by Ryan Hudson
“Vajrakilaya, or kīla, means something sharp, and something that pierces – a dagger. A dagger that is so sharp it can pierce anything, while at the same time nothing can pierce it. That is the quality. This sharp and piercing energy is what is used to practice and out of the many infinite, endless Vajrayana methods this happens to be one of most important methods.” ~ Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche
This Phurba Purba with three faces of Vajrakila Buddha (or Phurbu in Kham), commonly known as a Kīla (sanskrit), is a ritual implement used during tantric Buddhist practice. This particular piece was likely produced in Tibet prior to the 15th century CE, carved from wood Wood with bone accent pieces Earing and Teeth. While at first glance it appears to be a highly decorative weapon, it is not an instrument of violence in the traditional sense—that is to say something made to pierce flesh. In fact, this is a common misconception, and one that reveals itself in a quick search for phurba videos online.
These two are particularly entertaining: Incorrect use of a Phurba & Also wrong. Nevertheless, the phurba is a weapon, but one used to combat those things that exist outside of the natural and mundane realms.
According to Nyingma tradition, after his efforts in taming the area around Samyé and helping to found the monestary there, Padmasambhava transmitted the teaching of the Vajrakilya Tantra to his disciples in Tibet.
This tantric practice was eventually absorbed into all schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and the phurba dagger serves as the primary device for visualizing the wrathful destruction of hatred and hindrances during tantric meditation (Beer 246). Although now universal to all schools, the Vajrakilya Tantra is an esoteric teaching, and it is difficult to find specific information on the details of its practice. Numerous searches for video of Tibetan monks practicing (or demonstrating) this tantra were fruitless, but this American video does give you a brief glance at how the phurba is used during tantric practice: Demonstration of Phurba Ritual. This video is not specific to Tibetan Buddhism, but it effectively conveys the general concept of how a ‘spiritual’ weapon might be used in practice.
The first kīla daggers were developed and used by the Vedic Indians in rituals designed to pin down the ‘earth serpent’ in an area where an altar was to be constructed. In Tibet, this practice became an integral step in the construction of monasteries, temples, and stupas (Beer 245).
In fact, this system of ‘pinning down’ an earth deity was used in the construction of the 13 temples and stupas that served to anchor the ‘supine demoness’ of Tibet, which helped facilitate the introduction of Buddhism to the ‘Land of Snows’. Janet Gyatso, in her essay Down With the Demoness, explains that, “by placing edifices on her land-body, she will be physically pressed down and pinned, with her arms and legs immobilized” (Gyatso 39). This foundational use of the phurba dagger (and other ritual daggers and pegs) in Buddhist practice underpins the value of its use for the modern practitioner.
To gain a better understanding of this specific phurba dagger, we will examine it from top to bottom–discussing specific details of the piece along the way.
As we examine this particular piece in great detail, we will discover many themes common to Tibetan depictions of wrathful deities, and some commonalities with other phurbas and ritual pegs. However, this piece does have a few unique features that I have not seen duplicated in any others, which we will also explore.
Let’s begin at the top, where the design of this particular phurba includes a flattened topknot Topknot above the three-headed Vajrakīla. This “serves as the ‘nail head’ of the phurba (as a ‘vajra-spike’) when it is symbolically hammered into the effigy of an enemy, or ritually hammered into the ground of a sacred protective boundary (Beer 248).
The “swirl pattern” we see on this part of the Phurba is present on other ritual items featuring wrathful deities, illustrated here on a mask used for ritual dance Swirl Pattern.
As we move down from the topknot, we encounter one of the most intriguing mysteries of this phurba: the missing pieces in Vajrakilya’s crown Missing Pieces in Crown?.
When I first examined this dagger, I believed it to be missing only three pieces (which I assumed were related to the ‘three jewels’). But examination of other works of Tibetan religious art revealed a strong theme of five pieces in the crown of a wrathful deity–specifically skulls. The five skulls appear in numerous other works, and I have included examples here from masks and tapestries Jewels as Skulls, Skulls, Skulls.
The five skull motif is present in the majority of items related to wrathful deities which I have examined. They are often present even when not in a ‘crown’ or headdress, such as their inclusion at the bottom of this dance apron Skulls. In his Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs, Robert Beer suggests that the 12 skulls encircling the combined crown (of the three faces of Vajrakilya) represent freedom from the 12 links of dependent origination. But that explanation does not account for only five skulls appearing on the masks and tapestries, where we do not have the requisite three heads to form a crown of 12. I searched online for other possible interpretations and found several sources (although not academic, per se) that suggest that the five skulls represent the transmutation of the five negative afflictions of human nature into positive virtues. This theme (and explanation) is closely related to the wrathful deity, Mahakala. Based upon the fact that the other accent pieces on this phurba are likely made of bone, I suggest that the missing skulls here were likely to be bone as well. However, it is certainly possible that they could have been jewels. Regardless, they were not part of the wood that constitutes the original carving, as we can see where they became separated and how the color of the wood differs in those places Wood (image above).
Next, let’s examine a theme which is present on nearly every depiction of a wrathful deity (regardless of media): The ‘third eye’ and enlarged, flamelike, ‘bushy’ eyebrows Third Eye and Eyebrows. While we can see that the face–like most of the dagger–has been painted black (or a very dark brown), a close inspection of the eyebrows reveals that they were once painted a different color(s). We can clearly see red paint still present, but there may have been gold accents as well–based upon the survival of gold on other parts of the dagger. This ‘third eye’ motif is present on a great number of items, including masks , tapestries, and other ritual pegs and daggers. The iconography of the ‘third eye’ in Tibetan Buddhism is related to the development of wisdom through practice, and its presence on the brows of wrathful deities serves to indicate their status as more enlightened beings.
