Waking the wild within
Viryadevi encountered a huge, fierce figure surrounded by flames. So began a powerful and healing connection with Vajrapani, the embodiment of Enlightened Energy
It all started with me being in a thoroughly bad mood. I was on retreat and all around people were becoming more and more relaxed, smiley and quiet. Me? I was getting more tense and angry. The racket in my head was tremendous. Then I caught sight of a face that looked just how I felt - furious. But it wasn't just his face that drew my attention. His style of dress was a curious combination of shaman/punk/come-just-as-you-are, and he looked like you might think more than twice before meeting him on a dark night. What was he doing here on a Buddhist retreat?
I was fascinated in a keep-my-distance kind of way. I took to gazing at him, while he looked at a spot a long way above and beyond my head. Strangely enough his presence (at this safe distance) brought huge relief. I found that instead of feeling bad about feeling bad, and furious with everyone else for looking so happy, I started to relax.
As I was leaving the retreat, someone gave me his picture. Actually it was his picture that I had been looking at all along. That was 22 years ago and Vajrapani has been part of my life ever since. Until then I had only come across beautiful, peaceful images of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and had never seen any wrathful forms. Now I know that Vajrapani - like every Buddha or Bodhisattva - can be encountered in peaceful or wrathful form. Perhaps looking wrathful isn't our expected image of Enlightenment but these figures convey the fact that we need to acknowledge and transform all aspects of our own experience. On that memorable retreat that's what I began to learn from Vajrapani. And my relief came from an intuition that it was possible for all of me to come on this spiritual journey - not just the ethical or happy parts.
Picture him as I first saw him. He stands with feet apart, legs flexed, right arm raised above his head in a threatening gesture, left hand held at his heart. Wild, long hair surrounds his face; a green snake entwines itself about his neck. Around his enormous belly he wears a loincloth of tiger skin; and he is adorned with bracelets, anklets and a necklace of skulls. With his bulging eyes and angry snarl, he certainly looks terrifying. But he is not fierce to those whose purpose is benign.
He seems to be moving. Is he dancing? No, he's trampling on two prone figures who are definitely not benign. These beings symbolise wilful ignorance - the refusal to become aware rather than simply not knowing something. He tramples on them in order to destroy the suffering that ignorance brings in its wake.
Vajrapani is blue. Deep, midnight blue. The blue of the infinite sky. The blue of the endlessly vast Dharma jewel. The blue of mysterious Truth. He is enveloped by leaping red and gold flames - the fire of purification, of renewal and transformation. To me he communicates exhilaration, confidence, strength and mystery. He takes his name - 'he who holds the vajra' - from the implement in his right hand. Within the Buddhist tradition the vajra, or diamond thunderbolt, came to symbolise the tremendous, unstoppable power of Truth. Think of a thunderclap shaking the earth and its bolt of lightning illuminating the sky. Or consider the indestructibility and purity of a diamond.
Vajrapani is the embodiment of Energy. He is virya or 'energy channelled towards realising the Truth'. Vajrapani is usually depicted at the moment just before he hurls the vajra; this speaks of breaking through ignorance into Enlightenment. Many people are familiar with Wisdom and Compassion as aspects of the Enlightened mind but often the third aspect, Energy, is overlooked. Yet without positively directed energy how will we begin to develop even a little clarity and kindness? In fact we could view the entire spiritual journey as a gradual integration and refinement of energy.
But there's another way to picture energy, another way of embodying virya. This time we're looking at a young, slim, beautiful figure. Dressed in rich silks, he sits with his right knee drawn up in a posture of elegant ease. He shimmers with a vitality that is vibrant but contained. A blue ribbon draws together the long, black hair that flows across one shoulder. This time he gazes down at an upright vajra balanced on his palm. Sometimes people imagine practising virya involves being physically energetic or getting a lot of things done. But, if you look at this figure of Peaceful Vajrapani, he embodies quite a different quality of energy. There is a sense of effortlessness, of poise. He is looking deeply within - he is contained yet strong and unshakeable.
I connect him with the teaching on virya found in the Abhidharma (a collection of early Buddhist texts). In his commentary Know your Mind, my teacher Sangharakshita writes that 'virya is best translated as an intentness on or a powerful inclination towards the skilful'. So virya is not what or how much you do, but the deep, quiet, moment-by-moment motivation towards the Truth. It's the inner voice that you may hear in meditation, or other moments in your day, that remind you there is always a choice between reactivity and habit or the possibility of a creative, uncompelled response. Peaceful Vajrapani exemplifies what happens when we listen to that still, quiet voice.
I find Vajrapani deeply inspiring, especially in connection with my work. For me work provides an opportunity to become aware of my habits and blind spots as well as strengths. My tendency is to overwork and become speedy, so I need to recall Vajrapani's poise and self-containment.
