Sakyamuni Buddha at Bodhgaya

Buddhists believe that Buddhas have appeared throughout history, and will continue appearing, some say, at a rate of about one Buddha every 5,000 years. The Buddha that is worshiped is believed by some to be the 24th Buddha in the present state of the world, a period of history that spans about 120,000 years. Others say he is the forth Buddha or the 7th or the 26th .

The Buddha defines a "Buddha" as “being a man who has first enlightened himself and will thereafter enlighten others.” By some reckonings Dipankara was the First Buddha, appearing innumerable aeons ago. By other reckonings Vipassin was the first, appearing 91 aeons ago. Some believe that when his teachings fall into decline, as inevitably they will, the future Buddha Maitreya will appear after a long wait in the world of the gods of delight.

The term "Buddha" can be translated as “the Enlightened One”, “the One Who Knows'” or "Enlightened Person." 'The Buddha' is not a personal name but a title. The Buddha — Guatama Siddhartha — was not born the Buddha but became the Buddha through his realisation of full and perfect Enlightenment. This state is also known as Nirvana (Sanskrit) or Nibbana (Pali) and occurs when a person sees and understands the true nature of all things. As a result, all their greed, hatred and delusion is extinguished, which in turn means that there will be no more re-birth.

At least in theory, anyone can become a Buddha. But when we say "the Buddha," unless otherwise specified, the term refers to the founder of Buddhism as a religion — Guatama Siddhartha, sometimes also called "the Historical Buddha." After years of meditating and wandering, he apparently became "enlightened" and was recognized as such by others who asked him to guide them to enlightenment as well. His explanations became the core of Buddhist teachings. [Source: “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University *~*]

Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net ; Religious Tolerance Page ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive ; Introduction to Buddhism ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA ; View on Buddhism ; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review ; BBC - Religion: Buddhism ; Buddhist Centre; A sketch of the Buddha's Life ; What Was The Buddha Like? by Ven S. Dhammika ; Jataka Tales (Stories About Buddha) ; Illustrated Jataka Tales and Buddhist stories ; Buddhist Tales ; Arahants, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas by Bhikkhu Bodhi ; Victoria and Albert Museum ; Buddhist Art: Victoria and Albert Museum ; Buddhist Symbols ; Wikipedia article on Buddhist Art Wikipedia ; Guimet Museum in Paris ; Buddhist Artwork ; Asian Art at the British Museum ; Buddhism and Buddhist Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art ; Buddhist Art Huntington Archives Buddhist Art ; Buddhist Art Resources ; Buddhist Art, Smithsonian

Present, Past and Future Buddha Images

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Chinese Tang-era Buddha
Sakya Thukpa (Sakaymuni) is the historical Buddha, who lived in Nepal in the 5th century B.C. He has blue hair and a halo of enlightenment around his head. He is always depicted in a sitting position, with his legs crossed in the lotus position and has 32 marks on his body, including a dot between his eyes, the Wheel of Law on the soles of his feet, and bump on the top of his head. Manifesting the “witness” mudra, he holds a begging bowl in his left hand and touches the earth with his right hand. He is often flanked by two bodhisattvas. [The name before the parenthesis is Tibetan, the name in parenthesis is Sanskrit]

Marmedze (Dipamkara) is the Past Buddha. He preceded the historical Buddha and spent 100,000 years on earth. His hands are pictured in the “protection” mudra and he is often pictured with the Present and Future Buddha.

Jampa (Maitreya) is the Future Buddha. He is currently in the form of a bodhisattva and is waiting for his chance to return to earth, 4000 years after the death of Sakaymuni. He is usually seated, with a scarf around his waist, his legs hanging down and his hands by his chest in the turning of the Wheel of Law

It said the Maitrey, the Future Buddha, will appear around 30,000 years from now. At present Maitreya is believed to reside in the Tutshita. heaven, awaiting his last rebirth when the time is ripe. His name is derived from mitra, 'friend.' Friendliness is a basic Buddhist virtue, somewhat like Christian love.

Other Tibetan Buddha Images

Amitabha Opagme (Amitabha) is the Buddha of Infinite Light. He resides in the “pure land of the west,” where he looks after people on their journey to nirvana, and is regarded as the original being from which the Panchen Lama was reincarnated. He is red. His hands are held together on his lap with a begging bowl in the “meditation” mudra.

Dhyani Buddhas, or the five Contemplation Buddhas---Amitabha (red), Vairocana, Akshobhya (white), Ratnasambhava (yellow) and Amoghasiddhi (green) “are major focuses of meditation. Also known as the five Jinas (eminent ones), or dhyani-Buddha, they control the different regions of paradise where Buddhists may be reborn. Each is a different color and has different symbols and mudras associated with it.

