VAJRADHARA, OR DORJE CHANG (Tib.) is the primordial Buddha. This teaching on Vajradhara was given by Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche.

First we need to cultivate a positive attitude in whatever we are doing, whether it be listening to, contemplating, or meditating upon a teaching, or even participating in a worldly activity.

Attitude is a matter of thinking. Right thinking and wrong thinking differentiate spirituality and materialism. In the material world we study and work hard for such selfish aims as becoming famous. Because we have had a selfish point of view throughout beginningless time, we experience the sufferings of the six realms and are unable to liberate ourselves from samsara.

Therefore, when we are practicing or listening to the Dharma, we need to develop the pure attitude of wanting to benefit all living beings, not only in a temporary way, but also to ultimately free all beings in the six realms from suffering. This is the positive attitude.

The aim of meditation practice is liberation from the sufferings of conditioned existence and the experience of ultimate bliss. Whether or not meditation practice will lead to realization really depends upon the mental attitude of the practitioner. If our mental attitude is impure, then it is like mixing poison with food. We can see that food is beneficial for our health, but if it is mixed with poison, it becomes dangerous. Similarly, Dharma is beneficial, but whether our meditation will be effective or not depends upon our attitude.

One specific meditation practice given by a teacher can lead to different results, depending upon the mentality of the students. For example, a student with a positive attitude will have the best result; and a student who is totally unable to develop a positive attitude will have no beneficial result at all, despite his or her practice of meditation. Instead, because of indulging in negative thoughts, this student may experience an increase of conflicting emotions. This serves to prove the importance of attitude.

You might wonder what type of pure attitude we really need to develop during the stages of listening to, contemplating, and meditating upon the teachings so as to experience the fullness and fruition of our meditation. We must try to develop the altruistic attitude, which begins with the awareness that sentient beings are not only suffering at the present time, but have been suffering endlessly throughout beginningless time. The reason why they are experiencing such beginningless and endless suffering is that throughout beginningless time until now, they have been consistently motivated by the selfish purpose of gaining selfish benefits. They want to experience selfish happiness, pleasure, and joy. In order to experience that selfish happiness, pleasure, and joy, they use the conflicting emotions of anger, jealousy, pride, and so forth. Because of the negative karma they have accumulated due to conflicting emotions, they actually experience more suffering, instead of a greater sense of happiness. Therefore, we must wish to liberate all beings for all time from the causes of suffering. This altruistic attitude of wanting to ultimately liberate all beings from suffering is known as the enlightened mind, or bodhicitta. Bodhicitta is very profound and can be very effective if one can maintain such an enlightened state of mind.

So having first developed an altruistic attitude, please listen attentively. The teaching today is based on the lineage gurus who appeared on this earth. When speaking of them, we need to understand that in the past there have been fully enlightened beings who have appeared on the earth to turn the wheel of the Dharma. It is said that in the future there will be another thousand enlightened beings who will also come for the same purpose.

We are presently under the guidance of the teachings of fourth buddha, Shakyamuni Buddha, who took birth in India and lived 81 years, during which time he turned the wheel of the Dharma three times. From Shakyamuni Buddha, a nirmanakaya aspect of enlightenment, an unbroken transmission was passed down to such great masters as Nagarjuna and Asanga, and they in turn brought the teachings to Tibet, where the four great schools of Tibetan Buddhism developed. All these teachings originated from the nirmanakaya aspect of enlightenment. The origin of the nirmanakaya is the sambhogakaya aspect of enlightenment, and the origin of the sambhogakaya is the dharmakaya. An example of the nirmanakaya, sambhogakaya, and dharmakaya aspects is that of the clarity and light in this room originating from the clarity and light outside the house, and the clarity and light outside the house originating from the sun. Therefore, the origin of the teachings and the four schools of Tibetan Buddhism is the dharmakaya aspect or that of Vajradhara or Samantabhadra, the realization of the ultimate state of enlightenment.

