Understanding the Five Buddhas

The following article is from the Summer, 2011 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.



Because the lords of the five Buddha-families beautifully exemplify the powers and aspects of the enlightened state toward which we're aspiring, an understanding of them helps us to to see how our main human faults contain within them the core of what we can become in our fullness. This informative description is adapted from Everyday Consciousness and Primordial Awareness by Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche.

The Five Buddha Families

Whoever allows the five kinds of primordial awareness to reveal themselves through meditation attains thereby the ultimate fruit; that is, the level of the five buddha-families. The lords of the five families―Vairochana, Akshobhya, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha, and Amoghasiddhi―are, in their essence, the five primordial awarenesses and duly appear in the form of the body of perfect enjoyment (Skt. sambhogakaya).

By purifying all of the consciousnesses you also purify the five mental afflictions (Skt. kleshas), and thus the five kinds of primordial awareness gradually reveal themselves.

As for the primordial awareness of the dharmadhatu, it is the perfect transformation of the all-base consciousness and reveals itself when all ignorance and mental dullness―that is, the obscurations of mental afflictions and those impeding knowledge―are completely purified. It manifests as Vairochana, the lord of the Buddha family, the first of the five buddha families. Vairochana (Tib. mam par snang mdzad) means the One Who Completely Manifests. He is the one who allows the true nature of phenomena to appear nonmistakenly and perfectly. He clarifies the nature of all phenomenal reality.


Akshobhya, the lord of the Vajra family, is in essence the mirrorlike primordial awareness which reveals itself by means of the transformation of the all- base. In general, the true nature, the essence of all phenomena, is natural emptiness. However, relative appearances arise that are dependent on each other and are connected with one another. These appear just like reflections in a mirror. Since these are seen without any attachment or grasping whatsoever, he is called Akshobhya (Tib. mi bskyod pa), the Unshakeable One. Through the transformation of the all-base the affliction of anger is completely and perfectly purified. Considering all mental afflictions, it is mainly anger that surges up in our mind and makes it restless; therefore, the manifestation of completely purified anger is the Unshakeable One, Akshobhya.


By purifying all of the consciousnesses you also purify the five mental afflictions (Skt. kleshas), and thus the five kinds of primordial awareness gradually reveal themselves.

The third of the five lords of the buddha families is Ratnasambhava. He is the lord of the Ratna family. His nature is merit, wealth, and excellence, and therefore he is called Ratnasambhava (Tib. rin chen byung gnas), the Source of Preciousness. He embodies the transformation of the klesha-mind and thus the primordial awareness of equality. The nature of the klesha-mind is to grasp on to a self, a pride that takes the self to be the highest and the best. When the klesha-mind is abandoned, the pride accompanying that high esteem of the self vanishes all by itself, under its own power. Whoever develops pride closes the doors to all positive qualities. If you think you are the best, the most superior, you will not develop any new qualities. It is even said, To the ball of pride there is no possibility for any good qualities to stick. In this adage a proud person is compared to a round ball. If someone were to pour water over it, not a single drop would stick. Through the purification of pride, however, the foundation for all emerging merit, possessions, and positive qualities is laid bare. For this reason the manifestation of the primordial awareness of equality and of perfectly purified pride is the Source of Preciousness, Ratnasambhava.

Amitabha, the lord of the fourth buddha family, the Lotus family, is, in his essence, the discriminating primordial awareness which reveals itself through the transformation of the sixth consciousness, the mind consciousness, and through the perfect purification of desirous attachment. On the basis of the mind consciousness there arise desire, attachment, and grasping, due to which the true nature of all phenomena cannot be realized. It cannot be seen clearly, because the essence of desirous attachment is infatuation. Through perfect purification desirous attachment transforms into clarity, into the clear light of Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light (Tib. od dpag med). His essence is freedom from attachment and the endowment of the most excellent highest understanding (Skt. prajna).

The fifth lord of the five buddha families is Amoghasiddhi, the lord of the Karma family. He embodies the revelation of the primordial awareness that accomplishes all actions, which is attained through the transformation of the five sense consciousnesses and the perfect purification of the affliction of jealousy. The essence of jealousy is contrary to the accomplishment of benefit. A jealous person is naturally one not able to perform actions for the benefit of others. If, however, the jealousy is pacified, the primordial awareness that accomplishes all actions is perfected. Through this awareness all actions and enlightened activities can be performed exactly in the right way and without hindrance. Due to this activity Amoghasiddhi (Tib. don yod grub pa) is the One Who Accomplishes What Is Meaningful. Since it is his nature to accomplish the benefit of all sentient beings, the fifth lord of the five buddha families embodies the primordial awareness that accomplishes all actions.

The Buddhas and the Four Kinds of Enlightenment Activity

Each of the lords of the five buddha families individually carries out one of the four kinds of enlightened activity. These are pacifying, increasing, empowering and wrathful enlightened activity.

