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Bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism. Source: yuliana_s / Adobe Stock.

Bodhisattvas – Selfless Saviors of Mahayana Buddhism

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In Buddhism, a bodhisattva, in its most general sense, refers to a person who is on his/her way to becoming a buddha. More specifically, bodhisattvas are savior-like beings who forsake their own Buddhahood in order to help all creatures attain enlightenment. In addition, the bodhisattvas are believed to protect their devotees from all manner of harm.

This concept of a bodhisattva is held especially in Mahayana Buddhism, one of the two major branches of Buddhism (the other being Theravada Buddhism). Due to their role as saviors, bodhisattvas have been highly revered in various Buddhist-dominated cultures.

Countries where bodhisattvas are venerated include China, Japan, and Tibet. The list of major bodhisattvas varies depending on local tradition.

What is a Bodhisattva?

‘Bodhisattva’ is a Sanskrit word that may be translated to mean ‘awakened truth’, ‘enlightenment being’, or ‘one whose goal is awakening’. In the early days of Buddhism in India (as well as in some later Buddhist tradition, such as Theravada Buddhism), the word ‘bodhisattva’ was used primarily to refer to Buddha Shakyamuni (known also as Siddhartha Gautama) in his former lives, prior to his enlightenment.

According to Buddhist tradition, the Buddha had gone through many different births (both animal and human) before he attained enlightenment. Over the course of his many births, a total of 549, to be exact, the Buddha performed virtuous deeds, which brought him ever closer to his awakening.

The stories of the Buddha’s past lives are found in the Jatakas, a collection of about 550 anecdotes and fables. The Jatakas have been dated to between 300 BC and 400 AD, centuries after the life of the Buddha (whose traditional birth and death dates are 563 BC and 483 BC respectively). Although the Jatakas are believed to have their roots in folk tradition, they have since become part of the canon of sacred Buddhist literature.

A Bhutanese painted thangka of the Jatakas, conveys the stories of Buddha’s past lives. (Levels / Public Domain)

A Bhutanese painted thangka of the Jatakas, conveys the stories of Buddha’s past lives. (Levels / Public Domain)

In the Jatakas, the future Buddha (referred to as the bodhisattva) is depicted as cultivating the qualities required for him to achieve enlightenment later on. These include morality, wisdom, and self-sacrifice. Therefore, these tales may also be used as a means of illustrating the teachings of the Buddha.

One of the stories in the Jatakas is that of Sumedha and Buddha Dipankara, regarded to be the oldest Buddhist story involving the path of the bodhisattva. This tale takes place during the time of Buddha Dipankara, who is said to have lived on earth a 100,000 eons ago (in other words, a very long time ago). During that time, there was an ascetic Brahmin by the name of Sumedha, who lived in the foothills of the Himalayas.

One day, Sumedha heard that Buddha Dipankara was visiting the lowlands. As Sumedha hoped to meet the Buddha, he made a trip to the lowlands from his hermitage.

When the Brahmin met the Buddha, he was impressed and thought to himself that he too would like to achieve enlightenment one day, thereby become a buddha and help people by teaching them the dharma. This was the beginning of Sumedha’s journey on the path of the bodhisattva. Buddha Dipankara read Sumedha’s mind and prophesied that he would become Buddha Gautama.

Sumedha and Buddha Dipankara, 2nd century, Gandhāra. Here, the bodhisattva Sumedha is depicted offering flowers to Buddha Dipankara. (Farang Rak Tham / Public Domain)

Sumedha and Buddha Dipankara, 2nd century, Gandhāra. Here, the bodhisattva Sumedha is depicted offering flowers to Buddha Dipankara. (Farang Rak Tham / Public Domain)

The concept of the bodhisattva became significant in Mahayana Buddhism, though it is still unclear as to when or how this occurred. Nevertheless, by the 2nd century AD, this concept, as well as the practices surrounding it, was already well-established, as evident in their prominence in the Mahayana sutras that were composed during that time.

The Role of Bodhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism

In Mahayana Buddhism, bodhisattvas were transformed into savior-like figures. This is in line with the concept of bodhicitta (which refers to the striving of the mind enlightenment) held by this branch of Buddhism.

In Mahayana Buddhism, bodhicitta involves not only the liberation of the self, but also a desire by those who have achieved enlightenment to help other sentient beings. By comparison, the concept of bodhicitta in Theravada Buddhism places emphasis on the liberation of the self, which can only be achieved through the eradication of desires by oneself, without reliance on external aid.

Mahayana Buddhism teaches that anyone can aspire to become a bodhisattva. Nevertheless, in the history of Mahayana Buddhism, there are a number of bodhisattvas who have attained great fame and are thus highly revered. One of the best-known bodhisattvas is Avalokiteśvara, whose name may be taken to mean ‘the lord who looks down with compassion’.