We are dependent upon the light outside the house to brighten this room. As I have mentioned earlier, the clarity and light outside originates with the sun. To realize the state of Vajradhara or Samantabhadra is to become like the sun itself and no longer dependent upon the light outside for illumination.

It is for this reason that in all the schools of the Kagyupas, Gelugpas, and Sakyapas, the transmission of lineage goes back to Vajradhara. Why it goes back to Vajradhara and not to Shakyamuni Buddha is that it refers directly back to the essence of enlightenment, the origin of the light, which is the sun itself and not just the light of the sun. It is the same in the Nyingmapa tradition, where the teachings do not originate with Padmasambhava or Shakyamuni Buddha, but with Samantabhadra. Since the ultimate source is the dharmakaya, all four schools of Tibetan Buddhism originated with Vajradhara or Samantabhadra. The activity of Vajradhara is to benefit all beings without discrimination or judgement.

There is sometimes confusion in the minds of new students as to whether either Vajradhara or Samantabhadra is superior to the other. There is nothing that indicates the superiority of one over the other as they are both equal. In a sense, it is a name differentiation. For example, if you are in the East, people think that the sky is the eastern sky; if you are in the West, people think that the sky is the western sky; but the sky is just one. It is not as if the eastern sky is superior to the western sky or that the western sky is superior to the eastern sky, as there is no superiority inherent in the sky being either eastern or western. Both are sky, the only difference being that they are over different parts of the world; it is we who have the idea of "our" and "their" sky. So there is actually no difference at all between Vajradhara and Samantabhadra.

In one sense there is no difference between the two, but we can note that there are two names. The Sanskrit word "Samantabhadra" in Tibetan is Kuntuzangpo, "kuntu" meaning "ultimately" and "zangpo" meaning "goodness." What is known as "Kuntuzangpo" is primordially free from any fault, stain, or mental confusion, and therefore is not only presently pure, but also can never be defiled in the future. The Sanskrit word "Vajradhara" in Tibetan is Dorje Chang, "dorje" meaning "indestructibility" and "chang" meaning "permanently possessed." The quality that enlightened beings have realized is within all sentient beings. What is known as Dorje Chang is the full realization and stabilization of the enlightened quality within all beings.

It can be further noted that when Samantabhadra and Vajradhara are depicted in thangka paintings, one is shown without ornaments and garments, and the other is shown with ornaments and garments. Samantabhadra (Kuntuzangpo) is depicted naked, without ornaments and garments, to symbolize that his state of realization is unconditionally free from mental projection and primordially pure, as is the dharmakaya. Vajradhara (Dorje Chang) is depicted with heavenly ornaments and garments to symbolize his capacity to ceaselessly benefit and fulfill the needs of all living beings through the means of sambhogakaya and nirmanakaya emanations.

In the Uttaratantra Shastra, Maitreya explains that the actual enlightened being is Samantabhadra or Vajradhara, and the emanation aspect of enlightenment is Shakyamuni Buddha, who appeared on the earth. Shakyamuni Buddha himself explained that he had not spoken any words nor had he ever given teachings, and that it was only through the karmic manifestation and karmic capacity of sentient beings that they had heard him teach. Why Shakyamuni Buddha said that he never taught any teachings is that in the dharmakaya or ultimate aspect of enlightenment, he never gave teachings. Shakyamuni Buddha was an emanation and not an ultimate aspect of enlightenment. It was through the emanation or nirmanakaya aspect of enlightenment that people heard different teachings according to their karmic capacity. 

The sun and Vajradhara never actually appear on the earth, it is rather the light of the sun and the emanation of Vajradhara that sentient beings experience through their capacity and purity of mind. For example, enlightened beings are beyond mental conception. Like the sun, they have no wish to shine only on this part of the world or to benefit only here or there, they just simply shine. The luminosity of the sun is perceived in its different aspects by many beings according to their capacity. The beings who have physical form experience the warmth of the sun and are benefited, although the sun did not purposely give that warmth to benefit them. The sentient beings who have bodies experience warmth simply because they have physical form. The light of the sun enables beings to see things clearly because they have eyes. Just as the light of the sun enables those with eyes to see clearly, it is the capacity and purity of mind that enable beings to experience the nirmanakaya aspect of enlightenment. Vajradhara does not actually appear on the earth.