Buddha Akshobhya represents the pacifying enlightened activity and grants the pacifying extraordinary achievements (Skt. siddhi). This enlightened activity is designated pacifying because it pacifies sicknesses, spirits, hindrances, and all kinds of negative conditions. The mental afflictions are pacified by meditating on Akshobhya as a yidam deity, and thus also hindrances and negative conditions. How is it possible that through such enlightened activity sicknesses, hindrances and so forth can be pacified and that the pacifying extraordinary achievements are granted? Akshobhya is the self-expression of completely purified anger. Whoever is angry cannot find peace. Instead, all hindrances and negative conditions arise in him or her. The complete purification of anger by means of the practice of Akshobhya, aspirational prayers directed to him, or the meditation upon him allows the pacifying enlightened activity and the pacifying extraordinary achievements to arise.

The second type of enlightened activity, the increasing activity, is embodied by Ratnasambhava. Increasing means to extend or increase life, merit, primordial awareness, or possessions. Due to pride, no positive qualities can be gained, merit cannot grow, and wealth cannot increase. Instead, these only diminish. The essence of completely purified pride, however, is Ratnasambhava, which is why the increasing enlightened activity will be effective when one visualizes him, meditates on him, prays to him, or applies his practice.

Completely pure desirous attachment expresses itself through Buddha Amitabha. A person guided by desire, attachment, or grasping becomes diffused and loses power over phenomena. Through completely purified desirous attachment, however, one is able to gain control over, and to independently coordinate, everything. This is because the entourage, possessions, merit, and so forth are controlled by the power of this Buddha. In this way Amitabha grants us the empowering enlightened activity and the empowering extraordinary achievements.

Amoghasiddhi is the self-expression of pure jealousy, upon which the wrathful enlightened activity is based. Wrathful is used to designate the destruction of hindrances and negative conditions. Generally, due to the affliction of jealousy, we are not able to dissolve hindrances and negative conditions. On the contrary, our capabilities diminish. However, when jealousy is completely purified, we are able to destroy hindrances and negative conditions. For this reason, it is Amoghasiddhi who grants us the wrathful enlightened activity and the wrathful extraordinary achievements.

In the same order the above- mentioned four kinds of enlightened activities correspond to the mirror-like primordial awareness, the primordial awareness of equality, the discriminating primordial awareness, and the primordial awareness that accomplishes all activities. The primordial awareness of the dharmadhatu, however, is the root of all these four kinds of primordial awareness. Therefore, Vairochana is the Buddha who gives rise to all of the four kinds of enlightened activity. He serves as the basis or origin for all the four kinds of enlightened activity, for all of the extraordinary achievements, and for all of the five buddhafamilies.

The Meaning of the Hand-held Symbols

Each of the five Buddhas holds a specific symbolic attribute: Vairochana holds a wheel, Akshobhya, a vajra, Ratnasambhava, a jewel; Amitabha, a lotus flower; and Amoghasiddhi, a double vajra. These symbols all have a specific meaning. Reflecting upon their meaning strengthens the actual meditation, serves to increase and stabilize the realization of the true nature of phenomena, and also helps to attain primordial awareness.

The wheel held by Vairochana is a symbol for the authentic teachings (Skt. dharma). You also find it in other fields of Buddhism: it is, for example, always found above the entrances of Buddhist temples. Generally, a wheel is an object that turns and makes it possible for us to comfortably reach a certain destination. The wheel of the authentic teachings has eight spokes as a sign that it is possible to reach the ultimate destination of buddha- hood by means of the eight-fold path of the noble ones. Moreover, by means of the eight-fold path of the noble ones it is possible to attain the primordial awareness of the dharmadhatu, which is the essence of Vairochana. As a representation of his essence, Vairochana holds the wheel of the authentic teachings.

Akshobhya holds the symbolic attribute of a vajra. He is the Unshakeable One because his nature, completely pure anger, expresses itself in the form of patience and stability as well as the enlightened activity of pacifying. These are exactly what a vajra symbolizes. A vajra is the symbol for unchangeability and represents the endowment of a clear and stable way of appearing.

Ratnasambhava holds a jewel as a symbol of his nature. Precious stones and jewels often represent the possession of perfect wealth, which is why the jewel is used as an example for the arising of happiness and joy. Ratnasambhava represents the enlightened activity of increase, multiplication, and the extension of life, merit, wealth, happiness, and joy. He is the expression of completely pure pride; therefore, he holds a jewel in his hand.

Amitabha is the lord of the fourth buddha family. As a symbol of his nature he holds a lotus flower, which represents completely pure desirous attachment. When desirous attachment is perfectly purified, it resembles an utterly beautiful and attractive flower with bright colors and a perfect shape. A real flower of such beauty, however, is not an actual object for attachment and grasping because it is impermanent and its beauty ephemeral. One cannot keep its beauty as a possession for some hundreds of years. Because of impermanence and the flux of change, a flower is not a suitable object for which to develop attachment. When desirous attachment is completely purified, no attachment or grasping can arise in the least, no matter which object is involved. Since completely pure desirous attachment expresses itself through Buddha Amitabha, he holds a lotus flower in his hand.

The symbol for Amoghasiddhi is the double vajra. As explained above, a vajra symbolizes un-changeability. Generally, where there is no change there is no way anything can progress to a more superior state of being. Something that is unchangeable cannot degenerate and turn towards faults, nor can it increase positive qualifies. As a sign that it is nevertheless possible to increase qualities through which meaningful activity for the benefit of beings can be performed, Amoghasiddhi holds a double vajra in his hand.

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