Based on an Interview with His Holiness the Sakya Trizin
Written by Kunga Sonam Dronma with assistance from Ngawang Khyentse and Ngawang Kunzang. Source: Cho Trin, Volume 2, Number 1

The Sakya Order has innumerable exoteric and esoteric teachings, and among them the Vajrakilaya teaching cycle is the teaching with the longest history. It has been a major practice of the Khon lineage since the time of Padmasambhava and it was the Khon lineage that founded and preserved the Sakya school and has caused it to flourish.

In fact, the Khon lineage is believed to be directly descended from celestial beings. Although not much detail is known regarding the life and activities of the early generations of the Khon lineage, at that time only the Bon religion existed in Tibet, as there were not yet any Buddhist teachings.

Later, around the year 775 C.E., Guru Padmasambhava came from India to subdue the local deities and spirits, and gave many Buddhist teachings. Among them was this particular Vajrakilaya teaching, which was given to Khon Nagendra Raksita, an early member of the Khon family who was also one of the first seven Tibetans to receive full Buddhist monastic ordination.

These seven Tibetans were chosen for ordination as a trial of whether Tibetans would be able to keep Buddhist monastic vows. There were three older persons, three younger persons and one middle-aged person. Nagendra Raksita was one of the three younger persons. In this way he received full Buddhist monastic ordination from the great abbot Shanta Raksita. All seven ordained monks were very successful, which was an auspicious beginning for the great Tibetan monastic tradition.

Khon Nagendra Raksita, who was a fully ordained Buddhist monk and great translator, and his younger brother Vajra Ratna, who was a householder, both received the Vajrakilaya empowerments and teachings directly from Guru Padmasambhava.

Ever since that time, the main deities practiced by the Khon lineage have been the two deities Vajrakilaya and Yangdag Heruka (Visuddha or Vajra Heruka). The place where the Khon lineage members resided was called the Palchen Phodrang, or ‘ Palace of Great Glory ’, which also refers to Vajrakilaya.

All Sakya monasteries in Tibet are painted in three colors: primarily blue with white and red stripes. It is believed that these three colors were the original colors of the Palchen Podrang palace of the Khon lineage. These three colors symbolize the three faces of Vajrakilaya.

Many generations later, during the time of Khon Konchok Gyalpo (1034-1102) it was felt that the time had come to start a separate Buddhist school, so Khon Konchog Gyalpo started the Sakya Order.  All the ancient teachings were concealed, but at that time there were clear indications that the protectors of these two deities were not pleased, and various significant signs appeared.

Therefore, although all the other teachings were hidden, the Vajrakilaya and Heruka teachings were not be concealed. Thus although the Sakya Order is one of what is known as the ‘new traditions,’ it still continues the ancient practice of Vajrakilaya.

Yangdag Heruka is not much practiced nowadays. This is because once the Sakya Order was established, its main tantric deity became Hevajra, and as Hevajra and Heruka are the same in nature, it is not necessary to practice both. Although the empowerments are still given, nowadays Yangdak Heruka is not frequently practiced, either by individuals or in assemblies. However, some monasteries perform the Heruka rituals. Vajrakilaya, on the other hand, is still a major practice.

Explanation of the Ritual

Sakya monasteries have innumerable rituals, and ceremonies, and this one is the most elaborate and longest of them all. The Vajrakilaya ceremony continues for an entire month, from the first day of the seventh Tibetan lunar month until the first day of the eighth lunar month. In fact, people often refer to the Vajrakilaya ritual as dunba, or ‘the seventh’, because Vajrakilaya is practiced for the entire seventh month.

The reason why the Vajrakilaya ritual is performed during the seventh lunar month is to commemorate Ngachang Kunga Rinchen’s (1517-1584) activities. There was a period during which Sakya monasteries went through very difficult times, degenerated, and indeed almost became extinct. Then Ngachang Kunga Rinchen, one of the Sakya throne holders, revived the school by re-building the temples and re-establishing the whole system. Since that time, the Vajrakilaya ritual has been performed during the seventh month to commemorate and repay the kindness of Ngachang Kunga Rinchen, who worked so tirelessly to revive the order.

