How to recognize a bodhisattva

Standing Bodhisattva Maitreya (Buddha of the Future), 3rd century C.E., Pakistan (ancient region of Gandhara), gray schist, 163.2 x 53.3 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)


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This work at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

All bodhisattvas at The Metropolitan Museum of Art


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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:05] We’re in the galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and we’re looking at a sculpture of a bodhisattva. This is the Bodhisattva Maitreya.

Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:13] What is a bodhisattva, and how do you recognize one?

Harris: [0:17] There are many bodhisattvas, and Maitreya is just one of them. The word “bodhisattva” tells us what a bodhisattva is. “Bodhi” means “enlightened,” “sattva” is a being, so a bodhisattva is an enlightened being.

Kilroy-Ewbank: [0:32] This is someone who has achieved enlightenment, but they have decided to postpone nirvana, the last stage of their life, to help people on earth achieve the same state.

[0:44] Maitreya is known as the Buddha of the Future. It is believed that one day when people on earth have forgotten the teachings of the historical Buddha, Buddha Shakyamuni, Maitreya will become the next Buddha.

Harris: [0:56] This is based on the Buddhist idea that everything in life is transient. Nothing remains, not even the memory of Buddha, and so there has to be, in the future, another Buddha, and that would be Maitreya.

Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:09] It would have been really important for people to be able to identify Maitreya clearly and differently from the historical Buddha. We want to identify some key features in the iconography.

Harris: [1:19] One of the key things is all the jewelry. He’s got jewelry on his arms, around his neck, hanging from his ears, above his head. He’s understood to be royally dressed.

Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:32] He also has beautiful sandals with what look like lion heads on top of them.

Harris: [1:38] Why would we see an enlightened being so decked out? In many cultures, there are traditions where the heavenly is represented in terms of material wealth. This would indicate his divine status.

Kilroy-Ewbank: [1:50] There’s another symbol here that is commonly shown with Maitreya, a water flask. Although we’re just seeing a very small portion of it because this sculpture is broken in parts.

Harris: [2:00] The flask refers to how one day, when he is reborn, he will lead the life of an ascetic, of someone who denies bodily needs in order to achieve nirvana and be free from the cycle of life and death.

Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:12] That would be the moment when he would renounce material possessions and not have all of this elaborate jewelry and fine clothes and fanciful hairstyle.

Harris: [2:21] His right hand would have been in a special gesture that is called a mudra. It would have been something that was easily read and recognized and would have helped to explain what Maitreya was doing at this moment, in this representation.

Kilroy-Ewbank: [2:36] Like other elements of the iconography, mudras were coded. They had specific meanings depending upon how the hand and the arm was positioned. Another important iconographic element is the urna, which looks like a dot between the eyebrows. This is a whorl of hair. It’s a symbol of knowledge.

Harris: [2:54] This particular Bodhisattva Maitreya is from a region called Gandhara. With Gandharan figures, we often see this kind of drapery. We often see these almond-shaped eyes that appear to look down, and these fabulous jewels.

Kilroy-Ewbank: [3:09] This sculpture dates to the 3rd century. It’s right around that time where you begin to see these larger monumentally-sized sculptures in the ground showing bodhisattvas and the Buddha.

Harris: [3:20] Although we’re looking at a Bodhisattva Maitreya from Gandhara, many of the attributes that we talked about transcend geography and can be seen in other representations of Maitreya.

[3:31] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Lauren Kilroy-Ewbank, "How to recognize a bodhisattva," in Smarthistory, October 5, 2022, accessed May 23, 2024, https://smarthistory.org/how-to-recognize-a-bodhisattva/.