Staff and Trident

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Guru Rinpoche, who successfully subdued obstacles impeding the firm establishment of Buddhism in the land of Tibet, is frequently shown with a special trident-topped staff.

Trident or Trishul

The three-pronged weapon borne by the Indian god, Lord Shiva in the role of supreme yogin, is a ritual staff (Skt. khatvanga) in the form of a trident (Skt. trishula.)  In its association with Shiva, the 3 points are usually explained as standing for sat (truth,) cit [pron. chit] (awareness) and ananda (joy). 

:: Contemporary statue of Shiva in Haridwar, Indian city in Himalayan foot-hills famous for congregations of wandering Hindu yogis.

A trishul is similar to the attribute of Greek god, Poseidon, Lord of the Seas and of horses, although that instrument has barbed prongs.  (He is similar but not identical to the Roman Neptune.)  The three points of Poseidon's attribute stand for his dominion over the earth, sea and air.

Neither the Indian nor the Greek instrument is to be confused with the pitchfork with its tines curved like a dinner fork.  A pitchfork is an agricultural tool used for lifting hay or straw.  Demons depicted in Western cartoons or greeting cards are usually shown with a pitchfork or sometimes, a fisher's barbed trident.  

Pictured above is a ritual staff such as is carried by a sadhu devoted to Shiva (the bottom third of the shaft is not pictured.)  We can see one of the two heads of the sadhu's damaru (pellet drum) where it is tied near the top of the shaft.  Suspended from it there is a mala made of rudraksha seeds which are also associated with Shiva.  Wound around the shaft, wrapped in red or white cloth, are various relics and offerings.  The green cloth, a colour associated with activity, serves as padding for ease of handling.

Symbol of Guru Rinpoche

Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche to Tibetan Buddhists,) in his role as supreme subduer of rakshas, one who vanquishes all obstacles, is also portrayed with a khatvanga (adept's staff, Tib. kha.dam) in the form of a trishula, but sometimes it is a vel (spear or lance.)  It leans in the crook of his left arm resting against his shoulder.  In this position, it is usually interpreted as a representation of his consort, without whom the objectives of his activity would not have endured.   

In his youth Padmasambhava, at that stage known as Nyima Oser (Rays of the Sun,) had been a practitioner in the Shaiva [follower of Shiva, Shivite] tradition.  According to the biography attributed to Yeshe Tsogyal, his trident was an important aspect of his practice, the points standing for victory over the three poisons -- attraction, aversion, confusion/ignorance.

In Patrul Rinpoche's instructions for visualizing Guru Rinpoche, the three points represent essence, nature and compassionate energy (Tib. ngowo, rangshyin and tukj,) but they also stand for his mastery over the three times:  past, present, and future.  In our mind they also evoke the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha.) 

Below the prongs are transfixed three severed heads.  Their colours (white, red and blue) emphasize that they are of 3 stages:  Topmost is a clean skull, then a drying head, then a fresh one, and they represent the three kayas.  When nine iron rings dangle from the prongs they stand for the nine yanas.   The trident is also adorned with locks of hair from the mamos and dakinis that he subjugated as a result of the mastery he developed while practising austerities in the "Eight Great Charnel Grounds."

When there are streamers of the five colours hanging from it, they stand for the elements (earth, air, fire, water, space.)   An attached bell and dorje represent, respectively, Emptiness and Form.  The three prongs are understood to pierce the fabric of the three inclinations: attraction, aversion and indifference.  Dangling from the prongs are two sets of rings that stand for the philosophical extremes refuted by Buddha-dharma.  The two pair are eternalism and nihilism, and monism and dualism.  

When the khatvangha is surmounted by flames they comprise the fire of wisdom that consumes the shoring up of the ego -- our tendency to justify attitude /action, and our tendency towards attribution (of characteristics.)   If you can see 5 distinct flames, they direct us to consider the 5 Buddha-families, each working to counteract a specific obscuration.

