Skip to main content

Buddhas and Bodhisattvas: Celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas


The term bodhisattva occurs frequently in early Buddhist literature, usually referring to Śākyamuni Buddha prior to the time of his enlightenment, which he achieved as he sat under the famous bodhi tree (Skt., bodhivka, "tree of enlightenment") a few miles south of Gayā in modern Bihar. Bodhisattva means literally "enlightenment being," or, according to a theory that bodhisattva is a slightly mistaken Sanskrit spelling of the early dialectical form bodhisatta (as preserved in Pali), it could have originally meant "intent upon enlightenment." Whatever the literal meaning (and most scholars would favor the first one), a bodhisattva is a living being, usually human but not necessarily so, who has set out on the long path toward Buddhahood, which in accordance with the general Buddhist acceptance of the Indian theories concerning continual rebirth (or transmigration) was calculated to lead the aspirant through a very long series of different lives.

Large collections of such legendary life stories (jātaka) were made in the early Buddhist period, illustrating the heroic self-sacrifice of the future Buddha Śākyamuni in his progress toward his last life (also told in legendary style), when his purpose was finally revealed to the world. As Śākyamuni was never regarded as the one and only Buddha, but rather as one in a whole series (seven are named in early texts, but the number is gradually much extended), each of whom appears in a separate world age, it was inevitable that his followers should come to expect a future Buddha for the next world age. Thus, a new bodhisattva, Maitreya ("loving kindness"), appears as the first of the many other "great beings," who later extend the Buddhist pantheon to infinity. The cult of Maitreya is certainly attested among the followers of the early Buddhist sects, later referred to disparagingly as Hīnayānists, and his appearance seems to mark the beginning of the considerable devotion that came to be directed toward these celestial beings.

It should be borne in mind that the distinctions between the so-called Mahāyānists and Hīnayānists were not so clear-cut in the early centuries ce as they appear to be later. The same mythological concepts concerning the nature of a Buddha and a bodhisattva (a future Buddha) remain fundamental to Buddhism in all its forms, and it can easily be shown that all the later extravagant developments of the Mahāyāna are traceable to tendencies inherent in the earliest known forms of Buddhism. The Mahāyānists differed in their philosophical assumptions and the manner in which they applied the bodhisattva theory to normal religious life. For them, the bodhisattva career was the only genuine path toward enlightenment, which they distinguished from the goal of nirvāa, interpreted by them as the limited selfish aspiration of the early disciples. At the same time they followed the same forms of monastic discipline (Vinaya) as their Hīnayāna brethren, often living together in the same monastic compound until doctrinal disputes led them to set up separate communities of their own. Thus freed, the Mahāyānists began to go their own way, but there would appear to have been no very noticeable iconographic changes in their monasteries until several centuries later.

The well-known caves of Ajantā were probably occupied by Buddhist communities up to the eighth century ce, and there is scarcely any image or painting there that might displease a determined adherent of the older sects. The only celestial bodhisattva apart from Maitreya to be painted at Ajantā is Avalokiteśvara ("the lord who looks down in compassion"), and he may be quite convincingly interpreted as the future Buddha Śākyamuni, who looked down in compassion from the heaven called Tuita ("joyful") before finally agreeing to be born in our world for the benefit of its inhabitants. None of the many Buddha and bodhisattva images surviving at Ajantā in carved stone can be identified as particular celestial Buddhas and bodhisattva s. Numerous bodhisattva s are named in Mahāyāna sūtras from the first century ce onward, but a rather more limited number achieved generally accepted iconographic forms, namely those who were especially popular as distinct beings and those who were fitted into maala s and related iconographic patterns.

The earliest iconographic pattern, which resulted in the eventual appearance of three leading bodhisattva s, is probably the triad of images representing Śākyamuni Buddha flanked by two attendants. According to early accounts, Śākyamuni was attended by Indian divinities at his birth. Originally, these two attendants may have been thought of as Brahmā and Indra, but they came to be accepted as Buddhist divinities by the simple method of giving them new Buddhist names. They thus become identified as Padmapāi ("lotus-holder") and Vajrapāi ("vajra- holder"). Padmapāi comes to be identified with Avalokiteśvara, who also holds a lotus flower, and thus becomes a great bodhisattva in his own right. Vajrapāi's rise to fame is very much slower, since through the earlier Mahāyāna period he continues to be regarded as Śākyamuni's personal attendant, his function and duties merely being extended to protect all other bodhisattva s.

It is not until we reach the early Tantric period as represented by the Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa that Vajrapāi appears as a powerful bodhisattva in his own right, but still as a member of a triad. By this time (perhaps the fifth to the sixth century ce) many non-Buddhist divinities were being spontaneously accepted into the Buddhist fold; they were being accepted for the straightforward reason that those who became supporters of the monks or who even became Buddhist monks themselves did not need to renounce their devotion to other divinities, whose existence and capabilities were never denied either by Śākyamuni himself or by his followers. Local divinities decorate Buddhist stupas (Skt., stūpa s) from at least the second century bce onward, and as already noted, the great Hindu divinities were soon incorporated as Buddhist "converts." This process continued throughout the whole history of Indian Buddhism and goes far to explain the existence of so many celestial beings in the ever more elaborate Buddhist pantheon.

