Phurba or Kila: the most potent of wrathful ritual implements in Vajrayana Buddhism, symbolizes the Karma activity of the Buddhas

The Purbha is probably the most exotically evocative of Vajrayana Buddhist symbols. The Bell and Vajra are sacred and special — but ubiquitous;  the Phurba is iconic of the mysteries of higher practices in Vajrayana Buddhism. One of its esoteric names is “Diamantine Dagger of Emptiness.”

“The triple-bladed ritual dagger essentially symbolizes the powerful Buddha-activity of the wrathful deity…”, writes Robert Beer in his Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols. [2]  Like Tara — only more wrathfully — the Phurba represents the activity of the Buddhas.

The Phurba is used in Highest Yoga Tantra practices, but also can be used for blessings and to cut delusions. Depicted from a Thangka as an iron Phurba with half-vajra crown and one face.

“The tantric use of the phurba encompasses the curing of disease, exorcism, killing demons, meditation, consecrations (puja), and weather-making,” according to Tantra in the Himilayas. “The blade of the phurba is used for the destruction of demonic powers. The top end of the phurba is used by the tantrikas for blessings.” [3] [To see a blessing, see the video below from a Sera Jey monastery annual Hayagriva Phurba blessing.]

Unfortunately, Hollywood usually misrepresents Phurba, here depicted in The Golden Child, starring Eddie Murphy.

 

Deep Reverence for Phurba

Once a year, at Sera Jey Monastery, the ancient Phurba of Hayagriva (Yidam Tamdin) is used to bless literally thousands of people who come for that one day for a chance to be touched on the head with the sacred implement. Covered in cloth (to protect the uninitiated), only the top of the Phurba is visible. Long lines of people wait for endless hours for a chance to be blessed by the powerful Hayagriva Phurba.
Likewise, large worldwide events with H.H. the Sakya Trizin, offering blessing initiations in Vajrakilaya (another Phurba deity, see below), has raised awareness.

Phurba Very Profound — Unlike its Portrayals in Movies

A magnificent hand-crafted Hayagriva Phurba with wrathful meteoric iron blade and painted deities and three horse heads.

Contrary to the fictional portrayals of the Phurba in Hollywood movies, the Phurba is far from being any sort of weapon — but it is very active.

In fact, one definition of the Phurba (Kila or Kilaka in Sanskrit) is “activity of the Buddhas.” In other words, from a purely “symbolic function” point of view, the Phurba represents the activity and wrath of all the Buddhas.
It is a primary symbol, just as the “Red Lotus” represents the “Speech” of all the Buddhas or the Jewel representing “Body”. These typically align with the ritual implements or symbol of the five Buddha Families (Vajrakilaya being of the Karma group) — although all of these symbols have many profound meanings beyond this simple list:
  • Vajra, representing “Mind”
  • Lotus (especially Red Lotus) representing “Speech”
  • Jewel or Ratna representing “Body”
  • Phurba (wrathful sword) or sword or double Vajra (whirling Vajra) representing the Karma family or “Activity” (Karma, good or bad, is created by activity)
  • Bell or 8-Spoked wheel: Emptiness or Space (opposite of the skhanda “form”. The bell represents Emptiness at a profound feminine level, the 8-Spoked Wheel typically refers more to the Buddha Dharma, the “icon” of the Buddha Family.
Symbolically, none of these stand alone, since, for example, the Phurba typically (but not always) contains a full vajra in the handle, and two lotus thrones; the Vajra also contains Lotus thrones and jewels, the Bell contains a Vajra, lotus thrones, jewels (pearls), Wisdom deity, and so on.

The bottom line? Phurba is “Activity” — and it stands for the activity of ALL the Buddhas. It is a karma implement, certainly, but contains within it all the other symbols: the deities on the handle, the vajra for a handle, the lotus. You could say, the Body, Speech and Mind Activity of all the Buddhas.

Wrathful not blood thirsty

Although the Phurba is associated with the scorpion (more on this later), It is powerful, and wrathful, yes, but it is not hungry for blood — as depicted in the Alec Baldwin Movie The Shadow — nor is it a key to Shangri-La, as depicted in the bestselling game Uncharted.

In the bestselling video game Uncharted, games must find and use a Phurba to “open the gates of Shangri-LA.

Misrepresented in movies, the Phurba is among the most wrathful of the wrathful ritual implements in Vajrayana Buddhism. Today, there’s is a burgeoning commerce in the exotic tool — even New Age-y crystal Phurbas — perhaps because of its sheer exoticism. Fortunately, there’s also a traditional renaissance in proper Phurba practice, and also in the art of Phurba making in the traditional way. [See our previous story “Reviving the genuine Dharma ritual art traditions>>]

A fictional Phurba at work in the very popular video game Uncharted 4, opening the gate to Shangri-La.

The reality is far from the movie-and fan-dom ideals. The symbolism of a Phurba is very profound — more complex and intricate than most other ritual implements. In some accounts, its beginnings are quite humble: the three sided tent peg (or Yurt peg). In more reliable histories, Phurba and its practice came from India from the Mahasiddhas. It has also found in Shamanic practice. Regardless of its beginnings, its practice is preserved in lineages going back many hundreds of years. In Tibet, the Phurba is very sacred and its practice is considered a “higher yoga.”

Hand painting the final finishes on a Phurba by Natsog Dorje.

