“Vajra” symbolizes invincibility and indomitable wisdom; it is known in Tibetan as “Dorje”.
Esoteric Buddhism believes that it can symbolize the wisdom of the Tathagata. It can eliminate various afflictions, destroy demons that obstruct the path of cultivation, and dispel inner demons of ignorance and delusion, as well as external obstacles from other paths. Therefore, it represents Buddha’s wisdom, emptiness, true nature, and wisdom. It is considered a sacred object for practitioners or yogis in tantric Buddhism. In the Mandala Assembly of the Vajra section, all the deities hold the it, and mantra practitioners often carry it with them.
In Esoteric Buddhism, “Vajra” is not only the name of the Vajra, but also a title given to deities, sacred objects, and monks. For example, in the Tang Dynasty, Vajrabodhi and Amoghavajra, two prominent Buddhist masters, had the Sanskrit name “Vajra” in their titles. And it holds a central position in the symbolic system of Esoteric Buddhism and can be seen as a symbol of this Buddhist tradition to some extent.
Vajra originated from ancient Indian mythology as the weapon of the deity Indra. It symbolizes lightning or refers to a diamond. Due to its strong and indestructible nature, often compared to a diamond, it is used metaphorically and symbolically in Tibetan Buddhism. It is also a ritual implement in Tibetan Buddhist Vajrayana practice. It represents the Buddha nature and is also seen as a symbol of masculinity.
Due to its believed power to dispel evil spirits, it is commonly used as a ritual implement by protective deities, symbolizing the safeguarding of the Dharma. The deity Vajrapani is often depicted wielding it, also known as the Vajra Guardian, who accompanies Sakyamuni.
According to the “Great Treasury of Esoteric Instructions,” it represents the Bodhicitta, the mind of enlightenment. It has the ability to “break the duality and abide in the Middle Way.” It symbolizes the sixteen great Bodhisattvas in the Middle Way, with five prongs on each side representing the Five Buddhas and their Five Wisdoms, signifying the destruction of the ten afflictions through the practice of the ten paramitas.
Legend has it that the Vajra lies at the bottom of the ocean, below the sun. In the hands of the great celestial deity Indra, it shines like the sun in the sky. It is described as having four or a hundred corners and a thousand prongs. It can take the form of a disc or a cross.
The “Four Heavenly Kings”
Vajra is a special form of staff and serves as a symbol for many Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and deities. The term “Vajra” is also used as an abbreviation for “Vajra Guardian,” referring to the celestial beings who protect the Buddhist teachings while wielding it. In Buddhist temples and monasteries, the four heavenly kings depicted on both sides of the main hall are commonly referred to as the “Four Great Vajras”.
Legend and Origin of Vajra
There are several legends and origins surrounding it
According to one legend, in ancient India, a practitioner’s bones turned into diamond-like indestructible bones after death. The deity Indra used these bones to create it as a weapon. Eventually, this weapon found its way into the human realm.
Another legend states that during the Vedic period in India, the Vajra was originally the primary weapon of the great celestial deity Indra, who was associated with thunder, war, and storms. It symbolized “thunder and lightning” and was believed to be invincible and capable of destroying everything. Initially used as a metaphor in Mahayana and Hinayana scriptures, Indra later became one of the deities in Buddhism, and it became the weapon of the Vajra Guardians, who protect the Dharma. Over time, it evolved into a ritual implement.
In another version, the term “Vajra” originally referred to the “electric light” of the deity Indra. However, it was commonly used to refer to the weapon he wielded. In later esoteric Buddhism, it took on the meaning of “destroying enemies.” As a result, all the implements held by the sacred deities were called Vajra, and it transformed into a tool used for spiritual practice.
From these legends, it can be inferred that it was initially used as a weapon with a sharp and powerful tip. However, over time, it gradually transformed into a symbol of subduing, blessing, and wisdom, eventually becoming a ritual implement. Its material, size, and shape have also undergone many changes.
Material, Length, and Style of Vajra
Vajra can be made from various materials such as gold, silver, copper, iron, stone, crystal, sandalwood, and even human bones. Among them, the best material is forged from celestial iron (meteorite).
In terms of length, it comes in different sizes, such as eight fingers long, ten fingers long, twelve fingers long, sixteen fingers long, and twenty fingers long. The twelve-finger length is the most common, symbolizing the eradication of the “twelve links of dependent origination.”
In the middle of it is the handle, with pointed blades or halo-shaped staffs on both ends. The tips are quite sharp and can come in various forms such as single prong, double prong, triple prong, quadruple prong, five prong, nine prong, and twelve prong blades. There are also different forms of it, such as humanoid style, stupa style, and treasure style. Among them, the single prong, triple prong, and five prong blades are the most common.
The spherical bead or ring at the center of Vajra represents “Dharmadhatu,” which symbolizes the naturally perfect Buddha nature.
In the flat seed-shaped center, there is the syllable “Hum,” which symbolizes the emptiness of all Buddhist teachings.
