The 8 Great Bodhisattvas represent the 8 Great Qualities of Buddha; why we need these qualities to help heal the world

The Compassion and Wisdom of the Bodhisattvas are reassuring in times of crisis. Today, with COVID-19 and economic devastation — and the inevitable hunger and suffering that follow such disasters — we take refuge in our compassionate Bodhisattva saviors. The Bodhisattvas are the “saviors” — the champions or heroes.

 

Each Bodhisattva tends to be narrowly “focused”: Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezig, Kuanyin) for Compassion, Manjushri for Wisdom, Vajrapani for power (fierce activity), and so on. They are known as the Eight Great Sons of the Buddha because they are the “offspring” of Buddha’s Wisdom and Compassion and Activity. Thought of another way, they are emanations of Buddha’s Eight Great Qualities.

Although it can be beneficial to focus on “the specialist” manifestations of Buddha’s qualities — at times when we specifically need that quality in our lives (such as protection, healing, wisdom) — it is important to understand that all Bodhisattvas and Buddha’s embody fully all the Enlightened Qualities.

Vajrapani, though known as the fierce wrathful activity of Buddha, is equally compassionate and wise. It’s a matter of focus. It is also, sometimes, a matter of teaching lineage or cultural emphasis. Some traditions emphasize Avalokiteshvara, while others focus on Manjushri.

 

 

Eight Bodhisattvas embody Eight Qualities of Buddha

The Eight Great Sons of the Buddha — not to be thought of as physical offspring, but as spiritual children — are born from the Eight Great Qualities of Shakyamuni Buddha: wisdom, compassion, power, activity, merit, qualities, blessings and aspirations. [See Khenpo Choga’s definition below.]

We might think of Manjushri as the embodiment of wisdom, and Avalokiteshvara as the very face of compassion, but all of the Eight Great Bodhisattvas embody both Karuna (Compassion) and Prajna (Wisdom.)

Vajrapani (right of Buddha), the protector of Buddha was associated with Zeus by the Ancient Greeks, because he held the thunderbolt (Vajra) in hand. A Greco Buddhist sculpture of the 2nd century.

When you hear the name Vaprapani, you might think of a ferocious Bodhisattva hurling a vajra to protect Shakyamuni Buddha [story below] — but he, equally, embodies both “wings” of Enlightenment. The name Kshitigarbha (Earth Store Bodhisattva) conjures an image of a kind monk rescuing those suffering in the hells (either literal or psychological) — yet it is through both wisdom and compassion he can accomplish his savior mission. He is also strongly associated with the earth.

 

The Bodhisattvas surrounding Buddha.

 

Manjushri, Avalokiteshvara (Guanyin), Vajrapani and Maitreya (the Future Buddha) are the “Superstars” of the “Eight Great Bodhisattvas” — often translated as the “Eight Great Sons” (Skt. aṣṭa utaputra; Tib. ཉེ་བའི་སྲས་བརྒྱད་, nyewé sé gyé, Wyl. nye ba’i sras brgyad). Less well known are Kshitigarbha, Ākāśagarbha, Samantabhadra, and Sarvanivarana-Vishkambhin. This is not a matter or rank — all of the Eight Great Ones are equally meritorious — it’s more a matter of lineage and tradition.

 

The Three Great Bodhisattvas, from left to right: Manjushri (Wisdom of Buddha), Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezig, Compassion of Buddha), Vajrapani (Power of Buddha.)

 

Three great ones — Speech, Mind, Body

Buddha surrounded by the Bodhisattvas.

In Vajrayana tradition, the “mind” of the Buddha manifests as Manjushri, Lord of Wisdom, while the “speech” of the Buddha — his compassion in delivering the sacred Dharma — is Avalokiteshvara. Vajrapani represents the “Body” of the Buddha — the activities of the Buddha in multiple worlds (not just our world!) Just as Om Ah Hum mantra syllables stand for Body Speech and Mind, the Bodhisattvas Vajrapani, Avalokiteshvara, and Manjushri similar represent these important concepts.

