The Five Meditating Buddhas - An Enquiry into Spiritual Aesthetics
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.
The 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 the mind.
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.
All 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:
1). Vairochana, The King (Tib. Namnang)
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.’
Vairochana 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.
Vairochana 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 before us.
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.
Vairochana’s distinguishing emblem is the golden or solar wheel.
2). Akshobhya, The Mirror to Our Souls (Tib. Mikyopa):
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.
He 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 assertion.
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 reality.
3). Ratnasambhava, The Gem of a Buddha (Tib. Gyalwa Rinjung):
Ratnasambhava 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 to develop.
Ratnasambhava displays the Varada mudra.
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 faithful charger.
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.
4). Amitabha, The Gentle and Lovable Buddha (Tib. Opame):
Amitabha 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.
5). Amoghasiddhi The Lord of Karma (Tib. Donyo Drup pa):
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.
Indeed, Amoghasiddhi’s 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 wisdom.
References and Further Reading
- Beer, Robert. The Encyclopedia of Tibetan Symbols and Motifs: Boston, 1999.
- Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols: London, 1999.
- Govinda, Lama Anagarika. Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism: New Delhi, 1992.
- Jansen, Eva Rudy. The Book of Buddhas (Ritual Symbolism Used on Buddhist Statuary and Ritual Objects): New Delhi, 2002.
- Landaw, Jonathan., and Weber, Andy. Images of Enlightenment (Tibetan Art in Practice): New York, 1993.
- Majupuria, Trilok Chandra. Sacred Animals of Nepal and India: Kathmandu, 2000.
- Maxwell, T.S. The Gods of Asia (Image, Text, and Meaning): New Delhi, 1997.
- Menzies, Jackie. Buddha Radiant Awakening: Sydney, 2001.
- Sparham, Gareth. The Tibetan Dhammapada (Sayings of the Buddha): London, 1986.
- Subhuti, Dharmachari. The Buddhist Vision (An Introduction to the Theory and Practice): London, 1992.
- Tresidder, Jack. The Hutchinson Dictionary of Symbols: Oxford, 1997.
- Vessantara. Meeting the Buddhas (A Guide to Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, and Tantric Deities), Birmingham, 1993.