The Five Dhyani Buddhas;
Gifts of the Five Skandhas
“Just as in a plant the urge towards sun and air compels the germ too break through the darkness of the earth, so the germ of Enlightenment breaks through the twofold veil: the obscuration caused by passion and by the illusion of an objective world.”
All Buddha’s teachings are aimed at inner transformation. The Tibetan word for Buddhist is “nang-pa la” which can be translated as “inside dweller, or “inside traveler.” Buddhism invites us to scale the Himalayas of our inner psychological constructs.
The teachings of Buddha are aimed at recognizing and transforming our wrong view of reality, “ma-rig-pa” which is brought about by the tendency to identify ourselves as an independently existing entity. This is the root ignorance which then opens the door to suffering, as is outlined in the Four Noble Truths. By identifying that ignorance and the resulting dependent qualities, we can rid ourselves of egoic clinging and create space in our mind and heart for inner joy, compassion, the realization of interconnectedness, and ultimately, awaken the mind of bodhicitta.
Unpacking the Five Skandhas
The element that I want to focus on for this paper is the Five Aggregates, also known as the Five Skandhas, Five Heaps, Kleshas, etc.. In our process of unpacking the Five Skandhas, we will discover the Mandala of the Five Buddha families and all the transformational possibilities they represent.
All three turnings of Buddha’s teachings utilize the Five Skandhas as a system for discovering aspects of consciousness. We could think of The Five Skandhas as the “Mount Rushmore” of the abhidharma and a foundational factor in how we identify ourselves with the incorrect view of reality. The Five Skandhas provide us with an analytic platform by which to analyze our human existence. Nowhere in the description of the Five Skandhas exists an independently occurring self. The Five Skandhas exist to help us understand the emptiness of self.
In Pali texts they are often called The Five Aggregates of Clinging. In Tibetan The Five Aggregates are also called The Five Heaps. (Tib phyung-po) This refers to Buddha’s original teachings on this subject where he made five heaps of different grains to represent the categories of impermanent phenomena.
Buddha’s first turning teaching of the abhidharma has endless enumerations, outlining the classifications of the nature of consciousness and mental functioning. Among these are the two classes of phenomena: 53 afflicted phenomena and 55 of the pure phenomena. The 53 afflicted phenomena are based on the Five Skandhas. The 55 pure phenomena are based on The Six Perfections, but have links to the Five Skandhas too, as we shall see soon.
I am using Lama Govindas description of the Five Skandhas here.
1.) Form, Rupa Skandha: the group of the sensuous, the sensation or ideas of matter; the future in all their forms of matter and appearance. Sense organs, sense objects, their mutual relationships and psychological consequences (as listed in the Abhidharma)
2. Feeling, Vedana Skandha: the collection of feelings, all reactions, emotions arising from inner causes.
3.) Discrimination, Samjna skandha: the group of perceptions of discriminating awareness and representation.
4.) Compositional factors, Samskara-skandha: the group of mental formations, form- creating forces or tendencies of will, the active principal of consciousness, character of the individual, karmic consequence caused by conscious volition.
5.) Consciousness, Vijnana-skandha: the consciousness, which coordinates all previous functions and represents the potentiality of consciousness in its pure form. In this group six other kinds of consciousness exist: eye, ear, nose, tongue, body and mind consciousness.
The Five Skandhas play a direct role in physical, mental and spiritual health and wellness. Tibetan Medicine is symbiotically connected with the teachings of the Buddha. As is stated by the Buddha in the Abhidharma teachings, there are many afflicted states of mind. Though the basic ignorance, the ego clinging to an independently existing self is considered the root of all suffering and disease, there are also numerous energies that keep a human mind from true liberation.
These are called kleshas in Sanskrit or nyong-mong in Tibetan. They are commonly translated in English as afflictive emotions, distorted thinking, negative emotions, poisons, anything that can lead the mind into the jungle of its own making. There are thousands of kleshas, all which lead to imbalance and disease. All of them fit into the three main poisons as outlined by Buddha’s foundational teaching: hatred, greed and anger.
The Five Dhyani Buddhas
The Five Dhyani Buddhas exist to us as reminders of the different aspects of enlightened mind. The Five Dhyani Buddhas are sometimes called the Five Jinas. Jina means conqueror in Sanskrit. They are called conquerors because they have overcome ignorance and achieved true reality.
