(pinyin: Jīngāngshǒu púsà)
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Vajrapāni (Sanskrit: "Vajra in [his] hand") is one of the earliest-appearing bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism. He is the protector and guide of Gautama Buddha and rose to symbolize the Buddha's power. The Golden Light Sutra titles him "great general of the yakshas".
Vajrapāni is extensively represented in Buddhist iconography as one of the three protective deities surrounding the Buddha. Each of them symbolizes one of the Buddha's virtues: Mañjuśrī manifests all the Buddhas' wisdom, Avalokiteśvara manifests all the Buddhas' compassion and Vajrapāni manifests all the Buddhas' power as well as the power of all five tathāgatas.
Vajrapāni is one of the earliest Dharmapalas and the only Buddhist deity to be mentioned in the Pāli Canon as well as worshiped in the Shaolin Monastery, in Tibetan Buddhism and in Pure Land Buddhism (where he is known as Mahasthamaprapta and forms a triad with Amitābha and Avalokiteśvara). Manifestations of Vajrapāni can also be found in many Buddhist temples in Japan as Dharma protectors called Nio. Vajrapāni is also associated with Acala, who is venerated as Fudo-Myō in Japan, where he is serenaded as the holder of the vajra.
Vajrapāni's image contains several key elements:
- Vajrapāni's expression is wrathful, often symbolized as a yaksha, to generate "fear in the individual to loosen up his dogmatism"
- Vajrapāni's taut posture is the active warrior pose (pratyālīḍha), based on an archer's stance
- His loin cloth is made up of the skin of a tiger, whose head can be seen on his left knee
- His outstretched right hand brandishes a vajra, "symbolizing analytical knowledge (jñanavajra) that disintegrates the grasping of consciousness
- His left hand deftly holds a lasso, with which he binds demons
- Around his neck is a serpent necklace
- Although he wears a skull crown in a few depictions, in most depictions he wears a five-pointed bodhisattva crown to depict the power of the five tathāgathas
- He has a third eye
On the popular level, Vajrapāni is the bodhisattva who represents the power of all the buddhas just as Avalokiteśvara represents their great compassion, Mañjuśrī their wisdom, and Tārā their miraculous deeds. For the yogi, Vajrapāni is a means of accomplishing fierce determination and symbolizes unrelenting effectiveness in the conquest of negativity.
According to the Pañcaviṃsatisāhasrikā- and Aṣṭasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitās, any bodhisattva on the path to buddhahood is eligible for Vajrapāni's protection, making them invincible to any attacks "by either men or ghosts".
Appearances and identifications
As Buddhism expanded in Central Asia and fused with Hellenistic influences into Greco-Buddhism, the Greek hero Heracles was adopted to represent Vajrapāni. He was then typically depicted as a hairy, muscular athlete, wielding a short "diamond" club. Buddhaghosa associated Vajrapāni with the deva Indra.
In Japan, Vajrapāni is known as "the head vajra-wielding god" (執金剛神 Shukongōshin?), and has been the inspiration for the Niō (仁王?, Benevolent Kings), the wrath-filled and muscular guardian gods of the Buddha, standing today at the entrance of many Buddhist temples under the appearance of frightening, wrestler-like statues. He is also associated with Acala (不動明王 Fudō-myōō?); the mantra for Fudō-myōō references him as the powerful wielder of the vajra.
The origin of the image of Vajrapani should be explained. This deity is the protector and guide of the Buddha Sakyamuni. His image was modelled after that of Hercules. (...) The Gandharan Vajrapani was transformed in Central Asia and China and afterwards transmitted to Japan, where it exerted stylistic influences on the wrestler-like statues of the Guardian Deities (Nio).
Conversion of Ambattha
The Pāli Canon's Ambattha Sutta, which challenges the caste system, tells of one instance of him appearing as a sign of the Buddha's power. At the behest of his teacher, a young Brahmin named Ambatha visited the Buddha. Knowing the Buddha's family to be the Shakya clan, who are Kshatriya caste, Ambatha failed to show him the respect he would a fellow Brahmin. When the Buddha questioned his lack of respect, Ambatha replied it was because the Buddha belongs to a "menial" caste. The Buddha then asked the Brahmin if his family was descended from a “Shakya slave girl”. Knowing this to be true, Ambatha refused to answer the question. Upon refusing to answer the question for a second time, the Buddha warned him that his head would be smashed to bits if he failed to do so a third time. Ambatha was frightened when he saw Vajrapāni manifest above the Buddha's head ready to strike the Brahmin down with his thunderbolt. He quickly confirmed the truth and a lesson on caste ensues.
Vajrapāni and Maheśvara
A popular story tells how Vajrapāni kills Maheśvara, a manifestation of Shiva depicted as an evil being. The story occurs in several scriptures, most notably the Sarvatathāgatatattvasaṅgraha and the Vajrāpanyābhiṣeka Mahātantra. The story begins with the transformation of the bodhisattva Samantabhadra into Vajrapāni by Vairocana, the cosmic Buddha, receiving a vajra and the name "Vajrāpani". Vairocana then requests Vajrapāni to generate his adamantine family in order to establish a mandala. Vajrapāni refuses because Maheśvara "is deluding beings with his deceitful religious doctrines and engaging in all kinds of violent criminal conduct". Maheśvara and his entourage are dragged to Mount Meru, and all but Maheśvara submit. Vajrapāni and Maheśvara engage in a magical combat, which is won by Vajrapāni. Maheśvara's retinue become part of Vairocana's mandala, except for Maheśvara, who is killed, and his life transferred to another realm where he becomes a Buddha named Bhasmeśvaranirghoṣa, the "Soundless Lord of Ashes".
