Buddhism 102: What Are Some Examples of Bodhisattvas?

If I should not become a great benefactor

In lives to come for immeasurable kalpas

To save the poor and the afflicted everywhere,

May I not attain perfect Enlightenment.

–Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life (“Juseige” section)

Mahayana literature and sutras are full examples of bodhisattvas who are paragons of virtue, compassion or skillful means to save others. These bodhisattvas in turn are often are important to Mahayana Buddhism either as objections of devotion and deliverance, focuses for meditation, or an embodiment of deeper Buddhist truths.

Here are a few examples:

Ksitigarbha “Jizo” Bodhisattva

Jizo Bodhisattva at Ueno Park Jizo Bodhisattva appears in only one sutra, the Sutra of the Earth-Store Bodhisattva, but remains a very popular figure of devotion, especially in Japan.

In that sutra, the Bodhisattva first began as a high-caste (e.g. “brahmin”) girl who was concerned about her deceased mother, for slandering the Dharma and other unwholesome deeds. The girl had a vision where she journeyed to one of the Buddhist hells and learned that her mother had already been freed by her good deeds. She then resolved to rescue and liberate others from the hell-realms, until they were completely empty. In order to accomplish this, Jizo projects thousands if not millions of bodies that each assist or guide someone. This is a common ability described in Mahayana literature for very advanced beings or Buddhas.

In popular Buddhist culture, Jizo is a protector of children, especially children who died young. Jizo also protects travelers, and will take the place of others when they are about to be harmed. The staff that Jizo carries with the rings is a traditional shakujo staff used by Buddhist monks in Japan. The clacking of the rings drives away evil, and also warns small animals to get to safety so that that they will not be trampled.

Avalokitesvara “Kannon” Bodhisattva

Kannon Bodhisattva Statue Kannon Bodhisattva is arguably the most popular Bodhisattva in all of Mahayana Buddhism, and appears in a large number of sutras. The principal source, though, is the 25th chapter of the Lotus Sutra.

The origins of Kannon Bodhisattva are not explained, however, he is regularly depicted either as a princely male, or as a compassionate female. Depending on the particular culture, you might see one or the other. In China for example, the compassionate, motherly figure is very popular, while in Japan or Tibet, the male version is more common. In some artwork, Kannon will appear with 1,000 arms and 11 heads, signifying Kannon’s tireless efforts to help all beings.

Kannon Bodhisattva is described in the sutras as transforming to whatever form is most appropriate to teach or help someone: whether that be a monk, a demon, or a friendly teacher. This is a great example of “expedient means” in Mahayana Buddhism. Kannon delivers people from fear and ignorance toward wisdom and compassion, using whatever form is most appropriate.

In addition to all this, Kannon Bodhisattva is one of two attendants to Amitabha (“Amida”) Buddha in the Pure Land.

Dharmakara Bodhisattva (later “Amitabha Buddha”)

Main altar, Vietnamese Buddhist temple(Amitabha Buddha standing in the middle of the back row, flanked by two bodhisattvas, and the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, in the front.)

Dharmakara Bodhisattva is an example of a Bodhisattva who already fulfilled his vows and became the Buddha of Infinite Light: Amitabha or “Amida” Buddha.

According to the Sutra on the Buddha of Immeasurable Life, many kalpas (eons) ago, Dharmakara was a king who encountered another Buddha named Lokesvararaja or “World Sovereign”. The king was so deeply moved, that he renounced the throne and vowed to become the greatest of all Buddhas.

In order to accomplish this, the former king, now a monk named Dharmakara Bodhisattva, made a series of 48 vows to provide a refuge for all beings called the Pure Land, and that beings could easily be reborn there even if they only contemplated or recited his name. If he failed to provide such a refuge, Dharmakara Bodhisattva would not reach Enlightenment. Through countless kalpas of practice and effort, the Pure Land was indeed established, and having fulfilled his vows, he became a fully-awakened Buddha of great renown.

Although Dharmakara Bodhisattva is venerated as a Buddha, not a Bodhisattva, the story of his great aspiration is a frequent inspiration for Buddhists, and is frequently chanted in Buddhist liturgy. Further, up to 40% of the entire Mahayana Buddhist canon either described or mentioned Amitabha Buddha and the Pure Land.

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