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The Eight Great Bodhisattvas in Buddhist Culture
When we read enough literature on Asian culture we encounter Buddhism and the Bodhisattva ideals sooner or later. The 8 great bodhisattvas are the group of beings who form the retinue of the Buddha Shakyamuni. They each represent mostly positive qualities in the buddhist believe system.
If you travel in Asia you'll encounter the bodhisattvas and related symbolism too. When you haven't read up on the meaning and seen possible representations you'll probably be blind to a lot of the meaning and richness in Southeast asian, Eastern and South Asian cultures. Some of the cultures have more of the symbolism than others. Sometimes they go under different names of have morphed into or mixed with other religious traditions.
Each of these eight great boddhisattvas performs an important role in helping all beings attain enlightenment, and they are particularly celebrated within Mahayana Buddhism.
Here I'll give an overview of the 8 great bodhisattvas in Buddhist cultures.
Manjushri is one of the central bodhisattvas in the Mahayana tradition and has been celebrated since at least the second century AD. In Sanskrit, Manjushri means “Gentle Glory,” and he is also sometimes called Manjughosa, or “Gentle Voice.” Manjushri is considered to be the celestial embodiment of prajna, the Buddhist value of discriminating wisdom and insight. This wisdom is necessary to break free from ignorance and reach enlightenment. Manjushri is therefore an important focus for meditation and is associated with a number of popular mantras.
The earliest surviving references to Manjushri come from translations of Indian Mahayana texts into Chinese by a monk named Lokaksema, from the second century AD. In these texts, Manjushri appears as a monk who is friends with King Ajatasatru of India and frequently holds conversations with the Buddha. Manjushri serves as a spiritual and moral guide for the king, and he explains key Buddhist concepts such as dharma and meditation to his royal patron and to audiences of monks. In fact, his insightful explanations are meant to show his superiority over non-Mahayana Buddhists, and therefore the superiority of Mahayana Buddhism itself. Manjushri is a key figure in a number of important Buddhist texts, including the Lotus Sutra, and, within Vajrayana Buddhism, the Manjusrimulakalpa.
Appearance and Depiction
Manjushri is usually depicted as a young prince with golden skin and ornate clothing. His youth is significant; it shows the strength and freshness of growing insight on the path the enlightenment. In his right hand, Manjushri holds a flaming sword that symbolizes the wisdom that cuts through ignorance. In his left hand, he holds the Prajnaparamita sutra, a scripture that signifies his mastery of prajna. Often, he appears sitting on a lion or lion skin. The lion symbolizes the wild mind, which Manjushri shows can be tamed through wisdom.
Manjushri in Buddhist Practice
Today, Manjushri is important anywhere Mahayanna Buddhism is practiced. The first evidence of Manjushri comes from Indian texts, but between the second and ninth centuries he came to play an important role in China, Tibet, Nepal, Japan, and Indonesia. Today, Manjushri is also a popular bodhisattva within Western Buddhist practice. In China, the cult of Manjushri is especially prominent around Mount Wutai, or the Five Terrace Mountain, in the Shansi province. Based on translations of Central Asian texts, particularly the Avatamsaka Sutra, Chinese Buddhists determined that Manjushri made his earthly home on Wutai. Buddhists from both within and outside of China came on pilgrimage to the mountain to pay homage to the bodhisattva. His cult continued to grow in the 8th century, when he was named the spiritual protector of the Tang dynasty. To this day, Wutai is a sacred site and is full of temples dedicated to Manjushri.
Avalokiteshvara is the bodhisattva of infinite compassion and is one of the most beloved bodhisattvas within both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism. Avalokiteshvara’s primary characteristic is feeling compassion for all beings who are suffering and wanting to help every soul reach enlightenment. In this way, he embodies the role of a bodhisattva, a person who has reached enlightenment but chooses to delay their own buddhahood so that they can help others escape the cycle of suffering on earth. Avalokiteshvara is considered to be a manifestation of Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, who rules over one of the Pure Land paradises, and in some texts Amitabha appears as a father or guardian of Avalokiteshvara.
