The Five Buddha-Family Traits​

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Concerning the evolving Buddha-nature factors, the more common presentation is of them is the two collections, what I prefer to call the "two networks" – the network of positive force (collection of merit) and network of deep awareness (collection of wisdom).

Another scheme is in terms of five aspects:

  1. Body
  2. Speech
  3. Mind
  4. Good qualities
  5. Activities.

We all have a body, we all have some ability to communicate, we all have a mind. In some rebirth states the body might be super subtle, but anyway, we have these. We all have some sort of qualities, and everybody has some sort of activity, something that they do.

When we hear the term “Buddha-families,” that word “family” there is actually the Sanskrit word for caste (kula, Tib. rigs), and it refers to a family trait, a characteristic, a Buddha-nature factor that will allow us to become a Buddha. So the whole discussion of these Buddha-families is dealing with Buddha-nature, actually. So don’t think that it’s talking about something totally different. It’s talking about the same issues that we’ve been speaking about, the factors that will enable us to become a Buddha, but just from a different scheme.

So although we could say body, speech, mind, qualities, and activity, these five traits, these Buddha-family traits, more common is to divide each of them into the five Buddha-family traits: so five divisions of body, five division of speech, of mind, etc.

Five Types of Deep Awareness

Now, in terms of sutra, the main emphasis is on these five divisions of mind. This is the system of the five types of deep awareness (ye-shes lnga), what’s often just referred to as the five types of Buddha wisdom, but that’s a bit of a misleading term because they’re Buddha-nature factors – everybody has these.

  1. We have mirror-like deep awareness (me-long lta-bu’i ye-shes), which is to take in information.
  2. Equalizing (mnyam-nyid ye-shes), which is to consider different pieces of information together, so seeing patterns, to see various individuals as “These three are women,” to put them together, this type of thing. Right? This is just to put them together, this type of awareness.
  3. Individualizing deep awareness (sor-rtog ye-shes), to know the individuality of something.
  4. Accomplishing deep awareness (bya-grub ye-shes), which is to engage with it to do something, like to eat the food.
  5. And the sphere of reality deep awareness (chos-dbyings ye-shes), which is basically to know what something is, its conventional truth and its deepest truth – how it exists.

So they work together: You take in the information, and then the deep sphere of reality (what it is). You put things together (the equalizing), and then sphere of reality – they’re all women – what they are, what is the thing in common. Individuality (we specify something), and deep awareness, the sphere of reality (what it is). Accomplishing (to do something), sphere of reality (what to do) – eat.

So this is how everybody’s mind works, including the cockroach. It might not know words in order to know what something is, but it knows to eat food, and it can identify a piece of food, and it can see that several things are all food. Which means that even in a cockroach rebirth, we ourselves, our minds, will still function with these five aspects; they’re Buddha-nature aspects.

Five Types of Deep Awareness for a Buddha

On a samsaric level, they would be very limited in their scope. As a Buddha, if we can get rid of all the limitations, all the obscurations, then they would function as the deep awareness of a Buddha. And when we speak about the Deep Awareness Dharmakaya, deep awareness is not just referring to deep awareness of the two truths but also these five types of deep awareness:

  1. So, as a Buddha, mirror-like takes in all the information (so, omniscient), all the information about everything accurately.
  2. Equalizing. A Buddha’s compassion and love, etc., goes out equally to absolutely everybody. And a Buddha’s understanding of voidness – the voidness of everything, equal.
  3. Individualizing. A Buddha is aware of every single sentient being individually, as an individual.
  4. Accomplishing. A Buddha knows to do something with everybody – namely, to help bring them to liberation and enlightenment.
  5. And sphere of reality. A Buddha knows what to do, and of course the two truths.

Five Disturbing Emotions

When these five types of deep awareness are mixed with confusion, grasping for truly established existence, and so on, unawareness, then on a samsaric level we get the five disturbing emotions:

  1. Rather than taking in information, it’s sort of clouded and we just don’t know. So we get naivety (gti-mug, Skt. moha).
  2. When the equalizing is clouded over, then we don’t see the equality of ourselves and others and we get pride (nga-rgyal, Skt. mana): “I’m so much better.” We don’t see that we’re equal, everybody’s equal.
  3. When individualizing deep awareness specifies one particular person or one particular thing and it gets clouded with this confusion, we feel tremendous longing desire (’dod-chags, Skt. raga) – “I have to have it” – or attachmentif we already have it.
  4. When this accomplishing deep awareness is clouded over, mixed with confusion, and when we see somebody else actually doing something, we feel jealous (phrag-dog, Skt. irshya) about it rather than rejoicing.
  5. Sphere of reality deep awareness, where we discriminate between what something is and what something is not. We know what it is: it’s this and it’s not that. And when that’s mixed with confusion then that aspect of what something is not becomes a strong rejection of the thing (khong-khro, Skt. krodha) – anger, repulsion.

So in sutra practice we would try to dissolve that confusion from these disturbing emotions to access the deep awareness that is underlying it. This is actually the mahamudra method. Mahamudra method, according to the Gelug and Kagyu way of practicing it, is done either on a sutra or tantra level – so it’s in common – depending on which level of mind we’re using. It’s only the Sakya tradition that only teaches a mahamudra method on a tantra level. Gelug and Kagyu teach it on both a sutra and tantra level.