In the Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa these divinities are grouped into various "families," of which the three chief ones are those of the Buddha or Tathāgata, the Lotus, and the Vajra. Divinities who were already accepted as fully Buddhist were placed in the Buddha's family, while gentle divinities due for conversion were placed in the Lotus family under the leadership of Avalokiteśvara; fierce divinities, whose conversion was supposed to be troublesome, were placed under the command of Vajrapāi, who was able to subdue them with his powerful vajra ("thunderbolt"). Since it was suitable that the original Buddha family should be headed by a bodhisattva just like the other two, this position was assigned to Mañjuśrī ("gentle and glorious one," also known as Mañjughoa, "gentle voice"), who appears in early Mahāyāna sūtras as Śākyamuni's chief spokesman. His origin is obscure but it is significant that he is later linked with Sarasvatī, the Hindu goddess of speech, taking her mantra ("O vāgīśvari mu") as his own. It must be emphasized that none of these great bodhisattva s has a "history" in the modern sense: they are all mythological creations.

Celestial Buddhas

While the cult of a celestial bodhisattva as a Great Being of heavenly associations clearly has its roots in the early cult of Śākyamuni, who was appealed to as both Buddha and bodhisattva, its full implications were developed from approximately the first century ce onward by those who began to adopt specific Mahāyāna teachings. Śākyamuni was traditionally acclaimed as the one and only Buddha of our present world age, and early legends tell how he made the vow, when he was a brahman boy named Megha or Sumegha, before a previous Buddha, Dīpakara, to follow the self-sacrificing bodhisattva path toward Buddhahood. It must be emphasized that the later concepts never had the effect of negating the earlier ones, and despite the change of viewpoint that I am about to explain, the cult of Buddhas of the past, as well as of the future, was never abandoned. The "Buddhas of the three times" (past, present, and future) are frequently mentioned in Mahāyāna literature and their cult has continued in Tibetan Buddhism to this day.

The change that takes place in Mahāyāna theories results from their perhaps more realistic view of the nature of the cosmos. The early Buddhists viewed the world as a closed system, comprising four main island-continents arranged around a central sacred mountain, known as Meru, identified with Mount Kailash in western Tibet. Mahāyāna teachings, on the other hand, were greatly affected by views that envisaged the universe as whole galaxies of world systems, extending endlessly throughout all the directions of space. It followed logically from this that there should also be Buddhas operative in all these other world systems. One of the earliest disputes that arose between Mahāyānists and those who held to the earlier views concerns precisely the problem of whether there can be more than one Buddha at a time, and it is clear that they argue against different cosmological backgrounds. Mahāyāna ideas on the nature of such myriads of world systems may be learned from the reading of any of the Mahāyāna sūtras, where Buddhas, surrounded by bodhisattva s, continue to preach simultaneously in their various "buddha fields" (buddhaketra).

Not all such worlds are fortunate enough to have a Buddha at any particular time. Those that do are divided generally into two classes, known as "pure" or "impure." The pure fields contain only those beings who are on the way to Buddhahood, that is, bodhisattva s, while the impure fields contain beings of all kinds at all stages of spiritual advance and decline. The manner in which bodhisattva s may travel miraculously from one buddha field to another is well illustrated in the important Mahāyāna sūtra, the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa (The teaching of Vimalakīrti), where the question is understandably raised as to why Śākyamuni should have elected to be born in an impure field rather than a pure one. His superiority is acknowledged by visiting bodhisattva s from a pure field, who exclaim: "The greatness of Śākyamuni is established; it is wonderful how he converts the lowly, the wretched and the unruly. Moreover, the Bodhisattvas who are established in this mean Buddha-sphere (i.e., our world) must have inconceivable compassion" (Lamotte, 1976, pp. 204218).

Śākyamuni's essential identity with all other Buddhas is often asserted, sometimes subtly, sometimes quite explicitly, as in chapter 15 of the Saddharmapuarīka Sūtra (Lotus of the True Law Scripture). In another sūtra, the Śūragamasamādhi (Lamotte, 1965, pp. 267270), the bodhisattva Dimati asks Śākyamuni how long his life will last. Śākyamuni tells him to go and ask another buddha named Vairocana ("resplendent one"), who presides over a world system named Well Adorned, which is to be reached in the eastern direction by crossing over thirty-two thousand buddha fields. Having traveled there he is told by that Buddha: "My length of life is exactly the same as that of the Buddha Śākyamuni, and if you really want to know, the length of my life will be seven hundred incalculable world ages." Returning to Śākyamuni, the inquiring bodhisattva says: "In so far as I understand the words of the Lord, I would say that it is you, O Lord, who are in the world-system named Well Adorned, where with another name you work for the happiness of all living beings."

So many different kinds of Buddha manifestations are taken for granted in the Mahāyāna sūtras that scholarly efforts have been made to reduce them to some order. The best account of such attempts will be found in Louis de la Vallée Poussin's translation of the Cheng weishi lun, Xuanzang's compilation of ten major commentaries to Vasubandhu's Triśikā (La Vallée Poussin, 1929, vol. 2, p. 762).

