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The Five Buddha-Families and Five Dhyani Buddhas

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Dr. Alexander Berzin

Buddha-Family Traits and Buddha-Nature Factors

The Buddha-families refer to factors of Buddha-nature. In other words, they are Buddha-family traits. They are inborn factors of everyone's mental continuum that allow each of us to become Buddhas.

        On the basis level, they are unpurified, which means that their continuities are mixed with unawareness (ignorance) and the disturbing emotions and attitudes, and more specifically, that they are mixed with the emotional and cognitive obscurations.
        On the pathway level, they are partially purified and partially unpurified. This refers to the arya level, when some of the obscurations have been removed forever.
        On the resultant level, they are fully purified, so that they function unimpededly as the enlightening aspects of a Buddha.

Kriya and Charya Tantras

Kriya and charya, the first two classes of tantra, have three Buddha-family traits:

        The Tathagata or Buddha family, with the main Buddha-figures (yi-dam, deities) Shakyamuni and Manjushri
        The lotus (Skt. padma) family, with the main Buddha-figures Amitabha, Avalokiteshvara, and Tara
        The vajra family, with the main Buddha-figures Akshobhya and Vajrapani.

On the broadest level:

        Manjushri represents body
        Amitabha and Avalokiteshvara represent speech
        Vajrapani represents mind.

In terms of the mind:

        Manjushri represents understanding (wisdom)
        Amitabha and Avalokiteshvara represent compassion
        Vajrapani represents powerful abilities.

Yoga Tantra

The third class of tantra, yoga tantra, has four Buddha-family traits, one for each of the four topics discussed in the texts of this class:

        The Tathagata family, headed by Vairochana, for body
        The vajra family, headed by Akshobhya, for mind
        The lotus family, headed by Amitabha, for speech
        The jewel (Skt. ratna) family, headed by Ratnasambhava, for actions.

The fifth Buddha-family, the karma (action) family, headed by Amoghasiddhi, is subsumed under the jewel family.

Anuttarayoga Tantra

Anuttarayoga, the fourth class of tantra, has five Buddha-family traits:

        The Tathagata family (represented by a wheel), with the main Buddha-figure Vairochana
        The jewel family, with the main Buddha-figure Ratnasambhava
        The lotus family, with the main Buddha-figures Amitabha and Avalokiteshvara
        The karma family (represented by a sword), with the main Buddha-figures Amoghasiddhi and Tara
        The vajra family, with the main Buddha-figure Akshobhya.

On the broadest level:

        Vairochana represents body
        Ratnasambhava represents good qualities
        Amitabha represents speech
        Amoghasiddhi represents actions
        Akshobhya represents mind.

In terms of the five aggregate factors of our experience (five aggregates), as presented according to The Guhyasamaja Tantra, and with colors and directions in the Guhyasamaja mandala assigned accordingly:

        Vairochana (white, east) represents the aggregate of forms of physical phenomena
        Ratnasambhava (yellow, south) represents the aggregate of feelings of levels of happiness
        Amitabha (red, west) represents the aggregate of distinguishing (recognition)
        Amoghasiddhi (green, north) represents the aggregate of other affecting variables (karmic formations, volitions)
        Akshobhya (blue, center) represents the aggregate of types of consciousness.

In terms of the aggregate of forms of physical phenomena (body), the five Buddha-families are associated with the five elements:

        The Vairochana family represents earth
        The Ratnasambhava family represents water
        The Amitabha family represents fire
        The Amoghasiddhi family represents wind
        The Akshobhya family represents space.

In terms of the aggregate of types of consciousness (mind):

        The Vairochana family represents eye consciousness
        The Ratnasambhava family represents ear consciousness
        The Amitabha family represents nose consciousness
        The Amoghasiddhi family represents tongue consciousness
        The Akshobhya family represents body consciousness.

The Five Buddha-Family Traits in Terms of the Five Types of Deep Awareness

In terms of good qualities that are another aspect of the aggregate of consciousness – referring to the five types of deep awareness (ye-shes, five Buddha-wisdoms):

        Vairochana represents mirror-like deep awareness
        Ratnasambhava represents the deep awareness of equalities
        Amitabha represents the deep awareness of individualities
        Amoghasiddhi represents accomplishing deep awareness
        Akshobhya represents the deep awareness of the sphere of reality (reality awareness, Skt. dharmadhatu).

The nineteen practices to bond closely (dam-tshig, Skt. samaya) with the five Buddha-family traits and, specifically, with the five types of deep awareness:

        Six to bond closely with mirror-like awareness (Vairochana):
            Safe direction (refuge) in the Three Jewels: the Buddhas, the Dharma, and the Arya Sangha
            The three types of ethical self-discipline: restraining from destructive behavior, engaging in constructive actions such as meditation, and helping sentient beings.
        Four to bond closely with equality awareness (Ratnasambhava):
            The four types of generosity: giving material objects, giving Dharma, giving freedom from fear and giving love (the wish for everyone to have happiness and the causes for happiness).
        Three to bond closely with individuality awareness (Amitabha):
            Upholding the teachings of the sutra vehicles (shravaka, pratyekabuddha, and bodhisattva), of the outer classes of tantra (kriya and charya), and of the confidential (secret) classes of tantra (yoga and anuttarayoga) (in Nyingma, yoga, mahayoga, anuyoga, and atiyoga or dzogchen).
        Two to bond closely with accomplishing awareness (Amoghasiddhi):
            Making offerings
            Safeguarding our vows.
        Four to bond closely with sphere of reality awareness (Akshobhya):
            Keeping a vajra, and the clarity of appearing in pure appearances and the blissful awareness that it represents, as method
            Keeping a bell, and the awareness of voidness it represents, as wisdom
            Maintaining the mudra (seal) of visualizing ourselves as a Buddha-figure couple in union, representing the inseparable union of nondual method and wisdom
            Committing ourselves properly to healthy relationships with our tantric masters.

When the five types of deep awareness are unpurified (mixed with unawareness of reality):

        Mirror-like awareness (Vairochana) becomes naivety
        Equality awareness (Ratnasambhava) becomes arrogance and miserliness
        Individual awareness (Amitabha) becomes longing desire and attachment
        Accomplishing awareness (Amoghasiddhi) becomes jealousy
        Reality awareness (Akshobhya) becomes anger.


To work with any Buddha-family, such as that of Amitabha, we need to put together, in a meaningful manner, all the various aspects that are associated with the Buddha-nature aspects that are its family-traits. Consider the example of Amitabha. The associated factors are:

        The deep awareness of individualities
        The aggregate of distinguishing
        Nose consciousness (like an animal being able to distinguish finely by means of individual scents)
        Longing desire and attachment (with which we focus on and exaggerate the good qualities that distinguish an individual)
        The symbol of the lotus (born from muddy water, but not stained by the mud)
        Upholding the various classes of sutra and tantra.

When we

        Relax our distinguishing people and things into the fixed categories of words and concepts, as implied by speech and specific scents,
        And when we relax the longing desire and attachment that we experience toward these people and things, which arise when we exaggerate their individualizing good qualities that we distinguish in this way as making them special,

        Then we naturally settle into the underlying Buddha-nature quality of the deep awareness of individualities, which, like the flame of a lamp, merely illuminates items enabling us to specify them. By nature, this deep awareness is unstained by longing desire and attachment, as in the example of the lotus.
        Awareness of individualities then enables us to communicate compassionately with each individual.
        To help us reach this level, we uphold all the classes of sutra and tantra, distinguishing their individual features, without the prejudice of attachment to one as being more special than the others.