Long, long ago, before the idea
called history evolved, there existed a sexless
entity called the Adi-Buddha or Primordial Buddha.
From ‘Him’ emerged the duality which
was to be the potential progenitor of all creation.
This dual element is visualized in Buddhist aesthetics
either as the deity Vajrasattva or Vajradhara.
significant characteristic common to them is the
bell (female) and thunderbolt (male), which they
hold in their hands. These deities are believed
to be two expressions of the same principle, and
the wellspring of all creation.
The above hierarchy is essentially
spiritual. It represents an idealized abstract state,
graspable only to those on an elevated mental plane.
Ordinary mortals like us, require some kind of a
concrete expression to bring forth a heartfelt response.
In Buddhism, the path to spiritual
salvation is not envisioned as some lofty abstract
journey, rather it is stressed that the attainment
of enlightenment involves a profound transformation
in our innermost being. But how is such a dramatic
transformation to come about? The answer is said
to lie within those very inherent negative traits
which keep us spiritually imprisoned and unfulfilled.
The same knotted energy that feeds the poisonous
delusions, when unknotted, empowers and enlightens
In its typical penchant for
classification and categorization, Vajrayana Buddhism
divides the negative delusions plaguing the human
form into five categories. These are: ignorance,
anger, pride, attachment, and jealousy. They are
said to be the sum total of all factors which keep
us away from enlightenment. But hope lies in the
belief that the human mind holds within itself the
potential to metamorphose these negative traits
into positive attributes. In a supreme moment of
creative inspiration, which can be counted amongst
the highest achievements in the history of human
aesthetic instinct, these transformed emotions are
visualized as five different, beautiful and resplendent
Buddhas. Invariably seated upon their auspicious
lotus thrones, they are known collectively as the
Dhyani Buddhas. This is in consistency with their
iconographic representations, where they are inevitably
shown seated in the posture of meditation, known
in Sanskrit as Dhyana. They are also known as ‘jina,’
meaning victory, signifying a conceptual victory
over our unenlightened minds.
the five Dhyani Buddhas are said to have originated
from Vajrasattva himself. But it needs to be appreciated
here, that though they have all sprung from the
same spiritual father, these Buddhas nevertheless
have important physical differences. For example,
each displays a different hand mudra, is associated
with a different direction, rides a different animal,
denotes a particular moment in the life of the historical
Buddha, and has a different color.
The last is a unique contribution
to the aesthetic heritage which is shared by all
humanity. Indeed, the link between our negative
emotions, and the positive qualities into which
the Dhyani Buddhas transform them can be illustrated
most directly through the medium and experience
of color. It is well known that changing the color
of our surroundings can have a profound effect on
our state of mind. Color also expresses our emotions,
as when we say that we are green with envy or feeling
blue. Color is logically thus one of the significant
means through which Buddhist art gives a tangible
form to human emotions and nowhere is this more
explicitly displayed than in the typical iconography
of the five Dhyani Buddhas.
Each of the five Buddhas first
identifies a specific human failing and then helps
us in transforming it into a positive attribute,
bringing about the spiritual evolution required
for enlightenment. How they inspire us to achieve
this transition through their traditional iconography
is discussed below.
The five Dhyani Buddhas are:
In the Rigveda (the world’s
earliest codified text) the word ‘vairochana’
has the connotation of a brilliant and luminous
sun. Indeed, Vairochana in Tibetan is called ‘Namnang,
meaning ‘The illuminator.’
displays the Dharmachakra mudra. Dharmachakra in
Sanskrit means the 'Wheel of Dharma'. This mudra
symbolizes one of the most important moments in
the historical life of the Buddha, the occasion
when he preached to his companions the first sermon
after his Enlightenment in the Deer Park at Sarnath.
It thus denotes the setting into motion of the Wheel
of the teaching of the Dharma.
is an idealization of this central function of the
Buddha as a teacher, without which there would have
been no Buddhism, and no path to enlightenment open
The wheel he is conceptually
turning was once a solar symbol in ancient India
and later came to be a signifier of kinghood. The
logical reasoning being that as the sun is the originator
and nourisher of the earth, so is a king to his
people. Also consistent with this context is the
fact that Vairochana is said to rule from the center
of the world, with the complete Vajrayana pantheon
(including the other four Dhyani Buddhas) arrayed
around him. Similarly, the sun too is the center
of the solar system; likewise a king is the de facto
center of his domain.
Significantly, Vairochana is
said to be the sum of all the Dhyani Buddhas and
combines all their qualities. He is therefore, pure
white, since white is a blend of all colors.
Indeed, his lotus seat is supported
by a pair of two great lions. The lion is the king
of beasts and when he roars all others fall silent.
Similar is the roar of Buddha’s teachings,
in relation to the grandeur of which all other voices
of our everyday life become insignificant and fall
silent. Not surprisingly, meditating on the image
of Vairochana is specifically believed to transform
the delusion of ignorance into the wisdom preached
by the Dharma. When Gautama Buddha turned the wheel
of the Dharma, it illuminated (like a sun), the
hearts of men and women darkened by ignorance.
emblem is the golden or solar wheel.
