I have been writing a series about the mandala of the five buddhas, or jinas, or conquerors. This is because I recently gave a talk about the Buddha Amoghasiddhi, and found the writing of it very inspiring. I published articles about Amoghasiddhi and Akshobya late last year, and have articles coming up on the other three Buddha figures; Ratnasambhava, Amitabha and Vairocana.
Buddha, means one who is awake, and this represents the pinnacle of human potential, the teacher of gods and men. What this means is beyond the scope of either our minds or our words to understand. We are however treated to glimpses of spiritual qualities, of higher states of consciousness, and of true reality as we walk our path through life.
Perhaps we might notice the dance of the leaves in the breeze, or the amazement of a beautiful sunrise, or experience stillness, expansion, compassion, or are struck by a feeling of awe, of beauty, of something that is beyond.
We start to form an impression of enlightenment, we relate to the figure of a Buddha with more and more faith and devotion as we ourselves develop and start to take steps towards it. It is interesting and perhaps inspiring to note that the highest spiritual state in the universe is not godhood, but that of an awakened human being.
Extract from Amoghasiddhi talk, about the mandala:
“What you see in an image of the Buddha is only limited by your experience and imagination. It is a portal, through which you come to access ever more meaning, ever more of the transcendental, as you become ever more receptive to the kiss of the beyond.”
Have you ever tried to look at the sun?
When you do, or even squint at a light, if you look a while you see more than the white or golden light, you actually see other colours dancing in the rays and in your eyelashes like hinted rainbows. You see reds, and yellows, and blues, and you see greens. The Mandala is like this, for the brilliance of the Buddha is too much to take in, too bright to look at.
Thus, in the prism of the meditating mind, the one Buddha refracted into a mandala of five, as several aspects or facets of enlightenment became personified. We are blessed to have these visionaries in the past, to help us to approach the absolute brilliance and beauty of a Buddha.
This rich tapestry of visualisation and imagination began with the Buddha’s historical disciples, who would, when distant from their kind teacher either temporally or spatially, imagine his presence. This would inspire them, guide them, and help them in their practice even after his passing, and would ultimately become a practice in itself, called Buddhanussati.
If you try for a moment to visualise or reflect on the Buddha, if you try to imagine the qualities of a Buddha, then it may be that various aspects begin to become more prevalent, depending on your temperament and volitions. You might think of wisdom or stillness, compassion or kindness, peace, or even that famous and mystical smile.
Over the centuries, in the prism of the meditating mind, this mandala evolved, the one became five. The dazzling brightness became five colours, and five buddhas began to embody and represent particular qualities. The five became many more, as more and more figures emerged from meditation to embody more aspects of the Buddhist experience.
In Vajrayana, and especially in Tibetan Buddhism, it is very common to take on practices involving a Buddha or Bodhisattva (lit. being heading for enlightenment or awakening.) You are given an initiation, and you begin to meditate on that figure, and in so doing, you are aiming to come closer to that quality yourself.
It may be that you feel a connection to a figure, or are specifically seeking to develop a certain quality. They really represent a set of qualities, and have their own associations and symbols, coming even to represent a certain wisdom, an element, a season, a time of day, a colour, and a particular way of responding to the world.
In this way then they may be seen or worked with as projections, and engaged with on a psychological level. However, there is an archetypal, and a mythical aspect to all of the buddhas and bodhisattvas. One enters a rich and vivid world in which the imagination is harnessed to help you develop and awaken, a world which becomes animate, like the world known to our ancestors.
Once immersed in meditation, you enter their realm, and it may even be that your reality begins to be flavoured by these encounters, or even that the universe is communicating to you. Synchronicities, signs, dreams, there is it seems a response from the universe, related to the way in way in which certain ancient and modern writers talk of contact, union and communication with the divine or the godhead. Not to be confused with a creator or judgemental God however, these figures are portals to the transcendental, the mystic realms of truth and enlightenment. Channels for the sunshine, if you like.
Initially there were only three, there was the original Buddha, and then in the Yogacara tradition, the trikaya theory developed, which is the three bodies of a Buddha. The human, or created body manifesting in time and space, or nirmanakaya. Sambogakaya, an imagined body of bliss or light, and also the dharmakaya, or truth body, which is the realm of ultimate reality they embody, like a field of infinite light.
Then the Buddha evolved into two buddhas, one for wisdom (Akshobya – blue) and one for compassion (Amitabha – red) The two more appeared, one embodying beauty and generosity (Ratnasambhava – golden) and another fearlessness, power, action and energy (Amoghasiddhi – green.)
I am not going to write much about their specific qualities here, I will write a piece on each figure. Some of them are initially very appealing, Amitabha for example has a whole school (Pure Land Buddhism) devoted to him. Others are more mysterious, and emerge only when you are ready to meet them.
They have become objects of meditation, and this is what the tantra is really about. It is the working with a boddha and bodhisattva in meditation, in order to try and approach them, to become more like them. To appreciate their qualities and aspire to develop them for oneself.
So for example, meditating on a figure representing compassion (Tara, Avalokitshvara, Amitabha, Padmasambhava..) one would hope to become more and more in tune with perfect compassion and kindness. One would try to understand emptiness, and move beyond the narrow constrictions of the worldly mind, in order to deeply realise interconnectedness, to the point where there simply is not self and other, no duality, no self-centredness.
Thus they can and are worshipped like Gods, or figures of myth and archetype, or as projections. They are gateways to enlightenment, and even though they do represent a specific quality, they also contain all qualities. They simply allow one to focus more on certain energies or wisdom qualities. In the same way, if one was to attain Insight, or enlightenment, all of these qualities would manifest. Even if one awakened through meditation, or acts of kindness, or gaining wisdom, all the others would spontaneously flow forth from the the enlightened state.
This enlightened state is not comprehensible by words and concepts; we can form a limited understanding, and try to point the way with words and concepts, but ultimately the experience is beyond their scope. Faith in there being such a state, faith in human potential to develop towards infinite kindness, love and wisdom, is what makes one a buddhist.
This faith develops by simply observing how the practices do work, do affect one, and as one notches up thousands of mini awakenings one becomes certain that further development is indeed possible. One knows that evolution is possible, and that we are responsible for that evolution and must take the steps to attain it, and in this way the hope that we are not simply going to consume and destroy our world is kept alive.
There is an excellent series of books on the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas by Vessantara.