The "Big Five" Bodhisattvas

The Most Popular of All the Celestials

Images grabbed from an old Hsi Lai Temple wenbsite

Using these links, you may choose to skip to any of the Bodhisattvas. Or continue to follow the links at the bottom of the page to meet each one in turn.

Before we continue our tour and pilgrimage, we need to address a larger issue: just what is a Bodhisattva?

Like many of Buddhism's main teachings, this is a slippery subject. In Southern Buddhism (also called Theravada) the term "bodhisattva" is used of Prince Siddhartha, before he attained Enlightenment and became the Buddha. So in that sense, a bodhisattva is a kind of "Buddha-to-be."

In the Mahayana schools, however, the question becomes more complex. At its root, the term means anyone who has taken the Bodhisattva Vows. This may leave you with the impression that you can simply stand down at the Main Gate, say the Vows, and be a Bodhisattva. This is true in one sense-but don't expect anyone to start making statues of you right away! However, it is common practice around the Temple for people to thank one another for a kindness by saying, "Thank you so much! You're a real Bodhisattva!" So in this everyday way, all who engage in Mahayana Buddhism are Bodhisattvas, pursuing the Bodhisattva Ideal.

Generally, though, the term is used for an exalted class of Bodhisattvas, also called "Mahasattvas" or "celestial Bodhisattvas." There are generally considered to be about ten of these; the list varies in different traditions, but the Five in our Bodhisattva Hall are included in virtually every list. You will often hear Bodhisattvas being compared to Christian saints: they once dwelled on Earth, they are now in a Heaven-like place, they assist those who call on them, etc. But, as always, we must be careful not to confuse categories from different traditions. In any case, these Bodhisattvas are thought of as helpers to those of us still struggling along. They have all vowed not to attain Enlightenment until all sentient beings are ready to be Enlightened, so they are dedicated to helping us achieve that goal.

In one sense, there are not different "classes" or "types" of Bodhisattvas. We are all of the same "type," but are on different stages of the Path (called Bhumi). There are ten such stages, and the celestial Bodhisattvas are simply at a further point on the Path. What unites us is primarily the Vows, and the practice of the Six (sometimes Ten) Perfections. All Bodhisattvas seek perfection in the following areas: generosity, morality, patience, energy (or effort), meditation, and wisdom. The more "perfected" a Bodhisattva is in these areas, the further she or he is along the Bodhisattva Path.

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