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The five buddha families

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Central to the principles of Vajrayana Buddhism is the conceptual assembly of the Five Buddhas or ‘Five Enlightened Families’ (Skt. panchakula; Tib. rigs-lnga), which are commonly but somewhat erroneously known as Dhyani Buddhas or ‘Buddhas of Meditation’. The Five Buddhas form the basis of the geometric mandala, occupying the central point and the four cardinal quadrants as the embodied emanations of their perfected qualities. The mandala’s axis of orientation traditionally follows the sun’s path, with east at the bottom (facing the viewer), and west at the top.

The Five Buddhas represent the purified manifestations of the five aggregates, elements, sense organs and sensory perceptions. Each Buddha is assigned a direction, a colour, a seed syllable, an animal throne, a consort, a progeny of Bodhisattvas and deities, a specific mudra, and a symbolic emblem or attribute. To this list are added an array of fivefold qualities, including the five tastes, phonetic sounds, precious substances, times of the day, and seasons (spring, summer, rainy season, autumn and winter). Essentially the Five Buddhas represent the transmutation of the five delusions or poisons (ignorance, desire, aversion, jealousy and pride), into the five transcendent wisdoms (all-pervading, discriminating, mirror-like, all-accomplishing, and equanimous).

These Five Buddhas are: Blue Akshobhya (centre or east): White Vairocana (east or centre): Yellow Ratnasambhava (south): Red Amitabha (west), and Green Amoghasiddhi (north). In different tantric systems the positions, aggregates and wisdom qualities of Vairocana and Akshobhya may be interchanged, with either Buddha occupying the central or eastern position. The ‘cult’ of Mahavairocana, the ‘Great Resplendent One’, was extremely popular in the early Chinese and later Japanese Buddhist traditions, and many of the early yogatantras have the peaceful white form of Vairocana as their central deity. Many of the later anuttarayogatantras of the semi-wrathful blue yidam deities, such as Hevajra, Guhyasamaja, Chakrasamvara, Vajrabhairava, Kalachakra, etc., have blue Akshobhya at their center, and the ‘cults’ of these Highest Yoga Tantra deities were essentially transmitted into Tibet through the lineages of the Indian Mahasiddhas.

The assembly of the Five Buddha Families evolved from an earlier concept of three Enlightened Families, which correspond to the three primary poisons of ignorance, desire and aversion. These three families are known as the Buddha or Tathagata Family (ignorance), the Lotus or Padma Family (desire), and the Vajra Family (aversion). The presiding deities of these three families are the Bodhisattvas Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara and Vajrapani, who collectively are known as the ‘Lords of the Three Families’ (Tib. rigs-gsum mgon-po). As the wisdom (transmuted ignorance), compassion (transmuted desire), and power (transmuted aggression) aspects of the Buddha, these three Bodhisattvas are hierarchically positioned at the zenith (Manjushri), center (Avalokiteshvara), and nadir (Vajrapani), to correspond to the trinities of body, speech and mind; greater, middle and lesser scopes; and to equate with the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. This spiritual hierarchy is often illustrated by depicting Manjushri above Avalokiteshvara and Vajrapani. The Buddha Families may also be expanded into a group of six by the inclusion of Vajrasattva or Vajradhara as the supreme ‘overlord’ (Adi Buddha) of all Five Buddha Families.

The evolution from the three to five or six families can be seen in the early Wheel of Life painting, where the three primary poisons of ignorance, desire and aversion are symbolically depicted in the central hub by a pig, cockerel and snake. These three poisons also characterize the three lower realms of animals, insatiable ghosts and hell beings, whilst the three upper realms are characterized by pride (gods), jealousy (asuras), and a combination of all five poisons (humans). The colours of the Five Buddhas also correspond to the five poisons, with the white of Vairocana symbolizing the transmutation of ignorance; the blue-black of Akshobhya, that of anger; the yellow of Ratnasambhava, that of pride; the red of Amitabha, that of desire; and the green of Amoghasiddhi, that of jealousy or envy. We have similar figures of speech in our proverbial comparisons of being ‘a blank with ignorance’; ‘blue or black with anger’; ‘yellow with swollen pride’; ‘red with desire’; and ‘green with envy’.

White Vairocana (Tib. rNam-par snang-mdzad), the ‘Illuminator’, is the Lord of the Tathagata (Buddha) Family of the centre or east. His consort is Locana, ‘She who can extinguish ignorance’, and his main Bodhisattva is Akashagarbha or Samantabhadra. Vairocana represents the aggregate of form (or consciousness), the element of water (or space), the poison of ignorance (or aversion), and mirror-like wisdom (or all-pervading wisdom). His mudra is the teaching gesture (dharmachakra-mudra) or the mudra of principal enlightenment (bodhyangi-mudra). His seed syllable is a white Om, which corresponds to the aspect of ‘body’ located at the crown. His emblem is a wheel (dharmachakra), and he is seated upon a dragon or lion throne. From Vairocana descend many major goddesses, such as: Ushnishavijaya, Marichi, Sitatapatra and Vajravarahi.

