Abiding and Evolving Buddha-Family Traits
Buddha-families – more fully, Buddha-family traits – refer to aspects of Buddha-nature that all of us have, even worms. In general, Buddha-nature factors allow for or account for everyone being able to become a Buddha. More precisely, they are factors associated with each individual’s tainted mental continuum that either transform into or are responsible for the various aspects of a Buddha. They include both abiding traits that have always been imputable on our continuums and evolving traits that grow. There are many presentations of the two.
- Abiding traits can be either phenomena that never change, such as the conventional and deepest natures of the mind, or phenomena that never change in nature, such as having a body, speech, and mind.
- The evolving traits can be factors that were always there, but which are potentials that can be stimulated to grow, such as good qualities, for instance compassion. They can also be newly attainable, such as bodhichitta or a correct understanding of voidness, which have a first time when someone attains them, and which can stimulate or reinforce traits that were always there.
Thus, working with Buddha-family traits entails both quieting down to recognize the traits that have always been there, as well as stimulating them to grow. Recognizing them may entail merely quieting down, or quieting the distortions of them when they are mixed with confusion. Both the Buddha-nature factors and their distortions shape our experience of the world.
Fivefold Scheme of Buddha-Family Traits
Kriya tantra and charya tantra have a threefold scheme of Buddha-family traits, while yoga tantra has a fourfold one. Most of the Buddha-figure systems in the highest class of tantra, anuttarayoga, present a fivefold structure, although Kalachakra and the Sakya Lamdre system of Hevajra present a sixfold scheme. Guhyasamaja speaks of one, five, or a hundred Buddha-family traits. Here, let us focus on the fivefold division.
Several groups of five traits fit into this scheme. Each of the five groups of traits is called a “family” or a “caste” of traits. Each family has a main Buddha-figure and an insignia that represents it:
- The Tathagata or Buddha family, represented by a wheel, has the main Buddha-figure Vairochana
- The jewel family, represented by a jewel, has the main Buddha-figure Ratnasambhava
- The lotus family, represented by a lotus, has the main Buddha-figures Amitabha and Avalokiteshvara
- The karma family, represented by a sword, has the main Buddha-figures Amoghasiddhi and Tara
- The vajra family, represented by a vajra, has the main Buddha-figure Akshobhya.
The pure mental activity of a Buddha gives rise to a pure appearance of the universe as a mandala with these five families and to cognition of them with an omniscient awareness that encompasses the interrelation of everything. Our impure mental activity, which is limited and mixed with confusion, gives rise to our ordinary experience with impure appearances of five aggregate factors and to limited awareness of these composite factors that comprise each moment of our lives.
The five aggregate factors are:
- Forms of physical phenomena – sights, sounds, and so on, as well as our bodies
- Feeling a level of happiness or unhappiness
- Other affecting variable, such as urges to do, say, or think something
- Consciousness, which cognizes the category of conventional phenomena that things are, such as being sights, sounds, or thoughts.
In Terms of All Aspects of a Buddha
We all have simultaneously:
- Body – Buddha family
- Good qualities – jewel family
- Speech (communication) – lotus family
- An influence on others and on ourselves – karma family
- Mind – vajra family.
For example, with mind or mental activity, we are aware of others – there is the arising of an appearance and a cognizing of it, without a separate solid “me” making it happen, controlling it, or observing it. Our mental activity has good qualities, such as basic happiness, the ability to be affectionate, to understand, and so on. This spontaneously translates into communication and action in response to others, and this exerts an influence on them. Although fear, feelings of inadequacy, being too busy, and so forth, may block or limit the functioning of all five traits, the abilities are there. Even when we are not saying anything, we have the ability to express ourselves verbally.
As an exercise, break into groups of three, with one person acting as the speaker, one the listener, and one the witness. Have the speaker say to the listener, “Good morning. How are you?” The speaker may elaborate on the phrases. Each person then reports, from his or her own perspective, what occurred: the mental activity, the qualities behind it, the verbal communication, body language, and the influence it had.