Skillful means and wisdom unite in one implement

“The lower blade of the Phurba is said to represent method or “skillful means” while its upper handle wisdom,” wrote Robert Beer in The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols. [2] “Its triple-edged blade symbolizes the severance of the three root poisons of ignorance, greed and aggression. Its flaming triangular shape and vajra nature represent the realization of emptiness as the vajra-wrath that burns and cuts through hatred. The blade issues from the open mouth of a makara [half terrestrial, half aquatic animal in the form of a ‘ferocious striker’. Here the head of the makara symbolizes the ferocious power and tenacity of the phurba as an indestructible weapon. Pairs of coiling naga-serpents descend from the mouth of the makara in each of the recesses of the three blades. These nagas collectively represent the six perfections, the symbolism which is also embodied in Vajrakilaya’s six arms.”
He goes on to explain that nagas are considered to cause afflictions and illnesses, “one of the main targets of the phurba’s wrathful activity”.

Hand-crafted Phurbas created with meteoric iron blades. Hand crafted at Natsog Dorje.

Wrathful Power and Peaceful Together?

Custom made for a teacher, Vajrakilaya and consort Phurbas.

Wrathful and peaceful together? It is true that the Phurba is the penultimate wrathful implement. Externally, it triune blade can supress demons (inner or outer). Internally, as a meditation object, it is the implement used to cut through the three poisons (more on this later), and all delusions. But, it is often used to exorcise demons (inner or outer) — which is no doubt why it is popularly used in movies (albeit incorrectly.)  It is said no demon or spirit can resist the blade of truth (so called, because it can cut delusions.) When made of meteoric iron, they are even more potent — metal touched by the divine heavens.

Traditionally, the point and blade are used for protection, banishing, repulsing, exorcising and wrathful actions; while the reverse end — typically crowned with either a half vajra or a horse head(s) — is used for attracting blessings, health, prosperity. In the video at Sera Jey, the abbott is touching the horse head crown of the Phurba to the people being blessed or healed.
So, Phurba is a balanced implement. The handle, with it’s vastly significant symbolism, is considered a blessing and peaceful tool. The blade is used to banish, compel and cut delusions — wrathful practices.
Typical of the “banishing” action, in ancient times the Phurba would be driven into the earth to subdue nature spirits who might disturb residents. This would then be followed by non-Phurba Yurt or tent pegs to hold up the structure.
It is important to note, although there are certainly supernatural powers associated with Phurbas,  the banishing can equally be banishing our own negative afflictive emotions such as anger or jealousy or attachment.
At Sera Jey, Hayagriva practice is very special, and the ancient Phurba is one of its most sacred treasures — only brought out once a year.
Here’s a 2015 blessing at Sera Jey with the Abott touching hundreds of people on the head:

Padmasambhava and the Scorpion

The wrathful and awesome power of Phurba is symbolized in the scorpion. The great Buddha Padmasambhava — who helped tame the violent spirits and demons of Tibet and Nepal — is most associated with Phurba practice. Lesser known is the association with the scorpion.

Guru Rinpoche Padmasambhava.

Robert Beer, in his book The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs, explains: “The sting of the scorpion’s whip-like tail transfixes and poisons its prey, and in this respect it is identified with the wrathful activity of the ritual dagger or kīla. Padmasambhava’s biography relates how he received the siddhi of the kīla transmission at the great charnel ground of Rajgriha from a gigantic scorpion with nine heads, eighteen pincers and twenty-seven eyes. This scorpion reveals the kīla texts from a triangular stone box hidden beneath a rock in the cemetery. As Padmasambhava reads this terma text spontaneous understanding arises, and the heads, pincers, and eyes of the scorpion are ‘revealed’ as different vehicles or yanas of spiritual attainment. Here, at Rajgriha, Padmasambhava is given the title of ‘the scorpion guru’, and in one of his eight forms as Guru Dragpo or Pema Drago (‘wrathful lotus’), he is depicted with a scorpion in his left hand. As an emblem of the wrathful kīla transmission the image of the scorpion took on a strong symbolic meaning in the early development of the Nyingma or ‘ancient school’ of Tibetan Buddhism…”. [2]

Later, while in Katmandu valley, the Lotus Born Padmasambhava had difficulty in the caves with demonic maras. To counteract this, he asked that thePhurba Vitotama Tantrasbe brought from India. In his biography it is recorded that as soon as the practices were implemented, all the demonic obstructions in Nepal ceased. [2]

The Awesome Wrathful Deities of the Phurba

Hayagriva Yab Yum Phurba.

Phurba or Kila is the wrathful implement associated with three of the most awesome and ferocious of the wrathful meditational deities: Hayagriva, Vajrakilaya, Black Mahakala. There are specialized Phurbas dedicated to Padmasambhava and other deities, but Vajrakilaya (in Tibetan, Dorje Phurba) is the best known in the west, awareness spread by many public Vajrakilaya blessings by His Holiness the Sakya Trizin. Equally, Most Secret Hayagriva is very popular and precious.

The deity cannot be separated from the Kila or Phurba. They are not separate. The presence of the deity is invoked into the Phurba, and it is considered a living Nirmanakaya deity — one of the reasons Phurba’s are typically covered in blue cloth when out in public. Phurbas are also often placed on altars where offerings can be made to them.
Hayagriva, Vajrakilaya and Mahakala are all wrathful and secret Higher Tantric Deities. Hayagriva is a wrathful manifestation of Amitabha, Vajrakilaya is the wrathful emanation of Vajrasattva, and Mahakala is wrathful Avalokiteshvara.