Patron saint of Shaolin monastery
In his book The Shaolin Monastery (2008), Prof. Meir Shahar notes Vajrapāni is the patron saint of the Shaolin Monastery. A short story appearing in Zhang Zhuo's (660-741) Tang anthology shows how the deity had been venerated in the Monastery from at least the eighth century. It is an anecdotal story of how the Shaolin monk Sengchou (480-560) gained supernatural strength and fighting ability by praying to the Vajrapāni and being force-fed raw meat. Shaolin abbot Zuduan (1115–1167) erected a stele in his honor during the Song dynasty. It reads:
According to the scripture [Lotus Sutra], this deity (Narayana) is a manifestation of Avalokitesvara (Guanyin). If a person who compassionately nourishes all living beings employs this [deity's] charm, it will increase his body's strength (zengzhang shen li). It fulfills all vows, being most efficacious. ... Therefore those who study Narayana's hand-symbolism (mudra), those who seek his spell (mantra), and those who search for his image are numerous. Thus we have erected this stele to spread this transmission.— Stele re-erected (chong shang) by Shaolin's abbot Zuduan
Instead of being considered a stand-alone deity, Shaolin believes Vajrapāni to be an emanation of the Bodhisattva Guanyin. The Chinese scholar A'De noted this was because the Lotus Sutra says Guanyin takes on the visage of whatever being that would best help pervade the dharma. The exact Lotus Sutra passage reads: “To those who can be conveyed to deliverance by the body of the spirit who grasps the vajra (Vajrapāni) he preaches Dharma by displaying the body of the spirit who grasps the vajra.”
He was historically worshiped as the progenitor of their famous staff method by the monks themselves. A stele erected by Shaolin abbot Wenzai in 1517 shows the deity's vajra-club had by then been changed to a gun staff, which originally "served as the emblem of the monk". Vajrapāni's yaksha-like Narayana form was eventually equated with one of the four staff-wielding "Kinnara Kings" from the Lotus Sutra in 1575. His name was thus changed from Narayana to "Kinnara King". One of the many versions of a certain tale regarding his creation of the staff method takes place during the Yuan-era Red Turban Rebellion. Bandits lay siege to the monastery, but it is saved by a lowly kitchen worker wielding a long fire poker as a makeshift staff. He leaps into the oven and emerges as a monstrous giant big enough to stand astride both Mount Song and the imperial fort atop Mount Shaoshi (which are five miles apart). The bandits flee when they behold this staff-wielding titan. The Shaolin monks later realize that the kitchen worker was none other than the Kinnara King in disguise. Shahar notes the part of the kitchen worker might have been based on the actual life of the monk Huineng (638-713). In addition, he suggests the mythical elements of the tale were based on the fictional adventures of Sun Wukong from the Chinese epic Journey to the West. He compares the worker's transformation in the stove with Sun's time in Laozi's crucible, their use of the staff, and the fact that Sun and his weapon can both grow to gigantic proportions.
Statues and paintings of kinnaras were commissioned in various halls throughout Shaolin in honor of his defeat of the Red Turban army. A wicker statue woven by the monks and featured in the center of the "Kinnara Hall" was mentioned in Cheng Zongyou's seventeenth century training manual Shaolin Staff Method. However, a century later, it was claimed that the Kinnara King had himself woven the statue. It was destroyed when the monastery was set aflame by the KMT General Shi Yousan in 1928. A "rejuvenated religious cult" arose around kinnaras in the late twentieth century. Shaolin re-erected the shrine to him in 1984 and improved it in 2004.
Vajrapāni with Heraklean club
Hercules and the Nemean lion. Gandhara, 1st century
1517 stele dedicated to Narayana's defeat of the Red Turban rebels
- Vessantara (1993), p. 162.
- Getty (1928), p. 34.
- Kalupahana (1992), p. 220.
- Kalupahana (1992), p. 219.
- Vajrapani mantra - Om Vajrapani Hum
- Vajrapani Mantra
- DeCaroli (2004), p. 182.
- Katsumi Tanabe, "Alexander the Great, East-West cultural contacts from Greece to Japan", p23)
- Davidson (2004), p. 148-153.
- Davidson (2004), p. 148.
- Davidson (2004), p. 148-150.
- Davidson (2004), p. 150.
- Davidson (2004), p. 151.
- Davidson (2004), p. 152.
- Shahar (2008), pp. 35–36
- Shahar (2008), p. 40
- This usage of Narayana is not to be confused with one of the many names of the Hindu god Vishnu.
- Instead of being a stand alone Bodhisattva, Shaolin considers him to be an emanation of Guanyin.
- Shahar (2008), p. 42
- Shahar (2008), p. 85
- Shahar (2008), p. 84
- Shahar (2008), p. 102
- Shahar (2008), p. 87
- Shahar (2008), p. 87–88
- Shahar (2008), p. 109
- Shahar (2008), p. 88
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- "The Crossroads of Asia, Transformation in image and symbols", 1992, ISBN 0-9518399-1-8
- Media related to Vajrapani at Wikimedia Commons