Two other highly prevalent themes present in depictions of wrathful deities are present on this dagger’s face of Vajrakilya. First, like nearly all mouths of wrathful deities, this one has prominent fangs Fangs (see teeth image above). Other images of wrathful deities show similarly prominent fangs, highlighting the aggressive and violent nature of the image.
I have presented three images for comparison here, but nearly every image of a wrathful deity I examined showed similar fangs to that of Vajrakilya. The other common theme on the face is less straightforward than the fangs.
The area around Vajrakilya’s mouth has a tripartite pattern of what appears to be facial hair, but it is highly stylized and has a flamelike quality to it Area around mouth. We can even see evidence of the red (and possibly gold) coloring present in all three parts of the pattern. While, at first glance, this appears to be simply artistic embellishment (possibly to reinforce the aggressive look), the pattern is found on nearly every image of wrathful deities I have examined (it was as prevalent as the third eye or fangs). We can see examples of this here below, again on masks and tapestries. I was unable to determine the origination of this pattern, nor the symbolism behind it, but descriptions of wrathful deities online do describe the facial hair as ‘blazing’–so the flamelike quality is at least noticed by others.
To the side of the face, elongated ears on both sides were once adorned with earrings–now only one remains. The ear lobes are elongated in the style of the buddha Ear lobe and missing ear ring and pierced to accept large, decorative bone earrings Pierced Ear.
The elongated earlobe is prevalent in Buddha images, but also in depictions of wrathful deities, such as on this mask Elongated Ear Lobes (see image). The remaining earring itself is pretty fascinating, and provides one of the more unique aspects of this phurba. A close inspection of the earring shows that it is a convex circle (like a turtle’s shell) decorated by a square surrounded by four ‘heart’ shapes, with a fifth heart protruding below the main circle. What makes this fascinating is that the ‘heart’ shape is not a staple of Tibetan Buddhist imagery. In fact, I did not encounter it in my examination of any other object. A cursory investigation online also revealed nothing. Perhaps this is something that can be further explored in later study, but for now it remains anomalous to this piece.
Moving now below the three heads of Vajrakilya, we come to the handle of the phurba, which has two distinct parts: the middle of the shaft, and the top & bottom pieces. Beginning with the top and bottom pieces, we see that they have a ‘woven’ quality to them and they resemble the ‘endless knot’–one of the 8 auspicious Tibetan Buddhist symbols (Beer 173).
The middle piece of the handle is wreathed in two rows of opposing lotus petals, which is a motif common on phurba daggers. I could find no high-resolution images of other daggers that display this theme, but several low resolution images can be found in both Beer’s Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols, and John Huntington’s The Phur-Pa, Tibetan Ritual Daggers. Because the phurba is only one type of ritual dagger, there are many other styles of handle found on similar daggers and pegs, such as this handle section from a metal peg (image). On this peg, the top and bottom pieces have a far more open weave pattern, and the lotus petals are replaced by opposing ‘crown-like’ pieces.
The handle of the phurba sits atop the carved head of a Makara (image), from whose mouth three sets of Naga tails originate before coiling down the blades.
Although we can only see this head in profile, we should notice a few features that are worth highlighting. First, we can see that large, ‘bushy’ eyebrows are present here, and that they are larger (even proportionally) than those on the Vajrakilya faces.
Second, we can see that the front of the Makara’s face appears to be a coiled elephant’s trunk (possibly a tongue, but less likely). Makara images vary greatly throughout Tibetan Buddhist art, but the ‘elephant-like’ face is a common version, possibly exemplified here (image below), although I am uncertain. The theme of Naga tails emanating from the mouth is also common, as this tapestry illustrates. We can also see the Naga tails on this ritual peg, although their origin in the mouth of the Makara is less visible. A small detail I noticed on this piece, for which I could not find any explanation, was the symmetrical ‘bass clef’ pattern on the back of the Makara’s head (non-musicians would likely describe this shape as a stylized apostrophe) . Like the heart shape, this is another image for which I found no other representations in the other works I examined. It is interesting to note here that the Makara head appears to be impaled by the dagger, as it rests immediately atop the blades (Beer’s analysis also suggests something similar).
Finally, the phurba terminates in a tripartite blade. Nearly all phurba daggers and other ritual pegs will possess the triple blade. These blades are rarely sharpened at the tip, as they are not used as a physical weapon, but they do come to a point–for sinking into a metal base, sand mandala, or envisioned enemy.
My final observation on this fascinating piece is that it is missing much of the color it had when it was first fashioned, and I believe that if viewed in original condition, it would reveal additional details about the piece through those colors. We can see a fair amount of red and gold remaining on the ‘beard’, but it is only faintly visible in other areas (see images below). In full color, perhaps we could better understand the symbolism of some of this dagger’s more esoteric qualities.
Beer, Robert. “Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs.” N. p. Print.
Huntington, John C. “Artibus Asiae. Supplementum”, Vol. 33, The Phur-Pa, Tibetan Ritual Daggers. (1975), pp. III-VII+1-76+I-LXIII.
Gyatso, Janet (1987) “Down with the Demoness: Reflections on a Feminine Ground in Tibet” Tibet Journal vol.12 no.4 (Winter 1987), pp.38-53