Buddhism Vairocana/Mahāvairocana
Klaus Pinte
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 September 2010
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 September 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0094


As one of the aspects and later designation of Vairocana (var. Virocana/Verocana), or the Luminous One, Mahāvairocana is a very important figure in the Buddhism of East Asia, Tibet, Nepal, and Java. In the same way that the sun deity Mithra is the personification of ultimate truth in Manichaeism, Mahāvairocana, or the Great Illuminator, is the chief deity of Esoteric Buddhism, and is generally referred to as “Great Sun Tathāgata” (Jpn. Dainichi-nyorai 大日如来). In contrast to the emphasis on the teachings of the historical Buddha Śākyamuni in his physical body (Skt. nirmanakāya), Esoteric Buddhist theosophy places the timeless teachings of the Buddha in his cosmic or dharma body (Skt. dharmakāya, Jpn. hosshin 法身) at the center of its doctrinal universe. This “cosmic Buddha” is called Mahāvairocana and is beyond all conception of worldly duality, but its essence is within all phenomena (Skt. dharmas) as their Buddha-nature or “seed-to-enlightenment” (Skt. bodhicitta). Whereas Vairocana is the ultimate perspective realized through insight, Mahāvairocana is realized concretely in ritual practice. In Esoteric Buddhist soteriology, enlightenment means to realize that one’s own Buddha-nature is identical with Mahāvairocana, and can even be achieved in this lifetime while possessing a human body (Jpn. soku-shin jōbutsu 即身成仏). Thus, all other buddhas and bodhisattvas are various emanations or aspects of Mahāvairocana, who is depicted amidst them in both the Diamond World (Skt. vajradhātu, Jpn. kongōkai 金剛界) and Womb or Matrix World (Skt. garbhadhātu, Jpn. taizōkai 胎藏界) mandalas. In the Tantric systems of East Asia, Vairocana forms the center of the five buddhas (Skt. pañcabuddha, Jpn. gobutsu 五佛), while in Tibetan traditions he has largely been superseded by Akṣobhya. Alternate spellings include Vairocana = Piluchena = Birushana; Mahavairocana = Dari = Danichi.

Introductory Works

Orzech 1987 is the best among the few standard encyclopedia entries that dedicate a separate section to Mahā-/Vairocana. Concise descriptions are also included in encyclopedic works on Buddhist celestial beings. Although Bunce 1994 and Vessantara 1993 are among the widest used reference works of this category, Getty 1962 offers the most detailed lemmas.

  • Bunce, Fredrick W. An Encyclopaedia of Buddhist Deities, Demigods, Godlings, Saints, and Demons, with Special Focus on Iconographic Attributes. Vol. 1. Emerging Perceptions in Buddhist Studies 1. New Delhi: D.K. Printworld, 1994.

    Standard reference book for all Buddhologists and non-Buddhologists interested in the subject, covering all major Buddhist figures in Buddhist thought and imagination, listing iconographic features and different forms of Vairocana. See pp. 571–573.

  • Getty, Alice. The Gods of Northern Buddhism: Their History, Iconography, and Progressive Evolution through the Northern Buddhist Countries, with a General Introduction on Buddhism. Translated by J. Dekiner. Rutland, VT: Tuttle, 1962.

    Reprint of the second edition published in 1928 by Oxford University Press. For Mahāvairocana/Vairocana, see pp. 31–34. For the Tibetan, Mongolian, Chinese, and Japanese names for Vairocana, see p. 31. On Vairocana as ādhi-Buddha, see pp. 31–33. On his representation in mandalic diagrams, see pp. 32–33. And on Vairocana as dhyāni-buddha, see p. 34.

  • Orzech, Charles D. “Mahāvairocana.” In The Encyclopedia of Religion. Vol. 9. Edited by Mircea Eliade, 126–128. New York: Macmillan, 1987.

    Concise overview of the essential information on Mahā-/Vairocana, discussing his role and religious meaning both in Tibetan as well as in East Asian Tantric Buddhism, including a section on iconography and worship. Includes a short bibliography for basic reading.

  • Vessantara. Meeting the Buddhas: A Guide to Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Tantric Deities. Sheffield, UK: Windhorse, 1993.

    Popular and user-friendly encyclopedia for quick searches. For Mahāvairocana, see text starting p. 162.

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