Each of the above five aspects can have the same five-fold division. There are two main presentations of them, each with two variant forms:
- General anuttarayoga – Gelug and non-Gelug
- The Karma Kagyu mahamudra system of specific and deep awareness (rnam-shes ye-shes) – the Third Karmapa and First Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche’s presentation and Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s presentation elaborated in the Maitri space awareness program.
Let us look primarily at the Gelug general anuttarayoga system and the Karma Kagyu mahamudra system as presented by Trungpa, as they are currently the most well-known in the West.
In Terms of the Mind of a Buddha
According to the Gelug presentation, we all have simultaneously in each moment of experience:
- Mirror-like awareness, of merely taking in all the information of the object – Buddha family
- Equalizing awareness, of objects fitting equally into a pattern or a universal – jewel family
- Individualizing awareness, of an object as a specific individual – lotus family
- Accomplishing awareness, to relate to an object or to do something with it or in response to it – karma family
- Reality (Skt. dhamadhatu) awareness of (a) objects as “this” or “that,” (b) of the pattern they fit into as “this” or “that” pattern, (c) of them as having “this” or “that” individuality, and (d) of relating to them in “this” or “that” manner. This is in terms of conventional or superficial truth. In terms of deepest truth, this is awareness of objects’ lack of fitting into solid categories, but rather their openness to change and mental labeling – vajra family.
When mixed with confusion about how we and everything actually exist, these five types of deep awareness distort into the five disturbing emotions and attitudes:
- Naivety, with which we do not take in all the information or do not take into account all the causes and effects of something
- Arrogance, with which we consider others and ourselves in the light of one quality and then consider ourselves better; also stinginess, with which we do not want to share our good qualities or possessions with others
- Longing desire and attachment, with which we single out one person or item, consider it special, and then, if we do not have it, feel we must have it or, if we do have it, we do not want to let go
- Jealousy, with which we see someone else accomplishing something and, instead of trying to accomplish it ourselves, we feel jealous
- Anger, with which we strongly identify something as “this” and not “that,” and then reject it strongly for not being “that.”
In the non-Gelug variant, reality awareness of commonsense objects as “this” or “that” is in the Buddha family, while mirror-like awareness of merely taking in all the information of the object in the context of everything is in the vajra family. When mixed with the confusion that gives rise to a dualistic appearance of a solidly existent “me” and of solidly existent “you” or “object,” reality awareness distorts into naivety about what something is or what effect it has. Mirror-like awareness distorts into anger, when we do not understand how something fits into the wider context of other things and therefore reject it.
Thus, in both variants, the neurotic aspect of the Buddha family is naivety and of the vajra family is anger, whether the deep awareness associated with the family is mirror-like or that of reality.
Karma Kagyu Mahamudra
According to Trungpa’s Maitri space awareness program, in each moment of experience we all have simultaneously:
- Reality awareness, with which, like deep awareness (ye-shes), we are open, all-embracing, and, in a relaxed manner, take in everything for what it is – Buddha family
- Mirror-like awareness, with which, like general awareness (yid), we highlight the general features of the entire sense field that we perceive so that we get an overview; we see how everything fits together and perceive order in the sense field – vajra family
- Equalizing awareness, with which we have equal regard for the entire sense field we perceive and we equally accept everything in it – jewel family
- Individualizing awareness, with which, like specific awareness (rnam-shes), we perceive the details of each individual item we perceive – lotus family
- Accomplishing awareness, with which we relate and respond to what we specifically perceive – karma family.
When mixed with confusion, the five deep awarenesses become neurotic and distort into the five disturbing emotions and attitudes:
- Naivety, in the sense of being messy and not caring if things are “this” or “that,” using anything as anything
- Anger, in the sense that we are overly exact and fussy about rules and order (in the context, for instance, of our homes, society, or science); we become angry when things do not fit into our preconceptions of order and how they should be
- Arrogance, with which we do not accept everything and everyone equally, and thus think we are better than others or everyone is better than us; also, stinginess, with which we do not accept everyone as needy and therefore do not share what we have
- Attachment and passion, with which we exaggerate the individuality of things and thus become either attached to or passionate about them; we become overdramatic with our emotions
- Jealousy, with which we become highly competitive and work fanatically to outdo others or ourselves.
