Representation Matters & The Noble Experiment
Artist statements on the Five Buddha Families & my practice of five years
In 2018 I attended a 49 day retreat that focused on studying the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Most of the teachings I received during this time were on the Five Buddha Families, understood in Tibetan schools of Buddhism to be the five Buddha realms we encounter upon dying. The practice I learned during this time was how to use the imagery of these Buddhas to relate to and stay present with intense emotional states in order to connect with the wisdom of those emotions.
My teacher, Ani Pema, said to seek the wisdom in our most intense emotions would be a noble experiment indeed. Before the retreat ended, several of us agreed to commit to the noble experiment for the next five years. Creating my own versions of the Five Buddhas in non-male form was core to this practice. In the creation of these pieces I cultivated patience and presence of mind. I learned to bear witness to the wisdom and neurosis of each family, and all the ways they show up in my life and in relation to one another.
It is a misunderstanding to think of the Five Buddha Families as personality types or as singular entities. Every human being carries all five, and cultivating a relationship with all of them is necessary for transforming any emotional state from its neurotic aspect to it’s wisdom aspect.
May they be of benefit.
Vairocana, Buddha Family
Wisdom: Spaciousness, open awareness, rest
Neuroses: Willful ignorance, checked out, nihilism
Vairocana sits in the centre of the five Buddha Families, emulating the wisdom of spaciousness. For the longest time I felt like Vairocana simply wasn’t relevant in my practice since the neurotic aspects of this family are totally foreign to me: Spacey, lazy, couldn’t care less, dull, disinclined, nihilistic, does what takes the least effort.
Vairocana is in the centre for a reason—their wisdom can connect us with the wisdom of any of the other four families. The neurotic aspects of this family all point to the need to pause and be with the present moment. When we are overwhelmed with any emotion, it can take over and lead to hurt, harm, and suffering. When we notice that overwhelm and give our emotions space to exist and flow, this is the wisdom of The Buddha Family.
The Buddha Family invites us to rest, to take a breath. Buddha wisdom is anti-capitalism. It’s napping when we are tired, meditating when our mind is racing, stepping away from the screen when our eyes are starting to blur. It’s the time we take to make a cup of tea, to watch the setting or rising sun, to be still in a garden. Vairocana centres us, grounds us, and reminds us of the unlimited vastness of possibility if we take time to pause in the momentum that leads from one moment to the next.
Ratnasambhava, Ratna Family
Wisdom: Generosity, abundance, community care/self care
Neuroses: Excess, egotistical, possessive self-interest
Ratnasambhava’s wisdom aspect is that of equanimity and abundance. Ratna Family qualities include a sense of plenty and a generous spirit. This family is about full acceptance of the multiplicity of humanity and taking care of each other from a place of understanding the interconnectedness and non-duality of all things—hence the androgynous beyond binary, genderqueer figure.
The neurotic qualities of Ratnasambhava are broadly placed under the umbrella of pride, but I prefer to use the term arrogance instead; as a queer person, I associate pride with liberation and belonging. Where the wisdom qualities of Ratna are about abundance and richness, the neuroses of arrogance is about poverty mentality and competition. The neurosis of Ratna is a longing to be recognized for our goodness and generosity.
The shift from the neurotic to the wise aspect is found in generosity as a genuine practice. The practice of generosity isn’t about giving (and being seen giving) but about letting go; letting go of our attachment to keeping score, and instead resting in abundance.
Amitabha, Padma Family
Wisdom: Compassion, unconditional love, inquisitiveness
Neuroses: Obsession, possessiveness, control
Amitabha represents discriminating awareness or Prajna—direct insight into the truth that compassion and love are limitless resources and capable of the greatest transformative power. The Padma Family Buddha is the embodiment of compassion, openness, and inquisitiveness. Padma Family wisdom is self-care as community care and community care as self-care.
When I think of Amitabha, I think to of the teaching by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel: How can we be both tender and liberated?
The neurotic aspect of the Padma family is grasping, clinging on tightly to fixed ideas of what people should or shouldn’t be doing. Stubbornness and righteous indignation are expressions of the Padma family neuroses.
Both the wisdom and the neuroses of Padma point to our very human need to belong, to be understood, and to be met. Within the neurotic expression, we can see this longing to connect and nurture, as well as our worthiness of love and connection simply because we exist. When we know we are worthy of love, we can move beyond grasping at love, and simply rest in the limitlessness of it.
Amoghasiddhi, Karma Family
Wisdom: Skilful action, responsiveness, in service to liberation
Neuroses: Highly critical, perfectionism, constant doing leading to burn-out
The wisdom of Amoghasiddhi is any action we take for the benefit of all beings. The greatest example of Karma Family work in the world these days are land protectors working towards a society divested from fossil fuels. For this reason, Buffy Sainte-Marie was the inspiration for my depiction of this Buddha.
When I look at the neurotic aspects of the Karma family—critical mindedness, perfectionism, ticking off boxes—I see “doing” energy without reflection. The neuroses of Karma leads to cancelling people who are already marginalised, inadvertently serving oppressive systems in the process. It leads to burn-out when activist communities foster the idea that rest is counter to the work being done, rather than essential to it. We can also recognize it in companies racing to put out a diversity statement without making any meaningful culture change, and default “thoughts and prayers” statements to preventable tragedy without putting work into policy change and reform.
The antidote to the neurotic aspects of Karma is to pause and take a moment to check in on whether what we are about to say or do or engage with is in service to our collective liberation. If the answer is no, refrain and redirect your energy elsewhere.
Akshobya, Vajra Family
Wisdom: Clarity, justice, protection
Neuroses: Righteous indignation, vengeance, binary thinking
The wisdom aspect of Akshobya is described as clear-seeing, mirror-like wisdom. Women, particularly Black women, are told that anger is a problem or something to be gotten rid of. But the teachings we find in the Buddhadharma say that we need not ‘get rid’ of anything; we can learn to be with anger and fully experience it, rather than mindlessly lashing out from it or giving it away.
When we see the wisdom in our anger—that it is pointing to deep cultural and social wounds of separation and oppression—we can learn how to wield that anger with love. Anger shows us of where we need to protect, to stand strong, to speak out, to resist. It gives us the capacity to see when boundaries are being violated and to speak truth to power. We can refrain from demonizing someone who has caused harm, while still holding them accountable. We can forgive without absolution, without forgetting. We can set boundaries without harbouring thoughts of resentment or vengeance.
Anger helps us understand what we stand for as much as what we stand against. The wisdom we find in the Vajra family is the indestructible and precise form of anger that arises when we are oriented towards justice and liberation for all beings.