Among the rich artistry of Buddhism, one symbol stands out for its intriguing portrayal of divine union and the unity of opposites: Yab-Yum. It is straightforward to misinterpret the depiction of this union through our understanding of sexuality; however, this iconic representation holds a profound meaning that transcends conventional human sexuality. Instead, it serves as a visual metaphor for divine, cosmic sexuality, a union of duality at its core, where all opposites merge into a harmonious totality while retaining their individual essence.
It is necessary to note that depictions like Yab-Yum are conceptual in their intent and represent a more excellent essence of the Buddhist philosophy than what our conventions might allow us to perceive at first look. A person with no prior knowledge of Buddhist artistry and concepts can misread the depictions as mere sensual self-indulgence; however, they should not be interpreted literally or solely in a sexual context as their purpose is to convey profound spiritual teachings and concepts rather than physical relationships.
What is Yab-Yum?
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Yab-yum is a symbolic representation of the union between a male deity (yab) and a female deity (yum). The term itself originates from Tibet, where the word "yab" represents the masculine aspect, often referred to as the Father associated with wisdom and compassion, and "yum" represents the divine feminine, embodying the role of the Mother often associated with bliss and emptiness.
In artistic depictions, yab-yum is represented by a male deity in a seated position, often portrayed as a peaceful and enlightened Buddha or a deity like Vajrasattva, and a female deity sitting or standing in the lap of the male deity, embracing him. The female deity is often portrayed as a compassionate figure, such as the goddess Tara or the consort of the male deity.
The Spiritual Symbolism of Yab-Yum
An iconic image associated with tantra, the yab-yum position holds significant prominence within both Hindu and Buddhist tantric art. The posture transcends the boundaries of conventional human sexuality and delves into a realm of divine and cosmic union. At its core, the image embodies the concept of duality, therefore represented through the masculine and feminine union but gives direction towards a state of non-duality, or Advaita, where the illusion of separation dissolves, and a profound unity is experienced. It represents the profound understanding that existence arises from the interplay of opposites and that the ultimate reality encompasses both the manifest and the formless.
The yab-yum position signifies the merging and harmonizing of opposing forces. It represents the balance and integration of polarities within oneself and the universe. The masculine and feminine energies are seen as complementary aspects that together form a complete whole. In essence, the yab-yum symbolizes the union of wisdom and compassion, form and formlessness, masculine and feminine, and represents the inherent unity and interconnectedness of all things in the tantric worldview.
The fundamental concept of 'Advaita,' or non-duality within Yab-Yum
In Sanskrit, the term, advaita means non-duality. It is also a concept commonly associated with Advaita Vedanta but equally relevant in the profound teachings of tantra. To understand the concept of Advaita, one must carefully deconstruct the linguistic implication of the term Advaita or its English translation 'not-two-ness.' Here the words do not suggest becoming one or infusion; it does not imply a merging into homogeneity. Instead, it represents a state where separation, division, and the illusion of individual identity cease to exist while the diverse elements retain their inherent nature. It is a state of neither loss nor acquisition.
This understanding eludes the grasp of the rational mind, which can only comprehend the world in terms of singularity or plurality. Therefore, the yab-yum depiction of the union of a male and female deity highlights the fundamental principle that the apparent duality between self and other, subject and object, is illusory. It alludes to the understanding that the true nature of reality transcends dualistic distinctions signifying the inseparability and interdependence of the masculine and feminine energies, symbolizing the dissolution of all dualities but not infusing into a singularity.
Vajrasattva and his consort in Yab-Yum
Vajrasattva is the embodiment of purity and compassion and, in his solitary form, is a familiar subject in Buddhist art. However, although less frequently, Vajrasattva is depicted with his consort in the yab-yum posture, alluding to a profound father-mother aspect of Vajrasattva. In the Yab-Yum depiction, he is joined by his consort, Vajratopa or Vajragarvi. The consort is often depicted holding a Kartika in her right hand and a kapala in her left, symbolizing the transformative and nurturing aspects of the feminine principle.
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In the depiction, Vajrasattva embraces his consort, which symbolizes the inseparable union of wisdom and compassion. Seated upon his lap in a lotus posture, she envelops him with her entire being, signifying the complete integration of wisdom and compassionate action. Vajrasattva's consort is adorned in her usual with the five divine silks and eight jewel ornaments of a sambhogakaya deity embodying enlightened qualities. Additionally, her unconfined nature of wisdom is represented through her long black hair flowing freely down her back. While her two arms are tenderly placed around Vajrasattva's neck, she can also be seen holding a skull cup with nectar in her left hand and a vajra-handled curved knife in her right hand that symbolizes cutting through ignorance and duality.
Yamanataka and his consort in Yab-Yum
Yamanataka is the wrathful manifestation of the Bodhisattva Manjushri. Yamantaka's practice guides practitioners in transforming the Five Negative Afflictions—greed, delusion, hatred, jealousy, and pride—into positive wisdom. Often he can be seen assuming the yab-yum form with his consort, Yami.
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The two can be seen in a strong embrace or the yab-yum posture. Yami carries a skull cup filled with blood while Yamantaka, with his thirty-four hands, holds a specific tool or object and multiple legs. The items that each of them suggests a profound purpose. Among the thirty-four hands of Yamantaka, the first right-hand holds a ritual dagger, signifying the severance of duality and ignorance. The remaining right hands grasp objects with symbolic meanings, such as an ax, dart, pestle, harpoon, arrow, a skull cup, and Khatvanga blade. Each object represents Yamantaka's ability to overcome obstacles, destroy negativities, and pierce through misconceptions.
Samantabhadra and Samantabhadri in Yab-Yum
Literally known as the 'Universal Worthy' or the Primordial Buddha, Samantabhadra is one of the greatest Bodhisattva and embodies the compassionate being. He is often depicted assuming the yab-yum posture with his consort Samantabhadri, a dakini, and a female Buddha from Vajrayana Buddhist tradition. Samantabhadra and Samantabhadri embody the union of masculine and feminine energies, representing the inseparable qualities of wisdom and compassion.
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In these portrayals, Samantabhadra, the male deity, appears in deep blue, representing the vast expanse of the dharmakaya. He is depicted as naked and unadorned, embodying the inherent purity of consciousness and the innate awareness of the Buddha's mind. With his hands joined together, resting gently on his lap in the meditation mudra of emptiness, Samantabhadra signifies the profound realization of ultimate truth. His thirty-two major and eighty minor marks, typical of an enlightened Buddha, manifest his perfected qualities and signify his awakened state. Radiant golden rays of light emanate from his inner aura, illuminating the expanse of his wisdom and boundless compassion.
Samantabhadri beautifully complements his naked and unadorned form. Like Samantabhadra, she also appears in a state of pure nakedness, symbolizing the transcendence of conceptual fabrications and the essence of primordial purity. Gracefully seated on Samantabhadra's lap, their intimate union represents the profound integration of pure appearance and emptiness. With her head gently tilted to the left, Samantabhadri leans forward, delicately kissing Samantabhadra's lips. This tender gesture symbolizes the inseparability of wisdom and compassion and the merging of their enlightened qualities. Her flowing black hair cascades freely down her back, symbolizing the unhindered flow of primordial wisdom.