Text Essay 2
Compassionate Beings:
Bodhisattvas, Deities,
Guardians, Holy Men

Introduction: Compassionate Beings
What is compassion? Compassion is understanding others’ pain, hunger, and fear. Compassion is the desire to help others.

More than 1,200 years ago, an Indian scholar sought to be compassionate:
“May I be medicine for the sick and weary.
  May I be their doctor and nurse until disease appears no more.
  May I quell the pains of hunger and thirst with rains of food and drink...
  May I be a torch for those in need of light,
  a bed for those in need of a bed,
  and a servant for those in need of service.”
[Shantideva, India, A.D. 8th century, A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life]

BodhidharmaMore about this artwork: The patriarch of Zen Buddhism, Bodhidharma (Japanese: Daruma), is often depicted in Japanese ink paintings. He is usually shown as a surly old man with large, bulging eyes and no eyelids, because he cut them off to stay awake during meditation. Here Bodhidharma has been painted with bold, simple brushstrokes that echo the simplicity and spontaneity encouraged in Zen practice.


Japan, by Chikanobu Shushin (1660-1728), early 18th century
Ink and colors on silk
Pacific Asia Museum Collection
Gift of Dr. Jesse L. Greenstein, 2002.4.15

1. The Buddha of the Future
Buddha means “one who is enlightened” or “one who has awoken.” Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Historical Buddha or Buddha Shakyamuni, was not the first Buddha, nor he will be the last. Throughout the Buddhist world, beings who were enlightened in the past and who will be in the future are revered and worshipped.

Unlike the Historical Buddha, the Buddha Maitreya (Sanskrit for “benevolence” and “friendship”) is still attached to this world, waiting in one of the Buddhist heavens to appear. To show this attachment, the Buddha Maitreya is often depicted wearing heavy earrings and elaborate jewelry, which the princely Siddhartha Gautama had renounced when he reached enlightenment.

How else can we tell this is the Buddha Maitreya? He wears a antelope skin over his left shoulder as a symbol of royalty and his hands are held in a mudra of explanation. This mudra convinces listeners of the truth of the Buddha’s teachings and leads to conversion.

When will the Buddha of the Future appear? No one knows for certain, but perhaps in several thousand years when the Buddha’s teachings have been forgotten and all Buddhist temples, statues, and monuments we know today have fallen into dust.

Maitreya, the Buddha of the FutureMore about this artwork: This elegant silver figure is recognizable as very likely being the Buddha Maitreya from the antelope skin hanging over his left shoulder, an attribute of this Buddha/bodhisattva. He is holding both hands in the gesture of explanation, made by joining the thumb and the forefinger. Typical of many Tibetan Buddhist images, he has engraved details and semi-precious stone inlay. He is sometimes shown sitting on a throne as if waiting to appear on earth. Some of these attributes also belong to the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara.

Not all bodhisattvas are recognized by every form of Buddhism. The Buddha Maitreya, however, is revered by many traditions and depictions are found in the art of Java, Burma, Thailand, and other regions of Southeast Asia. In Tibet he is thought to have taught esoteric Tantric Buddhism to an Indian sage who visited him in heaven, and in China and Japan he is worshipped as the rotund Happy Buddha. The Happy Buddha is a blend of Maitreya and lucky folk gods.

Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future
Tibet, early 14th century
Silver with traces of gilding
Pacific Asia Museum Collection
Gift from the Nancy King Collection, 2001.1.1

2. Beloved Bodhisattva
Sometimes it takes more than one head and one pair of arms to comfort and heal humanity. Here the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara has eleven heads to see in all directions and eight arms to assist all beings in their suffering. Like other bodhisattvas, Avalokiteshvara is a being who is destined for enlightenment or who could become a Buddha, but put it off to help others.

Avalokiteshvara is beloved throughout Asia and is considered the most compassionate bodhisattva. This spiritual being has assumed many forms to help people reach enlightenment and has been depicted as a male deity, with attributes of both genders, and as a woman (Guanyin in China and Kannon in Japan). In Tibet, the Dalai Lama is considered to be the incarnation of Avalokiteshvara in human form.

Avalokiteshvara with Eleven Heads and Eight ArmsMore about these artworks: In the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions, Avalokiteshvara assumes many different forms to help all beings reach enlightenment. This Sino-Tibetan gilt bronze image has eight arms and eleven heads, the uppermost of which is that of Amitabha Buddha, with whom he is closely associated. These eleven heads symbolize Avalokiteshvara’s eleven principal virtues, which he uses to conquer the eleven desires that can obstruct the attainment of enlightenment.

His many arms usually form gestures or carry different symbols that give him the power to help others. His hands are often adorned with eyes, symbolizing the bodhisattva's ability to see in all directions and assist all beings in their suffering.