The simplest scheme, which gradually gained general acceptance, envisages an "Absolute Buddha Body" (the dharmakāya of early Buddhist tradition) manifesting itself as various "glorious bodies" (sabhogakāya, "body of enjoyment") to high-ranking bodhisattva s in celestial spheres, and as various "human bodies" (nirmāakāya, "manifested body"), which need not necessarily be human but are usually conceived as such, in impure Buddha fields like our own world. Later Tantric tradition suggests the existence of a fourth, supreme body, known as svābhāvikakāya ("self-existent"), but earlier this is used as an alternative name for the Absolute Body (dharmakāya). We shall note later the tendency to arrive at ever-more-transcendent states of buddhahood, when a sixth, supreme buddha is placed above the set of five cosmic buddhas. To these we must now give attention as the production of later Mahāyāna speculation and as the foundation of the whole class of tantra s known as Yoga Tantras.

Just as buddha manifestations, conceived in a diachronic time sequence in accordance with the earlier conceptions of buddhahood, came to be represented by a triad of Buddhas, referred to as the Buddhas of the Three Times, namely Dīpakara, Śākyamuni, and Maitreya (in this later context he is referred to as Buddha and no longer as bodhisattva ), so those other buddha manifestations, conceived synchronically as existing simultaneously in all directions throughout space in accordance with later Mahāyāna conceptions of the universe, came to be symbolized by the Five Buddhas of the cosmos, representing the center and the four cardinal points. These have been popularly referred to as dhyāni-buddha s ("meditational buddhas"), a term that Brian Hodgson (18001894) seems to have heard used locally in Nepal but that appears to have no traditionally established justification. In the few sūtras and the many tantra s and their commentaries in which they are referred to, they are known simply as the Five Buddhas (pañcabuddha) or the Five Tathāgatas (pañcatathāgata) with no other ascription. If such is required, then the term Cosmic Buddhas seems appropriate, in that their primary function is to represent buddhahood in its cosmic dimension, as symbolized in the fivefold maala.

As may be expected, this set of five buddhas evolved gradually, and we find at first various sets of names, some of which become gradually stabilized. Two fairly constant ones from the start are Amitābha ("boundless light") or Amitāyus ("boundless life") as the Buddha of the West, and Akobhya ("the imperturbable") as the Buddha of the East. It has been suggested with great plausibility that the Buddha of the West was first accepted as an object of devotion by the Buddhists of the far northwest of the Indian subcontinent as a result of Persian cultural and religious influence, since light and life are essential characteristics of the chief Zoroastrian divinity, Ahura Mazdā. This hypothesis is borne out by the very special devotion shown to this particular Buddha in Central Asia and especially in China and Japan, where a particular constellation of sects (known generically as Pure Land) is devoted to his cult. There is no indication that any such special cult developed elsewhere in India, where Amitābha/Amitāyus remains simply one of the Five Buddhas. Judging by the very large number of images found, the most popular buddha, certainly in northeastern India, where Buddhism survived until the early thirteenth century, is Akobhya, the Buddha of the East. Iconographically he is identified with Śākyamuni Buddha, who was challenged at the time of his enlightenment by Māra, the Evil One (the Satan of Buddhism), to justify his claim to buddhahood. Śākyamuni called the earth goddess to witness his claim by tapping the ground with the fingers of his right hand, and she duly appeared to give testimony, to the total discomfiture of Māra. A buddha image formed in this style became the typical image of Bodh Gayā (south of Gayā) in eastern India, where Śākyamuni showed himself imperturbable (akobhya) despite the assaults of the Evil One.

The geographical choice of this particular buddha (Akobhya) as the Buddha of the East in the later formulation of the set of five is not difficult to understand, being the obvious one because of his popularity in the eastern region. The central buddha came to be identified with the buddha image, which must have been typical of another famous place of pilgrimage, the Deer Park (now known as Sārnāth, a few miles from Vāraāsī), where Śākyamuni was believed to have preached his first sermon. The gesture of preaching is symbolized by the two hands linked in front of the chest in order to suggest a turning wheel, the "wheel of the doctrine," which Śākyamuni is said to have turned, just as the chariot wheels of a universal monarch (cakravartin, "wheel-turner") turn throughout the world.

A buddha's supremacy in the religious sphere was equated in very early Buddhist tradition with the supremacy of the quasi-historical but mainly mythological concept of a "universal monarch," with the result that a bodhisattva is generally idealized as a kind of crown prince; thus it is in princely garments that he is generally portrayed. In particular, Mañjuśrī, Śākyamuni's spokesman in early Mahāyāna sūtras, is referred to specifically as the prince (kumārabhūta). It is not surprising that as central Buddha of the set of five, the preaching Śākyamuni comes to be referred to as Vairocana ("resplendent one"), the very buddha of vast age with whom he claims identity in the Śūragamasamādhi Sūtra. The full name of that particular buddha is in fact Vairocana-raśmipratimaita-vikurvanarāja ("resplendent one, adorned with light-rays, transformation-king"). The remaining two buddhas, placed to the south and to the north, become generally stabilized in this configuration as Ratnasambhava ("jewel-born"), presumably symbolizing Śākyamuni's boundless generosity, and Amoghasiddhi ("infallible success"), symbolizing his miraculous powers.

