Jul 29, 2008
Vajrapani: Breaking free
Wrathful Vajrapani, the bold blue Buddha of energy, is helping Vajradevi to transform her demons.
A few years ago I was sitting in a London office one winter day as the rain came down in slick sheets. Lightning flashed across the low sky and, as the thunder suddenly crescendoed, a half-dozen car alarms shrieked out to the surprise of pedestrians. No-one had touched the vehicles. The unseen power of the thunder had set the alarms off. It seemed a mischievous reminder from nature of the power at her disposal.
It also brought to my mind Wrathful Vajrapani, the Bodhisattva of energy or power. This is the figure I took on as a focus of my visualization meditation practice when I was ordained into the Western Buddhist Order. Vajrapani means “bearer or holder of the vajra” and one translation of the word vajra is thunderbolt. In Indian mythology the thunderbolt was the weapon of Indra, the chief of the gods, who used it to destroy spells or charms. Vajra can also be defined as: “denunciation in strong language – compared to thunder.”
It is easy to see how associations with thunder and with nature in general come to be associated with Vajrapani. When I try to sense the Transcendental that he embodies, all sorts of physical comparisons come to mind. I think of wild cyclones sucking up the earth and throwing down everything in their way: volcanoes vomiting boulders and liquid heat and submerging whole islands in their fiery spew; roaring waterfalls that are terrifying and beautiful in equal measure. These images make me aware of my smallness and insignificance, but something inside me is also thrilled at the possibility of meeting that power and eventually becoming it. In An Introduction to Tantra Lama Yeshe writes: “the West has discovered how to tap many powerful sources of energy in nature, but still remains largely unaware of the tremendous force, even more powerful than nuclear energy, contained within each of us. As long as this powerful internal energy lies undiscovered, our life is doomed to remain fragmented and purposeless, and we will continue to fall victim to the mental and emotional pressures so characteristic of our age.”
Vajrapani helps us to force our way through intractable bad habits and psychological traps
Vajrapani’s energy is not mere force, nor even power in a neutral sense. It is what the Buddhist tradition calls virya: “energy in pursuit of the good.” This means energy that is directed towards the goal of Enlightenment for all beings. It is energy that sees things as they really are rather than through the lens of the ego.
My connection with Wrathful Vajrapani started soon after I had begun to meditate, on a week-long retreat dedicated to him. I found Vajrapani visually intriguing. His body is heavy-set and he is deep blue. With his angry bulging eyes, matted brown hair and aura of flames, he was hardly beautiful but he was compelling. I remember being particularly fascinated by his huge blue belly.
Up to this point my knowledge of Bodhisattvas was limited to beautiful and refined peaceful deities, such as Tara and Amitabha. Vajrapani seemed unconventional to say the least. He wore a tiger skin (or sometimes an elephant hide) around his body. A live snake coiled around his neck. He held a vajra high above his head ready to use as a weapon. Vajrapani seemed to be “the Bodhisattva as Transcendental Thug” and I did not know what to make of him. His companions were a bunch of unlikely-sounding goddesses — Vajra-Hook, Vajra-Chain, Strong-Armed and Vajra-Army. He seemed more likely to have been at home in a heavymetal band or riding a 1,000 cc motorbike than residing in the sky, waiting to be visualized!
But the stories about him from various Buddhist scriptures caught my imagination. Through them come a sense of Vajrapani’s personal history. Unlike most Bodhisattvas his beginnings are humble. In his first canonical appearance (in the Pali Sutta Nipata) he starts out as a lowly yaksa (a kind of coarse sprite). In later texts he has been promoted to “the great general of the yaksas.” And later still he becomes one of the bodily forms of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion. Eventually he emerges as a Bodhisattva in his own right and in some scriptures he is also referred to as a fully Enlightened Buddha.
I like the progression of Vajrapani’s “life story.” As well as his associations with power, Vajrapani, like Vajrasattva, is connected with purity But while Vajrasattva represents purity achieved, or the essence of purity, Vajrapani is “the process of becoming pure.” The fallibility and humility in the stories about Vajrapani appeal greatly to me. He makes occasional mistakes, bears the consequences, and then continues his quest in service of “the good.”
According to one story, at one point Vajrapani was pure white. But while guarding the elixir of life for the peaceful Buddhas he became unmindful for a second, and the demons stole it. He wrestled back the elixir but the demons had defiled it by urinating in it. As a punishment Vajrapani was made by the Buddhas to drink the now poisonous liquid, and this turned him dark blue. Hence also his mudra (hand gesture) of “warding off demons.”
You never know what Vajrapani might do, because he is associated with the wisdom that goes beyond the rational mind.
The first tale I ever heard about Vajrapani comes from The Life and Liberation of Padmasambhava. Vajrapani’s role is comparatively minor but he manages to make a strong impression.
Tarpa Nagpo (or Black Salvation) was a monk who was full of pride and arrogance. He used the Dharma to his own advantage, deliberately miscommunicating the teachings to amass power for himself. After he was found out and stripped of his robes, he joined his friends (ogres, brigands and demons of the twilight) and travelled around Tibet causing wars, famines and other calamities.