Surrounding the center of Vajra are a pair of symmetrical lotus bases. Each lotus base consists of eight lotus petals, and sixteen lotus petals symbolize the sixteen emptinesses listed by the sixteen Bodhisattvas and the Mahayana Buddhist scriptures.
The single-prong Vajra has a shape resembling a spear or sword, with the tip of the central prong resembling a sharpened cone or a four-sided jewel.
The five types of Vajra are the single-prong, triple-prong, five-prong, treasure scepter, and stupa scepter. Among them, the single-prong is the oldest form, with a long and sharp edge. It is held by the warriors of the Vajrayana tradition. The single-prong corresponds to the lotus section and is placed in the western part of the mandala.
In addition, the hand holding it is depicted in the forty hands of Avalokiteshvara with a thousand arms, and one of the one hundred and eight arms of Vajrapani Bodhisattva, the King of Vajra Treasury, also holds a single-prong Vajra.
The triple-prong Vajra corresponds to the vajra section and is placed in the northern part of the main mandala. Generally, when referring to a Vajra, it usually refers to the triple-prong one
Symbolic Meaning of Vajra
In Exoteric Buddhism: In the hands of the Vajra warriors, the protectors of the Buddhas, the Vajra is held to protect the Buddhas on their left and right sides.
Symbol of Wisdom: In Exoteric Buddhism, it is not used as a ritual instrument, so there is no actual physical one. Instead, the strong and unbreakable nature of Vajra is used as a metaphor for “great wisdom.” With this “great wisdom,” one can crush the solid and unbreakable mountain of desires or destroy the immeasurable suffering of sentient beings. It can even annihilate all false doctrines and heretical views.
In Esoteric Buddhism: it symbolizes the bodhi mind that destroys afflictions and is used as a possession or tool for various deities or practices. In the mandala assembly of the Vajra section, all the deities hold it. It symbolizes the wisdom and great application of the Vajra of the Buddhas, capable of dispelling the inner demons of ignorance and delusion, as well as the external obstacles posed by various demonic forces. It is used as a ritual instrument by practitioners of Esoteric Buddhism. Practitioners often carry the Vajra, which signifies the utilization of the Vajra wisdom of the Buddhas to dispel inner demons of ignorance and delusion, thereby manifesting the luminosity of one’s pure nature.
The Shape, Meaning, and Usage of Vajra
Each type of Vajra has its unique form and symbolic meaning, and they are not used arbitrarily. According to the esoteric scriptures:
The Single-Pronged Vajra represents the “unique Dharma realm” – in exoteric Buddhism, it is referred to as the “one true Dharma realm.” It symbolizes the central axis of the inner world within a person’s body, as well as the central axis of the universe, Mount Meru. It is commonly used in recitation and practice of the Path, as well as in the practices of the Buddha Section and the Lotus Section.
The Triple-Pronged Vajra represents the three secrets of “body, speech, and mind,” or the three bodies of “Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya, and Nirmanakaya,” or the three sections of “Buddha Section, Vajra Section, and Lotus Section.” It also signifies the victory over the three poisons (anger, ignorance, and delusion), and the control over the past, present, and future, as well as the heavenly realm, earthly realm, and underworld. It is commonly used in the empowerment rituals.
The Five-Pronged Vajra, also known as the Five Wisdom Vajra, Five Peak Vajra, or Five Peak Radiance, represents the “five wisdoms of the five Buddhas.” The two ends are identical, symbolizing that both the realm of the Buddhas and the realm of sentient beings possess the five wisdoms. When the two ends are combined, there are ten prongs, representing the ten paramitas, which can eliminate ten kinds of afflictions, overcome ten kinds of obstacles, achieve the tenfold true nature, and attain the ten stages of enlightenment.
The central prong of the five prongs Vajra represents the “ultimate wisdom” of the Buddha, while the four outer prongs represent the “provisional wisdom” of the Buddha. The bending of the four outer prongs inward signifies that the “provisional wisdom” must return to the “ultimate wisdom.” The upper and lower ends of the “Vajra” are of the same shape, representing the shared possession of the five wisdoms by the realm of the Buddhas and the realm of sentient beings.
Another interpretation is that the central prong represents the “wisdom of the nature of the Dharma realm,” which is self-realized by the Mahavairocana Tathagata, directly and without reliance on expedient means. The inwardly curved four outer prongs represent the wisdom of the four Buddhas, who receive the blessings of the Mahavairocana Tathagata’s self-realized wisdom and engage in teaching and transformation. The identical shape of the upper and lower ends represents the shared possession of the five wisdoms by sentient beings and Buddha.
