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The Five Buddha Families, by Francesca Fremantle

It 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.

In 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

All of these sorts of things come into the quality of ignorance. 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. are often used as a kind of Buddhist psychology. These five families. ignorant. And it has this quality of intelligence which has decided to ignore the situation and turn itself into ignorance. yellow. I will refer to it as the first one. The Tantric version of this is a kind of intensification of these three plus another two which have grown out of them. It is true that some people manifest much more in one particular way than another. At the centre of The Wheel of Life we have the three kleshas— ignorance. The mind is compared to open space. This particular aspect of samsaric ignorance would make a person very laid-back. Above all it has a spacious. we use the word `moha‘ which is more than just ignorance. The point is. Instead of the word `avidya‘ meaning `ignorance’.colours of white. it is delusion or illusion. grasping and aversion. This is the basic structure of all mandalas. This has something to do with the animal quality in the six realms. and this is then divided into four quarters in the four directions. we contain all of these five qualities in the way that enlightenment is one and indivisible. 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. you don’t want anything to do with it. lazy. red and green. The mandala is a big circle in the centre of which is a small circle. one quality might persist over a longer time. clear and pure. slow. This is why these colours are so important in Vajrayana art. On the other hand. in its negative aspect. however important it might be. of not being selfconscious. and usually we go through different phases. And this becomes more intense in Tantra. Or if there is a sudden noise in the street you might decide to ignore it. confused. however. and people are often anxious to know which family they belong to. Whenever you see these five colours they remind you of the five kinds of wisdom. by the way. . it becomes cloudy and turbulent. calm. open quality. When it is distorted. The circle in the centre could be called either the first or the last. peaceful. 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. however. the quality of not being fully conscious. Deciding to stay in bed all day instead of getting up to face the world is another example of this. blue. all of them depend on this basic ignorance. Rather than just ignoring the situation. meditative. like the element of space. perhaps lethargic. In its positive aspect it is very open. It is what lies behind all the other kleshas or poisons. It is a kind of intensification of ignorance. We might go through different characteristics many times in one day. 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.

One can feel this in meditation. Anddharmadhatu really contains both of these meanings. the klesha. It has the ideas of anger. it is a kind of divisiveness. When you meditate on a mandala. it is almost like a sword. the Buddha here. and this is the beginning of Vajra-being. Then you go around clockwise. that there can be genuine being. contains all existence. But the name of Akshobhya. So this is the wisdom of the dharmadhatu. dimension.There is a particular Buddha-wisdom connected with this called thedharmadhatu wisdom. enmity. The thunderbolt is immensely powerful. The dharmadhatu is the totality of everything that exists. . 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. The One Who Sheds Light All Around. He is also connected with the bodhisattva called Vajrasattva whose name means Indestructible Being. perhaps. The Buddha who is pictured in the centre of the mandala. powerful. Basically. and contains the qualities of both. Diamond is bright. The colour there is again blue and white. Dharma can be interpreted in two ways— either as the truth. The quality of this Buddha family for instance would apply to all intellectual pursuits. the less sense of `me’ there is. realm or sphere of truth. The Buddha Akshobhya is blue. The Unshakeable. you are always placed in the centre of it. complete understanding. but the circle that he sits in is white. This is called `the Vajra family’. And you sit facing the east. logic and reasoning. something that is indestructible. or as the totalities of all the dharmas. personality or individuality. It is usually translated as `the five wisdoms’ which sounds nicer than `the five knowledges’. He is white. This word `wisdom’ means. Sometimes it is called `the realm of truth’ or `the level of truth’. sharp minds and clear ways of looking at the world. of this family. is very sharp and cutting. Dhatu means something like a level. it has the clarity and brilliance of the diamond. clear and precise. the law. At the same time this clarity can become hard and cutting and can turn into hatred and anger. It is only when you realise the nonexistence of self. Paradoxically. If you think of a mandala hanging on the wall in front of you. immovable and unchanging. Indestructible Being. that kind of thing. `gnosis’. is Vairochana. hatred and aggression within it. and very hard. Together they give the idea of indestructibility—brilliant. People with this quality usually have very logical. means The Immovable. complete absorption into that knowledge. This is a very important concept in Vajrayana based on the awareness of emptiness and nonself. This Vajra. genuine presence. His name means The Irradiating One. and this is the poison. east will be at the bottom. it is knowledge which is nondualistic. Trungpa Rinpoche called it `the all-encompassing space’ because it is the element of space and contains everything. Vajra means the hardest kind of stone. This might seem incompatible with Buddhist ideas. and all activities that bring in thinking. or a reality. indestructible nature. things as they are. in the case of this family. It also has an intellectual quality. the wisdom of all-encompassing space. the greater sense of actual reality and being. which are the basic elements of existence. knowledge which is completely one with the thing it knows. then. It is sharp. it can be used to signify both diamond and the thunderbolt. symbolising water. it is the stone that can cut any other stone. and is brilliant and pure. pure.

