The Five Buddha Families, by Francesca Fremantle

The_Dhyani_Buddha_Akshobhya',_Tibetan_thangka,_late_13th_century,_Honolulu_Academy_of_Arts wikipedia.orgIt is possible to look at our whole life—our experience and our mind—as a mandala. The mandala is a ground of possible transformation, and the mandala of samsara—the confused, chaotic, basic ground—is also the mandala of nirvana. Tantra says that samsara and nirvana are one, that there is no difference—the very same energy which is distorted, confused and cloudy, and which generates the samsaric world, can be the pure, vibrant colours of the enlightened Buddha wisdom.

The Buddha wisdom, which is beyond imagination, naturally appears in the mandala in the five different kinds of enlightenment, or five wisdoms. This is known as the five Buddha families. These five contain the possibility of both confusion and wisdom, samsara and enlightenment. We can see every single aspect of life in terms of these five families—emotions, thoughts, environment, nature, living beings, art, music, colours, jobs that people do, organisations, every kind of thing that you could think of. This is a way of seeing the Buddha-nature in absolutely everything, and the potentialities for waking up through every event that comes into our lives. This is the whole point of looking at the world in this kind of way—it is to really get us into the frame of mind of realising that nothing is irrelevant to the path. Every single thing—whether it is pleasant or unpleasant, painful or happy—can be used as part of the path, can help wake us up, and inherently has the qualities of wisdom.

The basis of the mandala is primordial basic ignorance, the ignoring of our true nature. This is how the whole mess that we have got ourselves into started, by a little seed of ignorance, by refusing to dance with the natural play of energy. Nobody actually knows how this started or why, it is just the basis of our present situation—a kind of cloudy ignoring, which spreads through the whole samsaric mandala and provides the basic ground for it. At the same time, this ignorance is extremely intelligent.

Imagine what intelligence it takes to decide to ignore reality and to gradually build up the whole fantastically complicated structure of personality, individuality and egohood! And it goes on deliberately ignoring things as they are, deliberately cutting itself off and thinking it is one thing in opposition to everything else, building up this whole magnificent, wonderful edifice of human beings. This energy of intelligence, however, might just as well be put to good use, and turned into wisdom and enlightenment. That is the whole dynamic behind the mandala. This same energy could just as well be enlightenment and is, in fact, but we don’t realise it.

Japanese mandala of the Five Dhyani BuddhasIn a sense, the five Buddha families are neutral. Although we call them the Buddha families and the enlightened families, they are just neutral things as they are. They are identified by the five different colours of white, blue, yellow, red and green. This is why these colours are so important in Vajrayana art. Whenever you see these five colours they remind you of the five kinds of wisdom.

The mandala is a big circle in the centre of which is a small circle, and this is then divided into four quarters in the four directions. This is the basic structure of all mandalas.

The circle in the centre could be called either the first or the last. I will refer to it as the first one. It is a kind of intensification of ignorance. At the centre of The Wheel of Life we have the three kleshas—ignorance, grasping and aversion. The Tantric version of this is a kind of intensification of these three plus another two which have grown out of them.

The family in the centre is called the Buddha family or the Tathagata family because it is the first basic one of all the Buddha families. And it has this quality of intelligence which has decided to ignore the situation and turn itself into ignorance. In its positive aspect it is very open, meditative, calm, peaceful. Above all it has a spacious, open quality, like the element of space. The mind is compared to open space, clear and pure. When it is distorted, however, in its negative aspect, it becomes cloudy and turbulent, ignorant, confused. And this becomes more intense in Tantra. Instead of the word `avidya meaning `ignorance’, we use the word `moha‘ which is more than just ignorance; it is delusion or illusion. Rather than just ignoring the situation, the mind has by now actually manufactured deceptions in order to persuade itself that this ignorance is justified and good, and this is a basic feature. It is what lies behind all the other kleshas or poisons, all of them depend on this basic ignorance.

These five families, by the way, are often used as a kind of Buddhist psychology, and people are often anxious to know which family they belong to. The point is, however, we contain all of these five qualities in the way that enlightenment is one and indivisible. It is true that some people manifest much more in one particular way than another, and usually we go through different phases. We might go through different characteristics many times in one day. On the other hand, one quality might persist over a longer time.