Specialist Bodhisattvas — is a matter of focus

When we describe Avalokiteshvara (Kuan Yin, Guanyin, Chenrezig) as the Bodhisattva of Compassion, this does not mean that he is the “most compassionate” of the Bodhisattvas. Karuna or Compassion is his “teaching focus.”

Today, with so many people asking about healing, a lot of people are re-focusing on visualizations, mantras, and meditations for Medicine Buddha, Tara, and other “healing” or “protective” emanations. There are benefits in terms of the visual symbols and mantras, but it is important to know that all Buddhas or Bodhisattvas embody the same energies. If you practice Avalokiteshvara, famous for Compassion (Karuna) you also practice with the universal healing energies.

The Great Eight

 

Maitreya Buddha, the Future Buddha.

To break down the “specialties” of the Eight Great Bodhisattvas — remembering that all embody the same universal qualities — you could summarize their characters this way:

  • Manjushri — embodies Buddha’s wisdom (prajna)
  • Avalokiteshvara — embodies Buddha’s compassion (Karuna)
  • Vajrapani — embodies Buddha’s power
  • Maitreya — embodies Buddha’s activity (He is also the “Future Buddha”)
  • Kshitigarbha — embodies Buddha’s merits and the “richness” derived from merits
  • Samantabhadra — embodies the aspirations of Buddha and the practice of prayers and offerings.
  • Sarvanivarana-Vishkambhin — embodies Buddha’s qualities and thereby purifies obstructions
  • Akashagarbha — embodies Buddha’s blessings and thereby purifies negativities.

Yet, Kshitigarbha fully embodies all of the others. To practice one Bodhisattva is to practice them all. All Bodhisattvas fully realize and exemplify: Wisdom, Compassion, Power, Activity, Merits, Aspirations, Qualities, and Blessings.

Khenpo Chöga: the 8 Immeasurable Qualities

According to Khenpo Chöga:

“Among the immeasurable qualities of the Buddha, eight of his foremost qualities manifest as the eight bodhisattvas:
1) the personification of the Buddha’s wisdom (Tib. ཡེ་ཤེས་ཀྱི་རང་གཟུགས་, Wyl. ye shes kyi rang gzugs) is Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī;
2) the personification of the Buddha’s compassion (Tib. སྙིང་རྗེའི་རང་གཟུགས་, Wyl. snying rje’i rang gzugs) appears as Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara;
3) the personification of the Buddha’s power or capacity (Tib. ནུས་པའི་རང་གཟུགས་, Wyl. nus pa’i rang gzugs) is Bodhisattva Vajrapāṇi;
4) the personification of the Buddha’s activity (Tib. ཕྲིན་ལས་, Wyl. phrin las) is Bodhisattva Maitreya;
5) the personification of the Buddha’s merit (Tib. བསོད་ནམས་རང་གཟུགས་, Wyl. bsod nams rang gzugs) arises as Bodhisattva Kṣitigarbha;
6) the personification of the Buddha’s qualities (Tib. ཡོན་ཏན་གྱི་རང་གཟུགས་, Wyl. yon tan gyi rang gzugs) appears as Bodhisattva Sarvanīvaraṇaviṣkambhī;
7) the personification of the Buddha’s blessings (Tib. བྱིན་རླབས་ཀྱི་རང་གཟུགས་, Wyl. byin rlabs kyi rang gzugs) arises as Bodhisattva Ākāśagarbha; and
8) the personification of the Buddha’s aspirations (Tib. སྨོན་ལམ་གྱི་རང་གཟུགས་, Wyl. smon lam gyi rang gzugs) is manifest as Bodhisattva Samantabhadra.”

