Red symbolism in Buddhism
Esoteric Buddhism is unique in presenting through visual images, the most abstract of concepts, which then acquire an intuitive simplicity, graspable by all. Thus there exists in Buddhism the concept of a rainbow body. The 'rainbow body" is the penultimate transitional state of meditation in which matter begins to be transformed into pure light. It is said to be the highest state attainable in the realm of 'samsara' before the 'clear light' of Nirvana. Indeed as much as the spectrum contains within itself all possible manifestations of light, and thus of color, the rainbow body signifies the awakening of the inner self to the complete reservoir of terrestrial knowledge that it is possible to access before stepping over the threshold to the state of Nirvana. Understandably, when depicted in the visual arts, due to the profusion of colors, the result is spectacularly unique.
Further, one often comes across references to five colors (pancha-varna). These colors are white, yellow, red, blue and green. That these colors were canonized as rich in symbolism is borne by the following quotation from the Chandamaharosana Tantra:
- Black symbolizes killing and anger
- White denotes rest and thinking
- Yellow stands for restraining and nourishing
- Red for subjugation and summoning and
- 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.
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