This particular aspect of samsaric ignorance would make a person very laid-back, lazy, slow, perhaps lethargic. There is also the quality of not wanting to be open to situations—the telephone or door bell rings and you just don’t want to know who it is, however important it might be, you don’t want anything to do with it. Or if there is a sudden noise in the street you might decide to ignore it. This has something to do with the animal quality in the six realms, the quality of not being fully conscious, of not being self-conscious. Deciding to stay in bed all day instead of getting up to face the world is another example of this. All of these sorts of things come into the quality of ignorance. At the same time there is always the possibility of suddenly flipping over to the other side where there is this vast openness and spaciousness which is open to all possibilities—the enlightened side.

There is a particular Buddha-wisdom connected with this called the dharmadhatu wisdom. The dharmadhatu is the totality of everything that exists. Dharma can be interpreted in two ways—either as the truth, the law, or as the totalities of all the dharmas, which are the basic elements of existence. And dharmadhatu really contains both of these meanings. Sometimes it is called `the realm of truth’ or `the level of truth’. Dhatu means something like a level, dimension, realm or sphere of truth, or a reality, things as they are. Trungpa Rinpoche called it `the all-encompassing space’ because it is the element of space and contains everything, contains all existence. So this is the wisdom of the dharmadhatu. This word `wisdom’ means, perhaps, `gnosis’; it is knowledge which is nondualistic, knowledge which is completely one with the thing it knows, complete understanding, complete absorption into that knowledge. It is usually translated as `the five wisdoms’ which sounds nicer than `the five knowledges’, the wisdom of all-encompassing space.

Japanise Dainichi Nyorai Unkei Enjoji (Vairocana) wikipedia.orgThe Buddha who is pictured in the centre of the mandala, is Vairochana. His name means The Irradiating One, The One Who Sheds Light All Around. He is white. The realm of space in the centre is blue because blue is the colour of space. So we have two colours there—blue and white.

When you meditate on a mandala, you are always placed in the centre of it. And you sit facing the east. Then you go around clockwise. If you think of a mandala hanging on the wall in front of you, east will be at the bottom. The colour there is again blue and white. The Buddha Akshobhya is blue, but the circle that he sits in is white, symbolising water. This is called `the Vajra family’. Vajra means the hardest kind of stone; it can be used to signify both diamond and the thunderbolt, and contains the qualities of both. Diamond is bright; it is the stone that can cut any other stone, and is brilliant and pure. The thunderbolt is immensely powerful. Together they give the idea of indestructibility—brilliant, pure, powerful, indestructible nature. This might seem incompatible with Buddhist ideas, something that is indestructible, immovable and unchanging. But the name of Akshobhya, the Buddha here, means The Immovable, The Unshakeable. He is also connected with the bodhisattva called Vajrasattva whose name means Indestructible Being.

This is a very important concept in Vajrayana based on the awareness of emptiness and nonself. It is only when you realise the nonexistence of self, personality or individuality, that there can be genuine being, genuine presence. One can feel this in meditation. Paradoxically, the less sense of `me’ there is, the greater sense of actual reality and being, and this is the beginning of Vajra-being, Indestructible Being.

This Vajra, then, in the case of this family, is very sharp and cutting; it is almost like a sword, and very hard. It also has an intellectual quality. The quality of this Buddha family for instance would apply to all intellectual pursuits, and all activities that bring in thinking, logic and reasoning. It is sharp, clear and precise; it has the clarity and brilliance of the diamond. People with this quality usually have very logical, sharp minds and clear ways of looking at the world. At the same time this clarity can become hard and cutting and can turn into hatred and anger, and this is the poison, the klesha, of this family. Basically, it is a kind of divisiveness, enmity, that kind of thing. It has the ideas of anger, hatred and aggression within it.

The five qualities, by the way, really cover the whole range of possibilities of emotions; it is just that they are divided into five, so we have to think of a very wide spectrum of emotion with each one of them.

We often think of anger as hot and fiery, but if you look into it carefully it is quite easy to see how anger and hatred can be based on this intellectual quality and can have a very clear, logical quality to it as well. It is easy to switch from one to the other. The element connected with this family is water. When it is cloudy and turbulent with waves, it is like the cloudiness of anger, the confusion which anger and hatred brings into our minds. When it is calm and clear, on the other hand, it is like a mirror reflecting everything very accurately.