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Tsepame (Amitayus) is the Buddha of Longevity. Like Opagme, he is red and his hands are pictured in the “meditation” mudra, but he holds a vase containing the nectar of immortality. The Medicine Buddha (Menlha) holds a medicine bowl in his left hand and herbs in his right hand. He is often depicted in a group of eight Buddhas.

These Buddhas have different manifestations. The many-headed Hevajra is a wrathful manifestation of Akshobhya (the Imperturbable Buddha). Symbolizing the transformation of the poisons such as anger, he is often depicted in an embrace with his consort Nairatmya. Their passionate embrace represents the enlightened state that come from the union of wisdom and compassion. Hevajra is often shown stomping his own image, showing the defeat of egoism.

Prophecy Concerning Maitreya, the Future Buddha

The section in the 'Maitreyavyakarana' on “The Prophecy Concerning Maitreya, the Future Buddha” goes: “ Sariputra, the great general of the doctrine, most wise and resplendent, from compassion for the world asked the Lord: 'Some time ago you have spoken to us of the future Buddha, who will lead the world at a future period, and who will bear the name of Maitreya. I would now wish to hear more about his powers and miraculous gifts. Tell me, 0 best of men, about them !' [Source: Translation by Edward Conze, in his “Buddhist Scriptures” (Penguin Books, 1959), pp. 238-42, Eliade Page website]

“The Lord replied: 'At that time, the ocean 'will lose much of its water, and there will be much less of it than now. In consequence a world-ruler will have no difficulties in passing across it. India, this island of Jambu, will be quite flat everywhere, it will measure ten thousand leagues, and all men will have the privilege of living on it. It will have innumerable inhabitants, who will commit no crimes or evil deeds, but will take pleasure in doing good. The soil will then be free from thorns, even, and covered with a fresh green growth of grass; when one jumps on it, it gives way, and becomes soft like the leaves of the cotton tree. It has a delicious scent, and tasty rice grows on it, without any work. Rich silken, and other, fabrics of various colours shoot forth from the trees. The trees will bear leaves, flowers, and fruits simultaneously; they are as high as the voice can reach and they last for eight myriads of years. Human beings are then without any blemishes, moral offences are unknown among them, and they are full of zest and joy. Their bodies are very large and their skin has a fine hue. Their strength is quite extraordinary. Three kinds of illness only are known-people must relieve their bowels, they must eat, they must get old. Only when five hundred years old do the women marry.

'The city of Ketumati will at that time be the capital. In it will reside the world-ruler, Shankha by name, who will rule over the earth up to the confines of the ocean; and he will make the Dharma prevail. He will be a great hero, raised to his station by the force of hundreds of meritorious deeds. His spiritual adviser will be a Brahmin, Subrahinana by name, a very learned man, well versed in the four Vedas, and steeped in all the lore of the Brahamins. And that Brahman will have a wife, called Brahmavati, beautiful, attractive, handsome, and renowned.

Tibetan Maitreya

'Maitreya, the best of men, will then leave the Tushita heavens, and go for his last rebirth into the womb of that woman. For ten whole months she will carry about his radiant body. Then she will go to a grove full of beautiful flowers, and there, neither seated nor lying down, but standing up, holding on to the branch of a tree, she will give birth to Maitreya. He, supreme among men, will emerge from her right side, as the sun shines forth when it has prevailed over a bank of clouds. No more polluted by the impurities of the womb than a lotus by drops of water, he will fill this entire Triple world with his splendour. As soon as he is born he will walk seven steps forward, and where he puts down his feet a jewel or a lotus will spring up. He will raise his eyes to the ten directions, and ill speak these words: "This is my last birth. There will be no rebirth after this one. Never will I come back here, but, all pure, I shall win Nirvana!"

'And when his father sees that his son has the thirty-two marks of a superman, and considers their implications in the light of the holy mantras, he will be filled with joy, for he will know that, as the mantras show, two ways are open to his son: he will either be a universal monarch, or a supreme Buddha. But as Maitreya grows up, the Dharma will increasingly take possession of him, and he will reflect that all that lives is bound to suffer. He will have a heavenly voice which reaches far; his skin will have a golden hue, a great splendour will radiate from his body, his chest will be broad, his limbs well developed, and his eyes will be like lotus petals. His body is eighty cubits high, and twenty cubits broad. He will have a retinue of 84,000 persons, whom he will instruct in the mantras. With this retinue he Will one day go forth into the homeless life. A Dragon tree will then be the tree under which he will win enlightenment; its branches rise up to fifty leagues, and its foliage spreads far and wide over six Kos. Underneath it Maitreya, the best of men, will attain enlightenment- there can be no doubt on that. And he will win his enlightenment the very same day that he has gone forth into the homeless life.