For that reason, although Shakyamuni Buddha passed into nirvana about 2530 years ago, we are still able to experience his blessing through our devotion, confidence, and practice because the ultimate realization of buddhahood, the dharmakaya or Vajradhara aspect of enlightenment, never dies. As long as the sun is above in the sky, a temporary cloud may obscure its light, but that does not mean the sun has lost its light; the sun is always shining. Likewise, although there is a very long lapse of time between the passing away of Shakyamuni Buddha and our present age, if we practice diligently with faith and confidence, we are still capable of experiencing the blessing of the Buddha because Vajradhara is still there. The Vajradhara aspect is ceaselessly present.

The activity of Vajradhara is to benefit all beings without discrimination or judgement, just as it is inherent in the nature of the trees that grow on the earth to burn when set on fire. The nature of any wood, regardless of where it is grown, is to burn; the nature of the activity of Vajradhara is to benefit sentient beings, regardless of what type of living being they may be. It is not only in the buddha nature of the Vajradhara aspect of ultimate enlightenment to benefit sentient beings; buddha nature is also inherent in all living beings like ourselves as well.

We can all agree that the nature of wood is that it burns; but it must meet with the cause of burning as it cannot burn itself. Although the buddha nature or Vajradhara aspect of enlightenment is within all living beings like ourselves, without meeting the cause to ripen this quality, we are unable to realize it. That is why all the teachers in all the schools emphasize the importance of the lineage gurus who have obtained the unbroken transmission. By practicing according to their teachings, we are meeting the cause to ripen our buddha nature.

Meeting the cause of ripening our mind is necessary to experience the enlightenment of our mind. In the teachings it is said that one butter lamp lights another. It is like having a hundred candles. When one candle is burning, the next candle can also be lit when it meets the flame of the first candle, and then the third candle can be lit when it meets the flame of the second, and the same with the fourth, and so forth. If you leave a candle on a shrine, it cannot light up without meeting a flame; it needs to meet with such a cause.

Without knowing the meaning of the actual Vajradhara, many students new to the Dharma ask questions such as who the father or mother of Vajradhara are, and when Vajradhara took birth. There are other students who think that Vajradhara is a superior human being living high above in the sky. These ideas stem from a lack of understanding of the enlightenment aspect. Because of this lack of understanding, Vajradhara is believed to exist actually in physical form, abiding above us in some heavenly place, although he is beyond words and conception. Although the state of Vajradhara is beyond words and conception, it is something within ourselves which through our diligence and practice we are able to experience. Vajradhara is not anything separate or different from ourselves.

When we state that there is no physical form to Vajradhara, the argument can still be made that we can see a dark blue human being who wears ornaments and silks and holds a bell and vajra in tangka paintings. These are all really symbolic gestures to enable students to understand the enlightened aspect. The dark blue color, bell, and vajra symbolize the indestructibility of Vajradhara. The dark blue also connotes his ceaseless activity to benefit beings, and his ornaments symbolize the preciousness of benefiting all living beings.

Those who are familiar with the mahamudra supplication prayer know we begin it by reciting, "Great Dorje Chang (Tibetan for Vajradhara), Telo, Naro. . ." It is very important to have an understanding of Vajradhara be cause everything that comes later is based on this ultimate aspect of enlightenment. If we misunderstand anything now, then we might become confused later. We must be sure that we correctly understand the meaning of Vajradhara, so we can correctly relate to future teachings.


This teaching was given by Khenpo Karthar Rinpoche at KTD, Woodstock, March 25-30, 1986. It was translated by Chojor Radha, and edited by Tina Armond.