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Five Colors of Buddhism

Buddhism includes the concept of five colors (pancha-varna in Sanskrit). These colors are white, yellow, red, blue and green. In the Chandamaharosana Tantra:

  • Black symbolizes killing and anger
  • White denotes rest and thinking
  • Yellow stands for restraining and nourishing
  • Red for subjugation and summoning
  • Green means exorcism

The enumeration of the colors may change but the number remains five. Thus the five transcendental Buddhas, personification of the abstract aspects of Buddhahood, are each endowed with a different color in their sadhanas:

  1. Vairochana - White bodied
  2. Ratnasambhava - Yellow bodied
  3. Akshobhya - Blue bodied
  4. Amitabha - Red bodied
  5. Amoghasiddhi - Green bodied

Here it is relevant to note that each of these five Buddhas and their associated colors are said to further the transformative process whereby specific human delusions are changed to positive qualities. Specifically it is believed that by meditating on the individual colors, which contain their respective essences, the following metamorphosis can be achieved:

  • White transforms the delusion of ignorance into the wisdom of reality
  • Yellow transforms pride into wisdom of sameness
  • Blue transforms anger into mirror-like wisdom
  • Red transforms the delusion of attachment into the wisdom of discernment
  • Green transforms jealousy into the wisdom of accomplishment

Hence we find that ancient Buddhism thought placed much emphasis on the spiritual significance of colors, which naturally influenced the development and practice of Buddhist aesthetics.

A further investigation into the five colors takes us to the Mahavairochana-Sutra, which states that a mandala, the quintessential symbol of Tibetan Buddhism, should be painted in five colors. It further prescribes that one should start at the interior of the mandala with white and to be followed by red, yellow, blue and black.

The Chakrasambhara-tantra prescribes that the walls of a mandala should be painted in five colors and should maintain the order of black in the interior followed by white, yellow, red and green. In certain mandalas, the four directions within the palace are indicated by different colors. The east is indicated by white, west by red, north by green and the south by yellow while the center is painted blue. The Kalachakra-tantra, however, prescribes a completely different color scheme to indicate different directions: the color black indicates east, yellow west, white north, and red stands for the south. Whatever the color association with directions, the protecting circle of a mandala is usually always drawn in red.

The reference to the five colors has been made also in an altogether different context, namely the process of the purification and empowering of sense organs. This occurs during meditation on goddess Tara:

  • White for eyes
  • Blue for ears
  • Yellow for the nose
  • Red for the tongue
  • Green for the head

In a spectacular visualization, the Tibetan tradition states that the syllable hum (part of Om Mani Padme Hum), although blue in color, radiates five different colors. The dot (drop) on the crescent should be blue, the crescent is white, the head is yellow, the syllable 'ha' is red and the vowel 'u' is of green color.

The four elements air, fire, water and earth are also identified in the Kalachakra-tantra with four different colors: blue (or black), red, white and yellow, respectively. These four elements are further depicted as semi-circular, triangular, circular, and square respectively. This is a precursor to Tantric imagery where color and geometry (not mutually exclusive) are the basic building blocks making up the whole edifice of Tantric symbolism.

Sources

  • Kumar, Nitin. “Color Symbolism in Buddhist Art.” Exotic India Art. 1 Feb. 2002. Web. Accessed 20 Nov. 2016. Excerpts reprinted with permission of the author.