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Monday, October 12, 2009
What is a Bodhisattva?
One of the requests I hear a lot is: "Please explain what a Bodhisattva is."
Now, I have moved in Buddhist circles for many years, so perhaps have a strange view of the world.
It would seem to me that "Bodhisattva" is one of those words that has well and truly made the progression into common English usage, but I think I am quite wrong. Just a casual survey of friends and acquaintances results in puzzled looks. No-one, it seems, knows what the hell a Bodhisattva is.
My common understanding is that a Bodhisattva is a perfect, enlightened being who has renounced the benefits of nirvana and chosen to be re-born into the world in order to continue to help and enlighten human beings. It is the Bodhisattvas who so enliven the Mahayana Buddhist pantheon, and whose statues so clutter up the average Buddhist temple.
The most famous Bodhisattva is of course Kwan Yin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion.
She is almost universally revered throughout East Asia, and her statue can be seen everywhere.
Indeed, the popularity of her cult often seems to eclipse the supreme status of the Buddhas themselves.
Other commonly seen Bodhisattvas include Jizo (the Lord of the Underworld), Zhuan Di (the multi-armed manifestation of Kwan Yin) and Manjusri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom.
While the Buddhas might serve as exemplars of behaviour, in general it is seen as poor form to ask them directly for supernatural favours.
One merely respects the Buddha and studies his path. But the Bodhisattvas are much more approachable, and are seen as intercessory beings who will carry your prayers to the proper places. This is why their shrines are so important in the popular religion of Buddhist Asia.