Bodhisattvas, an introduction


Essay by Mei Mei Chan

Kneeling Attendant Bodhisattva, late 7th century (Tang dynasty), unfired clay mixed with fibers and straw modeled over wooden armature; with polychromy and gilding, from Mogao Cave 328, Dunhuang, 122 cm high (Harvard Art Museums)

Kneeling Attendant Bodhisattva, late 7th century (Tang dynasty), unfired clay mixed with fibers and straw modeled over wooden armature; with polychromy and gilding, from Mogao Cave 328, Dunhuang, China, Gansu province, 122 cm high (Harvard Art Museums)

What is a bodhisattva?

In Sanskrit, bodhisattva roughly means: “being who intends to become a buddha.”

In the Theravada tradition of Buddhism, the Buddha referred to himself as bodhisattva during all of his incarnations and lifetimes before he achieved enlightenment. It was only after he achieved buddhahood that it became proper to refer to him as the Buddha.

In the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism, a bodhisattva is any being who intends to achieve enlightenment and buddhahood.

[…] Western literature often describes the bodhisattva as someone who postpones his enlightenment in order to save all beings from suffering […] by choosing this longer course, he perfects himself over many lifetimes in order to achieve the superior enlightenment of a buddha at a point in the far-distant future […]The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, edited by Robert E. Buswell and Donald S. Lopez, p. 134.

In Buddhist artistic traditions, there are many archetypal bodhisattva figures who appear repeatedly. In this essay we will look at five of them.

These specific bodhisattva figures may be depicted as either male or female, depending on the geographic context and the iconographic traditions of that culture.

Padmapani and Vajrapani in Ajanta Cave 1. 450-500 CE. Maharashta, India.

Padmapani and Vajrapani in Ajanta Cave 1, 450–500 C.E, Maharashta, India

Paintings of two archetypal bodhisattva figures are found in the Ajanta Caves in Maharashta, India. These figures flank a statue of the Buddha. The one on the left is named Padmapani, and the one to the right is named Vajrapani.

Enthroned Buddha Attended by the Bodhisattvas Avalokiteshvara and Vajrapani, second half of the 10th century, Early Eastern Javanese period, bronze, Indonesia, 29.2 cm high (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Enthroned Buddha Attended by the Bodhisattvas Padmapani (Avalokiteshvara) and Vajrapani, second half of the 10th century, Early Eastern Javanese period, bronze, Indonesia, 29.2 cm high (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Another artwork from Indonesia features the same theme. The Buddha sits in the center flanked by the two bodhisattvas: Padmapani on the left and Vajrapani on the right.

Avalokitesvara

Padmapani is another name in Sanskrit for Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, who represents the compassion of all of the Buddhas.

Guanyin, also known as the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, or “The Perceiver of Sounds.” Mogao Cave 57 at Dunhuang, China. Photo courtesy of the Dunhuang Academy.

Guanyin, also known as the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara, or “The Perceiver of Sounds,” Mogao Cave 57 at Dunhuang, China (photo: Dunhuang Academy)

In China, the Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara goes by the name Guanyin. Chinese art often depicts Avalokitesvara as female.

Vajrapani

The Bodhisattva Vajrapani represents the power of all the Buddhas, and he protects the Buddha. Below he is depicted wielding a lightning-bolt scepter in his left hand.

Vajrapani, late 6th-7th century, Kashmir (India), Gray chorite, 22.9 cm high (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Vajrapani, late 6th–7th century, Kashmir (India), Gray chorite, 22.9 cm high (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Thanks to cultural contact between the Kushan Empire and what is today northern India, the Bodhisattva Vajrapani has a strong iconographical relationship with the Greek mythological figure of Hercules as found in Gandharan art.

Manjusri and Samantabhadra

Besides the bodhisattvas Padmapani and Vajrapani, another pair of popular archetypal bodhisattvas are Manjusri and Samantabhadra.

Shakyamuni Triad, hanging scroll, 1565, Joseon Dynasty, color and gold on silk, Korea, 60.5 x 32 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Shakyamuni Triad, hanging scroll, 1565, Joseon Dynasty, color and gold on silk, Korea, 60.5 x 32 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

In a Joseon dynasty painting, the Buddha sits in the center with Bodhisattva Manjusri and Bodhisattva Samantabhadra at his side. This is called the Shakyamuni Trinity or Triad.

Manjusri

Manjusri is often depicted with a lion, as seen in a peaceful painting by Japanese artist Shūsei.

Shūsei, Monju (Manjusri) on a Lion, hanging scroll, late 15th century, Muromachi period, ink on paper, Japan, 81.5 × 33 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Shūsei, Monju (Manjusri) on a Lion, hanging scroll, late 15th century, Muromachi period, ink on paper, Japan, 81.5 × 33 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Bodhisattva Manjusri represents the wisdom of all the Buddhas. Sometimes he is depicted holding a sword or a scepter. In China, Manjusri is known as Wenshu, and in Japan he is known as Monju.

Samantabhadra

Samantabhadra is the bodhisattva often depicted with Manjusri. The name Samantabhadra means “Universal Worthy” in Sanskrit. Samantabhadra is associated with meditation.

Bodhisattva Samantabhadra (Puxian). 12th-14th century. Southern Song to Yuan dynasty, mammoth ivory, China, 22.2 cm high (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Bodhisattva Samantabhadra (Puxian), 12th–14th century, Southern Song to Yuan dynasty, mammoth ivory, China, 22.2 cm high (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

As seen in a mammoth ivory sculpture, this bodhisattva is often depicted sitting on an elephant. Much like Avalokitesvara, this bodhisattva is often depicted in a female form in China.

Maitreya

Another archetypal bodhisattva figure is the Maitreya.

Maitreya, after 599, marble and pigment, China, 17.8 cm high (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Maitreya, after 599, marble and pigment, China, 17.8 cm high (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Bodhisattva Maitreya, or Buddha Maitreya, is the future Buddha who will succeed the Buddha Gautama, the Buddha of the present age.

Dunhuang Foundation logo

Originally published on the Dunhuang Foundation blog.

 


Additional resources:

Arahants, Buddhas, and Bodhisattvas by Bhikkhu Bodhi

Asian Art Museum Education: The Bodhisattva Maitreya

Blog Post: The Buddha

Blog Post: Buddhism

Buddha World: Manjusri

Burmese Art: Samantabhadra

Himalayan Art: The Three Lords of the World

Khandro.Net: Manjushri

The Silk Road Foundation: When Herakles Followed the Buddha

The Triple Bodhisattvas – Manjusri, Vajrapani, and Avalokitesvara

ThoughtCo: Maitreya Buddha

ThoughtCo: Manjusri, the Buddhist Bodhisattva of Wisdom

ThoughtCo: What’s a Bodhisattva?

Vajrapani Blog: Vajrapani, Manjusri, and Avalokitesvara

WildMind Buddhist Meditation: Vajrapani

Robert E.Buswell and Donald S. Lopez, The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (Princeton: Princeton University, 2004).

Cite this page as: The Dunhuang Foundation, "Bodhisattvas, an introduction," in Smarthistory, May 11, 2021, accessed September 22, 2021, https://smarthistory.org/bodhisattvas-introduction/.