Ahymsin Newsletter: Yoga is Samadhi

The Art of Borobudur: Working with the 5 Dhyani Buddhas and the 5 Elements

by Swami Nityamuktananda Saraswati

Swami Nityamuktananda Saraswati and Wong Yoong Khiang were participants in “Sharing Art Garden and Festival of Ocean Mountain Arts” held in the vicinity of Borobudur Temple, Central Java, Indonesia, from 20 to 29 April 2012. They presented a workshop on meditation in the Himalayan Tradition. Swami Nityamuktananda also gave a talk on “The Art of Borobudur: Working with the 5 Dhyani Buddhas and the 5 Elements.”

At the end of April, there was an interesting meeting in Java, around the Stupa of Borobodur. There were many presenters talking and giving workshops under the umbrella- term of “Ocean Mountain Arts”. The term comes from the Hindu Balinese Culture and refers to life and death as a play happening between “Mountain and Ocean”; between the manifest and the un-manifest.

Borobodur is the largest Buddhist monument, in the form of a mandala; it has extensive reliefs on 7 levels (or five depending on how they are counted) with the intention of guiding us (using the life of the Buddha) through life to harmony with people, nature and God until enlightenment.

It was built 750- 842 CE on a site which used to be an ancient Shiva temple.

When I visited the site first many decades ago, the Stupa was still overgrown by jungle; it was restored (in the eighties) to some of its former glory by the UNESCO; it is now a UNESCO world heritage site.

The untamed growth of jungle is by now replaced with beautiful well maintained gardens, however the vigor of natural growth is still palatable, which makes for an unusual mixture of buzzing energy and peaceful beauty.

But then this is exactly what is being portrait in the stupa, life in all its activity permanently continuous with all its connotations, yet evolution strives to the highest peace.

And so the stupa is an enshrinement, a book about the path to that absolute peace that comes with self-realization or enlightenment. We just need to be able to read “the book”. Furthermore the book includes each pilgrim and his inner struggle.

I have been studying  this “book” with a Tibetan Master and learned to see it not only as a piece of brilliant architecture, a temple or work of art, but as an enshrinement of a cosmological science; a science that can lead to peace and balance in ourselves and the world at large.

This science rests on a global concept. Whether in Buddhist philosophy or any other philosophy of India or indeed the world - the starting point of wisdom is to realize that we perceive the world through our five senses. What we perceive are five different energy fields, with different characteristics, issues, benefits and problems. They are the observable manifestations on the gross level of a variety of processes from the subtle to the gross and are better known as the Five Elements.

With the grossest generalization we could say: the ultimate ‘Unknown’ - beyond our mental capacity, is intelligent (omniscient) energy, empty of form yet full of all potential.  This omnipotent and omnipresent has many names and through its intent, by its inherent will, generated (in whatever detailed process) five fields of energy.

The entire cosmos, including us, is made of these five energy fields.  This means the Stupa can be looked upon as a representation of the cosmos, or indeed the human “body, mind, spirit entity”. Both cosmos and man are then expressed in the five primary levels and the 5 directions of the stupa (East, South, West, North and Zenith).

 Some wisdom teachings say that we as human beings have evolved five instruments of perception in order to “compute” these five fields of energy we call: earth, water, fire, air and space.

These five fields of energy (solidity, fluidity, trans-formation and transcendence, discrimination and movement, creativity and source spirituality) are manifesting the entire creation including ourselves; hence they are the “building blocks of creation” (as much as the building blocks of Borobodur) and can be found across the globe in all manner of knowledge from medicine to art, architecture to music, martial art to astrology…and spiritual wisdom!

It is the mixture between art and spiritual wisdom that we find especially here in the three-dimensional mandala of Borobodur.

Buddhist teachings, especially in the Mahayana tradition, makes ample use of these Elements (aggregates and skandas). The Venerable Thich Nhat Hahn lets Buddha himself explain to his son Rahul what to learn from and how to harmonize these 5 powers (in the biography of Buddha: Old Path White Clouds).

The Tibetan Book of the Dead has many references of dissolution to the same. Furthermore all suffering is understood to come from the ignorance, i.e not understanding the temporary, ever changing and ever interacting nature of the five, which results in attachment and distortions which in turn are the cause not just of emotional suffering, but actual physical illness.

Moreover Buddhism uses these energies in its psychology and typology of human nature talking of “families” displaying certain behavior and tendencies. (Vajra/ Buddha/ Ratna/ Padma/ Karma).

In Yoga we know of the five koshas, the five chakras which have their origin in the same observation.

My venerable teacher and friend, Tulku Lama TYS Gangchen said: “Encoded into the stupa mandala of Borobodur is a very detailed map of human consciousness, from its grossest and most impulsive state- up through successive higher levels of purity until it reaches the pinnacle of human development-full enlightenment and awakening of the Buddha mind.”

The way this is done in the stupa is placing one specific symbolic Buddha in each direction, as well as dedicating each level to one of the elements and embodying their wisdom in the form of a Meditation (Dhyan) Buddha.