The middle section of the “handle” is cast with four layers of eight leaves, representing the four paramitas, sixteen great Bodhisattvas, and the thirty-seven deities of offering and protection. The four corners with four pearls represent the four Buddhas of the four directions, with a hidden pearl representing the Mahavairocana Tathagata. The waist of the eight leaves is bound by two cords, symbolizing the practices of “samadhi” and “wisdom” and their adornment. Additionally, each of the four outer prongs has a claw, symbolizing a lion’s head, with a total of eight, representing the transformation of the eight consciousnesses into the four wisdoms. By wielding this Vajra, one is equivalent to abiding in the diamond-like wisdom of the Buddha. It is commonly used in accomplishing tasks and practicing the Vajra
The Nine-Pronged Vajra, In the Nyingma Pa tradition, a Nine-Pronged Vajra is used to represent the nine vehicles and is used in the practice of the Yamantaka deity.
The Three-Pronged Vajra, also known as the Phurba or Demon Subduing Vajra, has a diamond-shaped end on one side and a three-sided iron scepter on the other side. In the middle section, there are three Buddha images, one with a smiling expression, one with an angry expression, and one with a scolding expression. This ritual instrument is commonly used for the practice of subduing and pacifying, to subdue demons and enemies. This Vajra represents the ability to eliminate all personal sins and obstacles, purify all defilements, accomplish all superior and common grounds, eliminate all hindrances and obstacles, increase all virtuous roots in accordance with favorable conditions, bring satisfaction and joy to all enemies and debtors, and eliminate enemies and adversaries.
The Crossed Vajra consists of two vertical crossed vajras, forming a cross shape. It is also called the Vajra Cross or Karmapa Scepter. Its shape resembles three-pronged scepters crossed at the top, with the three prongs symbolizing body, speech, and mind, and the crossed vajras symbolizing the equality of the Buddha realm and the realm of sentient beings, and also the wisdom of the Buddha’s inherent creative activities and is one of the wheel treasures. During the practice of Buddhism, the four crossed vajras are often placed at the four corners of the main altar, symbolizing the destruction of the twelve links of dependent origination.
In summary, regardless its type, their common characteristic is to symbolize the use of the Buddha’s diamond-like wisdom to eliminate inner and outer obstacles caused by ignorance and delusion, thereby quickly arousing the bodhicitta (awakening mind).
Difference Between Vajra, Vajra Peg, and Vajra Pestle
The vajra, vajra peg, and vajra pestle are all ancient weapons from ancient India that were later adopted by Buddhist tantra as ritual implements. However, they have different purposes:
In terms of usage, to put it simply, the vajra peg is used to establish a protective boundary at the four corners of the altar in tantric practices, while the vajra and vajra pestle are ritual implements held by practitioners. It is used for accomplishing and blessing practices, and different traditions use different types of scepters. The vajra pestle is used for subjugation practices, capable of subduing demonic obstacles.
Vajra and Vajra Bell
The vajra bell is a ritual instrument used in tantric practices, symbolizing awakening the enlightened beings and alerting sentient beings.
Half of the vajra bell is a vajra, and the other half is a metal bell, thus forming a complete vajra bell. The lower part of the bell is a small bell, and the handle on the upper part is in the shape of a Buddha head, Avalokiteshvara, or a five-pronged vajra， etc., and the handle itself is a vajra.
In Vajrayana Buddhism, Vajra Bell symbolizes femininity, fruition, wisdom, and represents negative expression, while Vajra is not only a representative of Buddha nature in Tantric Buddhism, but also regarded as a symbol of masculinity, path, skill, compassion,etc, which is a positive qualities.
In ceremonies, the vajra and vajra bell are often used jointly as Tibetan Buddhist Tantric instruments
The symbolic significance of this two Tibetan Buddhist Tantric instruments reflects the core concept of the Vajrayana Buddhism, which is the polarization of masculine (Yang) and feminine (Yin) aspects and the union of the two genders.
Controversy over Related Metaphors
The practice of dual cultivation of men and women is often used by false teachers to deceive others for sexual purposes, and in the Buddhist community, it is considered as a heterodox path influenced by the sexual practices of the Brahmanical tradition. The mention of the metaphor of “the union of the vajra and the lotus flower” in this practice may have some hidden meanings.
Ven. Yin Shun, in his work “Hua Yu Ji Volume 4” (Y 28p 212~213), mentions the “Sutra of the Great Vehicle that Gathers All Tathagatas’ True Reality and Verifies the Great Dharma King”: “The union of the lotus flower and the vajra is said to be the highest bliss,” and so on. In this context, the vajra represents the male organ, and the lotus flower represents the female organ, symbolizing the “practice of attaining Buddhahood through the unity of men and women.” Ven. Yin Shun also repeats similar statements in his work “A History of Indian Buddhist Thought” (Y 34p435~436). In “A History of Indian Buddhist Thought” (Y 34p440), it is further mentioned that when one has attained mastery over the techniques of raising, descending, gathering, and releasing, and the seminal point (referring to male semen) does not leak out (ejaculate) when it descends to the tip of the gem, one should engage in the “union of the lotus flower and the vajra” with a consort (referring to a female partner), which will give rise to unchanging great bliss (mahāsukha).
This controversy is now ongoing in Buddhist circles as well