The Vajra Rosary Tantra


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The Vajra Rosary1 is one of the key scriptural teachings of Buddha Vajradhara in the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist tradition. It describes how one becomes a fully enlightened buddha and what practices one engages in to accomplish that goal. It is probably the most significant and detailed teaching attributed to the Buddha instructing a practitioner how to overcome the energy-winds and their related mental conceptions that circulate in the subtle body and mind, leading most of us to continued rebirth in cyclic existence. Overcoming these energies and achieving freedom is accomplished, and the Tantra describes how, beginning by practicing the vajra recitation of the perfection stage. There, one meditates deeply on those energies and conceptions, both of which number 108, and then draws one’s energies into the central channel of the subtle body where they are overcome forever by the nonconceptual blissful energy of the wisdom of seeing that they never intrinsically existed in the first place. This subtle body and the mental wisdom to work with it must be developed through the preparatory practices of the Buddhist path — renunciation, ethics, and wisdom, the six perfections, the practice of compassion, the wisdom of emptiness, and the creation stage of Buddhist tantra — and in reliance on qualified and expert teachers.

The Vajra Rosary is one of the “explanatory tantras” of the Buddhist Esoteric Community (Guhyasamāja) unexcelled yoga tantric system, the most complete of the four systems of tantra described in Indo-Tibetan Buddhist literature. It is found in the Tibetan Kangyur, the collection of works attributed to Shākyamuni Buddha that were translated into Tibetan from Sanskrit mainly in the last part of the first millennium, and compiled by the Tibetan scholar Butön in the fourteenth century. Despite the importance of the Esoteric Community system in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, and the Vajra Rosary in particular, except for relatively brief quotes included in 4translations of other works, until now the Vajra Rosary has not been translated into English or any other Western language.2

At the beginning of the first chapter of the Tantra, the Bodhisattva Vajrapāni poses eighty-two questions to the tantric Buddha Vajradhara, principally about the perfection stage of tantric yoga. The perfection stage (also called the completion stage), is the second of the two main stages of tantric practice, the final stage actually leading to buddhahood. The first stage is the creation (or generation) stage, where, among other things, the practitioner imagines what he or she will be doing later in the perfection stage.3

The answers to Vajrapāni’s questions are given in sixty-eight chapters, which include detailed discussion of yogic meditation and practice involving primarily the first of the five levels of the perfection stage, that of vajra recitation that leads to “speech isolation,”4 but spanning all of the levels up to the stage of integration (or communion), i.e., buddhahood. One of the Tantra’s specialties is describing how to open the heart chakra’s “knot” or nerve complex, the key to all of the higher stages. It also describes how to name and move the subtle neural energies in meditation and how those energies manifest during the cycles of life and death. It describes, among many other things: the consecrations of the perfection stage; “great bliss,” the four ecstasies, and how they are produced through yoga; the use of mantras; the Esoteric Community body mandala of thirty-two deities; the uniting of the various subtle body channels; the six yogas of the perfection stage; the twenty rituals of the creation stage; and the crucial role of emptiness and dependent arising (or relativity) in the overall system.

The leading exponents of the Esoteric Community tradition, Nāgārjuna, Chandrakīrti, and, later, Tsong Khapa, divide the perfection stage into five stages: speech isolation, mind isolation, illusory body, clear light, and communion; and there is at least fifteen hundred years of literature on the practices for attaining these states. Most of these texts follow the Vajra Rosary, and it may be the most or among the most cited texts on the subject. In his masterwork on the perfection stage, the Brilliantly Illuminating Lamp of the Five Stages (rim lnga rab tu gsal ba’i sgron me [BIL]), Tsong Khapa praised the Vajra Rosary:

The savior Nāgārjuna, in condensing the perfection stage into the five stages, follows this tantra, and also follows this tantra in 5the three samadhis, the four yogas, the thirty-two deities, etc., in the creation stage. Therefore, when His Holiness [Nāgārjuna] in the Condensed [Sādhana] becomes an [alchemical] churner, he “churns the ocean of the hidden waters of the Esoteric Community with the churning stick of the Vajra Rosary.” . . . It seems that such an excellent elucidation is rarely seen.5

In the English language literature, the Vajra Rosary is known primarily for its explication of the initial “forty syllables” of the Esoteric Community Root Tantra6 and for being the source of the famous Lama Chöpa, or Guru Puja, prayer,7 known by many Tibetans by heart and practiced daily in Geluk monasteries. Significant as they are, these aspects of the Vajra Rosary comprise a small part of its import. The text is a veritable encyclopedia of perfection stage tantric practice and tantric ritual, widely quoted in later commentarial works and described as a system not found anywhere else.8

In Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, the Esoteric Community or Guhyasamāja tantric system is commonly known as the “king of tantras.”9 According to Khedrup Jey, “Without relying on its path there is no way to attain supreme enlightenment.”10 Although many tantras say that they reveal things found in no other tantra, it is generally acknowledged that the Esoteric Community system is explained in more detail than other tantric systems, and those other systems and their exegetes often look to the Esoteric Community literature to explain tantric theory and practice not addressed elsewhere.11

The Esoteric Community system consists of a Root Tantra and a number of Explanatory Tantras (vyākhyā or ākhyā tantra; bshad rgyud), of which the Vajra Rosary is one.12 Tibetan scholars consider that there are two main Esoteric Community traditions, the Jñānapāda tradition (ye shes zhab lugs), named after Buddhashrījñānapāda (ca. 900? CE) and the Ārya or “noble” tradition, so called after Ārya Nāgārjuna, who is often given the epithet “noble one.” Indeed, the efficacy and importance of the explanatory tantras as a bridge between the deeply coded Esoteric Community Root Tantra and the personal instructions of the guru is a hallmark of the noble tradition.13

I have not found a complete or even partially complete Sanskrit text of the Vajra Rosary. However, fragments of the original Sanskrit are found in the commentarial literature. For example, the “forty verses” explaining the initial forty syllables of the Esoteric Community Tantra and some other verses, including most of chapter 64 of the Vajra Rosary, are quoted 6in Chandrakīrti’s Illuminating Lamp (Pradīpoddyotana [PU]); there are some brief quotations in Āryadeva’s Lamp That Integrates the Practices (Caryāmelāpakapradīpa [CMP]); and some parts of the Vajra Rosary’s chapter 68 are parallel to chapter 4 of Nāgārjuna’s Five Stages (Pañcakrama [PK]).

As of Tsong Khapa’s time, there were a number of translations of the Vajra Rosary into Tibetan, the latest of which appears to date from the eleventh century.14 The one I have translated from Tibetan was translated from the Sanskrit by Sujana Shrījñāna and Zhiwa Ö.15

Although the Vajra Rosary is widely quoted and cited, the noble tradition commentaries that elucidate one particular text of the Community literature often focus on Chandrakīrti’s PU16 instead. In the Tengyur there is just one direct commentary on the Vajra Rosary, by Alaṁkakalasha, whom I will affectionately call Alaṁka.17 His Commentary is incomplete, covering only the first forty-five of the Vajra Rosary’s sixty-eight chapters.18 It is written in the pañjika style, and thus comments on all of the words and phrases of the root text, as well as providing more general explanations of the subject matter.19 The Commentary itself was translated into Tibetan by Alaṁka and Teng Lotsawa, AKA Tsultrim Jungney (1107–90). According to Tsong Khapa, Alaṁkakalasha’s Commentary is reliable in that it “does accord with the noble father and sons [tradition].”20

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