'And then, a supreme sage, he will with a perfect voice preach the true Dharma, which is auspicious and removes all ill, i.e. the fact of ill, the origination of ill, the transcending of ill, and the holy eightfold path which brings security and leads to Nirvana. He will explain the four Truths, because he has seen that generation, in faith, ready for them, and those who have listened to his Dharma will thereupon make progress in the religion. They will be assembled in a park full of beautiful flowers, and his assembly will extend over a hundred leagues. Under Maitreya's guidance, hundreds of thousands of living beings shall enter upon a religious life.

Maitreya from India

'And thereupon Maitreya, the compassionate teacher, surveys those who have gathered around him, and speaks to them as follows: "Shakyamuni has seen all of you, he, the best of sages, the saviour, the world's true protector, the repository of the true Dharma. It was he who has set you on the path to deliverance, but before you could finally win it you have had to wait for my teaching. It is because you have worshipped Shakyamuni with parasols, banners, flags, perfumes, garlands, and unguents that you have arrived here to hear my teaching. It is because you have offered to the shrines of Shakyamuni unguents of sandalwood, or powdered saffron, that you have -arrived here to hear my teaching. It is because you have always gone for refuge to the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Samgha, that you have arrived here to hear my teaching. It is because, in Shakyamuni's dispensation, you have undertaken to observe the moral precepts, and have actually done so, that you have arrived here to hear my teaching. It is because you have given gifts to the monks-robes, drink, food, and many kinds of medicines-that you have arrived here to hear my teaching. It is because you have always observed the sabbath days that you have arrived here to hear my teaching.". . .

'For 60,000 years Maitreya, the best of men, will preach the true Dharma, which is compassionate towards all living beings. And when he has disciplined in his true Dharma hundreds and hundreds of millions of living beings, then that leader will at last enter Nirvana. And after the great sage has entered Nirvana, his true Dharma still endures for another ten thousand years. Raise therefore your thoughts in faith to Shakyamuni, the Conqueror! For then you shall see Maitreya, the perfect Buddha, the best of men! Whose soul could be so dark that it would not be lit up with a serene faith when he hears these wonderful things, so potent of future good! Those therefore who long for spiritual greatness, let then, show respect to the true Dharma, let them be mindful of the religion of the Buddhas!'”


Bodhisattvas are being who have progressed along the path to perfect enlightenment and salvation. Because they are so spiritually advanced, and as part of their spiritual work, they choose to convey religious assistance to devout but ordinary mortals. They are sort of like the equivalent of Buddhist "saints" and are especially important in Mahayana Buddhism. To Mahayana Buddhists they are "near Buddhas" or “enlightened persons” on the verge of nirvana who purposely stopped short of attaining it, so, like Buddha, they could teach their method to others and help humanity move towards enlightenment. Bodhi means “enlightenment” and sattva means “being.”

Bodhisattvas remain in close contact with imperfect humans and retain many of their human qualities. The difference between them and mere mortals is that they don’t let these qualities pollute their spiritual essence. Bodhisattvas are ranked above gods in some cosmological schemes. According to the Sukhavativyuha, "Bodhisattvas are ten times more beautiful than devas, who are ten times more beautiful than humans."

Japanese Bodhisattva
Bodhisattvas are especially important to Mahayana Buddhists. Mahayana temples often feature images of the Bodhisattvas Maitreya and Amitabha. Maitreya, often portrayed as fat and happy, is supposed to become a Buddha 25,000 years after the death of Gautama. Amitabha, the Buddhist equivalent of a savior, who helps followers get into "heaven." Mahayana Buddhists believe that anyone can be a Bodhisattvas. Buddhist ascetics who live in caves and renounce all worldly possessions and spend their lives begging and meditating are people aspiring to Bodhisattvas.

The conceptions of these Bodhisattvas, often show foreign, non-Indian elements, particularly from Iran. Many of them are worshiped with the same level of reverence as The Buddha himself. In some cases the worship of certain Bodhisattvas preceded the worship of The Buddha.

