What does quantum physics have to do with the Five Buddhas — Vairochana, Amitabha, Akshobya, Ratnasambhava, and Amoghasiddhi?
By Lee Kane
Most Buddhists, in daily practice, understand a core truth — that all phenomena are inter-dependent and cannot exist independently. Quantum Physics is only now starting to demonstrate this fundamental Buddhist understanding. Buddha called this “dependent-arising” more than two thousand years ago. The concept is mind-boggling, even for the great minds in quantum physics — yet in Buddhism, it has been a core teaching for 2500 years. But, what does this have to do with the five great Buddhas: Vairochana, Amitabha, Akshobya, Ratnasambhava, and Amgohasiddi?
2500 years ago, Shakyamuni Buddha taught the truth of dependent arising, and the entire concept that we do not exist independently “out there.” The famous “observer effect” experiment in quantum physics, validates this core truth. But Buddha spoke of this truth centuries ago, as stated in the great Maha-nidana Sutta:
“If this exists, that exists; if this ceases to exist, that also ceases to exist.” 2500 Years later, quantum “guru” Niels Bohr said in 1920: “Observations not only disturb what has to be measured, they produce it… We compel a quantum particle to assume a definite position.” In other words, as explained by physicist Pascual Jordan: “we ourselves produce the results of measurements.” This conclusion basically tosses out notions of objective reality, independent of the observer.
“The general or universal definition of pratityasamutpada (or “dependent origination”) is that everything arises in dependence upon multiple causes and conditions; nothing exists as a singular, independent entity.”
In other sutras, Buddha spoke of duality, Shunyata (Emptiness or Oneness), ultimate reality versus observed or conventional reality, and other teachings that closely mirror today’s Quantum Physics findings. For a story on “Understanding Dependent Arising”
What is consciousness — the big puzzle
The big puzzle of “what is consciousness?” was understood 2500 years ago by Shakyamuni Buddha. Today, quantum physicists still struggle to explain consciousness — particularly the “observer effect” — an experiment that undermines the whole assumption that there is an “objective world” out there — independent of us. H.E. Zasep Tulku Rinpoche explains from a Buddhist point-of-view (from the book Tara in the Palm of Your Hand, source here>>):
“What is it to have an awakened mind? Just as when we wake from sleep to see the world around us, its sights, its sounds, its smells, so when we have awakened our minds, we see the true nature of reality. We see that nothing exists inherently; we see that everything is part of an endless web of interdependence and interconnection. We experience oneness.”
What has this got to do with five Buddhas?
It is because of this inter-dependent nature of reality — and other concepts such as Shunyata (Emptiness – Oneness) and notions such as “ultimate reality” and “conventional reality” — that there is no contradiction between concepts such as “multiple Buddha families” in Purelands, and the over-arching concept of Oneness or Emptiness. This is why, for example, many people in Asia will worship interchangeably between temples and churches: Buddhist, Shinto, Daoist, Christian church. H.E. Zasep Rinpoche explains in his book Tara in the Palm of Your Hand:
“Buddhists do not worship the Buddha in the way that Christians worship God, as a supreme being with the power to grant them salvation or send them to eternal damnation. We do not attain Buddhahood or Enlightenment through divine grace; we attain it through persevering with practices that give us insight into our minds and the nature of reality. No one can become God, but by putting the Buddha’s teaching into practice, we can all become Buddhas. Attaining Buddhahood is the ultimate do-it-yourself project.” Other than as a scholarly exercise, there is no need for arguments between the different schools of Buddhism: from pragmatic atheist-oriented Buddhists to Pureland Buddhist who venerate only Amitabha, to Vajrayana Buddhists who practice multiple deities.
At the ultimate level, they are all legitimate, different skillful approaches to one core truth. At the conventional level, there may seem to be differences, yet with even a basic understanding of the true nature of reality, those variations seem to become preferential rather than consequential. Lineage and tradition are important in Buddhism, without a doubt. Lineage gives us unbroken access to ancient wisdom and allows us to follow in the footsteps of the Enlightened Beings. On another level, Buddhism has always adapted to culture as it spread quietly.
Tibetan deities, and Chinese deities, and Hindu deities all crowd a Purelands of Enlightened Buddhas. This is an entirely authentic way to practice. Buddha taught many methods. Overcoming cultural and ancestral conditioning — and ultimately Buddhism relies on overcoming conditioning and attachments — is easier if you adopt and reinforce, versus argue and deny.
This is why there is even the rise of Celtic Buddhism — blending Celtic gods with Buddhism — and atheist-oriented Buddhism in the west. This taps into European ancestral and cultural conditioning. There are Christian Buddhists, who place the crucifix beside Buddha on the shrine. And why not?
Is non-uniformity confusing or reinforcing?
Arguably, Buddhism’s strength is that it is a philosophy and method that can blend with any spiritual, cultural or ancestral conditioning — including atheism. Arguments about authenticity, ultimately, are not that important — simply because Buddha taught us not to be attached to anything. Authenticity and lineage, at least in advanced practice, can be seen as an attachment. Buddhism teaches individual path to Enlightenment. As the teacher’s say “Only you can practice.” A teacher cannot give you realizations. As a practical matter, it is certainly faster, perhaps much better, to practice authentic lineage; not as a matter of attachment, but because you know it works, and it’s efficient. However, if that places you outside of your comfort zone regarding culture, ancestral beliefs or spiritual intuition, Buddhism is always open to embracing the “all” not just the “some.”
