Five Dhyani Buddhas and Their Mandala
To the initiate, the mandala of the Five Dhyani Buddhas is at once a
cosmic diagram of the world and of himself. It is a tool for spiritual
growth and mystical experience—a map to enlightenment alive with divine
The Five Dhyani Buddhas: Guides to Spiritual Transformation
names of the Five Dhyani Buddhas are Vairochana, Akshobhya,
Ratnasambhava, Amitabha and Amogasiddhi. Tibetan Buddhists believe that
the Adi-Buddha, the primordial and highest being, created the Dhyani
Buddhas by his meditative powers.
The Five Dhyani Buddhas are celestial Buddhas whom we visualize
during meditation. The word Dhyani is derived from the Sanskrit dhyana,
meaning “meditation.” The Dhyani Buddhas are also called Jinas
(“Victors” or “Conquerors”). They are not historical figures, like
Gautama Buddha, but transcendent beings who symbolize universal divine
principles or forces. The Dhyani Buddhas represent various aspects of
the enlightened consciousness and are great healers of the mind and
soul. They are our guides to spiritual transformation.
Traditionally, each Dhyani Buddha is associated with certain
attributes and symbols. Each one embodies one of the five wisdoms, which
antidote the five deadly poisons that are of ultimate danger to man’s
spiritual progress and keep him tied to worldly existence. Buddhists
teach that the Dhyani Buddhas are able to transmute the five poisons
into their transcendent wisdoms. The Tibetan Book of the Dead recommends
that the devotee meditate on the Dhyani Buddhas so that their wisdoms
will replace the negative forces he has allowed to take hold within.
Each Buddha rules over one of the directions of space and one of the
cosmic realms of ether, water, earth, fire and air. The Dhyani Buddhas
also personify the five skandhas, components that make up cosmic
existence as well as human personality. These components are
consciousness, form, feeling, perception and volition.
In addition, each Dhyani Buddha is associated with a specific color,
mudra (hand gesture), symbolic animal that supports his throne, sacred
symbol and bija (seed syllable). The bija represents the essence of the
Dhyani Buddha. You can use it with the sacred syllable Om and the
Buddha’s name to create a mantra. A mantra is defined as a series of
mystic syllables that have an esoteric meaning. In Hinduism and
Buddhism, disciples recite mantras to evoke the power and presence of a
divine being. In some traditions, devotees use mantras in meditation to
help them become one with the deity they are invoking.
“By repeating the mantra and assuming the mudra of any Buddha,”
writes Buddhist monk and teacher Sangharakshita, “one can not only place
oneself in correspondence or alignment with the particular order of
reality which he personifies but also be infused with its transcendental
Mandalas: Maps to Mystic Union
often depict the Dhyani Buddhas in a mandala. Mandala is a Sanskrit
word meaning “circle,” translated in Tibetan texts as “center” or “what
surrounds.” Some say the word derives from manda
“essence.” The mandala as a circle denotes wholeness, completeness and
the perfection of Buddhahood. The mandala is also a “circle of
friends”—a gathering of Buddhas. Traditionally mandalas are painted on
thangkas (scroll paintings framed in silk), drawn with colored sand,
represented by heaps of rice, or constructed three-dimensionally, often
in cast metal.
A Dhyani Buddha is positioned in the center as well as on each of the
cardinal points of the mandala. Mandalas were originally composed on
the ground in front of the meditator and are therefore oriented toward
the person who is contemplating them. The point nearest the
contemplator, at the bottom of the mandala, is the east. The mandala
continues clockwise, following the course of the sun, with south to the
left of the contemplator, west at the top and north to the right.
Lama Anagarika Govinda, one of the foremost interpreters of Tibetan
Buddhism to the West, explains: “In the same way as the sun rises in the
east and thus begins the day, the practitioner enters the mandala
through the eastern gate, the door in front of which he sits.” 2
A mandala is a sacred, consecrated space where no obstacles,
impurities or distracting influences exist. Buddhists use it as an aid
in meditation and visualization. “All mandalas,” writes Tibetologist
Detlef Lauf, “originate from the seed-syllables, or bija-mantras, of the
deities. During meditation upon these mantras, an elemental radiance of
light develops, from which comes the image of the Buddhas.” 3
Mandalas are rich in symbolism. The series of circles on the
periphery of a mandala symbolizes protection from external influences.
The outermost circle of flames signifies knowledge that destroys
ignorance or symbolizes the phenomenal world the devotee abandons as he
enters the mandala. The flames can also represent the Mountain of Fire
that prohibits the uninitiated from receiving the mysteries. The ring of
lotus petals inside the circle of fire signifies the spiritual world,
spiritual rebirth, the unfolding of spiritual vision, or the purity of
heart that is necessary for effective meditation.
The central part of a mandala (signified by the square inside the
circle) represents a palace or temple with four gates at the four
cardinal points. Outside the palace walls, mandalas often show
propitious and victorious symbols, such as the Eight Auspicious Symbols.
These eight symbols commemorate the gifts Gautama Buddha received after
he attained enlightenment. They are the precious parasol, banner of
victory, golden wheel of the Teaching, white conch shell, two golden
fish, knot of eternity, vase of great treasures and lotus flower.
Buddhists believe these symbols bring good fortune.