Phurba is a Mandala

Like the Bell in Vajrayana Buddhism, the Phurba is an entire “mandala” or symbolic universe of the Deity. Taken as a whole, the Phurba not only contains the essence of the deity, but also of the Mandala of the deity. Just as with higher yogic practices, we visualize ourselves as deity, and our surroundings as deity mandala, the Phurba itself is mandala and deity.  [For a story on the Bell symbolism, see this earlier story in Buddha Weekly>>]

Namkha Rinpoche with a Phurba. The Phurba is being held in a wrathful mudra.

As a whole, Phurba is a balanced, complete implement, as suggested by the concept of mandala. Within Phurba are contained both wrathful and peaceful activities in perfect balance.
Phurba holds a position of prominence in ritual practice, especially, because any meditations, sadhanas or rites should be conducted on purified and sanctified land; in the days of migrating peoples, the place of practice might have been different daily or weekly or seasonally. In the case of Yogis and Yoginis, they might go off to caves, cemeteries and wilderness for retreats — wild areas ripe with energies of the land, or recently deceased.

Three-Edged Blade

Meteoric iron blade has wrathful energy. Phurbas or vajras made of meteoric iron are exceedingly rare.

Although the wrathful end is often called a blade, it is not sharp-edged like a knife. The three edges have very special symbolic significance and powers. The three edges represent:

  • the Three Worlds (Trailokya or Tiloka, the three planes of existence) united by the “world axis” (handle of the Phurba) (which unites the three worlds)
  •  the Three Poisons: each edge represents one of the three: Moha (delusions and confusion), Raga (greed and attachment) and Dvesha (aversion or ill-will)
  • the Three Remedies (Wholesome Qualities) that remedies the three Poisons: Amoha or Prajna (non delusion or wisdom), Alobha or Dana (non-attachment or generosity) and metta and advesa (loving kindness and non-hatred)
  • converting the Thee Poisons with the Three Remedies
  • purification of the Body, Speech and Mind.
It’s primary wrathful function (versus its peaceful functions) is to “cut delusions” in a similar way to the Kartika flaying knife in Tibetan symbolism.  In other words, if you think of any of the “threes” above, such as Body, Speech and Mind, the wrathful action would be to “cut the delusions and impurities of Body, Speech and Mind.”
It also is described in terms of its “pinning” action. For example, in an exorcism, the inner or outer demon is pinned under the point (either driven into the ground or a bowl of salt or rice), whereby it is released from suffering and its delusions are removed. In the case of a “supernatural” entity, such as a ghost — which, in some lore, are actually echoes created by our extreme attachment to this world, even after death — the Phurba would release the ghost to be reborn.

Nagas on the blade

Phurbas often (but not always) have Nagas or “snakes” on the blade. (Naga is Sanskrit for “serpent” or “dragon” or “snake.”) Nagas symbolically, are the entities in nature that are associated with illnesses. The entwining is very similar to the Staff of Asclepius (or Caduceus of Hermes) — a symbol of medicine and healing.

Wrathful deities such as Vajrakilaya are often misunderstood by Westerners as demonic in appearance. The fierce appearance represents skillful means. Vajrakilaya literally means Dorje Phurba.

The Deity Handle

The deity handle, mirroring the three-edges of the blade, usually (but not always) has three deity faces. Typically, one might be wrathful, one peaceful and one joyful, sometimes one is white, one red, one blue (representing respectively Body, Speech and Mind). Some Phurbas for specialized deities, might have one face (usually wrathful), such as for Hayagriva Yabyum (one face, one horse head crown).

Alternately, the three faces can be three deities, as Beer explains: “The white right face is usually identified as the deity Yamantaka (or Trailokyavijaya), who represents the the aspect of body and the destruction of hatred. The blue central face is Amtrita Kundalin, who represents the aspect of mind and the destruction of delusion. The red left face is that of Hayagriva, who represents the aspect of speech, and the destruction of greed.” [2]

Regardless of one face or three, or which deity, we must respect the Phurba as we would a deity — thinking of it as an Nirmanikaya emanation of an Enlightened deity.

Two-armed Hayagriva in union with wisdom consort Vajravarahi. Hayagriva has a green horse head bursting symbollically from his fiery hair, representing Dharma speech in its active (green) form. Vajravarahi has a sow (pig) head, signifying overcoming of ignorance. The union is symbolic of the importance of combining both compassion and wisdom in practice.

Specialized Aspects: Vajrakilaya, Hayagriva or Mahakala

Often, depending on the teacher/student and Yidam, the deity depicted is one of three wrathful deities: Vajrakilaya, Hayagriva or Mahakala, but there are other specialized practices as well. As with the bell, the practitioner meditates on their own meditational deity as the object of veneration on the top of the handle.
This is similar to the Bell (the implement which accompanies the Vajra) in Tibetan Buddhism, where the deity face must always face the practitioner and is thought of as the Enlightened Wisdom Goddess: Prajnaparamita, Tara, Vajrayogini, depending on your practice. The level of detail on many Phurbas is astonishing, with ferocious snarling teeth, three wrathful eyes and skull crowns — symbolism depending on the deity.
Some Phurbas actually have the entire body, complete with multiple arms and faces, above the knots or Vajra instead of just faces — and often Garuda wings. One version even has Yab Yum deity and consort.

Another “crazy” interpretation of Phurba in the movies, here a Phurba that bites and flies through the air. (Flying through the air is a Siddhi associated with perfected Phurba practice, however.) The movie starred Alec Baldwin in The Shadow.