Other Kinds of Vajra Staff

Another kind of khatvanga developed in Buddhist iconography that has a shaft octagonal in cross-section to represent the Noble Eightfold Path (aspect of the Fourth Noble Truth) and also, the eight classes of protectors.  At its tip is a dorje.  Along the shaft is a vishvarupa (double-dorje or dorje cross) supporting a jar (gTerbum) and the three heads.  The double dorje, symbolic of stability, represents the indestructible wisdom-mind.  The jar is symbolic of treasure, concealed riches.   As we have seen, the three heads stand for the three states (Dharmakaya [ch-ku,] Sambhogakaya [long-ku] and Nirmanakaya [trl-ku].)   The fact that they are impaled together signifies their inseparability.

Sometimes the khatvanga takes the form of the spear (Skt. vel) with a leaf-shaped blade as wielded by the South Indian deity, Murugan. This attribute is also associated with Hindu warrior deity, Skanda a.k.a. Kartikeya, son of Shiva.

Staff of the Consort

Images of Guru Rinpoche's most famous consort, Yeshe Tsogyel, depict her also with a khatvanga.  Hers is topped with a vajra.  Standing for the presence of Padmasambhava, it indicates her inseparability from him.


Origin of the Khatvanga

Markandeya Purana contains a section called "Glorification of the Great Goddess" (Devimahatmya.)  The 7th section describes the origin and characteristics of her very wrathful aspect, Kali, whose

. . .  horrific form has black, loosely hanging, emaciated flesh that barely conceals her angular bones. Gleaming white fangs protrude from her gaping, blood-stained mouth, framing her lolling red tongue. Sunken, reddened eyes peer out from her black face. She is clad in a tiger's skin and carries a khatvanga, a skull-topped staff traditionally associated with tribal shamans and magicians. The khatvanga is a clear reminder of Kali's origin among fierce, aboriginal peoples. In the ensuing battle, much attention is placed on her gaping mouth and gnashing teeth, which devour the demon hordes. At one point Munda hurls thousands of discusses at her, but they enter her mouth "as so many solar orbs vanishing into the denseness of a cloud" (Devimahatmya 7.18). With its cosmic allusion, this passage reveals Kali as the abstraction of primal energy and suggests the underlying connection between the black goddess and Kala ('time'), an epithet of Shiva. Kali is the inherent power of ever-turning time, the relentless devourer that brings all created things to an end. Even the gods are said to have their origin and dissolution in her.

Peaceful Intent

'King Prithu's Hundred-Horse Sacrifices,' section 19 of the "Bhagavad Gita" (included in the Indian epic, Mahabharata) contains the following stanza:

The great sage Atri again pointed out to King Prithu's son that Indra was fleeing through the sky.  So the great hero, son of Prithu, chased him again.  But when he saw that Indra kapāla-khatvāńga-dharaḿ (held a skull-topped staff) he chose not to kill him.

 ~ edited from trans. Swami Bhaktivedanta

Hence, like the vajra the khatvanga is also associated with the King of the Gods, Indra a.k.a. Shakra.

visualizing Guru Rinpoche:  Patrul Rinpoche's guidebook is known in English as Words of My Perfect Teacher.  A detailed description of Guru Rinpoche's attributes is found in a section on "Preliminary Practices" (Tib. ngondro.)  Ngondro is not the same for all Buddhist lineages.

nine vehicles1. Shravakayana, 2. Pratyekabuddhayana, constituting the Hinayana.    3. Bodhisattvayana, which constitutes the Mahayana.   4. Kriyayana,  5. Upayana /Charyayana,  6. Yogayana,  7. Mahayogayana,  8. Anuyogayana,  and 9. Atiyogayana comprise the progression making up the Vajrayana.

obscuration:  Tib. klesha, "stain" is also used as translation.  The metaphor is that our  consciousness is clear and pure but speckled, stained or dusty with habitual tendencies -- we could also refer to "neuroses."  They are expressed as greed, pride, fear, aversion, confusion.

also associated:  Murugan, Skanda and Kartika are often considered identical but several authorities disagree.

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