The Dakini principle, a central aspect of Vajrayana practice, is often understood as the female embodiment of enlightenment, which can manifest in many forms. In the following excerpt from “Dakini Journey in the Contemporary World; The Heart of Cho Vol.II,” Choying Khandro explores how Dakini energy, expressed as the Five Dakinis, becomes the embodiment and expression of the Five Elements in an awakened form. Relating to Dakini in this way helps us develop an understanding of how to perceive and relate to the true nature of all phenomena.
Five Elements and Five Buddha Families
Historically speaking, the teaching of the five elements of earth, water, fire, wind or air, and space is not exclusive to Buddhism. These teachings are quite ancient, originating in pre-Buddhism times, and elemental practices can be found in other traditions, such as the ancient Indian system of Vedanta, Tibetan Bön, American Indian, Shinto in Japan, and other indigenous religions and cultures. The elemental teachings are universal and woven into almost every esoteric tradition. This is one of the reasons we are encouraged not to fixate on or cling to one system and say, “This is the best!”
In Buddhism, the five elements correspond to the five types of energies or expressions of innate wakefulness. These five energies reside within us and are the essential, fundamental working basis of Vajrayana or tantra. Classically they are called the Five Buddha Families (khandro-de-nga in Tib.) or Five Dakinis and are personifications or expressions of the Five Elements in an awakened form. In both contemporary and traditional contexts, this five-elemental Dakini practice is a way for us to intimately relate to and work with the five awakened Buddha Families.
As Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche states:
By working with the five Buddha families, we are trying to develop some basic understanding of how to see things in their absolute essence, their own innate nature.
The Five Dakinis is a language that describes all awakened aspects of the human experience while the Five Elements is a language that describes a spectrum of energy, from form to emptiness or earth to space. A deep exploration of the Five Elements is at the core of meeting Dakini and her expressions of this method and wisdom. In fact, everything in the world, internal and external, can be explained by and experienced through the elements, including how we exist and manifest as humans. In other words, the entire world of our individual experience is a play (rolpa in Tib., lila in Skt.) of the Five Elements which are expressed as the five awakened personified energies of the Five Dakinis. It is through the Dakini practices that we learn to see things in their own innate essence.
Fivefold Wisdom and Five Conflicted Emotions
Dakini is the avenue or bridge where we can access the indwelling wisdom of timeless awareness. Traditionally, each Dakini is categorized to represent a specific elemental energy of innate wakefulness. Vajra Dakini of Water – fluid, adaptable and yet quite wrathful, when necessary, expresses the Mirror-like Wisdom Awareness that reflects the crystal-clear suchness of things exactly as they are. Ratna Dakini of Earth —stable, rich, and abundant, expresses the Wisdom Awareness of Balance or Equality, embracing all phenomena evenly. Padma Dakini of Fire—passion and compassion, magnetizing, and expresses the Wisdom Awareness of Discernment. Karma Dakini of Wind—effortless, spontaneous activity, expresses the Wisdom Awareness of Accomplishment. And Buddha Dakini of Space— all-encompassing emptiness, expresses the Wisdom Awareness of Emptiness, absolute expanse of space. The Five Dakinis as expres- sions of the five types of wisdom awareness can be unveiled through the skillful method of the Five Dakinis Practice, offering us a unique way to connect with all aspects of our lives as it opens us up to our awakened energy, our innate wakefulness called “buddha-nature,” in an experiential and intimate way.
Each Buddha Family has both a conflicted side, the Five Conflicted Emotions (klésha in Skt.) — ignorance, anger, pride, desire, and jealousy — and an awakened, open side, the Five Facets of Primordial Awareness (yeshe-nga in Tib.). The pure undistorted manifestations of the Five Elements are the Five Wisdoms, or Fivefold Timeless Awareness, while the impure distorted manifestations of the Five Elements are the Five Conflicted Emotions.
In Buddhist tantra, it is a common understanding that all our conflicted emotions are associated with one of these Five Facets of Timeless Awareness. In the obscure fashion, the mode of ignorance or neurosis, the energy or emotion is solidified and becomes ego- based contraction. It turns into a conflicted emotion that blocks us from seeing who and what we truly are. In the pure form, enlightened body, speech, and mind qualities and activities are energies that are completely liberated. In the process of purifying what’s in the way and unveiling what’s already there, the true nature of who we are shines through. I like to use the metaphor of a dimmer switch that can move from the darker side to the lighter side and vice versa while remaining on the spectrum of the same electric energy. It is the same energy. This is important to point out and always remember. The klésha has the exact same energy as the correlating wisdom. It is just constricted, ego-driven, and obscured.
If we directly experience this as it is and recognize this natural, awakened state, we can let go of ego solidification and use that conflicted emotion as the steppingstone to realize our true nature. The Dakini practice conjoined with the elements is a way of understanding and connecting with these different kinds of inherent energies within each of us that manifest either in the conflicted, obscure fashion or in the open, pure forms, all within the same energy continuum.
How We Can Apply Dakini Teachings
How do we experience Dakini in our daily life on this Dakini Journey when we integrate the Five Elements into our experience? What qualities of Dakini do we awaken in ourselves?
Elemental Dakini practices give a fresh, dynamic, and fluid view, not static or linear, fitting perfectly into one box. Our conventional mind tends to prefer categorizations, classifications, and labeling. For instance, we like that each Dakini corresponds to a certain quality, element, and energy, as a nice and tidy presentation. Of course, this kind of categorization has a place and is convenient. But because she is the ever-fresh, dynamic movement of elemental energy, if we fixate on these categorizations, Dakini will show up and cut right through that, reminding us that the most important thing is our own direct experience. How you experience these teachings and how you embody them is what matters. Normally our way of perceiving is very fixed, predictable, and limited. Dakini provides us with the flexibility and openness that prevents us from getting stuck and fixating on or solidifying our view of self and others.
