When it comes to Bodhisattvas, almost every Buddhist thinks of Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva who saves sentient beings with great compassion. However, in Buddhism, there are many other Bodhisattvas who embody various noble qualities of enlightenment.
In this article, LotusBuddhas would like to introduce to our esteemed readers the names, and symbolic meanings of the major Bodhisattvas in Buddhism whom you may have met and worship, but may not have fully understood.
1. Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva
The most revered Bodhisattva in Buddhism is Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, who embodies the great compassion of all Buddhas. In China and other culturally influenced countries, Avalokiteshvara is often depicted as a female known as Guan Yin.
Moreover, Avalokiteshvara is also known as Padmapani (“Holder of the Lotus Flower”) or Lokaczevara (“Lord of the World”). In Tibetan language, the Bodhisattva is called Chenrezig and is believed to manifest in the Dalai Lama, Karmapa, and other Lamas.
In paintings and sculptures, Avalokiteshvara is represented in 33 different forms, varying in the number of heads, arms, and other characteristics. Typically, the Bodhisattva is depicted with a thousand arms and eyes, and sometimes with 11 heads.
The Bodhisattva may be shown with a statue of Amitabha Buddha on their head or holding a pink lotus flower, which is why Avalokiteshvara is also known as the “Holder of the Lotus Flower,” or a willow branch and a vase of pure water. The number of arms represents the Bodhisattva’s ability to save sentient beings in all situations.
Avalokiteshvara has a circular “halo” on their head, which symbolizes their power to save. This indicates the importance of the Bodhisattva’s greatness and dedication to the world.
Avalokiteshvara is the powerful proclaimer of the Buddha Amitabha in the Western Pure Land, expressing the compassion, one of the two kinds of Buddhahood. Thus, the Bodhisattva’s title often includes the words “Great Compassionate.” The other kind of Buddhahood is wisdom, which is embodied by Bodhisattva Mahasattva.
With boundless compassion, Avalokiteshvara displays miraculous power to aid all sentient beings who call upon them in times of need. In the human world, Avalokiteshvara is a protector from disaster and is often invoked by childless women for the gift of children.
According to the Mahayana tradition, Avalokiteshvara made a great vow to listen to the prayers of all sentient beings in times of difficulty and to delay entering Nirvana until helped all beings on Earth attain it.
2. Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattva
Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattva is a significant figure in Buddhism, symbolizing the power of wisdom. Often depicted as a compassionate being, Mahasthamaprapta represents the attainment of enlightenment through the practice of mindfulness and concentration. This revered figure is known by various names, including Seishi Bosatsu in Japanese, and Dae Seji in Korean.
In Buddhist art, Mahasthamaprapta is usually depicted with various distinguishing features. The figure is often shown with a serene expression, wearing a crown or a green lotus flower on the head, symbolizing spiritual purity. The clothing is typically flowing and elegant, representing the divine nature of the bodhisattva.
Mahasthamaprapta is often shown standing or seated, with the hands in different mudras or symbolic gestures. One common mudra is the Anjali mudra, where the hands are held in prayer position at the heart, signifying devotion and spiritual connection. Another mudra often associated with this bodhisattva is the Vitarka mudra, in which the right hand is raised with the thumb and index finger touching, forming a circle. This gesture represents the transmission of the teachings of the Buddha and the power of wisdom.
The symbolic meanings of Mahasthamaprapta in Buddhism are manifold. As a bodhisattva, this figure embodies the ideal of selfless compassion and the aspiration to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. Mahasthamaprapta is often associated with the virtue of wisdom, which is essential in overcoming ignorance and attaining spiritual awakening. By practicing mindfulness and concentration, Mahasthamaprapta serves as a reminder that one can develop insight and wisdom, transcending the cycles of birth and death, and ultimately achieve enlightenment.
Furthermore, Mahasthamaprapta is often depicted alongside Amitabha Buddha and Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva, forming the “Pure Land Trinity” in the Pure Land tradition of Buddhism. This trinity is central to the faith, as devotees aspire to be reborn in the Western Pure Land, a realm free from suffering and conducive to spiritual practice. In this context, Mahasthamaprapta represents the power of wisdom and mindfulness that supports practitioners on their path towards enlightenment.
3. Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva
Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva, a beacon of hope and a bastion of compassion, is a revered figure in the tapestry of Buddhism. Known by various names, such as Dìzàng Púsà in Chinese, Jizō Bosatsu in Japanese, and Jijang Bosal in Korean, Ksitigarbha embodies the selfless love that guides all beings through the shadows of suffering, illuminating the path to enlightenment.
In Buddhist art, Ksitigarbha is portrayed with a gentle, benevolent countenance, a testament to the boundless empathy the figure possesses. Adorned with flowing, celestial garments, Ksitigarbha exudes an aura of tranquility and grace. This nurturing figure is often depicted with a shaven head, symbolizing a monk-like humility that brushes aside worldly concerns.
Ksitigarbha’s signature features include a six-ring staff, which resonates with a melodious chime, awakening and guiding the lost souls who wander through the realms of existence. The other hand tenderly cradles a wish-fulfilling gem, a treasure that illuminates the darkness and dispels ignorance, granting wisdom and solace to those who yearn for spiritual awakening.
The symbolic meanings of Ksitigarbha run deep and resonate with the hearts of many. As a bodhisattva, Ksitigarbha embodies the selfless aspiration to postpone personal enlightenment until every soul, even those in the deepest recesses of suffering, has been guided to the shore of liberation. Often referred to as the “Earth Store” or “Earth Treasury” Bodhisattva, Ksitigarbha’s unwavering commitment to save sentient beings reflects the steadfast nature of the earth itself.
Ksitigarbha’s compassion knows no bounds, extending even to the most troubled souls in the hell realms. A guiding light in the darkest moments, this bodhisattva offers hope and solace to those who suffer, bringing comfort like a gentle breeze on a scorching day.
In a world that often feels overwhelming, Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva serves as a heartwarming reminder of the power of boundless love and compassion. Through Ksitigarbha’s selfless devotion, we are inspired to cultivate our own empathy and understanding, building bridges of connection that span across the chasms of suffering, ultimately leading all beings to the blissful shores of enlightenment.
4. Manjushri Bodhisattva
Manjushri Bodhisattva, a radiant embodiment of wisdom and insight, is an esteemed figure in the spiritual realm of Buddhism. Known by various names such as Wénshū Púsà in Chinese, Monju Bosatsu in Japanese, and Munsu Bosal in Korean, Manjushri signifies the profound understanding that pierces through the veil of ignorance, guiding seekers on their journey to enlightenment.
In the realm of Buddhist art, Manjushri is portrayed with a serene and noble countenance, reflecting the boundless depth of wisdom this figure encompasses. Adorned in exquisite, celestial garments, Manjushri emanates an aura of tranquility, inspiring those who gaze upon this divine figure.
Similar to most Bodhisattvas, Manjushri sits on a lotus throne, as the lotus, which emerges from the murky mud yet remains beautiful and fragrant, symbolizes the purity of wisdom that can exist amidst delusions without being affected.
Manjushri wears a white or sometimes green scarf and is adorned with a crown made of precious stones. The eight auspicious symbols of Astamangala are also depicted in some Chinese paintings of him.
We may also encounter images of Bodhisattva Manjushri seated on a blue lion, with the lion standing on a lotus. The symbol of riding a lion signifies that, through meditation, even a wild mind can become calm.
Manjushri’s unique features include a flaming sword held aloft, its shimmering blade slicing through the darkness of delusion and illuminating the path to spiritual awakening. In the other hand, Manjushri gently cradles a sacred text, the Prajnaparamita Sutra, a symbol of the profound teachings that guide aspirants on their journey toward enlightenment.
The symbolic meanings of Manjushri are as varied and intricate as the teachings this figure represents. As a bodhisattva, Manjushri embodies the aspiration to attain complete enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings, driven by a selfless dedication to share the light of wisdom with the world. Often associated with the virtue of prajna, or transcendent wisdom, Manjushri represents the spiritual insight that can dispel the shadows of ignorance and awaken the innate potential within each being.
Manjushri’s flaming sword serves as a beacon of hope, symbolizing the transformative power of wisdom to overcome suffering and transcend the cycle of birth and death. The sacred text held in the other hand is a treasure trove of teachings, a map that navigates the winding path toward enlightenment, guiding seekers through the labyrinth of existence.
In Vajrayana Buddhism, Manjushri is considered a meditation deity. The Sanskrit name “Manjushri” can be translated as “gentle glory” or “Prince Manjushri.” Manjushri is one of the most revered Bodhisattvas in Mahayana and Tibetan Buddhism, though not well-known in Theravada Buddhism.
