Cultures & Traditions

Bodhisattvas

In Theravada ("Doctrine of the Elders") Buddhism, the historical Buddha is central; however, in traditions associated with Mahayana ("Great Vehicle") Buddhism and Vajrayana ("Thunderbolt vehicle") Buddhism, he is accompanied by other buddhas and bodhisattvas. These include buddhas who preceded Shakyamuni and, in theory, are infinite in number. A bodhisattva is one on the path towards buddhahood who has put off enlightenment to help others. Though Buddhism has been incorporated into and shaped by distinct cultures producing various schools of thought, there are pan-Buddhist bodhisattvas that appear in different forms and under different names throughout the diverse cultures.

According to tradition, the Buddha attained enlightenment by having remained a bodhisattva for several lifetimes, during which he perfected various virtues and meditations. The events of the Buddha’s previous lives are told in the avadāna and jātaka stories, many of which are animal fables, some perhaps older than Buddhism. Other bodhisattvas include Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future who is thought to reveal the completion of the historical Buddha's teaching; Avalokiteshvara, the bodhisattva of perfect compassion; Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom; and Tara, the most important female bodhisattva, also associated with compassion.

Adapted from

  • A. Lesovsky, "Curatorial Public," 3 May 2013. File on TAZ

  • Dallas Museum of Art: A Guide to the Collection, ed. Bonnie Pitman (Dallas: Dallas Museum of Art; New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012), 103.