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
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A blog by the Lotus Heart Zen Meditation and Study Group members