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Mahachakra Vajrapani

Vajrapāṇi (from Sanskrit vajra, "thunderbolt" or "diamond" and pāṇi, lit. "in the hand") is one of the earliest bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism. He is the protector and guide of the Buddha, and rose to symbolize the Buddha's power. Vajrapani was used extensively in Buddhist iconography as one of the three protective deities surrounding the Buddha. Each of them symbolizes one of the Buddha's virtues: Manjusri (the manifestation of all the Buddhas' wisdom), Avalokitesvara (the manifestation of all the Buddhas' compassion) and Vajrapani (the manifestation of all the Buddhas' power).


Vajrapani statue in American Museum of Natural History, New York

In Sanskrit, Vajrapani is also known as vajra-sattva and, in Tibetan, as Phyag na rdo rje (Channa Dorje). In Bengali he is known as "বজ্রপাণি"(Bojropani). In Mongolian Ochirvaani (Очирваань) or Bazarvaani (Базарваань). In East Asia, Vajrapani is known by several names including Jīngāng shǒu púsà (金剛手菩薩) in Mandarin Chinese, pronounced in Japanese as Kongō shu bosatsu; in Korean as Geumgang su bosal (금강수보살); and in Vietnamese as Kim cương thủ bồ tát; Héyíluóhuányuèchā (和夷羅洹閱叉) in Mandarin Chinese, pronounced in Japanese as Wairaoneisa, in Korean as Hwairawonyeolcha (화이라원열차), and in Vietnamese as Hoà di la hoàn duyệt xoa; or Báshéluóbōnì (跋闍羅波膩) in Mandarin Chinese, pronounced in Japanese as Bajarahaji; in Korean as Balsarapani (발사라파니), and in Vietnamese as Bạt xà la ba nị.[1]

The Sutra of Golden Light entitles him "great general of the yakshas".[2]


On the popular level, Vajrapani, Holder of the Thunderbolt Scepter (symbolizing the power of compassion), is the Bodhisattva who represents the power of all the Buddhas, just as Avalokitesvara represents their great compassion, Manjushri their wisdom, and Tara their miraculous deeds. For the yogi, Vajrapani is a means of accomplishing fierce determination and symbolizes unrelenting effectiveness in the conquest of negativity. His taut posture is the active warrior pose (pratayalidha), based on an archer's stance but resembling the en garde position in Western fencing. His outstretched right hand brandishes a vajra and his left hand deftly holds a lasso - with which he binds demons. He wears a skull crown with his hair standing on end. His expression is wrathful and he has a third eye. Around his neck is a serpent necklace and his loin cloth is made up of the skin of a tiger, whose head can be seen on his right knee.

The Pali Canon's Ambattha Suttanta tells of one instance of him protecting the Buddha's honor. A young Brahman named Ambatha visited the Buddha and insulted him by saying the Shaykya clan (the enlightened one's family) were abjects who should revere the Brahmins. In return, the Buddha asked the Brahmin if his family was descended from a “Shakya slave girl”. However, Ambatha further insulted the Buddha by not answering his question. When he failed 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 Vajrapani manifest above the Buddha's head ready to strike the Brahmin down with his thunderbolt. He quickly confirmed the truth.[3]

According to the Pancavimsatisahasrika and Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita any Bodhisattva on the path to Buddhahood is eligible for Vajrapani's protection, making them invincible to any attacks "by either men or ghosts".[4]


The Mantra oṃ vajrapāṇi hūṃ phaṭ is associated with Vajrapani. His Seed Syllable is hūṃ.

Patron saint of the Shaolin monastery

Vajrapani Painting at Mogao Caves's Hidden Library, Dunhuang, China Power and anger personified. Late 9th Century, Tang Dynasty. Ink and colors on silk.

In his book The Shaolin Monastery (2008), Prof. Meir Shahar notes Vajrapani 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 Vajrapani and being force-fed raw meat.[5] Shaolin abbot Zuduan (1115-1167) erected a stele in his honor during the Song Dynasty.[6] It reads:

According to the scripture [Lotus Sutra], this deity (Narayana) is a manifestation of Avaokitesvara (Guanyin).[7][8] 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.[9]
Stele re-erected (chong shang) by Shaolin's abbot Zuduan

1517 stele dedicated to Narayana's defeat of the Red Turban rebels. Guanyin (his original form) can be seen in the clouds above his head.

Instead of being considered a stand-alone deity, Shaolin believes Vajrapani 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 (Vajrapani) he preaches Dharma by displaying the body of the spirit who grasps the vajra.”[10]

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 Chinese staff,[11] which originally "served as the emblem of the monk".[12] Vajrapani's Yaksha-like Narayana form was eventually equated with one of the four staff-wielding "Kimnara Kings" from the Lotus Sutra in 1575. His name was thus changed from Narayana to "Kimnara King".[13] One of the many versions of a certain tale regarding his creation of the staff method takes place during the Yuan Dynasty's 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 Kimnara King in disguise.[14] Shahar notes the part of the kitchen worker might have been based on the actual life of the monk Huineng (638-713).[15] 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.[16]

Statues and paintings of Kimnara 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 "Kimnara Hall" was mentioned in Cheng Zongyou's seventeenth century training manual Shaolin Staff Method. However, a century later, it was claimed that Kimnara 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 Kimnara in the late twentieth century. Shaolin re-erected the shrine to him in 1984 and improved it in 2004.[17]

