Peeking into the Thangkas of Five Dhyani Buddhas!

Peeking into the Thangkas of Five Dhyani Buddhas!
In Buddhist tantric doctrines, which are thought to be later development of Buddhism, Five Dhyani Buddhas are the base for the spiritual practices. The Buddhist scholars believe that the world is composed of five cosmic elements or skandhas. The five skandhas are Rupa (Form), Vedana (sensation) Samjna (name), Sanskara (conformation) and Vijnana (consciousness). These elements are eternal cosmic forces and are without a beginning or an end. These cosmic forces are deified in Vajrayana as the Five Dhyani Buddhas.   In Guhyasamaja Tantra, the Dhyani Buddhas are given a Mantra, a color, a sakti, a direction and a guardian of the gate.

Dhyani Buddhas are all aspects of the dharmakaya or "truth-body", which embodies the principle of enlightenment. Initially two Buddhas appeared which represented wisdom and compassion - they were, respectively, Aksobhya and Amitābha. A further distinction embodied the aspects of power, or activity, and the aspect of beauty, or spiritual riches. In the Sutra of Golden Light (an early Mahayana Sutra) the figures are named Dundubishvara, and Ratnaketu, but over time their names changed to become Amoghasiddhi, and Ratnasambhava. The central figure came to be called Vairocana. The first text of Vajrayana tradition which elaborately talks about Five Buddhas is Guhyasamaja Tantra which was compiled in 4th century A.D. but of which origin we can mythologically trace back to Buddha himself. In ‘Mahayana Tantra’ Shri Dharmakirti in his book Mahayanaelucidates,” …similarly, the Buddha appeared in the subtle Sambhogakaya form of Buddha Guhyasamaja to King Indrabhuti of Oddiyana (Swat Valley), and gave him the cycle of Tantric teaching which were compiled by the king and came to be known as the Guhyasamaja Tantra”.  The authenticity of historical and philosophical aspect of Mahayana Buddhism cannot be ruled out. The multiple sections and subsections of later Buddhism can be little confusing but authentic sources confirms that this is one of the aspect of Buddha’s teachings.

In Buddhism, the real problem of art is that the Buddha himself never agreed for any anthropomorphic creation as a symbol. But there are some references of his consent in some of the Sutras. Coomaraswamy comments:

It has often been remarked that in Pali texts there is no express tradition prohibiting the making of anthropomorphic images of the Tathagata……this is essentially true; the essentially true; the representation by aniconic symbols is not in kind a Buddhist invention, but represents the survival of an older tradion, the anthropomorphic image becoming a psychological necessity only in bhakti-vada offices. (4)

 Here he labels the later need of anthropomorphic iconography like Five Dhyani Buddhas as the need for the deification of the Buddha and mere a psychological need rather than any factual value.

In early Buddhist art, as is well known, the Buddha is constantly represented by a simple seat or throne. Later the Tree and Wheel also emerged as praxis to designate the essence of the teaching. Buddha’s dissidence towards any form of idolatry was due as Coomaraswamy writes:

…but that who had denied that he was either Gandhabba, Yakkha, or Man, asserting thereby his Principal essence, might have sensed, or been thought of as sensing, a psychological danger in the use of a cult image in the form of a man, danger in fact in any sort, of cult susceptible of an “animistic” interpretation … Actually, in the theological development, the Principal Essence of the Tathagata is more and more strongly emphasized, the content of the iconography, anthropomorphic or otherwise, becomes more and more ontological, less and less historical. (40)

The ontology is in term of the pragmatic or didactic essence of the religion. The idolization of the principal essence is sympathized and in some case rather promoted in time when Vajrayana philosophy overlaps the core of the Buddhism. The inexpressible cannot be expressed or at least materially expressed in the human terms. The fallacy is unavoidable but something should be done however difficult and obscure the result will be. Mahayana and Vajrayana does not concern only with the Nirvana rather it declares that Samsara (The world) and the Nibbana (the other world) is the same and the One. This oneness is sometimes can be glimpsed through these art and iconographies.

The Five Dhyani Buddhas that our present study is concerned is not mythological fact or with the historical presence. Rather they are the abstractions of certain philosophical and ritualistic outcome. They are even said to be visualized in the subtle realm by the Tantrikas and can be proved to be just an abstract coherence of some abstract philosophy. And sometimes, as supported by some of the iconographical and historical fact, they are compared and phased upon in five different aspects or incidental period of Shakyamuni Buddha. Comparing the Five buddhas with Shakyamuni Buddha, Pradhan writes:
 A theory of about the origin of the Pancha Buddha relates that these five Buddhas might have their own distinguished hand gestures to Shakyamuni Buddha himself, who had used mudras on memorable occasions. Three of the five Mudras can be easily traced back to such historical events in the life of Shakyamuni Buddha. Preaching in Sarnath after his Enlightenment, Buddha displayed the Dharmacakra mudra (the hand gesture of turning the wheel of Dharma). Among the Pancha Buddha it is Vairocana who exhibits the Dharma-cakra-mudra and, therefore, he may be a prototype of the Preaching the-Dharma-situation. Shortly before his Enlightenment, Buddha was confronted with the temptation of Mara; at the moment, he displayed the Bhumisparsha mudra or the earth-touching gesture. He called the earth-goddess or wideness. The same mudra is the characteristic hand gesture of Akshobhya.

