Who Were the Major Bodhisattvas?

Great Enlightenment Beings of Mahayana Buddhism

Bodhisattvas work to bring all beings to enlightenment. Countless transcendent bodhisattvas are found in Buddhist art and literature, but these are among the most important.

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Avalokiteshvara, Bodhisattva of Compassion

Giant statue of Kwan Yin goddess
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Avalokiteshvara represents the activity of Karuna -- compassion, active sympathy, gentle affection. The name Avalokiteshvara is usually translated to mean "The Lord Who Looks Down in Pity" or "The One Who Hears the Cries of the World."

Avalokiteshvara also represents the power of the Buddha Amitabha in the world and is sometimes portrayed as Amitabha's helper.

In art, Avalokiteshvara is sometimes male, sometimes female, sometimes genderless. In female form, she is Guanyin (Kuan Yin) in China and Kannon in Japan. In Tibetan Buddhism, he is called Chenrezig, and the Dalai Lama is said to be his incarnation.​

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Manjusri, Bodhisattva of Wisdom

Manjushri Bodhisattva

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The name "Manjushri" (also spelled Manjusri) means "He Who Is Noble and Gentle." This bodhisattva represents insight and awareness. Manjushri sees into the essence of all phenomena and perceives their nondual nature. He clearly realizes the boundless nature of self.

In art, Manjushri usually is depicted as a youth, representing purity and innocence. He often carries a sword in one hand. This is the vajra sword that cuts through ignorance and the snare of discrimination. In his other hand, or near his head, there is often a sutra scroll representing the Prajnaparamita (perfection of wisdom) texts. He may be resting on a lotus or riding a lion, representing princely nobility and fearlessness.

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Kshitigarbha, Savior of Beings in Hell

Jizo, or Kshitigarbha Bodhisattva, statue
electravk / Getty Images

Kshitigarbha (Sanskrit, "Womb of the Earth") is known as Ti-ts'sang or Dicang in China and Jizo in Japan. He is venerated as the savior of beings in hell and as a guide to deceased children. Kshitigarbha has vowed not to rest until he has emptied hell of all beings. He is also the protector of living children, expectant mothers, firemen, and travelers.

Unlike other bodhisattvas who are portrayed as royalty, Kshitigarbha is dressed as a simple monk with a shaved head. Often he holds a wish-fulfilling jewel in one hand and a staff with six rings in the other. The six rings indicate that the Bodhisattva protects all beings in the Six Realms. Often his feet are visible, representing his ceaseless travels to all who need him.

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Mahasthamaprapta and the Power of Wisdom

Mahasthamaprapta Bodhisattva

Elton Melo/Flickr / Creative Commons License

Mahasthamaprapta (Sanskrit, "One Who Has Obtained Great Power") awakens in humans their need to be liberated from Samsara. In Pure Land Buddhism he is often paired with Avalokiteshvara in association with Amitabha Buddha; Avalokiteshvara enacts Amitabha's compassion, and Mahasthamaprapta brings to humanity the power of Amitabha's wisdom.

Like Avalokiteshvara, Mahasthamaprapta is sometimes depicted as male and sometimes as female. He may have a lotus in his hand or a pagoda in his hair. In Japan, he is called Seishi.

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Samantabhadra Bodhisattva - Buddhist Icon of Practice

Samantabhadra Bodhisattva
Samantabhadra Bodhisattva. dorje-d/Flickr, Creative Commons License

Samantabhadra (Sanskrit, "He Who Is All-Pervadingly Good") is called Fugen in Japan and P'u-Hsien or Puxian in China. He is the protector of those who teaches the Dharma and represents the meditation and practice of the Buddhas.

Samantabhadra often is part of a trinity with Shakyamuni Buddha (the historical Buddha) and Manjushri. In some traditions, he is associated with Vairochana Buddha. In Vajrayana Buddhism is he the Primordial Buddha and is associated with the dharmakaya.

In art, he is sometimes depicted as a woman, sometimes a man. He may ride a six-tusked elephant, carrying a lotus or parasol and a wish-fulfilling jewel or scroll. In Vajrayana iconography is he naked and dark blue, and joined with his consort, Samantabhadri.

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O'Brien, Barbara. "Who Were the Major Bodhisattvas?" Learn Religions, Aug. 27, 2020, learnreligions.com/five-major-bodhisattvas-449988. O'Brien, Barbara. (2020, August 27). Who Were the Major Bodhisattvas? Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/five-major-bodhisattvas-449988 O'Brien, Barbara. "Who Were the Major Bodhisattvas?" Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/five-major-bodhisattvas-449988 (accessed March 28, 2023).