In order to understand the five wisdom dakinis we have to go way back to the beginning, to the basic split. The split is between “I” and “others.” This is the beginning of the “ego.” The ego sees everything dualistically, there is a space which is “here” and which is “me” and “mine” and another space, “there,” which is “them” and “theirs.” This barrier between the internal space and the external space creates a constant struggle. The conventional search for happiness is the ego’s attempt to redress this split by making it all “mine,” but the ironic twist is that the more the ego tries to control the situation, the more the barrier is solidified. In the struggle the ego completely loses track of the basic split that is the source of suffering.

After the dualistic barrier is initially created, the ego forms a kind of governing headquarters which sends feelers out into the environment to determine what is safe and what will enhance itself and expand its territory, what is threatening and what is merely uninteresting or vaguely annoying. These feelers report back to central headquarters and the reactions to this information become the three fundamental poisons: passion (attraction toward what will increase its territory), aggression (toward what seems threatening) and “ignoring” or ignorance (toward that which seems to be of no use to the ego). From these fundamental poisons develop further elaborations, and we get into conceptual discrimination, further pigeonholing of perception and more complex forms of the three poisons. We end up with a whole fantasy world centered around the ego. A storyline develops based on these reactions and one thing leads to another. This is what Buddhists call the karmic chain reaction. The whole thing gets so complicated that the ego is kept constantly busy and entertained by the plots and subplots which develop from the basic dualistic split. This clinging to the fantasy that the ego needs to control its territory and protect itself from threats is the basis of all suffering and neurosis. However, since this process has been going on for lifetimes, the thickness of the plots and subplots sometimes becomes overwhelming. Meditation practice slows down the reaction patterns, and gradually things start to settle down and the whole process becomes a bit clearer.

Because the energy of individuals varies, their styles of relating to the basic split also vary. When the ego’s frantic struggle is relaxed, the basic energy of the individual can shine through as wisdom. The way wisdom manifests will vary according to the nature of the individual, and thus we have the five Buddha families. Naturally, not everyone fits neatly into a particular category and many people are mixtures of several families.

The five families are: Vajra (diamond), Buddha, Ratna (jewel), Padma (lotus), Karma (action). These are fundamental energy patterns which manifest in all phenomenal experience.

The Vajra family person in the unevolved state surveys and reflects the environment with sharp accuracy; there is a fear of not having the situation covered and, if there are any surprises, the reaction is anger, either hot or cold. The Vajra type is intellectual and conceptual, always trying to systematize everything. When this becomes neurotic, complex systems of how everything works are evolved which have little relationship to the situation at hand. When this angry, controlling intellect is transformed into its original state it becomes “Mirror Like Wisdom.” It is associated with the element water, blue or white, the Buddha Akshobya and the dakini Dhatisvari.

The Buddha family person is associated with the element of space, or ether. In its neurotic state it is dull and thick: the slang “spaced out” perfectly defines the Buddha family person whose intelligence is lulled to sleep. These people don’t bother to wash the dishes or take care of themselves; everything seems to require too much effort. The Buddha family is associated with the “Wisdom of All-Encompassing Space,” and when this dullness is purified it becomes open and spacious like the sky and the person is calm, open and warm. The name of the Buddha of this family is Vairocana and the dakini Locana.

The Ratna family is associated with the element of earth, the south, the color yellow and autumn. In its unevolved state this energy must fill up every corner because it never has enough. There is a tendency to be greedy and domineering, wanting always to be the center of things. The Ratna type needs to accumulate food and possessions. The negative quality of Ratna is pride; they want everyone to think they are very important. When this energy is purified into wisdom it becomes “All Enriching Wisdom.” Without the attachment of the ego the expansiveness of Ratna seems to enrich every situation: wonderful things are created and the surroundings are enriched. The Buddha of this family is Ratnasambhava and the dakini Mamaki.

The Padma family person is involved with seduction rather than the acquisition of material things that concerns the Ratna type. The Padma person is interested in relationships and wants to accumulate desirable feelings. They want to draw others in and possess them. The mental pattern involves a dilettantish, scattered kind of activity. Projects are started and then dropped when the superficial glamor wears off. Pleasure is very important, and pain is rejection or abandonment. The wisdom which emerges when this energy is freed from the ego’s hold is “Discriminating Awareness Wisdom” and things can be seen with prajna, profound cognition. Aesthetics become enlightened and great art can be created with this energy which can see the relationships between everything. Padma is associated with the west and spring, the color red, fire, the Buddha Amitabha and the dakini Pandaravasini.

The Karma family person is very active and is always working at something. The Karma family dakini is often portrayed in profile because she is too busy to look at you straight on. This speed comes from the air element and can be very aggressive and impulsive. There is a tendency toward paranoia, a fear of losing track of all the plots that are going on, so they are usually frantically organizing everyone and everything, making sure things are under control. In its wisdom transformation this energy becomes “All-Accomplishing Wisdom,” and enlightened activity begins to take place, which benefits many beings. The Karma family is associated with winter, the north, envy, the Buddha Amogasiddi and the dakini Samayatara.

Certain women are said to be emanations of these dakinis, and they have certain signs by which they can be recognized. Because wisdom is an inherent part of the energy, not a separate thing which follows on a linear pattern, the enlightened aspect might escape from the surveillance of the ego at any moment and therefore everyone has the possibility of becoming a Buddha or dakini on the spot. We could have little gaps in the claustrophobic game of dualism, and clarity could shine through. Therefore even an ordinary ‘unenlightened” woman or situation could suddenly manifest as the dakini. The world is not as solid as we think it is, and the more we are open to the gaps, the more wisdom can shine through and the more the play of the dakini energy can be experienced. The primary way to relax the ego’s grasp is to practice meditation. All Tantric visualizations and mantras are geared to freeing the energy of wisdom which is being suffocated under the solidified fantasies of dualistic fixation.

By consciously invoking the dakini through Tantric practices we begin to develop a sensitivity to energy itself. When looking at the iconography of the
dakini we should bear in mind that through understanding her symbols and identifying with her, we are identifying with our own energy. Tantric divinities
are used because we are in a dualistic state. Tantra takes advantage of that, or exaggerates it, by embodying an external figure with all the qualities the practitioner wishes to obtain. After glorifying and worshiping this external deity, the deity dissolves into the practitioner — then at the end of any Tantra there is a total dissolution of the deity into space; and finally, after resting in that state, the practitioner visualizes herself or himself as the deity again as they go about their normal activities.

There are a vast number of Tantric dakinis, both peaceful and wrathful, in the Tibetan pantheon, each embodying specific qualities which the practitioner may need to activate at certain times according to the instruction of the guru.


Women of Wisdom by Lama Tsultrim Allione, based on the teaching on Mandala principle by Chogyam Trungpa.

Thangka of Machig Labdron’s peaceful Mandala of the Five Dakinis by Lama Gyurme, courtesy of Lama Tsultrim Allione.