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Vairocanavajra b.1100?

Name Variants: Nampar Nangdze Dorje; Vairocanaraksita

Vairocanavajra was born in the city Somnathpuri in South Koshala (today Orissa) in the family of a king named Sachana (or Rajasena). After studies, and some travels in western and central parts of north India, he went to Nalanda Monastery. There he met a yogi, belonging by birth to the scribal caste, named Surapela and studied under him for eight years. Surapela was able to place his hand on people's heads and keep them unconscious as long as he held it there. From him Vairocanavajra received the main teachings that would win him renown in Tibet and China, teachings on doha songs and alchemy. This Surapela is probably the author by that name who wrote one of the very few classical Sanskrit treatises about tree horticulture. Vairocanavajra studied both sutras and tantras with other teachers, including Gunarakshita.

In China, reached via Tibet, Vairocanavajra drank a full cup of mercury in the presence of the royal court. South Indian alchemists had long been famous in China for their mercurial long-life elixirs. This made them especially popular with the emperors, who wished above everything else to lengthen their reigns. Mercury is of course a poison, certainly in such a large dose, but alchemists had methods of ‘fixing' mercury and in any case Vairocanavajra lived on. His skill in alchemy proved a mixed blessing, since one Chinese king kept him imprisoned in his court. Sometimes Tibetan sources call him ‘Quicksilver Vairocana' in memory of his alchemical abilities. Among Tibetans it was rumored that he was six hundred years old.

Vairocanavajra had long had a connection with Tibet, even before he left India, since he worked together with Bari Lotsāwa Rinchen Drak (ba ri lo tsA ba rin chen grags, 1040-1112) on some translations. He is supposed to have visited Tibet five times. Among his students during his time in Tibet the most illustrious were Tropu Gyeltsa Rinchen Gon (khro phu rgyal tsha rin chen mgon, 1118-1195), Zhang Yudrakpa Tsondru Drakpa (zhang g.yu brag pa brtson 'grus grags pa, 1123-1193), and the First Karmapa Dusum Khyenpa (kar+ma pa 01 dus gsum mkhyen pa, 1110-1193). He stayed in several places in different parts of the country, but it was in Penyul ('phan yul), a valley north of Lhasa, that he spent a significant amount of time teaching and translating the doha songs and their commentaries. He also evidently established a monastery in Kyirong (skyid grong)

Zhang Yudrakpa records his impressions of Vairocanavajra's character in the final section of his biography. He lived his life as a humble traveler, making do with the food and clothing available. When he met new people, without wasting time on light conversation, he would immediately accept them, regardless of social status, as if they were life-long friends, or as if an only child. He always spoke truthfully, with a smooth and melodious voice. He never displayed the least sign of the passions of anger and lust, even under direct provocation.

He might be considered a member of a 'sister' lineage of the Kagyu because some of the teachings he received through Surapela came through Surapela's teacher Prajnarakshita, who was in his turn a disciple of Naropa. For Tibetans perhaps his most significant lineage was that of the doha commentaries that he translated: Vajradhara > Brahmin Saraha > Shabarishvara Saraha > Maitripa > Shabdikapada > Surapela > Vairocanavajra. Maitripa and Naropa were the two most important Indian teachers of Marpa. These lineages were recorded in the Lists of Lamas (bla ma'i tho byang) by Zhang Yudrakpa. Lama Zhang considered Vairocanavajra to be one of his six “root gurus.”

Vairocanavajra wrote several commentaries that have been preserved in the Tengyur. However Kagyupas of all the different schools to this day treasure above all else his translations of the dohas from the original Apabhramsha, a thousand-year-old North Indian vernacular language that is sometimes called ‘proto-Bengali.' It is said that knew Tibetan so well that he did not require the help of a native speaker, although the names of one of the translators he worked with is known: Lan Darma Lodro (glan dar ma blo gros).

Although Vairocanarakshita (or the abbreviated form Vairocana) is his more usual name, it allows him to be easily confused with a more widely known Vairocanarakshita (or Vairocana), the Tibetan-born monk and translator active in the late eighth century. Sometimes Tibetan sources severely abbreviate his name to Vairo (bai ro), or spell it as Bhero ('bhe ro) or Berowa (be ro ba). Somanathapuri (sa na tha pu ri) probably just refers to the capital city of the Soma Dynasty ('Lunar Dynasty'), which then ruled in the area of Orissa. It has not yet proven possible to identify King Sachana or Rajasena.




A mgon rin po che. 2004. Bla ma bai ro'i rnam thar. In 'Bri gung bka' brgyud chos mdzod chen mo, vol. 85, pp. 190-197. Lhasa. TBRC W00JW501203.

Roerich, George, trans. 1996. The Blue Annals. 2nd ed. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidas, pp. 844-6.

Schaeffer, Kurtis. 2000. “The Religious Career of Vairocanavajra: A Twelfth-Century Indian Buddhist Master from Daksina Kosala.” Journal of Indian Philosophy, vol. 28, no. 4, pp. 361-84.


Dan Martin
August 2008