The Five Buddha Families. ~ Linda V. Lewis

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on May 6, 2010
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Bonus! The Five Buddha Families, in video form!

buddha touching earth fasting mudra

The Buddha Families—Buddha, Vajra, Ratna, Padma, Karma.

The Buddha families as presented by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche are a description of five qualities of energy.

They describe qualities we all have. They are not meant to solidify one’s ego through identifying them the way some people identify with their astrological signs. They are instead a fluid working basis for recognizing our current sanity or neurosis.


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buddha families


Practitioners of the buddhadharma are not expected to be uniformly cool or warm, smart or spacious. Especially since these families come from the vajrayana tradition, they permit a great openness for us to work on ourselves in order to bring out our intrinsic wisdom.  The main demand is to be honest and to be willing to see how we are manifesting—sanely or neurotically.

Each Buddha family has an emotion associated with it, which can be transmuted into wisdom, as well as a color, element, landscape, direction, season, and even a time of day.  Since we change both physically and mentally, our styles, modes of being, likes and dislikes change over the years.  Thus the predominant Buddha family of a person may change, influenced often by age or circumstances.  This is because we all embody and have access to all the five Buddha energies.

vajradhara thangka shambhala sakyong trungpa boulder

The central Buddha family is Buddha, which has the quality of space and accommodation.  If a friend asks you, “Would you like to see ‘Avatar’ or ‘Oceans’?” you might say, “Oh, either one,” if you were in a Buddha frame of mind.  It’s not that you don’t care.  It’s that you have no sharp edges, no strong likes and dislikes.  Your mode of being is even and does not tend to react to excitement, yet you are open if not enterprising.

But the neurosis of the Buddha family is dullness, a kind of bubble-gum or molasses mind.  Buddha neurosis ignores the vividness of life because it does not want to see.  Think of someone in a Lazy-Boy chair in front of a blaring TV who cannot find the remote and who doesn’t want to bother to get up to change the channel.  Although the stupor is thick, if there is a flicker of wakefulness, it can transform the sloth into the Wisdom of All-Encompassing Space.  That flicker of wakefulness can encourage him to be tired of nesting in indifference and inertia, and can provoke him to get out of the Lazy-Boy, turn off the TV, and clean up the living room, creating space.

This is the wisdom, which makes it possible for the other Buddha families to function.  It is like wakeful oxygen, the air of life.  The Buddha energy is usually portrayed as blue, like the sky or cool space. Its symbol is the eight-spoked wheel of dharma.

The Vajra family is known for precision and intellectual exactness. It is associated with the East and the lightening sky of dawn. Its symbol is the diamond-like or adamantine thunderbolt called a vajra.  If it were a Vajra person who asked the Buddha friend which film he would prefer, the attitude of “either one” would be puzzling and require investigation.  At times a Vajra person may seem cold or sharply cutting like an icicle, because there is a tendency to analyze or at least question, “How can you have no preference?”

The Vajra personality works with white-hot anger.  Vajra neurosis tends to have a short fuse, super ready to criticize or at least to analyze what is wrong with an idea or situation.  But if a Vajra person can just feel and stay with the emotion of anger, rather than either self-righteously expressing rage and getting off on it—or suppressing it tightly inside—the clarity of anger turns naturally into Mirror-like Wisdom and he can begin to express intelligently and without blame his concerns and insights.

Usually when we’re angry we want to get it off our chest, or, out of fear, suppress it.  In both cases we are trying to get rid of the anger rather than acknowledging and staying with it.  But by registering the emotion, we can touch the clarity within the emotion and find a skillful way to express ourselves, without polluting and emoting all over the place, and without bottling it up for another day.

The Ratna personality tends to be proud and loves to collect and draw in richness. Ratna literally means jewel or precious gem.  A Ratna lady’s home may be like a comfortable fortress full of various rich collections.  Perhaps she has a great library or collection of paintings. In the kitchen where she loves to cook, she has every imaginable utensil, herb, and spice.  Her garden may be a rich jumble of vegetables and colorful flowers, surrounded by vine-covered walls and planters overflowing with velvet petunias.  She probably has a multitude of scarves, or silk ties if a man, and enjoys wearing a great deal of gold jewelry or “bling”.  Such a person is gregarious and enjoys being surrounded by companions.

