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Religion Library: Buddhism

Ultimate Reality and Divine Beings

Written by: Julia Hardy

Paradoxically, the Buddha himself became the first "god" of Buddhism. Building on a notion from the early texts that the Buddha had an "emanation body" that could perform miraculous deeds, in some Mahayana Sutras he is portrayed as a god only pretending to be a man in order to inspire humanity.

As Mahayana Buddhism developed, many bodhisattvas ("enlightened beings") and Cosmic Buddhas emerged. The prototype of the bodhisattva in the Theravada texts is Sumedha, who was said to have become the Buddha in his last lifetime. Sumedha aspired to enlightenment, but having seen the Buddha Dipamkara, he decided that he would take the long path over many lifetimes to become a Buddha himself so that he could someday lead others to enlightenment. Until he was reborn as Gautama, and became the Buddha, he was reborn for many eons as a bodhisattva, developing the necessary "perfections" for full Buddhahood.

Thus the notion of bodhisattvas and Buddhas other than Gautama pre-exists Mahayana, but both were rare, and the early texts taught that there was no need for more than one Buddha as long as the teachings of the current Buddha were remembered. Only with the Mahayana were the notions of multiple bodhisattvas and multiple Buddhas fully developed. In Mahayana Buddhism monks aspired to become bodhisattvas rather than arhats, to bring enlightenment to all beings. Eventually the notion that all beings had Buddha within emerged, and some texts encouraged all Buddhists to aspire to become bodhisattvas.

A number of bodhisattvas were written about in the Mahayana texts and many have been embraced by popular culture. The monastic aspiration to become a bodhisattva gave way to the popular idea that one could call upon bodhisattvas for help. They became saviors, not only in spiritual realms, but also in the everyday world. For example, Avalokitesvara could, if one called out his name, rescue people from fires, floods, wild animals, and all sorts of dangers.

As Buddhism moved into China, Avalokitesvara changed gender and became female, and was known as Guanyin in China, Kannon in Japan. Many stories are told about her miraculous powers. Eventually multiple forms of Guanyin were revealed with different appearances and different specific abilities, such as healing illness or protecting pregnant women. One of the most striking forms is the thousand-armed Guanyin, each hand of which holds a different sacred implement.

Maitreya, the Buddha to come, is frequently seen represented in small good luck statues with a round tummy and laughing face. Jizo Bodhisattva is particularly popular in Japan as a protector of children. Amitabha is the Buddha of the Pure Land; one who calls his name at the moment of death will be instantly transported there, never to be reborn again. These are among thousands of deities worshipped in Buddhist countries today. Some are recognizable in form and iconography as having been in the Hindu pantheon; others are indigenous deities that have been transformed.

Study Questions:
1.      Describe the role of creation and destruction in samsara.
2.     Who are the “saviors” of Buddhism?
3.     How has art enhanced our understanding of Buddhist beliefs?