Summarizing these various kinds of Buddha manifestations, one may make the following observations:

  1. The state of Buddhahood is essentially one and only, or, to use a safer term, nondual, and nonmanifest in any way whatsoever: such is the Absolute Body of Buddhahood.
  2. The various stages at which this Absolute Body may assume apparently manifested form have been explained as various grades of buddha bodies, of which the Glorious Body, or Body of Enjoyment, and the Human Body, or Manifested Body, are the other two terms in more general use.
  3. According to the earliest Buddhist beliefs, buddhas manifest themselves in a kind of historical sequence, each one presiding over a different world age.
  4. According to the later Mahāyāna theories, Buddhas are manifest all the time in all the directions of space, presiding over their individual buddha fields.

These various concepts, which may appear to an outsider as in some measure conflicting, are retained by those who were responsible for the later formulations, while in general the "historical" buddha Śākyamuni continues to hold the center of the stage.

Bodhisattvas and Goddesses

Large numbers of bodhisattva s are mentioned in the Mahāyāna sūtras as residing in various Buddha fields, but very few of these come to receive a special cult as great individuals. The three primary ones, Mañjuśrī, Avalokiteśvara, and Vajrapāi, have already been mentioned. These are later identified as the "spiritual sons" of the three primary Buddhas, Śākyamuni (alias Vairocana), Amitābha, and Akobhya. The concept of Five Buddhas causes the number of buddha "families," previously three, to be extended to five, and thus two more leading bodhisattva s are required to complete the set. They are known as Ratnapāi ("jewel-holder") for the Jewel family of Ratnasambhava, and as Viśvapāi ("universal holder") for the Sword or Action family of Amoghasiddhi. Both these are latecomers and their artificial nature is suggested by their names.

In the early Mahāyāna sūtras we find various bodhisattva s named, such as the student Sadāprarudita ("always weeping"), whose story is told in the Perfection of Wisdom literature, or Dhamati ("firm-minded"), who is the main spokesman in the Śūragama Sūtra, or again the bodhisattva Dharmākara ("expression of the dharma "), who sets the conditions for his own buddha field through a long series of vows, the fulfillment of which is a precondition for his becoming the buddha Amitābha. None of these achieves individual fame except for the last as the buddha Amitābha, of whom he is little more than a formative shadow, like the brahman boy Megha who eventually became the buddha Śākyamuni. Vimalakīrti, already mentioned above, gains a popular following in Central Asia and in China. Of others so far not mentioned there is the one-time bodhisattva Bhaiajyaraja ("king of medicine"), named in The Lotus of the True Law (see Kern, 1963, pp. 378ff.), whom we find soon elevated to the rank of buddha with the name of Bhaiajyaraja. In certain sets of divinities, the bodhisattva Ākāśagarbha ("womb of space") replaces Ratnapāi as chief of the Jewel family; neither of these leading bodhisattva s appears to attract any special cult. Paralleling Ākāśagarbha, at least in name, is the bodhisattva Kitigarbha ("womb of the earth"). Perhaps by the mere chance form of his name, Kitigarbha achieved enormous success in Central Asia and China as the one who controls the welfare of the dead. By far the most popular of all the "great gods" of Buddhism is Avalokiteśvara, who also assumes the name of Lokeśvara ("lord of the world"), normally Śiva's title in Hindu tradition. It is possible that his name was a deliberate parody of Śiva's title, with the syllables changed sufficiently to give the new meaning of "lord who looks down (in compassion)." It remains doubtful if any image of him can be identified specifically before the sixth century, unless we include the lotus-holding (Padmapāi) attendant by Śākyamuni's side, already referred to above. However, by the sixth century his cult is well established, as attested by an entire sūtra, the Kāraavyūha, compiled in his honor. It is here that the well-known mantra "O maipadme hū" ("O thou with the jeweled lotus") can be firmly identified for the first time. This mantra, like the one of Mañjuśrī, is in the form of a feminine vocative for reasons that should become immediately clear.

Feminine divinities first appear within the Buddhist pantheon as handmaidens of the great bodhisattva s, whom they accompany in much the same way that Indian princes were usually depicted with a small circle of lady companions. Thus we may note that in the Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa (Macdonald, 1962, pp. 107ff.) Avalokiteśvara is surrounded by Pāaravāsinī ("white-clad"), Tārā ("savioress"), Bhrukui ("frowning"), Prajñāpāramitā ("perfection of wisdom"), Tathāgata-locanā ("Buddha-eye"), and Uāarājā ("lady of the wisdom-bump"). We shall meet with some of these again within the scheme of the fivefold maala, but already two and possibly three look forward to devotional cults of their own, since they become the great goddesses of Buddhism. The goddess Prajñāpāramitā represents the fundamental wisdom of Mahāyāna philosophy, as a divine concept corresponding in many respects to Sancta Sophia of Christian tradition. Even more popular is Tārā, whose flourishing was assured by the salvific assurance conveyed by her name. She was soon recognized as the feminine counterpart (not a partner in the Tantric sense) of Avalokiteśvara. Tārā is his feminine expression, just as Sarasvatī becomes the feminine expression of Mañjuśrī. Thus we may note that since the mantra of a great divinity is also his expression (his vidyā or special knowledge, as it is often called), his mantra too assumes a feminine form. Tārā became so important that many other feminine divinities came to be regarded as her various forms. Thus she appears as Bhrukui when she wishes to show her displeasure, or in the triumphant form of Uīśasitātapatrā ("lady of the wisdom-bump with the white parasol") when she becomes manifest with a thousand arms and a thousand heads, arranged in paintings so as to appear as a high, elaborate headdress, so that she is in no way grotesque. Here, she corresponds to the eleven-headed, thousand-armed form of Avalokiteśvara.

