Manuscript cover decorated with the five transcendental Buddhas
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ABM 003

 Code: ABM 003

  Country: Tibet

  Style: Nepalese School

  Date: 1150 - 1250

  Dimensions in cm WxHxD: 54 x 12

  Materials: Painting on wood

Manuscript Cover painted with the Five Tathagatas

Wood, carved in deep relief on the outer side.

This rare manuscript covers painted in the style of the Thakuri Period is a very important document for the study of crowned Buddha images. Depicted are images of the five Tathagatas (pancatathagata)all seated in the attitude of meditation (vajraparyaskasana), being from left to right: Ratnasambhava(Tib. Rin chen ’byung ldan), painted yellow, with the gesture of charity (varada-mudra), seated on a single lotus pedestal placed upon a throne supported by horses (asva)Aksobhya(Tib. Mi bskyod pa), painted blue, with the gesture of touching the earth (bhumisparsa-mudra), seated on a single lotus pedestal placed upon a throne supported by elephants(hasti)Vairocana(Tib. rNam par snang mdzad), painted white, with the gesture of highest enlightenment (a kind of bodhyagri-mudra), seated on a single lotus pedestal placed upon a throne supported by lions (sisha);Amitabha(Tib. ’Od dpag med), painted red, with the gesture of meditation (dhyana-mudra), seated on a single lotus pedestal placed upon a throne supported by peacock (moyura); and Amoghasiddhi (Tib. Don yod grub pa), painted green, with the gesture of fearlessness (abhaya-mudra), seated on a single lotus pedestal placed upon a throne supported by garudas(Tib. Khyung). 

The throne-backs, with pointed upper corners, are decorated with textiles of different colours and design. Above, and identical in the case of all five images, are tymphanons attached with makara finals (makaratorana)surmounted by the grinning faces of a kirttimukhafrom whose mouth beaded tassels issue.

Each ot the five enthroned crowned Tathagatas is palced in front of a flowering tree, of wich only the crown is visible. Three of the Buddhas, namely RatnasambhavaVairocana, and Amoghasiddhiare flanked by a pairs of plantain trees, whereas Akshobhyaand Amitabha have a kind of fan palms on either side. The free space in between is filled with colourful flowers falling from the sky.

The outer side of the manuscript covers is carved in deep relief decorated with images of ManjusriAksobhyaand Prajnaparamita separated from each other and surrounded by foliate ornaments.

Based on their distinct colours, these five Buddhas can be identified beyond doubt as a group of the fivetathagatas. In the case of individual metal sculptures of crowned Buddhas, images oftathagatascan only be distinguished from statues of Shakyamuni if the related animal mounts are depicted. However, this is not the case with Shakyamuni and Vairocana, both of which can bear images of lions on the pedestals.

Tathagata, a term for the Buddhas in the sambhogakayaaspect, was mentioned for the first time in the 3rd century AD by asanga in one of his sadanasof Prajnaparamita.

