On Sundays we chant Vairocana’ Mantra of Light:
oṃ amogha vairocana mahāmudra maṇipadma jvāla pravarttaya hūṃ
The mantra loosely translates to:
oṃ unfailing “embodiment of light”, the great-seal*, the jeweled lotus, and radiant light, come forth, hūṃ
But who is Vairocana and why do we begin our Sunday practice paying homage to him?
Vairocana is the central Buddha among the five primordial Buddhas, who are personifications of the highest of ideals, each of these five Buddhas presides over their own dimensions, which are designed to support sentient beings in bringing about the spiritual evolution required for awakening.
Vairocana Buddha is featured prominently in Mahayana Buddhism and especially in Vajrayana and other esoteric Buddhist traditions. The role of Vairocana is varied throughout the different schools, but in general, he is thought of as a celestial buddha, who is the personification of dharmakāya of the Trikāya. The Trikāya is a teaching regarding the nature of Buddhahood being comprised of the dharmakāya (absolute reality body), represented by Vairocana Buddha, the saṃbhogakāya (divine incarnation body), represented by Amitabha Buddha, and the nirmāṇakāya (relative appearance body), represented by Shakyamuni Buddha.
The name Vairocana in Sanskrit means “luminous” or “embodiment of light”— the light of which his name refers is often regarded as the illuminating light of transcendent wisdom.
The first written appearance of Vairocana is in the Brahmajala Sutra, composed in the early 5th century CE (likely China). This beautiful and instructive text describes Vairocana Buddha appearing before an assembly of buddhas, seated on a lion throne and emanating radiant light in all directions. Among those buddhas present are inumerable.Shakyamuni Buddhas who are instructed and tasked by Vairocana “to transmit his teachings to all sentient beings, so as to open the path of cultivation to all.” After Vairochana finishes teaching portals to multiple worlds open and the Shakyamuni Buddhas leave to do their work saving all beings. You can read a translation of the Bramajala Sutra here: (http://www.buddhasutra.com/files/brahmanet.htm)
Vairocana also appears in the Avatamasaka Sutra, which is a huge and important text in the Mahayana tradition—composed from the 5th to the 8th centuries CE. A major theme of the Avatamsaka sutra is the interbeing of all phenomena, which Vairocana Buddha personifies.
The Mahavairocana Sutra, composed in the 7th century, goes into more detail regarding the nature and role of Vairocana Buddha in Buddhist practice. This text is considered the earliest manual of Buddhist tantra (ritualistic Buddhism). In this sutra, Vairocana is described as the universal Buddha, from which all other buddhas emerge. Vairocana is described as the source of awakening, since his existence is free from all causes and conditions.
As Chinese Buddhism developed Vairocana became the central buddha in the Huayan school, one of three schools our lineage draws from (the other two are Zen and Pure Land). Vairocana is considered the central Buddha, as he is the personification of sunyata. In this role, Vairocana is considered the ground of being, the source from which all phenomena emerge.
As Pure Land Buddhism grew more popular, Vairocana’s prominence was supplanted by Amitabha—the Buddha of Infinite Light and Life. However, despite the shift in focus, Vairocana remained an important buddha for veneration in the Huayan and Pure Land traditions.
Esoteric Japanese and especially Tibetan Buddhism have established Vairocana as an important symbol of non duality and the all-pervasiveness of awakened consciousness.
There are many representative statues of Vairocana throughout the east. The second largest statue in the world is of Vairocana and is at the Spring Temple of Lushan County, Henan, China. The statue alone is 420 ft tall (with the base it stands 682ft tall). It was the tallest statue in the world until 2018, when the Statue of Unity in India was built, standing at 600.ft (787 ft with base).
Many of you may remember when the Taliban destroyed the 6th century Bamiyam Buddhas that had been carved in a cliff face in Afghanistan in 2001. The tallest Buddha was that of Vairocana, standing 180ft tall.
As any other representation of a Buddha or Bodhisattva, Vairocana remains an important symbol (or personification) of the abstract archetype of our highest ideals. Veneration for Vairocana--as with any Buddha--is not meant to be worship, but a reminder for and a means to engage directly with the archetype. In the case of Vairocana, we look to this Buddha as representing the truth of sunyata, the relationship of interbeing, and the transcendent wisdom of awakening.
May the light of Vairocana Buddha illuminate your path so that you may awaken and then liberate all beings!