The four gates of the palace lead to the innermost circle, the focus
of the mandala. “Mandalas appear as circles around a holy center,” write
authors Blanche Olschak and Geshe Thupten Wangyal. “These depictions
are the ground plan of the visionary heavenly abodes, at whose center is
manifested the holy power that is to be invoked. The entire mandala is a
fortress built around this Buddha-force.” 4 In his
meditation the disciple circles the focus at the center of the mandala
until he can finally integrate with that powerful nucleus.
The disciple uses the mandala to find its elements within himself.
“As soon as he has entered the mandala,” writes religious historian
Mircea Eliade, “he is in a sacred space, outside of time; the gods have
already ‘descended’ into the…insignia. A series of meditations, for
which the disciple has been prepared in advance, help him to find the
gods in his own heart. In a vision, he sees them all emerge and spring
from his heart; they fill cosmic space, then are reabsorbed in him….By
mentally entering the mandala the yogi approaches his own ‘center.’…The
yogi, starting from this iconographic ‘support,’ can find the mandala in
his own body.” 5
Thus with all its symbolism, a mandala is no mere external image of
heavenly power. Buddhists believe a mandala is the receptacle of the
holy power it portrays. Its purpose, and the goal of every one of its
symbolic images, is to help the meditator realize the divine power
within himself and achieve his own inner perfection.
“The whole external mandala is a model of that spiritual pattern
which the meditating individual sees within himself and which he must
endeavour to experience in his own consciousness,” says Lauf. “[The
Dhyani] Buddhas are looked upon as beings whose activity will manifest
itself through man himself. The mandala thus becomes a cosmic plan in
which man and the world are similarly ordered and structured….The
meditation Buddhas develop their beneficial activity only in the measure
to which the initiate succeeds in recognizing and realizing these
characteristics and symbolized forces within himself.” 6
As renowned orientalist Giuseppe Tucci explains, “The five Buddhas do
not remain remote divine forms in distant heavens, but descend into us.
I am the cosmos and the Buddhas are in myself. In me is the cosmic
light, a mysterious presence, even if it be obscured by error. But these
five Buddhas are nevertheless in me, they are the five constituents of
the human personality.” 7
The Dalai Lama teaches: “Mandala, in general, means that which
extracts the essence….The main meaning [of a mandala] is for oneself to
enter into the mandala and extract an essence in the sense of receiving
blessing. It is a place of gaining magnificence.” 8
For the disciple who knows how to use it, a mandala is therefore a
map of the progressive steps to self-transformation and mystic union. It
represents the growth of the seed of Buddhahood within him. “The
meditator,” says Lama Govinda, “must imagine himself in the center of
the mandala as an embodiment of the divine figure of perfect
Buddhahood.” And that Buddhahood, he says, “can only be found in the
realization of all those qualities which, taken all together, form the
richness of the mandala.” 9
The Sacred Art of Tibet: Bringing Heaven to Earth
Some of the most remarkable sculptures of the Five Dhyani Buddhas
were created by Tibetan artists during the thirteenth to early fifteenth
centuries. Because the Dhyani Buddhas are celestial not historical
beings, they are often portrayed with jewels and a crown rather than the
simple robes of a Buddha.
To the Tibetan, creating a work of art is a religious act. At each
stage, the artist or a monk or lama offers certain prayers and rituals.
He will often place scrolls of religious texts, votive offerings and
grains inside statues. When the work is completed, the monk or lama
performs a ceremony of consecration.
Tibetans use art as a method of bringing heaven to earth and raising
man out of his earthly confines to a realm of peace and harmony. They
believe that a statue of a Buddha, for instance, is the living presence
of that Buddha, who becomes one with his icon.
Tibetan sculptures of the Dhyani Buddhas convey both elegance and
power. This is the singular character, charm and mission of Tibetan
sacred art. The real is wed to the transcendent. Grace and purity are
fused with vitality and power. Careful detail and precision are united
with spontaneity. The result is that the otherworldliness and perfection
of enlightened realms comes through with an immediacy that inspires the
observer to realize his own divine potential.
1. Bhikshu Sangharakshita, A Survey of Buddhism, rev. ed. (Boulder, Colo.: Shambhala with London: Windhorse, 1980), p. 372.
2. Lama Anagarika Govinda, Insights of a Himalayan Pilgrim (Berkeley: Dharma Publishing, 1991), p. 128.
3. Detlef Ingo Lauf, Secret Doctrines of the Tibetan Books of the Dead, trans. Graham Parkes (Boston: Shambhala, 1989), p. 105.
4. Blanche Christine Olschak and Geshe Thupten Wangyal, Mystic Art of Ancient Tibet (Boston: Shambhala, 1987), p. 36.
5. Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom, 2d ed.,
trans. Willard R. Trask, Bollingen Series, no. 56 (1969; reprint,
Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1970), p. 225.
6. Detlef Ingo Lauf, Tibetan Sacred Art: The Heritage of Tantra (Berkeley: Shambhala, 1976), pp. 120, 122, 123.
7. Giuseppe Tucci, The Theory and Practice of the Mandala, trans. Alan Houghton Brodrick (1961; reprint, New York: Samuel Weiser, 1970), p. 51.
8. The Fourteenth Dalai Lama His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso, Kindness, Clarity, and Insight, ed. Jeffrey Hopkins and Elizabeth Napper (Ithaca, N.Y.: Snow Lion Publications, 1984), p. 82.
9. Lama Anagarika Govinda, Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism (1960; reprint, New York: Samuel Weiser, 1969), p. 181; Insights of a Himalayan Pilgrim, p. 178.