November 12, 2013
Teacher to the First Karmapa, the Indian master Vairocanavajra was also an alchemist
Biography and autobiography in Tibet are important sources for both education and inspiration. The authors involved in the Treasury of Lives mine primary sources to provide English-language biographies of every known religious teacher from Tibet and the Himalaya, all of which are organized on their website. The following summarizes the biography of Vairocanavajra written by Dan Martin.
Many people are familiar with the great masters, such as Padmasambhava and Atisha, who traversed the snowy peaks of the Himalayas to bring Buddhism from India to Tibet, but they weren’t the only ones to make the journey—or to have a lasting influence on Tibetan religion. One of the better known of these masters is Vairocanavajra, a key teacher to Lama Zhang (1123–1193) and the 1st Karmapa (1110–1193), and thus vital to the early formation of the Kagyu tradition. Like traveling salesmen, these Indian masters brought on the road more than a refined set of Buddhist doctrines and techniques: Vairocanavajra, among other Indian masters, was also highly sought out for his skill in alchemy.
Born into a royal family in the late 11th or early 12th century, Vairocanavajra would enter Nalanda Monastery, where he studied for eight years under Surapela, a yogi said to have been able to keep people unconscious by placing his hand on their heads, and who may have been the author of famous treatises on tree horticulture. From Surapela, Vairocanavajra learned the doha teachings (the “songs of experience”) that would make him famous among Buddhists in Tibet.
Before working in Tibet, however, he went to China, via Tibet, where he is said to have drunk a full cup of mercury in the presence of the royal court. South Indian alchemists had long been famous in China for their long-life elixirs, making them especially popular with the emperors, who wished above all else to lengthen their reigns. Mercury is of course a poison, and 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: one Chinese king kept him imprisoned in his court. Sometimes Tibetan sources call him “Quicksilver Vairocana” in reference to his alchemical abilities. Among Tibetans, he was rumored to be 600 years old.
Lama Zhang, one of Vairocanavajra’s most important students, described him as a humble traveler who wasted no time in light conversation and who taught all who came to him. His voice was smooth and melodious, and he never displayed anger or lust. Lama Zhang and the other Tibetans who described him all refer to his mastery of alchemy, but in Tibet his strongest selling item was not this but his translations of doha. He made translations of six collections of doha, including those of Tilopa, Krishnacarya, Virupa, and Saraha, works that form a central corpus of Kagyu literature to this day.
Alexander Gardner has a PhD from the University of Michigan in Buddhist Studies and serves as the Associate Director of the Rubin Foundation.
Image courtesy of the Rubin Museum of Art.