Avalokiteshvara’s name can be translated from Sanskrit in many ways, but they all have to do with his ability to see and feel pity for suffering everywhere. In English, his name can be interpreted as “The Lord Who Looks in All Directions” or “The Lord Who Hears the World’s Cries.” The bodhisattva is worshipped under various names in different countries around the world. In Tibet, Buddhists call him Chenrezig, which means “With a Pitying Look,” and in Thailand and Indonesia, he is called Lokesvara, which means “The Lord of the World.” In China, Avalokiteshvara began being depicted in female form around the 11th century. This manifestation of the bodhisattva is named Guanyin, “The One Who Perceives the Sounds of the World” or “The Goddess of Mercy.” The Lotus Sutra states that Avalokiteshvara can take any form that enables the deity to alleviate suffering, so the boddhisattva’s appearance is a woman does not go against the original textual tradition.
The Story of Avalokitesvara’s 1,000 Arms
The most famous story about Avalokiteshvara is how he came to have 1,000 arms and 11 heads. Avalokiteshvara had vowed to save all sentient beings, and he promised that if he ever became disheartened by this task, his body should break into one thousand pieces. One day, he looked down into hell, where he saw the immense number of beings who still needed to be saved. Overwhelmed by grief, his head split into 11 pieces, and his arms split into 1,000. Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, transformed the pieces into 11 complete heads and 1,000 complete arms. With his many heads, Avalokiteshvara can hear the cries of the suffering everywhere. With his many arms, he can reach out to help many beings at a time.
Because of the story of his 1,000 arms, Avalokiteshvara is often portrayed with 11 heads and many arms. However, Avalokiteshvara has many different manifestations and so may be depicted in a great number of different forms. Sometimes, as Sho Kannon, he simply appears holding a lotus in one of two hands. In other manifestations, he is shown holding a rope or lasso. As Guanyin, she appears as a beautiful woman. The vast number of depictions of Avalokiteshvara are a testament to the bodhisattva’s lasting popularity.
To those unfamiliar with Buddhism, Vajrapani may stand out. Among all the serene, meditative bodhisattvas, Vajrapani is wreathed in flame with a fierce pose and even fiercer face. In fact, he is one of the earliest and most important bodhisattvas in the Mahayana tradition. Although he is sometimes called the wrathful bodhisattva, he represents forceful energy rather than anger. Within Buddhist texts, he is a protector of the Buddha. In meditative practice, Vajrapani helps Buddhists to focus on energy and determination.
Vajrapani’s Appearance and Iconography
The most common representation of Vajrapani is easy to recognize: he is standing in a warrior pose and surrounded by fire, which represents the power of transformation. In his right hand, Vajrapani is holding a lightning bolt, or vajra, from which he takes his name. The lightening represents Vajrapani’s energy, and the energy of an enlightened soul, which has the power to break through ignorance. In his left hand, he holds a lasso, which he can use to bind demons. Vajrapani is usually wearing the skin of a tiger as a loincloth and a five-pointed crown made of skulls. In addition, he usually has a third eye.
Protector of Guatama Buddha
Vajrapani is one of the three bodhisattvas who makes of the Three Family Protectors, a trinity that protects the Buddha and represents his key virtues. Manjusri represent’s the Budha’s wisdom, Avalokitesvara his compassion, and Vajrapani his power. This power is the force that protects the Buddha and Buddhist ideals in the face of obstacles and enlightenment. In a number of stories in the Buddhist tradition, Vajrapani displays the fearless power necessary to protect Guatama Buddha and push others down the path towards enlightenment. One of the best-known stories about Vajrapani is in the Pali Canon. In the Ambattha Sutta, a Brahmin named Ambatha visits the Buddha but does not show him proper respect due to his family’s caste. Trying to teach Ambatha a lesson about caste, the Buddha asks him whether his family is descended from a slave girl. Reluctant to acknowledge this, Ambatha repeatedly refuses to answer the Buddha’s question. After asking twice, the Buddha warns that Ambatha’s head will be split into many pieces if he refuses to answer again. Vajrapani then appears above the Buddha’s head, appearing ready to strike with his lightning bolt. Ambatha quickly acknowledges the truth and eventually converts to Buddhism. Other stories about Vajrapani feature the same fearlessness and productive force.
