Lost Sadhanas - Vajra Dakini - The History of Vajrayana Devotional Buddhism

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Vajra Dakini's Abstract Form

The Lost Sadhanas Project - The Vajra Dakini
The History of Vajrayana Devotional Buddhism

The approach of the Vajra Dakini is quite different from that of the Vajra Bhairava. While he emphasizes contemplation and the role of will, her emphasis is on devotion and salvation. Given that meditative practices that pursue spiritual emptiness and detachment have been the dominant practices of western Tibetan Buddhists, the Dakini felt it was important to document the importance of devotional practice in the tradition.

There have been devotional forms of Buddhist ritual historically present in Tibet, though this is rarely emphasized in current Vajrayana Buddhism. We can see this in at least two places, the popular practice of vratas, and the more institutionalized tradition of Pure Land Buddhism, which has traditionally had a presence in Nepal and Tibet.

Vratas are localized ritual practices which involve stories and vows. The story or vrata katha tells the mythic event on which the practice is based. There is then a section on the ritual to be performed, a minor form of tapas or asceticism which usually involves giving up some pleasure or habit. In the Hindu vrata practices, the asceticism involved is understood to motivate a god or goddess to feel sympathetic towards the practitioner, and to be willing to grant his or her (usually her) wish.

However, the Vajrayana Buddhist versions of vratas can have an interesting twist. Here, as an example, we have a Tara vrata that does not give the practitioner her wish, and mixes Hindu and Buddhist imagery. As the story goes, an unhappy Brahmin woman, rejected by her husband, is told to pray to Ugra Tara Bajrayogini by a sage. He tells her:

If you want to be liberated from your sufferings, pray to the Goddess Arya Tara. To the east of this Sankhod Mountain is the bathing spot of the Arya Tara who, as instructed by Amitabha [Buddha], visited the holy spot to liberate suffering people from their miseries. Go bathe at this holy tirth (sacred place) and offer sincere prayers to the goddess Arya Tara. Then you will be delivered from your sufferings.
He also gives her the origin story of the vrata:
"O Gentle Lady, Listen, I'll tell you how it originated - once when the demons ousted Lord Brahma, Visnu, Maheshvara and Indra from their thrones, these gods went to take refuge in Ugra Tara, a goddess who in turn asked them to pray and to recite the mantra of Arya Tara. Straight away the gods went to the present site of the Tara tirtha and recited the mantra of Arya Tara as directed. After the recitation of the mantra by the gods, the Arya Tara made her appearance right at the tirtha and liberated Brahma, Visnu, Maheshvara, and Indra from their miseries. "O Gentle Lady! You also may perform puja to Ugra Tara Bajrajogini; then go to bathe at [this] Tara tirtha where you should also meditate and offer prayers."
So she went up the mountain to do puja (ritual worship) and pray to Ugra Tara Bajrayogini.
In answer to her prayers, the Arya Tara took pity on the female Brahman and appeared before her in green complexion and in abhaya mudra while holding a flower in her other hand. The female Brahman fell prostrate on the ground before the goddess and offered her puja while chanting devotional songs. The goddess blessed her and then vanished. The female Brahman spent the rest of her life at this Tara tirtha living upon fruit and water while meditating and observing the Arya Tara vrata and offering prayers to the triratna (triple gem). When she finally died she was transported to Sukhavati [Amitabha Buddha's paradise]. (See "Devotions to a Celestial Bodhisattva" in Popular Buddhist Texts from Nepal: Narratives and Rituals of Newar Buddhism. Todd T. Lewis, SUNY Press, 2000, pp. 106-107.)
Here we see an alternate style of vrata. The unhappy woman does not get her husband back, as would normally happen in the Hindu style of vrata. Instead, she ends up going to Amitabha's paradise. She is still described as Brahman (or Brahmin), and the vrata had its origins in Hindu gods, but it has been applied to Buddhist ends, and the goal is a Buddhist paradise.

We also see devotion to a deity in Pure Land Buddhism, where the person's dedication to the Buddha Amida (or Amitabha) brings the devotee to his Pure Land of Sukhavati after death. Pure Land is one of the oldest and most influential branches of Mahayana Buddhism, and one of the most popular traditions of Buddhism in Eastern Asia. It is still very popular in Japan, and more popular than Zen Buddhism. The presence of Pure Land Buddhism in Tibet shows that there is a tradition of devotional Buddhism there, and there are Pure Land devotional texts which are important in Vajrayana tradition.

The Pratyutpanna Samadhi Sutra gives an early description of the practice of remembering the name of the Buddha as a meditation method:

Bodhisattvas hear about the Buddha Amitabha and call him to mind again and again in this land. Because of this calling to mind, they see the Buddha Amitabha. Having seen him they ask him what dharmas it takes to be born in the realm of the Buddha Amitabha. Then the Buddha Amitabha says to these bodhisattvas: "If you wish to come and be born in my realm, you must always call me to mind again and again, you must always keep this thought in mind without letting up, and thus you will succeed in coming to be born in my realm."
In Pure Land Buddhism, love is embodied in Amida or Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Life and Light. In Mahayana Buddhism, of which Pure Land is a part, the being of Buddha is not something limited to a single place and time but is universally present and available. The Buddha exists eternally in his heaven, which is known as his sambhoghakaya aspect. As an article in the magazine Tricycle notes about the practice of chanting or nembutsu towards Amida:
However, in reality this practice is not an intellectual or cognitive assertion; it is an expression of sentiment and a way of opening one's heart to receive. When one recites the nembutsu it is an expression of gratitude and wonderment but also an expression of whatever spiritual feeling is arising at that time. In this sense it is an offering of oneself and a reception of grace.
(from Dharmavidya David Brazier, 'Pure and Simple Practice', Tricycle, Winter 2018)
The immediate goal of this practice is to reach Amitabha's paradise of Sukhavati. This world, which is full of happiness and bliss, is described in great detail in the Pure Land sutras. This makes it possible for these writings to be used as guides to visualization of this world, to prepare the person for entrance at death.