Dakini is experiential, applicable, and portable. She invites us to put these teachings and classifications to the test with our own direct experience, to see for ourselves what it is. The understanding of Dakini based on energies and elements offers us ever-expanding possibilities and broader contexts where we can grow and dance with limitless potential. She points out a completely different view of the self and the world from what we are familiar with, completely different from our usual habitual perspective. Dakini practice based on the elemental teachings is a way for us to personally experience and understand this. Through tantric practices like the Five Dakinis, we come to discover that our unexamined ordinary and habitual view does not accord with reality. We come to appreciate that there are infinitely different ways of looking at ourselves and the world other than merely through our own ingrained and conditioned lens or perspective. Dakini guides us to experience or to understand ourselves, our environment, and the whole world with our ever-fresh Dakini eyes inspiring us for freedom and confidence, she always brings us back to our direct experience, asking,
Does this accord with your experience?
As we pay more attention to these elemental qualities and start feeling internally connected with the elemental energy of the Five Dakinis, we start recognizing the five awakened flavors in our own experience. We see that they are showing up in various ways, sometimes in a surprising manner, intimately and nakedly in our daily lives. In fact, Dakini’s presence is anywhere and under any circumstances. She is so close to us right now. She intrinsically or naturally manifests in us as our breath, sensations, subtle body, senses, and feelings.
Can you feel her through awareness of each element in your body?
When we personally experience the profound interconnectedness of the Five Elements and Dakinis our dharma practice becomes quite integrated and embodied, and the gap or border between our on-the-cushion and off-the-cushion practice becomes fuzzy.
Dakini is the source of balance. When our elements are balanced in the psycho-physical body, we have a harmonious feeling, and this influences how we interact with the elements of nature in the world. Any loss of elemental balance, internal or external, is mirrored in our relationship with the world and with ourselves. In our lives, many circumstances we face challenge us to pause, return, restore, and develop a genuine connection with the Five Elements and all aspects of life in a constructive and benevolent way. This restoration may require us to make radical changes on many levels. By forming an alliance with the Five Dakinis and embodying their fivefold awakened energies, we can step away from our old, unskillful, habitual patterns and embrace a fresh, dynamic paradigm. This may feel unconventional, unknown, and challenging, but in fact, it accords with the way things really are. Our reactive emotions or patterns tend to intensify during challenging times, and Dakini teachings and practices support us in our transformation into an immense benevolent presence of liberated energy and direct awareness.
Essence and Expression
The ineffable essence of Dakini, traditionally called Prajnaparamita or Great Mother, and her unique expressions as the Five Dakinis and Five Elements are exquisitely intertwined on this journey. An intimate experience of our own mind and of the energies in our body brings up various aspects and attributes of our consciousness within our mind-body system. It is like the light that shines through a prism and appears in various colors. These appearances are the five colors of the Five Dakinis. While each color and Dakini appear differently, they are one. They are manifesting from the same source. They come alive in us and in our lives through the magic dance of the Five Dakinis Practice.
Through working with the Five Elemental Dakinis experientially, we start to see and feel the illusory nature of and the interdependency of all phenomena. We get a glimpse into the essence of Dakini, the emptiness of reality. This experience, this ongoing and unfolding process of moving towards the ultimate embodiment of who and what we truly are, Dakini herself, is profound. It is a pilgrimage into our wholeness, returning home to the sacred embodiment of our authentic self.
Now, let us see for ourselves. Let’s sit for a few minutes. Just come to a starting point where you allow your body and mind to be here, present. I want you to focus on the sensations arising in your five senses. See right now if you can gently invite your awareness to tune into these tactile sensations, whatever feelings arise. The tactile sensations I am referring to are the elemental aspects – the firmness and stability of the earth element; the fluidity and liquidity of the water element; the fire element in your body with its different temperatures from hot to cold and cold to hot; and the versatility and spontaneous movement arising from the wind element. And of course, these four elements appear in space; the space element is everywhere encompass- ing everything. Without space, nothing happens. Allow your mind to be like a vast, infinite, cloudless space. Rest in that. Then allow all the rest of the awakened activities of the Five Elemental Dakinis to unfold, like a rainbow, to be expressed from there, in there, as that. Tune into all these sensations and feelings that express the essence of the elements. Imagine that all these elements we just experienced manifest as Dakini, the awakened activity of the enlightened mind.
Now let’s dedicate. Just take a moment to connect to whatever arises. You may experience a surge of energies, coming up and then subsiding back to the essence of Dakini, like the ripples on a lake. These two pointing-out instructions, the essence of Dakini and the expressions of Dakini, can sum up everything. What is the essence of Dakini is the same question as, Who and what are you? What are the expressions of Dakini is the same question as what does your life consist of? Dakini essence and Dakini expressions —these two—are the view and understanding with which we set forth on Dakini Journey. So, with gratitude and appreciation for your presence here and your determination to tread this journey with authenticity and humility, surrendering and vigilance, soft-heartedness, and strong fearlessness, may we come home, come home to Dakini!
Dakini Journey in a Contemporary World is Volume 2 of a series entitled, Heart of Chö, a set of sequential volumes with the aim of introducing the unique, main practices of the Ear-Whispered Lineage of Chö in a way that the practitioner can experientially and intimately take the same journey that was tread by our great masters of the past. Volume 1, Chö Foundations, was published in 2020, and Volume 3, Dakini Journey With the Lineage, is forthcoming.