In the Abhidharma virya is described as having five different characteristics or stages, which I find useful to reflect on. Firstly, there is the energy which is ever ready, always available. Sometimes we have physical energy accessible, but our heart is not in our activity. Or we can have a strong aspiration to do something but never actually carry it out. 'Ever ready' virya arises from the integration of all aspects of one's being: body, heart and mind. If my battery runs down, I practise rest and doing nothing at all - which I can find more challenging than action. I also try to do things that inspire me and have no deadline or purpose, like going for a walk or reading poetry. Secondly, there is the energy that is applied work - which involves just getting on with whatever needs doing, whether or not you feel inspired. This takes faith and confidence, particularly when I'm more in touch with my limitations than strengths. Thirdly, there's the energy that does not lose heart. This means you don't run away even if you feel like it. You choose not to lose heart. In those moments I remind myself that courage arises only through facing and knowing those terrors and anxieties. Fourthly, the energy that does not turn back, even when the project you take on becomes more difficult and complex than anticipated. Then I need patience and vision, a reconnection with what motivates me. Traditionally it is said that virya needs to be infused with patience in order to bear fruit. It takes time for the results of any spiritual effort to become evident.
Lastly, there's the energy that is never satisfied, which fully comprehends what trying to follow a spiritual path involves. This warns me against becoming complacent or fixed in a role, and reminds me that I can learn from anyone else. Whenever I feel self-satisfied, Wrathful Vajrapani appears brandishing that vajra. Being hit by a vajra feels very sore - I associate it with encountering the truth and feeling humiliated. That's when my view of who I am or how things are collides painfully with how other people see me or how life actually is. Humiliation can feel devastating, at times so painful I've wondered how to learn from the experience. However, I find that with enough distance from it, I can see the experience with more perspective. Learning from humiliation requires self-transcendence. Another aspect of the virya that is 'never satisfied' is its lack of cynicism or despondency. That negative trap of going round and round in painful, if familiar, circles is the opposite of virya. Humour and remembering the bigger picture is vital when developing positive energy.
Another name for Vajrapani is the 'Lord of Secret Mysteries'. I have wondered what these mysteries are ... Thus far I believe I've found one, the seed syllable HUM. This is said to be the 'essence' of Vajrapani in sound, and it can't be translated. But I can offer you a clue to its meaning. It concerns bringing the universal into the depth of the human heart, the cosmic into the mundane, the ideal into the everyday. This is not easy - humans are dualistic creatures and tend to swing between opposites. The Buddha talked about this in terms of the Middle Way that transcends opposites. In terms of people there is the ideal - their human potential - and how they actually are. I think Vajrapani and the famous humanitarian Mother Theresa would agree on this. She said: 'People are illogical, ungrateful and infuriating - love them anyway'. HUM. The ideal and the real.
Often I bring to mind the words of Seamus Heaney, the Irish Nobel Prize-winning poet: 'I try to make space in my reckoning and my imagining for the marvellous as well as for the murderous'. HUM. Heaney believes that to make space for both in our reckoning is one of the functions of poetry. He appears to suggest that writing poetry can seem a feeble response to the brutalities and woes of the world. What difference can it make? Yet he has come to realise that his job is to meet and bear witness to the suffering and also to champion and assert the marvellous. (Heaney was brought up in troubled Northern Ireland so he's talking of these difficulties from personal experience.) I sometimes face similar questions about the spiritual life and find his words helpful and inspiring.
How do we make space for both the murderous and the marvellous? This question links back to my first response to Vajrapani years ago, when I intuited that somehow all aspects of myself could come on this spiritual journey. Vajrapani reminds me of the need to know myself fully, to embrace the 'murderous' inside without fear or condemnation. This doesn't mean accepting any type of behaviour. It means learning not to respond to my negative tendencies with aversion. It takes energy to understand those negative tendencies. Then, free of aversion, I can act promptly to stop myself being unskilful. Vajrapani's advice in these circumstances is to 'whack the pig on the snout' if she strays into the kitchen. We need to stop ourselves promptly if we are heading in an unwise direction.
Equally important is to make space for and encourage the 'marvellous' in ourselves. I'm not suggesting an ego-trip or encouraging pride. Healthy acknowledgement of the positive can strengthen our connection to others. Trying to live from a basis of loving-kindness is marvellous. Everyday acts of helpfulness and generosity are marvellous. And there's so much in the world around us that is marvellous, be it the birth of new life or the compassionate global response to the Tsunami disaster. Sometimes I think our reluctance to celebrate the marvellous is because the positive can be just as challenging as the destructive. I frequently recall those well-known lines Nelson Mandela quoted in his first presidential speech: 'Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.' I find these words poignant and would add that it's often through exploring our darkness that we touch the light.
The figure of Wrathful Vajrapani that we encounter in the Buddhist tradition undergoes a gradual spiritual transformation: it's the story of energy in pursuit of the Good. We meet him in the early scriptures as a wild nature spirit who switches his allegiance to the Buddha. These nature spirits, or yakshsas, are rough and unruly characters. I imagine them like the orcs in Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings; originally Vajrapani was Grand Master of the yakshas, so he was more ferocious - perhaps like a giant troll.
But Vajrapani evolves. He stops fighting (he whacks that pig on the snout) and vows instead to transfer his skills to protecting
In both peaceful and wrathful guise, the Bodhisattva Vajrapani expresses his faith and gratitude to the Buddha in deep devotion. He exemplifies how to defend the Truth without being defensive. How to take responsibility for one's own thoughts - the murderous and the marvellous. He encourages me to stand in both my strength and my gentleness. He shows me how to make an altar of my heart, and keep the flame of self-transcendence burning brightly. And he is teaching me how to wield the vajra of Truth.