Worship of Vajrapani
Vajrapani is represented around the world, especially in his role of protector of the Buddha. In Tibetan art and architecture, Vajrapani appears in many forms, almost always fierce and powerful. In India, Vajrapani appears in Buddhist art dating back hundreds, and even thousands, of years. In artwork from the Kushana period (30-375 A.D.), he is usually present in scenes of conversion. Today, tourists can still see representations of Vajrapani in the Ajanta Caves dating to the second to fifth centuries A.D. In Central Asia, Buddhist and Greek influences mixed, creating a unique blending of iconography. In artwork dating back to the second century, he often appears holding his lightning bolt as Hercules or Zeus. In museums and ancient sculptures, you can still see representations of Vajrapani in a distinctly Greco-Roman style.
Kshitigarbha is one of the Eight Great Bodhisattvas and often appears alongside Amitabha Buddha in iconography. He is most famous for bowing to save the souls of all beings between Guatama Buddha’s death and the age of Maitreya, including the souls of children who died young and those in Hell. He is a particularly important bodhisattva in China and Japan, where he is turned to as someone who can protect those who are suffering.
“Kshitigarbha” can be translated as “Earth Treasury,” “Earth Womb,” or “Essence of the Earth.” Kshitigarbha takes on this name because Shakyamuni named him as the head of Buddhism on earth. Kshitigarbha also represents the store of dharma on Earth, helping Earth’s residents to attain enlightenment.
Bodhisattva of Hell
The Kshitigarbha Sutra tells the origin story of Kshitigarbha. Before becoming a bodhisattva, Kshitigarbha was a young Brahmin girl in India. Her mother was impious and therefore went to Hell, where she suffered after she died. Her mother’s suffering caused the young Kshitigarbha
to swear to save all souls from the torments of Hell. Within the Buddhist tradition, Hell is the lowest of the ten dharma realms, and its inhabitants will be the last to reach enlightenment. Kshitigarbha’s vow not to attain buddhahood until Hell is empty is a great sign of compassion; he delays his own buddhahood until he can lift all souls from suffering to enlightenment. Especially in China, Kshitigarbha (also called Dicang) is considered to be the overlord of Hell, and his name is called when someone is on the verge of death.
Guardian of Children
In Japan, Kshitigarbha is celebrated for his mercy towards all deceased souls. In particular, he is considered to offer compassion and protection for deceased children, including fetuses that were aborted or miscarried. Therefore, in Japanese he is often called Jizo, the protector of children. Statues of him are common around Japan, especially in graveyards. Parents who have lost children sometimes adorn his statues with children’s clothing or toys, hoping that he will protect their children and prevent them from suffering.
Appearance and Iconography
Kshitigarbha is usually depicted as a monk with a shaved head and a halo or nimbus cloud. Most bodhisattvas appear wearing the luxurious robes of royalty. Therefore, it is usually easy to distinguish Kshitigarbha in his simple monk’s robes. In one hand, he carries a staff that he uses to open up the gates of Hell. In the other, he holds a jewel called a cintamani that has the power to light up darkness and grant wishes.
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Another one of the Eight Great Bodhisattvas is Ākāśagarbha. Ākāśagarbha is known for wisdom and the ability to purify transgressions.
Ākāśagarbha can be translated as “boundless space treasury,” “nucleus of space,” or “void store,” a name that reflects how his wisdom is as boundless as space. Just as their names correspond, Ākāśagarbha is known as the twin brother of Ksitgarbha, the “Earth store” bodhisattva.
Ākāśagarbha is usually depicted with either blue or green skin and with a halo around his head, and wearing ornate robes. Most often, he appears in a peaceful meditation pose, sitting cross-legged on a lotus flower or standing calmly on a fish in the middle of the ocean. He usually carries a sword that he uses to cut through negative emotions.
