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The Symbolism of the Sacred Thunderbolt

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by Sangharakshita

Lecture 105: The Symbolism of the Sacred Thunderbolt or Diamond Sceptre of the Lamas

Friends, From very early times man has been deeply impressed by different aspects of the world in which he lived - different aspects of nature, different natural objects, by different natural phenomena. From the very earliest times, from the dawn practically of human consciousness, man, lifting up his eyes to the heavens, has been impressed and deeply impressed by the splendid vision of the sun, the moon, the stars, the whole sky, even by storm. He has been impressed too by the sight of towering mountains, swift- flowing rivers and waving trees. He has been impressed by the curious, the splendid, the dangerous, the fascinating forms of animals and of birds. And taking an even wider view, an even wider prospect, he has been impressed too by the sight of the ocean in all its magnificence and by the sight of the earth. He has been impressed too by various things found in the ocean, in the depths of the ocean, and in the earth: impressed by the curious forms and structures and shapes of rocks and minerals, impressed, as he began to master the science of metallurgy, impressed by the various glittering metals that he dug out from the bosom of the earth, and by various precious stones.

In the course of time as history advanced, as civilisation developed, he started refining the metals, cutting and polishing the precious stones, and giving to them, giving to the precious stones especially, different names. Some he named as diamond, others as ruby, and then emerald, sapphire, opal, pearl, cornelian and scores and scores of others. And as he named them, as he came to appreciate them, to value them, it was as though a whole new world of light and colour, of radiance, was revealed to his eyes. And sometimes it must have seemed - and we do know from some of the later records that it certainly seems like to this to some people later on - sometimes it must have seemed that these rare precious stones, these jewels were the most beautiful and wonderful material things in existence, the rarest, the most precious.

And as civilisation developed, as culture flourished, precious stones, jewels, were used to adorn the persons of kings and high priests, as well as to decorate, in various ways, religious images. And eventually we find the precious stone assuming itself a sort of religious significance, even a sort of symbolical significance. It was found, it was felt that the jewel, the precious stone stood for something.

Stood for something, as it were, rich and rare, something beautiful, something precious, something even remote and mysterious, something not quite of this world, even eventually something Transcendental.

And myth and legend started speaking of jewel, of the precious stone, started speaking, for instance, of 'the pearl of great price', started speaking of 'the island of jewels', started speaking, even, of 'the philosopher's stone'. And we find this sort of symbolism, the symbolism of the jewel, the symbolism of the precious stone, practically in all traditions. We certainly find it in Buddhism, and we find it from the very earliest times, from the very dawn of Buddhism in this historical epoch, and we find it not only at the beginning, at the birth, as it were, of Buddhism, but we find it, we find this sort of symbolism, lying, we may say, at the very heart of Buddhism.

We think especially of what tradition has called from the beginning 'The Three Jewels'. What in Buddhism could be more fundamental than this? The Three Jewels are of course: the Buddha, the Enlightened teacher, the embodiment in human form of the ideal of Enlightenment; and then the Dharma, the truth, the way, the path, the teaching, which leads one, which guides one, naturally - with or without benefit of catastrophe - in the direction, ultimately, of Enlightenment; and then the Sangha, which is the spiritual community, the brotherhood, the fellowship, of all those who are treading the path, practising the Dharma, striving to realize the ideal of Enlightenment. These are the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha, the three fundamentals of Buddhism.

But they are spoken of, and spoken of from the beginning as 'The Three Jewels', so we may ask ourselves why is this? If we have been into Buddhism for any length of time, we have probably got so used to speaking of the Three Jewels that we have stopped wondering, if in fact we ever did wonder, why they are so called. But why do we speak, why does tradition speak, of 'The Three Jewels'. Why do we call the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha 'The Three Jewels'? Why not simply 'The Three Fundamental Principles', or why not 'The Three Essentials'? Or why not stick even to 'The Three Refuges', because they are called that too? Why do we speak of them as 'The Three Jewels'? It's as though the tradition did not want, at this point, in connection with this topic, did not want to give us, did not want to convey to us, any idea, any abstract idea, any concept. It's as though the tradition wanted to leave us, in respect to these fundamental things, leave us with a sort of spiritual impression, leave us with an image, something concrete, not something abstract, wanted to leave us with an image of, as it were, something beautiful, something colourful, something sparkling, something infinitely precious. And therefore tradition speaks of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha as 'The Three Jewels'.