These Meditation symbols are called Dhyani Buddhas.

These Buddhas represent energies with certain tendencies, that we have to work through and they help bringing harmony into these within ourselves and the world. They seem at first glance all looking the same, but their energy-field and their wisdom teaching, in fact their healing power lies in their respective placement and mudra.

Furthermore the reliefs on each level show and support this inner work with stories from the life of Buddha (which usually are what attracts attention).

So after the base plinth (the first undecorated level), we find the grosser world represented, with the levels of Earth and Water respectively illustrated with the Dhyani Buddha Akshobya and Ratnasambhava.

Akshobya, (belonging to the Vajra family) facing east - is portrait with the mudra of witnessing, or rather calling upon the earth to witness the process, (bhumiparsha).  He himself represents the energy of Water; whereas Ratnasambhava (belonging to the Ratna family) represents the energy of Earth (facing South) with the Mudra of supreme giving (wealth and support which the earth provides); the gesture of varada.

Many details are enshrined and associated with these simingly simple facts; such as, for example: colors are energy vibrations, so each Buddha has a color – even though there is no color! Each Buddha brings a certain type of wisdom and healing. In this way Akshobya is associated with blue and wisdom that mirrors the facts of the world and Ratnasambhava with yellow, and the wisdom needed to recognize sameness, thus providing stability.


Akshobya associated with the water energy points to the constant flow and change, which brings uncertainty and fear; hence the issues we have to face on this first level are associated with safety and security in the world; amongst the chaos of the physical world we have to find our place. We live with the illusion that we find that by identifying with the gross physical body. From here derives the will to live and stand up for ourselves. A focus on the material world results from this.

As we experience the gross world basically through the senses in this context /on this level we experience much pleasure and pain.

Akshobya encourages us to find the needed security in ourselves rather than the outside world, and asks us to overcome hatred, lust, anger, greed and delusion. He offers to help us overcome the emphasis on the physical, material world and learn instead to give and receive.

Many of us are stuck on this first level to more or less degree; we need help. Imbalances and stagnation in this energy-field can eventually lead even to physical illnesses (lower back-pain, gynecological and urinary track problems, rectal tumors and cancer and also depression, etc.), but Akshobya can help.

These Dhyani Buddhas are looked upon as healers and guides and we can call upon these with seed-syllables and mantras. For Akshobya the seed syllable is Hum (or bam in some context) and the mantra: om vajra akshobya hum.

(All disturbing energies, on all five levels can be let –go-of, balanced also with the mantra: shudde shudde soha plus the respective seed-syllable)


 Ratnasambhava is the next one that helps us discover and heal ourselves; representing the earth element he gives stability and support which is needed in the ever changing world, especially on the mental level. Self-respect and self-confidence in relationship with others grow from his energy. With his help our perception widens and we learn from him, to give spiritually and mentally.

However, if this energy is imbalanced, it can be expressed on the emotional level as pride, delusion and jealousy and on the physical level with such illnesses as gastric and duodenal ulcers, anorexia/bulimia, liver dis-functioning, etc.

Whether we need balancing mentally or physically Ratnasambhava will help us, if we call upon his energy with the seed syllable Tram (or lam in some context) or the mantra:  Om Ratnasambhava tram


The third Meditation Symbol is Amitaba. He faces West and lives on the third level of the stupa.  We find he represents the energy-field of fire, has red as his color and represents the Element of Fire. He belongs to the Padma family.

His mudra is that of meditation itself…from here comes all transformation, even transcendence. Transformation comes from burning, burning leaves what is not needed behind; hence the gift of Amitabha is discriminating wisdom.

(Interesting that in many culture the direction of the West is the direction that brings concentration and clarity; it’s like the autumn that leaves summer/the world behind and “shrinks to the essence”).

This shrinking to the essential is achieved through meditation!

In other words, fire in the cosmos and in the human being is that energy which destroys the old and simultaneously creates the new; it elevates as much as purifies. From here the intent and the motivation can arise to walk a higher spiritual path, to live a more meaningful life. This means we have to become more aware of ourselves and others and begin to cultivate karuna and maitryi, compassion and loving kindness - forgetting selfishness.

If this energy is imbalanced, obviously there will be issues on the physical level related, either to the small intestines (digestion, Agni) or to all manner of cardiovascular disease (heart failure, heart attacks).

 If we need help, we call on Amitabha with the seed syllable Hrih (or in some context ram) or the mantra om amideva hrih.


In the North-face and on the fourth level we find Buddha Amoghasiddhi. He represents the Air Element (in many cultures, the North is the direction of the ancestral wisdom, and the air element is that which brings clarity).

His mudra is abhaya (do not fear); he is green in color and belongs to the Karma kula (family).

Encouraged to walk the higher path, one now has to decided what to leave behind, so to ascend one leaves the more manifest levels behind and walk towards enlightenment; now, that we have learned to discriminate what is useful on this path, what not - he protects, encourages and grants us freedom from fear.