The Five Aggregates

We can also speak in terms of a correlation of these five with the aggregates:

  1. So the mirror-like and naivety would be associated with the aggregate of form (gzugs-kyi phung-po, Skt. rupa-skandha). Information deals with forms of physical phenomena – shape, color, sound, etc. – the aggregate of forms.
  2. Equalizing deep awareness, which could become clouded over into pride, is correlated with the aggregate of feeling (tshor-ba’i phung-po, Skt. vedana-skandha) – feeling happy, unhappy. Why exactly it’s put together there, I don’t have complete certainty about, but I think it has to do with the fact that on a Buddha level we have equal love, compassion, feeling of happiness, and so on, toward everyone.
  3. Individualizing deep awareness. You specify something, it can become desire for it – “It’s so special.” That’s also correlated with the aggregate of distinguishing (’du-shes-kyi phung-po, Skt. samjna-skandha), where you distinguish something from the background.
  4. Accomplishing deep awareness, which could be distorted into jealousy, is correlated with the aggregate of other affecting variables (’du-byed-kyi phung-po, Skt. samskara-skandha). The most prominent one of those being intention or urge; it’s karma – it brings us to do something. So accomplishing deep awareness.
  5. And the sphere of reality deep awareness, which can be distorted into anger – remember, this has to do with what something is and is not: so what it is, what it is not – this is correlated with the aggregate of consciousness (rnam-shes-kyi phung-po, Skt. vijnana-skandha). Primary consciousness is aware of the essential nature of something – is it a sight? is it a sound? is it a smell? is it a taste? – what it is, what’s the general essential nature of something. That’s what it’s aware of, primary consciousness.

The Five Aggregates for a Buddha

So in the same scheme of the five Buddha-families, we have, on a samsaric level, our five tainted aggregates, and on the Buddha level – if you purify them, get rid of all the confusion and stuff – then you will have five untainted aggregates. A Buddha also has a system of five aggregates:

  1. All the forms that a Buddha can appear in.
  2. Feeling of untainted bliss.
  3. Distinguishing absolutely everything with omniscience.
  4. Other affecting factors – infinite compassion, infinite love, infinite activities to benefit everyone.
  5. And like consciousness and omniscient awareness of a Buddha.

So this can be understood on sutra level, tantra level – same.

Buddha Families in Tantra

Now, in tantra – and to a lesser or greater extent, depending on which class of tantra – we also have these five Buddha-families. Well, in general, you have different number of Buddha-families explained in the different classes of tantra. No need to give you all the detail. Well, might as well mention it, since I remember it: three Buddha-families in kriya and charya tantra, four in yoga tantra, five usually in anuttarayoga (although some systems have six, like Kalachakra).

If we use this scheme of five so-called Buddha-families, these five Buddha-family traits, as we have in anuttarayoga tantra, then… You remember we said that you could divide body, speech, mind, activity, and good qualities – each of them into these five groups, these five traits. We’ve up until now just been speaking about dividing mind into these five, or a general scheme of the aggregates into these five. We can divide body into these five; those take the form of the five so-called “Dhyani Buddhas.” (Dhyani Buddha is a term made up by some Westerner about a hundred years ago; it’s not actually a Tibetan or Sanskrit term. Remember we had this word family trait. Buddha-family is actually the word caste.) So in it we have a main figure, you have a female figure, you have a male bodhisattva, you have a female bodhisattva; this caste or family is made up of different members. So what does all this mean?

We have these Buddha-family traits, these five Buddha-family traits. Each of them covers many, many different aspects or dimensions – a body dimension, a speech dimension, an aggregate dimension, and so on – and it can generate a samsaric level of it, it can generate an enlightenment level of it, in all these different dimensions. And of course it would be correlated with elements and with senses, and so on; there’s a huge amount of correlation that’s made.

In many of the anuttarayoga tantra practices, we imagine within our body many different deities, like in the Guhyasamaja system. (Many of you received that in India this last year from His Holiness, or some of you received it.) And if it’s not within the body, it’s various figures within the mandala. And it’s not just Guhyasamaja; it’s in tons of different tantras in all schools. So the purified form of the aggregate of forms or the aggregate of feelings, or so on, is appearing in the form of:

  1. The aggregate of forms in the form of Vairochana
  2. The aggregate of feelings in the form of Ratnasambhava
  3. The aggregate of distinguishing as Amitabha
  4. The aggregate of other affecting variables as Amoghasiddhi
  5. The aggregate of consciousness as Akshobhya.

This is in the system of Guhyasamaja. Obviously in different tantra systems, different Buddhas are associated with different aggregates. It’s not always exactly the same system. As we all know, there are many, many variants within Buddhism. This is just one example. So we need to understand these types of teaching and practicing within this context of Buddha-family and Buddha-nature.


In summary, we can develop our Buddha-nature factors to achieve enlightenment through either sutra or tantra, and we’ve seen that these Buddha-nature factors are also involved with our experience of samsara. So we have all the working materials within each of us; it’s just a matter of what we do with them, based on intention, motivation, dedication.

Original Audio from the Seminar