He is known also as Guanyin in Chinese and Kannon in Japanese. Incidentally, in East Asia, this bodhisattva was transformed from a male into a female. It has been speculated that in China, Avalokiteśvara acquired the characteristics of Taoist female deities, especially the Queen Mother of the West, which may have contributed to his transformation into a female.

Avalokiteśvara is regarded to be the embodiment of the compassion of all the buddhas and is arguably the most popular figure in Buddhist legend. He is beloved not only in Mahayana Buddhism, but also in the Theravada, Vajrayana, and Tantric branches of Buddhism.

Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva who is known for compassion. (FlickreviewR / CC BY-SA 2.0)

Avalokiteśvara, the bodhisattva who is known for compassion. (FlickreviewR / CC BY-SA 2.0)

According to Buddhist beliefs, Avalokiteśvara resolved to postpone his own Buddhahood so that he could continue his quest to help all sentient beings achieve enlightenment. According to one story, at the beginning of Avalokiteśvara’s career as a bodhisattva, he vowed that should he ever become disheartened in his quest to liberate all sentient beings from suffering and the eternal cycle of death and rebirth, his body would be shattered into a thousand pieces.

This is meant to demonstrate Avalokiteśvara’s infinite compassion, and his determination. One day, Avalokiteśvara looked down from a higher realm into the hells he had just emptied through the teaching of the dharma. He noticed that despite all he had done, the hells continued to be flooded by countless beings. For a brief moment, Avalokiteśvara became so disheartened that his vow became true – his body shattered into a thousand pieces.

Avalokiteśvara’s personal teacher, Buddha Amitabha, came to his aid. The Buddha collected the fragments and gave his student a new form – one with 11 heads and a thousand arms. The additional heads enhanced Avalokiteśvara’s ability to hear the cries of the suffering, while his extra arms allowed him to bring salvation to more people.

Thousand-armed bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara. (Huihermit / Pubic Domain)

Thousand-armed bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara. (Huihermit / Pubic Domain)

The Four Great Bodhisattvas

Apart from Avalokiteśvara, there were many other bodhisattvas who are venerated in Mahayana Buddhism. In popular Chinese Buddhism, for example, Avalokiteśvara (or more precisely, Guanyin) is one of the Four Great Bodhisattvas, who were associated with China’s Four Sacred Mountains of Buddhism.

Guanyin is said to have her seat on Mount Putuo, situated in Zhoushan, an archipelago in Zhejiang Province. The other three Great Bodhisattvas are Ksitigarbha, Manjusri, and Samantabhadra.

Ksitigarbha is known in Chinese as Dizang, or Jizo in Japanese, and his sacred Mount Jiuhua, in Anhui Province. Ksitigarbha is the bodhisattva and protector of beings in the hell realms. According to one story, Ksitigarbha was a young Brahmin girl whose mother had just died.

As the girl’s mother had frequently slandered the Buddha’s teaching, the girl was worried that she would be reborn in hell. Therefore, she began performing acts of piety and dedicated the merits she collected to her mother. One day, she was taken to the hell realm (either by a buddha or by the king of the sea devils) to see her mother.

A guardian there told the girl that thanks to her acts of piety, the girl’s mother has been released from hell and had been reborn in a more pleasant place. During her visit, the girl saw that countless beings were suffering in hell. Therefore, she vowed to free them all and would only become a buddha when all hells are emptied.

In East Asia, Ksitigarbha was transformed from a girl into a man. Unlike most other bodhisattvas, Ksitigarbha is traditionally depicted as a Buddhist monk. His attributes are a staff, which he uses to force open the gates of hell, and a cintamani (a ‘wish-fulfilling jewel’), with which he lights up the darkness.

Ksitigarbha was the bodhisattva who ruled the underworld. (Grampus / Public Domain)

Ksitigarbha was the bodhisattva who ruled the underworld. (Grampus / Public Domain)

Manjusri is known in Chinese as Wensu or Monju in Japanese. He is considered to be the bodhisattva of wisdom, and his sacred mountain is Mount Wutai, in Shanxi Province. The Sanskrit name of this bodhisattva means ‘He Who is Noble and Gentle’, which is reflected in his iconography. Manjusri is normally portrayed as a young man with a sword in his right hand, and the Prajna Paramita (meaning ‘the Perfection of Wisdom) Sutra in his left.

Sometimes, these attributes are substituted with a lotus, a jewel, or a scepter. Manjusri is also occasionally depicted as riding a lion, which symbolizes his princely and fearless nature. In addition to wisdom, Manjusri is also associated with poetry, oratory, and writing. Manjusri is said to have been a disciple of Buddha Gautama.