The Vajrakilaya ritual begins with a very elaborate dance to bless the earth and related earth rituals. After that a sand mandala is created, and the vajra master and monks incorporate the sand mandala into the ritual practice everyday, and receive self-empowerment from it.

The seventy-five kilaya, (ritual pegs or stakes) that are part of the Vajrakilaya ritual mandala must be made according to exact specifications. This is an important aspect of the ritual. In Rajpur, His Holiness directed the creation of a mold, which was cast in Delhi . The sets of kilaya made from this mold are used in monasteries in both India and Tibet .

An awe-inspiring and somewhat wrathful sacred dance occurs at the end of the month. Finally the sand mandala is dismantled on the first day of the eighth month in a very elaborate and grand ritual. During the ritual, the deity Vajrakilaya appears in wrathful form as the manifestation of all the Buddhas’ activity to subdue obstacles. It is believed that by participating in the ritual, all obstacles for the entire year will be cleared away. Therefore many people come to see the mandala, and to receive the blessings of being present during the ritual.

Special Good Qualities of the Vajrakilaya Ritual

Many lamas and masters from different traditions greatly praise the Vajrakilaya cycle. There are several reasons for this. The Vajrakilaya ritual is unique because the hereditary lineage of the Khon family, and the teaching lineage of the ritual go almost hand-in-hand. There is only one instance in which the Vajrakilaya teaching passed to a non-Khon lineage holder, who was instructed to pass it back to a Khon, which he did.

In addition, this lineage has been unbroken since the time of Padmasambhava and Khon Nagendra Raksita, right up until the present. Also, through the centuries, the unbroken series of Vajrakilaya lineage holders have all had very high realization, due to which almost every single one of them performed great miracles.

His Holiness Sakya Trizin described an additional reason why the Vajrakilaya teaching is very special: “In 1959, when troubles started in Tibet , every ritual in every monastery was broken. Even individuals could not be seen to be practicing. In fact, even today, after 45 years, we have not been able to revive many of the rituals.”

“However, even in the year 1959 itself we managed to perform the Vajrakilaya ritual. Moreover this was not done with the clear intent or special effort to keep it unbroken; it resulted spontaneously from auspicious circumstances. Khardo Tulku from Kham came to us and told us that in his own monastery in Kham, Vajrakilaya had not been practiced, but he liked the practice so much that he used the wealth of his aristocratic family to sponsor it, so it was now being performed in his monastery. When we mentioned that this was the actual time during which the puja was usually performed, he said, ‘Why can’t we perform it now?’ ” “That year, four of us performed the puja – myself, my sister (Her Eminence Jetsun Kusho), Khardo Tulku and one older monk.  Of course we could not perform it elaborately as there were only four of us, and there was no sand mandala. However, otherwise all of the actual ritual and all of the empowerments and sadhanas were completely performed.  This year, Khardo Tulku’s reincarnation again attended the puja.”

Thus the Vajrakilaya ritual has always remained unbroken and has continued every year until now. In fact, it is the only ritual that has never been broken, from ancient times until the present. During the reign of the great Fifth Dalai Lama, the throne-holder of the Sakya Order was invited to perform the ceremony annually in Lhasa to clear away obstacles for the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan Government. This is one of the reasons why the Dalai Lama and Sakya throne-holders have sustained a special bond. Even these days, His Holiness Sakya Trizin travels to Dharamsala at the invitation of the Gangchen Kyishong (the Tibetan Government in Exile) and His Holiness the Dalai Lama to perform the sacred Vajrakilaya ritual.

Study and Performance of the Ritual

In addition to the maintenance of the Vajrakilaya ritual at Sakya monasteries in India , in Tibet too, the Vajrakilaya ritual has been revived. Currently, many Sakya monasteries all over Tibet regularly perform the ritual. His Holiness Sakya Trizin estimates that it is performed somewhere in Tibet every month because in some monasteries Vajrakilaya is performed during the first month, in others during the second month, and so on; thus every month there is a Vajrakilaya ritual being performed somewhere. The entire ritual is performed, including the sacred dances, however the Tibetan monasteries are not able to perform it for a whole month, and so usually perform a shorter version lasting eleven days.