The wisdom connected with this family is called `the mirror-like wisdom’. This is a kind of knowledge, an understanding of everything without judgement, condemnation, praise or blame; it simply reflects everything very accurately, very clearly without reacting in any way. That is the second Buddha family.

Buddha Ratnasambhava Central Tibet, a Kadampa Monastery, 1150-1225 Los Angeles County Museum of Art . wikipedia.orgThe third Buddha family on one’s right hand—or on the left going round clockwise if you are looking at the mandala up on the wall—is called the Ratna family, and this means `jewel’. Its colour is yellow, and the Buddha here is referred to as Ratnasambhava which means A Mine of Jewels or A Birthplace of Jewels. Jewels not only refers to the three jewels of Buddhism, it also stands for every kind of spiritual and material wealth, all kinds of riches, pleasures and beautiful and precious things in life. Anyone connected with this family will have a feeling of richness and generosity about them. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are rich; they may simply want to share whatever they have, even if they have nothing. Such people have very generous, extrovert kinds of personalities.

This Buddha family is connected with the earth. It is like the earth herself who welcomes everyone who lives on her and doesn’t complain at what we do, she just patiently bears everything. The colour is yellow, and this indicates all kinds of richness—gold, sunshine, butter, honey, all kinds of lovely golden, rich and ripe things. And the Buddha Ratnasambhava sits with the gesture of giving.

The distorted or negative qualities of Ratna would be possessiveness because of all this richness. It is actually called `pride’, and is a sort of pride or arrogance mixed up with possessiveness. It still has the quality of generosity. Very proud, rich people might, for example, want to impose their wealth on others. They might go around giving presents whether they are wanted or not, totally oblivious to other people’s feelings of humiliation. Or an extremely generous, warm-hearted person might want to feed everyone and keep inviting them to dinner, absolutely stuffing them with food and be very offended if they don’t take more. The negative and the positive qualities are, of course, completely mixed up.

In life every negative thing has a positive side, and every positive quality has a possible negative side which often comes from just overdoing it. It can be described as a wave of honey coming towards you. We may like a little honey, but we don’t want to be completely swamped in an ocean of it. Or, we could liken it to ripe fruit which becomes over-ripe and rots. There are all kinds of similes one could use.

We can see this Ratna quality in nature and in all kinds of things. It is connected with the ripeness of summer. Probably in our climate it would be better if it was connected with autumn. The wisdom here is called `sameness’, which is its literal meaning. And this refers to the fact that everything is based on the same enlightened essence, that everything shares the same basic nature. It could also be translated as `equality’ or `equanimity’. It has these two sides—seeing the equality and the same nature in everything, and the one quality of enlightenment in everyone and everything, and also equanimity when applied to ones mind—looking on everything with equal-mindedness.

The next one is visualised behind one, or at the top of the mandala in the west. The Buddha of the west is Amitabha, and its colour is red. He is also red and is connected with the element of fire. This whole family is called The Lotus Family, Padma, which is a red lotus. And the lotus flower has particular symbolism. It grows out of a muddy swamp but blooms completely pure, completely beautiful, untouched by the mud. On its own the lotus is a symbol of enlightenment which comes out of samsara. It couldn’t grow or flower without the mud of samsara, so the slimy mud is absolutely necessary for the beautiful flowering of the lotus.

Buddha Amitābha in Tibetan Buddhism, traditional Thangka. wikipedia.orgThe lotus is the seat of most of the deities, both in Hinduism and Buddhism, so it is a symbol of creative power, the sort of pure womb from which the deities arise. The great guru Padmasambhava took Buddhism from India to Tibet—his name means `born from a lotus’ and the legend is that he appeared as an eight year old child in the centre of a lotus on a lake. The lotus, then, is the sort of creative, warm, compassionate aspect of Buddhahood. The emotion associated with it is desire or passion, a kind of intensification of trishna, grasping or thirst. It actually covers the whole range of emotions connected with this—love, grasping, wanting, lust and desire. Any kind of passionate warmth of feeling comes into this. It therefore has enormously positive qualities as well as very obvious negative ones. We could not, in fact, be here without basic love or desire. The whole universe continues through the power of love. But love is really a neutral quality. We think of desire and lust as something evil or, particularly in Buddhism, as something undesirable, but desire also fuels our practice, our longing for enlightenment, so it is an extremely positive quality.