He encourages us to turn fear and anger into joy and love. If we achieve this, he grants us his blessing, the all- accomplishing wisdom.

His mudra says: stand back, do not get involved, cultivate non- object- orientated love; let go of self-interest, loneliness, resentment …

If there are imbalances they manifest on the physical level as lung disease, asthma, pneumonia, upper back problems etc. and on the emotional level as issues with clarity, intellect, with acceptance of change, with the ability to let go, etc.

Yet Amoghasiddhi will help us; to call upon him we practice with the seed syllable ah (yam) and the mantra om  ah amoghasiddhi  hum.


Finally towards the top of the stupa, there is the last level, but within are several smaller levels, elevated circles – just as “Space” has many levels; on these top- layers we find the fifth Dhyani Buddha: Vairochana, and the final great bell-stupa.

Vairochana is associated with the Zenith, (Buddha or Tathagata family) and he grants the dhamadhatu wisdom.

He appears in two forms, one (more related to manifest Space/as in the mahabhutas) with the gesture of reasoning and virtuous, and secondly we find him with the Dharmachakra mudra, turning the wheel of dharma. (Please note, not karma – but dharma).

One could say the mudra represents the upholding the dharma beyond space and time; we would say in Yogic language, the sanatah dharma; the eternal laws.

With this we reached the level that is no more concerned with the manifest, the mahabhutas, but we now find ourselves with Vairochana in the mahatattva, the higher mind, the higher buddhi, the great mind beyond the confines of individual mind.

Some say this is the level of enlightenment; others connect it to the world of unlimited ideas, the highest intelligence, or even the experiencing of ultimate peace and divine love.

Conventionally we can say we have reached the higher Chakras of mind and consciousness, Ajna Chakra and the Sahasra.

 Vairochana stands for that level where individual mind is open towards the total mind, the all mind –pure consciousness.

And it is said if these energy are imbalanced they might manifest as brain tumours and neurological disturbances, chronic fatigue, extreme sensitivity to light and sound etc… on the physical level.

For working with Vairochana’s energy we work with his seed syllable - om (eh) and the mantra om vairochana hum

With his help total integration of the personality might be achieved and one develops trust into the divine – with his help only the highest ethical and humanitarian values are left, and a life to be lived in expanded consciousness governed by divine inspiration.

On the top of the stupa

On the top of the stupa in the three sub-circles we find 72 Mediation - Buddhas enclosed in their own stone- bells, their own caves, meditating for the benefit of the world, turning the wheel of dharma. Here is the soul’s place to rest in eternal meditation and live in unconditional joy.

 The pilgrim too has reached a state of inner peace, and rejoices having concluded the meditative walk encircling each level, meditating on the relevant Buddha with its mantra.

 Now the pilgrim, with a calm peaceful mind can look from high above the land onto the green fertile landscape below…until the security guards comes and gestures to “move on” – no sitting down to meditate! Keep walking….this is after all Indonesia’s biggest, most busy Tourist site!

The Dhyani Buddhas

PS: The Dhyani Buddhas are forces that balance and heal, that help us grow…so these forces can be used in different circumstances, hence their sequence and placing might change according to needs, hence associations or expressions with chakras might vary.

PPS: As these energies and their symbols are represented not only in our bodies, but in the cosmos, the world at large, the same Dhyani Buddhas can be used to heal the environment, and that is something our world needs very much. However, we forget all too easily that we are one. Swami Rama reminds us: "Everything in this manifest universe is connected to everything else, and experiencing the fullness of our own beauty and bliss depends on having a direct experience of this connection. This law applies at every level of our existence. Nature is the manifest form of the Divine Mother, the transcendental ocean of beauty and bliss. To enjoy her protection, love and care, we must live in her lap… Exploiting nature is like abusing our own mother. Out of ignorance we fail to see that we are constantly receiving nurturance from the sun, moon, stars - air, fire and water. We are made of these forces; they are integral to us… gravity... holds us fast to the bosom of the Earth. Punching holes in the ozone layer is like drilling holes in our skull. (Only)… once we are in harmony with nature we begin to experience divine love... as this happens, the curtain of duality is lifted and we no longer experience ourselves as entities separate from her."

Note: This article is not advocating the use of the mantras mentioned above.  Before one starts a mantra practice, one should consult with one’s Spiritual Guide or mantra initiator.

Editor’s Note:

For more about Borobudur, including photos and a video: http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/592

Swami Nityamuktananda Saraswati is the author of The Five Great Elements Rediscovered.  See: http://www.athayoga.info/cds-and-books-for-sale/secrets-of-the-big-five-rediscovered Also available in an e-book format at http://dansdigitalbooks.com/products-page/swami-nityas-books

To read articles written by Swami Nityamuktananda: http://www.athayoga.info/articles

Swami Nitya’s website is http://www.athayoga.info/

More about Swami Nitya, including Introduction to the Five Elements and Five Elements Explained, can be found at http://swaminitya.info/