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The Symbolism of the Sacred Thunderbolt

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by Sangharakshita

... powerful, something that is capable of overcoming all obstacles, something that smashes through all obstacles, something immutable, something irresistible, something indestructible, and also something that is absolutely pure, that remains the same, remains pure under all conditions and in all circumstances, and, in addition to this, it's something supremely brilliant and glorious and wonderful. So vajra is both diamond and thunderbolt. If you like it's the diamond-thunderbolt or the thunderbolt- diamond.

But in Buddhist art, in Buddhist iconography, whether three-dimensional or two-dimensional, the vajra is always represented, even though it conveys the ideas of both thunderbolt and diamond, represented as a kind of stylized thunderbolt, it's not represented as a diamond, not represented as a jewel. And it's in this form, the form of a stylized thunderbolt, that we find the vajra in the Tantra, especially find it in Tantric ritual. In this context, the context of Tantric ritual, the vajra is the ritual implement that the lama, the guru or teacher, usually holds in his right hand. And because the vajra, the ritual vajra or the ritual implement, the vajra, is held in the right hand, and because it represents among other things spiritual power, spiritual sovereignty, even spiritual authority, it's sometimes referred to as 'the diamond sceptre', and it's with the symbolism of this ritual implement, the vajra, this stylized sacred thunderbolt, or diamond sceptre of the lamas, that we are not concerned.

First of all just a few words about vajra in general. Broadly speaking, the image, the symbol of the vajra is peculiar to Tantric Buddhism. But we do find, nevertheless, important anticipations of this image much earlier on in Buddhism. And I am going to deal very briefly with just two or three of these, because they will give us some idea of some of the early symbolical associations that the Tantric vajra image or vajra symbol came to assimilate.

First of all, Vajrasana or vajra-asana. We find references to this from very early times indeed. Vajrasana means 'diamond seat'; sometimes rendered 'diamond throne'. So what is this 'diamond throne', this Vajrasana? To understand this we have to go back a little, back to the biography of the Buddha, back to the Buddha's Enlightenment. We know that the Buddha gained Enlightenment, became the Buddha, awoke to Reality, at the age of thirty-five, at a place now known as Bodh Gaya in the state of Bihar. And according to tradition, the Buddha gained Enlightenment, awoke to the Truth, sitting at the foot of a great peepul tree. And the spot on which he sat, the spot at the foot of that great peepul tree, came to be known quite early in the history of Buddhism as 'the diamond throne', or Vajrasana. As a matter of fact Tibetan Buddhists, you will find, still refer to Bodh Gaya as Dorje Den, which means simply Vajrasana in Tibetan.

Now why was this? Why was the spot on which the Buddha sat when he gained Enlightenment known as or termed the diamond throne? Well we are told, according to tradition, that it was so called because all the previous Buddhas in previous world cycles had sat there and gained Enlightenment. But, one might well ask the further question, well why had they even sat there? Why not on some other spot? What started this whole tradition, what was the basis of it, what was the foundation of it? And to understand this, we have to go a little into traditional Buddhist cosmology - not one of the most popular aspects of Buddhism, but one which for some people at least can be quite fascinating.

We know that in Buddhism there is no such concept as a personal God, a supreme being, which means that there is no such thing as a creator. And because there is no creator, obviously, there's no act of creation. So the question arises: How, according to Buddhism, did the universe come into existence? If it wasn't created by God, because there is no God, how did it come about, how did it happen? The Buddhist teaching of course is that the universe evolved, evolved over a vast period of time, over millions upon millions upon millions of years, or aeons even. I've no time for details but when we can begin to understand what is happening there is as it were at first, throughout the whole of what we know as our universe, a sort of what the texts call a 'fire mist', a thin fire mist diffused in all directions. It's possibly what we would now describe as a vast mass of incandescent gas. And we are told that after millions of years had gone by this fire-mist, this vast mass of incandescent gas, started cooling, started condensing, started solidifying, and in it there was one spot, one place where it started cooling, started condensing, started solidifying, and this point where that whole process started subsequently became the central point, the spiritual axis, of the whole world. It was the first point, we are told, to emerge at the beginning of the cosmic process, and it will be the last to disappear at the end of the cosmic process. And it's seated on this spot, we are told, that the Buddha, a Buddha, any Buddha in this world system gains Enlightenment. This is, or this is what became, the diamond seat or the diamond throne.

