Know Your Buddhas and Bodhisattvas

A cheat sheet for spotting some major Bodhisattvas and Buddhas:


Compassion, 10th stage, most popular. Often depicted with (sometimes) 11 heads and (sometimes) 1000 arms, two arms with palms pressed together.

The future Buddha of our realm, the only bodhisattva with a "celestial" status. Often depicted sitting on a throne. In Chinese form, he is the fat "Laughing Buddha".


A female bodhisattva in Tantric Buddhism, a well-loved deity in Tibet. The feminine aspect of compassion. Common depictions are the green or white forms. Her right leg rests on a lotus footstool. Her left hand in front of her heart holds the stem of a blue or white lotus while the right arm and hand are extended, palm open, as if handing down blessings. She has seven eyes: three on her face and one in each hand and foot.

The manifestation of wisdom. A 10th stage bodhisattva associated with the role of interlocutor on questions concerning ultimate truth. Eternally 16 years old. Depicted as a prince seated on a lotus with a sword in his right hand held above his head, and a book in the left. Sometimes in the left hand he holds the stem of a lotus, and the book is placed on a lotus behind his left shoulder. The sword is said to be the sword of gnosis, which cuts aside the bonds of ignorance. In Japanese art, he rides on a lion.

Ksitigarbha Extremely important figure in East Asian Buddhism, given the particular task of saving sentient beings during the period between the death of Sakyamuni and the coming of Maitreya. Depicted as a shaven-headed monk with a patched robe and a staff with which to strike open the gates of hell. In Japanese versions he has a small medicine bowl and a halo.

Amitabha is the principal buddha in the Pure Land sect, a branch of Buddhism practiced mainly in East Asia. According to these scriptures, Amitābha possesses infinite merits resulting from good deeds over countless past lives as a bodhisattva named Dharmakara. It can be difficult to distinguish Amitābha from Śākyamuni. Amitābha is often depicted, when shown seated, displaying the meditation mudrā (thumbs touching and fingers together (as in the Kamakura statue of Amitābha) or the exposition mudrā, while the earth-touching mudrā (right hand pointed downward over the right leg, palm inward) is reserved for a seated Śākyamuni alone. When standing, Amitābha is often shown with his left arm bare and extended downward with thumb and forefinger touching, with his right hand facing outward also with thumb and forefinger touching. The meaning of this mudra is that wisdom (symbolized by the raised hand) is accessible to even the lowest beings, while the outstretched hand shows that Amitabha's compassion is directed at the lowest beings, who cannot save themselves.

The Medicine Buddha – representing healing in all its aspects. The patron saint of medicine. Depicted as a Buddha in full lotus position, the color of lapis or gold with a halo of blue rays. In his left hand on his lap he holds a medicine bowl. His right hand touches a medicinal plant.

The earliest Buddha cult after Sakyamuni. Important in Tantric traditions, in Nepalese and Tibetan Buddhism. Represented as a Buddha, sometimes crowned, in a lotus position with his left hand on his lap and right hand outstretched to touch the earth. Often the principal Buddha of the mandala. In such context he is often colored blue and associated with four other Buddhas: Vairocana, Ratnasambhava, Amitabha and Amoghasiddhi.

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