These more complex forms may clearly be related to subsequent Tantric developments, where the central divinity of the maala may be conceived of as comprising in his person all his various directional manifestations, from four to a thousand. Fluctuation in sex is not uncommon in the early stages of elaboration of this vast and complex pantheon; as is well known, in later Chinese Buddhist tradition Avalokiteśvara (Kuan-yin) merges with Tārā so as to become a feminine divinity. Returning to the Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa, we may note that just as Avalokiteśvara is surrounded by benign goddesses (except possibly for Bhrukui), so Vajrapāi is surrounded by fierce ones, named Vajrākuśī ("lady of the vajra hook"), Vajraśkhalā ("lady of the vajra fetter"), Subāhu ("strong-armed one"), and Vajrasenā ("lady of the vajra army"). It is sometimes difficult to draw a line between bodhisattva s and great goddesses, but Tārā in her various manifestations is as great as the greatest of bodhisattva s. She is saluted as the mother of all Buddhas, and in time Śākyamuni's human mother was duly seen as one of her manifestations.

The travelogue of the famous Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang, who visited monasteries throughout Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent between 629 and 645, well illustrates the extent of popular devotion accorded the images of certain great bodhisattva figures during the seventh century ce. Himself a scholarly Mahāyāna philosopher, Xuanzang was nonetheless pleased to hear of the miraculous powers of such images, mentioning in particular those of Maitreya, Avalokiteśvara, and occasionally Mañjuśrī and the great goddess Tārā; on many occasions he offered devout prayers to them on his own account. One may also mention that Xuanzang was equally interested in the cult of arhat s ("worthy ones"), those early disciples of Śākyamuni Buddha, who, having achieved nirvāa, were often believed to continue in some kind of suspended existence in remote mountain places. More wonderful tales of arhat s, tales certainly learned from his Mahāyānist brethren in India, are retold in his account than stories about bodhisattva s. In fact, the continuing cult of arhat s (Chin., lo-han ), which spread through Central Asia to China, survives in a set of sixteen or eighteen Great Arhats well known to Tibetan Buddhists. These earlier traditions provide an interesting link, all too often ignored, between Hīnayānists and Mahāyānists. Thus, the Buddhist world of the early centuries ce was peopled with a large variety of celestial beings, among whom certain favorite bodhisattva s were only just beginning to come to the fore.

Tantric Buddhism, at least in its higher aspirations, may be described as a system of practices, either of ritual yoga or of physical and mental yoga, by means of which the practitioner identifies himself with his tutelary divinity, who is identified both with the practitioner's own teacher and with the goal of final enlightenment. One of the main means toward such an objective is the maala or mystic circle of divinities who symbolize existence at all its various levels, the essential sameness of which the pupil must learn to experience through the guidance of his teacher (guru). Maala s are described in earlier tantra s, where a "three-family" arrangement predominates, but it is not until the so-called Yoga Tantras, with their fivefold arrangement of maala s, begin to appear that the new symbolism can be worked out effectively.

In the earlier Tantras there is a gradation of importance in the various families: the Buddha or Tathāgata family predominates; the Lotus family with its gentle divinities comes next; the Vajra family of Vajrapāi and his fierce children comes last. However, in the Yoga Tantras Vajrapāi comes right to the fore as the chief representative of Śākyamuni, alias Vairocana. He is also called Vajradhara ("holder of the vajra ") and Vajrasattva ("vajra being"), names that at a later stage of Tantric development refer exclusively to a sixth, utterly supreme Buddha. The main tantra of the Yoga Tantra class is the Sarvatathāgatatattvasagraha and here the chief maala is known as the Vajradhātu maala, the Maala of the Adamantine Sphere, where bodhisattva s with Vajra names, all essentially manifestations of Vajrapāi, form circles around the Five Buddhas and the four Buddha goddesses. Although maala means circle, the main divinities may also be arranged around a central square within the main circle, since this square, which is usually provided with four elaborate doorways, represents the sacred palace in which the main divinities dwell.

Next in importance after the Five Buddhas are the four Buddha goddesses, who occupy the subsidiary directions of space, namely Locanā, Māmakī ("my very own"), Pāaravāsinī, and Tārā. They are usually interpreted as symbolizing the four main elements (earth, water, fire, and air), while the fifth (space) coalesces with supreme Buddhahood at the center. In later tantra s a fifth, central Buddha goddess is named Vajradhaātvīśvarī ("lady of the adamantine sphere"), but she does not appear in maala s of the Yoga Tantra class normally, since these coupled male-female divinities (known as yab-yum, "father-mother" in Tibetan) do not form part of their symbolism. Apart from the sixteen Great Bodhisattvas, all with Vajra names, we may draw attention to the eight lesser goddesses of the offerings, arranged farther out from the center in the intermediate directions, and the four door guardians at the four main entrances. The eight goddesses of the offerings are mere symbols, as their names indicate at once:

  1. Vajralāsyā, or Vajra Frolic
  2. Vajradhūpa, or Vajra Incense
  3. Vajramālā, or Vajra Garland
  4. Vajrapupā, or Vajra Flower
  5. Vajragīti, or Vajra Song
  6. Vajrālokā, or Vajra Lamp
  7. Vajrantyā, or Vajra Dance
  8. Vajragandhā, or Vajra Scent

The names of the four door guardians, beginning with the eastern one, may be interpreted as Vajra Hook, Vajra Noose, Vajra Fetter, and Vajra Bell.