The Crown

The crown of the Phurba is the most important area, in that it is thought of as the place of blessing (just like the crown of our own heads.). Blessings in meditation practice (visualized nectar or light) normally enters the crown of our heads.
The crown of the Phurba is the “transmission point” in blessings. When you see a Lama bless a child or person, it is always the crown end that touches the person. (For an example, watch the Sera Jey blessing of Hayagriva video above.)
Typically the crown is based on a Buddha topknot (one top knot even if there are three deity faces), and on top of the top knot is either a half-vajra (five or nine spokes depending on practice) for Vajrakilaya and a single or triple horse head for Hayagriva. (More on the “horse” symbolism below.)

Horse Crown for Hayagriva

Hayagriva three-headed and three horse crown Phurba by Natsog Dorje with meteoric iron blade.

If the Phurba has a horse crown it is always Hayagriva, the wrathful aspect of Amitabha (Yidam Tamdin). The horse crown is very profound.

Hayagriva’s horse head represent’s wrathful speech. If you’ve ever heard the scream of an enraged stallion, you know the piercing sound. Wolf packs run for cover when a stallion screams it’s rage. Such is the power of Hayagriva, who is none other that the wrathful form (emanation) of Amitabha Buddha — the Buddha of Speech. Hayagriva, whether in Phurba form, full body form, in Thangka or visualization, is normally visualized with a green head (or three) erupting from his fiery hair. The green represents activity (as with Green Tara) and the horse speech. Horses also represent fulfilment of wishes — as in the wish-fulfilling horse. And, of course, horses are sacred in Tibet, Mongolia and Nepal. [For a full story on Hayagriva, view this in-depth feature story>>]
Since Dharma is speech, arguably, Ambitabha and Speech have the same importance relative to Body, Speech and Mind that it does to the three jewels (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha). Speech and Dharma are considered the most important of the two threes. Dharma, because Buddha gave us the Dharma to  help us create the conditions for our own Enlightenment (and that of others). Speech, because the Dharma is normally spoken.

Another unusual (and funny, deliberately melodramatic) portrayal of Phurba. Here, in the movie The Shadow, a Phurba with a mind of its own tests our hero Alec Baldwin. It flies through the air and near-misses a target between his legs.

The Handle: Vajra or Knots

Some Phurbas have extraordinary detail, such as this one with six arms and three faces.

The “main grip” of the Phurba is typically a (eight sided) shaft with two symmetrical knots, or a complete vajra. Beer describes the knots this way: “Its form may derive from its use as a tethering stake, or from its uses in kilana rituals where the protective circle is petted out on the ground and bound with colour thread. In a Nyingma text from the “Norther Treasure Tradition (Tib. Byang-gter), it is stated that “samsara and nirvana are enclosed within the vast knots (Skt. mahakanda) at either end of the handle.” The eight-sided shaft can have multiple meanings:

  • the eight directions, with the knots (top and bottom) representing above/below or zenith/nadir
  • the Eight-fold path
  • the eight consciousnesses
  • the eight great charnal grounds of the mandala
  • esoterically, the eight main psychic channels that radiate from the heart chakra.

Legendary Powers (Common or Mundane Siddhis)

Some of the legendary powers of Phurbas gave rise to its movie portrayals. These “siddhis” may be mentioned by a teacher, but the goal of Phurba use is never mundane Siddhis such as these.
Before mentioning this more “frivolous” or mundane aspect of Phurba use, it’s important to note that all activity of the Phurba must be virtuous and for the benefit of sentient beings. Phurba is a Karma activity ritual implement, so any misuse obviously accrues serious negative Karmic imprints on our mind-stream (and other Karmic consequences).
According to one account, Phurba may have the abilities to:
  • healing with a touch of the head of the Phurba
  • drive away, hurt or even kill (force the rebirth of) evil spirits, ghosts and the like (whether thought of as “supernatural” or as “mind constructs” or as “metaphors.”
  • flying through the air under its own super powers (mundane siddhis) — so fast that no man or horse could outrun it
  • is immune to destruction by forces of magic
  • can repel curses, and so on.

The Making of a Phurba

Today, endless reproductions are churned out through factory-forges using moulds and sold widely. This easy accessibility runs counter to the lofty status of the Phurba, which is meant only for students of the Higher Yogas. Some crafts-people, under the guidance of Tibetan masters and teachrs, have revived the true craft. [We recently ran a story on Natsog Dorje’s craft here>>]
Never-the-less, even the most sloppily manufactured Phurba is empowered in the right hands, just as even the most meticulously crafted and blessed Phurba might have no value in the hands of a non-practitioner.
Kilas and Phurbas can (and are) made from many materials. For genuine wrathful activities, such as banishing or purifying the land, iron is the material of choice — as iron is considered to repel spirits and ghosts. The most commonly available Phurbas are brass with a little iron (Iron being considered important for the wrathful activities.) The “off the shelf” non-ritual-oriented Phurbas are cast in bronze or brass, and some from copper. There are special purpose Phurbas made of wood and bone.

Meteoric Iron (Sky Metal)

Spectacular Phurba jewelry crafted partially out of meteoric iron (with silver handle).

The most perfect and wrathful of Phurbas contain meteoric iron, significant on many levels: sky iron comes from the heavens, touched by the divine; meteoric iron is considered wrathful because of the awesome “destructive” power of meteors that crash into the planet (one such collision destroyed the dinosaurs); and iron itself is considered the nemisis of spirits, ghosts and demons (and faeries in Western lore). Meteoric iron or sky iron is very precious, rare and expensive. For this reason, most Phurbas are made of more “earthly” elements, then blessed and visualized as alive with deity presence.

For these reasons, meteoric iron (sky metal) is highly prized in all of Asia, particularly Tibet, Nepal and Mongolia — usually for more wrathful implements, and particularly associated with Phurbas.

