In Vajrayana Buddhism, the Five Tathāgatas (pañcatathāgata) or Five Wisdom Tathāgatas (Chinese: 五智如来; pinyin: Wǔzhì Rúlái), the Five Great Buddhas and the Five Jinas (Sanskrit for "conqueror" or "victor"), are emanations and representations of the five qualities of the Adi-Buddha or "first Buddha" Vairocana or Vajradhara, which is associated with Dharmakaya.
They are also sometimes called the "dhyani-buddhas", a term first recorded in English by Brian Hodgson, a British Resident in Nepal, in the early 19th century, and is unattested in any surviving traditional primary sources. These five Buddhas are a common subject of Vajrayana mandalas.
These five Buddhas feature prominently in various Buddhist Tantras and are the primary object of realization and meditation in Shingon Buddhism, a school of Vajarayana Buddhism founded in Japan by Kūkai.
The Five Wisdom Buddhas are a development of the Buddhist Tantras, and later became associated with the trikaya or "three body" theory of Buddhahood. While in the Tattvasaṃgraha Tantra there are only four Buddha families, the full Vajradhatu mandala with five Buddhas first appears in the Vajrasekhara Sutra. The Vajrasekhara also mentions a sixth Buddha, Vajradhara, "a Buddha (or principle) seen as the source, in some sense, of the five Buddhas."
The Five Buddhas are aspects of the dharmakaya "dharma-body", which embodies the principle of enlightenment in Buddhism.
Initially, two Buddhas appeared to represent wisdom and compassion: Akshobhya and Amitābha. A further distinction embodied the aspects of power, or activity, and the aspect of beauty, or spiritual riches. In the Golden Light Sutra, an early Mahayana text, the figures are named Dundubishvara and Ratnaketu, but over time their names changed to become Amoghasiddhi, and Ratnasambhava. The central figure came to be called Vairocana.
When these Buddhas are represented in mandalas, they may not always have the same colour or be related to the same directions. In particular, Akshobhya and Vairocana may be switched. When represented in a Vairocana mandala, the Buddhas are arranged like this:
There is an expansive number of associations with each element of the mandala, so that the mandala becomes a cipher and mnemonic visual thinking instrument and concept map; a vehicle for understanding and decoding the whole of the Dharma. Some of the associations include:
The five Tathāgathas are protected by five Wisdom Kings, and in Japan are frequently depicted together in the Mandala of the Two Realms and are in the Shurangama Mantra revealed in the Śūraṅgama Sūtra. They each are often depicted with consorts, and preside over their own pure lands. In East Asia, the aspiration to be reborn in a pure land is the central point of Pure Land Buddhism. Although all five Buddhas have pure lands, it appears that only Sukhavati of Amitābha, and to a much lesser extent Abhirati of Akshobhya (where great masters like Vimalakirti and Milarepa are said to dwell) attracted aspirants.