The size of the bookcover and the type of carving on the outer side is a clear indication that this work intended to be used in Tibet. The style of the painting is distict Newar and dates from the Thakuri Period during the 12th century.
The Five Buddha Families
The essential nature of a bodhisattva or a buddha is that he or she embraces the enlightened qualities of the five buddha families, which pervade every living being without exception, including ourselves. To achieve the realization of these five buddha families or the five dhyana buddhas, it is necessary to abandon the five disturbing emotions of great attachment, anger or aggression, ignorance or bewilderment, pride and envy. When these disturbing emotions are purified and removed, the five wisdoms shine forth. Realization of the five wisdoms is realization of the five dhyana buddhas. To begin with, we have to understand what the five disturbing emotions (Skt. kleshas) are. The first, which seems to be most powerful, is anger. Anger is an emotion which arises and develops against someone or something one dislikes. If examined carefully, in the short run anger creates pain and in the long run it brings about serious harm. The immediate pain and future harm is to oneself as well as to others is due to the power of one’s own aggression. We therefore need to understand the first negative emotion. The negative emotion of anger causes temporary suffering for oneself and others for this lifetime. This emotion is so powerful that all negative actions or karma accumulated by wishing harm to others can lead one to take rebirth in the lower realms.1 For example, intense anger can cause rebirth in the lowest hell realm where there is intense suffering. Therefore anger not only causes suffering and pain in this lifetime, but also causes us to take birth in the lower realms, where even more intense suffering ensues as a result. To be free of the experience of suffering and pain in this lifetime and to be free of the experience of taking birth in a lower realm, it is necessary to employ methods to overcome and eliminate anger and hatred. When anger is purified and removed, we come to develop and to gradually realize mirror-like wisdom. With mirror-like The Five Buddha Families and the Eight Consciousnesses wisdom, there is no distinction between self and others, there is no separation between self and other phenomena so everything is experienced in unity and harmony. It is called mirror-like wisdom because phenomena appear to the mind in the same way that things appear in a clean mirror, completely accurate with no distortion. Understanding and realizing mirror-like wisdom takes place in the absence of the negative emotion of anger. Realization of mirror-like wisdom is realization of Buddha Akshobhya, who is blue in color. He holds a vajra in his left hand. His activity is pacifying the emotions, in particular, suffering, illness, frustration, and sorrow. The second dhyana Buddha is the Buddha Ratnasambhava who is realized when the disturbing emotion of pride or ego is purified. Ego is the belief in a self which we all develop from birth as soon as our mind thinks of itself as separate from others. The next three types of pride evolve in this process of selfcenteredness: (1) We feel that we are better than others who are in a less fortunate situation, (2) we feel that we are superior to others because we fail to see the equality of ourself and others; and (3) we feel we are either spiritually or materially better than others. What causes us to embark upon the journey of ego? When the self believes that it is separate from others, the negative emotion of pride arises in which one believes oneself in some way better than others. From this then arises the belief that there are “good” i.e. things which we believe in and do and “bad” i.e. things that others believe in and do. As long as we believe ourselves to be superior to others, it is impossible to learn from them. So we must give up ego clinging to develop enlightened qualities. A purified mind does not distinguish between pure and impure, good and bad, I and others; rather it experiences all things in equality. When one is free from pride, realization of the wisdom of equality dawns and one experiences and becomes Buddha Ratnasambhava. Buddha Ratnasambhava’s activity is enriching and as a symbol of his activity of enrichment, he is gold or yellow in color. As a symbol of his ability to enrich all living beings, he holds the precious wish-fulfilling jewel in his hands. The third dhyana Buddha represents the purification and elimination of the disturbing emotion of attachment or desire. Desire causes much suffering by being quite distracting and keeping the mind restless and busy. Why? When one is attached to things, one is never satisfied and always craves for more and better things. One is continuously engaged in achieving and acquiring the mind’s desires and only experiences loss and dissatisfaction in one’s life. By understanding this negative emotion and by eliminating it, the third discerning wisdom shines forth. By realizing discerning wisdom, the enlightened mind is experienced and one becomes one with the Buddha Amitabha. It is with this wisdom that one understands and has empathy with each and every living being and appreciates others’ qualities. The Buddha Amitabha’s nature is the absence of attachment and desire and his activity is magnetizing. As already said, attachment and desire lead to the suffering of dissatisfaction, a state in which one always wants and strives for more and better things. Desire determines one’s behavior and not attaining what one desires leads to frustration and dissatisfaction. With the discerning wisdom and the realization of Buddha Amitabha, there is no attachment and desire and thus no dissatisfaction, or craving for more and better things. This realization is so powerful that all things are naturally magnetized as one’s own. There is no energy and force involved as in a state of desire. The fourth dhyana Buddha is Buddha Amogasiddha. He is realized in the absence of the negative emotion of jealousy which includes being jealous of others’ wealth, success, and good fortune. With jealousy negativity is accumulated. By overcoming jealousy, Amogasiddha and the fourth allaccomplishing wisdom are realized. Jealousy prevents and impedes an individual from accomplishing his or her own well-being and as a result he or she experiences more suffering and continues developing further jealousy towards those who have more. This is the reason allaccomplishing wisdom is experienced in the absence of jealousy, i.e., when jealousy is removed, all wishes are naturally and effortlessly accomplished. As long as jealousy determines one’s attitude, one is bound to experience more obstacles in achieving personal success and in accomplishing positive goals. This is why Buddha Amogasiddha’s activity is wrathful. It is with wrath that he removes all obstacles and hindrances preventing spiritual maturation and success. He is green in color, the same color as growing plants symbolizing the numerous activities he employs to remove hindrances. The fifth dhyana Buddha is Buddha Vairocana, who is realized when the negative emotion of ignorance is overcome. Ignorance is failing to recognize what is wholesome and unwholesome, failing to know the ultimate and conventional truth2 and failing to realize the highest state of dharmata. Ignorance is the root of the negative emotions, so that, for example, it is only out of ignorance that one is angry. One only acts aggressively towards others because one is ignorant that anger will only bring on pain and sorrow to oneself and others. Likewise, it is only due to ignorance that one has pride, desire, and jealousy. Elimination of the darkness of ignorance is the realization of Buddha Vairocana. The wisdom which shines forth when ignorance is overcome is the wisdom of dharmata, i.e., realization of the highest state. We have failed to realize the true state up until now due to ignorance, and this ignorance causes all the mental confusion and misleading actions. Purification of ignorance engenders realization of the wisdom which sees all things as they really are. The natural body of the purity of the wisdom of dharmata is Buddha Vairocana. Since the darkness of ignorance is eliminated, he is the clear color of white. Qualities Arising from Transforming Negative Emotions We have given a brief description of the five dhyana buddhas who represent the purified qualities of the five disturbing emotions. When these five negative emotions are purified, the qualities of the five buddhas shine forth purely.
1. Buddha Akshobhya
The disturbing emotion of anger is transformed into the Buddha Akshobhya’s wisdom at enlightenment and we may ask how aggression or anger relates to Buddha Akshobhya, who is a very peaceful activity. Or we may wonder how the absence of anger is Buddha Akshobhya. It is important to know that Akshobhya is the Sanskrit name and in Tibetan he is called sangay mikyodpa or the “immovable, stable and changeless Buddha.” He is called “immovable and changeless” because when the disturbing emotion of anger is present, everything inevitably changes; our face becomes red, the body begins to shake and the friend we are angry with becomes our enemy. When anger is purified, everything is peaceful and stable which is the realization of the meaning of the changeless, stable, and permanent Buddha Akshobhya. The Buddha Akshobhya’s blue color has a symbolical meaning. The dhyana buddhas are of the five main colors of blue, red, yellow, green and white. Blue symbolizes permanence that is changeless just as the sky has always been blue, whether this year or a thousand years ago. The Buddha Akshobhya is blue to represent this changelessness. Furthermore, the buddha Akshobhya also holds a vajra in his lap which is also a symbol of his indestructible and changeless nature. He sits in the full vajra or full lotus posture to symbolize the indestructible nature and his right hand touches the earth which is also a gesture of the changeless. In a mannala Akshobhya resides in the east and is painted as being on an elephant throne. Incidentally, in a mandala the position away from one is always west regardless of what the real direction is.