“The dark blue color of an iron phurba symbolizes its meteoric or indestructible vajra nature,” explained Robert Beer

Handling a Phurba

As with any sacred object, respect is a must. If you are not initiated to a Highest Yoga Tantra practice, or the specific practice, generally the Phurba handle is wrapped for the blessings.
Beer explains its where we might see a Phurba: “The phurba is a common attribute of many Nyingma lineage holders and terons (Tib. Gter-ston) or ‘treasure finders’ who may wield a phurba in their right hand or wear one tucked in their belt. The hand-held phurba performs the activity of stabbing all the obstructing demons in the ten directions. When it is wielded in the left hand it is usually paired with the right hand vajra or vajra hammer to represent the activity of pinning down obstructive demons. The vast phurba, that is rolled between the palms of Vajrakilaya is known as ‘Mt Meru phurba’, the fiery tip of which grinds all enemies and fiends into dust. As a ritual implement the phurba is often depicted upright, with its point penetrating a triangular wooden stand or ‘iron prison”.” [2]
Phurba is also very widely used by Sakya tradition, as Vajrakilaya is a main practice of the school. The Gelugpas also have Phurba traditions, often focused on Hayagriva — as seen with Sera Jey.

Use in Meditation and Ritual

Phurba is used by practitioners in both meditation and ritual. It is not an implement for the uninitiated. Normally, it would be “consecrated” for use. In some traditions, you’d see a string wound around the handle. If the Phurba is consecrated, normally the faces and handle are covered with blue cloth when used in front of the uninitiated (in some traditions). In shamanic practices, this may be different.
Only those initiated or empowered can or should use a Phurba. It is basically just a nice sculpture in the hands of the uninitiated. Although the Phurba appears to be physical, it’s primary presence, power and activity is on the mind and the spirit.
The biggest ritual uses tend to be:
  • purify and consecrate land (for building, temples, or just daily meditation/ritual)
  • daily meditations and visualizations of the deity
  • bless (deity end)
  • to heal (deity end)
  • to removed/banish negative energies (blade end)
  • to consecrate and empower (deity end)
  • to purify land (for construction, or prior to erecting a tent or building or yurt) (blade normally goes right into the ground) — in effect, the Phurba blade symbolically connects Space (Akasa in Sanskrit) to the Earth, establishing a continuum
  • to make offerings (with mudras)
  • exorcisms: although an exorcism in Buddhism is different from the Western approach: rather than banishment or destruction, the exorcist has to consider all sentient beings — including destructive ghosts or demons. Even if they are expelled from, for example a human host (or, from a non-supernatural point of view, a negative affliction symbolically banished from a person who is suffering) the spirit is typically either encouraged to rebirth (for ghosts) or bound to not harm creatures and to serve the Dharma (demons). (Again, symbolically, “binding a demon to the Dharma can be viewed as converting our negative “anger” into positive Dharma activity.)
  • binding spirits to the Dharma (oath binding), as exemplified in the activities of Padmasambhava when he came to Tibet.
To practice with the Phurba requires either initiation or empowerment or at least Highest Yoga Tantra initiation.

Ancient Roots: Vedic and Earlier Shamanic

It is clear that the roots of the Phurba (Kila) are ancient Vedic, going back to Shamanistic practices. Padmasambhava records in his biography how he requested the Phurba Vitotama Tantras to be brought from India so that he could counteract obstructions from many Maras (demons) he encountered in Tibet.
“In Vedic Rituals of geomancy, a wooden stake was used to locate and pin down the head of the subterranean “earth serpent” in order to stabilize the ground before an altar or fire-pit could be constructed,” Robert Beer explains. [2]
Similar practices are still conducted in Tibet, in a ritual to find the precise “location of the ‘serpent-tailed earth deity’ (Tib. sa-bdag) before a monastery, temple, or stupa could be built.”
This is also the origin of shamanic roots, where the Phurba is equated with the god Indra, who in myth used the central spike of his mighty Vajra “to pin down the head of the great dragon-serpent Vritra, whose coils encircled the sacred hill of Mt. Mandara, and whose head restricted the flow of the ‘waters of life.’” [2]
Importantly, from a shamanic point-of-view, the Kila or Phurba is often associated with the Universal World Tree (sometimes, Tree of Life: found in the roots of most spiritualities around the world). The shaft of the Phurba represents the World Tree, especially when it is driven into the earth.
NOTES
[2] The Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols, by Robert Beer
  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 12491 KB
  • Print Length: 292 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1590301005
  • Publisher: Shambhala; 1 edition (Oct. 14 2003)
  • Sold by: Amazon Digital Services LLC
  • Language: Englis
[3]  Müller-Ebeling, Claudia; Rätsch, Christian & Shahi, Surendra Bahadur (2002) Shamanism and Tantra in the Himalayas, transl. by Annabel Lee. Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions

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Lee Kane

Author | Buddha Weekly

Lee Kane is the editor of Buddha Weekly, since 2007. His main focuses as a writer are mindfulness techniques, meditation, Dharma and Sutra commentaries, Buddhist practices, international perspectives and traditions, Vajrayana, Mahayana, Zen. He also covers various events.
Lee also contributes as a writer to various other online magazines and blogs.