They are our stars
in the process of becoming.
There are a few versions of the origin of the Five Dhyani Buddhas. Most of them are linked to the fact that in many visualization practices one meditates on a translucent enlightenment energy of comprised of the Five Wisdom colors of blue, white, red, green and yellow. Each color has corresponding chakras and is linked to a skandha, and is viewed in its enlightened form as a mandala with a residing Buddha. Each Buddha is linked to a skandha and has corresponding, mudras, mantras, directions, elements, and locations in the larger psychophysical mandala of our chakra system. It is written in ancient Tibetan Medical texts that
“When the chakras are fully functional and open, within them exist the enlightened form of the Five Dhyani Buddhas.”
Each Dhyani Buddha represents one aspect of the wisdom of enlightened mind. (See chart at the end of this paper) Each wisdom has a corresponding affliction, often translated as a poison. Meditation on their wisdoms, poisons, and antidotes aligns us to achieve this goal as well. It is a transformative exercise that can reap immediate and long-term results.
I like to explain this in terms of music. The wisdom is the highest octave, the most pure and subtle energy, free of self-referencing so that this enlightened energy can work for the benefit of all sentient beings. The poison, or afflicted version of that wisdom is corrupted with the wrong view of reality. It is the coarsest level of vibration possible while still being on the spectrum of the wisdom vibration.
A very useful element of this this meditation on the Five Dhyani Buddhas is the concept of antidotes. Each wisdom is the antidote to the corresponding poison. In this way we are not trying to quash or distinguish the poison. Instead, we are using the antidote, the corresponding wisdom, to use energy of that poison and transform it.
It is similar to watching an aikido match. The energy between the two in the match is actually one energy, manifesting in many different moves and actions.
Through our meditation we begin to respond to the harmonic between the wisdom and the poison. Eventually we refine the level of vibration of our consciousness, and symbiotically reduce our ego clinging.
When one meditates on the enlightened quality of each wisdom, change begins to happen. Even greater change is possible when we honestly view how we manifest the poisons, or mental afflictions in our own life. Buddhist visualizations act on our psychophysical energies. Eventually we transform our usual day-to-day consciousness into one of a higher vibration. When we do this with the Five Buddha families, a resonance begins to vibrate, uniting all the wisdoms as one, similar to different notes making a chord.
The Five Buddha Families;
Change Agents of Consciousness
I was taught this meditation practice over thirty years ago, by a Kagyu lama. For the first 20 years I did the practice as it was presented to me. Each session included meditations on the Five Buddhas and all they represent in a successive order. The practitioner does the corresponding mantras and mudras for that Buddha while contemplating on the wisdom that Buddha brings to the spectrum of enlightenment.
In later years I found it beneficial to do the meditation on a specific Buddha for a specific intention. For example, if I felt I needed clarity on a situation, I would do the Vairocana meditation, for clear vision and wisdom. If I needed strength to put towards a certain activity, I would meditate on Amoghasiddhi, for the wisdom of enlightened activity. If I had an issue with desire, I would meditate on the discriminating wisdom of Amitabha, or the equalizing wisdom Ratnasambhava.
I can reflect back on my responses, reactions, and overall personality over the three plus decades of doing this practice and see some change. This practice revealed its true power and potential during my eight year dark night resulting from falling through cracks in the medical system, being wrongly diagnosed, and having two surgeries to my hands which left me disabled.
I had a lot of anger toward the doctor who performed the surgery even after he found out I should have been exempt due to a circulatory problem. I was mad at myself for trusting him. I was mad at my employers who insisted I use broken equipment for years, which led to my wrist problems in the first place.
I knew at the time that the power of this anger would debilitate me if I couldn’t transform it. To remedy this I focused my meditations on Akshobhya to help me transform my anger and frustration into the mirror- like wisdom, which opened me to wisdom of love, acceptance, and forgiveness.
I imagined the doctor, my employers and myself on the puja table in front of me. As I did the repetitions of the Akshobhya mantra, I reflected on the general suffering of all of us, that of clinging to an independently existing self. The situation I was in was perfect for exploring this truth.
Who is the “I” that is so angry, hurt, frustrated,
in pain, disabled, sad, impoverished?