This is just another theory juxtaposing different feature of reality to only one possible fact. In the light of all the available texts of Higher Tantras of Vajrayana, mainly the Guhyasamaja Tantra, we are forced to believe that Five Buddhas are the characteristic features of the inner transformational psychology for the practitioner. It does not have to do anything directly with the historical Buddha but it rather concerns with his teaching.

Buddha declares that man is functioning through five faculties of knowledge. These components are known as Five aggregates or five Skandhas. They are: Rupa (body), Vedana (sensation), Sangya (perception), Sanskara (volition) and Vigyana (consciousness). They are empty in their nature. It means they are not endowed with any distinct quality of their own but they are functioning in relativity. These are the five components with which life is thus formed. At the same time these are the manacle of humanity as they constitute and create the false identity, form the ego or self. To overcome these five skandhas, with clear understanding of the same is the central teaching of the Buddha. These five heaps of ignorance are thus symbolically represented in iconographical forms in later Buddhism. All the later development of Buddhist philosophy does have these basic tenets as their foundation. Our current work concerns with the five aggregates in multiple dimensions in the form of Five Buddhas and the study of their iconography, so we need to muse over it in detail in its appropriate place.


Vairocana is one of the Five Buddhas being the most important depiction of Sambhogakaya form which symbolizes for the knowledge without any obscuration. He is said to be the ‘Buddha Supreme and Eternal: The Radiant One”. He is placed in the centre of the stupa; sometimes exchanging the position with Akshovya Buddha whose usual position is the East.

Vairocana (Plate I) is depicted in white color symbolizing again the supreme knowledge and clear light of wisdom. His symbol is Wheel and he shows the Dharmachakra Mudra. He is originated from the seed symbol OM. He represents Rupa (form) of the five aggregates.

About the origin of the Vairocana Buddha, Benoytosh Bhattacharya elucidates:

GuhyasamajaTantra opens in a grandiloquent style with the description of a monster assembly of gods, Tathagatas, Bodhisattvas, saktis and various other divine beings. The Tathagatas present in the assembly requested the lord Bodhicittavajra to define the Tathagatamandala or the magic circle of the five Dhyani Buddhas and in the response to their request,……the lord sat in another meditation and soon became vibrant with the sacred sounds of ‘Jinjik’, the principal mantra of the moha family. The sounds condensed themselves into the concrete form of Vairocana with the Dharmacakra mudra and he was placed in his front in the East.

However in here, he is placed in the East, Vairocana is the central to the Five Dhyani Buddhas and placed mostly in the centre of all iconographical arts and only sometimes switches the place in some ritualistic need. He is endowed with all pervasive knowledge which helps sadhaka to be free from all obscurations in knowledge as it symbolizes the dharma-preaching state of the Buddha.  Vairocana Buddha is first introduced in the Brahma Jal Sutra:

Now, I, Vairocana Buddha am sitting atop a lotus dedestal; On a thousand flowers surrounding me are a thousand Sakyamuni Buddhas. Each flower supports a hundred million worlds; in each world a Sakyamuni Buddha appears. All are seated beneath a Bodhi-tree, all simultaneously attain Buddhahood. All these innumerable Buddhas have Vairocana as their original body. (181)
In many contexts, these five Dhyani Buddhas are depicted as being with material existence. They are sometimes thought to be as real as other human bodied, historical Buddhas like Shakyamuni Buddha. But in real, they are, as Lydia Aran concludes :
… part of the psycho-cosmological system, developed by the Vajrayana, in which the cosmic elements are echoed in the human nature by sets of positive and negative components of which our this-wordly behavioral universe is made up. The fact that each Dhyani Buddha Symbolizes, among others, also a negative elements of our mental make-up, reflects the basic Vajrayana belief in unity of opposites, and the principle that the awareness of an evil tendency is tantamount to its transformation into a positive trait. (97-98)

Vairochana is regarded as the first Dhyani Buddha in Nepalese-Tibetan Buddhism. He represents the cosmic element of Rupa (form). His two hands are held against the chest with the tips of the thumbs and forefingers of each hand united. This mudra is called Dharmachakra Mudra which is the gesture of Teaching. Literally, Dharma means “Law” and Chakra means wheel and usually interpreted turning the Wheel of Law. It is also gesture of hands exhibited by Lord Buddha while
preaching his first sermon at Sarnath.

Vairocana Buddha is the personification of all pervasive knowledge of the Buddhas. It is the natural body of the Buddha. Min Bahadur Shakya assumes it as the body of reality. It is the utmost possible realization that can happen in the life and even in the intermediary state of life and death, “ Most of the Mahasiddhas who could not realize Dharmakaya in their life time, can realize it after death. It is said that in this stage of mind if one realizes clear knowing aspect and the empty nature of the mind it is called Dharmakaya” (30).