In Kongtrul’s variant, mirror-like awareness with which we take in all the information is in the Buddha-family, while reality awareness with which we discriminate the general picture of what things are is in the vajra-family. Mirror-like awareness distorts into naivety, while reality awareness distorts into anger.
As in the case of the two variants of the general anuttarayoga tantra system, the neurotic aspect of the Buddha family is naivety and of the vajra family is anger, whether the deep awareness associated with the family is mirror-like or that of reality.
In Terms of Enlightening Influence
According to the Gelug presentation, there are five basic ways in which we act, influencing others:
- Pacifying action that calms others down, like the symbol of a completely calm Buddha. Our being calm influences others to quiet down from being frantic and lost in fantasy. They come down to earth, become anchored to practical reality, and thus can mirror the basic information of a situation – Buddha family and mirror-like awareness.
- Stimulating action that stimulates the good qualities of others to grow. As with the symbol of the jewel, it is regal, magnanimous, generous action, and increases the happiness of others – jewel family and equalizing awareness.
- Bringing everything in order and under control. This is activity with which we speak and act charismatically, in a gentle and respectful manner that charms others completely, so that they do what we would like them to do. Like the symbol of a lotus, it is beautiful action. We are so beautifully organized, with everything under control, in order, and functioning harmoniously, it causes others to become similarly well organized – lotus family and individualizing awareness.
- Forceful action that, by being extremely powerful and strong, causes others to stop being lazy, inefficient, or doing things incorrectly and thus gets them to accomplish a great deal. Like the symbol of a sword or a strong, forceful military commander, it causes others to cut away their negative activity – karma family and accomplishing awareness.
- Diverse action that uses intelligence to discriminate what things are and what is useful and helpful, and thus is flexible to deal with any situation appropriately. Such behavior influences others also to be open and flexible. Like the symbol of a vajra lightning bolt, it makes quick and precise decisions to deal with everything – vajra family and reality awareness.
When these five basic modes of behavior are mixed with confusion, with grasping for a solid “me”:
- Instead of calming others, we become completely passive, insensitive, and do nothing, or we bore others and put them to sleep. This connects with being heavy, like the body, and with naivety.
- Instead of stimulating others by being magnanimous, it is arrogant, selfish behavior of keeping all our good qualities to ourselves. We put others down and that depresses them, causing their qualities to decrease because of lack of self-esteem and self-confidence.
- Instead of charming others so that they follow our lead and command to become well organized, we seduce them to come under our egocentric control. Thus, it connects with longing desire for power, attention, control, and so on. We become “control freaks.” Trying to seduce others may cause the opposite response in them, which is rebellion, with everything out of control. Also, when with desire we fall in love, we also get out of control and, if we cause someone else to fall in love with us, we cause him or her to be out of control.
- Instead of forcefully causing others to stop behaving incorrectly, we become extremely pushy. Because of being jealousy or envious of what others have accomplished, we push ourselves or we push others under us to do more and more, like with extreme competition in business or sports.
- Instead of using our intelligence to mirror the situation, discriminate, and be flexible, we become rigid and fixed, and cause others also to become inflexible. We fix things into solid categories of “this” or “that,” and become judgmental.
In the non-Gelug variant, reality awareness connects with pacifying activity in the Buddha family. We quiet others down so that they become down-to-earth, practical, and see things for what they are: “this” or “that.” Mirror-like awareness connects with diverse activity in the vajra-family. By mirroring all the information about any situation, we go beyond dividing things into the strict categories of “this” or “that.” Being nonjudgmental, like a mirror, we become flexible to deal with any situation appropriately. Such behavior influences others also to be open and flexible.
On the other hand, when mixed with confusion, pacifying activity can become so passive that we do not make any conventional distinctions. With a laissez-faire attitude, we take things so easy that it influences others also to become sloppy. The “anything is OK, nothing matters” approach thus connects with naivety. Diverse activity, when mixed with confusion, becomes inconsistent behavior. Instead of basing itself on mirroring information, our behavior becomes seemingly random and irrational. This confuses and annoys others because they see no consistency in our behavior.