Mantras — no permission needed

Manjushri’s mantra. (From VisibleMantra.com)

The mantras of the Eight Great Bodhisattvas can be practice by anyone. No permission or special transmission is required for the Great Ones (although it is always beneficial to receive transmission and instruction.) A very quick practice is to chant the mantras of whichever Bodhisattva you feel closest to — or the one who focuses on what you need most right now: wisdom, compassion, activity, and so on:

Wisdom mantra: Manjushri (Manjughosha)

Om Ah Ra Pa Cha Na Dhi

 

Compassion mantra: Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezig, Guanyin)

Om Mani Padme Hum

Tibetan Pronunciation: Om Mani Peme Hung

Beautifully chanted Om Mani Padme Hum sung by Yoko Dharma, must hear:

Credit: Visiblemantra.com

Power mantra (fierce activity or protection): Vajrapani

Om Vajrapani Hum

Tibetan pronunciation: Om Benza Pani Hung

Ripening your merits: Kshitigarbha

Or for help with anything related to “earth” such as “earthquake protection or with helping those who have passed away)

Oṃ Kṣitigarbha bodhisattva yaḥ

(pronounce “ku” on the k as in: Ku-shi-tee-gar-bah)

Or

Om Kshitigarbha T-haleng Hum

To obtain blessings: Akashagarbha

Oṃ vajra ratna oṃ trāḥ svāhā

Loving Kindness and activity of the Buddha: Maitreya

Oṃ maitri mahāmaitri maitriye svāhā

[For more on each Bodhisattva see the end of this feature.]

 

Dhyani Bodhisattvas

The fearsome power of great Vajrapani, who is always ready to “beat down” the obstacles to our practice.

Three of the Great Bodhisattvas are also “Dhyani Bodhisattvas) — meaning they are the spiritual sons specifically of one of the Dhyani Buddhas. [For a feature on the Five Buddhas, see>>]

The spiritual son of Amitabha Padma (Lotus) Buddha in the West is Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezig in Tibetan, Kuanyin or Kanon in other traditions). Samantabhadra is the Dhyani Bodhisattva (son) of Vairochana. The spiritual son of Akshobya is Vajrapani, exemplified in the Vajra. This is beautifully highlighted in the story of Vajrapani and his thunderbolt, hovering over the head of the prideful Brahmin: [For a full feature on Vajprani, see>> ]

“And at that moment Vajrapani holding up a huge vajra, flaming, ablaze and glowing, up in the sky just above Ambattha was thinking, “If this young man does not answer a proper question put to him by the Blessed Lord by the third time of asking, I’ll split his head into seven pieces!” The Lord saw Vajrapani, and so did Ambattha. And at the sight, Ambattha was terrified and unnerved, his hairs stood on end, and he sought protection, shelter, and safety from the Lord. Crouching down close to the Lord.”

Clearly, Vajrapani exemplifies ferocious, wrathful activity. He is famously known as the “protector of Shakyamuni Buddha.”

Practicing the Bodhisattvas

A beautiful thangka of Avalokiteshvara, Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion, by Jampay Dorje. It is available as a print on his website>>

Although in times of crisis, we may turn to the “specialists” — for instance, protection from Vajrapani — generally we meditate and honor the Bodhisattvas from our teaching lineage. If you have no teacher, of course, you can do no wrong — all of the Bodhisattvas are Enlightened examples for our practice and require no permission or transmissions.

You might choose to focus on Manjushri if you seek Wisdom, or Vajrapani if you need “energy and power” for protection, but practicing One of these is the same as practicing All. A key understanding of Shunyata is the concept of Oneness. [For a feature on Shunyata or Oneness/Emptiness, see>>]

We may visualize various emanations of Buddha Enlightenment, and — provided they are fully Enlightened manifestations — take refuge in them. Taking refuge and focusing on Vajrapani is already a complete practice, but, with an emphasis on “activity.” However, someone who practices Manjushri daily, taps into the very same “active principle. It is a matter of your own emphasis.

Aspects within aspects

In Vajrayana, when you choose a Yidam as “heart deity” for practice, you understand that all Yidams are One and all Yidams are fully Enlightened. You choose a heart deity as a skillful means. You choose the aspect you most need to “work on.” For instance, if I have anger issues, I might choose to work with Vajrapani — to learn how to use my fierceness in a meritorious way. If I lack compassion, I might choose to work with Avalokiteshvara.