Vidya Dehejia, a professor at Columbia University, wrote: “ Bodhisattvas became exceedingly important in the Buddhism of the Himalayan regions of Kashmir, Nepal, and Tibet and in the art of Southeast Asia. Each is recognized by his identifying attributes. Thus Avalokiteshvara (the Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion) carries a lotus and has a small Buddha image adorning his crown, and the Bodhisattva Maitreya (the Buddha of the Future) carries a water vessel and has a stupa in his crown. Goddesses, too, were introduced into this later Buddhism, and Tara, who holds a lotus, is one of the most deeply venerated. [Source: Vidya Dehejia, Department of Art History and Archaeology, Columbia University Metropolitan Museum of Art]

Becoming a Bodhisattva

The Buddha said: "Some is called a Bodhisattva if he is certain to become a Buddha...This change from an ordinary being to a Bodhi-being takes place when his mind has reached the stage when it can no longer turn back on enlightenment. Also he has gained the five advantages; he is no more reborn in the states of woe, but always, among gods and man; he is never born in poor or low-class families; he is always male, and never a woman; he is always well-built and free from physical defects; he can remember his past lives, and no more forgets them again."

The full enlightenment takes place gradually over three "incalculable aeons." "In the first incalculable aeon he does not yet know whether he will become a Buddha or not; in the second he knows he will be a Buddha, but does not dare say it openly; in the third he knows for certain that one day he will be a Buddha, and fearlessly proclaims the fact to the world." One scholar calculated an "incalculable aeon" to be 1 followed by 252,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 kilometers of zeros, allowing that one "0" occupied a length of .001 meter.

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5th century Bodhisattva
from Yungang, China
The Mahayana Buddhists define ten stages which a Bodhisattvas must pass through to reach Buddhahood. Nagajura, the greatest Mahayana thinker, reached only the first stage. The first stage corresponds to levels of perfection. At stage six nirvana is attainable but rejected . From then on the Bodhisattvas is reborn miraculously and possesses special powers that he uses to help mankind. In the seventh stage he gains “sovereignty” over the world and enters the realm of celestial Bodhisattvas as the “Crown Prince” of Dharma.

The Bodhisattvas are routinely tempted, confused and attacked by the forces of darkness and evil and are often helped by gods, goddess and other celestial beings. The implication is that through the nearness to the Enlightenment they have became more mystical and are more susceptible to magic and celestial influences.

Bodhisattva Ideal

The Bodhisattva ideal is an important concept in Mahayana Buddhism. It describes the Christian-like willingness of Bodhisattvas to sacrifice themselves for the benefit of others to show them the way to enlightenment. The best example of the Bodhisattva ideal comes from The Buddha himself. He experienced the enlightenment and then spent 45 years teaching others how to do the same.

The Bodhisattva ideal begins with the premise of compassion for all living things buttressed by the belief that the gift of Buddha’s teaching is the only thing of true value one person can offer someone and to offer it in a selfless way one must be able to achieve enlightenment themselves. The sentiment is summed up with the famous Buddhist axiom: “Can there be bliss when all that lives must suffer? Shalt thou be saved and hear the whole world cry?”

Enlightenment itself is an issue. In the traditional Indian sense, nirvana was something that was so overpowering it sort swallowed up those who experienced it and they were never heard from again. From the Mahayana point of view this is selfish. Mahayana Buddhists look down on Theravada Buddhist monks’some of them The Buddha’s own disciplines---who experienced enlightenment and disappeared into the netherworld, Mahayana Buddhists say, looking down on the affairs of humans as trifling.

Bodhisattvas that attain the status of celestial Bodhisattvas often became the objects of religious worship. They have names and spiritual and visible attributes. The include Avalokitesvara and many other beings also regarded as gods. See Gods

Bodhisattva's Infinite Compassion

'Shikshasamuccaya,' 280-2 on “The Bodhisattva's Infinite Compassion” in the 'Vajradhvaha-sutra' goes: “A Bodhisattva resolves: I take upon myself the burden of all suffering. I am resolved to do so, I will endure it. I do not turn or run away, do not tremble, am not terrified, nor afraid, do not turn back or despond. And why? At all costs I must bear the burdens of all beings. In that I do not follow my own inclinations. I have made the vow to save all beings. All beings I must set free. The whole world of living beings I must rescue, from the terrors of birth, of old age, of sickness, of death and rebirth, of all kinds of moral offence, of all states of woe, of the whole cycle of birth-and-death, of the jungle of false views, of the loss of wholesome dharmas, of the concomitants of ignorance, from all these terrors I must rescue all beings. [Source: Edward Conze, in Conze, et al., Buddhist Texts through the Ages (Oxford: Bruno Cassirer, 1954), Eliade Page website]

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Bodhidma, founder of Zen
“I walk so that the kingdom of unsurpassed cognition is built up for all beings. My endeavours do not merely aim at my own deliverance. For with the help of the boat of the thought of all-knowledge, I must rescue all these beings from the stream of Samsara, which is so difficult to cross, I must pull them back from the great precipice, I must free them from all calamities, I must ferry them across the stream of Samsara. I myself must grapple with the whole mass of suffering of all beings. To the limit of my endurance I will experience in all the states of woe, found in any world system, all the abodes of suffering. And I must not cheat all beings out of my store of merit, I am resolved to abide in each single state of woe for numberless aeons; and so I will help all beings to freedom, in all the states of woe that may be found in any world system whatsoever.