And then going a little further on in the tradition, in the same tradition, coming to the Mahayana form of the tradition, we find 'the jewel in the lotus'. This is one of the most famous symbols in the whole range, in the whole field, of Buddhism. It's a symbol to which I devoted a whole lecture some time ago. I think about two years ago. We've no time to go into the meaning of that symbols at the moment. Also in the same Mahayana tradition, there is what we call 'the wish-fulfilling jewel', the cintamani, or the jewel that grants all our desires. It's a jewel which, according to myth and legend, if you hold it in your hand and wish, you at once get everything you desire. But there's only one jewel that can really give you everything you desire and this according to the Mahayana is the Bodhicitta, or the will or the aspiration to Enlightenment itself.

And then again coming from the Mahayana to the Vajrayana, to the Tantra, we even have a jewel- Buddha or jewel born or jewel producing Buddha, whose name is Ratnasambhava, 'The Jewel-Born One ', or 'The Jewel-Producing One', and he, as many of you know, is one of the five so-called Dhyani Buddhas, archetypal Buddhas, suprahistorical Buddhas, who preside over different spiritual families, and this particular Dhyani Buddha, Ratnasambhava presides over a whole jewel family. And one of the members of this jewel family is a Bodhisattva figure called Jambhala, who is popularly regarded as a sort of god of wealth, and he is represented as rather stout, deep yellow coloured figure, and he grasps in his left hand a mongoose, which is of course an Indian animal that lives on snakes, and the mongoose is shown, iconographically, as vomiting jewels - there's a whole stream of jewels pouring from its mouth as Jambhala gently squeezes the mongoose.

But above all, above all in Buddhism we have in this field of jewel symbolism, as it were, we have the vajra. And it's with this vajra that we are concerned tonight when we speak of 'The Symbolism of the Sacred Thunderbolt or Diamond Sceptre of the Lamas'.

Now first of all the word 'vajra' itself. What does it mean? The word 'vajra' has a double meaning in Sanskrit. It means in the first place a 'thunderbolt', and not just any kind of thunderbolt, it means in particular the thunderbolt of Indra, who, according to Indian mythology, is the king of the gods. Now Indra, or Sakra as he is sometimes also called, is a very ancient Indian divinity. If we turn to the Rig Veda which goes back perhaps to about 800-1000 BCE - it's one of the main texts of orthodox Hinduism - if we go back to the Rig Veda, we shall find, in the Rig Veda quite a number of hymns to the god Indra or Sakra. So that in the Vedas, and in Vedic mythology generally, he is quite an important figure. And we can understand from these hymns, in which he is described and praised, we can understand that Indra is a god of the storm. And especially he is the god of the dark storm clouds that bring the rain, particularly the seasonal rains, on which the very existence of agricultural India depends. Sometimes in Indian poetry the storm clouds that come up when the rains are about to begin are referred to as 'Indra's cows').

And in art Indra is depicted as a very robust and powerful figure riding on an enormous elephant, and brandishing in his right hand the thunderbolt or vajra. And of this thunderbolt, of this vajra, Indian mythology says that it is the most powerful thing in existence: nothing can stand against it - no weapon, no armour, nothing at all. It's absolutely irresistible. And with this irresistible weapon, the vajra, the thunderbolt, Indra annihilates his enemies, annihilates, according to the Rig Veda, the demons of drought and thirst. So vajra means, in the first place, 'thunderbolt', especially Indra's thunderbolt.

And in the second place, vajra means 'diamond'. The diamond is the hardest of all precious stones: it cuts everything, but nothing can cut it. The diamond also is absolutely pure, absolutely incorruptible - it does not rust like iron - it cannot be soiled, cannot be stained, by anything; it remains pure, remains untouched, remains undefiled even under millions of layers of dust and dirt.

So we can now begin to have a general idea of what the vajra represents. The vajra is something that combines the qualities, the attributes of the thunderbolt and the diamond. The vajra is something infinitely ...

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