Just to make things a little more interesting — again a practice of skillful means — each of the Bodhisattvas has many, many emanations. Vajrapani isn’t the only wrathful one. Avalokiteshvara manifests in many fierce forms, including great Black Mahakala. Manjushri manifests as, arguably, the most wrathful of all Yidams, Yamantaka (the foe of Death itself!) [For a feature on Yamantaka, see>>] He also manifests as the healer in Black Manjushri. [For a feature on Black Manjushri, see>>] This is because wisdom can be found in anger and fierceness, as much as in gentle contemplation.

It’s again a matter of focus. Yamantaka is none other than Manjushri. Black Mahakala is none other than Avalokiteshvara.

Manjushri — personifying wisdom (Prajna)

Orange Manjushri with his sword of wisdom that “cuts through delusions.”

One of the “superstars” of the Eight Great Bodhisattvas, Manjushri personifies one of the two wings of Enlightenment: wisdom. [The two wings are Prajna and Karuna: wisdom and compassion.] His name literally translates as “Gentle Glory.”Sometimes he is called Manjughosha, which means “Gentle Voice.”

Sutra references

A beautiful thangka of Lord Manjushri by Jampay Dorje. See our full interview with this great modern Thangka artist>>

He is found in numerous Sutras, notably: Vimalakirti-nirdesha Sutra, Flower Garland Sutra, Prajnaparamita Sutras.

There are many types of wisdom (also known as the “cognitions”) — specifically five, as indicated by the Five Great Buddha Families — although Manjushri is the spiritual son of Akshobya — with the family focus of “ with a focus on the wisdom of “mirror-like pristine awareness” or Ādarśa-jñāna in Sanskrit. This “family” focuses on the “Skanda” of Consciousness and the “Poison” of Anger. [For more on this, see>> ]

Manjushri’s special position

Manjushri is also considered the male aspect of Prajnaparamita — the glorious Goddess emanation of Wisdom (in the same way that Tara is sometimes considered an emanation of Avalokiteshvara). He holds in his left hand, on a lotus, the sacred Prajnaparamita Sutra, distilling the ultimate wisdom of Shunyata. In his right hand is the famous “sword of Wisdom.”

Manjushri appears in numerous sutras, at the feet of Buddha as a disciple, Yet, at the same time, he appears as a fully Enlightened Buddha himself. He is considered an aspect of both Akshobya and Prajnaparamita. He has numerous emanations, too many to list, but including the Vajra Terrifier Vajrabhairava (Yamantaka), Black Manjushri, and dozens more. Each skillful emanation represents a different aspect or practice of wisdom. [For more on Manjushri, see >>]

His main mantra

Manjushri’s great mantra is nicknamed Arapachana Mantra. as it contains the Sanskrit syllables A Ra Pa Cha Na. By adding the Om and the seed syllable of Manjushri — Dhi — you have the full mantra. Anyone may chant.

Om Ah Ra Pa Cha Na Dhi

Avalokiteshvara

Some of the many faces of compassion. From top left to right then bottom left to right: Hayagriva Vajrayogini (Vajra Varahi); 4-armed Chenrezig; Guanyin; Red Chenrezig Yabyum; White Mahakala; Black Mahakala; 1000-armed Chenrezig.

The Compassionate One, “He who hears the cries of the world” is known by many names, and is universally popular. In Tibet, he is Chenrezig. In some traditions, She is Guan Yin (Kuanyin) or Kanon. Avalokiteshvara’s mantra is arguably the most famous mantra in the world: Om Mani Padme Hum.

Sutra references

Avalokiteshvara is found in many sutras, including Heart Sutra, Lotus of the Good Law Sutra
Avalokiteshvara, like Manjushri, has countless emanations, representing various aspects of compassion. In legend, again symbolic, Tara rose from the tears of Chenrezig when He despaired of saving all the suffering sentient beings. Like an action-hero, she swept into action and became the “activity of compassion.”