According to the Tibetan Dhammapada:
Those who control their
wrath when it rears up
As they would a horse when it strays loose,
I call ‘the best trainers,’
those who do not, are common beings.
Akshobhya is believed to transform
the human failing of anger into a clear mirror-like
wisdom. With this wisdom, we see things just as
they are, impartially and unaffectedly. Indeed,
whether it be a red rose or a bloody dagger, a mirror
will reflect both just as they are. It will not
be judgmental and distinguish between the two reds,
attempting to hold to the first and flee from the
second. No reflection in a mirror sticks to it,
and none repels it. The mirror always stands imperturbable
and immutable, just as we should, whether the circumstances
be favorable or unfavorable to us.
Akshobhya’s blue color
is closely linked to the mirror symbolism. Blue
is the color of water, and water has the capacity
to act as a clear mirror.
makes the Bhumisparsha mudra (earth touching gesture).
This gesture recalls the incident just before Buddha’s
enlightenment when he was challenged by Mara, the
personification of evil. Mara was convinced that
the spiritual throne where Buddha was sitting belonged
rightly to him. Accordingly he challenged Buddha
to prove his claim to the seat. Buddha moved his
hand to touch the ground with his fingertips, and
thus bid the goddess Earth to bear witness to his
right to be sitting where he was. She did so with
a hundred thousand roars, and validated Buddha’s
More relevant to our interest
here is the fact that this gesture suggests confidence,
deep-rootedness, and the same kind of determination
which carried the Buddha to his enlightenment, inspite
of the numerous hurdles which crossed his path.
Akshobhya’s emblem is
the vajra. The Vajra is the quintessential symbol
of Vajrayana Buddhism, which derives its name from
the vajra itself. The Sanskrit term vajra means
'the hard or mighty one', and its Tibetan equivalent
dorje means an indestructible hardness and brilliance
like the diamond, which cannot be cut or broken.
The vajra essentially signifies the immovable, immutable,
indivisible, and indestructible state of enlightenment.
Thus is Akshobhya touching the earth with the fingertips
of his right hand, the earth too being a symbol
of the immutable, the solid, and the concrete.
Akshobhya’s mount is the
elephant. An elephant places its foot upon the earth
with unshakeable certainty. It has the same unalterable
quality as the Buddha’s fingers touching the
ground, and the same determination that carried
Buddha through his tribulations.
Akshobhya is considered the ruler
over the eastern direction. It is the direction
where dawn takes place. Indeed, Buddha’s victory
over Mara heralded the dawning of a new, spiritual
means ‘Born from the Jewel,’ ‘ratna’
signifying jewel in Sanskrit.
Ratnasambhava is believed to
transform the negative human trait of pride into
the wisdom of sameness. This wisdom brings out the
common features of human experience and makes us
see the common humanity underlying all men and women.
It makes us see ourselves as fellow-beings, organically
united to the total stream of humanity. In this
state of enlightenment, there is nobody superior
or inferior to the other, leaving no scope for pride
Ratnasambhava displays the Varada
This mudra symbolizes charity
and boon granting. Indeed his distinct emblem is
a jewel (ratna), associating him with riches and
Ratnasambhava is sometimes described as the Buddha
of giving. But he makes no distinction and gives
freely to all (the wisdom of sameness). All beings
are equally precious to him. Whatever our social
position, race, sex, or life form, we are all made
from a common clay. The grace of Ratnasambhava shines
equally on the palace and dung heap. Meditating
on his wisdom we develop solidarity with all humanity,
nay with all forms of life.
The wisdom of sameness gives
us the clarity of mind to perceive in the correct
perspective, the eight experiences, arranged into
four pairs. These are gain and loss, fame and disgrace,
praise and blame, and pleasure and pain. These experiences
always come in pairs. If we chase one we will lay
ourselves open to the other. For example, if we
pursue pleasure, we will undoubtedly at some time
experience pain too. This is a spiritual expression
of Newton’s third law of dynamics namely that
‘each and every action in the universe has
an equal and opposite reaction.’
Ratnasambhava’s color is
yellow. This is the color of the earth. The earth
too is extremely generous in sharing with us her
riches. Also she gives without any expectation or
favor in return. She gives and also receives all
equally. The earth is thus the great leveler. Similarly,
Ratnasambhava’s radiance dissolves all boundaries
of self and the other. We can then just share with
others – without any associated sense of giving,
because giving requires a ‘self’ to
give and ‘others’ to receive, a duality
which Ratnasambhava helps us transcend.
The animal associated with Ratnasambhava
is the horse, who ferries over the suffering beings
with full vigor. It also suggests a journey, a spiritual
voyage such as that on which the Buddha-to-be set
forth when he left his life at home, riding on his
In Tibetan art, the horse is
often shown carrying jewels on its back. This is
a further reinforcement of its relation with Ratnasambhava.
Ratnasambhava guards over the
direction south. The sun is in the south at noon-time.
