Classic and Contemporary Buddhist Works

Faces of Compassion - Preface

Classic Bodhisattva Archetypes and Their Modern Expression — An Introduction to Mahayana Buddhism


This book is an introduction to the psychology of bodhisattva practice, imagery, and imagination, directed at the many Westerners now exploring traditional resources for spiritual values and for wholesome, productive lifestyles. This book is also a comprehensive introduction to Mahāyāna, or “Greater Vehicle” Buddhism, the movement that developed in India to promote universal liberation of all beings, with the bodhisattva or enlightening being as its ideal. In many different schools and cultural forms, this became and remains the Buddhism of Tibet, Mongolia, China, Korea, Japan, and Vietnam. The varieties of Mahāyāna are now present and growing in Western countries as well.

As Buddhism made the huge cultural leap from India through Central Asia to China, the Chinese, with their own highly developed culture and religious traditions, struggled to make sense of the huge range of Buddhist sutras, or scriptures, and its diverse schools and ritual forms. As genuinely Chinese schools of Buddhism emerged, they each developed systems for classifying the teachings according to the different sutras or styles of teaching. But these Chinese schools, which were also adopted in Korea and Japan, each held their own favorite sutra as supreme, so that most of these systems were hierarchical and included strong sectarian biases. The modern cultural leap from Asia to the Americas and Europe is a much more radical leap even than the shift from India to China. This book offers a means for Westerners to make sense of the various aspects of Mahāyāna teaching through the major iconic bodhisattva figures, each with their own complex approach to awakening awareness and activity. The range of these bodhisattvas, each associated with particular sutras, schools, and awakening practices, helps explicate how the differing approaches in Buddhism interrelate and fit together, but from a non-sectarian, more inclusive and expansive perspective.

We will explore the major East Asian bodhisattva figures, who represent various aspects of enlightened activity and awareness, and are forces for well-being in our lives. These bodhisattvas are Mañjuśri, expounder of wisdom; Samantabhadra with shining practice; compassionate Avalokiteśvara (perhaps more familiar as Kannon, Guanyin, or Chenrezig); Kṣitigarbha (certainly far more familiar as the Japanese Jizō); Maitreya, the future Buddha (well known in the guise of the Chinese fat, laughing buddha); Vimalakīrti, the enlightened layman; and the historical Buddha Śākyamuni (before becoming the Buddha, himself a bodhisattva known as Siddhārtha Gautama). All of these figures, in their images and even their names, have entered Western culture as Buddhist practice has been transplanted here. But as yet, there has been no comprehensive introduction to the background and significance of these characters and their enlightening realms, a need this volume aims to redress.

This book does not aspire to present a scholarly, exhaustive survey of the full historical development, or every symbolic aspect of the iconography of the major bodhisattva figures. Nor would I presume or desire to present a neat systematic encapsulation of all Mahāyāna Buddhist doctrine and potentiality. Rather, this is an overview for a general audience of the bodhisattva figures and their stories as valuable psychological and spiritual resources. This book will provide general surveys of the history and modes of the bodhisattvas as a reference for seasoned Buddhist practitioners and students, while also serving as an introduction to the tradition for spiritually interested newcomers. Although it is clear from the work of modern historians that the realities of Asian history and of social organization in Mahāyāna cultures often have fallen short of actualizing the bodhisattva ideal, in studying that ideal we may reclaim the Mahāyāna rhetoric and worldview and apply it to the urgent issues in our world today. I sincerely hope that this introductory survey will inspire further studies of the bodhisattvas and their history, both scholarly and practical, as well as renewed creative application and integration of these figures into modern Western cultures.

My focus for this study is the bodhisattva imagery and lore from East Asia, although I will make some reference to Indian origins and contemporary Tibetan understandings. My own background as a longtime practitioner and priest in the Japanese Sōtō Zen tradition—mostly in America with a number of Japanese and American teachers, and also for two years in Japan—may inevitably color my approach to a certain degree. Yet, I also have some small practice experience with Tibetan, Vietnamese, and Burmese Buddhist teachers, and have attempted to incorporate as wide a perspective as possible into this presentation of the bodhisattva figures. I have offered some interpretations and perspectives arising from my own practice and experience, hoping to provoke further interest and contemplation of the bodhisattvas and their work. But certainly this book is not the final word on the bodhisattvas, and significant viewpoints and interpretations of the bodhisattvas may remain unnoted.

The archetypal bodhisattva figures are living and evolving as dynamic embodiments of spiritual life and activity and are not the property of any particular tradition or religious institution. Included here among exemplars of the different archetypal bodhisattva figures are a variety of familiar, modern personages from non-Buddhist spiritual traditions. It is my hope that this will demonstrate that we may readily view the bodhisattvas as spiritual helpers in the world quite apart from any restriction or allegiance to the “Buddhist religion.”

By featuring some of the people in our own world who are spiritual benefactors, I wish to encourage recognition that, indeed, despite all the problems, cruelty, and despair of our world, we need not see the bodhisattva ideal as irrelevant, idealistic, or beyond our reach. I have enjoyed selecting these exemplars, taking the opportunity to celebrate some of the people who have been personally inspiring to me. Although I have attempted to mention people from a range of arenas and contexts, any personal selection will be to some degree idiosyncratic. A great many more bodhisattva guides will come to mind for each reader upon even slight consideration.

The examples herein include persons of our own time, and some still alive. This is not to demean the ageless ancient great cosmic bodhisattvas, but rather to incite deeper consideration of the meaning of awakening activity and awareness in the contemporary world. I hope these sometimes provocative examples will demonstrate that the timeless inclination toward awakening is still active. Spiritual development and awakening still occur in the world, and enlightening beings still walk among us, perhaps helping and inspiring us where we might least expect them.


The three opening chapters provide an overview and introduction to Mahāyāna philosophy, history, and practice as a background to consideration of the seven featured bodhisattva figures. In the interest of making this book more accessible to general readers, I have refrained from using extensive footnotes, but have given citations for sources of quotes in notes at the end of the book, divided by chapters. An annotated bibliography also appears at the end to reference the sources used for each chapter. A chart with aspects of the seven major bodhisattvas is given as an appendix, including their names, main sutras and schools, primary iconographic features, associated figures and sacred sites, and principal modes of practice. This chart may serve readers as a helpful reference tool while navigating the strange Asian names in the text.

The names of the bodhisattvas are given first in the text in Sanskrit, with Chinese and Japanese versions provided, as well as in Tibetan and Korean as relevant. In most cases I have primarily used the Sanskrit names, even when referring to their East Asian manifestations. An exception is made for Kṣitigarbha, who because he is so much better known by his Japanese name Jizō , is referred to by that one instead. Avalokiteśvara is also well known by her Chinese name Guanyin and her Japanese names Kannon and Kanzeon, and I use all of these names for Avalokiteśvara as appropriate to context—but in terms of the overall Avalokiteśvara archetype these names can be seen as generally interchangeable.

The contemporary pinyin transliteration system has been employed for Chinese words and names. The greatest difficulties of pronunciation with this system are syllables beginning q, pronounced like ch; x, which is pronounced like hs_; and c, pronounced like ts_. An exception to the use of pinyin in this book is made for references to the Chinese religion Taoism, which has entered English usage with that spelling, rather than the pinyin Daoism.


How to cite this document:
© Taigen Dan Leighton, Faces of Compassion (Wisdom Publications, 2012)

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