Buddhas, Deities, & and Others

Evolution of Buddhist practice lead to a range of interpretation, applying to the Buddha himself as well as his teachings. Here's a quick survey as to different Buddhas and Buddha manifestations.

  • The Three Bodies
  • Bodhisattvas
  • Deities & Divine Beings
  • Miscellaneous

  • The Three Bodies

    In Hinayana tradition, Theravada regarded Buddhas as human, but the Mahasanghikas regarded them as super-human, while the Sarvastivadans held them to be heavenly beings. So to create harmony, a compromise was achieved, systemizing all three into a concept of the Three Bodies (trikaya) of the Buddhas. It was also adopted by Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhists. These three bodies are

    Earthly Buddhas (Nirmanakaya)

    The historical Buddha was born into the Shakya clan, in the sixth century BCE. The Buddha's personal name before he renounced his family empire was Siddhartha, and was also known as Siddhartha Guatama (Guatama being his Shakya clan name). He came to be known as Shakyamuni ("Sage of the Shakya Clan"). The Buddha had 32 marks of excellence and 80 notable characteristics. (Marks are more apparent, and characteristics are more subtle and harder to detect.)

    Traditionally, the Buddha is neither a man nor a god but, rather, fully awakened, completely enlightened. Clearly, the historical Buddha became a figure of devotion early on, evidenced by the way accounts of his life have traditionally mingled history, biography, doctrinal interpretation, legend, poetry, and cosmology. Some believe Shakyamuni was one of hundreds of Buddhas to have appeared and yet to appear. The next Buddha, yet to come, is known as Maitreya.

    Transcendental Buddhas (Sambhogakaya)

    The Sambhogakaya is the vehicle for the power of the Dharmakaya. Buddhas operating or dwelling in Sambhogakaya are sometimes called meditation Buddhas, depicted in seated meditation. They're also usually depicted in their own particular paradise (pure land, buddha field, buddhaverse). They are in a state of perpetual bliss, enjoying the truth they embody. These super-human figures can be seen not as separate gods but representing abstract aspects of Buddha.

    The most famous transcendent Buddha is Amitabha (infinite light), whose Sambhogakaya aspect is Amitayus (infinite life), highly venerated in the Pure Land school. Lord of the Western Paradise (known as Sukhatavi, "Blissful"). Spiritual emanation of bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, Amitabha vowed that sincere recitation of his name will ensure rebirth into his pure land. Other transcendental Buddhas are Akshobhya (east), Ratnasambhava (south), Amogasiddhi (north), and Vairocana (center) ). Taken together, these five form a system, sometimes with a sixth, Vajrasattva, as their director.


    A bodhisattva is ready for or has even attained enlightenment but has vowed to help all beings become enlightened before going on to eternal nirvana. Because the Buddha taught for 40 years after attaining enlightenment, he was himself considered a bodhisattva.

    There are earthly, mortal bodhisattvas. There are also transcendent bodhisattvas (mahasattvas) who've attained Buddhahood, transcending rebirth, but who renounce final nirvana, choosing instead to still operate within the realm of samsara, in nirmanakaya, where she or he keeps in touch with humanity and through which he or she may function at will on any phenomenal plane of existence to save all beings.

    The most important bodhisattva is Avalokiteshvara, Bodhisattva of Mercy and Compassion ("One Who Hears Cries"). Known as Chenrezig in Tibet, he's also known by at least 108 manifestations in Nepal alone. In terms of the overall Buddhist pantheon, transcendent bodhisattvas are emanations of the transcendent buddhas and can see the Buddha in the realm of sambhogakaya; Avalokiteshvara is an emanation of Amitabha.

    The feminine manifestation is most commonly known as Kwan Yin (Chinese; Kannon, Japanese; Kuan Te Am Bosa, Korean; Queen Te Am Botat, Vietnamese; and in Tibet Tara, who emanated from a tear of Avolakiteshavara). (Canon, the Japanese camera company, is named after her.) She is sometimes depicted with 1,000 arms or 1,000 eyes, signifying her ability to pay attention, understand, reach out, and help in every instant and situation.

    The other most important transcendent bodhisattva is Manjushri (Lord of Wisdom). In his right hand he holds a flaming sword that destroys ignorance;, in his left hand he holds a book of supreme wisdom (prajnaparamita). In Nepal, he''s considered the founder of Nepalese civilization and the creator of Kathmandu Valley.

    It is widely believed that aspiration to bodhisattvahood distinguishes the Mahayana school, but a similar goal is present in Theravada, though not as widely known.

    Deities & Divine Beings

    Deities have mild (tranquil) and wrathful (powerful) aspects. Each is usually represented in ecstatic embrace with a female counterpart (shakti), transcending all duality.


