contributing amply in the enhancement of Dharma.