We often think of anger as hot and fiery. an understanding of everything without judgement. it simply reflects everything very accurately. The negative and the positive qualities are. rich and ripe things. Such people have very generous. and this indicates all kinds of richness—gold. When it is calm and clear. absolutely stuffing them with food and be very offended if they don’t take more. want to impose their wealth on others. it is just that they are divided into five. the confusion which anger and hatred brings into our minds. This is a kind of knowledge. butter. . 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. This Buddha family is connected with the earth. The 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. logical quality to it as well. by the way. all kinds of lovely golden. and is a sort of pride or arrogance mixed up with possessiveness. totally oblivious to other people’s feelings of humiliation. and this means `jewel’. and the Buddha here is referred to as Ratnasambhava which means A Mine of Jewels or A Birthplace of Jewels. rich people might. warm-hearted person might want to feed everyone and keep inviting them to dinner. They might go around giving presents whether they are wanted or not. The wisdom connected with this family is called `the mirror-like wisdom’. Anyone connected with this family will have a feeling of richness and generosity about them. it is like the cloudiness of anger. praise or blame. That is the second Buddha family. Or an extremely generous. even if they have nothing. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are rich. it also stands for every kind of spiritual and material wealth. on the other hand.The five qualities. The element connected with this family is water. all kinds of riches. It is easy to switch from one to the other. and every positive quality has a possible negative side which often comes from just overdoing it. When it is cloudy and turbulent with waves. Its colour is yellow. for example. very clearly without reacting in any way. extrovert kinds of personalities. And the Buddha Ratnasambhava sits with the gesture of giving. condemnation. It is actually called `pride’. The colour is yellow. It can be described as a wave of honey coming towards you. completely mixed up. so we have to think of a very wide spectrum of emotion with each one of them. It still has the quality of generosity. The distorted or negative qualities of Ratna would be possessiveness because of all this richness. pleasures and beautiful and precious things in life. it is like a mirror reflecting everything very accurately. of course. Jewels not only refers to the three jewels of Buddhism. In life every negative thing has a positive side. It is like the earth herself who welcomes everyone who lives on her and doesn’t complain at what we do. Very proud. honey. sunshine. they may simply want to share whatever they have. she just patiently bears everything. really cover the whole range of possibilities of emotions.