The Buddhist monk Bodhidharma erroneously came to be known as the creator of the monastery's arts. This occurred when a Taoist with the pen name "Purple Coagulation Man of the Way" wrote the Sinews Changing Classic in 1624, but claimed to have discovered it. The first of two prefaces of the manual traces this qigong style's succession from Bodhidharma to the Chinese general Li Jing via "a chain of Buddhist saints and martial heroes."[18] Scholars damn the work as a forgery because of its numerous anachronistic mistakes and the fact that popular fictional characters from Chinese literature, including the "Bushy Bearded Hero" (虬髯客), are listed as lineage masters.[19] In fact, the Qing scholar Ling Tingkan (1757-1809) "dismissed the manual's author as an 'ignorant village master'."[20]


Heracles depiction of Vajrapani (right) as the protector of the Buddha, 2nd century CE Gandhara, British Museum.

Just as Buddhaghosa associated Vajrapani with the Hindu god Indra,[21] his first representations in India were identified with the thunder deity. As Buddhism expanded in Central Asia, and fused with Hellenistic influences into Greco-Buddhism, the Greek hero Hercules was adopted to represent Vajrapani. He was then typically depicted as a hairy, muscular athlete, wielding a short "diamond" club.[22] Mahayana Buddhism then further spread to China, Korea and Japan from the 6th century.

Vajrapani with Buddhist monks, art of Gandhara.

In Japan, Vajrapani is known as Shukongōshin (執金剛神, "Diamond rod-wielding God"), and has been the inspiration for the Niō (仁王, lit. Benevolent kings), the wrath-filled and muscular guardian god of the Buddha, standing today at the entrance of many Buddhist temples under the appearance of frightening wrestler-like statues.

Some suggest that the war deity Kartikeya, who bears the title Skanda is also a manifestation of Vajrapani, who bears some resemblance to Skanda because they both wield vajras as weapons and are portrayed with flaming halos. He is also connected through Vajrapani through a theory to his connection to Greco-Buddhism, as Wei Tuo's image is reminiscent of the Heracles depiction of Vajrapani.

See also


Gautama Buddha with his protector Vajrapani (here holding a flywisk). Gandhara, 2nd century CE.

  1. From the Digital Dictionary of Buddhism
  2. Vessantara. Meeting the Buddhas: A Guide to Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Tantric Deities. Birmingham [England]: Windhorse Publications, 1998 (ISBN 0904766535), p. 162
  3. Vessantara. Meeting the Buddhas: A Guide to Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Tantric Deities. Birmingham [England]: Windhorse Publications, 1998 (ISBN 0904766535), p. 162
  4. DeCaroli, Robert. Haunting the Buddha: Indian Popular Religions and the Formation of Buddhism. New York: Oxford University, 2004 (ISBN 0195168380), p. 182
  5. Meir Shahar, The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 2008 (ISBN 0824831101), pp. 35-36
  6. Ibid, p. 40
  7. This usage of Narayana is not to be confused with one of the many names of the Hindu god Vishnu.
  8. Instead of being a stand alone Bodhisattva, Shaolin considers him to be an emanation of Guanyin.
  9. Shahar, The Shaolin Monastery, p. 42
  10. Shahar, The Shaolin Monastery, p. 85
  11. Ibid, p. 84
  12. Ibid, p. 102
  13. Ibid, p. 87
  14. Ibid, pp. 87-88
  15. Ibid
  16. Ibid, p. 109
  17. Ibid, p. 88
  18. Ibid, p. 165
  19. For a brief synopsis of this character's tale, see Liu, James J.Y. The Chinese Knight Errant. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1967 (ISBN 0-2264-8688-5), pp. 87-88. Li Jing plays a major part in this tale, so the connection is not historical, but literary.
  20. Shahar, The Shaolin Monastery, p. 168
  21. DeCaroli, Haunting the Buddha, p. 182
  22. "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)." (Katsumi Tanabe, "Alexander the Great, East-West cultural contacts from Greece to Japan", p23)


  • "Religions and the Silk Road" by Richard C. Foltz (St. Martin's Press, 1999) ISBN 0-312-23338-8
  • "The Diffusion of Classical Art in Antiquity" by John Boardman (Princeton University Press, 1994) ISBN 0-691-03680-2
  • "Old World Encounters. Cross-cultural contacts and exchanges in pre-modern times" by Jerry H. Bentley (Oxford University Press, 1993) ISBN 0-19-507639-7
  • "Alexander the Great: East-West Cultural contacts from Greece to Japan" (NHK and Tokyo National Museum, 2003)
  • "The Greeks in Bactria and India" W.W. Tarn, Cambridge University Press
  • "De l'Indus à l'Oxus, Archéologie de l'Asie Centrale", Osmund Bopearachchi, Christine Sachs, ISBN 2-9516679-2-2
  • "The Crossroads of Asia, Transformation in image and symbols", 1992, ISBN 0-9518399-1-8

External links

cs:Vadžrapáni et:Vadžrapani ja:執金剛神 ta:வச்ரபானி th:พระวัชรปาณีโพธิสัตว์ zh:金剛手菩薩