The Sixteen Voids of the Vajrayana

It’s been said that the teachings of the Vajrayana were first imparted to the gods and nagas before being conferred upon the human realms. This is based upon the transcendental gnosis of Voidness, which is firstly imparted to dharma realms that are not initially dependent upon corrupted phenomena and faulty thought-paradigms. This is based upon the principle of sarva-śūnya:

Sarva-śūnya (all-void or perfect void) is free from all the three-fold impurities and is self-illuminant. It is called perfect-void because of its absolute purity obtained by transcending these principles of defilement. It is the purified knowledge—the ultimate truth—it is the supreme omniscience. It is without change—without appearance, without duality—it is the supreme good. (Shashi Bhushan Dasgupta, An Introduction to Tantric Buddhism, pg.45)

Vajrayana itself can also be translated as the “Adamantine Way”, since it’s the perfected-realization of the True Vajra-Nature, which is simultaneously the incorruptible and impermeable Void-Nature-of-the-Self, which in turn shines upon all dharmatas equally.

My beloved Vajra itself is perfect voidness (śūnyatā) and hence, in Vajra-Realms everything is reflective of that Vajra—or most perfected Voidness.

In the transformation of the ideology of Mahayana into Vajra-yana the first thing to note is the transformation of the idea of Śūnyatā into the idea of Vajra. The word Vajra, commonly rendered as the thunderbolt, is taken here to connote the immutable adamantine nature of the dharmas. It has been said,—”Śūnyatā, which is firm, substantial, indivisible and impenetrable, incapable of being burnt and imperishable, is called Vajra.” To realise the Vajra nature of things is, therefore, to realise the ultimate void nature (emphasis mine) of things. Some of the most important Mantras of the Vajra-yanists are,—”I am of the adamantine nature, which is Śūnyatā-knowledge.” “All the dharmas are of the adamantine nature, I am also of the adamantine nature.” (ibid, pg 77-78)

What then is the Vajra-sattva?—a perfected being of Adamantine Substance. By Vajra is meant Śūnyatā, and by [sattva] is implied Pure Gnosis. Hence, a pure Diamond-Mind being. The Ultimate Principle, then, is the Voidness of the Vajrasattva, wherein even the Dhyani-Buddha Akshobhya is oftentimes marked with the miniaturized figure of the Vajrasattva.

In terms of Tantric associations, here at Unborn Mind Zen we reinforce our position upon Tara: Our Lady of the Void. Within this study we shall add an additional reference to other prime Void-manifestations, most notably from within the Hevajra Tantra. The Void-Goddess-Yogini in this instance is Nairātmyā, a consort of Hevajra in the Hevajra-tantra. Her name signifies one “who has no-self “which indicates void-status. In her relative context she is the wisdom (void) consort. Her Absolute stature indicates her total embodiment of the Five Dhyani Buddhas, thus manifesting the enlightened five-wisdoms. She appears in the Circle of the Yogini chapter of the Hevajra Tantra. All the Yoginis have a similar nature as Nairātmyā: the left hand holds a skull and the right hand holds a knife. There is also a Khatvanga resting in the crook of her left side; she wears a tigerskin around the waist and she is standing upon a corpse—which indicates  the stamping out of the source of all mental and emotional trauma, the corruptible ego-consciousness. She mystically sings-out a song of praise for the Ultimate void: “Desireless am I and the void-mind is my husband.”

Within my own spiritual development I have incorporated a related Yogini known as the Tibetan Troma Nagmo—or the Void Lady of the cemetery dance, the central mandala of the practice of Chöd (Purgation).

