The Five Dhyani Buddhas

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Heavenly Guides to Spiritual Transformation

The Five Dhyani Buddhas are icons of Mahayana Buddhism. These transcendent Buddhas are visualized in tantric meditation and appear in Buddhist iconography.

The five Buddhas are Aksobhya, Amitabha, Amoghasiddhi, Ratnasaṃbhava, and Vairocana. Each represents a different aspect of enlightened consciousness to aid in spiritual transformation.

Often in Vajrayana art, they are arranged in a mandala, with Vairocana in the center. The other Buddhas are depicted in each of the four directions (north, south, east, and west).

Each Dhyani Buddha has a specific color and symbol which represent his meanings and the purpose for meditating on him. Mudras, or hand gestures, are also used in Buddhist art to distinguish one Buddha from another and convey the appropriate teaching.

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Akshobhya Buddha: "Immovable One"

Akshobhya Buddha
The Immovable Buddha Akshobhya Buddha. MarenYumi / Flickr.com, Creative Commons License

Akshobhya was a monk who vowed never to feel anger or disgust toward another being. He was immovable in keeping this vow. After striving for a long period, he became a Buddha.

Akshobhya is a heavenly Buddha who reigns over the Eastern paradise, Abhirati. Those who fulfill Akshobhya's vow are reborn in Abhirati and cannot fall back into lower states of consciousness.

It's important to note that the directional 'paradises' are understood to be a state of mind, not physical places.

Depictions of Akshobhya

In Buddhist iconography, Akshobhya is usually blue though sometimes gold. He is most often pictured touching the earth with his right hand. This is the earth-touching mudra, which is the gesture used by the historical Buddha when he asked the earth to bear witness to his enlightenment.

In his left hand, Akshobhya holds a vajra, the symbol of shunyata -- an absolute reality that is all things and beings, unmanifested. Akshobhya is also associated with the fifth skandha, consciousness.

In Buddhist tantra, evoking Akshobhya in meditation helps overcome anger and hatred.

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Amitabha Buddha: "Infinite Light"

Amitabha Buddha
Buddha of Boundless Light Amitabha Buddha. MarenYumi / Flickr.com, Creative Commons License

Amitabha Buddha, who is also called Amita or Amida Buddha, is probably the best known of the Dhyani Buddhas. In particular, devotion to Amitabha is at the center of Pure Land Buddhism, one of the largest schools of Mahayana Buddhism in Asia.

In a long-ago time, Amitabha was a king who renounced his kingdom to become a monk. Called Dharmakara Bodhisattva, the monk practiced diligently for five eons and realized enlightenment and became a buddha.

Amitabha Buddha reigns over Sukhavati (the Western paradise) which is also called the Pure Land. Those reborn in the Pure Land experience the joy of hearing Amitabha teach the dharma until they are ready to enter Nirvana.

Depictions of Amitabha

Amitabha symbolizes mercy and wisdom. He is associated with the third skandha, that of perception. Tantric meditation on Amitabha is an antidote to desire. He is sometimes pictured in between the bodhisattvas Avalokiteshvara and Mahasthamaprapta.

In Buddhist iconography, Amitabha's hands are most often in a meditation mudra: fingers barely touching and gently folded over the lap with palms facing upward. His red color symbolizes love and compassion and his symbol is the lotus, representing gentleness and purity.

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Amoghasiddhi Buddha: "Almighty Conqueror"

Amoghasiddhi Buddha
The Buddha Who Unerringly Achieves His Goal Amoghasiddhi Buddha. MarenYumi / Flickr.com, Creative Commons License

In the "Bardo Thodol" -- the "Tibetan Book of the Dead" -- Amoghasiddhi Buddha appears to represent the accomplishment of all action. His name means 'Infalliable Success" and his consort is the well-known Green Tara, in the 'Noble Deliverer.'

Amoghasiddhi Buddha reigns in the North and is associated with the fourth skandha, volition or mental formations. This can also be interpreted as impulses, which is strongly associated with action. Meditation on Amoghasiddhi Buddha vanquishes envy and jealousy, two often impulsive actions. 

Depictions of Amoghasiddhi

Amoghasiddhi is most often depicted in Buddhist iconography as radiating a green light, which is the light of accomplishing wisdom and promoting peace. His hand gesture is the mudra of fearlessness: his right hand in front of his chest and palm facing outward as if to say 'stop.'

He holds a crossed vajra, also called a double dorje or the thunderbolt. This represents accomplishment and fulfillment in all directions.

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Ratnasambhava Buddha: "Jewel-Born One"

Ratnasambhava Buddha
The Jewel-Born One Ratnasambhava Buddha. MarenYumi / Flickr.com, Creative Commons License

Ratnasambhava Buddha represents richness. His name translates to "Origin of Jewel" or the "Jewel-Born One." In Buddhism, the Three Jewels are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha and Ratnasambhava is often thought of as the giving Buddha.

He reigns in the South and is associated with the second skandha, sensation. Meditation on Ratnasambhava Buddha vanquishes pride and greed, focusing instead on equality.

Depictions of Ratnasambhava

Ratnasambhava Buddha has a yellow color which symbolizes earth and fertility in Buddhist iconography. He often holds a wish-fulfilling jewel.  

He holds his hands in the wish-fulfilling mudra: his right hand facing down and the palm outward and his left in the mudra of meditation. This symbolizes generosity.

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Vairocana Buddha: "Embodiment of Light"

Vairocana Buddha
He Who Is Like the Sun Vairocana Buddha. MarenYumi / Flickr.com, Creative Commons License

Vairocana Buddha is sometimes called the primordial Buddha or supreme Buddha. He is thought to be the embodiment of all the Dhyani Buddhas; also everything and everywhere, omnipresent and omniscient.

He represents the wisdom of shunyata, or emptiness. Vairocana is considered a personification of the dharmakaya -- everything, unmanifested, free of characteristics and distinctions.

He is associated with the first skandha, form. Meditation on Vairocana vanquishes ignorance and delusion, leading to wisdom.

Depictions of Vairocana

When the Dhyani Buddhas are pictured together in a mandala, Vairocana is at the center. 

Vairocana is white, representing all colors of light and all the Buddhas. His symbol is the Dharma wheel, which, at its most basic, represents the study of the dharma, practice through meditation, and moral discipline.

His hand gesture is known as the Dharmachakra mudra and is often reserved for the iconography of either Vairocana or the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. The mudra represents the turning of the wheel and places the hands so that the thumbs and index fingers touch at the tips to form a wheel.