Seated AvalokiteshvaraAlthough bodhisattvas are neither male nor female beings, some do take on a masculine or feminine appearance. This is particularly true in the case of Avalokiteshvara. In China and other Southeast and East Asian cultures in particular, Avalokiteshvara has often been represented as a female deity, referred to as the Goddess of Compassion or Mercy, perhaps because compassion was traditionally considered to be a feminine quality. In China, Avalokiteshvara (Chinese: Guanyin) has long been one of the most beloved of Buddhist beings and has been crafted out of bronze, stone, wood, jade, and porcelain. In this Chinese wooden sculpture, Guanyin is portrayed as an elegant figure, neither male nor female, wearing a crown, jewelry and flowing robes and sitting in the position of relaxation, a regal posture adopted only by Buddhas and bodhisattvas.

Avalokiteshvara with Eleven Heads and Eight Arms
Sino-Tibetan (Tibetan style, made in China), 18th-19th century
Gilded bronze
Pacific Asia Museum Collection
Gift of David Uyematsu, 1995.20.2

Seated Avalokiteshvara
China, c. 1100 AD
Wood with gesso
Pacific Asia Museum Collection
Gift of David Kamansky in honor of Audrey Webb, 1992.41.3

3. Wisdom and Compassion
It takes compassion to achieve enlightenment, and it also takes wisdom. Manjushri, sitting astride a lion, and Samantabhadra, on elephant-back, are bodhisattvas who were once followers of the Buddha, some traditions believe. Manjushri represents wisdom and Samantabhadra is compassion, two virtues necessary for achieving enlightenment. These two bodhisattvas are sometimes shown flanking the Buddha. They are recognized in various forms through out northern and eastern Asia.

Manjushri’s lion symbolizes the voice of Buddhist Law. Samantabhadra is known in Japan as the “Prolonger of Life,” symbolized, perhaps, by the long-lived elephant. This elephant looks weary--sometimes even a bodhisattva’s beast gets tired.

It’s hard work being a bodhisattva’s elephant.

Manjushri on a LionMore about these artworks: Manjushri is the bodhisattva most often associated with wisdom and specifically the wisdom of the Buddha. He is commonly paired with the bodhisattva Samantabhadra, who represents the compassion of the Buddha (No.43).

Manjushri is usually depicted like other bodhisattvas, as a slender being wearing a crown and jewelry, and he often holds a sword in one hand, to cut through ignorance, and a sacred Buddhist text in the other, to symbolize the knowledge of the Samantabhadra on an ElephantBuddha. He is the first bodhisattva to be mentioned in the sutras, and many Chinese Buddhists believed that he brought the dharma to China. He is venerated in Nepal and considered to be the creator of that land. In Tibet, Yamantaka, the “Conqueror of Death” [detail] is the wrathful manifestation of Manjushri and has the head of a buffalo.

Samantabhadra is usually depicted in the princely attire of a bodhisattva, and rides an elephant. In this painting, however, he has only a simple earring and bracelet and is a wrinkled old man astride an equally aged white elephant.


Manjushri on a Lion
China, 14th century
Anonymous loan

Samantabhadra on an Elephant
Japan, 17 century, by Shushin
Ink on paper
Pacific Asia Museum Collection
Gift of Dr. George W. Housner, 2001.21.79

Detail of Yamantaka Mandala showing wrathful Manjushri
[He is in central square of mandala]

Tibet, 17th century
Ink and colors on silk
Pacific Asia Museum Collection
Gift of Dr. Jesse Greenstein

4. Human Teachers
Many Buddhist traditions believe that the Buddha passed his teachings to sixteen principal disciples, known as arhats or (in China) lohans. Numerous legends arose around these holy and sacred men--and they are always men--who are often depicted as elderly monks. In some forms of Buddhism paintings depict as many as five hundred arhats arrayed around a buddha and bodhisattvas.

For centuries following the Buddha’s breaking of the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, his dharma passed from master to student, and to this day, teachers occupy a central place in all Buddhist traditions.

A few followers starved themselves, just as the Buddha did before he began to teach moderation.

Lohan and AttendantMore about these artworks: This Ming dynasty (1368-1644) painting of a lohan is probably one of a set of sixteen depicting the Buddha’s chief sixteen disciples. Although this lohan is not identified, his facial features give a strong sense of his individuality. Legends about the first disciples often tell of their magical powers or colorful personalities.

The Buddha taught a way of moderation, after realizing that starvation and extreme hardship would not bring him to nirvana. Nonetheless, some arhats (Japanese: rakan) and other wise men and women subjected themselves to physical hardships, and such figures demonstrate the intensity of some Buddhist devotees' pursuit of enlightenment.

ArhatLohan and Attendant
Artist Unknown
China, early Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)
Ink and pigments on silk
Pacific Asia Museum Collection, 89.26.1

Wise Person
Japan, 17th century
Wood with traces of pigments, gesso, lacquer and glass inlaid eyes
Anonymous loan

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