Hence, from the approach of Sadhana (Spiritual Practice) it is the stage of mind which can be more precisely called the stage of “No Mind” where clear light of the empty nature of the world is perceived.                                                   

A human is a combination of five aggregates (khandhas), namely body or form, feelings, perceptions, mental formations or thought process, and consciousness, which is the fundamental factor of the previous three. Vairocana represents ichnographically the Aggregate of Form or matter.  Matter contains and comprises the four great primaries, known as solidity, fluidity, heat or temperature and motion or vibration.  These primaries are not simply earth, water, fire and wind; in Buddhism they are much more.              

Solidity is the element of expansion.  Because of this element objects occupy space.  Seeing an object is seeing it extended in space and we label it.  The element of expansion is in solids, as well as in liquids.  When we see a body of water we are actually seeing solidity.  The hardness of rock and the softness of paste, the quality of heaviness and lightness in things are qualities of solidity; they are states of it.

Fluidity is the element of cohesion.  This element holds the particles of matter together.  The cohesive force in liquids is so strong that they coalesce even after their separation.  Once a solid is broken up or separated the particles cannot coalesce again, unless they are converted to liquid.  This is accomplished by increasing their temperature, such as is done when welding metals.  The object we see is a limited expansion or shape, which is made possible through the cohesion. The element of heat or temperature is transmitted to the other three primaries.  It preserves the vitality of all beings and plants.  When we say that an object is cold, we only mean that the heat of that particular object is less than our body heat.  It is relative. Motion is the element of displacement and also is relative.  To know whether a thing is moving or not we need a point which we regard as being fixed, so the motion can be measured.  Since there isn’t a motionless object in the universe, stability is also an element of motion.  Motion is dependent on heat.  Atoms cannot vibrate when there is no heat.                                               

These Primaries are always co-existing and give birth to other phenomena and qualities; among them the five senses and their purposes: the eyes, which see; the ears, which hear; the nose, which smells; the tongue, which tastes; and the body or skin, which feels. To escape from this bondage of Form and to grasp the notion of formlessness or emptiness, Buddhist practitioners have devised the notion of Vairocana for their Tantric practices.                         


          Akshobhya (Plate II) is another tathagata who symbolizes mirror-like wisdom and sometimes called as immovable or Unshakable Buddha. He is placed in the East direction in most of the Mandala Chakra for the purpose of Sadhana and is depicted as blue in color with hands in Bhumisparsa Mudra symbolizing the state of witnessing. His is the Hum as the Bija mantra and is thought to be the embodiment of steadfastness. His symbol is thunderbolt. He represents the primordial cosmic element of vijnana (consciousness). Benoytosh Bhattacharya describes Akshobhya’s origination in this way referring to the Guhyasamaja Tantra:
 ….. the lord sat in a special Samadhi called the Jnanapradipa (lamp of knowledge), and his whole form started resounding with the sacred sounds of VAJRADHRK which is the mantra of Dvesa family. No sooner the words came out, the sounds transformed themselves into the concrete shape of aksobhya with the earth touching Mudra. (45)

Akshobhya is sometimes described as a bodhisattva who made some vows and later came to be placed in the family of Five Buddhas. But, it does not seem to be so in the light of the authentic sources like Guhyasamaja and Sadhanamala. Akshobhya is more a conceptual and doctrinal figure than some historical persona. We can dismiss the theory of Akshobhya being some historical bodhisattva. He is from the dvesa family means he is the embodiment of the purified form of hatred or that state of being without hatred.

Akshobhya Buddha is placed in the East direction in most of the Mandala Chakra for the purpose of Sadhana and is depicted as blue in color with hands in Bhumisparsa Mudra symbolizing the state of witnessing. His is the Hum as the Bija mantra and is thought to be the embodiment of steadfastness. His symbol is thunderbolt. He represents the primordial cosmic element of vijnana (consciousness). Hate is another reality in a human being. Hate creates duality.

Hate is the factor of malice. Aversion is another name of clinging. With the formation of consciousness, man starts functioning as a totality and creates the false self. This poisonous skandha is thus transformed, through the realization of Akshovya Buddha, in the mirror like wisdom. This wisdom leads to the realization of the illusory character of all manifest forms. Once this is realized, it becomes clear that hate or passions are useless because they cannot touch real objects. Akshobhya is performing the Bhumisparsa Mudra denoting the witnessing act of the meditation.