Scholars have identified Manjushri as the oldest and most important Bodhisattva in Mahayana Buddhism. In China, Buddhists call him Wenshu, and the sacred mountain where he resides is WuTaiSan in Shanxi province, one of the four ancient mountains of China.
Manjushri Bodhisattva stands as an unwavering pillar of wisdom and understanding. Inspired by the luminous example of Manjushri, we too can cultivate our own insight, awakening our innate wisdom and guiding ourselves and others toward the blissful shores of enlightenment.
5. Vajrapani Bodhisattva
Vajrapani Bodhisattva, a formidable and awe-inspiring figure in the spiritual tapestry of Buddhism, stands as a guardian of the sacred teachings and a symbol of the power of the enlightened mind. Known by various names, such as Guhyapati in Sanskrit, Jin Gang Shou Pusa in Chinese, and Kongōshu Bosatsu in Japanese, Vajrapani represents the union of strength and wisdom necessary to overcome obstacles on the path to enlightenment.
Tracing the origin of Vajrapani, we find that this figure is deeply rooted in the ancient Vedic traditions of India, where Vajrapani was initially associated with the god Indra, the wielder of the thunderbolt. As Buddhism evolved, Vajrapani transformed into a bodhisattva, reflecting the dynamic and adaptable nature of the spiritual path.
In Buddhist art, Vajrapani is depicted as a powerful and fierce figure, radiating an aura of indomitable strength. With a wrathful yet compassionate gaze, Vajrapani stands as a protector of the Dharma, ready to vanquish any obstacles that hinder the progress of spiritual seekers. This heroic figure often dons an intricate garland of skulls, symbolizing the victory over ignorance and the impermanence of all things.
Vajrapani’s signature attribute is the vajra, or thunderbolt, held firmly in one hand, a symbol of the indestructible power of enlightenment that can shatter the chains of delusion. In some depictions, Vajrapani assumes a wrathful stance, surrounded by flames, representing the transformative power of the enlightened mind to burn away the impurities of ignorance and suffering.
The symbolic meanings of Vajrapani encompass the dynamic interplay between strength and wisdom in the quest for spiritual awakening. As a bodhisattva, Vajrapani embodies the unwavering determination to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings, harnessing the power of the mind to overcome the challenges and obstacles that lie on the path.
Vajrapani Bodhisattva serves as a beacon of strength and a reminder of the indomitable spirit that lies within each of us. Inspired by the steadfast example of Vajrapani, we too can cultivate our own inner power and wisdom, surmounting the obstacles that obscure the light of our true nature, and ultimately, guiding ourselves and others toward the blissful shores of enlightenment.
6. Akasagarbha Bodhisattva
Akasagarbha Bodhisattva, a celestial and enigmatic figure in the vast panorama of Buddhism, embodies the boundless potential of the universe and the limitless nature of the enlightened mind. Known by various names, such as Ākāśagarbha in Sanskrit, Xukongzang Pusa in Chinese, and Kokūzō Bosatsu in Japanese, Akasagarbha represents the infinite expanse of wisdom and compassion that transcends the confines of worldly existence.
The origin of Akasagarbha is shrouded in mystery, with this celestial figure emerging from the rich tapestry of Buddhist teachings and evolving over time. The reverence for Akasagarbha dates back to the early stages of Mahayana Buddhism and is found in various sutras, including the Ākāśagarbha Sutra, where this enigmatic figure is celebrated for bestowing blessings of wisdom, memory, and eloquence upon spiritual seekers.
In Buddhist art, Akasagarbha is often portrayed with a serene and tranquil countenance, reflecting the boundless expanse of the universe and the infinite potential that lies within each of us. Adorned in elegant celestial garments and sometimes depicted with a radiant halo, Akasagarbha exudes an aura of otherworldly grace and serenity.
The signature attribute of Akasagarbha is the wish-fulfilling gem, or cintamani, held gracefully in one hand. This symbol of inexhaustible wealth and spiritual abundance represents the boundless capacity of the enlightened mind to manifest blessings and alleviate suffering. In some depictions, Akasagarbha is shown with a sword, symbolizing the power of wisdom to cut through the veil of ignorance and reveal the true nature of reality.
