The Five Buddha-Family Traits​

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Concerning the evolving Buddha-nature factors, the more common presentation 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, and 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” is actually one of the Sanskrit words 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. The whole discussion of these Buddha-families is dealing with Buddha-nature, actually. 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.

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

Five Types of Deep Awareness 

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, and 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. 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.

They work together. 

  1. We take in the information – the visual form of a piece of fruit
  2. We put things together in terms of what they share in common – this visual form fits with the visual form of other pieces of fruit we have seen
  3. We know what it is – an apple.
  4. We specify this particular object – this particular apple
  5. We know what to do with it – eat it

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. 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. 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. 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, is 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. 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 attachment if 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. 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.

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. The 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 teaches a mahamudra method only 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. Mirror-like deep awareness 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 this correlation is made, 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. We specify something, and 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 we distinguish something from the background and from other things.
  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 the mental factor of an urge, which is a karmic impulse, which propels the mind to engage the body or speech into doing something.. 
  5. The sphere of reality deep awareness, which can be distorted into anger – remember, this has to do with what something is and 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 

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 we purify them, get rid of all the confusion and stuff – then we 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. The omniscient awareness of a Buddha.

This can be understood the same on both a sutra level and a tantra level.

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. Actually, we have a different number of Buddha-families explained in the different classes of tantra. There are three Buddha-families in kriya and charya tantra, four in yoga tantra, five usually in anuttarayoga, although some systems have six, like Kalachakra.

Let’s use this scheme of five so-called Buddha-families, these five Buddha-family traits, as we have in anuttarayoga tantra. Remember, we said that we could divide body, speech, mind, activity and good qualities, each into these into these five traits? Well, up until now we’ve just been speaking about dividing mind into these five, or a general scheme of the aggregates into these five. We can also divide body into these five, and those take the form of the five so-called “dhyani Buddhas.” Dhyani Buddha is a term made up by some Westerner about 100 years ago; it’s not actually a Tibetan or Sanskrit term. Each of the five dhyani Buddhas is the head of a Buddha-family, its main figure. Each family also has a female figure, a male bodhisattva and a female bodhisattva. This caste or family is made up of these different members. 

In addition, each of these five Buddha-family traits includes many different aspects or dimensions – a body dimension, a speech dimension, an aggregate dimension, and so on –and each can generate a samsaric level and an enlightenment level in each of these different dimensions. Of course, each 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. There are also various figures outside the body inside the mandala palace. This occurs not just in Guhyasamaja, it’s also in many other tantra systems. 

In Guhyasamaja, it says that each figure in the body mandala and external mandala is the purified form of one or another aggregate: 

  1. The aggregate of forms appears 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. We need to understand these types of teachings and practice 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. 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 and dedication.

Original Audio from the Seminar