Akshobhya is regarded as the second Dhyani Buddha in Nepalese/Tibetan Buddhism. He represents the primodal cosmic element of Vijnana (consiouness). Buddha Akshobhya can be seen sometimes riding on an elephant symbolizing the steadfast nature of his Bodhisattva vows. His right hand displays the Bhumisparsa (earth-touching) mudra. This hand gesture is linked with the life of Shakyamuni Buddha. When Shakyamuni Buddha was on the verge of ultimate Enlightenment, he has to face both internal and external Maras. It is believed that Devaputra Mara questioned him on the validity of his attainment of Enlightenment and his perfection of Paramita. At that time, his only witness was the earth. Buddha Shakyamuni asked mother earth to bear witness to his attainment of Enlightenment. To indicate this, he touched the earth with his right hand as witness to his perfection. This gesture, called “touching the earth” (Bhumisparsa Mudra), became Buddha Akshobhya's Mudra.                                                         

Akshobhya represents the Aggregate of Consciousness, the most important of the aggregates, because it is where the mental factors wind up.  Without consciousness there can be no mental factors; they are   interrelated, interdependent and coexistent. The mind and its faculty is not something physical.  It is concerned with thoughts and ideas.  Forms are seen only via the eye, not via the ear, whose faculty of hearing is not that of the eye, etc.   Thoughts and ideas belong to the faculty of the mind.  The senses cannot think, nor can they mull over ideas, choose possible actions and arrive at conclusions.                                   

According to Buddhism, consciousness is made possible through the interaction of the senses.  Thoughts and ideas originate in the mind, which in Buddhism is called the sixth sense.  The five aggregates are not permanent; they are ever subject to change and they do change as we experience life. A human is composed of mind and matter, and according to Buddhism, apart from mind and matter, there is no such thing as an immortal soul, an unchanging “thing” separate from these five aggregates. 

Ratna Sambhava                                                                                               

Ratna Sambhava Buddha (Plate III) is one of the five Tathagatas symbolizing wisdom of equality, often called ‘Source of Precious things’ or ‘Jewel born One’. He is depicted with Yellow color, placed in the south direction in the stupa, with having Trah as Vija syllable. His hands are in Varada Mudra signifying charity. He is the embodiment of compassion.  He is the progenitor of the Ratnakula. He possesses the knowledge of Samata (equality). He represents the cosmic element of Vedana (sensation).                           

 The embedded poison of Vedana aggregate is separateness from others. Actualizing the Ratsambhava Buddha means gaining the wisdom of fundamental equality. This wisdom teaches that all manifest things are of our own creation. This wisdom leads towards the total annihilation of pride or Ego which endows man with capacity of sharing and compassion. This is significantly shown through the Varada Mudra in the painting. Being free from ego is the jewel that leads towards Enlightenment.

Ratna Sambhava is regarded as the third Dhyani Buddha in order. He represents the cosmic element of vedana (sensation). His recognition symbol is the jewel and he exhibits the Varada Mudra. His right hand lies open near his right knee. His left hand is seen holding an alms bowl. In Sanskrit, Varada means 'granting a boon'. The gesture shows the right palm turned towards the receiver of boons, with the fingers pointed downwards.

Ratnasambhava represents the Aggregate of Feeling or Sensation, also known as Vedana.  Feelings can be pleasant, unpleasant or neutral and they arise from contact.  Such contact as seeing something, hearing something, etc., creates an idea or thought, and we get a feeling about that idea or thought.  An arising feeling cannot be prevented.

Feelings differ from person to person.  We don’t all feel the same way about the same thing.  Our feelings are dependent on our experiences and the way we process information.  Not every person processes information in the same way, nor do they come to the same conclusion.  And our feeling can and do change during our existence.                                                                      


Amitabha Buddha (Plate IV) is called the Buddha of Infinite Light. In the Stupa or any iconographical work, he is place facing west with hands in Dhyana Mudra, bearing the symbol of Lotus which symbolizes for the purity of discrimination. He is red in color and his is the ‘Hrih’ as bija mantra. He is said to be residing in the western land of unlimited bliss (Sukhvati) in peaceful meditation assisted by two bodhisattvas. By far the most ancient among the Dhyani Buddhas is Amitabha. Amitabha Buddha is called the Buddha of Infinite Light.

The poison of passion is another characteristic of human being. Passion is the clinging towards the transitory world. Amitabha Buddha symbolically suggests for the wisdom of all-pervading discernment. It will help a man for correct recognition of human passions and cravings for things of the transitory world and for their consequent elimination from our thought.                                            

Amitabha Buddha is the most ancient Buddha among the Dhyani Buddhas. His palms are joined together with the right on the left, two thumb fingers touching each other. An alms bowl is between his two palms. Here the meditating hand gesture represents the unity of wisdom and compassion. Amitabh represents the Aggregate of Perception or Samjya .This aggregate perceives or recognizes both physical and mental objects through its contact with the senses.  When we become aware or conscious of an object or idea, our perception recognizes its distinctions from other objects or ideas.  This distinction makes us familiar with the object or idea when we sense it in the future.  Perception is what enables memory.  They can also be deceptive, and they too change during our existence.                       

A familiar Buddhist illustration tells of a farmer, who after sowing a field, sets up a scarecrow for protection from the birds, who usually mistake it for a man and will not land.  That is an example of the illusionary possibilities of perception; this aggregate can produce false impressions.  A perception can become so indelible on our mind that it becomes difficult to erase.                                                          

Thus the combination of the five aggregates is called a being which may assume as many names as its types, shapes, and forms. According to Buddha dharma, a human is a moral being with both positive and negative potentials.  We make choices concerning which of these potentials we choose to nourish thereby becoming a part of exactly who each one of us is, in terms of characteristics, personality traits, and disposition.  It is the potential of each human to gain wisdom and enlightenment.  Buddhism teaches that each one of us is the architect of our own fate, and we will reap what we sow.