As for the doctor, what was his original intention in becoming a doctor? I was pretty sure it wasn’t to make his patients worse. He had actually broken down and cried in his office with me, weeks after the surgery, upon realizing the consequences of the mistake he had made with me. “This was not my intention, believe me, this was now how it was supposed to be! I am so, so sorry.” I knew he was suffering, on some level, knowing he was responsible for this outcome.
And my supervisors at the job that disabled me-their own ignorance, laziness and stress had led to them breaking the rules and not fixing my mail cart. I was certain that if someone were to ask them point blank “would you ever knowingly make a decision that would hurt and eventually cripple one of your best mail carriers?” that they would answer of course “no”. Everyone involved with my drama was suffering under some form of ignorance.
And back to me. One of my favorite Buddhist sayings is that when you find yourself pointing a finger out there are three pointing back at yourself. I was angry with myself for not being a more aggressive advocate for myself before the surgery. I was angry with myself for not trusting my intuitions and surrendering to the doctor without doing my own research. I had to have compassion for myself too, as I had lost so much of my life and ability to care for my daughter and myself.
I didn’t stop there. As my anger slowly turned to compassion, I realized that this experience was not just about me. I thought of all of humanity, all whom had gone before me and would come after me who would suffer from their own version of “the path to hell is paved with good intentions.”
I thought about all the people who didn’t have the language or skills to fight the legal system like I did. I thought about all the people who lived in places where there was no legal system to fight.
Dealing with a great deal of physical pain was also helpful in connecting me to others. I envisioned and invited to my meditations people who lived where there was no option of physical therapy, TENS units, or hot baths to mediate pain. I remembered my trips to Asia, seeing the crippled people pulling themselves around on the ground, eyes in pain with no relief in sight. All the beings who had died in wars, all the pain- the pain that we all share, the pain of old age and sickness.
I thought about all the beings who suffer but never get to the point where they open their experience of suffering to the question ” who is the I that feels this pain.
Sometimes that contemplation on the “who is the I who feels this pain” was the only way I could subdue the pain. When I imagined the countless beings in all three times who experience the pain of suffering, it seemed that ” my” pain lessened, they all helped take a load off me, and vice versa.
Eventually I didn’t just think about these people, I imagined them seated with me, in front of my puja table. I imagined my suffering and theirs as one big suffering, and my prayers for the relief of our collective suffering as an offering of peace, healing and hope for them.
All the while I kept doing my Akshobhya practice. The room got very crowded! As I sat there with my arms and wrists in plaster I imagined us all united with our one intention to be loved and sheltered and happy, then I imagined all my and their relations and their relations, and their animals who also had suffered, and their offspring and on and on.
I came to realize the two truths of my own reality.
On one hand, my entire life had gone down the drain, including my resources. Yet I was still there, or here. On the other hand, the causes and conditions of this “disaster” were perfect for a deep and thorough inner transformation.
I went from a person that did a spiritual practice to a person whose spiritual practice was “doing” me.
In this way it was a perfect storm. I was given a text-book perfect opportunity to practice forbearance, as described in the sixth chapter of Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara.
My life as I knew it had dissolved. In my time of being most broken, I had realized that, knew that on some level, real or imagined, I could still help others. Out of the ashes came opportunities to sit with dying people; an opportunity to help a quadriplegic man; little things like helping a kid untangle the chain on his bike, or loosening a dog’s collar. I was offered a job that didn’t demand the use of my arms and hands.
Right in the middle of all this, I met the State Oracle of Tibet who asked me to help him start a Dharma Center here in the San Francisco Bay Area. The mandala of my life was re-constellating, thanks in part to the fruits of the transformational Five Buddha mediation.
Into the World: The Practice of Prayer Flags
Reflecting on the transformation I experienced doing this meditation, I realized a great opportunity in this teaching to bring about change in all individuals, not just Buddhists. My love of Tibetan prayer flags easily combined with my dedication to the Five Buddha practice. Years ago my lama blessed me to make prayer flags in order to raise awareness for the Dharma in any way I could imagine. Over the years I have collected several hand-carved wood prayer flag blocks.