Since 1974, at Sakya Centre, which is His Holiness Sakya Trizin’s monastery in Rajpur , India , the annual ceremony has incorporated a very important and demanding examination for monks wishing to demonstrate their mastery of the ritual curriculum. Part of the examination requires a different student each day to serve as chant master. The candidate is required to lead the chanting of the ritual without using a text. In one of the most complex sections of the ritual, a text may be used, although doing so results in a loss of five points. Passing this important examination is the gateway to further study and training in all aspects of advanced ritual practice. Unless a monk passes this Vajrakilaya examination, they do not receive further ritual training and their tasks in the monastery are allocated accordingly.

From 1974 to the present, 187 monks have passed the Vajrakilaya examination. Among them are His Eminence Ratna Vajra Rinpoche, His Eminence Gyana Vajra Rinpoche, and seven incarnate lamas. These 187 monks came from various parts of India , Tibet , Sikkim , Mustang , Bhutan , Mongolia and Nepal .

The Experience of Attending the Vajrakilaya Ritual

During most of the month-long ritual, there are only a handful of lay people who attend for an entire day, although numerous people enter the temple briefly to receive blessings. However, on the last day huge crowds of people attend. In 1992, the year that His Eminence Ratna Vajra Rinpoche served as vajra master, about one hundred people attended. These numbers rapidly increased. In 2004, the first year that His Eminence Gyana Vajra Rinpoche served as vajra master, there were 3,000 people in attendance. In 2005, the second year of his acting in this capacity, more than 5,000 people attended the ceremony on the last day, despite pouring rain.

For a lay observer, the Vajrakilaya grand ritual is truly a varied, exciting, virtuoso religious event, from the point of view of both drama and spiritual energy. All of this is combined in the single-minded evocation of the blessings and protection of Vajrakilaya upon all sentient beings and the taming of all forces that need to be tamed.

His Holiness Sakya Trizin, His Eminence Ratna Vajra Rinpoche, and His Eminence Gyana Vajra Rinpoche lead the ceremony, and the blessings of their presence and spiritual power make the ceremony especially meaningful. The music is extensive and varied, including a range of sacred instruments. Performing them requires years of dedicated practice by the monks.

Sacred wind instruments include the long horn (dungchen), which is generally only used in the more wrathful higher Vajrayana practices; the Tibetan oboe (gyaling), which carries intricate melodies; and conch shells (dung), some with and some without elaborate decorations. These wind instruments require the players to have mastered a very difficult circular breathing technique which provides long periods of continuous and unceasing melody without pause for breath. The music also includes thigh-bone trumpets (kangling) which are accompanied by the swirling of silk cloths, and are played to welcome the deities.

The drums come in three sizes: two very large ones and many smaller ones. Other percussion instruments include large and small cymbals (rolmo and silnyen). These are played continuously for long periods of time, which requires considerable strength and stamina in the players’ arms and hands.

All of these instruments combine with a wide variety of chanting in various tunes, which creates a stunning richness and variety that becomes spiritually overwhelming at certain points in the ritual. When the full orchestra of sacred instruments and the chanting of monks is joined by the long horns blasting forth with their deep vibrating resonance, the sound pervades and blesses every pore of one’s being.

The Vajrakilaya ritual is truly a wondrous and blessed event. It is inspiring to think of the authenticity of the empowerment and teachings upon which this is based, maintainence of the vows through the centuries, the years of study that are required by every lama and monk who performs the ritual, the mastery of the instruments, creation of the monastic environment, and offering of the resources that makes each year’s performance possible. These blessings have been preserved and transmitted from generation to generation by the Khon lineage for nearly 1,300 years. May all beings receive the blessings of the continuation of the authentic practice lineage of the holy Dharma.