Chapter 24 we talked about how the special characteristic
of the Vajrayana is its use of the totality of experience
to achieve direct or immediate knowledge of nonduality.
turning the totality of experience to the use of this
spiritual or religious endeavor, it is important that
we select elements of experience that are specially powerful
and meaningful. This does not exclude using the totality
of our experience for our spiritual progress. Rather,
it means that we focus first on types of experience that
are particularly powerful and meaningful, using them as
the building blocks of our transformed vision.
then extend that transformed experience so that it eventually
encompasses all experiences, even those that were originally
then, we select elements of experience that are specially
potent and powerful. In the process, certain archetypal
elements are isolated. Archetypal elements of experience
are those that have a very deep-seated mode of being within
both an individual consciousness and our collective consciousness
(that is, the sum total of all individual consciousness).
us look at some specific examples of archetypal experience.
The first belongs to the realm of myth. The most dominant
feature of myth is the struggle between good and evil.
is perhaps the primordial, fundamental mythological theme,
and has been worked out in myths from the beginning of
time up to the present day. For example, the crux of the
contest between Rama and Ravana in the Ramayana is the
struggle between the forces of good and the forces of
evil, and this continues to be a dominant theme in most
popular myths. Not so long ago, we even saw the theme
of the struggle between good and evil mythologized in
the popular science-fiction movie Star Wars.
see this theme also in the attitudes and rhetoric of politicians
and national leaders. For example, when U.S. President
Ronald Reagan called the USSR 'the Evil Empire,' he was
borrowing a phrase from Star Wars to indicate his conviction
that the struggle between the democratic world and the
communist world was one of good against evil. This is
a very important theme in human culture. When we call
this theme a mythological one, it does not devalue it.
If anything, this increases its value because it gives
that theme a superhuman dimension, a universal significance.
To call a theme mythological does not make it unreal--in
fact, it makes it more so.
and evil are, of course, a duality (like subject and object,
self and other, samsara and nirvana, and the rest).The
transcendence of the duality of good and evil, the mastery
of and assimilation of evil by good, is represented symbolically
in the appearance of the deities of the Vajrayana pantheon.
In Chapter 24, we talked about how we could transform
elements of experience and put make use of them for our
we have here is the mastery of what we would normally
think of as evil by good-- namely, the assimilation and
transformation of the mythical totality of evil in the
form of specific elements of the Vajrayana pantheon.
explains the general appearance of the deities of the
Vajrayana pantheon. Those of you who have seen tantric
paintings and sculptures may have wondered why the deities
wear necklaces of severed heads, ornaments of bone, and
so forth, and also at the prevalence of animal skins,
skeletons, weapons, and the like. Why, in Vajrayana iconography,
is there so much of the macabre?
answer is that the ornaments of bone, human and animal
parts, weapons, and so on are all paraphernalia of the
forces of evil as they are conceived of in our collective
consciousness. The fact that they are now worn and wielded
by Vajrayana deities symbolizes several things: (1) it
symbolizes the victory of good over evil; (2) it indicates
the use of the power of evil for the purpose of good;
and most importantly, (3) it represents the union and
transcendence of the duality of good and evil, nirvana
a mythical scale, this is how we are to understand the
particular nature of the appearance of the Vajrayana deities--as
an expression of the mastery and transformation of evil,
and as an expression of the transcendence of the duality
of good and evil.
Vajrayana also promotes the equality of objects of desire
and aversion. This equality implies transcendence of the
opposites of desire and aversion, good and evil. In the
symbolism of the Vajrayana, we find objects of desire
and aversion in close proximity.
example, we find jewels and severed heads, a desirable
female form and a corpse, lotuses, the sun and the moon
and blood, meat and bones side by side in the same portrait.
All these objects occurring side by side are symbolic
of the transcendence of the dualities of good and evil,
desirable and undesirable, pure and impure, and the like.
us examine, in slightly more concrete terms, the particular
forms of some of the archetypal symbols we find in the
Vajrayana, many of which have still to do with the transcendence
of duality. First let us consider the symbol of the union
of male and female, which is so dominant in the Vajrayana
tradition. This is a symbol that is archetypal in the
sense that it has always been a fundamental part of the
experience of living beings. It is a deep-seated element
in the individual and collective consciousness of living
beings. The union of male and female has served as a symbol
of the union of opposites--very often as a symbol of the
union of heaven and earth--in the arts, poetry, and literature
of most cultures at one time or another.
the Vajrayana, we find the prevalent use of this very
powerful and meaningful element of experience to depict
or symbolize the union of emptiness and form, nirvana
and samsara, wisdom and compassion. The female aspect
stands for emptiness, nirvana, and wisdom, as we saw in
Chapter 22, where insubstantiality was represented in
the form of the goddesses Nairatmya
The male aspect stands for form (phenomenal appearance),
samsara, and compassion (skillful means). The female can
also stand for emptiness and the male for luminosity,
and so on.
prevalent symbol used in Vajrayana iconography is the
tree, which is a symbol of life, growth, and development.