We think of desire and lust as something evil or. Probably in our climate it would be better if it was connected with autumn. And this refers to the fact that everything is based on the same enlightened essence. The whole universe continues through the power of love. On its own the lotus is a symbol of enlightenment which comes out of samsara. so the slimy mud is absolutely necessary for the beautiful flowering of the lotus. The Buddha of the west is Amitabha. The element of fire both warms and gives us light. compassionate aspect of Buddhahood. a kind of intensification of trishna. and also equanimity when applied to ones mind—looking on everything with equal-mindedness. grasping. The emotion associated with it is desire or passion. is the sort of creative. Love and desire are so fundamental to our nature. But love is really a neutral quality. It has these two sides—seeing the equality and the same nature in everything. we could liken it to ripe fruit which becomes over-ripe and rots. both in Hinduism and Buddhism. Limitless Life. but we don’t want to be completely swamped in an ocean of it. our longing for enlightenment. Eternal Life. grasping or thirst. Or. Padma. It therefore has enormously positive qualities as well as very obvious negative ones. then. He is also red and is connected with the element of fire. so it is a symbol of creative power. warm. and it is through connecting with this that we can become enlightened in Tantric . which is a red lotus. Any kind of passionate warmth of feeling comes into this. but desire also fuels our practice. It could also be translated as `equality’ or `equanimity’. It actually covers the whole range of emotions connected with this—love. And the lotus flower has particular symbolism. lust and desire. The next one is visualised behind one. The lotus is the seat of most of the deities. which is its literal meaning. It is connected with the ripeness of summer. We could not. It couldn’t grow or flower without the mud of samsara. 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. so it is an extremely positive quality. completely beautiful. 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. and the one quality of enlightenment in everyone and everything. be here without basic love or desire. untouched by the mud.We may like a little honey. Another aspect of him is called Amitayus. It grows out of a muddy swamp but blooms completely pure. that everything shares the same basic nature. and its colour is red. particularly in Buddhism. the sort of pure womb from which the deities arise. The name Amitabha means Limitless Light. in fact. There are all kinds of similes one could use. 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. or at the top of the mandala in the west. This whole family is called The Lotus Family. We can see this Ratna quality in nature and in all kinds of things. as something undesirable. The lotus. wanting. The wisdom here is called `sameness’.

This has very often been translated as `discriminating wisdom’. the bardo [the in-between state] is actually something that is happening to us every moment. sees the underlying sameness of everything. Like wind. if you have never seen any of them before. distinguishing wisdom appreciates the different qualities of everything. however. Suppose there are five people waiting to welcome you at a party. and this connects with the compassion of Amitabha. If you already know one of them. it contains everything. and you investigate and look into everything. and awaken in our hearts. It is also connected with life itself because air. Also. It basically means `to appreciate the different qualities of everything’. We will actually get in touch with it or merge with it through the particular quality that we have an affinity with. the whole range of enlightenment is waiting to receive us and shine into our hearts at any moment. That is why in theBook of the Dead. it goes everywhere and pokes itself into every corner. Govinda translated it as `distinguishing wisdom’ and perhaps that would be a good way. it is restless. So it is with the qualities of enlightenment. and. Or. I don’t know whether I have managed to explain what lies behind it. equality. This idea does not come across in the Tibetan which means something like `the separateness’. you might take a liking to one and go towards that person rather than any of the others. the wisdom of equanimity. The Dharmadhatu wisdom is all-inclusive. `the difference of things’. the fifth Buddha family. but I don’t like that very much. It is not just after death that these five Buddha-principles appear to us. the mirror-like wisdom sees with great clarity. you will probably go to that person. the last one in the north—which is on one’s left hand—has the colour green and is connected with action. our breath. is the most essential thing in life. People don’t usually take the trouble to investigate something they are not fond of. but it also has a definite sense of caring and looking after. We will respond to one of them more than the others. There does not. In Sanskrit it usually means something like `investigation’ or `enquiry’. in contrast.practice. The implications of this wisdom is that you have a tremendous curiosity and love of all the different things and people on earth. seem to be any word which combines the caring and warm aspect of it. It therefore includes the qualities of caring. What that means is that. so it means understanding or looking into different things. If we are curious about something. I have not yet decided on a proper translation to mean the wisdom of Amitabha. All the wisdoms bring out a different aspect of relationship. The wisdom is called `the action-accomplishing wisdom’. it means that we like or love it. in fact. a looking into something. Finally. always moving. The element is air or wind and has the quality of movement and action. In Sanskrit it is pratyavekshana which actually means `looking down onto or into things in detail’. There is a little difference between the Tibetan and Sanskrit words for this wisdom. The positive aspect of this family is that it will .

