I’m listening to to “Liberation Upon Hearing in the Between: Living with the Tibetan Book of the Dead,” and Robert Thurman keeps referring to “Vairocana” [virOHchina]. The guy seems important so I thought I’d look him up. Turns out I’d looked him up quite recently, but under his Japanese name of “Dainichi Nyorai.”
He’s big. Vairocana is the Bliss Body of the historical Sakyamuni [SHAHkyamuni] Gautama Buddha. In Japan, he is venerated as the “great Solar Buddha of light and truth, being ‘he who is resplendent.'”* Below is one of our prints,** which I believe is the blissed out Vairocana above his earthly counterpart Sakyamuni.
Vairocana positions his hands in the “chiken-in,” or “mudra of the fist of wisdom,” made by enclosing the erect forefinger of the left hand in the right fist.
This mudra stresses the importance of Knowledge in the spiritual world. The five fingers of the right hand also represent the five elements (earth, water, air, fire, ether), protecting the sixth, man. Another interpretation claims that the erect forefinger represents Knowledge, which is hidden by the world of appearances (the right fist).*
In the woodblock print above, his crown shows teensy images of the Five Jinas, the Five Great Buddhas of Wisdom.
I ask myself. Why so many buddhas? Then I think of Catholicism. Christians have their historical Jesus. But a stranger might look around at Catholicism and see Sacred Heart, Precious Blood, Corpus Christi, Holy Name, etc. and wonder at the proliferation of our christs. I’m kind of getting it that “all these buddhas” are devotional representations — some formula that “works” for believers — manifestations, perhaps, that then develop their own set of signs, symbols, art, devotees, and temples. (Of course, Buddhism also holds that we can all achieve buddha-hood if we break through the veil of miserable self-delusion into Enlightenment.)
The answers to who is Vairocana and why is he holding his finger are facts I will probably soon forget. But maybe we can think of the facts as rungs of a ladder — small steps of knowledge, on our way to our bliss state, and when we reach it, who cares if the ladder falls away.
*Buddhism (Flammarion Iconographic Guides) by Louis Frederic
**Votive print distributed from Japanese temples to pilgrims. Probably early 19th century. Jim and I sat at the kitchen table a couple weeks ago, figuring this one out.