    Yidam literally means "firm mind" (Tibetan). Personal or inner deities, whose nature corresponds to the individual psychological makeup of the practitioner. They provide the wisdom and inner strength for an initiate to transform personal weaknesses into enlightenment. Yidams are a manifestation of the sambhogakaya and are visualized in meditative practice. Commonly invoked yidams are Cenresig, Green Tara, and Hevajra; others include Chakrasamvara, Kalachakra Vajrayogini, and Yamantaka. Many are secret and only revealed upon initiation by a guru.

    Protector Deities

    Protector deities (a.k.a. Dharma protectors) help remove obstacles on our path, and keep us on the path when we get lazy. Mahakala, for example, in the Kagyu tradition, is a wrathful (dynamic) form of compassion, sometimes ornamented with snakes, and canine teeth, and dressed with tiger skin, with four to six arms, or sixteen arms and eight faces.

    Refuge Tree

    In addition to the Three Jewels, Tibetan Buddhists often take refuge in the Three Roots, all manifestations of Dharmakaya:

    A guru is considered more important than your parents: while your parents raised you in one lifetime, your guru takes you through all your lives, and brings you up in the most profound way.

    The following description of a refuge tree visualization by Robert Thurman is taken from his book Inside Tibetan Buddhism: Rituals and Symbols Revealed (HarperCollins, 1995) wherein it appears as a caption to a full-page color illustration depicting the visualization:

    You visualize a lush, green meadow in a vast heavenly field in a perfected realm. There is a crystal lake with delicious waters, from which grows a majestic tree. Its powerful trunk has five main branching sections and flowers and wish-granting gems hang on it like fruit. On the central branch at the center of the crown, there is a shining jewel throne with a glowing moon-disc cushion upheld by eight magic lions. On that throne sits your mentor in the form of a perfect Buddha. Above him or here there is a stack of historic mentors, a living, astral chain of mentors reaching back to the historical Buddhas and adepts. On the branches before your mentor dance the various archetypal Buddha forms, or yidams, such as Vajrayogini, Chakrasamvara, Hevajra, Yamantaka, and Kalachakra. On the branch to your mentor's right sit a vast host of Bodhisattvas and disciples, who make up the universal and individual Sanghas. On the branch to his left sits Shakyamuni Buddha, the thousand Buddhas of this eon, and infinite other enlightened beings. In the branches behind are arrayed a vast collection of radiant texts of all the Dharma teachings, which radiate rainbow rays and resound with the murmur of the words they contain. Before the tree circulates a vast host of fierce protector deities. All the enlightened beings on and around this wish-fulfilling refuge tree seem vividly alive, fully aware of you and your practice and dedication. They smile at you radiantly, and their delight in you fills you with joy and confidence. Around you in the field are all ordinary beings, including your family, dearest friends, worst enemies, and all animals (for the moment in human form.). All of them look toward you longingly, seeking help in their own quests for safety and happiness. You vow that your going for refuge will help all of them.


    Buddha realms are endless. The Flower Garland school states that Buddha is universal, and that those who are open to seeing Buddha in all lands, all beings, and all things are themselves Buddhas. Here are four more.


    One of Japan's most-loved Buddhas. Mediator between this life and the next, he assuages suffering people and keeps souls from going to hell. Associated with children, he's often draped in infant's clothing and surrounded by toys. Parents might decorated him with a hat and bib to thank him for helping their sick child. At the Hase Kannon Temple in Kamakura, there's a Jizo placed there to pray for the spirit of every stillborn and abortion. He's also placed at sites of fatal accidents.

    Laughing Buddha

    Hotei, Japanese; Pu-tai Ho-shang, in Chinese, derived from Mi-lo Fu ~ he's a Chinese Zen master who wandered homeless and happy. He would often entertain kids with goodies from his back sack, sometimes containing stuff found from his travels. Originally considered a bodhisattva who'd become the next Buddha, Maitreya, these days he's merely a good luck token: people rub his big belly and make a wish.

    Medicine Buddha

    In Mahayana, the Medicine Buddha is related to the compassionate bodhisattvas. He's often pictured holding a healing fruit or leaf in his right hand and his left resting in his lap. He has a medicine bowl instead of a begging bowl. There is a sutra devoted to him, surviving in Chinese and Tibetan, which includes his twelve vows made in a previous life, thus resembling the Pure Land school. Since he's believed to heal ills of body and spirit, including ignorance, we see healing here considered as a matter of body, mind, and spirit.

    Dakinis & Yoginis

    The tantric pantheon includes many manifestations of female divinity. Dakinis for example are yidams who often act as intermediaries to transcendental Buddhas. Yoginis are manifestations of sexual energy who appear as seductive maidens.

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