2. Buddha Ratnasambhava  
The Buddha Ratnasambhava is the purification of pride. Ratnasambhava is Sanskrit and the Tibetan name is sangay rinchenjungdan. The Tibetan word sangay means “buddha” and the word rinchen means “precious” referring to all precious, good, and immaculate things. The word jungdan means “the source.” So Ratnasambhava is the source of all good qualities with these precious qualities being the absence of pride. When ego and pride have been removed, one is open enough to actually receive all knowledge and qualities, that is the realization of Sangay Rinchen Jungdan. Knowing the meaning of Rinchen Jungdan, one understands why his activity encompasses the enrichment of all precious qualities of realization. Ratnasambhava resides in the south and is yellow or gold in color. The color gold represents wealth and Ratnasambhava holds a wish-fulfilling jewel at his heart in his left hand. The wish-fulfilling jewel is a jewel which gives a person everything that he or she desires and so this also symbolizes enrichment. He is seated in the vajra posture of fulfillment on a horse’s throne representing the four bases or legs of miraculous powers that enables unobstructed passage everywhere. His right hand is in the mudra of giving supreme generosity, i.e., his activity is supreme generosity.

3. Buddha Amitabha
The third dhyana buddha is Amitabha who represents the purification of desire also called attachment. When we are under the influence of attachment, we discriminate between good and bad, beautiful and ugly, and then we cling to what seems to be attractive and shun those things which seem bad or ugly. Attachment and aversion are disturbing emotions that arise from not understanding the nature of things as they are and as they appear.3 It is due to ignorance that mind accepts and rejects objects of attachment and aversion. With the wisdom of discrimination, one knows things as they appear just as they are without any confused and prejudiced opinions. This comes about by purifying attachment and realizing Buddha Amitabha. Buddha Amitabha is the Sanskrit name and the Tibetan name is sangay odpamed, which means “boundless light.” When one has developed the awareness of knowing everything as it manifests, one has developed the clarity of boundless light, which is completely free from confusion. This realization is described as odpamed or “boundless light.” We can compare this state with an example of a lamp. A faulty lamp cannot illuminate a room clearly, whereas a perfect lamp can allow us to see things distinctly and clearly. The light of Buddha Amitabha is therefore boundless and is realized through the purification of attachment and desire. Buddha Amitabha is of the lotus family because a lotus grows in muddy water while its blossoms remain stainless. Likewise, Amitabha represents freedom from attachment, and it is attachment which causes us to experience pain, loss, and dissatisfaction that never finds fulfillment. Purification of the negative emotion of attachment is a state of immaculate, pure peace. Therefore, the Buddha Amitabha is seated in the full vajra posture and both hands resting in the meditative posture of mental clarity. He fully understands things as they are and as they appear without subjective notions. This state is one of peace and ease. He resides in the buddha realm of Dewachen.