I think this is one of the easiest families in which to see the close relationship between the confused or samsaric aspect and the enlightened aspect. Love and desire are so fundamental to our nature. The element of fire both warms and gives us light. The name Amitabha means Limitless Light. Another aspect of him is called Amitayus, Limitless Life, Eternal Life. So this family is very important and most people seem to have a great affinity with it.

One idea behind this whole theory of the five families is that we each have a particular affinity with one or another of them, and it is through connecting with this that we can become enlightened in Tantric practice. That is why in the Book of the Dead, the bardo [the in-between state] is actually something that is happening to us every moment. It is not just after death that these five Buddha-principles appear to us. What that means is that, in fact, the whole range of enlightenment is waiting to receive us and shine into our hearts at any moment, and awaken in our hearts. We will actually get in touch with it or merge with it through the particular quality that we have an affinity with.

Suppose there are five people waiting to welcome you at a party. If you already know one of them, you will probably go to that person. Or, if you have never seen any of them before, you might take a liking to one and go towards that person rather than any of the others. So it is with the qualities of enlightenment. We will respond to one of them more than the others.

I have not yet decided on a proper translation to mean the wisdom of Amitabha. In Sanskrit it is pratyavekshana which actually means `looking down onto or into things in detail’. The implications of this wisdom is that you have a tremendous curiosity and love of all the different things and people on earth, and you investigate and look into everything. If we are curious about something, it means that we like or love it. People don’t usually take the trouble to investigate something they are not fond of. It therefore includes the qualities of caring.

There is a little difference between the Tibetan and Sanskrit words for this wisdom. In Sanskrit it usually means something like `investigation’ or `enquiry’, but it also has a definite sense of caring and looking after, a looking into something, and this connects with the compassion of Amitabha. This idea does not come across in the Tibetan which means something like `the separateness’, `the difference of things’, so it means understanding or looking into different things. This has very often been translated as `discriminating wisdom’, but I don’t like that very much. Govinda translated it as `distinguishing wisdom’ and perhaps that would be a good way. There does not, however, seem to be any word which combines the caring and warm aspect of it. I don’t know whether I have managed to explain what lies behind it. It basically means `to appreciate the different qualities of everything’.

All the wisdoms bring out a different aspect of relationship. The Dharmadhatu wisdom is all-inclusive, it contains everything; the mirror-like wisdom sees with great clarity; the wisdom of equanimity, equality, sees the underlying sameness of everything; and, in contrast, distinguishing wisdom appreciates the different qualities of everything.

Finally, the fifth Buddha family, the last one in the north—which is on one’s left hand—has the colour green and is connected with action. The wisdom is called `the action-accomplishing wisdom’. The element is air or wind and has the quality of movement and action. It is also connected with life itself because air, our breath, is the most essential thing in life. Like wind, it goes everywhere and pokes itself into every corner. Also, it is restless, always moving. The positive aspect of this family is that it will always be able to accomplish whatever it sets out to do—the opposite of the laziness and ignorance of the first family. It will always stir itself and stir other people, and be ready to act whenever action is necessary. The negative aspect, however, is envy or jealousy and is connected with ambition. In extreme cases it can become a kind of paranoia. It is connected with the idea that `I have to accomplish something, but perhaps someone else is going to do it first or do it better, or perhaps I won’t be able to accomplish it’. This is when all negative qualities could be seen as lacking confidence in one’s positive qualities, or when one’s positive qualities somehow seem to disappear or let you down. This is the case with envy, the poison of envy. You think everyone else is having a better time than you, getting more than you, or getting promoted instead of you. You feel you will never be able to finish what you have set out to do, or that everyone is out to get you. That is the paranoia aspect of it.

Ancient sculpture of the buddha Amoghasiddhi. Borobudur, Central Java, Indonesia.  wikipedia.orgThe name of the Buddha here is Amoghasiddhi whose name means `unfailing, infallible success’. So, this is the quality that arises from Bodhisattva action—absolutely correct, spontaneous action which cannot help but succeed in its objective. This is the action of Amoghasiddhi.