The possible variations within this fundamental pattern are considerable. Thus, the sixteen bodhisattva s fall into four groups of four, being allocated in these sets to the four directional Buddhas. The leaders of these four groups are directly identifiable with the chief bodhisattva s, already mentioned above, as well as with others who have not yet been mentioned. Such names are generally interchangeable within the Vajra family, which in the Yoga Tantras is closely associated with the so-called family of All Buddhas. Among the names not met before in this article we draw attention especially to Samantabhadra ("all good"), from whom Vajrapāi is said to arise. Since it is also used as a title of Vairocana, the central buddha, it is not surprising that it is used later as one of the names of a sixth, supreme buddha.

Other tantra s of the Yoga Tantra class, while generally retaining all the Buddha goddesses, the sixteen bodhisattva s, and lesser divinities, introduce different names and iconographic forms for the Five Buddhas themselves. As devised by Tantric masters in India (presumably from the seventh century onward) from a wide choice of names, to which others could be added as one pleased, the combinations, at least in theory, are infinite. Mañjuśrī in a four-headed and eight-armed manifestation may replace Śākyamuni at the center, and a highly complex maala, which includes the eight Uīa Buddhas as well as the four directional Buddhas together with the sixteen Great Bodhisattvas and a host of lesser divinities, is known as Dharmadhātu Maala, or the Maala of the Dharma Sphere, of which a fine example survives in the eleventh-century monastery of Sumda in Zangskar.

Horrific Buddhas

As a result of Śaiva influence transmitted through Tantric yogins of northeast India, celestial Buddhas of horrific appearance become acceptable tutelary divinities in Mahāyāna communities from perhaps the ninth century onward. Most of the tantra s that describe these divinities provide their own special maala s, with Heruka, Hevajra, Śavara, Caamahāroaa, and other such horrific figures clasping their equally horrific feminine partners as they dance on corpses at the center of their circle of yoginī s. Bodhisattva s are rare in such company. Of the strange Buddha figures just named, only Caamahāroaa has male divinities in the four directions, who are all manifestations of Acala ("imperturbable"), a variant of Akobhya's name. Claiming superiority over all previous tantra s, their propagators asserted the existence of a sixth, supreme Buddha, who subsumed the fivefold set, and with whom their particular tutelary divinity is identified. He is usually given the name of Vajrasattva ("vajra being") or Vajradhara ("vajra -holder"), both of which are titles of Vajrapāi in the earlier Yoga Tantras, as has already been noted.

Special mention should be made of the Guhyasamāja ("secret union") Tantra, for although this tantra was later grouped together with the others just mentioned as a so-called Anuttarayoga Tantra ("tantra of supreme yoga"), it adheres much more firmly to the fivefold scheme, and although Akobhya is made central Buddha of the set of five, the sixth, supreme Buddha is known as Great Vairocana (Mahāvairocana). Tantra s of the "Old School" (Rñi-ma-pa) of Tibetan Buddhism are to a large extent based on the fivefold scheme of Yoga Tantras with the addition of fierce divinities of the Heruka type. Their supreme Buddha, as in the case of those heterodox Tibetan Buddhists, the Bon-pos, is named Samantabhadra, a title also earlier closely connected with Vajrapāi.

Final Survey

While we have pointed out that far too stark a contrast is often drawn between Mahāyāna Buddhism of the early centuries ce with the already developed Buddhism accepted by their Hīnayānist brethren, there is no doubt that the contrast must have been very stark indeed during the last few centuries of Buddhist life in northern India (from the tenth to the twelfth century), concentrated mainly in Kashmir in the far northwest and in Bihar, Bengal, and Orissa in the east. While the monasteries continued to practice the same ancient monastic rules, one of which was adopted by the Tibetans from the eighth century onward (namely that of the order known as Mūlasarvāstivāda, particularly strong in Central Asia and northern India), the cult of Buddhas, bodhisattva s, greater and lesser goddesses, and various attendant beings had developed in the manner described above, introducing many new iconographic forms into the temples and covering the walls with murals of the kind that now only survive in the old temples of Ladakh and western Tibet (tenth to thirteenth century). Although no such murals survive in India (those of Ajantā up to the eighth century are the only ones remaining), the close relationship between the early Tibetan paintings and the original Indian ones, now lost, is proved by the many that still can be seen in the form of miniature paintings on manuscripts of the Pāla dynasty, which ruled in eastern India during the last Buddhist period. These have survived in Nepal and Tibet, where they were subsequently carried.