Over the past ten years I have seen the Five Dhyani Buddha meditation foster change in others by way of an interactive prayer flag-making booth. I have taken this booth to many different Himalayan or community fairs, even to a Christian seminary. The seminarians were very intrigued with the idea of the wisdoms and the poisons. I spent a whole afternoon making prayer flags and doing the silent meditation on the wisdoms, antidotes, and poisons. Some of the main points are listed below.
Blue, White, Red, Green, Yellow
The five traditional Wisdom colors represent the transformation of the aggregates of mind (skandhas) into the five wisdom qualities of enlightened mind. Each color corresponds to one of the Dhyani Buddhas. These are also the traditional color and order of Tibetan prayer flags.
This “Practice of Prayer Flags” workshop or booth, allows people of all ages get a chance to contemplate the Five Wisdom colors, their transformation of the aggregates of mind from their poison into their enlightened quality. Charts are displayed at either end of the booth (see last page) to allow people to deeply absorb the information until they feel a resonance. Some people know right away which color they want to focus on. “Anger! That is me!” Or, “Desire! I need to work on that! “
Some reveal that simply seeing the correlations listed between the wisdom and the poison enables them to quickly face a truth that they have not been willing to face until this minute. Sometimes they need a moment or two to claim it. Once they decide which poison they want to transform into the corresponding wisdom, they take a flag the color of the representative Dhyani Buddha and begin making their flag. Tears often fall as people roll out the ink for their blue, white, red, green or yellow flag. Many people end up doing a whole set.
Though it is true that not everyone has high spiritual aspirations and the discipline and courage for deep transformational work, I think it is also true that a momentum can be built by the repetition of transformational spiritual practices, no matter the type of person.
I believe our spiritual self is like a muscle. Whether we are fat, thin, tall or short, that spiritual self will respond to regular spiritual practices that are aimed at positive transformation. The biceps of bodhicitta can be developed, for the betterment of all sentient beings.
From my prayer flag workshop…
The five traditional colors represent the transformation of the aggregates of mind into the five wisdom qualities of enlightened mind.
Blue, White, Red, Green and Yellow…
Transformation of anger, hatred and aggression
into Mirror-like Wisdom
Wisdom: Mirror-Like Wisdom
Transformation of Ignorance into Absolute Wisdom
Element: Ether/ Space
Poison: Ignorance/ Delusion
Wisdom: Absolute Wisdom
Transformation of Desire into Discriminating Wisdom
Wisdom: Discriminating Wisdom
Transformation of Envy into All-Accomplishing Wisdom
Symbol: Double Dorje
Poison: Jealousy, Envy
Wisdom: All-Accomplishing Wisdom
Transformation of Feeling into Equalizing Wisdom
Skandha: Feelings, Sensation
Wisdom: Equalizing Wisdom
Bhikku, Bodhi. A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma. Seattle:BPE Publishers, 199
Clifford, Terry. Tibetan Buddhist Medicine and Psychiatry. Maine: Samuel Weiser, 1984
Chandrakirti, trans. Padmakara Group. Introduction to the Middle Way; Chandrakirti’s Madhyamakavatara. Boston: Shambhala, 2003
Conze, Edward. Buddhism: Its Essence and Development. New York: Harper & Row, ’51
Conze, Edward. Buddhist Thought in India. London: George Allen & Unwin LTD, 1962
Gethin, Rupert. The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998
Govinda, Lama. Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism. New York: Samuel Weiser, 1960
Govinda, Lama. Insights of a Himalayan Pilgrim. Oakland, CA: Dharma Publishing, 1991
Hopkins, Jeffrey. Meditation on Emptiness. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1983
Komito, David Ross. trans. Nagarjuna’s Seventy Stanzas: A Buddhist Psychology of
Emptiness. Ithaca: Snow Lion, 1987.
Powers, John, trans. Wisdom of Buddha: The Samdhinirmocana Mahayana Sutra. Berkeley: Dharma Publishing, 1995.
Shantideva. The Bodhicaryavatara. A Guide to the Buddhist Path to Awakening.. trans: Kate Crosby, Andrew Skilton. Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press. 1995
Thurman, Robert A.F. Essential Tibetan Buddhism. San Francisco: Castle Books, 1995
Vessantara. The Mandala of the Five Buddhas.London: Windhorse Publications, 1999
Williams, Paul with Anthony Tribe. Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition. NY: