Five-Fold Schemes

Wearing the Body of Visions” is about using visionary realities to transform ourselves.  On pgs 78-79 Ngakpa Chögyam describes the five-fold schemes used as visionary realities in Tantra.  NC also tells us that “The five-fold nature of this Tantric teaching is reflected all levels of Buddhism.”

This diagram illustrates the different 5-fold elements that NC associates within the three different Buddhist Yānas (paths) :

  • Sūtra Yāna –> 5 Skanda
  • Outer Tantra –>  5 Buddha Families
  • Inner Tantra –> 5 Pawo & Khandro
  • Dzogchen Yāna –> The Five Elements
I will continue to improve this chart as I better understand the pairings.  “Khandro” means dakini and dakini’s are named after their colors in the Aro traditions.  See David’s excellent comments below.



  1. The five khandros and pawos are not unique to Aro… You’ll find five khandros in all tantric systems, as the consorts of the five Buddhas. The pawos are somewhat more unusual, but do appear elsewhere.

    Who the five are differs in different tantric systems. The Wikipedia gives one list here; see the “Consort” column. (Not sure where this list comes from; the Vairocana Tantra, I suspect.)

    Aro has several lists of five khandros. For example, there are five different manifestations of Seng-ge Dong-ma (Simhamukha), corresponding to the five elements, with the five corresponding colors. (Here are the red and green ones dancing.)

  2. Thanx David, but I still find it confusing. I touched up the chart to match more of my reading.
    (1) For the 5 Buddha Families I wrote the name of the family instead of the name of the Buddha in that family.
    (2) I still can’t tell from the links you supplied if the Khandro (dakini) have names other than Red-dakini, Green-dakini etc . I assume they align with the families.
    (3) The layout of the colors with position on the compass seem to differ for the 5 elements. NC’s book says, “Each element has a colour: earth is yellow, water is white, fire is red, air is green and space is blue.” and “The earth element appears in the sour: water in the east; fire in the west; air in the north; and space at the centre and periphery.”
    Are the colors of Water and Space switch accidentally?

  3. It’s confusing because tantra is consistently inconsistent. It’s logically consistent only if you go to a meta level of essential principles. The details are always variable and contradictory.

    You can explain that in terms of tantra being concerned with form (where sutra is concerned with emptiness). Form is complicated and messy and never quite fits together, where emptiness is simple and tidy and formally logical.

    Alternatively, you could explain it historically in terms of the messy historical origins of tantra and its tradition of secrecy, which meant that different systems were not reconciled through public debate, in the way that sutra was.

    1. That’s good; the specific Buddhas assigned to the Families varies, but the five Familes do not (as far as I know).

    2. The Aro Seng-ge Dongmas don’t have individual names, as far as I know. In most systems, they will have specific names. But who they are will vary. (In some highly wrathful ones, Vajra Vetali, the Queen of the Vampires, is one of them!)

    3. This varies with the system. Here is another presentation that has space=blue and water=white. I don’t know how systematic this variation is—whether it corresponds to a Nyingma/Sarma divide, for instance. In Dzogchen, the blue sky is used extensively as a metaphor for rigpa, so it may be that the Nyingma generally take space=sky=blue.

  4. Superb, David — that was very helpful !!

  5. The different symbolism of the elements can vary significantly between traditions. Colours, psychological traits, positions in the mandala can all vary – they are all methods and can vary even within the Nyingma school. I believe David recommended Magic Dance by Thrin-le Norbu to you on one posting (not sure where now) – in that book he switches the Fire element and Water element to what we find in the Aro gTer. I adore that book and find it infinitely inspiring and it helps my practice so long as I remember the differences when it comes to practice.

    The important aspect as a practitioner is knowing what system you are working with and applying that method. So for my practice of Aro gTer namkha I need to have space as blue, representing the Buddha family, and residing in the centre of the mandala.

  6. @ She’zer & David,
    Actually in the discussion section of that same chapter, NC discusses the question of differences between schools or teachings. His explanation, surprise, is similar to yours.

    If the choice of colors, for instance, is only arbitrary (in being the experience of the first person to institutionalize which family, which emotion … is associated with which color), then I understand. But on the footnote of p87 I read about the intangible essences of the elements known as thig-lés which implies something non-subjective — thus colors should be experiences the same from person to person.

    Anyway, if it is just a method for working with mind, I get it. If there are really thoughts of an objective discovery, I don’t. In Japan there were different views of the 5-elements among Oriental Medial practicitioners and their followers were fervent about why their view was “right” in that it allowed better medical treatment analysis and treatment. And so, much like only-our-salvation religions, it is obvious that only one is right — or, more likely, that they were all wrong. Wrong, that is, in the real functional strength of using 5, 6, or even 7 elements and their assigned characteristics.

    Therein lies my suspicions. But so far, by your reports, they seem handled lightly.

  7. There’s possibilities between “entirely arbitrary” and “objectively true”. Red being the color of lust is something you’d probably have people nodding their heads to in many cultures. Blue = sky = space = calmness would probably make sense to Australian Aborigines. On the other hand, red = anger would also make sense, and anger = water seems rather a stretch.

    I thought this system was pretty silly and crude when I first encountered it. I gave it a chance, and have found it much more useful than I expected. I’m not sure why it works as well as it does. Quite possibly if I had tried hard to apply (say) the Enneagram, or the Chinese elemental system, I would have found them as useful (or more useful).

    Thigles are mostly above my paygrade. My guess is that the Aro take would be that, like everything else, they are an empty method, and therefore variable and somewhat arbitrary. I sort of think I’ve heard Rinpoche say that, but I may misremember.

    Some Dzogchenpas would say that they are The Ultimate Nature Of Reality, and therefore Really Truly True. And I would be skeptical of that.

  8. @ David
    Thanx — that is exactly how I am taking it. Your analysis was pleasantly expected. Well, except for your opening line of:

    There’s possibilities between “entirely arbitrary” and “objectively true”.

    Unless, of course, your whole comment is what you meant by that. That it is an “empty method, and therefore variable and somewhat arbitrary.” is something I can sit with comfortably. It is interesting the variety of enthusiasm around these variable and somewhat arbitrary systems that can develop. But as you said, when you find something useful, you tend to forget the arbitrary nature — for what is more important than “IT WORKS!”. (thanx again)

  9. As you might be able to guess from the Sky-weaving blog – five elements are a big part of that practice and therefore are a big part of my personal practice. Unlike David I found them liberating and brilliant the first time I read about them – but then I was 20 years old and had never come across anything like it before. The deeper I practice with them the more subtle and interesting I find them – so stay open minded.

    The practice of thig-lé is an advanced practice. One would normally work with experiences of thig-lé at the level of vision – this is the broad sense of vision not refering to just the eyes.

    So yes the thig-lé do exist as the essence of the elements, in as much as anything that is form actually exists – but as you will experience them through your practice, which will have been informed by the methods which you are using, then you will experience the thig-lé as manifesting in co-responding colours etc to how you have practised with them.

    This is the same with other visionary methods – for example – after death it is held that everyone experiences visions in the bardo of death. If you have received teachings on Bardo Thödröl – (commonly called Tibetan Book of the Dead) then the visions you see will appear as those visions. If you have not received that teaching then you will see something else based on what your mind creates or other teachings you may have received.

  10. @ She-zer
    At 20 years-old, I found lots of things liberating and brilliant! 🙂
    It is a difficult conversation to discuss things “existing” that can not be objectively tested. 5, 6, 7, 8, 11 elements who knows what even an element is, yet alone its “essence”. If it comes to working with mind, I understand metaphors for tools. Further than that, I remain skeptical.

  11. @ Sabio
    I’m going to (attempt at least) to give you straight up Vajrayana – you don’t need to believe it at all. We do not encourage blind faith. As I said thig-le are an advanced practice which you wouldn’t even approach until you had spent a long time working with elements in many different ways – but as David said above some Dzogchenpas might say thig-le are the ultimate essence of reality – and yes they do, so I had to comment that this was accurate, I can’t pretend otherwise.

    The division of elements into 5 is purely a method, therefore does not require any belief at all. To begin with this 5 fold division is quite basic, but it’s just one way to start to get a handle on how to look at our emotional make-up and how we fit into the world. As you progress in your practice of elements then you will start to see how you cannot divide or separate one element from another. But until you’ve really seen how the slow, lumbering, solid, dependable, generous characteristics of earth manifest then you will never really grasp how they can be indivisible from the fast, ever changing, energetic, moving, accomplishing qualities of air (or any of the other elements).

  12. @ She-zer
    Very well crafted — thank you. I can see the promising usefulness of just such an approach when held that way!

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