Upon his or her entry into the Pure Land, the practitioner is then instructed by Amitabha Buddha and various Bodhisattvas until full enlightenment is reached. The person then has the choice of returning at any time as a Bodhisattva to any of the six realms of existence in order to help all sentient beings in samsara, the worlds of reincarnation, or to stay as a Buddha, and then deliver sentient beings to the shore of liberation.

While we hear much of Pure Land Buddhism in Japan, we hear little of its presence in Tibet and Nepal. Tibetan Pure Land Buddhism dates from the 8th-9th centuries, the era of the Tibetan Empire, with the translation and canonization of the Sanskrit "Sukhavatavyuha Sutras" in the Tibetan language. There are Tibetan compositions of Pure Land prayers and paintings of Sukhavati that date to that time. Tibetan Pure Land literature includes "aspiration prayers to be born in Sukhavati," commentaries on the prayers and sutras, and meditations and rituals from the Vajrayana tradition.

(For more detail on this data, see Georgios T. Halkias, 2013. Luminous Bliss: a Religious History of Pure Land Literature in Tibet. With an Annotated Translation and Critical Analysis of the Orgyen-ling golden short Sukhavativyuha-sutra. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press).

The incorporation of phowa (mind transference techniques) into Pure Land meditations is found in a fourteenth century text, The Standing Blade of Grass (Tib. 'Pho-ba 'Jag-tshug ma). This shows a mixing of Pure Land and Vajrayana practices. Several Vajrayana Buddhist termas ("treasure texts") are dedicated to Amitabha and to rituals associated with his Pure Land.

The Tibetan Buddhist canon includes translations of two important texts in East Asian Pure Land Buddhism, the short and long Sukhavativyuha sutras, and twelve more Indian Sanskrit Mahayana and Vajrayana compositions that include texts invoking the presence of the Buddha Amitabha and his western Pure Land.

The special worship of Amitabha in Tibet began during imperial times (7th-9th century CE), as shown in prayers for rebirth in Sukhavati, elaborate lamrim- (gradual training) style commentaries, death rituals, and contemplative practices inspired by both sutra and tantra traditions. Quoted by Tibetan Buddhist masters from all schools, this passage from the longer Sukhavativyuha Sutra describes four practices that ensure rebirth in the Pure Land after death:

"O Ananda, any sentient being who recollects the Tathagata [Buddha] and his aspects, generates immeasurable roots of virtue, fosters the mind of enlightenment, completely dedicates [his merits for that cause], and prays to be born in the Land [of Bliss], when the time of death nears will face the Tathagata, Arhat, Perfectly Enlightened Amitabha, surrounded by a gathering of monks" (Peking Kangyur, vol. 22, 5.9.119).
Tibetan Vajrayana Pure Land teachings emphasize the recognition of the luminous state of mind by means of sound, visualization, and mandalas. Following the dissolution of the five aggregates of individuality into emptiness, the practitioner arises in the form-body of the central deity, which is usually the Buddha Amitabha, or the bodhisattva of compassion Avalokiteshvara.

The tantric technique of transferring one's subtle consciousness to Sukhavati is also practiced in the Tibetan Pure Land tradition. Many lamas and lay practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism perform the technique of phowa, either for themselves or on behalf of the recently deceased. This method is intended to transfer of one's subtle mind to the Pure Land of the Buddha Amitabha (sometimes also called Amitayus) so that the bardos, (the intermediate states between death and rebirth), are bypassed entirely. Instead of being reborn in one of the traditional six worlds due to karma, the person goes directly to Amitabha's paradise.

While the Pure Land of Amitabha/Amida has gotten the most publicity, it is not the only Pure Land. In Mahayana thought, there are countless Buddhas and pure lands in the universe. Each Pure Land (or Buddha Realm/ Buddhaksetra) is ruled over by a Buddha. Though the Western Paradise of Sukhavati is much admired, there has also been emphasis on Maitreya's paradise of Tushita, and Akshobhya's Eastern paradise of Abhirati.

In addition to Buddhas, there are also multiple yidams (as mentioned on the Roles of the Yidam page) in the form of bodhisattvas, dakinis, bhairavas, etc. who can assist in the instruction and spiritual development of the seeker. Devotional relationships can be developed with these beings as well.

Pure Land systems of devotion have often been reconciled within the larger system of Vajrayana Buddhism as 'compassionate' (Sanskrit: karuna) upaya, which has been advocated for the less philosophically or intellectually inclined. This grudging justification omits the value of faith and devotion (Skt sraddha) in Vajrayana, which is still a branch of Mahayana Buddhism.

Now that the Vajra Dakini's perspective on the importance of devotion and its long history in Tibetan Buddhism has been briefly documented, we next move on to some sadhanas given by the Vajra Dakini.

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Introduction | Methodology - Participant/Observer | The Bodhi Tree Sadhanas | Vajra Dakini Discussion | Vajra Dakini Commentary | Vajra Dakini Sadhanas | Vajra Yogini Commentary | Maitreya Sadhanas | Vajradhara Speaks About Yidams | Lost Sadhanas Conclusion


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