The Buddha is a unique spiritual leader in the history of mankind. Where others preached dogma or worked for a particular land or race of people, the Buddha’s compassion extended to all beings. Gods, rituals and the afterlife were not part of his philosophy; rather, his teachings were concerned with the here and now – a prescription for living by a code of ethics that would alleviate misery and ultimately lead to self-enlightenment.

A Bodhisattva is a Buddha-in-the-making, one who puts off attainment of nirvana in order to allay the suffering of his fellow beings. Can anyone become a Bodhisattva? Theoretically yes, and indeed, the term has been applied through eastern history to many renowned Buddhist teachers and rulers. In the Jataka Tales which recount the Buddha’s past lives, he often refers to himself as a Bodhisattva. Five Bodhisattvas are historically venerated in Tibetan Buddhism – Avalokitesvara, Manjusri, Tara, Vajrapani, and Samantabhadra.

This popular parable captures the essence of a Bodhisattva:

Three travelers in the desert were in desperate search of water. Seeing a high wall ahead, they hurried to it but could find no way to enter. One man climbed upon another’s shoulders to see what was behind the wall. He let out a whoop of delight and jumped in. The second one followed suit. The third man clambered up the wall with difficulty. Looking down, he saw a cool, verdant garden with fruit trees. Instead of following his companions, he jumped back into the desert to look for other wanderers and share with them, his discovery of the garden and how to reach it. Who do you think was the Bodhisattva among the three?

 

Avalokitesvara

Visit a Tibetan Buddhist temple and you cannot help being drawn to the expression of glowing serenity on the face of Avalokitesvara. He is the Bodhisattva of Compassion, whose name means “The Lord Who Hears the Cries of Mankind”.

Mahayana texts say that Avalokitesvara vowed to hear the prayers of all beings needing spiritual succor and to delay his own nirvana until all sentient beings in the world were liberated from their earthly suffering. In striving towards this stupendous task, Avalokitesvara’s head split into eleven pieces. Amitabha Buddha then gave him eleven heads to accommodate his ever-increasing understanding of sufferers.  When Avalokitesvara set forth to relieve them, his two arms were inadequate for the task. Amitabha then gave him a thousand arms. This story finds expression in Buddhist iconography – the Bao’en temple in Sichuan, China has a superb Ming era statue of a 1000-armed Avalokitesvara.

In Buddhist art, the gentle Avalokitesvara assumes male or female form. Tibetans call him Chenrezig and believe that the Dalai Lama is his current reincarnation.

Avalokitesvara is associated with the widely practiced mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum”. This six-syllable utterance is believed to encapsulate all of the Buddha’s teachings. It is not easily translatable; what matters is that this mantra needs no initiation and can be practiced by anyone.

 

Manjusri

Manjusri is a male bodhisattva, who is worshipped as a deity. In Buddhist iconography, he is often shown seated on a lotus or lion, with a blazing sword in one hand and a scroll in the other. The sword symbolizes his insight or wisdom, which, when wielded, can cut through the bonds of ignorance and material desires that lead to human misery. The scripture is the Prajnaparamita, which represents his attainment of enlightenment. In one school of Tibetan Buddhism, Manjusri is depicted as a wrathful deity also known as Yamantaka or “Slayer of Death”.

The Manjusri mantra is “Om A Ra Pa Cha Na Dhīh”; chanting this is said to sharpen one’s memory, enhance intellectual skills, writing and debating abilities.

 

Green Tara, White Tara

Tara was born out of the tears of Avalokitesvara. A lake formed as he wept upon seeing the suffering of others. From this sprang a lotus which unfolded to reveal Tara. She is worshipped as Avalokitesvara’s consort.

Tara embodies the sacred feminine in Buddhism. Her presence in Buddhism can be traced back to the 6th century CE, prior to which there were no female bodhisattvas.

Why two Taras? Tibet’s first Buddhist King, Srong-brtsan-sgam-po had two wives, from Imperial China and Nepal. These virtuous queens are thought to have inspired the notion of two incarnations.

Green Tara is a youthful and sprightly figure; in Buddhism, her color represents energy and vigor. She sits in contemplative grace, with one limb ready to spring into action. She is quick to her followers’ rescue in times of difficulty, the one who will allay their fears and worries.