Painting of Manjusri the bodhisattva of wisdom, found in Yulin Caves of Gansu from the Xia dynasty. (Maculosae tegmine lyncis / Public Domain)

Painting of Manjusri the bodhisattva of wisdom, found in Yulin Caves of Gansu from the Xia dynasty. (Maculosae tegmine lyncis / Public Domain)

Lastly, Samantabhadra is the bodhisattva of practice and meditation. He is known is Chinese as Puxian and in Japanese as Fugen. Mount Emei, in Sichuan Province, is believed to be his sacred mountain. In one story, Sudhana (normally considered to be a disciple of Avalokiteśvara) has an encounter with Samantabhadra.

During the encounter, the bodhisattva taught Sudhana that wisdom exists only for the sake of putting it into practice and that it is only good if it benefits all living beings. Samantabhadra is often paired with Manjusri, wisdom and practice go hand in hand. In addition, the two bodhisattvas, together with the Buddha Gautama, form the Shakyamuni Trinity.

Samantabhadra is known for making the Ten Great Vows, which forms the basis of a bodhisattva. These vows include ‘To pay homage and respect to all buddhas’, ‘To repent misdeeds and evil karmas’, and ‘To transfer all merits and virtues to benefit all beings’.

Unlike the other three Great Bodhisattvas, Samantabhadra is seldom portrayed in art alone. Instead, he often appears as part of the Shakyamuni Trinity.

Samantabhadra is easily recognized thanks to his mount – a white elephant with six tusks. The elephant is meant to represent Buddhism’s strength in facing and overcoming all obstacles, whereas the six tusks symbolize overcoming attachment to the six senses.

Other Famous Bodhisattvas

Apart from these four, there are many other bodhisattvas. In fact, different Buddhist traditions and texts have different groups of bodhisattvas. As an example, in Vajrayana Buddhism, a popular subject of mandalas is the Womb Realm. This is a metaphysical space inhabited by the Five Compassion Buddhas.

The Womb Realm, the center square represents the young stage of Vairocana. He is surrounded by eight Buddhas and bodhisattvas. (Ismoon / Public Domain)

The Womb Realm, the center square represents the young stage of Vairocana. He is surrounded by eight Buddhas and bodhisattvas. (Ismoon / Public Domain)

At the center of this realm is the Eight Petal Hall where four bodhisattvas are placed between the Buddhas. The bodhisattvas in the hall are Avalokiteśvara, Manjusri, Samantabhadra, and Maitreya. The last of these is believed to be a future Buddha, who would preach the dharma anew when the teachings of Buddha Gautama have completely decayed.

As another example, in the Lotus Sutra, a list of bodhisattvas who are regarded to be the Bodhisattvas of the Earth are given. The Bodhisattvas of the Earth are believed to be the infinite number of bodhisattvas who emerged from the earth, and who have been entrusted by Buddha Gautama with the propagation of the Lotus Sutra.

The leaders of these bodhisattvas are Visistacarita (Superior Practice), Anantacarita (Boundless Practice), Visuddhacarita (Pure Practice), and Supratisthitacarita (Firm Practice). In addition, there are lists of five, 16, and even 25 bodhisattvas.

The bodhisattva is a significant concept in the history of Buddhism, especially in Mahayana Buddhism. The virtues of Buddhism, especially compassion, are embodied in these bodhisattvas. This is reflected in the belief that the bodhisattvas have postponed their own awakening, so as to continue their work of saving all living beings and to lead them on the path of enlightenment.

Therefore, it is little wonder that they are so highly revered. Apart from the role played by the bodhisattvas in Buddhist religious history, they are also important in Buddhist art history. This is due to the fact that images of the various bodhisattvas were made in the areas where Buddhism took root.

Interestingly, the local culture of these areas influenced the way the bodhisattvas were depicted, as their images were adapted to suit local tastes. In any case, the role played by the bodhisattvas, i.e. as saviors, is relevant even in this modern age, which is why they continue to be revered by Buddhists today.

Top image: Bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism. Source: yuliana_s / Adobe Stock.

By Wu Mingren


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I have traveled to many Buddhist countries and prayed at their shrines. I am not a scholar, but would like your opinion of the concept of bodhisattvas offered by F. Sierksma in “Tibet’s Terrifying Dieties, Sex and Aggression in religious acculturation”. I photographed several pages but they are not very clear. I will try to find the book online. I could not serve Sieksma’s explanation for the creation of the concept in a few sentences. He also says that the cold hard Doctrine taught by the Buddha could not sustain itself financially (with monks selfishly only caring for their own liberation from the Wheel of Life) and what the Buddha really said was essentially “put away.” Like Catholic saints who served their communities and prayed for ther souls of the faithful, the Buddhist peasants needed intermediaries who would look after them while they worked to feed the monks. Thus, monks would agree to forego their own liberation to help others. In my own shorthand, Buddha’s message was “liberate yourself.”  I do not see a place to add the pages I photographed but will try another means to highlight the author’s theory. Did the Buddha say anything about bodhisattvas or past and future buddhas? 

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Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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