Vajrayani Buddhists consider Amoghsiddhi (Plate V) to be the fifth Dhyani Buddha in order. He is also named as ‘Lord of Karma’ or ‘Almighty Conquerer’. His direction is north with thunderbolt as the symbol. His Vija mantra is ‘Ah’. He is green in color and represents Samskara (Impressions) of the five aggregates. He exhibits ‘Abhaya’ Mudra. His symbol is doublethunderbold.                 

Samskara is due to the inherited impressions of all the karma that a man does in his life. Man cannot get rid of actions but he can get rid of the doer-ship. With the emergence of this wisdom of non-doer actions, things happen by themselves. This knowledge is call the wisdom of accomplishment. This wisdom recognizes the inescapability of completing and fulfilling our karmic cycle. It makes us realize that we reap all the consequences of our actions, words and thoughts, according to the impersonal law of karma which operates in the rigidly defined sequence of cause and effect.  After attaining this wisdom, a man becomes free from fear and could exhibit Abhaya (Fearlessness) in his life which Buddha Amoghsiddhi has rightly exhibited.                                                                                               

He represents cosmic element of Samskar (Conformation). His left hand lies open on the lap and the right exhibits the Abhaya Mudra. The gesture of fearlessness and protection, usually shown as the left hand with palm turned outward and all fingers extended upwards. The symbolic meaning of the dispelling fear pose is an interpretation of the action of preaching. It is said that one gains fearlessness by following the Bodhisattva path.                                                     

Amoghsiddhi represents the Aggregate of Mental Formations or Thought Process or Samskara.  This aggregate includes all mental factors except feeling and perception, which are two of the possible fifty-two mental factors noted in Buddhism.  These factors are volitional; no action produces change or karma, unless there is intention, volition (choice), and action.  Contact through the senses brings about the necessity of choosing an action and the action we choose depends upon our thought process, which is the result of our experiences and our individual evolution, including that of gaining or loosing wisdom.                                                 
The Concept of Three Bodies in Buddhism                                                                  

As Five Dhyani Buddhas are concept of  ritual manifestation of Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism, we ought to concentrate on the emergence and culmination of different theories evolved in there and their practical aspects. In this, there are two aspects or theories of later Buddhist development which plays the vital role to constitute and regulate the theory of Five Buddhas. They are, namely, Trikaya Doctrine and the doctrine of five Aggregates. Without understanding these two doctrines, we cannot understand the true meaning of Five Buddhas.                 

In the Buddhist tradition from the very beginning it is said that a Buddha has actualized three Bodies.  Three Bodies are: Dharmakaya (The Truth Body), Sambhogakaya (The Bliss Body) and Nirmankaya (The Created, Manifested Body). Dharmakaya is the true body or the essence of the Buddha nature. It is the highest point of realization and only through the understanding of this state of consciousness; one can be called a Buddha.  There are various names given to this state: Tathata, suchness, Nivana etc.                                        

Sambhogakaya is the perfect enjoyment body of the Buddha. All his glory is manifested in this body. It is with tremendous prowess. It is the visualized body for the practitioners in their deep meditative contemplations. It is the manifested body with the capacity to be present in all three realms at the same time. 

Nirmankaya body is the physical or projected body of the Buddhas. It is as visible as the all other sentient being. It is the body of the will of the Buddhas. Mostly, it is the conscious incarnation of the Bodhisatvas in the verge of supreme enlightenment. This body does have a distinct birth and will perish in time. It even can be a creation of the Buddhas for some purpose and may vanish after fulfilling the same purpose. However, According to Schloeg, in the Lin-ji yu-lu ("Zen teachings of Rinzai") the Three Bodies of the Buddha are not taken as absolute. They would be "mental configurations" that "are merely names or props" and would only perform a role of light and shadow of the mind. The Lin-ji yu-lu argues:

Do you wish to be not different from the Buddhas and patriarchs? Then just do not look for anything outside. The pure light of your own heart [i.e., mind] at this instant is the Dharmakaya Buddha in your own house. The non-differentiating light of your heart at this instant is the Sambhogakaya Buddha in your own house. The non-discriminating light of your own heart at this instant is the Nirmanakaya Buddha in your own house. This trinity of the Buddha's body is none other than he, here before your eyes, listening to my expounding the Dharma. (11)
Even in Hindu philosophy we can find some reference of existence of the subtle bodies. The nearer explanation of these bodies may be located in the Vedanta Philosphy. If we juxtapose these three bodies with the Vedanta connotations, we can find some resemblance of Dharmakaya with the Unmanifest absolute, Sambhogakaya with Turiya State of consciousness and the Nirmankaya with Subtle/physical state of consciousness. These bodies are not the localized bodies, rather they represent for the state of mind or the level of consciousness.

