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 possibilities.
The Five Dhyani Buddhas: Guides to Spiritual Transformation
The 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 power.” 1
Buddhists 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, meaning “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.