The Vajra (Dorje) as a Symbol in Buddhism

Ritual Object in Tibetan Buddhism

A dorje lies on an open prayer book.
Thomas L. Kelly / Getty Images

The term vajra is a Sanskrit word that is usually defined as "diamond" or "thunderbolt." It also defines a kind of battle club that achieved its name through its reputation for hardness and invincibility. The vajra has special significance in Tibetan Buddhism, and the word is adopted as a label for the Vajrayana branch of Buddhism, one of the three major forms of Buddhism. The visual icon of the vajra club, along with the bell (ghanta), form a principal symbol of the Vajrayana Buddhism of Tibet.

A diamond is spotlessly pure and indestructible. The Sanskrit word means unbreakable or impregnable, being durable and eternal. As such, the word vajra sometimes signifies the lighting-bolt power of enlightenment and  the absolute, indestructible reality of shunyata, "emptiness."

Buddism integrates the word vajra into many of its legends and practices. Vajrasana is the location where the Buddha attained enlightenment. The vajra asana body posture is the lotus position. The highest concentrated mental state is vajra samadhi.

Vajra as a Ritual Object in Tibetan Buddhism

The vajra also is a literal ritual object associated with Tibetan Buddhism, also called by its Tibetan name, Dorje. It is the symbol of the Vajrayana school of Buddhism, which is the tantric branch that contains rituals said to allow a follower to achieve enlightenment in a single lifetime, in a thunderbolt flash of indestructible clarity.

The vajra objects usually are made of bronze, vary in size, and have three, five or nine spokes that usually close at each end in a lotus shape. The number of spokes and the way they meet at the ends have numerous symbolic meanings.

In Tibetan ritual, the vajra often is used together with a bell (ghanta). The vajra is held in the left hand and represents the male principle—upaya, referring to action or means. The bell is held in the right hand and represents the female principle—prajna, or wisdom.

A double Dorje, or vishvavajra, are two Dorjes connected to form a cross. A double Dorje represents the foundation of the physical world and is also associated with certain tantric deities.

The Vajra in Tantric Buddhist Iconography

The Vajra as symbol predates Buddhism and was found in ancient Hinduism. The Hindu rain god Indra, who later evolved into Buddhist Sakra figure, had the thunderbolt as his symbol. And the 8th-century tantric master, Padmasambhava, used the vajra to conquer the non-Buddhist gods of Tibet.

In tantric iconography, several figures often hold the vajra, including Vajrasattva, Vajrapani, and Padmasambhava. Vajrasttva is seen in a peaceful pose with the vajra held to his heart. Wrathful Vajrapani wields it as a weapon above his head. When used as a weapon, it is thrown to stun the opponent, and then bind him with a vajra lasso.

The Symbolic Meaning of the Vajra Ritual Object

At the center of the vajra is a small flattened sphere which is said to represent the underlying nature of the universe. It is sealed by the syllable hum (hung), representing freedom from karma, conceptual thought, and the groundlessness of all dharmas. Outward from the sphere there are three rings on each side, which symbolize the three-fold bliss of Buddha nature. The next symbol found on the vajra as we progress outward are two lotus flowers, representing Samsara (the endless cycle of suffering) and Nirvana (release from Samsara). The outer prongs emerge from symbols of Makaras, sea monsters. 

The number of prongs and whether they have closed or open tines is variable, with different forms having different symbolic meanings. The most common form is the five-pronged vajra, with four outer prongs and one central prong. These may be considered to represent the five elements, the five poisons, and the five wisdoms. The tip of the central prong is often shaped as a tapering pyramid.