Hinayana Buddhism which some thought to be the only authentic teachings of Buddha, dissuades all these notions of Buddha teaching these obscure and difficult paths towards the supreme enlightenment but it is also stated by some scholars like Dharmakirti that Mahayana teachings are delivered, “to more advanced assemblies of disciples, i.e. those who were well established on the path of renunciation of samsara (cyclic existence), the Buddha taught the Mahayana and the ieal of the Bodhisattva, which emphasized ‘great compassion’ for others”.

This is the explanation of the origination of these mythological, visualized inter-beings in the supreme subjective world. But they are not creation of even the Buddha. They are just revelation of the practitioner’s inner world. They are the supreme understanding of the inner reality and are helpful concepts to overcome some particular hardships that a practitioner may come across his path towards the realization

Five Dyani Buddhas, Buddhist Tantra and Kundalini Yoga      

According to some scholars, Tantra is not the Buddhist invention. It was being practiced long before Buddha. Buddhism has had a long and controversial relationship with Hindu Tantra. But we can safely and without any controversy say that there are some mutually agreed upon themes on which both sects have arrived by their own. One of that is the concept of subtle body.

Spirituality starts from the gross and ends in the subtlest. Gross/physical body is the house for the being but it is not the only reality. Tantra advocates something else. Tantra says that internal, subtle realities are more than or as real as the gross one. Tantra does not exclude the physical body but relates it with only one layer of the being. Thus, the other reality for Tantra is the existence of the subtle Body. There is a distinct occult physiology in Tantra that describes this subtle body. Alex Weyman in this context remarks, “The remarkable occult physiology of the tantric books is really based on their theories of this subtle body. This body is said to have 72,000 veins (nadi) of which three are the chief ones located in the position of the backbone”(65).The gross body can be felt but the subtle body can reason, as everyone has experienced in the dreaming state. What keeps these two bodies together? There are ten pranas; five are subtle and five are gross. The gross Pranas are in the gross body and move thru the gross Nadis or nervous system. The subtle Pranas are in the subtle body and move through the subtle Nadis. These two Pranas are connected about the heart which is the organ of sensation. When the poets and others felt that sensation, they called it Atma or God in the heart. The other connection of the Pranas is between the heart and the navel that is the mind. The subtle body has as many nerves as the gross body. The three main ones are the Ida, Pingala and Sushumana.
There forms the subtle complexes or Chakras rightly named as it rotates being highly condensed energy centers. There are seven chakras according to some but the number differs according to different authorities. Chakras are the condensed and commingling of various nadis in a certain region of subtle bodies. These chakras are in the subtle body but they do have their corresponding region in the physical body also. In this regard, Sir John Woodroofe writes:

Inside the Meru, or spinal column are the six main centres of Tattvik operations called Chakras or Padmas which are the seats of Shakti, as the Sahasrara above is the abode of Shiva. These are the Muladhara, Svadhisthana, Manipura, Anahata, Vishuddha and Ajna, which in the physical body are said to have their correspondences in the principal nerve plexuses and organs, commencing from what is possibly the sacro-coccygeal plexus to the “ space between the brows”, which some identify with the pineal gland, the centre of the third or spiritual eye, and others with the cerebellum. (115)

All the other chakras do have the corresponding parts of their own. Muladhara is located in between the genitals and the anus of the physical body. It is of the Pritthvi Tattwa (Earth Element). Svadhisthana, the second Chakra is in the root of the genitals. Manipura is in the navel region whilst the fourth Anahata is in the heart region. The fifth Bisuddha is in the base of the throat. The crux of these chakras is that they govern particular body regions and do possess some particular base psychological attributes. The practitioner does wake up the dormant kundalini power (the serpent power) which is residing in the Muladhara chakra and move it upward towards the sahasrar or the crown chakra. This is the end of the Kundalini Tantra. When crossing each chakra, kundalini transforms the man by transforming the base reality into the ideal one in an alchemical process. All the first five chakras are duel in nature. They possess certain psychological attributes generated through the continuous energetic circulation in the given centre. Kundalini transforms the ignorant part of the given chakra into the highest possible state of consciousness. To sum up, chakra as it is in its so called natural state is what we are; but if the practitioner become able to rose the Kundalini shakti by some particular practices, his whole physiological, psychical and existential being will be transformed and he will become siddha. In the Buddhism terminology, he will become the Buddha. These chakras are also talked by the Vajrayana Tantra by projecting them in the form of Five Dhyani Buddhas.