Veneration of multiple Buddhas
Now, back to the Five Conquerors. (You probably thought I’d never get back to the 5 Tathagatas!) Many devoted Buddhists venerate and practice multiple Buddhas. To a greater or lesser degree, Mahayana Buddhists honour and venerate multiple Buddhas — even if our main focus is one Buddha. In Mahayana Buddhist sutra, the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni Buddha, revealed not only previous historical Buddhas, but vast perfect Purelands filled with Buddhas. While many Buddhists point to this as “skilful means” to convey an important message, other Buddhists take the opposite view — that the Buddhas are not archetypal, but rather living forces in our universe.
Since we are the perceivers, the aspect of our selves — as part of Oneness — that reflects this energy, can manifest as Amitabha, or Vairochana, or any of the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Even if the manifestation is only in our mind, this is still “observation.” As is taught in Vajrayana Buddhism — “We are not separate from Buddha and Buddha is not separate from us.” At advanced levels of understanding, there is no difference: ultimate reality and conventional reality have the same essence. If we view the Buddhas as venerable entities, or as an aspect of “the” Buddha, or as archetypal energy, or as a method, or just as a lovely image, ultimately, these are all skilful paths leading to the same goal.
Specifically, the Five Buddha Families focus on realizations through the abandonment of the five disturbing emotions that trap us in Samsara: “To achieve the realization of these five buddha families or the five dhyana buddhas, it is necessary to abandon the five disturbing emotions of great attachment, anger or aggression, ignorance or bewilderment, pride and envy. When these disturbing emotions are purified and removed, the five wisdoms shine forth. Realization of the five wisdoms is realization of the five dhyana buddhas.” 
Anger is one of the five poisons. Each of the five Buddhas is focused on one of these poisons — in the case of anger, Akshobya. In Tibetan Buddhism, there are also higher tantric emanations of the Buddhas, wrathful deities who help us overcome anger and other poisons.
Any “gone beyond” Buddha cannot be limited by concepts such as body, colour, attributes, directions or corporeal manifestations. At the same time Shakyamuni Buddha, as taught in Mahayana sutras, spoke of Medicine Buddha, and Amitabha Buddha and the other Conquerors.
These Buddhas can be understood as manifestations of the one ultimate Buddha (Oneness, Emptiness), or as individual Buddhas manifesting to help beings who need concepts such as body, speech and mind to progress. So, when we practice a deity, what are we tuning in to? H.E. Zasep Rinpoche explains in the context of visualizing oneself as Tara — the Buddha of Compassionate Activity:
“Tara is our idea of ourselves as a compassionate liberator become manifest. At the ultimate or Dharmakaya level, there is no difference between ourselves and Tara.” Of course, that’s an advanced, sophisticated concept. It doesn’t matter if we understand we are in Oneness with Tara — or any of the Buddhas, or all of the Buddhas — or if we are venerating the Buddhas. They are two paths to the same goal, ultimately.
“The essential nature of a bodhisattva or a buddha is that he or she embraces the enlightened qualities of the five buddha families, which pervade every living being without exception, including ourselves,” wrote Geshe Lharampa Thrangu Rinpoche. 
Why the Five Buddhas?
Whether we view the Five Buddhas and their families — inclusive of the Mothers, peaceful Bodhisattvas and wrathful deities of each family — as venerable and tangible Buddhas, or as emanations, or as conceptual archetypes, we are tapping into that particular energy and path.
Amitabha, Buddha of the West, is the “Father” of the Lotus Family, a compassionate energy. What does Amitabha teach us, besides Compassion? He teaches us to overcome the poison of desire. The Five Buddha Families:
The five Buddhas, with Akshobya in the centre, Amitabha in the West (top right), Amoghasiddhi in the North (bottom right), Vairochana in the East (bottom left), and Ratnasambhava in the South (top left). This is a higher tantric positioning. Often Vairochana is in the centre and Akshobya (blue) in the east. It varies by teaching and school. The core concepts do not vary, however.
“The Five Buddhas represent the transmutation of the five delusions or poisons (ignorance, desire, aversion, jealousy and pride), into the five transcendent wisdoms (all-pervading, discriminating, mirror-like, all-accomplishing, and equanimous).” Amitabha helps us transform the “poison of desire” with “discriminating wisdom.”
“To achieve the realization of these five buddha families or the five dhyana buddhas, it is necessary to abandon the five disturbing emotions of great attachment, anger or aggression, ignorance or bewilderment, pride and envy. When these disturbing emotions are purified and removed, the five wisdoms shine forth. Realization of the five wisdoms is realization of the five dhyana buddhas. To begin with, we have to understand what the five disturbing emotions (Skt. kleshas) are. The first, which seems to be most powerful, is anger. Anger is an emotion which arises and develops against someone or something one dislikes. If examined carefully, in the short run anger creates pain and in the long run it brings about serious harm. The immediate pain and future harm is to oneself as well as to others is due to the power of one’s own aggression.”
Not just anger, but all the “poisons” should be overcome. Practising the Five Buddhas — or any member of that family (for example Avalokiteshvara, spiritual son of Amitabha) — allows us to practice skilful methods designed to overcome each “klesha”:
Author | Buddha Weekly
Lee Kane is the editor of Buddha Weekly, since 2007. His main focuses as a writer are mindfulness techniques, meditation, Dharma and Sutra commentaries, Buddhist practices, international perspectives and traditions, Vajrayana, Mahayana, Zen. He also covers various events. Lee also contributes as a writer to various other online magazines and blogs.