The Phurba 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.
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 Himalayas. “The blade of the phurba is used for the destruction of demonic powers. The top end of the phurba is used by the tantrics for blessings.”
Phurba Very Profound — Unlike its Portrayals in Movies
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.
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.
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.”
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. “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”
Wrathful Power and Peaceful Together?
Wrathful and peaceful together? It is true that the Phurba is the penultimate wrathful implement. Externally, its triune blade can suppress 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.
So, Phurba is a balanced implement. The handle, with its 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.
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.
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…”
Later, while in Katmandu valley, the Lotus Born Padmasambhava had difficulty in the caves with demonic maras. To counteract this, he asked that the Phurba 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.
The Awesome Wrathful Deities of the 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
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.
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.
Its 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.
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, and 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 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.”
Regardless of one face or three, or which deity, we must respect the Phurba as we would a deity — thinking of it as a Nirmanikaya emanation of an Enlightened deity.
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.
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.
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
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 represents 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 its rage. Such is the power of Hayagriva, who is none other than 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.
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.
The Handle: Vajra or Knots
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 color thread. In a Nyingma text from the “Norther Treasure Tradition”, it is stated that “samsara and nirvana are enclosed within the vast knots 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 charnel 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 molds 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 teachers, have revived the true craft.
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)
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 nemesis 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 purpose where we might see a Phurba: “The phurba is a common attribute of many Nyingma lineage holders and terons 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, which 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”.”
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.
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 (Akasha 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.
Similar practices are still conducted in Tibet, in a ritual to find the precise “location of the ‘serpent-tailed earth deity’ 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.’”
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.