In the Buddhist higher Tantra practices, there are two stages of perfection. The first is the Generation stage and the second is the Completion Stage. The Generation Stage is defined by Yangchen Gawai Lodoe as:
The generation stage is defined as a yoga classified as being a meditation newly contrived or visualized to accord with any of the aspects of death, intermediate state of rebirth. It is also a factor for ripening one’s mental continuum by its resultant state, the completion stage, the completion stage, and it does not arise through the meditational practice of the winds entering, abiding and dissolving into the central psychic channel. (19)

 This stage is not the total awakening of the kundalini, rather it is the preliminary but foundational stage where as Buddhists practices, this is the stage of generating inner Mandala and identifying with the presiding deities. The generation of body mandala is equivalent to the arising of the Kundalini shakti described in the Hindu Tantra Shastras. In this regard, Guhyasamaja Tantra has delivered a specific practice to take the three resultant bodies of a Buddha into the path of the supreme understanding. Again, Yangchen Gawai Lodoe writes:
The way to generate a complete body mandala is as follows: having fully generated ourselves into the principal deity, we then visualize white Vairochana at the crown, red Amitabha at throat, blue Akshobhya is seen as inseparably one with the principal deity, yellow Ratnasambhava at the navel and green Amoghsiddhi at the groin. All of them arise from the purified factors of our five physical and mental aggregates. (26)

The practitioner must know these deities of the body Mandala, their locations in it and the respective constituents of their body they are associated with, in order for them to meditate on the process of death and take it as a path to actualize the Truth Body. Their practice here involves dissolving these deities along with our psycho-physical elements.

The second completion stage is a: in the mind stream of a trainee which has arisen from the winds entering, abiding and dissolving into the central channel by the power of meditation. Although on the generation stage it is possible for a practitioner with sharp faculties to experience a realization induced by the winds entering abiding and dissolving into the central channel by relying upon an action seal, from the point of view of its nature such an experience is classified as a realization of the completion stage. (51)

Practitioners of the completion stage experience the spontaneous great bliss as a result of the winds of their bodies flowing, abiding and dissolving into the central psychic channel (Sushumna) by the power of meditation. Furthermore, Weyman commenting on these two stages of Buddhist tantra writes:

The stage of Generation is conceptual, the Stage of Completion concrete. The reason The Stage of Generation must precede can be illustrated in terms of the theory of winds. In this first stage the candidate comes to understand the nature of the winds which are not visible to the ordinary senses, and in the course of the yoga proper to this stage recites in accordance with the natural cycle of winds. In the stage of Completion he proceeds to combine those winds in extraordinary ways. Of course one must understand a thing (first stage) before one can manipulate it (second stage). (143)

In these two stages, a practitioner should apply his knowledge of subtle winds (pranas) and raise them upwards in order to actualize the potential Five Buddhas in the form of inner Mandala in the void thus generated in mind. It is similar to what Kundalini Tantra says about the Sat-Chakra Bhedana (Piercing the Six Chakras) and Kundalini Utthapana (Raising the Kundalini). As per the raised kundalini pierces particular Chakra, the basic elements and traits of that Chakra is transformed and the Padma (chakra) is blossomed. Vajrayana clears it in the light of the visualization of the Five Tathagatas.

The Symbolism of Five Dhyani Buddhas in Thangkas                                                      
Five Dhyani Buddhas symbolically represent the situated-ness of the human being in the shackles of five aggregates and the symbolical path towards freedom from them. The first thing for the transformation is the knowledge of the bondage. Dhyani Buddhas give that knowledge to the seekers or to be more precise the visualization of these Buddhas are the knowledge in itself. Every religion does have the basic knowledge embedded in some way or the other. Vajrayana gives it in the light of Five Dhyani Buddhas. We need to elaborate the essence of the iconography of these five dhyani Buddhas respectively. Normally, Iconography of Five Dhyani Buddhas are presented in different ways; Thangkas, Mandalas, Metal etching, Wood carving or Stone Carving. All of these cannot be described in this small work. So, Thangkas of Five Dhyani Buddhas are has been studied in the light of their transformational attribute.


Thangka (See Plates I-V) is a painting of sacred and ceremonial subjects to be hung in temples and private shrines and to be carried while travelling for worship and teaching. Thangka, when created properly, perform several different functions. Images of deities can be used as teaching tools when depicting the life (or lives) of the Buddha, describing historical events concerning important Lamas, or retelling myths associated with other deities. Devotional images act as the centerpiece during a ritual or ceremony and are often used as mediums through which one can offer prayers or make requests. Overall, and perhaps most importantly, religious art is used as a meditation tool to help bring one further down the path to enlightenment. The subjects depicted in thangkas are usually gods, great lamas, ritual diagrams, the Wheel of Life etc.
          The anthropomorphic attributes of Five Dhyani Buddhas are studied focusing mainly in their color and its meaning, Mudra or Hand gesture and its meaning and their association with a particular Aggregate. Lydia Aron in this respect correctly presumed that:

Each Dhyani Buddha, besides having an image, defined by strict iconographic rules determining his posture, hand gestures, seat, color and location, is associated with the specific element of the cosmos, a specific component of man’s actions, a specific negative force operating within man, and a specific wisdom attainable by man through intense practice of introverted meditation. (170)
To sum up, each of the five Dhyani Buddhas first identifies a specific human failing and then helps humans in transforming it into a positive attribute, bringing about the spiritual evolution required for enlightenment.