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14 Comments

  1. untidymaster on July 7, 2017 at 8:20 am

    great article. now I learnt so much abt ritual instruments used in Tibetan buddhism. correct.. I called, “where is my phurba and they flew”. most of them brass color. Phurbas does fly.. I meant with the inner meditation not flying around on the outer. At the “outer” I hurt my little toe as the phurbas flew. well I don’t know how to say it. you might think I am mad. Maybe. thank you so much again for the article. I would like to learn how to use the phurba. What do you mean by Buddha activity. It works. At least for now, North Korea is not so threatening, China does not need negotiating with N.Korea, Japan is not froze ready for a nuclear war, not that it could. well … giggle

    • Lee Kane, Editor Lee Kane, Editor on July 7, 2017 at 3:56 pm

      Hi, thanks for commenting. As a wrathful implement, the Phurba is used in “ACTIVE” enlightened actions: purification, blessing, consecrations, healing, banishing negativities, cutting the three poisons… all positive activities.
      Buddha Activity is associated with the Karma Buddha Family of Amoghasiddhi — Enlightened activity, sometimes Compassionate Activity. Another way to think of this is as HEROIC ENLIGHTENED ACTIVITY. We often think of Green Tara as the “Hero” “Saviour” and “Rescuer” and it is Green Tara most Tibetan Buddhists would think of if they are in trouble and need immediate help — activity of compassion. Green Tara is the peaceful emanation of Activity. The Phurba deities are thought of as the WRATHFUL compassionate activities of the Buddha (more ferocious, energetic and immediate).
      Amoghisiddhi and Green Tara (who are of the same family), are green representing ACTIVITY and WIND (green). You also see the Green horse head for Hayagriva, one of the Phurba Buddhas. Also CHI or PRANA (which is the very breath and power of life itself) is associated this family (these are also translations of Wind (Lung in Tibetan).
      There are the five Buddha families, which represent symbolically: Body, Speech, Mind, Activity and Qualities. This ties in with the FIVE FUNDAMENTAL ASPECTS OF AN ENLIGHTENED BEING: Mind emanation (Tib. thugs kyi spurl-sku), Speech emanation (gsung gi sprul-sku), Body emanation (sku yi sprul-sku), Qualities emanation (yon tan sprul-sku) and Activities emanation (phrin las sprul sku)
      In Dharma we think in terms of the Three Jewels: Body, Speech, Mind. But Body, Speech and Mind imply ACTIVITY and there is Karma associated with activities of the Body, Speech and Mind. If we speak negative words, that’s bad karma. If we speak helpfully, that’ positive. If we think (MIND) of another person in a negative way, that’s bad karma. If we mentally cheer them on, that’s positive. Same with body. In other words…. Karma. Karma literally means activity (and we think of it in terms of “consequence of our activities”. The Buddha Family of Amoghisiddhi is the Karma Buddha Family, and the “Activity” family.
      The Phurba is the ultimate tool of activity because it is associated with energetic and compassionate Enlightened actions.

  2. Teng on August 10, 2017 at 2:59 am

    Wrathful deities, tantra, consort practices have always confused me since young. Due to ignorance I lost reverence towards Manjusri cos I came across writings of him having. Consort. I remember Ananda once almost broke his celibacy when courtesan (many past lives as Ananda’s Wife)seduces him and Buddah sent his foremost diciple Manjusri in ‘lust’ subdue/cut practice to awaken Ananda. Confused by this extreme contradition I have always wondered why are Buddhist teachings are so complex, thus resulting in it being marked as a demon teaching religion, even some Sanghas who have not done deep research did comment that it’s wrong teaching. Sadly this costs the dwindling of Buddhist believers in this World. Even though till now I still do not the least understand this tantric,mantra and the many confusing pictures of wrathful dieties hidden message but I believe it is another one of the 84thousand Dharma doors to enlightenment.Sadly other religions do not knows of this. I suggest some form of control need to be done towards this display of wrathful pictures and symbols as its only ment for high level of practitioners. May Buddhism continue to flourish coz it is the real true way to release from this steel iron clutch of endless sufferings helplessly round and round this Samsara.

    • Lee Kane, Editor Lee Kane, Editor on August 10, 2017 at 10:41 am

      The ship sailed on the idea of “control” decades ago — not that I agree with censoring images (it’s just that it’s totally impossible now). Since they are everywhere, it’s now important to educate, rather than censor.
      Also, we tend to be influenced by our birth culture. I know that early Christian missionaries often remarked that the image of Christ hanging on the cross was frightening to people not brought up with that symbol. If you understand the crucifix symbol, it’s very wonderful and compassionate and extraordinary. If you don’t, it could appear to be a torture scene. It’s a symbol, and a powerful one.
      Likewise with wrathful and consort deities. If you understand the symbols, it’s profound. If not, it might be alien and misunderstood.
      While it’s true that wrathful practices are only taught via teachers and usually with empowerments (critical in fact, to avoid misunderstandings in actual practice), the internet made the “control” of images impossible. There are literally millions of images circulated everywhere. The best that can be done is to educate so that people don’t misunderstand. There are also plenty of “misinformation” articles on the web as well, characterizing Tantric Englightened deities as demons, etc — obviously designed to shock and offend. Even Dharma centres now publish wrathful and consort images on their websites now, because it’s quite clear you can’t “censor” these images (nor should you). So, education remains the only real option.
      Yes, it can be confusing to Buddhists from another tradition, yet the growth of Tibetan Buddhism worldwide — and Buddhism generally — probably puts that fear to rest. (Obviously, it’s not turning people away.) It’s also important that we not take the view that we need to “proselytize” Buddhism. Buddhism is not about trying to bring people into the flock, so to speak. It’s an individual path that all can benefit from, with a thousand and one ways to correctly practice it. This is, as you called it one of the 84 thousand doors. There are plenty of other doors.
      The last thing I’d just mention is that in the modern age, there aren’t a lot of worries about consort images and so on. With some minor exceptions, most people understand these are all symbols, and soundly based in psychology (in that case, the non-passionate union of Wisdom and Compassion). And for those who find the images not appealing, they will simply turn to a more — to them — suitable path.
      With kind thoughts, Metta, Lee