It would seem that it was not so much the Mahāyāna that was responsible for the great divergence that develops between the cults of the "early" schools (Hīnayāna) and later Buddhism, despite the very important role that celestial bodhisattva s play in Mahāyāna sūtras. As noted already, very few of these can be identified iconographically before the sixth or even the seventh century, namely Maitreya, Avalokiteśvara, Mañjuśrī, the great goddess Tārā, and finally Vajrapāi, who begins to come to the fore only at the end of this Mahāyāna period. Vajrapāi has the best-documented "career" of all Buddhist divinities and it is he (or rather his cult) that results in the Vajrayāna. He appears together with Padmapāi ("lotus-holder"), flanking Śākyamuni in several surviving iconographic examples, and the identification of Padmapāi with the favorite bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara must have suggested a higher status for Vajrapāi as well. This he receives in the earliest tantra s, but he still heads the lowest of the three families, for it is clearly taught that those who receive consecration in his Vajra family cannot perform rites in the two higher families.

It is only in the Yoga Tantras, which become well-known from the eighth century onward, that Vajrapāi comes fully to the fore as the leading bodhisattva, for all the maala s are based on the Vajradhātu Maala, even those of the Buddha (or All Buddhas) family. It is thus from this time on that one may correctly speak of a Vajrayāna, as distinct in many ways from the Mahāyāna. All the later tantra s, which came to be classed as Tantras of Supreme Yoga, belong effectively to the Vajra family. It is even said that Vajrapāi himself taught them on the instructions of Śākyamuni Buddha, for although the Yoga Tantras and all earlier ones together with all Mahāyāna sūtras are explicitly taught as the word of the Buddha (i.e., Śākyamuni) himself, there was some understandable hesitancy in attributing the Yogini Tantras, as they were earlier called, directly to him. Moreover, as related above, the sixth, supreme Buddha of these tantra s is named as Vajrasattva or Vajradhara, titles that are applied exclusively to Vajrapāi in the Yoga Tantras. Thus with these exclusive titles and with a slightly developed iconographic form he attains the highest possible rank in the Buddhist pantheon. It has already been pointed out that no later development ever nullifies earlier ones, with the result that Vajrapāi continues to fulfill all the roles described above.

Mañjuśrī also becomes the representative of supreme buddhahood in the Dharmadhātu Maala; later he receives a form expressing the union of "means" (upāya) and wisdom in that he clasps his feminine partner to his breast in the manner of all the great Tantric divinities of this class of tantra. Known as Mañjuvajra, he is in essence identical with Vajradhara/Vajrasattva. On the other hand, Avalokiteśvara remains the most popular of the great bodhisattva s, especially in his triumphant eleven-headed thousand-armed form. But despite his close relationship with Tārā, his feminine counterpart, neither he nor she is even thought to have lost their virginity. It is interesting to note how all the great bodhisattva s, despite iconographic changes, preserve their most essential attributes throughout the whole history of Buddhism. Being a powerful queller of the foe, it is Vajrapāi who forcibly converts the great gods of Hinduism, thus becoming their leader and finally the representative of all terrible divinities who are raised to high Buddhist rank. Mañjuśrī remains the representative of pure Buddhist teaching (despite his aberrational form as Mañjuvajra): when the followers of Tsong Kha pa (13571419) look for a suitably holy lineage for the leader of the reformed Tibetan Dge lugs pa ("yellow hat") order, they identify him as an incarnation of this particular bodhisattva. Avalokiteśvara remains popular for his unbounded compassion for the sufferings of all living beings. In order to save living beings, he is prepared to be born in any of the wretched places of existence, among suffering animals or tormented spirits, and even in the regions of hell. It was thus not difficult to suggest that he might also deliberately appear on earth as a recognizable incarnation. Since the Tibetans, in accordance with their pre-Buddhist beliefs, accepted their early kings (those from the sixth to the ninth century) as divine representatives from the heavens, it is not at all surprising that the king during whose reign Buddhism was first introduced into the country (namely Sron brstan sgam po, d. 650?) should have been retrospectively regarded as an incarnation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara.

When the fifth Dalai Lama reunited Tibet under his rule in 1642 this same distinction was claimed for him, and since then all succeeding Dalai Lamas, while being theoretically reincarnations of their predecessors, are at the same time honored as incarnations of Avalokiteśvara. Other interesting high incarnations are those of the Grand Lama of Bkra śis lhun po (Tashilhunpo), who is identified traditionally with the buddha Amitābha, and the abbess of Bsam-sdings Monastery (now presumably destroyed), near the Yar 'brog (Yamdrok) Lake, who is identified with the boar-headed partner of the horrific Tantric Buddha Cakrasavara, known as Vajravārāhī ("adamantine sow"), a sufficient indication that such "converted" Hindu divinities were in practice accorded bodhisattva rank.