White Tara sits on a fully blooming lotus, symbolic of day. Her color stands for truth, integrity, and wisdom. She is maternal compassion incarnate. Buddhist iconography sometimes portrays her with seven eyes, evocative of her encompassing the vision of universal suffering. She removes obstacles in the path of her followers, especially ones which hinder spiritual practice.

Seated in the lotus position, White Tara exudes grace and serenity. In her left hand is a three-bloomed lotus plant. They represent the past, present Buddhas, Kashyapa and Sakyamuni and the yet to be born Buddha, Maitreya.

 

Samantabhadra

He is the Bodhisattva of Truth, a metaphoric representation of the abiding strength and goodness of Buddhist meditative practice. Samantabhadra is the guardian of all teachers of Dharma.

Samantabhadra features prominently in the Flower Garland Sutra of Mahayana Buddhism. In this text, the Buddha teaches that wisdom is not an end in itself; it exists in order to be practiced and acquires value only when it benefits the living. The Buddha also expounds on the ten vows that Samantabhadra undertook on his path to complete Buddhahood. These vows have become the cornerstone of Buddhist practice in East Asia. The tenth vow – to dedicate all virtues and merits earned through good deeds to other beings – is now an established Buddhist tradition. Samantabhadra is worshiped in Japan as the guardian of the Lotus Sutra.

As part of the “Sakyamuni Trinity”, Samantabhadra is depicted in Buddhist iconography astride a white elephant, to the right of Sakyamuni. In esoteric traditions, he is called Vajradhara or Visvabhadra, with varied attributes. Tantric schools consider him to be the Primordial Buddha – eternal, boundless and wise beyond human comprehension. Appropriately, paintings of Samantabhadra feature him in the nude with a deep blue body, suggestive of the limitless sky. Entwined around him is the white figure of Samantabhadri, his consort and the embodiment of the Great Mother. Their union is termed as yab-yum in Tibetan Buddhism, where the active, masculine figure represents karuna (compassion) and upaya (skilful method) and the passive, feminine form represents prajna (wisdom). These qualities are essential to attain enlightenment by seeing beyond the veils of illusion (Maya).

Chinese iconography sometimes depicts a feminized version of Samantabhadra sitting astride a twelve-tusked elephant and holding a lotus shaped parasol. It is sometimes believed that the white elephant which often features as Samantabhadra’s mount is the one that appeared in a dream to Queen Maya, prior to her giving birth to Gautama Buddha.

 

Vajrapani

It’s difficult to imagine that a fierce, three-eyed being, wild hair in a halo of flames and brandishing a thunderbolt and lasso could be a bodhisattva. But that’s what Vajrapani is, among the earliest bodhisattvas to be venerated.

Like Manjusri and Avalokitesvara, Vajrapani symbolizes an aspect of the Buddha, his tremendous power. The Vajra or thunderbolt in his hand is diamond hard. This is the strength of true enlightenment, which cuts through delusion, the root of our suffering. The lasso in his other hand is used to rein in demons.

Vajrapani is considered the protector of Buddha. The Pali Canon famously describes the legend of Ambatha, a Brahmin youth who insulted Sakyamuni’s lineage as being of a low caste. The Buddha then asked him if his mother was not a Sakya slave girl? Going against custom, Ambatha did not deign to answer. The Buddha repeated his question and Ambatha still remained silent. Sakyamuni reminded him that failure to answer a third time would invite death, with his head shattering into pieces. At this point, Vajrapani manifested above Buddha’s head, ready to hurl his thunderbolt. Terrified, he confessed to the truth. Buddhist texts hold that Vajrapani will protect any being following the Buddha’s path.

Vajrapani’s appearance sharply contrasts with the serene visages of other bodhisattvas. Like other Mahayana and Vajrayana deities he is often termed “wrathful”. It’s important though, to understand that they are not ”angry” in the mundane sense of the word; rather, their expression symbolizes the tremendous strength and lack of fear that comes from an awakened mind. Vajrapani’s power comes from actively engaging with the evil of delusion; those who are protected by him will understand that he is profoundly compassionate.