Ven. Myohye Do'an
* the great seal” refers to the fact that all phenomena inevitably are stamped by the fact of wisdom and sunyata inseparable
Buddha's Birthday 2021 (+2020)
Buddha's Birthday is a major Buddhist holiday and observed on different dates throughout East Asia. In some, primarily South East Asian countries, Buddha's birthday is celebrated as part of Vesak, which is a festival combining Buddha's Birth, Awakening, and Death. It is poignant to note that this year was the first time a Buddhist holiday, Vesak, was celebrated in the White House, with Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana representatives to participate. This is a good indicator that Buddhism is finding a home in the United States.
Buddha's birthday is officially celebrated as a national holiday in South Korea and observed widely throughout Vietnam on the 8th day of the 4th month of the Lunisolar Calendar. In 2021 Buddha's Birthday is on May 19th. Lotus Heart Zen typically observes the holiday on the same date since our practice lineage comes from Korea and Vietnam.
How Buddha's Birthday is celebrated differs from country to country. In South Korea, the Lotus Lantern Festival draws people from around the world to Seoul on the Saturday before Buddha's Birthday to enjoy a huge parade of 100,000 or more individuals carrying beautiful glowing lanterns. Each lantern represents one's commitment to the practice of dharma and the light of Awakening. Temples and homes also hang lotus lanterns during the whole month. The temple lanterns often have paper cards hanging from them with blessings that individuals, families, and businesses pay for financial help to the temple and to spread good merit. On the date of the holiday, many temples provide free breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Buddha's Birthday has such a long history in Korea that it is as much a cultural holiday as a religious one, celebrated by those of all religions.
In South Vietnam Buddha's Birthday is no longer a national holiday, but it is still quite popular. In addition to temples offering free meals, pagodas around the country are decorated and temples hold celebrations, with religious rituals and services, as well as lectures about the Buddha's teachings. One of the most important rituals is Bathing the Baby Buddha, in which a statue depicting a juvenile Buddha is ceremonially bathed with flower perfumed water. Additionally, it is a time when lay practitioners volunteer their time to help clean the temple and decorate the altars.
The Lotus Heart Zen sangha has celebrated Buddha's Birthday in a variety of ways, one year we made lotus lanterns and decorated the practice room with them. In more recent years we have held the Bathing the Baby Buddha ritual and offered the Threefold Refuge ceremony for those wanting to become Buddhist practitioners.
Last year, we didn't have a Buddha's Birthday celebration of any kind. Initially, we all believed by May (when the holiday was going to be observed) we would all be able to practice together and the True Nature Zen sangha from Maine would be coming down to celebrate with us. None of us really knew the extent to which the pandemic would be altering our lives at that time. But as our practice proves, all things are impermanent, and the situation we all found ourselves in last year has changed. Our situation is not back to how it was before the pandemic, and truthfully, we will never return to the way things were. But we can embrace the return to in person practice while it's safe and we are careful.
This year we will be celebrating Buddha's Birthday on Sunday, June 27th. The service will be held both in person at the temple and online via Zoom. Those who come in person will have been fully vaccinated, healthy, and free from exposure to the virus. After the service will be fellowship, food, and celebration. This part will not be held online.
Over the next few weeks planning will take place--it will be a group effort to offer a beautiful and meaningful ceremony for the Lotus Heart Zen Sangha! I hope you will participate!
Yours in the dharma,
Ven. Myohye Do'an
My first time celebrating the Birth of the Buddha was in 2010 at the Shinnyo-en Buddhist temple in White Plains, NY. The Feast of Buddha's birth is called Hanamatsuri--the Flower Festival--in Japan.
The women of the temple volunteer in an event that is called gohashi. They hand-make the paper flowers that adorn the roof of the hanamido--the small blossom altar that houses the baby Buddha statue. Creating these beautiful flowers was an exercise in beautifying our hearts and minds.
A sweet tea with flower petals was made to use for the bathing of the new-born Buddha. The tea was known as amacha, which is made from fermented hydrangea leaves. This sweet tea is associated with the alternating warm and cool rains that Sāgara--the Dragon King--sent in celebration of the Buddha's birth, and is also known as the dharma water of Amrita.
The Sanskrit word amrita mean "immortality" and refers to an elixir of perennial youth and longevity that bestows immortality. Over time the word came to be associated with nirvana, which itself is ever-present, enduring, and transcends death.
For Mahayana Buddhists the popular tradition is to pour water that has been scented with flower petals over a statue of the baby Buddha, three times. This ritual symbolically purifies our body, speech, and mind in accordance with the Buddhist path and teachings.
As you poured the offering over the head of the newborn Buddha this year, I hope you made a sincere vow in your heart to convey the teachings of our timeless spiritual masters to as many people as possible so that they too may attain liberation and awakening.
Rev. Anwol Devadipa
A blog by the Lotus Heart Zen Meditation and Study Group members