From the above comments it should be clear that it is difficult to draw distinctions in late Indian Buddhism and in Tibetan religion, which inherits the greater part of Indian Buddhist traditions, between bodhisattva s and other divinities who are effectively raised to bodhisattva rank. Thus, to my knowledge the position of the four chief goddesses, Locanā, Māmakī, and so forth, as well as that of the feminine partners of the great Tantric divinities (who are themselves manifestly accorded full buddha rank) is scarcely definable in traditional Buddhist terms. They are all said to be manifestations of the Perfection of Wisdom, at least according to the later Tantric theories, and thus an associate buddha rank must be assumed for them. Clearer distinctions, however, continue to remain between buddhas and bodhisattva s, in accordance with the ideas prevalent during the earliest Buddhist period. According to purist theories, once a bodhisattva achieves enlightenment and thereby becomes a buddha ("enlightened") he effectively passes beyond the realm of imperfect living beings. The fact that Śākyamuni Buddha continued to work for the good of others during the forty-five years that elapsed between his enlightenment at the age of thirty-five and his decease (parinirvāa) at the age of eighty created a philosophical problem for the philosophers of the early schools. Only as bodhisattva can there be no doubt of his ability to respond to the needs of lesser beings. It may be for this reason that some early Buddha images are inscribed as bodhisattva images, for Śākyamuni in the earliest period could be regarded as both buddha and bodhisattva.

The cult of Maitreya as future buddha soon supplied the need for a bodhisattva, who could still assist living beings so long as he had not entered the impassive state of Buddhahood. His cult was followed by that of Avalokiteśvara, the "lord who looks down (in compassion)," doubtless suggested by Śākyamuni 's previous existence in the heavens, when as bodhisattva he had looked down on suffering living beings. The whole bodhisattva doctrine represents a remarkable aspect of Buddhist religion, expressing a degree of compassionate concern for others that is either far less developed or lacking altogether in other Indian religious traditions. The distinction between a buddha who represents an ideal state still to be achieved and a bodhisattva who assists one on the way there remains fairly clear throughout the whole history of Buddhism. Only rarely can a buddha become an object of prayer and supplication. One well-known exception is Amitābha, the Buddha of the West. But one may note that his cult, so strong in China and Japan, is based upon the Sukhāvativyūha Sūtra, which lists the many aspirations of the monk Dharmākara toward achieving buddhahood in a buddha paradise, where he may still be available for the solace of living beings in the most marvelous manner possible. This particular Buddha cult may therefore be regarded as exceptional.

See Also

Amitābha; Arhat; Avalokiteśvara; Bodhisattva Path; Buddha; Buddhism, Schools of, articles on Esoteric Buddhism, Mahāyāna Philosophical Schools of Buddhism; Cosmology, article on Buddhist Cosmology; Kitigarbha; Mahāvairocana; Maitreya; Maalas, article on Buddhist Maalas; Mañjuśrī; Nirvāa; Pure and Impure Lands; Soteriology; Tārā; Tathāgata.



Beal, Samuel, trans. Si-yu-ki: Buddhist Records of the Western World (1884). Reprint, Delhi, 1969.

Conze, Edward, trans. and ed. Buddhist Scriptures. Harmondsworth, 1959.

Conze, Edward, trans. The Large Sūtra of Perfect Wisdom. Berkeley, 1975.

Dayal, Har. The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhist Sanskrit Literature (1932). Reprint, New Delhi, 1975.

Hodgson, Brian H. Essays on the Languages, Literature and Religion of Nepal and Tibet (1874). Reprint, New Delhi, 1972.

Kern, Hendrik, trans. Saddharmā-Puarīka, or The Lotus of the True Law (1884). Reprint, New York, 1963.

Lamotte, Étienne, trans. and ed. La concentration de la marche héroïque. Brussels, 1965. A translation of the Śūragamasamādhi Sūtra.

Lamotte, Étienne, trans. The Teaching of Vimalakīrti. London, 1976. A translation of the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa Sūtra, rendered from Étienne Lamotte's L'enseignement de Vimalakīrti (Louvain, 1962).

La Vallée Poussin, Louis de, ed. and trans. Vijñaptimātratāsiddhi: La Siddhi de Hiuan-tsang. 2 vols. Paris, 19281929.

Macdonald, Ariane, trans. Le maala du Mañjuśrīmūlakalpa. Paris, 1962.

Skorupski, Tadeusz. The Sarvadurgatipariśodhana Tantra: Elimination of All Evil Destinies. Delhi, 1983.

Snellgrove, David L. Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, Indian Buddhists and Their Tibetan Successors. Boston and London, 1986.

Snellgrove, David L., and Tadeusz Skorupski. The Cultural Heritage of Ladakh. 2 vols. Warminster, 19771980.

Tucci, Giuseppe. Indo-Tibetica. 4 vols. Rome, 19321941.

Further Reading

Bhattacharyya, Benoytosh. The Indian Buddhist Iconography (1924). 2d rev. ed. Calcutta, 1958.

Getty, Alice. The Gods of Northern Buddhism (1914). Reprint, Oxford, 1963.

Mallmann, Marie-Thérèse de. Introduction à l'iconographie du tântrisme bouddhique. Paris, 1975.

Snellgrove, David L., ed. The Image of the Buddha. London, 1978.

Tucci, Giuseppe. Tibetan Painted Scrolls. 2 vols. Translated by Virginia Vacca. Rome, 1949.

David L. Snellgrove (1987)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Buddhas and Bodhisattvas: Celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas." Encyclopedia of Religion. . 2 Nov. 2018 <>.

"Buddhas and Bodhisattvas: Celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas." Encyclopedia of Religion. . (November 2, 2018).

"Buddhas and Bodhisattvas: Celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Retrieved November 02, 2018 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.