Blue Akshobhya (Tib. Mi-bskyod-pa), the ‘Unshakeable or Immutable’, is the Lord of the Vajra Family of the centre or east. His consort is Mamaki, ‘She who can extinguish hatred’, and his main Bodhisattva is Vajrapani. Akshobhya represents the aggregate of consciousness (or form), the element of space (or water), the poison of hatred and anger (or ignorance), and all-pervading wisdom (or mirror-like wisdom). His mudra is the earth-touching gesture (bhumyakramana). His seed syllable is a blue Hum, which correspond to the aspect of ‘mind’ located at the heart. His emblem is a vajra, and he is seated upon an elephant throne. From Akshobhya descends a pantheon of wrathful and semi-wrathful deities, such as: Guhyasamaja, Chakrasamvara, Hevajra, Yamari, Vajrabhairava, Vajrakila, Buddhakapala, Mahamaya and Kalachakra.

Yellow Ratnasambhava (Tib. Rin-chen ‘byung-gnas), the ‘Jewel Born’, is the Lord of the Ratna (Jewel) Family of the south. His consort is Vajradhatvishvari, ‘She who can extinguish pride’, and his main Bodhisattva is Kshitigarbha or Ratnapani. Ratnasambhava represents the aggregate of feeling, the element of earth, the poison of pride, and the wisdom of equanimity. His mudra is the boon-granting gesture of generosity (varada-mudra). His seed syllable is a yellow Tram, which corresponds to the aspect of ‘attributes’ located at the navel. His emblem is a jewel (ratna), and he is seated upon a horse or lion throne. From Ratnasambhava descend various wealth deities, such as Jambhala and Vasudhara.

Red Amitabha (Tib. 'Od dpag-med), the ‘Infinite light’, is the Lord of the Padma (Lotus) Family of the west. His consort is Pandara, ‘She who can extinguish desire’, and his main Bodhisattva is Padmapani Avalokiteshvara. Amitabha represents the aggregate of perception, the element of fire, and the wisdom of discrimination. His mudra is the meditation gesture (dhyana-mudra). His seed syllable is a red Hrih, which corresponds to the aspect of ‘speech’ located at the throat. His emblem is a lotus (padma), and he is seated upon a peacock throne. From Amitabha descend deities such as Avalokiteshvara, Hayagriva, Kurukulla, Bhrikuti, and certain forms of Tara.
Green Amoghasiddhi (Tib. Don-yod grub-pa), the ‘All Accomplishing’, is the Lord of the Karma (Action) Family of the north. His consort is Green Tara, ‘She who can extinguish jealousy’, and his main Bodhisattva is Vishvapani. Amoghasiddhi represents the aggregate of conditioning or motivational factors, the element of air, the poison of jealousy, and all-accomplishing wisdom. His mudra is the gesture of protection or fearlessness (abhaya-mudra). His seed syllable is a green A, which corresponds to the aspect of ‘activities’ located at the sexual center. His emblem is a crossed-vajra or sword, and he is seated upon a garuda throne. From Amoghasiddhi descend goddesses such as Khadiravani Tara, Arya Tara, Mahamayuri and Parnasabari.

The consorts of the Five Buddhas are known as the Five Mothers, and traditionally four of these Mothers are depicted upon the inter-cardinal lotus petals of the mandala’s central dais. White Locana (Tib. sPyan-ma), as the consort or prajna of Vairocana, is usually assigned to the southeast, and her seed syllable is a white Lam. Blue Mamaki (Tib. Ma-ma-ki), as the prajna of Akshobhya, is usually assigned to the southwest, and her seed syllable is a blue Mam. Red Pandara (Tib. Gos-dkar-mo), as the prajna of Amitabha, is usually assigned to the northwest, and her seed syllable is a red Pam. Green Tara (Tib. sGrol-ljang), as the prajna of Amoghasiddhi, is usually assigned to the northeast, and her seed syllable is a green Tam. The fifth Mother, yellow Vajradhatvishvari (Tib. rDo-rje dbyings-phyug-ma), as the prajna of Ratnasambhava, is usually assigned to the central position of the mandala, where as the ‘Mistress of the vajra realm’ she may also become the golden consort of Manjuvajra, or the blue consort of Guhyasamaja.

When a deity from a particular Buddha Family occupies the central position of a mandala, then the presiding deity of the mandala’s centre (Vairocana or Akshobhya) moves to occupy the directional quadrant to which that deity is usually assigned. For example; when Avalokiteshvara occupies the centre of the mandala, then white Vairocana moves to the western quadrant of red Amitabha, since Amitabha is the Lord of the Padma Family to which Avalokiteshvara belongs.
The Five Buddhas also correspond to the five main chakras of the subtle body, with white Vairocana at the crown, red Amitabha at the throat, blue Akshobhya at the heart, yellow Ratnasambhava at the navel, and green Amoghasiddhi at the sexual center. Here they correspond to the body, speech, mind, qualities and activities of the deity, which are represented by the syllables Om A Hum Sva Ha. These five syllables are traditionally inscribed on the back of thangkas behind the axial chakra points of the main or central deity.

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