The Story of Kukai
Ākāśagarbha plays in important role in the founding of Shingon Buddhism, one of the biggest schools of Buddhism in Japan. Kukai was a Buddhist monk and scholar who studied a secret doctrinal method called Kokuzou-Gumonji with another monk. As he repeatedly chanted a mantra of Ākāśagarbha, he had a vision where he saw Ākāśagarbha. The bodhisattva told him to travel to China, where he could study the Mahavairocana Abhisambodhi sutra. Following his vision, Kukai traveled to China where he became an expert of esoteric Buddhism. After this, he went on to found Shingon Buddhism, known as the “true word” school. Because of his role in the school’s founding, Ākāśagarbha plays a particularly important role within Shingon Buddhism.
Mantras featuring the name of Ākāśagarbha are particularly popular in Shingon Buddhism in China. Buddhists repeat the mantra in order to break up ignorance and develop wisdom and insight. His mantra is also believed to increase creativity. Buddhists looking to boost their wisdom or creativity might wear a piece of paper with the mantra written on it in addition to reciting the mantra.
Samantabhadra is a key bodhisattva within Mahayana Buddhism. His name means “Universal Worthy,” referring to his fundamental and unchanging goodness. Alongside Shakyamuni Buddha (also known as Guatama Siddartha) and the bodhisattva Manjusri, he forms part of the Shakyamuni Trinity.
Samantabhadra’s Ten Vows
Samantabhadra is perhaps most famous for his ten great vows, which many Buddhists today also try to follow. Within the Āvataṃsaka-sūtra, the Buddha reports that Samantabhadra made ten vows that he would keep on his path to attaining Buddhahood. They are:
- To pay homage and respect to all Buddhas
- To praise the Thus Come One – Tathagata
- To make abundant offerings
- To repent of misdeeds
- To rejoice in others’ merits and virtues
- To request the Buddhas to continue teaching
- To request the Buddhas to remain in the world
- To follow the teachings of the Buddhas
- To accommodate and benefit all living beings
- To transfer all merits and virtues to benefit all living beings.
These ten vows have become representative of the mission of a bodhisattva, who works for the enlightenment of all beings before he himself will escape the cycle of life and death. The vows have also become a part of the practice of Buddhism, especially for Buddhists in East Asia. In this way, they are almost like the Ten Commandments of Christianity. The tenth vow is especially prominent within modern practice. Many Buddhists today will dedicate any merit they have accumulated to the benefit of all living beings.
Iconography within Mahayana Buddhism
Because Samantabhadra is part of the Shakyamuni Trinity, he often appears alongside Shakyamuni and Manjusri. As part of this trio, Samantabhadra appears on the right side of Shakyamuni, typically holding a lotus leaf or a sword. He is easy to identify because he is almost always riding an elephant with six tusks, or three elephants at once. Symbolically, these six texts represent the Paramitas (Six Perfections): charity, morality, patience, diligence, contemplation, and wisdom.
Samantabhadra within Esoteric Buddhism
Within Esoteric (Vajrayana) Buddhism, popular in Tibet, Samantabhadra takes on a slightly different form. In some traditions, he is worshipped as the primordial Buddha, or first Buddha, instead of as a bodhisattva. The primordial Buddha is the embodiment of awareness and knowledge, existing outside of time. Within this role, he usually appears alone, with dark blue skin, seated on a lotus flower. Sometimes he is portrayed in union with Samantabhadri, his female counterpart. Samantabhadra and Samantabhadri together represent innate wisdom that all Buddhists can cultivate, rather than two distinct people.
Sarvanivarana-Vishkambhin is one of the Eight Great Bodhisattvas. Sarvanivarana-Vishkambhin is not one of the most popular of the Eight Great Bodhisattvas, but he is important for his ability to help clear obstacles to enlightenment. Because of this power, his mantras are often used during meditation.
Sarvanivarana-Vishkambhin can best be translated as “Complete Remover of Obscurations.” This name refers to his ability to purify the obstacles, both internal and external, that people face on the path to enlightenment. “Nivarana,” part of the boddhisattva’s name, is a particular term that refers to five mental obstacles, or kleshas: laziness, desire, hostility, distraction, and doubt. Sarvanivarana-Vishkambhin is particularly called upon to help clear these five obstacles, which are common distractions for people everywhere.
