According to one scripture, Buddha Speaks of the Amitabha Sutra, Shariputra is told that there are innumerable Buddhas. [see the notes at the end for a list of Buddhas mentioned.] There is a convention, however, in which there are considered to be five transcendent Buddha Families. All the buddhas are manifestations of Emptiness, but they have distinctive samboghakaya forms.
Once referred to as the Dhyani Buddhas (Lama Angarika Govinda's Foundations of Tibetan Mysticism) each family has a chief figure who is associated with a cardinal direction (plus the zenith or Space) and is considered the head of a family. The families are: Tathagatha or Buddha family, Vajra, Lotus, Jewel, Karma.
Besides the symbol, eg. lotus, vajra, etc. each has a characteristic colour and a female consort also known as his "method" or actualizing manifestation. Each also has been seen as representing one of the "heaps" or skandhas, and each is also associated with one of the Realms in the Wheel of Rebirth. Each is believed to inhabit a Pure Land or "heaven."
They also embody aspects of Enlightenment. For example, Akshobya is considered Enlightened Mind, Vairochana is Enlightened Form and Amitabha Enlightened Speech. And the practice of each of the Buddhas is thought to act in such a way as to offset a negativity.
The historical Buddha is seen as only one manifestation in a chain or series, a nirmanakaya form of one or other of the transcendent Ones. Buddhists of the Kagyu denomination consider that the very dark blue Buddha of the Center or Space (or often, the East) Mikyopa or Akshobya (Unshakeable) in the form known as Vajradhara (also considered a form of Shakyamuni), is the source of enlightening method. His vehicle (associated animal or support) is the elephant and his attribute is the vajra. He is depicted touching the earth (Skt. bhumisparsha mudra) with his right hand in testimony to the power of merit in overcoming opposition. (This is a symbolic reference to Shakyamuni's encounter with Mara.) His consort is white Lochana lending continuity to the fact that while he fulfills the role of purifier and preceptor, he appears as princely white Vajrasattva holding a dorje and a silent bell. (Alternately, Vajradhara and Vajrasattva have also been described as forms of Vajrapani who is a bodhisattva of Amitabha's family.)
Aksobhya is associated with All-pervasive Consciousness of which deep space or the profound ocean is a symbol. The stain or obscuration (Tib. klesha) that he neutralizes is that of anger. Hum (Tib. Hung) is the seed syllable of his mantra.
Akshobya as depicted by Andy Weber.
Amitabha ( Opameh) is the Buddha of Infinite Light, the one among the ultimate Buddhas thought to occupy the Western direction of space. He is associated with the element of fire and with overcoming the klesha of fear. Hrih is his seed syllable -- the one associated with the heart center.
The emblem of the red Buddha of the West is the lotus, and Amitabha with a benevolent smile sits in endless meditation (dhyana) holding a food bowl, under a tree by a lake, with peacocks supporting his throne. The bowl in his lap contains the ambrosia of eternal bliss.
In many cultures, but especially in Japan and China, he is thought of as the ruler of the Western Paradise where the virtuous will find themselves after death. This lush and be-jeweled land is illuminated as if by the setting sun so that everything is a golden-red.
In some depictions, he is shown making the abhaya mudra with his right palm facing us in the familiar 'stop' gesture which here may be interpreted, ‘stop being afraid’, that is, a gesture of protection. His left hand may be in the gesture of granting blessings or wishes. Sometimes he is depicted holding a red peony. Where ever people feel helpless in the face of life's circumstances, his cult is very popular.
In many parts of the world devotion to Amida, as he is known in Japanese, developed into a school of Buddhism in which it is considered unnecessary to do any other practice but repeat the mantra of Amitabha. Indeed, in some sects the mantra written in calligraphy, is itself, an object of worship.
The Western paradise of Amitabha is called sukha-vati in Sanskrit, or Blissful Land. However, in the conventional translation from Chinese and Japanese it is known as " Pure Land" despite the fact that there are many other such Lands, and so the form of Buddhism just described is known as Pure Land Buddhism.
Pure Land Buddhism centres on his practice or even merely the recitation of his mantra: OM Aami Dehwa Hri, but Sukhavati (Realm of Bliss) which is the name of his pure land, is mentioned by all Tibetan Buddhists in many different circumstances, most especially at the time of dying.
Other transitional events -- any beginnings or endings, if only of the Western somewhat arbitrary calendar system -- are often occasions for uneasiness. Thus, at the request of several communities around the world, the sadhana or ritual of worship chosen by Tibetan Buddhist centres for the time just before New Year's 2000 was the text called Maha Sukhavati that concerns Amitabha.
Amitayus [Tib.: Tsepameh is an expression of Amitabha. His distinguishing attribute is a flask of amrita which heals any illness and confers immortality.
Vairochana whose name means Radiant is the patron of the Gelugpas. As such, he will occupy a central position. Otherwise, like the rising sun that illuminates darkness, he is considered to occupy the East and his colour is white. He stands for wisdom in the form of understanding. His method overcomes ignorance or delusion. His vehicle is the lion, symbol of the royal lineage of Shakyamuni and the superiority of the Buddha dharma as a method. This is the Buddha as Teacher; he makes the turning wheel gesture (dharmachakra mudra) which evokes his sermons and his setting in motion the system compatible with the wheel of rebirth. Om is the syllable associated with him. He heads the Buddha family.
Ratnasambhava means Jewel-born. Associated with the South, he is golden
yellow, and earth is the related element. He is associated with the riches of the earth and the realm of earthly existence. His attribute is a Wish-fulfilling Jewel (Skt. chintamani) the stone of mythology that usually grants 3 wishes. Here it grants our "heart's desire" which is to be always happy; that is, to put an end to suffering by means of the Dharma. He heads the Gem family and his way of liberation is via sensation and emotion. He helps overcome craving and greed.
Ratnasambhava's throne is supported by horses. He makes the boon-bestowing gesture (varada mudra) with his right hand. The seed syllable of his mantra is Tram. Practices associated with him work to transmute the poison of pride.
Amoghasiddhi (Unerring Achiever) is called Donyo Drupa in Tibetan. He is dark green, and is associated with the North. His practices overcome envy and jealousy. He is associated with the air and with our attitudes of mind. His symbol is a cross formed by two vajras (Skt. vishvavajra) and his seat is supported by shang-shangs or "garudas". With his right hand he makes the gesture, "Do not fear (abhaya mudra") which is a sign of complete refuge or protection. His seed syllable or bija is Ah. He overcomes through introspection, meditation and the use of the breath.