“And why? Because it is surely better that I alone should be in pain than that all these beings should fall into the states of woe. There I must give myself away as a pawn through which the whole world is redeemed from the terrors of the hells, of animal birth, of the world of Yama, and with this my own body I must experience, for the sake of all beings, the whole mass of all painful feelings. And on behalf of all beings I give surety for all beings, and in doing so I speak truthfully, am trustworthy, and do not go back on my word. I must not abandon all beings.

“And why? There has arisen in me the will to win all-knowledge, with all beings for its object, that is to say, for the purpose of setting free the entire world of beings. And I have not set out for the supreme enlightenment from a desire for delights, not because I hope to experience the delights of the five-sense qualities, or because I wish to indulge in the pleasures of the senses. And I do not pursue the course of a Bodhisattva in order to achieve the array of delights that can be found in the various worlds of sense-desire. And why? Truly no delights are all these delights of the world. All this indulging in the pleasures of the senses belongs to the sphere of Mara.”

Bodhisattva Stories

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Almost every Bodhisattva has a story about his self sacrifice and quest for enlightenment. The one about the Bodhisattva “Eversweeping” ( Sadaprarudita ) is typical. In his quest for enlightenment he decides “he does not care for his body” and decides to sell it in a market so he can purchase a gift for Dharmaodgate, a Bodhisattva who promises to answer all of Eversweeping’s questions.

The demon Mara does not want Eversweeping to sell his body because if he achieves enlightenment he undoubtably will take people away the demon’s grasp. Mara casts a spell on Eversweeping so that no one can hear him. Then Sakra, chief of the Gods, decides to test Eversweeping and disguises himself as a young man. He tells Eversweeping that yes he wants to buy his body. Eversweeping “then takes a sharp sword, pierces his right arm, and make the blood flow. He pierces his right thigh, cuts the flesh from it, and strides up to the foot of a wall in order to break the bone.” Impressed, Sakra sheds his disguises and promises to grant Eversweeping a wish.

Eversweeping asks for the “supreme dharmas of a Buddha.” Sakra explains that this is beyond his means and asks Eversweeping to chose something else. Eversweeping replies: “Do not trouble your mind about the mutilated condition of my body! I shall now make it whole again by the magical power of my enunciation of the Truth. If it is true that, I am bound to win full enlightenment.”

“That very moment, instant and second, through The Buddha’s might and through the prefect purity of the Bodhisattva’s resolution, his body became again as it had been before, healthy and whole.” The story then continues with Eversweeping going off in the company of 500 maid servants to his meeting with Dharmodgata. Everlasting listens to a sermon on Perfect Wisdom and then enters into a seven year trance with Dharmodgata. When they awaken Eversweeping sheds his blood to help Dharmagota defeat Mara and is rewarded with millions of trances in which he “sees The Buddhas and Lord on all the ten directions, in countless world systems.”

Tibetan Buddhist Bodhisattva Images

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Jampelyang (Manjushri) is the Bodhisattva of Wisdom. He is regarded as the first divine teacher of Buddhist thought and is sort of a patron saint for school children. In his right hand is a flaming sword that cuts ignorance. His left, in the “teaching” mudra, cradles a half-opened lotus blossom. He is often yellow and has blue hair or a crown.

Drolma (Tara) is a female bodhisattva with 21 different manifestations. Known as the saviouress, she was born from a tear of compassion shed by Chenresig (Avalokiteshvara)and considered a female version of Chenresig and a protectress of the Tibetan people. She symbolizes purity and fertility and is believed to be able to fulfill wishes.

Drolma is often picturesd in a longevity triad with the red Tsepame (Amitayus) and the three-faced, eight-armed female Namgyelma (Vijaya). In her green manifestation Drolma sits in a half lotus position on a lotus flower. In her white manifestation she sits in a the full lotus position and has seven eyes, including ones on her forehead, both palms, and both soles of her feet.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: East Asia History Sourcebook , “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University, Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia, Asia Society Museum , “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg, Virtual Library Sri Lanka “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 5 East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1993); “ National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton's Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

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