The sanity of Ratna expresses itself in the Wisdom of Equanimity.  There is balance, and earthy stability.  She is aware of self-existing richness in herself and her world and doesn’t have to always go “over the top”, replaying certain opera arias or dressing in brocade!

Recognizing the tendency to be prideful is the beginning of loosening up into the Wisdom of Equanimity.  As the tendency to defend herself and to maintain ego’s way of doing things elaborately relaxes, she feels inspired instead to be generous and hospitable to everyone in her world.

Ratna is connected with the South, to the fertility and abundance of autumn.  It is like sunshine mid-morning on a luscious, ripe and juicy peach!

The Padma family is provocative and magnetizing. Padma literally means lotus.  This family is connected with fire and the burning red of the setting sun in the West, and with springtime, the time when winter softens into tender growth and brightens with the brilliant color of wild flowers.  Many artists are of the Padma family.  Padma people tend to be attractive and warm, with an instinct toward union.

But Padma neurosis is prone to fascination and seduction, followed by disinterest because the desire is to attract more than to have.  This neurotic form of passion can be transformed with self-discipline into Discriminating Awareness, which knows what to attract, what to reject, in the first place.  Then respect and communication can occur along with the warmth of genuine compassion, instead of the cycle of entrapment-rejection.

The final Buddha family is that of Karma, symbolized by a sword.  This is the most efficient and active family. Karma literally means action or activity. It is like the energy of a good wind, which blows away any leaves still clinging from winter’s stasis, or like a summer breeze in the Northern Highlands of Cape Breton, whipping through the tall, sword-like grasses, for it is summer when all living things are most active and growing.  The color of the Karma family is green but the mood is that of dusk, post-sunset, like an early summer night teeming with the activity of everything from insects to partying humans!

Karma people like things to work, to be functional, and timely.  They are pragmatic, with a tendency toward competition.  The neurosis of Karma is speed, restlessness, and jealousy.  Karma neurosis feels that if something isn’t functional all the time or doesn’t fit a predetermined scheme, it should be destroyed!

But again, recognizing this tendency toward speed, competition, and jealousy is the first step in having the neurosis loosen its hold.  As one slows down, action becomes appropriate.  Then one can be less self-conscious, competitive, and jealous.  And one can  learn to delegate.  This is the beginning of All-Accomplishing Action.

These families represent five different approaches and styles, which are equally valid. A practitioner may relate predominantly to any one of them, or partially with several of them.

There is no fixed type-casting. Each family has the potential to be a different expression of sanity.  In that way our various styles do not need to be considered as hang-ups but as the display of a variety of valuable energies.

~ Linda V. Lewis

Statue of Buddha



This was recorded live at Naropa University in my Buddhist Psychology Class. It is part of a rock-opera I started writing based on the Tibetan Buddhist teachings of the “Five Buddha Families”. Each family is represented in the five colors on the Tibetan Buddhist prayer flag:
Karma (Green) Buddha (White), Ratna (Yellow), Padma (Red) and Vajra (Blue). We all embody these energies at various times. Each can manifest in its wisdom aspect, or in its neurotic forms.

Enlightened Karma enables one to accomplish incredible amounts of work with a sense of calm and enjoyment. Neurotic Karma however, has a tendency towards paranoia and the manipulation of others.

In this song, I embody the insane “Emperor Karma”, who uses all of the other Buddha Families to do his bidding as he conquers the earth!

For more of my creations, visit:

To learn more about the Five Buddha Families, checkout:…


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28 Responses to “The Five Buddha Families. ~ Linda V. Lewis”

  1. John Pappas says:

    Wonderful explaination, Linda! I am not that familar with Shambhala or vajrayana and most of what I know comes from those that are active practitioners like yourself. Thanks again for the post as well as for the link to my post on Trungpa and Kwong!



  2. Melony says:

    Beautiful, well-written post by someone who must be a wonderful mom. Cheerful Mother's Day to you! I really loved the straight forward and accessible descriptions. Thank you.

  3. peggy markel says:

    Enlightening explanations LInda. Thank you. Enjoyed reading a mother's description of her son. He's such a love.

  4. peggy markel says:

    Enlightening explanations LInda. Thank you. Enjoyed reading a mother's description of her son. He's such a love.

  5. Greg says:

    Have my attention stuck in the Vajra family for sure….

    Wonderful explication of the concept. I first encountered Trungpa's vision of the families in Luminous Emptiness by Francesca Fremantle (mentored by Trungpa). In that context, the discussion had to do with the bardos and rebirth due to one's "stuck attention."