By doing all this, he created terrible karmic consequences for himself, and suffered highly unfavorable rebirths. These included 500 rebirth as, respectively, a nimble worm, a wandering mastiff, a sucker of toes and an eater of vomit! Finally he was reborn “with neck and shoulders rotten” as a “pus ghost” named “Eager to make inquiry.” He took rebirth again as Rudra (or “He who devoured his mother”) and, not in the least deterred by his three-headed vile form, he continued spreading chaos and devastation throughout the world
The peaceful deities were at a loss to know what to do. Rudra was beyond their reach. They decided that Rudra needed to be dealt with by “force and restrain” so Vajrapani and Hayagriva (also known as Horsehead and Swine-face) were called up. Vajrapani climbed up Rudra’s urethra and Hayagriva into his anus. They met somewhere in the middle, and Rudra, the force of negativity and destruction, was subjugated and brought under the power of the good.
In his lecture Breaking through to Buddhahood (MP3 or PDF), Sangharakshita comments that the spiritual life may involve inner forcefulness. This idea, he suggests, is not a popular one. But if we are to break through to the Unconditioned, sometimes violence towards recalcitrant aspects of ourselves is necessary. At these times, love is just not enough. This is where Vajrapani comes in. He is not going to seduce us into the spiritual life with his beauty. He is there to help us to force our way through intractable bad habits and psychological traps. Whatever demons we have within us, Vajrapani is equal to them all. He presents a fierce, raw face of reality, and something deep within me resonates with that. He often shocks me — sometimes into laughter that opens me up to seeing myself a little more clearly.
In another text Vajrapani’s unconventional methods are described in a teaching to Tsong Khapa and Karmavajra. He gives a long discourse on dealing with hindrances to meditation, which ends with a vivid and unexpected tip. “If you want to avoid the pitfalls (of distraction) whack the pig on the snout with a club!”
As long as our powerful internal energy lies undiscovered, our life is doomed to remain fragmented and purposeless
Vajrapani’s mantra — om vajrapani ah hum — is deep, untuneful and resolute. It has a mysterious sound. Sometimes when I chant it, I imagine that the mantra is hurtling along the corridors of the universe, revealing glimpses of his immeasurable power. Perhaps, I feel, I can hear an echo of his heartbeat, or see a faint blue light that will pass within light years of his huge, golden vajra. When meditating on his figure, I listen for the sound of the dust that is moved by his magnificent footsteps.
Vajrapani is unpredictable. You never know what he might do, because he is associated with the wisdom that goes beyond the rational mind. He is also associated with the Tantra. Tantra means both the movement of energy and direct experience. The tantric tradition of spiritual practice is concerned with looking beyond the realm of the conceptual to the non-rational. Through the non-rational we can experience ourselves directly as pure energy or pure awareness that is unmediated by concepts.
Most of our energy is unconscious. We are like icebergs — largely submerged, with just a visible tip. In opening up to Vajrapani we look to make the remainder conscious, awake, and working in support of our desire to grow and change.
Vajrapani is sometimes portrayed as the Buddha’s protector — or the protective aspect of the Buddha. Some sutras recount people arguing with the Buddha, or insulting him. Vajrapani can be found hovering in the air above the Buddha, his vajra raised threateningly, just waiting to split open the person’s head.
Even Vajrapani’s tenderness is frequently portrayed in terms of his might. When the Buddha died, it is said that: “letting fall his vajra in despair, Vajrapani rolled himself in the dust.” It is as if the earth shuddered from the weight of the fallen vajra — and from Vajrapani’s grief.
Sometimes I find things that help me to deepen my connection with Vajrapani in unexpected places. Recently I was in Barcelona and was introduced to some buildings designed by the architect Antoni Gaudi. The spontaneity, creativity and freedom in the buildings brought Vajrapani to my mind. The exultant playfulness in Gaudi’s placing of a bunch of grapes or an ice-cream cone in marble perched on top of a fish-scaled roof is reminiscent of Vajrapani’s willingness to go anywhere or do anything in pursuit of the good.
A friend, who was formerly a Quaker and is now a Buddhist, told me of a label that was given to her by Quaker friends: Holy Boldness. I immediately thought of Vajrapani. It is him to a tee. I love the contradiction in the words and their suggestion of irreverence. Holy Boldness is vigorous, brave and pure. I want to develop Holy Boldness. I want to be like Vajrapani.
Vajradevi has been a member of the Western Buddhist Order since 1995, and meditating since 1985. Recently she spent 3 months in 2007 in Burma practicing under Sayadaw U Tejaniya whose emphasis is on observing the mind and it’s objects directly while maintaining a continuity of awareness in daily life. During the last 3 years she has co-led an annual intensive meditation retreat at Taraloka retreat centre introducing the main areas of the Satipatthana Sutta. She teaches at Dharmapala College.