Mudras (See Plates I-V) thus exhibited by Buddhas are not the caricature of any physiological approximates. Rather, they are the outer manifestation of the inner transformation. The impact of inner transformation also excites the body as we are psychosomatic reality. Mudras are the effect of certain inner flowering which has manifested in physical body. All five Dhyani Buddhas exhibit different Mudras according to their inherent nature. The pragmatics is fulfilled by their iconographic study by the Sadhakas as the knowledge is hidden in the Mudra thus performed.


Vajra (See Plates I-V) is another iconographic tool that is used in all Buddhas’ iconography. Vajra is the symbol of sunyata because as Aran concludes, ‘..the only objective reality in the Vajrayana school of Buddhism is Void or Nothingness (Shunyata) (173)’. Vajra is the symbol of Enlightenment. In this case, Vajra is used in order to show the auspiciousness of the path of Vajrayana. It is said to be the highest teaching or highest path towards the realization.


Asana (See Plates I-V) is the posture. All the Buddhas are in Padhmasana, a well known yogic posture of meditation. Posture is essential in energy conservation of the body. In this Asana, life force or Prana is not leaked through the body as the body is totally round and the energy is conserved. The body will feel no pain and will be steady which is the helpful in higher practices.

Color (See Plates I-V) exhibits the different vibration working in the psyche. It is not accidental for a man to feel affinity towards a certain color. It is the projection of the inner vibration in the form of the color in the outer world. Five Dhyani Buddhas does have different color projections showing different composition of inner reality and different realm of the psyche.

Halo or aureola                                                                                                    
The halo (See Plates I-V) depicted in the back of the head in five plates in our work is another interesting feature of the spirituality. Halo is the symbol of transformation. When the inner is transformed the halo emerged. It is the inner silence and inner power that is externalized in the outer world. The halo is depicted to show that the Five Dhyani Buddhas are the symbolical representatives of Enlightenment.

Esoteric Significance in Buddhist Iconography

Vajrayana is a vast ocean of knowledge. This is the latest development of the Buddha’s teaching. The highest understanding has been spoken in the form of Vajrayana Tantra. It is the alchemy of inner life. Tantra doesn’t make a man a believer but it makes a man the scientist of the inner world. The obscure ideas and philosophy has to be digested and the taste of inner silence and the void has to be absorbed. This is not mere a philosophy. Vajrayana is a practical science which concerns with inner transformation.

There are some Theravadin scholars who talk about it in the derogatory term by claiming Vajrayana to be heresy. They claim that it has nothing to do with Buddha himself. Rather, for them, this is the cultivated and perverted form of the commingling of Buddhism and the Tibetan Bon or other primitive religions. The mysticism and occult theories are never meant to lead towards Enlightenment.

But in this study, it seems to me that, Vajrayana is the cultivation of Buddha’s teaching. It is gullible to think that twenty five centuries after Buddha’s existence the meaning and value of the life will remain the same. Life is the ever changing phenomena. This ever-changing fact has been addressed in Vajrayana Buddhism by not condemning but rather by accepting and transforming the same failings which has prevented man to become a Buddha. In Hinayana, life seems so narrow. It excludes everything in the name of Nibbana. Vajrayana seems to be all-inclusive. Life is there, trouble is there, but the essential is also not missing. This all inclusiveness is itself very much contradictory and mystical. But it is just a natural flow of life which Vajrayana advocates for.

While talking about the essential point of transformation, the help can be derived from the techniques that are described in the Vajrayana. Vajrayana laid the techniques but at the same time affirms that the void, the sunyata in the form of Vajra is the cosmic value of life. It is so humorous. Vajrayana plays with symbols. The concepts of Vajrayana cannot be talked in normal human language thus it tends to display some artistic caliber. The ideas are enumerated in certain format according to the praxis which may to some extent be cultural. But the objectivity and pragmatism is never forgotten.

The five Dhyani Buddhas are first talked in Guhyasamja Tantra regarding them as five Tathagatas symbolizing the five aggregates, five Pranas and Five cosmic elements respectively. They are visualized in the Tathagata-mandala through intense practice which may automatically ignite the downward flowing Prana (winds) and actualize the supreme understanding by freeing from five clinging aggregates by witnessing their true nature. It is the witnessing act that transforms the being. The iconography of Five Buddhas elaborately conceals these meaning in its womb. The decoder will be the Sadhaka, who may take help from the map in the form of iconography in his spiritual practice.

To sum up, each of the five Buddhas first identifies a specific human failing and then helps humans in transforming it into a positive attribute, bringing about the spiritual evolution required for enlightenment and this cryptic form of state of Enlightenment can be interpreted through the systematic study of various icons by analyzing and decoding their historical and anthropomorphic meaning.

Vairocana Buddha 
Vairocana Buddha
(Plate I)
Western Tibet
14th C./Distemper on prepared Fabric
17*15 Inches (43*38 cm)
 Akshobhya Buddha
Plate II
Akshobhya Buddha

Ratnasambhava Buddha 
Ratnasambhava Buddha
Plate III

Amitabh Buddha 
Amitabh Buddha
Plate IV

Amoghsiddhi Buddha 
Amoghsiddhi Buddha
Plate V

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