    • Lee Kane, Editor Lee Kane, Editor on August 10, 2017 at 11:08 am

      Dear Teng, I should add to my previous reply.
      I just wanted to address a couple other points I missed:
      “costs the dwindling of Buddhist believers…”
      Actually, Buddhism is one of the fastest growing groups in the world, 2nd or 3rd largest depending on the statistics you rely on. So, I think that’s a misunderstanding.
      “demon-teaching religion” addressed in my other comment about misunderstanding symbols culturally — but I wanted to pull that out as a pretty “loaded” statement. Today, in this modern world, I don’t think this would be a reasonable view.
      “Sanghas who have not done deep research did comment it’s a wrong teaching”… do you have an example of this? I don’t think Sangha’s would point to Buddhist teachings as wrong, and of course, a “Sangha” can’t say anything (it’s a group of people). Also, I doubt a Buddhist group (Sangha) would state any Dharma teaching is a “wrong view” without the guidance of a teacher. That’s my opinion, anyway. As always, in kindness, Lee

  3. Teng on August 10, 2017 at 9:53 pm

    Lee, thanks again for the second reply, Perhaps I’m wrong in understanding the actual meaning of Sangha, yes indeed there was a monk quite famous in Taiwan who commented on Tibetan Buddhist method, a Tibetan Rinpoche posted in the Internet about himself being surprised how a monk can past such comments without doing any research, some more as a monk does he not fear the retribution of slandering the Buddhist teachings.its not proper for me to mention the monks name, he had left the world already too.

  4. Paul on August 17, 2017 at 12:29 pm

    Where can I purchase Hand-crafted Phurbas created with meteoric iron blades ?

    • Lee Kane, Editor Lee Kane, Editor on August 17, 2017 at 5:58 pm

      There are two levels of craft in meteoric, symbolic and pure (I’m not sure those are correct terms, but I’ll use them to distinguish the two). Symbolic means either the craftsperson mixes a little meteoric iron with other metals in forging and calls it “sky metal” or “Meteor iron”. Pure, means the crafstperson does not mix metals, and the blade would be pure. (It’s similar to amber: there’s pure amber, and there’s treated amber resin: pure amber is never heated or treated and costs more: you can tell if it’s pure, it would be imperfect in colour). The pure meteor blade is easily distinguished by the magnificent texture and swaths of colour, but it’s very expensive. The symbolic alloy type is much lower cost, but it’s not really “sky meteor.” I’ve also seen “iron” called “sky iron” but those are just iron, not meteor. Although the term “sky iron” is used, by the way, meteor has a lot of other metals: copper, etc. What you’re getting when you buy “pure” is the original “rock” fashioned into a blade. The only craftsperson I know of that fashions pure blades (there certainly must be others) is the craft-team mentioned in the feature: Natsog Dorje. Their website is: http://natsogdorje.com/

  5. Fede on August 4, 2018 at 9:41 am

    Great article! I just wanted to clarify that the phurba is used in Uncharted 2, not 4.

  6. Chad on September 9, 2018 at 11:39 pm

    Hello Lee. My name is Chad and I am a college student who is deeply interested in religion, ritual and magic. Ever since I was very young, my father had a dagger-like object that I’ve always been drawn to. He has told me that he has no idea where he got it but it’s been on the shelf in his office for as long as I can remember. For my 21st birthday, I requested it as a gift and received it and as I type this it’s sitting a few feet away from me on my desk. After a few hours of research and finding this article to confirm, I’ve realized that it is very clearly a phurba. I’ve also realized that it is a lot more important and complex than I ever realized. Thank you for this excellent and informative article. You mentioned several times that a phurba is not for the initiated. I have done research on Buddhism and a variety of other magical, religious and ritual traditions from around the world, but I am in no way a practicing Buddhist. I was wondering if you might be able to provide some guidance regarding whether you believe I could use it for any purpose other than “a nice sculpture”. I also have it lying out on a wooden desk, is there a better way that I should display it? I just learned about all of this in a burst of research tonight, but I want to show the respect to this deeply important item that it deserves and perhaps even utilize some of its properties with proper practice and effort if that is at all possible. Any response at all would be helpful and thank you for your time.

