Vairocana, the Cosmic Buddha, is accumulation and expression of the essentials of Buddhism and to see Vairocana face to face is the aim of Buddhism. There are three aspects of Vairocana: firstly, Vairocana is true explanation ‘sunyata’ or ‘emptiness’; secondly, Vairocana is the fulfilment of the spiritual needs of the faithful and lastly Vairocana is the Dharmakaya or truth body of all Buddhas and all beings.
Vairocana could easily be mistaken for a God as he’s often described as “creator and sustainer of the universe, being everywhere and everything like the air we breathe”. Vairocana is said to “pervade all space and exist everywhere in the universe and is the ground and being of all the Buddhas and all beings”. In fact some Buddhists, even Zen Buddhists refer to him as “God”. In the Lankavatara sutra, Vairocana is described as:

“nature-bright and pure, as primarily unspotted, endowed with the thirty-two marks of excellence, hidden in the body of every being like a gem of great value … eternal, permanent, auspicious, and unchangeable.”

Sunyata or ‘emptiness’ is a core concept in Buddhist teaching meaning there is no substantial unchanging self (ie, ‘anatman’) since ‘self’ is nothing but the union of the matter and mind (the five aggregates). It also teaches that the goal of the religious life is to find the true self (Buddha-nature) which on the face of it seems inconsistent since it denies that very same substantial self it appears to be seeking. This question of incompatibility was addressed in the Lankavatara sutra where Buddha was asked:

Is not this not One the same as the ego-substance taught by the philosophers? …an eternal creator, unqualified, omnipresent, and imperishable.”

The Buddha said no and explained that it was indeed emptiness he was teaching. He continues:

[it] is not the same as the ego taught by the philosophers; for what the Tathagatas teach is … emptiness, reality-limit, Nirvana, being unborn, unqualified, and devoid of will-effort;

What then is Buddha-nature if not a substantial self? In the Mahaparinirana Sutra’ Buddha nature is explained to be the ultimate emptiness and the Middle Way. It says:

Buddha nature is the ultimate emptiness, which is ‘prajna’ itself. [False] emptiness means not to perceive emptiness or non-emptiness. The wise perceive emptiness and non-emptiness, permanence and impermanence, suffering and happiness, self and nonself. What is empty is ‘samsara’ and what is not empty is great ‘nirvana’ … Perceiving the non-self but not the self is not the Middle Way. The Middle Way is Buddha nature.”
Both emptiness and Buddha-nature transcend a dichotomy of being and nonbeing, existence and nonexistence, self and nonself, suffering and happiness and so on. In fact, we find it transcends all dictomonies. As the Heart Sutra puts it, “form is emptiness and emptiness is form”. Rejecting both extremes is the ‘Middle Way’ and the way of Buddhism.

Discarding all dichotomies we can now understand how Vairocana Buddha (Buddha-nature) can be everywhere in the universe, pervading all places, immeasurable, beyond comprehension, and creator and sustainer of the universe yet still be empty of any self-existence (not ‘ataman’ or ‘God’).

Far from being a substantial self (a God, an ataman, a monistic absolute) Vairocana Buddha is enlightenment itself and a positive expression of emptiness. Vairocana Buddha symbolises the potential for enlightenment, the Middle Way and the overcoming off all dictomonies. It is not too much to claim that Vairocana Buddha is embodiment of the Middle Way itself.

Again in the Lankavatara sutra, the Buddha explains why the doctrine of Vairocana Buddha is taught. He explains:

“…is to make the ignorant cast aside their fear when they listen to the teaching of egolessness and to have them realize the state of non-discrimination and imagelessness.

  1. The Dharmakāya or Truth body which embodies the very principle of enlightenment and knows no limits or boundaries;
  2. The Sambhogakāya or body of mutual enjoyment which is a body of bliss or clear light manifestation;
  3. The Nirmāṇakāya or created body which manifests in time and space

The Trikaya literally means three bodies and is the idea that a Buddha has a “Truth body” (Dharmakaya) which is infinite, formless, and is everything but is at the same time nothing and is no one person – being everything and nothing at the same time – this is the ‘emptiness of emptiness’.

The second body is the “pleasure body” which is akin to a “spiritual body” (Sambhogakaya) and the third is “nirmanakaya” which is an incarnate body of flesh and blood.

Vairocana Buddha then is the embodiment of the aims and goals of Buddhism, Buddha-nature itself, a state of ‘non-discrimination’ and the overcoming of all dichotomies which is the Buddhist path. Vairocana Buddha is the Dharmakāya (Truth) body which embodies the very principle of enlightenment and knows no limits or boundaries. Vairocana Buddha is the manifestation of emptiness and dependent arising and the universe itself is his body. The song of birds, colours of flowers, currents of streams, figures of clouds are all his sermons preaching constantly and eternally for the salvation of all beings.

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