When taking refuge at the beginning of a session of Vajrayana
meditation, the meditator often pictures the objects of
refuge placed in a tree.
the union of male and female, the tree is an archetypal
symbol that has cross-cultural significance.
have been surprised to find the tree appearing in the
symbolism of almost all the major religious and cultural
traditions throughout the world. In the Christian tradition,
we find the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. In
the Buddhist tradition, too, the tree is an important
archetypal symbol. Specifically, the refuge tree may be
identified with the pipal or bodhi tree. But the tree
of enlightenment goes back to a period in Indian cultural
history before the time of the Buddha Shakyamuni. It seems
also to have been important to the people of the Indus
Valley civilization, which flourished in the third millennium
we look further at Vajrayana iconography, we often find
a deity placed upon a throne in a tree. The throne is
an archetypal symbol of royalty, of sovereignty and mastery,
as are the crown and scepter. You may recall that in Chapter
22 we said that the Vajrayana takes its name from the
vajra, the scepter of Indra, which is a symbol of mastery.
There is no doubt that these symbols are important in
our individual and collective consciousness.
in republican societies, there is a great fascination
with royalty. Americans probably read more about the English
royal family than do Englishmen. There are probably more
television documentaries and dramatizations about the
English royal family produced in America than in England.
Even the institution of the presidency has come to be
associated with all kinds of symbols of sovereignty.
the symbol of the tree, royal symbolism is found in most
of the major religious traditions. Jesus spoke about the
kingdom of God and was called the king of the Jews.
has been called the king of the Dharma and the king of
physicians. The first discourse the Buddha delivered,
popularly known as The Discourse of the Turning of the
Wheel of the Dharma (Dhammachakkappavattana Sutta), is
actually entitled The
Discourse of the Founding of the Kingdom of the Dharma.
the tree, light and water occupy prominent places in Vajrayana
symbolism. Fire often surrounds the deities. Light is
an important medium for identification between the meditator
and the visualized forms of the deities. Fire and light
are very important and meaningful elements of our human
experience. It is probably through the discovery of fire
that people became civilized. All of this is still very
clearly evident today, for don't we all like to kindle,
watch, and manipulate fire? In the Vajrayana tradition,
fire stands for the flames that consume and destroy ignorance.
is more crucial to our existence than food and is, of
course, necessary for the fertility of the earth. Not
surprisingly, water also plays an important role in the
Vajrayana, where it is the symbol of initiation--the tantric
ritual which stimulates the seed of spiritual potential.
Just as by watering the soil, a seed of grain comes to
life, so by being sprinkled in the ritual of initiation,
the seed of one's spiritual potential puts forth its sprout,
which can then grow into the fully realized and transformed
mode of being, the reality of Buddhahood.
symbol of the lotus is not peculiar only to the Vajrayana
but exists in all Buddhist iconography. It is more culturally
specific than the other symbols we have considered thus
far. The lotus is perhaps most closely linked with the
Indian cultural consciousness, where it is a powerful
symbol of spiritual growth and transformation. For this
reason, it appears in the Vajrayana as a symbol of spiritual
growth, transcendence, and transformation.
the Vajrayana, there is also the very particular use of
letters, words, and mantras. This is, again, archetypal,
in the sense that it is a deep-seated and powerful element
in the individual and collective consciousness. For 'primitive'
and 'modern' people alike, the name of a thing is a source
of power over it. Ancient peoples achieved mastery over
the forces of nature by giving those forces names. For
instance, by calling the thunderstorm 'Indra,' the old
Brahmins established a mechanism and degree of control
is also clearly reflected in our own experience. If someone
side-swipes your car in the parking lot, you do not have
any power over him or her if you do not know their name,
but if you know the name of the person responsible, you
can claim damages. Names are, therefore, power. In a sense,
a name creates the reality of the object for which it
stands. For example, when I say the word 'diamond,' in
a sense the reality of that object is created for all
of us. Recognizing this power of letters, names, and words,
the Vajrayana employs them in the form of mantras in order
to bring about a certain kind of reality.
the Vajrayana, the naive assumption of the power inherent
in names that was characteristic of early human existence
is replaced by a critical understanding of the way names
and words work to create a particular reality. The way
they work is through the power of the mind. It is the
power of the mind that enables letters, words, names,
and mantras to possess a particular kind of creative reality.
we find, in Vajrayana symbolism, a liberal and intentional
use of these verbal symbols as vehicles for concentrating
the mind's power to create and transform. For example,
we symbolize the mind with the Sanskrit syllable Hum,
and use that symbol as a vehicle for representing the
mind visually as the seed of the various deities of the
Vajrayana pantheon. A deep-seated archetypal role is played
by letters, words, and names in our individual and collective
consciousness. The Vajrayana uses this archetypal power
in its symbolism, in order to describe the mind and facilitate
its use in mastering and transforming experience.
iconography also recognizes the importance and significance
of colors as symbols of certain tendencies and attitudes.
This is something that has also been acknowledged by modern
psychologists. In the mid-1930s, a famous American psychologist
persuaded a popular cigarette company to change the logo
on its packaging from green to red; overnight, sales shot
up by 50 to 60 percent. When that limited run of packages
with the red logo was sold, the manufacturer went back
to the green logo and sales dropped by the same amount.