Karma Kagyu Mahamudra
According to Trungpa’s Maitri space awareness presentation, the five ways of acting are:
- Pacifying activity that calms others down by just being there, like a mother – Buddha-family and reality awareness
- Pacifying activity that calms others down by objectively reflecting a situation non-judgmentally, so that others can see the objective order that is there – vajra family and mirror-like awareness
- Enriching activity that equally regards all aspects of others and, by causing them to appreciate their own good qualities, stimulates them to grow – jewel family and equalizing awareness
- Magnetizing activity that, being based on our individual personal experience and deep-felt feelings and emotions, touches others on a personal, gut-level emotional basis. We move others by our personal experience, so that they come within our sphere of positive influence – lotus family and individualizing awareness.
- Destroying activity that, by being forceful – but only when necessary – causes others or ourselves to cut off and stop what is destructive or not working – karma family and accomplishing awareness.
When mixed with the confusion of dualistic thinking in terms of a solidly existing “me” and “you,” the five become the five types of neurotic behavior:
- Overly comfortable activity, with which we become lazy, complacent, careless, and do not look at our problems
- Overly ordered behavior, with which we put up so many rules that we and others cannot move
- Overly protective behavior, like a suffocating mother, giving too much to others so that it stifles their growth. Also, behavior with which we give too much to others in the sense of showing off our own good qualities, which intimidates them.
- Alluring behavior, with which we tempt, tease, or flirt with others, playing on their emotions
- Fanatic behavior, with which we are always busy, like a “workaholic,” and push others to act similarly. Also, the behavior of a “control-freak,” with which we feel we have to do everything ourselves and to take control of everyone, as well as destructive behavior.
In Terms of Speech
The five manners of speaking, in accord with the Gelug presentation, are:
- Speaking in a soothing, calming manner – Buddha family
- Speaking in a stimulating manner, with a rich vocabulary and regal style – jewel family
- Speaking in a charming, enchanting manner, well-organized but spiced with gentle humor – lotus family
- Speaking in a strong, forceful manner – karma family
- Speaking in a flexible and precise manner, in various possible languages and styles to suit different audiences – vajra family.
When mixed with confusion or limited, these styles become:
- Speaking in a boring manner
- Speaking in an arrogant showing-off manner, so sophisticated and complex that it makes others feel stupid. Also, speaking in an overly brief manner, not providing necessary information, so that others cannot follow or do not understand us and, consequently, feel lost or stupid.
- Speaking in a disorganized, crude manner, with a lot of swearing, slang, and off-color remarks, or in a flirtatious manner
- Speaking too sharply, in a cutting manner, being sarcastic or overly critical because of being jealous, unable to bear others success
- Speaking in a stiff, fixed, overly formal manner.
Karma Kagyu Mahamudra
In accord with Trungpa’s Maitri space awareness program, the five ways of speaking are:
- Speaking in a calm, open, accepting manner – Buddha-family
- Speaking in a clear, precise, well-organized manner – vajra family
- Speaking in a rich, full, and encouraging manner – jewel family
- Speaking in an individualistic, passionate, personal, emotional manner – lotus family
- Speaking in a strong, forceful manner, without any unnecessary words – karma family.
When mixed with confusion, the five neurotic forms of speaking are:
- Speaking in a vague or sloppy manner
- Speaking in an overly picky, overly precise manner, filled with technical terms
- Speaking in a showing-off manner, flooding others with unnecessary information or detail. Also, speaking in an overly terse manner.
- Speaking in an overly emotional or seductive manner
- Speaking in a pushy manner, always giving orders.
As exercises for appreciating that we all have the possibility to speak and act in the manners of the five Buddha-families, in both the general anuttarayoga and Karma Kagyu mahamudra presentations, break into groups of three. First, as an exercise for speech, give directions for getting to the train station or to some other local public place. For the first of the five styles, person one is the speaker, person two is the listener, and person three is the observer. For the second, person two becomes the speaker, three is the listener, and one is the observer. In this way, switch roles with each of the five styles. If someone in the group has little idea of how to speak or act in one of the styles, others in the group may make suggestions. Try to avoid, however, too much discussion and planning before enacting each style. After acting out all five, then discuss the experience within each group. Depending on time and interest, enact the five in either one or the other of the two major systems, or in both.