Its rays are then a light-golden-yellow, the hue
of Ratnasambhava himself.
is undoubtedly the most well known and popular of
the five Dhyani Buddhas. He is red in color. In
Tibetan Buddhism, red is the color of love, compassion,
and emotional energy.
His direction is the west. It
is in this direction that sunset takes place and
indeed he is envisioned as the setting sun (red).
During sunset, the sun is gentle, and we can directly
look into its fierce power, without coming to any
harm. As it disappears into the west, the sun is
like a proud and fierce king, who at the end of
a hard day of rigid protocol turns gentle and jovial,
and allows anyone to approach him. Amitabha is thus
the supreme power and energy of nature, cast on
an earthly plain, accessible to all of us. No wonder
he is the most popular of all Dhyani Buddhas.
His unique emblem is the lotus. He is thus associated
with all the attributes of the lotus: gentleness,
openness, and purity.
Amitabha’s mount is the peacock, which is
capable of swallowing poisonous snakes without coming
to harm. In fact, the peacock is believed to derive
its rich plumage from the poison of the snakes on
which it feeds. This symbolism, of being open even
to poison, and transmuting it into beauty, gives
us a feeling of the purifying and transforming power
of Amitabha. For us ordinary mortals, it signifies
that even our darkest and most venomous aspects
can be transformed by meditating on his image.
Amitabha’s image has both
a simplicity and archetypal quality to it. His demeanor
is totally relaxed and his hands are in the Dhyana
mudra, the mudra of meditation.
According to tradition, this
mudra derives from the one assumed by the Buddha
when he was meditating under the pipal tree, in
the pursuit of Nirvana.
In conformity with his hand
mudra, the essential message of Amitabha is that
of meditation. His association with the setting
sun suggests the withdrawal of our external sense
perceptions inwards, into higher states of meditative
concentration. Elevating ourselves to such a spiritual
level has the ultimate objective of uniting us with
that intangible Universal Consciousness which pervades
all tangible reality.
Amitabha thus provides us with
the archetypal infinite wisdom that helps us transmute
the negative trait of obsessive attachment into
a discerning awareness that we are all made up of
the same primitive substratum. So contemplating,
we are able to realize that the object we crave
for is not separate from us, and already as much
a part of ourselves as we are of it.
The fifth Dhyani Buddha is Amoghasiddhi,
whose distinctive emblem is the double dorje, also
known as the crossed vajra.
The hand mudra made by Amoghasiddhi
is the Abhaya mudra. Abhaya in Sanskrit means fearlessness.
Thus this mudra symbolizes protection, peace, and
the dispelling of fear.
According to the Buddhist tradition,
Buddha’s cousin Devadatta felt greatly jealous
of him. His jealousy knowing no bounds, he once
even attempted to murder the Buddha. His plan involved
loosing a rampaging elephant into the Buddha's path.
But as the elephant approached him, Buddha displayed
the Abhaya mudra, which immediately calmed the animal.
Accordingly, it indicates not only the appeasement
of the senses, but also the absence of fear.
whole presence removes terror and fear. His body
is green, the color of the peace and tranquility
of Nature. It is a soothing and relaxing color,
which calms anxiety.
Amoghasiddhi rides on Garuda,
the half-man and half-eagle composite, who feeds
on snakes. Blessed with a telescopic vision, Garuda
can detect the presence of serpent-like negative
delusions plaguing our mortal frames even from a
considerable distance. Also, Garuda is associated
with the Himalayan ranges of the north, which is
the direction of Amoghasiddhi too.
Amoghasiddhi is particularly
associated with energy and is known as the Lord
of Karma. As a Buddha of action, he represents the
practical achievement of results using the wisdom
of the other four Buddhas. His double vajra too
is a symbol of the successive conclusion of all
actions. This is the reason why that after a deity
statue has been completed and consecrated, a crossed
vajra is inscribed upon the metal strip used to
seal its base.
The goddess Green Tara is believed
to have emanated from Amoghasiddhi and not surprisingly,
she too is deified as a deity of action in the Buddhist
pantheon. Indeed, Green Tara is always depicted
in a posture with her right leg extended, signifying
her readiness to spring into action.
Amoghasiddhi is believed to
alter the negative human failing of jealousy into
the positive wisdom of accomplishment. Jealousy
is a positive human emotion in as much that it fuels
our ambition and prompts us to achieve greater heights.
But its negativeness stems from the fact that it
is almost always accompanied by a bitterness towards
the one who is the target of our envy. When we are
able to ward off this associated feeling of resentment,
and realize at the same time that the object of
our jealousy is but a medium prompting us to greater
karma, leading to higher accomplishments, we would
have the read the message of Amoghasiddhi successfully.
The five Dhyani Buddhas represent
the five basic types of human personality and demonstrate
the absolutely perfected form of these personality
types. Most importantly, each of them represents
a negative quality as well as the completely transformed
aspect of that failing, manifested as a glorious
wisdom. It is an ample demonstration of the genius
of Vajrayana Buddhism that these weaknesses are
not denied or suppressed. They are instead worked
upon, until their illusory nature is understood
and they become aspects of one’s inherent
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