She is part of a larger Thangka incorporating the whole-schemata of the Chöd enterprise, as portrayed by artist Laura Santi. ***

This hangs most prominently above the altar within my hermitage:

When Nairātmyā is in divine embrace with her Lord Hevajra, the Sixteen Arms (today’s accompanying image at top) of the Void are perpetually in Bloom:

Bhujānā (the arms): The essential principle of the sixteen arms are the sixteen Voids. These sixteen Voids are: Inner. Voidness, External Voidness, Internal and External Voidness, Great Voidness, Voidness of Voidness, Supreme Voidness, Refined Voidness, Unrefined Voidness, Extreme Voidness, Supreme Voidness without precedent, Undispersed Voidness, Self-characterised Voidness, Primordial Voidness, Voidness of all natures, Voidness of non-existence and Voidness of essential nonexistence. The arms signify these Voids is the intent. (G.W. Farrow and I. Menon, The Concealed Essence of the Hevajra Tantra With the Commentrary Yogaratnamālā, pg.119)

The four-feet “signify the destruction which is the purification of the four Maras. The Four Maras are the Mara of the Aggregate of Personality, the Mara of Afflictions, the Mara of Death and the Mara of the Son of the Deity.” (ibid)

***For those interested in the comprehensive symbolism of the Chöd Thangka within my hermitage, the following is the description by Laura Santi:

A practitioner (bottom right) leaves the monastery at night to go to a cemetery to
do Chöd practice. Chöd traditionally done at a place where there is confusion or
tension, like a crowded crossroad area, or cemeteries or places where the veil
between this world and the next is thin. He walks along, reciting the mantra for
the practice, and visualizing the area he is going to practice in. You see him/her
sitting in the center in the bottom register, in a glen in a forest, at night. Circling
him is a dorje fence and wall of flames that he has envisioned to make the space
sacred and safe to perform the practice. He sits in this energy field and as he
practices, the lord and lady of the cremation ground, the chittipatti, rise out of
the ground and dance. Dakinis dance around the perimeter, joyful that someone
is helping the spirits of that place overcome the weights that have caused them to
stay at that spirit level rather than transcend.
To the left are the cemeteries of the world and a cremation ground surrounded
by a ring of overhanging trees. A coyote, vultures and various spirits roam the
place, dogs fight over a dead animal, and junkie expires in the lower left. It’s a
scary place.
Behind and above the scene is your visualized body being offered on top of mount
Meru. Above it all dances Kali (Troma Nagmo), the main deity of the practice, vast
as space, arisen from the practitioner’s mind. She is fierce, on fire with the intensity of her compassion for all beings, which burns through the fabric of duality, the illusion of this and that, right and wrong, God separate from me. She is surrounded by the cosmos, strewn with vast amounts of offerings, mounds of flesh and blood and bones, and anything else the illness-causing creatures might want; money, material things – whatever it is they want, more than they can ever need. A skullcup is below her. The practitioner visualizes placing his offering in it to the demons, his teachers, the gods of the place, passersby and all enlightened beings; all of humanity. His simple offering is transformed into the most desirable elixir by the fire of his commitment to the practice and his wish to give. Rainbows emanate from the elixir, created from the selfless, fearless giving of one’s own vital force to the beings causing illness.
Around Troma Nagmo/Kali is the lineage field of my practice, and below them, a
sea of people talking, laughing, selling things, living life – a crowd representing
humanity. The sky becomes lighter and iridescently luminous, the farther up the
canvas goes. Small dakinis fly through the air, bringing copper cups of the skullcup
offerings to the deities, teachers, people and spirits above.
Above the lineage field are the Buddhas representing the five Buddha families,
and to their sides are the yidams – the protective deities for those who practice
Chod: Marchungma, White Mahakala, Palden Lhamo, Green Tara, and
Above Troma is Vajra Varahi again, representing the energy and vitality of life
itself, and at the top is Prajnaparamita, the ancient goddess who personifies the
potency of space, spanda, scintillating stillness, potent awareness. She is the first
deity acknowledged when the practice starts. Around her are Vajrasattva,
Samantabhadra, and Vajradhara.
By giving of himself, the practitioner pacifies and satisfies the dark illness-causing
forces, which leave, satiated with his gifts. (Laura Santi)

I earnestly researched my choice of a Chöd Thangka three years ago and found Laura’s exquisite design. Chöd has become an intricate part of my spirituality as was witnessed seven-years ago in the blog-series, Notes from the Iron Stupa—the third segment of a larger spiritual autobiography trilogy, the other two being The Lankavatarian Book of the Dead and The Tathāgatagarbhatārā Tantra. In context of this series, Chöd is equally representative of Voidness, wherein all characteristics of samsara and the body-consciousness are dissolved back into the Primordial Pool from which they were spawned.

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