For enlightening influence or activity, repeat the same procedure, but this time pretending to be a waiter or waitress in a restaurant. Take turns, in each of the five styles, inviting someone to sit down, helping him or her to order, setting the table, and then serving the meal. Combine the style of acting with the corresponding style of speaking.
In Terms of Body
In terms of the body, the five elements and five colors fall into the five Buddha-family traits. According to the Gelug presentation, the colors accord with the colors of the main figures in each family and reflect the color of the side of the mandala in which each sits. Thus, the colors do not match the elements. Space is the element of the center of the mandala and, since the reference mandala is that of Guhyasamaja with Akshobhya as the central figure, space is blue:
- Earth and white – acting solidly, down to earth, stable, thus calming others. This also connects with the body – Buddha family and mirror-like awareness
- Water and yellow – acting fluidly, in a flowing regal self-confident manner, thus stimulating others – jewel family and equalizing awareness
- Fire and red – acting in a warm, gentle, inviting, respectful way, thus winning individuals to our side – lotus family and individualizing awareness
- Wind and green – acting in a strong active way, blowing away everything useless – karma family and accomplishing awareness
- Space and blue – acting in a spacious, flexible manner that provides room for everyone and everything – vajra family and reality awareness.
Karma Kagyu Mahamudra
According to the Maitri space awareness program of Trungpa, the assignment of elements accords with and matches the colors of the main figures in each Buddha-family. Space is still the element of the center of the mandala and, in accord with mandalas having Vairochana as the central figure, space is white:
- Space and white – acting in an open way that supports others and supports everything – Buddha family and reality awareness
- Water and blue – acting in a well-coordinated way that reflects the general situation and in which everything fits together – vajra family and mirror-like awareness
- Earth and yellow – acting with a feeling of being a substantial person with substantial good qualities to offer others and nourish everyone equally – jewel family and equalizing awareness
- Fire and red – acting with the fire of passion – lotus family and individualizing awareness
- Wind and green – acting with speed and force, without any unnecessary movements – karma family and accomplishing awareness.
Move your body in each of the five styles, for example while dancing, doing yoga, or performing martial arts.
The above two element and color schemes are not the only ones, and thus there are numerous ways for specifying the components of the Buddha-families and how they fit together. The Kalachakra system, for example, has six Buddha-families, adding a family for the element of deep awareness (ye-shes), with Vajrasattva as its main figure. As in the Karma Kagyu mahamudra system, the assignment of elements accords with the colors of the main figures in each Buddha-family. However, because the placement of the figures in the mandala differs from that in the general anuttarayoga and Karma Kagyu mahamudra systems, their elements and colors differ as well:
- Wind and black – karma family, Amoghasiddhi and accomplishing awareness
- Fire and red – jewel family, Ratnasamabhava and equalizing awareness
- Water and white – lotus family, Amitabha and individualizing awareness
- Earth and yellow – Buddha-family, Vairochana and mirror-like awareness
- Space and green – vajra-family, Akshobhya and reality awareness
- Deep awareness and blue – deep awareness family, Vajrasattva and blissful awareness.
In Terms of Good Qualities
According to the Gelug system, as suggested by the nineteen close-bonding practices (dam-tshig, Skt. samaya):
- Having a safe and positive direction in life and ethical discipline – Buddha family, mirror-like awareness, calm behavior, earth-like stability
- Generosity, equal attitude toward all beings, love, joy – jewel family and equalizing awareness
- Precise understanding, being well-organized, respect, gentleness – lotus family and individualizing awareness
- Positive enthusiasm, perseverance, acting within the structure of vows – karma family and accomplishing awareness
- Discriminating awareness and patient acceptance of what things are, openness, and flexibility – vajra family and reality awareness.
Karma Kagyu Mahamudra
In accord with Trungpa’s Maitri space awareness program:
- Openmindedness – Buddha family and reality awareness
- Precision, discipline, patience to see how everything fits into a pattern, without becoming angry when this is not immediately clear – vajra family and mirror-like awareness
- Generosity, equal regard for everyone and everything – jewel family and equalizing awareness
- Love, compassion – lotus family and individualizing awareness
- Positive enthusiasm, perseverance – karma family and accomplishing awareness.