Mantra

Om Mani Padme Hum

Tibetan Pronunciation: Om Mani Peme Hung

Many forms and faces

Compassion can have many “flavors”, reflected in the many aspects of Chenrezig: the ferocious protective compassion of an angry mother or father, the gentle hand-holding friend, or even the heroic action hero saving lives. He emanates in ferocious forms, such as Mahakala, and esoteric forms, such as 1000-armed Avalokiteshvara. He, is the spiritual “son” of Amitabha Buddha, Lord of the West, whose Pureland is open to any who call out His name. [For a full feature on “The Many Faces of Avalokiteshvara” see>>]

Vajrapani

Wrathful Vajrapani surrounded by wisdom flames. In both wrathful and peaceful forms he is irresistibly powerful.

Wrathful Vajrapani surrounded by wisdom flames. In both wrathful and peaceful forms he is irresistibly powerful.

The “Powerful One” makes his appearance even in the early Pali Suttas, notably as the protector of Shakyamuni Buddha. He is one of the eight great “heart sons” of the Buddha. (Tibetan: chag na dor je. English: the Vajra Holder.) [For a full story on Vajrapani, see>>]

In Tibetan practice he is normally wrathful, known as Guhyapati – ‘the Lord of Secrets.’ (Sangdag Chagna Dorje g.sang bdag phyag na rdo rje.) It is Vajrapani who protects and guards the sacred texts.

Mantra

Om Vajrapani Hum

Tibetan pronunciation: Om Benza Pani Hung

Tantric forms

According to Himilayan Art: “The two wrathful forms of Vajrapani known as the Sutra Tradition (do lug) and the Nilambhara (dro zang lug), each with one face and two hands, do not have skull crowns or wrathful ornaments such as the fifty freshly severed heads. They do however wear the eight races of nagas depicted as snakes – bracelets, anklets, etc. Mahachakra Vajrapani is sometimes depicted with a skull crown and at other times shown with a jeweled crown. Almost all of the other wrathful forms of Vajrapani have the same fearsome regalia as typical of wrathful Tantric deities such as Vajrabhairava, Vajrakila, Mahakala and the like. The various forms of Vajrapani as a meditational deity are derived from the textual sources of the early Tantras.” [1]

Maitreya — the Future Buddha

Maitreya is the bodhisattva of loving kindness — his name translates as “love” in English, cham pa in Tibetan. He currently resides in Tushita Heaven, ready to be born into the earthly realms as the next Buddha.

Tibetan: རྒྱལ་བ་བྱམས་པ། Chinese: 弥勒佛

Mantra

Oṃ maitri mahāmaitri maitriye svāhā

Kshitigarbha

Kshitigarbha has been saving sentient beings — including beings suffering in the “hell realms” — for countless years.

The “Earth Store Bodhisattva” (Jizo, Gizo) appears in the sutra of the same name. Kshitigarbha is held in high reverence especially all over Asia, known for the famous story of his heroic rescues of suffering beings in the hell realms.
His main sutra, Kshitigarbha Bodhisattva Purvapravidhana Sutra. In Tantra he appears in the Kalachakra mandala of 634 deities, along with the Guhyasamaja mandala (in the east, standing beside Maitreya.) He is also part of the Vajrasattva mandala, Vajradhatu mandala and many more.

Precious thangka of Kshitigarbha and the “ten kings of hell.” Kshitigarbha (Jizo) saved countless beings from suffering.

“…Kshitigarbha is yellow with a yellow upper garment, peaceful eyes, red at the sides, [and] a headdress garland of blue flowers. The right hand holds a fruit and the left a jewel above a lotus [flower].” (Jonang Taranata, yi dam rgya mtsho’i sgrub thabs rin chen ‘byung gnas, folio 506-507).

He also appears white in colour: “…Arya Kshitigarbha, white in colour, with one face, peaceful in appearance. With two hands the right holds to the heart a precious seed. The left [hand holds] a bell turned up [at the waist], resplendent and seated in a relaxed posture.” (Loter Wangpo, sgrub thabs kun tus, volume 11, folio 71). [3]

Practice and mantra

His practice is considered to be effective against “natural disasters” as he is associated with the earth. His mantras are:

Oṃ Kṣitigarbha bodhisattva yaḥ

(prounce the “ku” on the k as in: Ku-shi-tee-gar-bah)

Or

Om Kshitigarbha T-haleng Hum

Samantabhadra

Samantabhadra’s name literally translates as “Universal Worthy”), is famous for his ten great vows.