4. Buddha Amogasiddha
Buddha Amogasiddha is realization of all-accomplishing wisdom. The Tibetan word for Buddha Amogasiddha is sangay donyodtrubpa. The word danyod means “meaningful” and the word trubpa means “accomplishment.” So Buddha Amogasiddha means “whatever is meaningful and fruitful is accomplished.” He is also the complete purification of jealousy, which is a hindrance for both material and spiritual success. His activity is perfect accomplishment and fulfillment of meaningful aims. Furthermore, his activity removes ordinary daily hindrances such as illnesses and obstacles. This is why Ratnasambhava’s activity is meaningful accomplishment. Buddha Amogasiddha holds a double-vajra in the form of a cross in his left hand, which symbolizes that his activity pervades and touches all directions. He sits in the full lotus posture. The left hand of all five dhyana Buddhas rests in the meditative posture of the changeless realization of dharmata. Amogasiddha’s right hand is in the mudra of fearless protection. He protects all living beings from any mishaps, obstacles, and negative influences. So his posture is known as “the mudra of fearless protection.” He is white which represents “without fault” and he rests in the center to the mandala and is on a lion’s throne. Amogasiddha is green and resides in the north holding a sword representing the cutting of existence.

5. Buddha Vairocana
The fifth dhyana Buddha is Vairocana who is known as sangay namparnanzad, or in English, “perfect knowledge of all things as they manifest.” Buddha Vairocana is realized when the conflicting emotion of ignorance is removed. When one cannot things as they really are, one has the conflicting emotion of ignorance. As a result one judges things from a mistaken point view. With the realization of the wisdom of dharmata, one realizes Buddha Vairocana. The example for this that is given is to say there is a rope lying on the floor in a dark room. Because of ignorance we mistake the rope for a snake and become alarmed and feel tremendous fear. The solution to this fear is to simply see the rope as really a rope and not a snake. This example shows how mind functions in a state of ignorance. The distress and fear is simply the result of misperceiving the situation and simply knowing the rope isn’t a snake eliminates all the fear and distress created. Buddha Vairocana holds the wheel of dharma in his hands, which symbolizes absence of ignorance and complete and clear knowledge of all things as they are and as they manifest— dharmata. He is realized when ignorance is removed, the quality of Buddha Vairocana. This wheel symbolizes the Buddha’s teachings, which show us what to abandon and what to take up in our gradual advancement to enlightenment. We learn how to give up and abandon negative emotions and how to develop wisdom. Thus the dharma wheel brings us from ignorance to wisdom. In comparison, it was the wheels of a chariot in Buddha’s time that brought you to your destination. The wheel of dharma similarly carries you from the darkness of ignorance to the clarity of knowing each thing as it is. Both hands of Vairocana Buddha are placed in the mudra called “enlightenment” or sometimes “the mudra of turning the wheel of dharma.” Since the only means to remove ignorance and defilements is by learning the dharma, Buddha Vairocana discloses the dharma to all living beings. He is white which represents “without fault” and he rests in the center to the mandala and is on a lion’s throne. So these are the five buddha families and on page 16 and 17 there is a diagram giving many of the qualities and characteristics of these five wisdoms. The chart gives the Sanskrit and Tibetan name for the five wisdom Buddhas. Then it gives the pure realm that these buddhas live in. Each wisdom is associated with a particular skandha which is a stage of perception and with a disturbing emotion of klesha. Next is given the wisdom this buddha represents along with the color of the deity. One can recognize this deity because he is holding a particular object (given in H) and also is on a throne supported by a particular animal (given in L). Each wisdom has a feminine aspect which is the consort of this buddha. This wisdom also represents a particular element and a particular chakra in the body.

Bock, Etienne; Falcombello, Jean-Marc; Jenny Magali, 2022. Trésors du Tibet. Sur les pas de Milarépa.. Paris: Flammarion. P. 162-163

Grönbold, Günter, 1991. Tibetische Buchdeckel, [Austellengskatalog Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, München]. München: Bayerische Stadtsbibliothek. References to bookcovers

Khenchen Thrangu, 1998. The Five Buddha Families and the Eight Consciousnesses. Boulder: Namo Buddha Seminar . Published by the Namo Buddha Seminar 1390 Kalmia Avenue Boulder, CO, 80304-1318 USA Tel.: (303) 449-6608 Email: Rinpoche’s web site:

Pal, Pratapaditya, 1978. The Arts of Nepal, Volume Two: Paintings, pls. 21 & 27. Leiden: E. J. Brill. References to bookcovers

Sèngué, Tcheuky, 2002. Petite Encyclopédie des Divinités et symboles du Bouddhisme Tibétain. Editions Claire Lumiere . pp. 110-15

Weldon, David, 1996. Early Tibetan Manuscript Covers, 12th–15th Century, [catalogue of the sale exhibition held at Barbara Mathes Gallery, New York, 1996]. London: Anna Maria Rossi & Fabio Rossi Publ..