When the logo was changed to red again, sales shot up
again. Ever since, advertisers and designers have paid
very close attention to the effects of color on prospective
is also recognized in the Vajrayana tradition. There are
particular roles and uses for particular colors. White,
for example, is a symbol of purity--a significance which
is common, universal, and apparent. But white is also
a symbol of opaqueness, ignorance, and, alternatively,
a symbol of the knowledge of the Dharmadhatu. This last
explains why, in the mandala of the five celestial Buddhas,
is portrayed as white in color, and why, in the Vajrayana
is portrayed as white to indicate his importance for the
purification of sins.
or black is a symbol of immutability. Black, unlike any
other color, cannot be changed. Blue is a color that symbolizes
hatred, on the one hand, and the knowledge that reflects
all phenomena without distorting them, on the other (like
the blue of water that reflects innumerable objects impartially).
Therefore, blue is the color of what is called the mirror-like
which is the color of fire, is a symbol of desire and
also stands for the knowledge of discrimination.These
colors are used to carry symbolic messages in connection
not only with the five celestial Buddhas, but also with
other tantric deities. These messages often operate at
an unconscious or subconscious level, but their particular
significance nonetheless triggers certain emotions or
reactions (again, often on a subconscious level). One
example of this is the fact that smokers who bought the
cigarettes with the red logo instead of the green one
did not know why they were moved to do so.
us now look at some of the more particular objects we
find in Vajrayana art and iconography, and at their specific
meanings--objects like the support, or base, of Vajrayana
deities, the objects the deities hold in their hands,
and the ornaments that adorn their bodies. The Vajrayana
for example, tramples on two deities of the Hindu pantheon,
Shiva and Parvati. Initially, one might think that this
is merely a kind of triumphalism on the part of the Buddhists,
but the significance is actually far more important. Shiva
and Parvati stand for the extremes of eternalism and nihilism.
The base on which Vajrakilaya stands is therefore a symbol
of the transcendence, or avoidance, of these two extremes.
Again, we find the Vajrayana deity Mahakala
standing on a corpse. The corpse represents self, ego,
and substance; Mahakala's trampling it thus represents
his triumph over the idea of self, or substance.
of the Vajrayana deities hold knives in their hands. This
is anticipated in Mahayana iconography, where we find
holding a sword of wisdom with which he cuts through the
net of ignorance. In the hands of the Vajrayana deities,
too, knives are instruments symbolizing the wisdom with
which they cut through ignorance and delusion.
Vajrayana iconography we also find deities drinking from
skull cups filled with blood, which represents the afflictions.
By drinking this blood, the deities symbolically show
their ability to assimilate and neutralize the afflictions.
find Vajrayana deities commonly holding a vajra and bell.
The vajra is a symbol of skillful means, and the bell
is a symbol of wisdom. Their holding the vajra and bell
stands for the unity of skillful means and wisdom, appearance
and emptiness, samsara and nirvana.
Vajrayana deities, too, have crowns of five skulls on
their heads. These five skulls stand for the five transcendental
knowledges, or wisdoms, that belong to the five celestial
Buddhas: (a) the knowledge of the Dharmadhatu, (b) the
mirror-like knowledge, (c) the knowledge of equality,
(d) the knowledge of discrimination, and (e) the knowledge
of accomplishment. Many of their bodies are adorned with
six ornaments of bone--bracelets, anklets, girdles, and
so forth. These six ornaments stand for the Six Perfections
of generosity, morality, patience, energy, concentration,
fact that we find such objects prevalent in Vajrayana
iconography does not merely indicate some kind of fascination
with the bizarre and macabre. Rather, these objects are
very closely connected with several levels of meaning:
(i) a very deep unconscious (or subconscious) level of
meaning, (ii) a level of meaning that has to do with cultural
archetypes, and (iii) a level of meaning that is very
specifically and precisely related to
particular elements of the Buddhist path.
the broadest level, we have been dealing here with great,
sweeping dualities: mythological themes, the theme of
good and evil, the archetypes of male and female, and
so forth. More specifically, we have been dealing with
archetypes that have particular power and meaning for
living beings--the archetypes of the tree, throne, fire,
and so on; the extremes of eternalism and nihilism; the
values of skillful means and wisdom. On an even more specific
level, we have been looking at symbolic objects that relate
to particular items of Bddhist doctrine, like the five
transcendental knowledges and Six Perfections.
I have tried to do in this chapter is give some indication
of the way Vajrayana myths and symbols work, and of the
meaning of the various portrayals and images we find in
Vajrayana iconography. It is a mistake to regard the imagery
and symbolism of the Vajrayana as in any way arbitrary,
accidental, or simply sensational. On the contrary, the
Vajrayana tradition makes a conscious and carefully calculated
use of myth and symbol for the particular purpose of accelerating
the practitioner's progress toward Buddhahood.
the Same Author
The Development and
Symbolism of Tibetan Buddhist Art and Iconography
Tree of Enlightenment: An Introduction to the Major Traditions