Thousands of years ago, when humans lived a life closer with nature, when we had to go to the forest or to the ocean to look for food, when we had to look to the stars to navigate our way, when we had to understand the soil to plant crops, when we had knowledge of wood and trees to build our huts, when we lived in communities near water and sunshine, and our eyes were accustomed to walking in darkness along paths we had memorized, we had a natural understanding of our surroundings. We flowed with it, we listened to and smelled the air to learn what nature was revealing. It was a dance; when humans heard and understood the music of nature without effort.
Technology and artificial lifestyles have brought us many comforts, such as not having to risk our lives to find food, to be able to repair a tooth without pain, the ability to talk with people on the other side of the globe, and so on. But as we know, these advances have also driven us away from nature, from where we came, and to where we return when our bones become ashes. Distancing our senses and perceptions from our surroundings and other living beings has made us lose the habit of being comfortable in the dark, turning our new-found comforts into needs. Electricity has taken away our natural time to sleep, and it feels as if we are in a kind of battle against nature, racing to cross vast distances with aircraft, spending more time with thick rubber under the soles of our feet than in direct contact with the life-giving soil. We attempt to outrun time and aging with cosmetic surgery, and to defeat silence with intense entertainment and work. We run against nature and the capacity to listen to our own true nature. Often, we are unaware of the reasons why we feel anxious or sad or angry. The way we treat nature, we treat our souls. Unfortunately we abuse nature, and so we are abusing our own selves and others.
So how can we get back in touch with our inner nature and nurture a deeper respect for life, while continuing our pursuit of advancing technology? Well, our ancestors had a language to connect and rebalance our inner and outer natures. Bon was a shamanic religion in Tibet before Buddhism arrived and spread rapidly in the eighth century, in the process assimilating local beliefs. Bon considered that each thing in nature was animated by its own spirit—the mountains, rivers, trees, animals—and each interaction was based on respecting and understanding these forces. Bon emphasized that the whole universe of phenomena is made from five basic elements, out of which all other complexities emerge. These five are the materia prima: air, fire, water, earth, and space, and are not limited to their material evidence, but also their energy and inner nature. We are physically made of it, as well as emotionally and spiritually. We can say that Buddhism refines the notion of these elements for the purpose of attaining nirvana. These five elements seen in Bon are known in Vajrayana Buddhism as the Five Buddha Families.
Each of the five buddhas is connected to a specific element, shape, emotion, wisdom, and also a certain neurosis or poison. The way we tend to study the families is by looking into each buddha, but by making such linear definitions we isolate them from each other. Instead, the best image we can use to grasp this essence is the mandala, which is One Made of Many. A rainbow is a rainbow because is made up of all colors—if were to be depicted with only one color, it would no longer be a rainbow. So each element really only makes sense when taken in the context of the others. The wisdoms we will contemplate are in reference to the space of our mind and in relation to all the other inner and outer elements.
We know well that there is no effort to feel anger, sadness, or fear. When we are in our unawakened state, it feels like such emotions possess a gravity that pulls us into a body of dark matter. So instead of trying to fight such forces, the question to ask is: how can I make it work in my favor? For example, it’s only when I am in grief that I look into deeply into the memories stored in my heart. I then have the opportunity to re-signify all of it before coming back to the “surface.” Feelings of sadness can be a combustive on my quest for joy and eventually my encounter with it. If I choose to run toward distractions to avoid feeling grief, I will lose the opportunity to work with the deep meanings that build the basic structure of all my emotions, from where all of them originate. Of course, one needs to cultivate wisdom and compassion to re-signify all of the wounds and to be able to sit with them. And this is the study of the families: knowing that they can be cultivated within our hearts, so that our emotions and actions can come from an intimate place of acknowledging the nature of one’s own emotions. But for that to be possible, one needs to be a little (if not a lot) experimental, available, playful, and patient with oneself.
If we look at the mandala of the Five Buddha Families (in the above image, the buddhas are represented by their active feminine form of the five dakinis), in the center we have Vairocana Buddha, white in color (in some traditions Vairocana is blue) and space in essence is connected to our own capacity to manifest the All-Abiding Wisdom that allows the fertile spaciousness for all other elements to manifest. It is like the space of a white canvas ready to receive all possibilities of shape and form, or like the necessary silence that holds music. Its poison is ignorance or “spaced-outness,” a lack of space, disinterest, and dullness. When we lack such wisdom, we fall into ignorance of our own true nature and its unlimited capacities. We can even be so full of intellectual knowledge but empty of intimacy and real interaction with reality that it is as if there were no space for play or change.
Whenever one feels doubt or confusion about how to balance oneself, turn to the center of the mandala, from which everything originates and to which everything returns, resting in naked presence and empty fertile emptiness. Whatever manifests from such space is wonderful, as my Zen teacher always pointed out to me, urging me to wield a brush of emptiness, as usually we move from a more “guaranteed” place of established concepts, leaving little room for revelation.
From the center we move to the blue Akshobya Buddha of the Vajra Family, related to the water element. This buddha’s wisdom is known as mirror-like wisdom; when a lake is still it reflects all universe and is without distortion. Like our minds, when it’s still and at peace, it can see things as they are, but the slightest agitation distorts the reflections. Think about the humid surface of our eyes reflecting what we see and our brain full of water. This element reminds us that what I see is in me, and that we can cultivate the nature of the mirror that reflects the universe, yet is not stained by anything. This is how we should look to reality, without judgments, preconceptions, or criticisms. When we are in tune with vajra wisdom, anything is possible because we are not bound tightly to right and wrong but are dealing with things as they are, without distortions. Also, being able to see how apparently magical it all is, our capacity to create our own reality starting from how we see life is a very freeing, unlimiting, precise, and crystalline vision. But when such water is agitated, murky, too cold or too hot, it creates disturbances in the whole environment. This is when we crystallize one idea, one concept, and fight nature. This provokes so much anger, the poison of this element. Anger comes from fixed ideas and the effort to persuade others to agree with you, with your version and perspective. When we are angry, we have the chance to use the shadow as a door to analyze and find the seed of wisdom. Usually when we are angry it is because something or someone has moved against our opinions and our version of the story. But just like a mirror that can reflect anything, we can accommodate infinite space in our minds without becoming smudged or cracked. It is impersonal and all accommodating—everyone has their own perspective and even when being contradictory, it is possible to coexist without war. This is a virtue of the Vajra Family.