    • Lee Kane, Editor Lee Kane, Editor on September 10, 2018 at 10:04 am

      Dear Chad, I’m hesitant to answer, as you really need advice from a qualified Tibetan Lama. However, I’m very similar to you in the respect that thirty years ago, I bought a Phurba (a small, inexpensive bronze one with a horse head); at the time I was Buddhist, but not a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner. Personally, I believe this is because of karma. For this reason, I spent many years seeking out teachers. I practised for 20 years before I received initiation in the wrathful enlightened deity of my Phurba. During all of that time, I displayed the Phurba (but only in my private room) with respect, without trying to use it. Your situation sounds similar. There’s probably no harm in having a Phurba, treated with respect, as long as you’re not using it for practice without permission of a teacher — or showing it off as a novelty to friends. It’s a wrathful implement, so 100% a teacher is required for practice. So, although I’m not a qualified teacher, I can speak with a little experience — similar to yours, perhaps
      So, I’ll answer as best I can. Thank you for treating a Dharma object with respect. A Phurba is a wrathful implement — in fact the MOST wrathful of all sacred dharma implements in Vajrayana. It is, in fact, more than that — it represents the deity itself. (That is, if you are a Tibetan Buddhist. If you are an art collector, it is probably okay to view it as beautiful art to be treated with respect — but I’d still ask a Lama about that! There’s karma attached to every action)
      Because it is a wrathful implement, it should ALWAYS be wrapped/covered with a Khata (silk scarf), if the altar is in a place where the uninitiated visit.
      This is why, at Sera Monastery, you’ll see that even for public blessing events — where the Phurba is used by a great empowered teacher to bless people (always using heads-end of the Phurba for blessings, not the tri-blade end) — the head and faces are covered in a blessed khata (silk scarf). The uninitiated are not supposed to see the faces of a consecrated Phurba — as the tradition goes. The Lama or Abbott touches the head of each devoted visitor with the wrapped phurba (handle-head end).
      There’s also a difference between a fully consecrated, blessed and used Phurba and one that is bought as “art” (just as there is between a consecrated Buddha statue and one that is unblessed.) So, there are three possible answers to your question, but I can’t really give you advice.
      If you feel drawn to the Phurba, you should seek out a Tibetan Buddhist teacher.
      Only he or she can give you proper advice. Regardless, please continue treating it with reverence and respect — ideally wrapping in a silk cloth. Since you probably don’t know if it’s consecrated or previously used in practice, you should treat it with extra respect, but it should not be actively used for any purpose other than, perhaps, display respectfully. There are people who collect Dharma objects as art. IF that is your purpose, display with respect (high shelf in a nice area.)
      If you are a Buddhist since it is “enlightened deity” in form — Phurba symbolizes the activity of all the Enlightened deities — it should be placed high and respectfully as you would a Buddha Statue or Dharma text. There’s no difference in that regard.
      Above all, it is not a knife to carry around and show-off to people. If you are treating it with respect as a Dharma object — versus as a collector of antiques — it should be treated as a sacred object. As such, don’t show it off to people, don’t display it anywhere so everyone can see. Typically, for example, wrathful deities (in particularly, consecrated statues, thangkas and wrathful implements) should be not be displayed for the uninitiated. However, your father could have acquired it new, as a collector piece, never previously used or consecrated, in which case, most people treat it as you would any Buddhist art — i.e. with respect, of course, but not as a practice implement.
      There are three possible things to think about (but I’m not qualified to give advice — only a Tibetan Buddhist teacher should):
      1. If you feel drawn, seek out a Tibetan teacher/ Lama to learn more. Phurba can represent more than one enlightened deity, but typically, as mentioned in the article, it’s either going to be Vajrakilaya or Hayagriva (there are some others, these are just the most likely). If you are comfortable with the teacher, follow his or her advice. (NOTE: if your phurba has a horse head on top of the three faces (or three horse heads) this would be Hayagriva — the wrathful emanation of Amitabha Buddha. If it has a half vajra crown (and no horse heads) it is more likely Vajrakilaya — the wrathful emanation of Vajrasattva Buddha. Vajrakilaya practice is a primary practice of the Sakya tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. His Holiness Sakya Trizin often gives Vajrakilaya empowerment. If your Phurba is Hayagriva, likely seek a Gelugpa tradition teacher and ask for Hayagriva initiation — although the teacher will likely recommend other practices first (foundation practices, lower tantric practices). It can take years to find a qualified teacher. It’s a higher tantric practice, so you’ll probably want to spend a few years with other practices (with a teacher’s guidance) before working with a Phurba.
      2. If you are an art collector, continue to treat with respect: place high and don’t use it for any other purpose: i.e. please don’t carry it around and show it as a novelty, etc. Ideally, still wrap in a silk cloth, but if you are not practicing, treat it as you would valuable art at least.
      3. Please do NOT self-teach yourself (or invent) a practice using the Phurba. In particular, I’d caution against some of the YouTube videos out there that appear to “teach” the Phurba’s use — they’re not genuine, and they’re quite misleading for the most part. Only a teacher of lineage can teach and empower the usage of a Purbha. It is not, for example, a ritual knife, as you might see in other traditions. The three heads are sacred embodiments of enlightened beings.

      If you do end up receiving initiation, likely — depending on the tradition — your teacher will consecrate/bless the Phurba. After this, the Phurba absolutely must be treated as deity, carefully wrapped. I hope this helps — and I wish you well on your spiritual quest. In kindness, Lee

      • Chad on September 10, 2018 at 4:16 pm

        Thank you for your thoughtful and in-depth response, Lee. At the point where I am in my life, I think that the category that best fits me at this point would be art collector in regards to this item. I hope that I will be able to find time later in life to seek out a teacher in the Vajrakilaya practice as my phurba has no horse heads and a half vajra crown. I will continue to treat it with respect and will attempt to obtain a silk cloth for it to be wrapped in as it sits on my desk. Is there meaning as to which face of the three between the wrathful, joyful and peaceful on the handle-head side of the phurba is facing towards the sky or towards the ground? If I’m going to solely display it at this point, I do wish to do so correctly.

        • Lee Kane, Editor Lee Kane, Editor on September 10, 2018 at 7:28 pm

          Dear Chad, That sounds respectful. As for the symbolism of the faces, that’s best left to detailed commentary from a qualified lineage teacher. After you receive the empowerment, usually you receive commentary or detailed instructions and have the opportunity to ask questions. For the purposes you describe, as a “collector” who is respectful, it is generally best practice to raise the deity higher than your own head, and the other things we discussed. In kindness, Lee

          • Chad on September 10, 2018 at 10:53 pm

            Thank you Lee, I will be sure to do so.



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