The Mantra of Sarvanivarana-Vishkambhin
A mantra repeating Sarvanivarana-Vishkambhin’s name is popular for attempting to clear afflictions and obstacles, and particularly for trying to improve focus in meditation. In addition to clearing the five kleshas of nivarana, the mantra of Sarvanivarana-Vishkambhin can help to clear other distractions, troubles, and negative karmic forces. Buddhists who want to create the tranquil mindset needed for effective meditation may turn to this mantra.
Within iconography, Sarvanivarana-Vishkambhin usually appears with the deep blue skin associated with royalty. He is seated on a lotus, and he is also often holding a lotus that may be decorated with a glowing sun disc. In addition to blue, Sarvanivarana-Vishkambhin may also appear white, when his role is to relieve calamities, or yellow, when his role is to provide sufficient provisions. This different roles show how varied Sarvanivarana-Vishkambhin’s powers can be, as is the case for all of the Eight Great Bodhisattvas.
Maitreya is a bodhisattva who has not lived yet, but who is predicted to arrive in the future. He is a savior figure who is expected to bring true Buddhist teachings back into the world after their decline. This narrative has drawn comparisons to future saviors in other religious traditions, such as Krishna in Hinduism, Christ in Christianity, and the Messiah in Judaism and Islam. Maitreya’s name comes from the Sanskrit word maitri, which means “loving kindness,” but he is also frequently called the Future Buddha.
Prophecy of Maitreya’s Arrival
According to Buddhist texts, Maitreya currently lives in Tusita Heaven, where he will reside until he will be born into the world. After being born, Maitreya will quickly reach Enlightenment and become the successor Guatama Buddha. Tradition holds that Maitreya will enter the world when he is most needed, when Guatama Buddha’s teachings are no longer known. Maitreya will be able to reintroduce dharma to the world and will teach people the different between virtuous and non-virtuous actions. Texts within the Pali Canon contain clues about when Maitreya will arrive: the oceans will be smaller, people and animals will be much larger, and people will live to be 80,000 years old. Many Buddhists today interpret these signs as metaphors about the state of the world and humanity. Within Nichiren Buddhism, Maitreya himself is interpreted as a metaphor for the ability of all Buddhists to preserve compassion and protect the teachings of the Buddha.
Because Maitreya is currently waiting to enter the world, he is usually depicted sitting and waiting. He is often painted orange or light yellow and is wearing a khata (a traditional scarf made of silk). On his head, he wears a stupa crown that will help him to identify the stupa that contains Guatama Buddha’s relics. In some iconography he is holding an orange bush, symbolizing his ability to clear away distracting and destructive emotions.
Maitreya within Different Religious Movements
The prophecy of Maitreya has resonated with both Buddhists and non-Buddhists around the world. Some believe that prophecies about a savior to come across many religions actually refer to the same being. During the 20th century, multiple organizations have claimed that they have identified the born Maitreya, often referring to him as the World Teacher. Between the 6th and 18th centuries, numerous rebellions in China centered around individuals claiming to be Maitreya. Both the First and Second White Lotus Rebellion, for example, blended Buddhist and Manichaean beliefs and proclaimed that Maitreya had been incarnated. Today, there are numerous websites dedicated to supposed Maitreyas. Most Buddhists, however, either view the prophecy of Maitreya as a metaphor or believe his birth on earth is yet to come.
© 2018 Sam Shepards
Sunapati Thangka on September 10, 2019:
The importance of the Bodhisattva is central in understanding the values that we need today in our modern society.
Thank you for the very detailed article and also for displaying the image of the beautiful thangka of Samanthabadra in sacred union.
Blessings from Nepal.
Sunapati Thangka School
Sam Shepards (author) from Europe on August 13, 2018:
Thank you for the comment. It is indeed long, I considered doing one article for each bodhisattva, but I wanted to be a completist here.
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on August 13, 2018:
Sam this is very well done. I really find it interesting. Sorry but I could not carve out the time to read it in one sitting. For me too long. But I got it.