    Your explanation is very clear and one with which we can work.

    Sure do enjoy your posts on the Buddhist tradition.

  6. gwenbell says:

    Vajra. Buddha rising? *smile*

    Thanks for the post, Linda.

  7. Susan says:

    Interesting view of Buddha's work.

  8. Lilly says:


  9. Hi Buddha Lovers

    We have started a group for Buddha lovers who believe in Preaching’s and sermon of Buddha and follow the truth suggested by Lord Siddhartha. We have real life instances of Lord Siddhartha in form of Statues. Have a look on these statues based on the truth instance of Buddha's Life.

    Tanu's Crafting

  10. Buddha with Pupils

    The Buddha preaching the sermon "the wheel of law" to the "Band of five disciples"

    Soon after the birth of the Future Buddha, eight Brahmin fortune-tellers, observed the marks and characteristics of the Future Buddha's person. Five of these Brahmins interpreted that prince Siddhattha would unquestionably become a Buddha and with that belief, had already become ascetics. When Siddhattaha retired from the world, they attended to his personal needs.

    The Blessed One, having attained the Supreme Wisdom, began his life as the Great Teacher. He fist thought of the persons whom he should first aid his teaching, and saw that these five ascetics had developed mature intellect. He therefore went to the Deer Park at Isipatana near Benares, 18 yojanas (1 yojana = about 8 miles) away from the Bodhi tree and preached his first sermon to this "Band of Five Disciples" before sunset on the full moon day of Wazo (June-July).

    read more..

  11. Wonderful learn, I simply passed this onto a colleague who was in search of this info. I’ve you bookmarked on Digg.

  12. Hey,

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  13. Ari Pliskin says:

    Trungpa's families had a pretty big impact on the founder of Zen Peacemakers. We look at them as different aspects of the community that constitute a complete, well-rounded, holistic spiritual path. Buddha: meditation, Karma: social action, Vajra: training, Padma: relationships and Ratna: resources. We adapt the Buddhist tradition to find contemporary interpretations of each of these aspects to constitute a Zen House.

  14. resor says:

    i have visited this blog a few times now and i have to tell you that i find it quite exeptional actually. keep it up! =p

  15. Tsondru Dorje says:

    In addition, while we may have a predisposition to one of the families we also tend have a predisposition to "exit" through one of these families in response to groundlessness. For example, if I don't fulfill my padma desires to attract I may become angry exitting through the Vajra family….

  16. Yogini says:

    I am Padma ! Thanks for an interesting article!

  17. Linda V. Lewis says:

    Thanks! The first time I heard Trungpa R. teach on these Buddha Families and show slides illustrating their color and qualities I was hooked. Waylon is a wonderful son. And yes, I'm a most proud mama!

  18. Linda V. Lewis says:

    Oh, Luminous Emptiness is a great book! The importance of the "bardo" is to see how mind creates the realm; the same is true in our daily life! Whether appearances in life or death appear peaceful or wrathful, if we recognize them as our own projections, they can wake us up!

  19. Linda V. Lewis says:

    Yes, that's brilliant. There is so much cross-pollination and appreciation between Trungpa R. and the Zen teachers of the time. There are indeed many applications that can be made using the 5 Buddha families.

  20. Linda V. Lewis says:

    But then if you are aware that you are doing that…there are other more sane possibilities! Awareness is always the point!

  21. This neurotic form of passion can be transformed with self-discipline into Discriminating Awareness, which knows what to attract, what to reject, in the first place.

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  23. alansmith15 says:

    love to follow more of you refreshing and interesting blog post in your sight. really is an awesome read.

  24. Mermaid7 says:

    Very lovely. I have struggled for some time to exactly pinpoint what I find unsettling about astrology, and you perfectly summed it up with one sentence. Solidifying the ego. Even feeding it really, what with the reading of charts and analysis paralysis. And, as I have repeatedly experienced, begging off consequences or responsibility e.g. "I'm a Taurus, what do you expect?!"

  25. Sana says:

    This just seems like another way to categorize people. I don't fit into any of these options.

  26. Linda V. Lewis says:

    Glad it was clarifying and helpful, John.

  27. Linda V. Lewis says:

    Thank you so much, Greg. Glad it was helpful.

  28. jf1979JF says:

    I seem to manifest qualities of all five…. probably not a good thing….