Sutra references

Samantabhadra appears in several sutras, including: Lotus of the Good Law Sutra, Flower Garland Sutra.

In the Āvataṃsaka-sūtra, Samantabhadra Bodhisattva made ten great vows in his path to full Buddhahood:

  • To pay homage and respect to all Buddhas.
  • To praise the Thus Come One-Tathagata.
  • To make abundant offerings. (e.g. give generously)
  • To repent misdeeds and evil karmas.
  • To rejoice in others’ merits and virtues.
  • To request the Buddhas to continue teaching.
  • To request the Buddhas to remain in the world.
  • To follow the teachings of the Buddhas at all times.
  • To accommodate and benefit all living beings.
  • To transfer all merits and virtues to benefit all beings.

Vows of the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra video:

Akashagarbha

Akashagarbha

Most prominently mentioned in the Womb of Space Sutra, the Akashagarbha Sutra, Akashagarbha typically appears as Blue, with his attendant holding a sword. [See inset.] From Himilayan Art:
“His name means ‘nucleus of space’ and he is associated with wisdom and knowledge similar to Manjushri. Akashagarbha and Manjushri also share the same sword attribute. He is always depicted in peaceful (bodhisattva, deva) for and either blue or green in colour.” [2]

Nivarana-vishkambhin

Tibetan: སྒྲིབ་པ་རྣམ་པར་སེལ་བ། Chinese: 除诸障菩萨

Vajra and Bell and the Eight Great Ones

The Ghanta or Bell is never separated from its Vajra or Dorje. Both the Bell (shown) and Vajra contain endless symbolism. Holding the Dorje in the right hand symbolically connects us to our the Buddhas (and especially our own Yidam). Holding the Bell (Ghanta) is like cradling the entire mandala of the Yidam. The Bell is wisdom and emptiness. The Dorje represents means and compassion. For more detail (larger pictures) and a full feature on Bell and Dorje, see>>

We carry the eight great Bodhisattvas with us everywhere if we practice Vajrayana. The best-known symbol of Vajrayana Buddhism is the Bell and Dorje (Ghanta and Vajra). Vajrayana practitioners are never to be separated from their bell and Dorje — although many teachers explain this means your “internal” bell and Dorje. Regardless of physical or internal spiritual, the bell and vajra contain the entire mandala of Buddha Aspects. [For more on the Bell and Dorje, see>>]

The Eight petals on the lotus (found on both Dorje and bell) represent the eight great Bodhisattvas:

  • Kshitigarbha (East petal — east, the front petal of the lotus)
  • Maitreya (southeast)
  • Akashagarba (south)
  • Samantabhadra (southwest)
  • Avalokiteshvara (Chenrezig) (west)
  • Manjushri (northwest)
  • Vajrapani (north)
  • Sarva-nivarana-vishkambhim (northeast)

In addition, most bells have the wondrous arc and loops of jewels and pearls, which are also the symbols of the Eight Great Ones, and specifically stand for:

  • Wheel (east or front)
  • Uptala lotus (south east)
  • Wish Fulfilling Jewel or Ratna (south)
  • Wheel (south west)
  • Lotus (west)
  • Vajra (north west)
  • Wisdom sword (north)
  • Lotus (northeast)

Buddhist Tantra’s most iconic symbols Bell (representing Wisdom) and Vajra (Dorje, representing Compassion and Means.) The hanging pearls and the lotus leaves are symbols of the Great Bodhisattvas.

NOTES
[1] Hımılayan Art: Vajrapani page
[2] Himalayan Art: Akashagarbha
[3] Himalayan Art: Kshitigarbha

Lee-Clark-buddha-weekly-5

Lee Kane

Author | Buddha Weekly

Lee Kane is the editor of Buddha Weekly, since 2007. His main focuses as a writer are mindfulness techniques, meditation, Dharma and Sutra commentaries, Buddhist practices, international perspectives and traditions, Vajrayana, Mahayana, Zen. He also covers various events.
Lee also contributes as a writer to various other online magazines and blogs.

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