His gesture is of fearlessness. Many deities make this gesture with one hand, usually with their left hand, and the gesture of giving with their right hand. Fearlessness takes away the fear of losing out, of paranoia and envy. It completely does away with the need for jealousy because you know that you are complete in yourself and will have total success. The green colour which we usually connect with life is very appropriate. Green should be the colour of air and wind, I think, although of course air and wind has no colour of its own. But to me it gives the idea of hearing the wind rustling through the leaves or over long grass. Wind does seem to have a green sound somehow, so it seems very appropriate. Everything that is alive, all the greenness of nature grows and moves; it is never static. If it is static, if it dies, then it immediately loses its green colour. So, green is a very good colour for life.

The point is to recognise the five qualities in ourselves and to realise that all of our negative emotions can be transmuted into wisdom. It takes a lot of practice, of course, to even begin to have a glimpse of what that means. Still, just to think about this mandala principle can give tremendous hope, and to realise that enlightenment has no other basis than what we are now. Enlightenment does not come from anywhere else; it grows like the lotus out of our own mud. These very qualities that we have in ourselves and that so often manifest in a negative way as the five poisons can equally manifest in a positive way as all the good qualities of the families and can be transformed into wisdom. Sometimes, if you are in the grip of a very intense form of emotion, like intense sudden anger or intense passion, for example, you can catch a glimpse of the pure energy behind that, and also catch a glimpse of the wisdom that lies behind it. The practices of the Higher Tantras are deliberately concerned with using these emotions, arousing these emotions in a purely interior way, and working with that energy.

Q. Can I ask how this connects with emptiness?

A. The whole thing is based on emptiness. Emptiness is inseparable from luminosity. This is what it says in the Tantras. There is a beautiful passage in the Book of the Dead where it describes how, at the moment of death, your consciousness sinks right down into your pure, basic mind. Then it says that this mind is emptiness. But it is not blank. It is radiant, vibrant, vivid luminosity.

In Indian thought the mind has always been described as being made of light—consciousness in light. We cannot appreciate the pure quality of this light, however, without first experiencing emptiness. We have cluttered up this light. We have confused the clear, pure qualities of this light and the empty quality of space; we have frozen it, cluttered it up and dimmed the light. Practice always has to go through emptiness first, and then see that emptiness is formless yet all potentiality, luminosity. All these colours then sparkle out from the luminosity, which is the idea that everything arises out of this clear space of mind.

All visualisations start from emptiness and then at the end are dissolved back into emptiness. Emptiness therefore is the source and the ending, the underlying essence of everything. Emptiness without the luminosity, however, would just be something dead, sterile and very boring.


All the five Buddhas are sitting cross-legged and have a specific gesture. Vairochana in the centre makes a gesture of teaching, turning the wheel of the Dharma, and the fact that he is in the centre symbolises the wheel of Dharma. The Vajra family, the symbol is the vajra is derived from the ancient Indian symbolism of a thunderbolt. It is like a round ball of thunder with five sparks of lightning coming out from each end. These five prongs also symbolise the five Buddha families.

All these families contain all the other qualities within them; they are a kind of infinite regression like mirrors reflecting each other, and cannot be separated. It is purely for the convenience of our imaginations that we separate enlightenment into these five qualities. They are totally interconnected, and each one contains all the others, and that is symbolised by the five-pronged vajra of the Vajra family.

Akshobhya of the Vajra family is sitting with the earth-touching gesture, which is what the Buddha did after Mara had attacked him. He touched the earth as a witness that he had not been shaken by all these temptations of Mara. That is why his name means The Unshakeable One.

From a talk given at the Buddhist Publishing Group Leicester Summer School in August 1994. Francesca Fremantle received her doctorate from the SOAS University. Her translations include Luminous Emptiness and The Tibetan Book of the Dead.

First published in the February 2004 Buddhism Now.

You can read more articles by Francesca Fremantle here.

Categories: Art, Buddhism, Encyclopedia, Francesca Fremantle, Tibetan, Tibetan Buddhism

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5 replies

  1. I feel like I should be looking at an image that isn’t here.

  2. All of our negative emotions can be transmuted into wisdom.

  3. If everything is connected with emptiness then can Dharma be also connected with emptiness?
    Thank You


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