Then we move on to Ratnasambhava, the yellow Buddha, the Ratna Family, the earth element. Ratna in Sanskrit means jewel, that which is precious. Its wisdom is equanimity and generosity, and its poison is arrogance and pride. Think about the earth, the ground upon which we stand. Without a ground to stand upon, we lose balance and also the sense of our own body and direction. So earth is about feeling in balance and oriented. He or she stands alone, fully embodied, naturally feeling grounded, secure, fearless, and relaxed. But when the earth element is unbalanced, one lives with a sense of being in the “wrong” place, the “wrong” body, lacking what is needed to walk this path or to be oneself. One begins to develop insecurities and low self-esteem. For that feeling we have many mechanisms, either we feel very small and poor, living in fear that something is always lacking, making us hold on tightly to things and people. Or, because of such insecurity, we create a layer of “proofs of value” running toward material gain, fame, neurotic beauty, intellectualization, and so on, in order to hide our insecurity. This kind of pursuit of self-value creates a veil of arrogance and pride. People who are OK with themselves have no need at all to prove anything and will cultivate a greater disposition to see what others need by having a generous presence and the ability to see the worthiness of all sentient beings to receive love and care. That is how we touch this wisdom of equanimity and generosity.
This element is also very much connected to the cycles of life and death, expressing the notion that nothing is lost and everything is transformed, everything becomes dust eventually, fertilizing the soil for the birth of something new. Ratna never carries the feeling of loss even when it apparently loses something, because it carries naturally the sense that everything changes form all the time, and that death itself is a merely a concept, as is loss.
From there we move to Amitabha, the red buddha of the Padma Family, which represents the Lotus Family and the fire element. Amitabha’s wisdom is discernment and compassion, and its poison is desire and attachment. Fire has two aspects: heat and light. Fire warms our body, cooks our food, and metabolizes our digestion, yet it can also burn and destroy. This means that all that feels good today we can desire to intensify and risking losing the reference of what is healthy, digging into emotional dramas and much suffering. The pursuit of this feeling the warmth, of being loved, can make us engage in all kinds of sensual games in order to gain attention, to be seen and to feel special, to be someone’s light. We want to be light, but this same wanting is what suffocates the flame. When we sense the warmth, we never want relinquish it; we don’t believe that we can shine without that beloved person or thing or project, and so we grasp. But wisdom comes when we stop craving the warmth and start giving it—and not for one special person from whom we want something in return, but to all beings. This is when passion becomes compassion. By giving, one multiplies. Fire never ends when its flame is shared.
The other important aspect of fire is light. It is by the fire of the Sun that nature grows and that we are able to see all life. When we have light in our heart, we are able to see the path ahead of us. All makes sense, which gives us purpose and great joy to overcome any difficulties. We can call this light inspiration, love for life, love for the guru, love for all beings, that which enlightens our path. We realize that it has nothing to do with the “object” but more on how we lay our own light upon it.
We then move clockwise to Amoghasiddhi, the green buddha of the Karma Family, and the element of air. Amoghasiddhi’s wisdom is of all-accomplishing and the poison is jealousy. Air is not green, but we can well perceive it as such when it hits the top of the trees. And such is karma, that we don’t see it until it hits us. This family is the answer to how you organize your other elements, like an archer who puts himself in place (space), focuses on the target (vajra), pulls with strength and grace the bow (ratna), and is completely involved with what he is doing (padma). When all of this is in place, all he has to do is to open his fingers and release—letting the arrow do what it is meant to do. This wisdom is pretty much about organizing things, making them work, directing, producing, sharing—so it’s all about accomplishing. However, this energy can easily become a neurosis of doing too much, or thinking of oneself as the only one who knows how to do something, overrunning other people, overworking, disrespecting. It becomes infuriated when someone else does better and this is how the poison grows, like a little weed of jealousy. But when karma ripens and matures, when karma is built upon the cultivation of wisdom and compassion, one celebrates the achievements of others, and he or she becomes the maestro of a beautiful orchestra, trusting each instrument to play its best, to create a beautiful unified offering by allowing them to play, just like the example of the arrow.
We now return to the center of the mandala and dissolve into space, allowing it to go and allowing it to come and to become. One can find each of these wisdoms and the tendencies of our shadows to grow. The path is to balance through awareness, through knowing oneself. The mandala is alive within us, moving like clouds in space, flames in the wind, water through rocks, and, like a gardener, we should tend to the seeds we plant, the fruits we harvest, knowing the names and the qualities of each herb, we should rest in the shade of the big trees and be able to smell the fragrance of flowers, allowing the bees to come and carry the pollen, soaking up the summer rain and warming ourselves again in the midday sun. Moving with each change. Now it’s cold, then we should look to getting warm. Then it’s too warm, we should know how to move to cool ourselves.
It’s a dance. And thats how this mandala is depicted, with the wisdoms as dakinis, dancing naked, laughing free, radiating from the pulsing mandala in the center of your heart. The mandala is alive within you! Dance!