The symbolic meanings of Akasagarbha span the vast cosmos of spiritual understanding. As a bodhisattva, Akasagarbha embodies the aspiration to attain complete enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings, guided by the infinite wisdom and compassion that permeate the universe. The figure of Akasagarbha serves as a reminder of our own boundless potential and the limitless nature of the enlightened mind.
Inspired by the celestial example of Akasagarbha, we too can tap into our own infinite potential, uncovering the boundless wisdom that lies within, and ultimately guiding ourselves and others toward the blissful shores of enlightenment.
7. Samantabhadra Bodhisattva
Samantabhadra Bodhisattva, an illustrious figure in the spiritual realm of Buddhism, embodies the perfection of wisdom and the boundless practice of virtue. Known by various names, such as Puxian Pusa in Chinese, Fugen Bosatsu in Japanese, and Kuntuzangpo in Tibetan, Samantabhadra represents the infinite merits and virtues that arise from the enlightened mind, guiding sentient beings on their journey to awakening.
The origin of Samantabhadra dates back to the early stages of Mahayana Buddhism, where this majestic figure is celebrated for embodying the perfect practice of wisdom, compassion, and skillful means. Samantabhadra is particularly associated with the Avatamsaka Sutra, a sacred text that explores the interdependent nature of reality and the boundless potential of the enlightened mind.
In Buddhist art, Samantabhadra is often portrayed with a serene and noble countenance, reflecting the boundless wisdom and compassion that flow from the enlightened mind. Adorned in exquisite celestial garments, Samantabhadra exudes an aura of tranquility and grace, inspiring spiritual seekers with his unwavering dedication to the path of enlightenment.
Samantabhadra’s unique features include riding a white elephant, a symbol of strength, wisdom, and purity. The six-tusked elephant represents the six perfections of the bodhisattva path: generosity, morality, patience, effort, meditation, and wisdom. In some depictions, Samantabhadra is shown holding a lotus flower or a wish-fulfilling jewel, symbolizing the transformative power of spiritual practice to bring forth blessings and alleviate suffering.
The symbolic meanings of Samantabhadra are as rich and diverse as the virtues this figure embodies. As a bodhisattva, Samantabhadra represents the aspiration to attain complete enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings, driven by a selfless dedication to perfecting the ten great practices that lead to awakening. These practices include making offerings, paying homage, repentance, rejoicing in others’ merits, requesting teachings, beseeching the Buddhas to remain in the world, following the teachings, benefiting sentient beings, dedicating merits, and cultivating the mind of enlightenment.
8. Maitreya Bodhisattva
Maitreya Bodhisattva is embodies the promise of a future Buddha and the boundless potential for love and compassion that lies within every sentient being. Known by various names, such as Maitreya Pusa in Chinese, Miroku Bosatsu in Japanese, and Jampa in Tibetan, Maitreya represents the aspiration to create a world of harmony and peace, guided by the light of loving-kindness and universal goodwill.
The origin of Maitreya can be traced back to the early teachings of Buddhism, where this compassionate figure is prophesied as the future Buddha who will appear on earth to guide humanity toward spiritual awakening. Maitreya is recognized in both the Theravada and Mahayana traditions, and his arrival is anticipated during a time when the teachings of the current Buddha, Shakyamuni, have faded from the world.
In Buddhist art, Maitreya is often portrayed with a gentle and benevolent expression, reflecting the warmth of loving-kindness that infuses his being. Adorned in elegant garments and sometimes depicted with a radiant halo, Maitreya exudes an aura of hope and promise, inspiring spiritual seekers to cultivate their own inner qualities of love and compassion.
Maitreya’s unique attributes include holding a vase filled with the nectar of immortality or a stupa, symbolizing the enduring nature of the Buddha’s teachings. In some depictions, Maitreya is shown seated with his legs crossed and feet resting on the ground, representing his readiness to descend from the heavenly realm and guide humanity toward enlightenment. The symbolic meanings of Maitreya encompass the boundless potential for love, compassion, and harmony that resides within every sentient being.
The figure of Maitreya serves as a reminder of our own boundless potential for love and compassion, inspiring us to nurture these qualities within ourselves and share them with the world.
Hopefully, through the overview knowledge about Bodhisattvas in Buddhism can help you better understand the characteristics and symbolic meanings that the Bodhisattvas represent. Those are the noble qualities that Buddhists aim for.