Now from this little excursus into traditional Buddhist cosmology - which has also, we can clearly see, symbolical overtones - the vajra is associated with the symbolism of the central point. And this symbolism of the central point is of course a whole subject in itself. The vajra therefore is suggestive of centrality, suggestive of axiality, of stability, of imperturbability. It is not surprising, therefore, in view of these considerations that the vajra is the special emblem of Aksobhya. Aksobhya, you may recollect, is the dark blue Buddha, the Buddha of the eastern quarter, and his name means 'The Unshakable', or 'The Imperturbable'.

Now Aksobhya is also associated with the Mental Poison of hatred or aversion. Each of the 'Five Buddhas' is associated with one particular Mental Poison. So Aksobhya is associated with hatred or aversion. And hatred in turn is associated with Wisdom, as we saw the week before last in our first lecture. And this brings us to another of the associations of the vajra, its association with Wisdom, or prajna. Or more specifically with Prajnaparamita, 'the Perfection of Wisdom' or 'Transcendental Wisdom', by which is meant the Wisdom which intuits Absolute Reality directly. And Prajnaparamita, the Perfection of Wisdom, Transcendental Wisdom, is one of the most important themes of the Mahayana. It is dealt with principally in a group of scriptures, a group of discourses by the Buddha which are known as Prajnaparamita sutras. There are more than 35 of these, both long and short. One of the best known and most important of them is what we call or what we know as the Vajracchedika Prajnaparamita sutra, or 'the discourse on the Transcendental Wisdom that pierces like the thunderbolt or cuts like the diamond'.

So what is it that Transcendental Wisdom pierces? What is it that it cuts? It pierces, it cuts, our illusions, our wrong ideas, our false notions, our projections. We can even generalize so far as to say that Wisdom, Transcendental Wisdom, Prajna, Prajnaparamita, is destructive. We can say that Reality is destructive.

It's destructive of our intellectual assumptions, usually so facilely made; it is destructive of our psychological conditionings, in which usually we are enmeshed; destructive of our emotional hang-ups, to which, very often, we are so attached: destructive, in short, of ourselves as we are at present. And we don't always appreciate this, we don't appreciate that Wisdom is destructive, that Reality is destructive, that the experience of Reality is destructive. We tend to think of the experience of Reality as a sort of pleasant extra, something added onto, quite sort of comfortably added onto, what we already are. But it isn't like that at all. We may say that the experience of Reality, Reality in its truth, in what the Tantras call 'its nakedness', is much more likely to be a rather shattering experience - at least until one gets used to it. In fact, we can even go so far as to say that any experience which is shattering has an element of Truth and Reality in it. If it shatters, it's real. If it doesn't shatter, suspect whether it is real.

So this energic, this destructive aspect of Reality, of the Enlightenment experience itself, is embodied in the awe inspiring figure of Vajrapani. Vajrapani means 'Thunderbolt in Hand'. Vajrapani belongs both to the Mahayana and to Tantric Buddhism. He has many forms, some peaceful, some which are called wrathful. But in Tibet the wrathful forms were far more popular than the peaceful forms. He is depicted in art, in painting and sculpture, as stout and strong, with a powerful body, dark blue in colour and with also a protuberant belly, and thick, short limbs, and he wears a crown, a crown of human skulls, and his dark blue, stout, powerful body, is generally naked except for ornaments of human bone. Sometimes he is draped in a freshly-skinned tiger skin. And he has three eyes - two in the usual places and one in the centre of his forehead, and they are all red-rimmed and all glaring ferociously. And the whole expression of his face is one of terrific anger, and he is surrounded by a halo of flames, and he's trampling on something, trampling on someone, trampling on two figures, usually on figures representing ignorance and craving. He is trampling triumphantly on them because he has destroyed them. And his right arm is raised, and in his right hand he grasps, as though ready to hurl, the vajra, the diamond thunderbolt, the thunderbolt diamond.

And it's to the details of the symbolism of this vajra that we must now turn. But first of all let me give you a little description, or better still, let me show you a picture, ...

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