the poison of envy. Many deities make this gesture with one hand. spontaneous action which cannot help but succeed in its objective. or when one’s positive qualities somehow seem to disappear or let you down. It will always stir itself and stir other people. it grows like the lotus out of our own mud. you can catch a glimpse of the pure energy behind that. The green colour which we usually connect with life is very appropriate. The negative aspect. Q. You think everyone else is having a better time than you. 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. So. all the greenness of nature grows and moves. if it dies. however. Can I ask how this connects with emptiness? . then it immediately loses its green colour. and the gesture of giving with their right hand. Still. or perhaps I won’t be able to accomplish it’. The name of the Buddha here is Amoghasiddhi whose name means `unfailing. and be ready to act whenever action is necessary. or that everyone is out to get you. It takes a lot of practice. infallible success’. It completely does away with the need for jealousy because you know that you are complete in yourself and will have total success. So. if you are in the grip of a very intense form of emotion. This is the action of Amoghasiddhi. although of course air and wind has no colour of its own. Wind does seem to have a green sound somehow. Green should be the colour of air and wind. Enlightenment does not come from anywhere else. getting more than you. for example. it is never static. This is when all negative qualities could be seen as lacking confidence in one’s positive qualities. In extreme cases it can become a kind of paranoia. to even begin to have a glimpse of what that means. You feel you will never be able to finish what you have set out to do. but perhaps someone else is going to do it first or do it better. this is the quality that arises from Bodhisattva action—absolutely correct. of paranoia and envy. Fearlessness takes away the fear of losing out. That is the paranoia aspect of it. The practices of the Higher Tantras are deliberately concerned with using these emotions. The point is to recognise the five qualities in ourselves and to realise that all of our negative emotions can be transmuted into wisdom. just to think about this mandala principle can give tremendous hope. usually with their left hand.always be able to accomplish whatever it sets out to do—the opposite of the laziness and ignorance of the first family. or getting promoted instead of you. Sometimes. This is the case with envy. and also catch a glimpse of the wisdom that lies behind it. It is connected with the idea that `I have to accomplish something. and working with that energy. and to realise that enlightenment has no other basis than what we are now. green is a very good colour for life. If it is static. His gesture is of fearlessness. of course. But to me it gives the idea of hearing the wind rustling through the leaves or over long grass. I think. Everything that is alive. so it seems very appropriate. arousing these emotions in a purely interior way. is envy or jealousy and is connected with ambition. like intense sudden anger or intense passion.

Emptiness is inseparable from luminosity. This is what it says in the Tantras. In Indian thought the mind has always been described as being made of light—consciousness in light. He touched the earth as a witness that he had not been shaken by all these temptations of Mara. which is the idea that everything arises out of this clear space of mind. We cannot appreciate the pure quality of this light. basic mind. Emptiness without the luminosity. The Vajra family. cluttered it up and dimmed the light. which is what the Buddha did after Mara had attacked him. and then see that emptiness is formless yet all potentiality. and each one contains all the others. It is purely for the convenience of our imaginations that we separate enlightenment into these five qualities. Then it says that this mind is emptiness. would just be something dead. without first experiencing emptiness. the symbol is the vajra is derived from the ancient Indian symbolism of a thunderbolt. We have confused the clear. There is a beautiful passage in the Book of the Dead where it describes how. turning the wheel of the Dharma. We have cluttered up this light. Note: All the five Buddhas are sitting cross-legged and have a specific gesture. at the moment of death. Akshobhya of the Vajra family is sitting with the earth-touching gesture. It is like a round ball of thunder with five sparks of lightning coming out from each end. That is why his name means The Unshakeable One. sterile and very boring. and that is symbolised by the five-pronged vajra of the Vajra family. All visualisations start from emptiness and then at the end are dissolved back into emptiness. These five prongs also symbolise the five Buddha families. They are totally interconnected. pure qualities of this light and the empty quality of space. your consciousness sinks right down into your pure. Practice always has to go through emptiness first. luminosity. however. they are a kind of infinite regression like mirrors reflecting each other. the underlying essence of everything. vibrant. The whole thing is based on emptiness. All these colours then sparkle out from the luminosity. All these families contain all the other qualities within them. Vairochana in the centre makes a gesture of teaching. It is radiant. . we have frozen it. and the fact that he is in the centre symbolises the wheel of Dharma. however.A. vivid luminosity. But it is not blank. and cannot be separated. Emptiness therefore is the source and the ending.